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They Were Partners in The Waltz

By Liane Reif-Lehrer / November 4, 1992

MY husband is securing the large bow on the back of my gown with a safety pin. I supervise the operation in the mirror. He looks over my shoulder, and comments that I look nice in this fuscia satin floor-length dress. It does have a somewhat regal look. I smile, thinking that I paid less than $15 for it at Filene's Basement. I button the suspenders to the back of my husband's trousers. He looks so handsome in his white tie and tails.

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My excitement is mounting. It is the first Waltz Evening of the season, the beginning of our 19th year at these fairy-tale events. Miraculously, in all that time, except for the year we spent on sabbatical in London, we have missed only two dances.

The cats have been put out, and we are ready to leave. My husband is procrastinating. I want to be there before the dance begins. He would rather get there after most of the others are dancing.

As we enter Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel, my pace quickens. We check our coats and enter the ballroom. The music has begun and one couple is already gliding across the floor, which is newly polished. Twirling around its periphery to the strains of a fast Viennese waltz is like flying. The space seems vast, having it as we do, almost to ourselves.

The orchestra plays a waltz - one of only two 78 r.p.m. records of Strauss waltzes we owned when I was a child. I am suddenly transported back 50 years in time. How shy I was then, having come to the United States at age seven, in November 1941, on the brink of World War II. I was small for my age and having to learn a third language and culture made me feel so different from the other children. How much time I spent alone - daydreaming - whenever I wasn't doing homework. How I ached to take ballet lesso ns, but my mother's salary in a New York factory did not allow such luxuries.

Instead, I improvised in our living room to this very same waltz played on an old wind-up phonograph rescued from our home in Vienna. Ah, Vienna. Now - on this dance floor - I am in old Vienna. The pre-war Vienna of my mother's dreams and my starry-eyed imagination, where ladies in white gowns danced in the line of direction with men in white tie and tails. Not the gray-skyed Vienna I visited in 1963.

The hotel ballroom is quite grand. More couples are arriving, and the lights have been dimmed. We are going around and around. In the soft glow of the candelabra, my mind flirts with the past, only to be plucked back from time to time by the nod of a passing dancer.

WHAT lures me - the logical rational scientist that I was trained to be - to this rhythmic swaying in three-quarter time? Was I imprinted at an early time, like birds that fly a predetermined course? My mother spoke often about festival balls; occasionally, she danced with me. And once, my older brother, who played the violin but never danced, surprised me by doing a mock gavotte with me to a Mozart piece emanating from the radio. Mostly, I danced alone and learned the ballroom dances from the Arthur Mur ray "footstep" books, borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library.

The floor is very slippery tonight. I caution my husband to hold on tight - he has a wonderfully strong lead. And then my thoughts drift back to the group of students with whom I often went dancing after work during an internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the summer before my junior year in college. How uninspiredly most of them shuffled around the floor - except for one tall young man, a Viennese waltzer.

He was the first person with whom I ever danced seriously. I remember flying across the floor with him - but no face or name comes to mind. My husband and I go faster and faster. The ballroom is quite full by now. Suddenly the spike heel of a passing dancer comes down hard on my instep. The pain reminds me of the evening I flew out of the grasp of my long-ago faceless partner and suffered my first sprained ankle.