They Were Partners in The Waltz

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.

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.

But all that was before the real beginning of my dance mania. My future husband and I met during our first week in graduate school. We both lived that first year at the University of California at International House in Berkeley.

Every weekend there was an international folk dance one night and a ballroom dance the other night; we went to all of them. I had come 3,000 miles away from home intent on learning to be less shy - and as an ardent feminist (though it was 1956, long before the women's movement ), I methodically asked every one of the men to dance. My future husband, a natural athlete, learned quickly, became a good dancer, and an especially good Viennese waltzer.

The music stops for a few minutes, and the woman who did the last waltz with my husband comes to tell me what a good waltzer he is - how lucky I am. Yes, I am, I think to myself, remembering our first Waltz Evening. When we moved to Cambridge in 1960, we went folk-dancing every week for many years (though we stopped for a while after our children were born). But our ballroom dancing was confined mostly to our own living room. Then in 1973, my husband noticed an article in a Boston newspaper about an "ope n" Waltz Evening at the Copley Plaza Hotel on the night before my birthday. This was to be my present.

WE were a comic pair that wonderful evening. I had only one gown - from before the children were born. It barely closed, and only when I held my breath very hard. My matching white pumps, from an era gone by, were painfully tight. My husband borrowed a tux from a friend who was a size smaller. We could barely sit down, but our posture was never better.

At the hotel, we found ourselves at a table with a group of very good dancers. Unaware that our dancing was being assessed, we had a glorious time. What impressed me most was that there was no food, little drinking, and no one sat out a single dance. These people were serious. At the end of the evening, a woman from our table asked if we would like to be on the guest list. Of course we said yes.

The stars of the Waltz Evenings were a slender white-haired man and his attractive wife. Everyone wanted to dance with them. A few years later they moved to our neighborhood and opened a dance studio nearby. We became friends and had an open invitation to their classes. Sometimes we helped them teach, often they gave us pointers to improve our style - it provided additional opportunities to dance.

Seeing one of our friends, across the floor, dancing with her son brings a flood of nostalgia. We danced often with our kids when they were small, but during their early teen years, they wanted to have no part of it. Now, both have become good waltzers. Taking our son to his first Waltz Evening, seeing him look so handsome in his rented tails, and waltzing with him has been a special pleasure.

Our daughter took a bit longer to come around. But we knew we had prevailed when, a few months after she left for college, she called home to say that there had been a ball and it was a "real bore that so few of the guys know how to waltz." Since then, she has been to a number of Waltz Evenings with us. It's a delight to see her dance with her father.

It's after midnight. The crowd has come and mostly gone so we can fly unencumbered again, around and around and around. My husband lifts me off the floor on the count of one and on "three" my toe touches the floor ready to start the next "One, two, three."

The few remaining dancers seem like planets going around the sun, all the while spinning on our own axes. One a.m.; time for the last waltz. "Before I get too old," I say to my husband, "I want to dance all night." He smiles at me, "You never have enough, my little dreamer!"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.