Tripping (Over) the Light Fantastic

Good friends of ours embarked on a series of ballroom dancing classes prior to their marriage so they'd be able to swan around the dance floor at their wedding reception.

The result was so impressive that my husband and I decided to learn how to dance. "It'll be fun," I enthused. "Great exercise," my husband chimed in. "We'll go out dancing one night a week," he suggested. "I'll need a new dress," I bubbled merrily.

I remember it as if were only yesterday: While we're in the kitchen practicing the jive, Monty, our miniature dachshund, watches us skeptically from the safety of the next room. His head is cocked quizzically to one side.

In position now, "with arms taut - not limp like a noodle," as our instructor admonished us, and heads touching, we closely monitor our feet and chant in tandem: "tap step, tap step, back rock." We spent one solid hour on this routine in class, but once we're home the whole thing falls to pieces. Rob rocks one way and I the other, and never the twain shall meet.

"Honey, that's not right," I instruct my gung-ho spouse whose every limb now moves to the beat of another drummer. His head bobs, his shoulders undulate, and we haven't even turned on the music.

"Watch me," I instruct him confidently - my words falling on deaf ears. "I know what I'm doing," he says, locking me in a vice grip as we start the back rock. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd let me lead for once."

We try the back-rock routine once again before calling it a night. Rob then decides to throw in a dip for the grand finale. "Warn me next time, will you, honey?" I gasp, fighting for air. At this point the dog lets out a growl and leaps toward Rob's ankle. "It's OK, Monty," I soothe the little guy who thinks his mother is in danger.

The dip takes me by surprise; Rob has always been more of a spin man. He usually jettisons me halfway across the room, first bringing me into him and then sending me back out like one of those balls on a rubber band.

A few years ago, we attended the Coral Sea Ball - a lavish annual Australian-American Association function at a swanky hotel in Sydney. The ballroom was so large that after Rob spun me out and our hands unlocked, I disappeared into the velvet curtains. My husband continued dancing, but alas, not with me. Many a time I'd be crumpled in my chair from exhaustion, and guess who'd be out there tearing up the floorboards!

Exasperating habits such as these made me even more determined that we get some proper training. "We're supposed to be a team!" I shrieked, returning home from a party one night. Soon after, we started the first of a series of classes that would last for about a year.

The lessons at the local high school were an interesting experience. The ambiance of their gymnasium left something to be desired (basketball hoops, the stink of old sneakers....) but the price was right and it was close to home. We were in our Latin dance phase at that point and were promised we'd "master the cha-cha, tango, and rumba in only eight short weeks." The school's motto, "Dare to Learn," gave us hope.

First we lined up against the wall: men on one side, women on the other. When Mr. Constantine, our longsuffering instructor with the wavy black hair, told us to cha-cha-cha down one end of the room ("and stand up straight with your behinds in, please"), I was reminded of a stampede on a "Bonanza" rerun. The whole mob of us thundered across the hall like a herd of buffalo. I wonder if Mr. Constantine retired after that class. Whenever I'd look over at him, he'd be shaking his head in disbelief.

Next stop: The North Sydney Leisure Centre, for classes in rock-and-roll, jive, swing, and other dances of that ilk. This class was made up almost entirely of women, so many of the ladies had to play the role of the man. A confusing exercise at best. And if you forgot which sex you were supposed to be when executing a fancy turn, you could get yourself into one heck of a headlock.

The ladies seemed quite sincere about learning, and often dressed beautifully. One of my more memorable partners showed up at class decked out in a little red dress, dangling earrings, and exotic gold slippers. Students' outfits in these classes ranged from the aforementioned to blue jeans and work shirts with hiking boots. I tried to avoid dancing with anyone whose footwear resembled the underside of a tractor.

Students came in all ages, shapes, and sizes. Often the more full-figured folks were as light as a feather on their feet (or on their partner's), while the wiry ones, bursting with energy, often left you wrung out like an old rag.

Those with a proclivity for stepping on their partner's toes might mumble apologetically: "Wow, you're really good; I'm sure one day I'll get the hang of this," or "Oh dear, I forgot we're doing the samba - I'm still working out the box step."

I CAN'T recall what classes I signed us up for next but, we pressed on, ever hopeful that one day we'd look more like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers than the Marx Brothers - though it wasn't an easy ascent. My ever-exuberant husband had his own special style that days, weeks, or years of instruction would probably never change. As for me, well, my last partner left me with this perplexing thought after a few turns around the floor: "No worries. Last week I danced with a lady with one arm and two left feet."

I mulled that one over for days. Was he trying to cheer me up or send me a message?

"Relax, honey," said my husband, who by now had found something more interesting to do with his Thursday nights. "What do you say we take up sailing?" "That sounds like fun," I responded. "It'll be great exercise," enthused my spouse.

But that's another story entirely.

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