For my thirtieth birthday, I got a girlfriend. She came halfway across the country to carry me away to a new life. It finally put to rest any lingering fears or concerns I had about catching cooties. And while it would be nice to say that there were no strings attached, that might not be entirely true. My new girlfriend had this crazy notion that I should know how to dance.
Not just flopping about as I was prone to at the time, much in the style of Donald O'Connor or Elwood Blues, but real and true social dancing with a partner and everything. I tried to explain to her that the scars from doing the Virginia Reel with the girls in my fourth grade PE class were still to fresh, but she would have none of it. Any man she would permit to date would have to come across with some clever footwork or find himself sitting alone.
This was all imparted in the most loving way, of course, but I took it hard. I had spent the last decade creating a persona that was free-standing, aloof. Holding anyone that close was in direct contradiction in terms for me. But she held her ground, and eventually I found myself wondering how I would rise to this particular challenge. I understood the mechanics well enough. I had listened to and played enough music that I knew a tango from a cha-cha, but it had never been a primary concern to imagine how I might trip the light fandango. I had admired my older brother's enthusiastic polka technique from afar, and realized that somewhere in my genetic makeup was a dancer waiting to be turned loose.
So I set about teaching myself to waltz. It seemed straightforward enough. If you messed up the first step or two, you could get back on the beat by the third. I spent a couple hours in my mother's basement, practicing by myself to Richard Thompson's "Waltzing's For Dreamers." The odd pantomime made my arms sore and my legs stiff. I was getting a headache, and when she finally showed up later that evening, I figured that I was as ready as I might ever be. I turned on the stereo, and asked her to dance.
It was clumsy going. Having another body to engage and avoid made things exponentially more challenging. A few steps in, she started coaching me. The best advice she gave me was to relax my shoulders. She told me to move around the floor. I listened to her. I listened to the music, and the four minute song seemed to last forever.
When it was over, I thanked her for the dance. She thanked me for taking the chance. Later that month, as we travelled back across the country to what would become our home, that song came up on a tape we were listening to in the car. I pulled over, got out, and asked her to dance by the side of the road.
Now, every few years or so, I get up on the dance floor. Sometimes we waltz. Sometimes we do a simple box-step. Sometimes we just sway back and forth to the music. The way we used to. I still have a lot to learn about dancing.