Notes from the Ballroom


Notes from the Ballroom

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Ballroom Dancing

◊   Installment 1   ◊

First day of Ballroom Dancing Class. To kick off the class, our teacher gave us a speech on the importance of being graceful in a consumer culture. She called me up to the front of the room to help her demonstrate the first dance we’ll be learning, which is the Charleston. As I was going up the steps, I somehow tripped over the microphone cord, tangled a loop of it around my neck, and fell off the stage. It was an accident; I am not sure how it happened. Fortunately, I was not killed. I could have been killed if the stage was higher. I could very easily have been caught by the cord around my neck and choked to death. I felt that the class was less than concerned about my personal safety. One end of the wire I tripped over was attached to our dancing teacher’s headset, which was attached to her head, and when I tripped, she went flying through the air, fell off the stage, and landed motionless on the ground.

There was a moment of total silence, the kind of silence you hear when you’ve hiked to the top of a hill in the middle of the countryside somewhere, and you cannot even hear the sound of traffic, or birds singing. Then the teaching assistant (whose name is Jasper) hurried off the stage and carried the teacher (whose name is Ms. Wilhelmina) out of the room.

One of the other students turned to me and said, “You killed our teacher.”

This was an exaggeration. Ms. Wilhelmina was not dead. She was moving one of her arms in a very healthy way when Jasper carried her out. However, she did not return, and eventually our dance class fragmented into small, whispering clusters. I stood by myself. No one wanted to be in my cluster. Finally, Jasper came back and told us that Ms. Wilhelmina is okay. She will be back in class tomorrow. Hopefully, that class will go better.


Tuesday. I am not sure that my nerves can take much more of this ballroom dancing. I only signed up for this class because I needed two more units for the semester, to fill out my schedule at the junior college. There were not many two unit classes available. In the end it was either Ballroom Dancing, or Auto Shop for the Mechanically Challenged. The first option sounded like the more exciting of the two. But as the semester progresses, I question whether I might not be more cut out to become a challenged auto mechanic than a ballroom dancer. It is not as glamorous-sounding, but not all of us were cut out for lives of glamour. Some people were intended to skim through life in a silk dress and a fur coat, being hounded by the media, whereas others of us were really meant to spend most of our lives lying on our backs all day, being mostly covered up by a truck.  I may belong to the second category. I am not sure yet.

One immediate problem with this class became apparent as soon as we walked in the door: there is a gender imbalance. In a class of approximately seventy-five students, only nine are male. No one put it into words, but there was a lot of tension in the female-heavy area of the room. Sixty-six women of all ages eyed the men like predators choosing prey. Still not clear which of us will get partners. You might think that the younger girls would have the advantage, but I looked the older women over today and some of them look like they could knock those younger girls senseless. I wouldn’t place any bets. The woman standing next to me, who seemed to be in her late fifties, wore a wife beater showing off shoulder muscles that have clearly bench pressed many, many thousands of pounds over the course of many, many years. After saying her name (which was Elsie) at role call, she narrowed her eyes at the men and cracked her knuckles. The men (who based on appearance only could never justifiably have expected to see sixty-six women fighting over them) looked frightened.

“Line up for the Viennese Waltz,” said our dancing teacher, and a woman in an cutoff T-shirt began to sock one fist rhythmically into her other hand, with a sound like Thwack! Thwack! She had abdominal muscles like you wouldn’t believe. This is an extremely butch ballroom dancing class.  ♦


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dancing shoe

◊   Installment 2   ◊

Went back to ballroom dancing class today, and forty-eight of the women had dropped the class. This was not a development I had foreseen, but is excellent. Now we get to dance longer, which is good, because I need lots of practice. Today when Ms. Wilhelmina said, “kick your right foot up in the air,” I accidentally kicked both my feet up in the air, and fell over. Fortunately I was dancing with Elsie, who caught me before I hit the ground. I also danced with Richard today. Richard is a very intelligent person. He is not athletic and likes to conserve energy. Today, as we were dancing the Cha Cha Cha, Richard appeared thoughtful. Finally he said, “You know what? This is a dumb way to dance. On the ‘cha cha cha’ part, we don’t move. We just stay in one place. Why take three whole steps if we’re not even moving? We should only take one.”

“Yes,” I told Richard, “but then it wouldn’t be the Cha Cha Cha anymore. It would only be theCha, and it would look stupid, and I’m not doing it.”

Some people really think too much to make good ballroom dancers.

In a dancing class with such a striking gender imbalance, you get to know the males in the room very quickly. Elliott is the shy one. So far, Elliott he has not said one word to a single girl in the class. When you dance with him you can’t actually hold his hands because it makes him nervous. He turns bright red and all the veins on his neck pop out, and he breaks out in hives and stops breathing. We have to be careful about dancing with Elliott.

Darcy, I secretly suspect, has a dark history. Everyone else suspects it too, because in conversations he has a strangely familiar knowledge of the inner workings of street gangs. The left side of his face is completely deformed where he was attacked with a knife and had his eye gouged out. On the side of his face that still has an eyeball, Darcy is extremely good-looking. We all enjoy dancing with Darcy.

Marco is the male in the class with whom most of the girls have danced least. Marco is Eileen’s boyfriend. Marco very rarely dances with anyone except Eileen. Yesterday in class we were doing the rotating rumba, where nine couples stand facing each other, leaders on one side and followers on the other. Every five minutes Ms. Wilhelmina shouts out “rotate,” and the followers are supposed to switch to the next leader. When it was my turn to switch to Marco, however, Eileen did not rotate. They weren’t dancing right, either. Ms. Wilhelmina was playing a fast song, but Marco and Eileen were just swaying back and forth, staring into each other’s eyes, which is not how the rumba is performed. “Rotate,” Ms. Wilhelmina had clearly said, and since Marco and Eileen were the last couple in line, Eileen was supposed to rotate out of the dance. But she stayed clamped to Marco like a barnacle on a rock. I felt awkward about physically forcing my way in between them, but on the other hand, every time we switch couples Ms. Wilhelmina comes by and gives us a star if we’re dancing properly. So if I had just left the dance floor and skipped my dance with Marco, I would have definitely missed one out of nine possible stars. As anyone in the class can tell you, I am not in any kind of position to be intentionally losing stars. I do not have the luxury of being understanding about things like love.

I tried respectfully tapping Eileen on the shoulder, with a polite expression on my face as if to say, “Hey, I’m really not trying to steal your boyfriend or anything, but if I don’t dance with him I may get an F in the only class that will let me graduate without taking Auto Shop for the Mechanically Challenged.” It’s not like I would actually have tried to steal Marco. He smells like an enormous crawdad, and has a tendency to drool on one side of his mouth, where his lip sticks out unusually far. But Eileen didn’t even look up or respond to me, and neither did Marco when I attempted to communicate with him. There they were, not behaving at all like two individual, intelligent people, but more like one giant person, with no brain, and there I was, stranded, inadequate and partner-less in a line of nine happily revolving couples, like an extra planet stuck in between Neptune and Pluto in a “What’s wrong with this picture?” cartoon. I tried shouting their names but they didn’t respond. It was a no-win situation. So eventually I did the only thing I could think of (under the circumstances) which was to put my hands on Eileen’s waist, and dance with them. The three of us danced together, swaying back and forth slowly while everyone else did the rumba. When Ms. Wilhelmina had made her way down the row of couples and down to where the three of us were dancing, clearly not doing the rumba, she stopped the music with her remote control and said, “What in the name of ‘ell eez these type of rumba sew-posed to be?”

Naturally I thought Eileen or Marco might step forward to explain, since I was the victim of the situation, but they just blinked innocently at Ms. Wilhelmina and didn’t say a word. Everyone in the ballroom turned and stared at me.

“What are you doing?” Ms. Wilhelmina demanded, peering at me as if I was some sort of alien species. “Deed I not tell you at the beginning of my class zat ballroom dancing eez a two-person dance? Zee two-person dance eez meant to be danced weez two people, not three! How is zees couple supposed to do ze rumba with you clinging on to them from behind, like large black snail weeth no shell?”

Jasper cleared his throat.

“She means a leech,” he explained, helpfully.

I lost five stars.

You would think human beings would have a little more nobility, and not let others get blamed for their actions. Next time I’m supposed to dance with Marco, I’ll bring along my croquet set and club Eileen out of the way with a mallet. ♦ 

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