I appeared at his studio for my first ballroom dancing lesson in June 2017. I tried to warn him. I told him, “I’m probably unteachable.” Then I gave him absolution. “If I am, it’s not your fault.” But I was there because I had made up my mind that life is too short to not know how to dance.
I haven’t felt comfortable on a dance floor since I was a teenager. Way back then, my father escorted me to a dance at Elyria High School. He moved me around the floor with ease. Dancing with him, I felt elegant. Fast forward to Jeanine Donaldson’s New Year’s Eve Birthday Bash some years ago when another gentleman, the debonair Clarence Ballard, asked me to dance. In his arms, I felt anything but elegant. In fact, I felt frustrated and embarrassed because I didn’t have a clue how to follow his beautiful lead. In between those two seminal events were years and years of shyness and insecurity that kept me off the dance floor at wedding receptions.
Not any more.
The hours that Andy and I have spent together have been transformative, so much so that tonight I will be performing in a Starz Ballroom Holiday Showcase. He took one of the worst dancers ever unleashed on a party and turned her into someone who can dance. In public. Voluntarily. He’s just that good.
Andy came to dance somewhat surprisingly. In high school, it was all about sports, especially football. Somewhere along the line he moseyed on over to the drama department and discovered that he has a talent for acting and performing. He earned a degree in Performance Arts at Cleveland State University. Today, he has thirteen years of experience as a professional dance instructor behind him. He is married to the adorable counselor Alannah McCarthy-Slimak, LPC who sometimes nudges him awake when he’s muttering Slow, slow, quick-quick in the middle of the night. “Andy,” she says, gently. “You’re teaching in your sleep again.”
He is a natural-born teacher with a marvelous ability to break things down into chewable chunks. Tenacity and creativity come into play, too, because when I have trouble conceptualizing what I am learning, he implements an endless succession of analogies and creative strategies, not giving up until he locates that one perfect key to unlock my mental blockage.
He is also a masterful choreographer who inevitably coaxes the most perfect ways to express with the body the message of the music. This is no small feat when you consider his students run a full gamut of ability, talent, experience and skill. It’s one thing to choreograph a beautiful dance; it’s another to tailor it to a beginner.
As a teacher he is generous, unmeasured, and selfless. It reminds me of the way the best physicians practice medicine. It’s easy to spot these truly dedicated professionals: they bring us the fruits of their study and experience as if on a silver platter, as if to say Here. See all this? Take it, it’s yours. I did it all just for you, anyway.
Tonight, Andy and I will be dancing to Eliza Gilkyson’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Andy choreographed the first verse as a waltz. Then, when the music picks up at the beginning of the second verse, we bust into a foxtrot. At this moment, each and every time we run through this routine, I feel a little thrill shoot through me and a big smile spreads across my face. And that’s another aspect of why I’m taking dance lessons: I’m in a new phase of my life right now, and I’m happy. I think I was instinctively drawn to put dance in my life because I needed a way to express the lilt and lyricism I feel in my heart.
Oddly, the two daughters I once drove to dance classes will be in the audience, providing me much-appreciated support and encouragement. All the years my kids were growing up, I wouldn’t have missed any of their performances, recitals, speeches, sports events, concerts, plays, musicals, or talent shows, and that protocol was right and proper. Today, I’m struggling with this role reversal. It feels weird in a too-needy kind of way. I feel conspicuous, or goofy, or ridiculous. But there’s something in our human nature that makes us seek confirmation, and we get it by being witnessed. I hope I’m not being too silly by loving the fact that they’ll be there.
Having spent more than 60% of my life being Mostly a Mom, which meant that the needs and preoccupations of my six kids were the engine that drove my days, it took me a while to get around to tackling some life-long dreams of my own. At a stage in life when most people look forward to slowing down, I chose instead to pick up the pace and tackle those dreams. Ballroom dancing is one of those dreams. But this morning, thinking about what I’ll be doing tonight, I had an epiphany. I realized that the way I live my life is not so much a race against time as it is a race with time.
The older we get, the more quickly life seems to fly by. My response is to try to breathe in sync. Replicate the rhythm. Stay with the speed.
Of course I know that it’s impossible to ever pull ahead, and that is precisely why it’s dumb to look at life as a race against time. It’s not a race. It’s not a contest. Time isn’t the enemy—not mine, anyway. It’s my pacer. We’re teammates. What I’m going for with this one life that I’ve been given is a photo-finish.
I used to think that I wanted to cross that finish line matching Time stride for pounding stride. Now I know I’d rather be dancing.
My performance turned out less than perfect but what I gained from the experience of dancing in public was worth all the lessons, practice, and nervous anticipation. All credit to Andy for bringing me from zero to foxtrot in almost no time at all.