by Sarah Kovatch
I have two mom-friends who also happen to be dancers. My neighbor Cristen danced competitively all her life before becoming a physical therapist, and Jennifer is a retired principle ballerina from the New York City Ballet who now teaches at a performing arts college. These days, they steal away to a dance class a few nights a week after their kids go to bed.
Dance is my favorite art form to watch. The theater lights dim and I tear up. Performances move me. So much at stake! But I don’t dance. Even at family weddings my husband, Peter can barely pull me onto the dance floor. I get what I call, dance-anxiety.
And so, when Jennifer and Cristen invited me to a Tuesday night beginning tap class just for fun, I begged, “Can’t we please just go out for drinks instead?”
“It’s for beginners,” Jennifer said. ‘I’ve never tapped either!” The word either seemed ridiculous coming from the lips of a former principle ballerina, but I allowed it.
Here’s the thing about me. I have a hard time turning down an invitation. I’m always game for an outing and my rare time alone with other mothers feels almost sacred. And so, after the children’s bedtime routine—which feels like an entire day in and of itself—I reluctantly threw on some leggings and kissed Peter goodbye. “You should be going, not me,” I said. He never met a dance floor he didn’t like.
Cristen was waiting outside in our driveway. We drove away in my minivan, both of us thrilled to be out in the warm twilight while our children slept. We found the dance studio in a strip mall between a nail salon and a dry cleaner shop. I spied Jennifer’s perfectly straight silhouette waiting by the entrance.
I wanted to imprint the image on my heart. Jennifer had pirouetted on every important stage in the world yet there she stood at a suburban dance studio with a cheesy name in a neon sign on a Tuesday night waiting to take a beginning tap class for fun.
I had two powerful feelings:
- How freaking refreshing.
- Never underestimate the potential for excellence in an LA strip mall.
We hugged; she was giddy. “I’ve been here for 15 minutes already—didn’t want to be late,” she said. We walked inside to the lobby and I searched through a basket of tap shoes secretly hoping to not find a match in my size so I could just watch.
The teacher arrived: raven haired, loose limbed, edgy eye makeup. Her name was Melinda, and she wore red oxford tap shoes. She was the kind of woman you want to just watch walk across the room.
We filed onto the patchy studio floor and I took in the group. Besides my friends and me, there were two women in their sixties. One wore high-heeled tap shoes. One wore a ballet practice skirt. Another woman, wearing a black leotard, was a nanny I recognized from our neighborhood playground. My world opened up a bit—who else in my city pops into dance classes after the sun goes down?
Melinda blasted Bruno Mars and began warm-up drills. The pounding music made my body warm and happy. Who doesn’t love Bruno Mars? Right-right, left-left. Repeat. Now double-time.
I did as I was told and I liked it.
It was fun to use only my body-brain. I watched and copied and didn’t take my eyes off the teacher’s red shoes. If I did, I thought I may fall. I got the giggles, which also happens when I play tennis and things go well, like Ha! This is actually working!
Melinda’s feet were drumsticks. She was cool, funky, and liquid. She was gearing way down for this class and there was elegance in her absolute ease.
I peeked at Jennifer and Cristen. Their faces were relaxed. Cristen’s hips grooved. Jennifer had pretty ballerina fingers. This was their play. This was their grace.
Melinda switched from Bruno Mars to Tito Puente and taught us a string of steps to a routine. I nailed the easy part where we stopped in our tracks then clapped three times.
As we continued with more steps though, I abandoned hope of remembering anything, and tried to simply drift in the same direction as everyone else. Cristen and Jennifer on the other hand, remembered each combination as though they’d rehearsed for weeks. I was amazed that they functioned this way. Then again, it made sense. They had been using their brains to memorize steps on demand since childhood. Jennifer’s career depended on it.
Just as my energy started to wane, Melinda gathered us into a circle and switched the music to something bluesy. “Now for my favorite part of class,” she said smiling and clasping her hands together. “I like to end the class by having a conversation with our bodies. We’ll all take turns improvising for eight counts. Ready?”
My heart sank. I wanted to bolt.
“Play with the music,” she instructed as she dialed up the volume. “No right or wrong, just have fun.”
Bruno Mars and Tito Puente were fun. The drills were fun. The routine was fun. But the idea of making up eight seconds of my own moves in front of the class horrified me. I’d rather walk outside naked.
But why? I didn’t care about being good at tap dancing. I was the outsider today. That was understood—liberating, even. So why the sweat behind my knees?
The nanny from the park volunteered first. Her eyes twinkled as she tapped a combination and ended with a spin. It looked charming. “That was so cool,” I said reflexively, hand to my heart.
Then, my turn. My heart pounded in my temples. As the music played on, I was like a girl waiting to jump into the turning jump rope. I couldn’t find the right moment, the right beat, to start.
Five, six, seven, eight…still a statue. Melinda laughed, “Nothing like a long lead up, eh?”
I smiled nervously, counted the beat once more. Five, six, seven, eight. Finally I tried a timid heel-toe, heel-toe. It felt like trying to speak a different language.
Each time my turn came up in the circle I felt out of my body with agony and dread. I felt flustered. I didn’t breathe. My throat was closed anyway, so why breathe? My feet didn’t seem to know how to play with the music.
When it was not my turn, I rejoiced. I also drank in the pleasure of watching the other dancers exist in their element. I smiled, appreciating each woman’s humble and sincere offering of lovely movement. They looked so joyful, and their joyfulness felt like a good deed, something honest, a value. Pure grace.
I felt my instinctive urge to compliment:Wow! How pretty! That was so good! I am not a natural dancer, but I am a natural cheerleader—from the side of whatever road you are on.
At last, the improv circle wrapped up and we dug through our purses to pay Melinda her twelve-dollar fee and as we did, we all hugged her. After all, a deeper soul-level transaction had also transpired.
Cristen, Jennifer, and I walked out into the empty parking lot. The sky was black and the long-legged street lamps glowed upon us as though we were on a stage.
My graceful friends embraced me. “You were so brave!” they said. “Improve is so…vulnerable!”
I laughed. Yep, I felt brave. And now that it was over I felt relieved, but also fortified and connected.
Mostly though, I yearned to find my element. What do I love to practice and play?
Next morning the children were off to school and I rummaged through the house till I found a blank notebook. The dance teacher’s words echoed as I sat at my quiet dining room table: No right or wrong, just have fun. Legs tucked beneath me, chin resting in hand, fingers languidly twirling a sharp pencil—it had been a while but my body got into position.