“It’s safe, not sexy.”
That’s how I lured a friend of mine to Arthur Murray’s Rodgers Forge studio, where I’d been taking classes. It wasn’t my first foray into dance instruction but Arthur Murray had surprised me. The men had surprised me. I had surprised me.
In each class, there was a small cache of gentlemen who came out on weeknights to squire women around the large, smooth floor overlooking York Road, repeating, “Quick quick, slow slow” for newcomers like me.
Of course, the night I took my friend— for the swinging-’60s dance party—it was mostly women of a certain age, channeling the decade in paisley or Chanel. Perhaps the prospect of donning love beads dissuaded some of the regulars.
Even with some of the female instructors acting as male leads that night, there was a dearth of people to play the male role. So I—a default alpha—tried to step in to lead one of the lovely tie-dyes in the Lindy Hop, a kicky dance we’d just learned.
“You don’t have to be the lead!” called out the young beehived instructor, as I struggled with the man’s steps. What a relief. In the retro throwback world that is Arthur Murray, men lead and women follow—men frame, women twirl—and that’s just fine with me.
A dozen lifetimes ago, as a young feminist with an aggressive streak and a penchant for solo dance, I was not so pliant. I struggled through Arthur Murray’s lessons in Philadelphia with my then- fiancé: I could not, would not, follow any man’s fumbling lead; I would submit only if my partner was a master. My fiancé, a lanky greenhorn, was far from masterful. We danced exactly once at our wedding and then never again.
It did not take long, after my divorce, to trade my cargo pants and ankle boots for swirly skirts and sparkly champagne slippers that touch only ballroom floors. It is fun being feminine when you don’t have to be. Or when you won’t be punished for it.
Now, two decades after my divorce— with two teenaged children, a solid legal career and a house of my own—I can negotiate my own deals, grill my own steaks and caulk my own stairs, thank you. But I cannot dip myself after a series of pretty pirouettes. I cannot whisper deep bass into my own ear.
Where to find a man who can? The same place I found all the furnishings for my new house: online. My first-ever online dating profile said, “Shall we dance?” I wanted a man who, like me, expresses his joy physically.
The profile attracted a variety of responses, from the khaki-shorts type who suggested a beer instead, to the accomplished salsa aficionado who was out of my league, to the unabashed prowlers who went straight-up carnal. No, no and no.
Finally one message caught my eye: “I’m a mean house dancer.”
Well, well, well. So am I. Or at least I was, once upon a time. We chatted more, online, and it turned out that he, too, was recently separated and heartbroken. He
understood the ache of part-time parenting.
“Come dance it all out with me,” he wrote.
We met, and we danced. We danced in my sweltering kitchen, and we danced headlong in my headlights. This was our small talk. And while our club moves, mired in our youths and separated by our age gap, did not jibe, it did not matter. We saw each other. He was powerful and shy—part bull, part butterfly. He was not afraid of my independence, anger or fear. I was not afraid of his heft or vulnerability. I knew immediately that I could trust him. I knew I could be a girl sometimes and he could be a man and we would get along together just fine.
We wanted to try something new, to grow together, so we started to learn to partner dance. One-off lessons at the Latin Palace (salsa), Creative Alliance (samba) and Mobtown Ballroom (swing) eventually led to the granddaddy of them all, Arthur Murray, where lessons in partnering are baked into the curriculum.
The Arthur Murray formula has kept the franchise in business for decades. Although some of the music is contemporary (who knew you could cha-cha to Usher or waltz to Alicia Keys?), it is the opposite of cool. It is earnestly social. The point is to mingle with everyone there and to gradually grasp a variety of ballroom dances. The instructors, talented and professional, greet all students by name. Rotating partners is mandatory; sitting out is discouraged. There are dance games and door prizes. It is goofy but purposeful fun.
It is also serious learning. By rotating through better dancers, I learn how the slightest pressure from the heel of a man’s hand can send me into a double spin; my partner learns how I can stay clear of his long legs in tango. We do not trade roles —I am always the girl. I poise on the ball of my toes, hovering for microseconds, waiting to see where he will guide us. He is the better dancer and I trust his lead completely. If he fumbles, we pause and recount the steps. We work to make each other better.
Perhaps this is how the best couples operate.
At the ’60s party, I watched a trim silver-haired couple sail by in bell-bottoms, smiles and perfect flow. They made the music their own, as the best dancers do. “We started taking lessons years ago,” the husband told me on a break. “But then we decided we’d keep dancing for life.”
Sounds like a perfect plan.
Arthur Murray: baltimoredanceclasses.com