So I thought I could dance.
So I imagined the ballroom instructors leaning in to say - first rumba or perhaps the second - "You've got a knack for this."
What knack? What had I done? Why had I not realized that dancing in the dark alone to Bruce Springsteen does not qualify anyone for the cha-cha? That grace is not necessarily an elevated pointer finger? That how they do it on TV is how they do it on TV? That just because you love to dance does not a dancer make you?
Still, for six years I have been climbing the narrow staircase to the second-floor studio of DanceSport Academy in Ardmore, and taking my place on worn floorboards. I have submitted to assessments, acquiesced to leaders, persisted among the surround-sound of reflective glass, danced with my husband and without him, and learned more from a gorgeous 12-year-old girl than I would ever be able to teach her.
I have New Yorkered, ganchoed, promenaded, ronde chassed, rocked left, rocked right, shined, forward progressed. I have confessed my deepest fears, sheared off polished toenails, neglected my actual profession, chopped my hair and grown it back, begged for mercy, philosophized, caught my breath, and in between - it has happened so slowly - I have jived, tangoed, mamboed, fox-trotted, risen and fallen again.
Don't want so much, I have been told, but also: Want more deeply. Learn the steps so that you can forget them, the instructors have said, immune to their own contradictions. Listen to the music, they've implored me, and then they've counted for this mathematically disabled learner: One-and-ah-two-and-AHHHH-three. Make it smaller, bigger, better, tighter, looser, where's your control? they have exclaimed, hiding their own frustrations - mostly.
In their English-as-a-second-language way, my instructors have regarded me. For 45 minutes each lesson, they have set me free to fail and free to try again, and in the process I have learned a little something about my own tenacity and hurt, my multiform needs. I have, as well, made some of my most enduring friends, and once I sat beside my mother in a hospital room, showing her a video of me trying.
"Wow," she said, one of her final words to me. Wow. Because her daughter was standing a little taller than before. Because her daughter, for a few ephemeral moments in an eternal tomboy life, had at long last tamed her hair.
If you doubt the intelligence of dance, watch real dancers. See what they prove about the possible. See how they thrive in three-dimensional space. See how vivid they are. Dance may be a thin line of knowing and a strange untelling of song, it may be theater, but in ballroom anyway, dance is also a conversation with a single, striving other. He moves and she reacts. He suggests, and she adorns. They, together, forsake words in favor of something even more primal and true.
Dancing is muscle and mood and moxie, and can you blame me for wanting it still, through all these years? Can you blame me for heading back up those stairs, week upon week - bloodied, battered, yearning, determined to get my body right, to know it more completely, to be an equal, trusted partner in the dialogue of dance?
I am six years older than I was and yet a student. I'm still getting more wrong than right, still disappointed with my arms, still trying to talk some more consistent sense into my hair, still a disaster in the sequins department. But in a few weeks' time, I'll be headed to my alma mater, Radnor High School, to take the stage with my dancing friends in the showcase DanceSport Academy hosts for friends and family each year.
I'll be dancing, with my brave and Latin-hipped husband, a tango-rumba mash-up to "Welcome to Burlesque," the song Cher and Christina Aguilera made famous. (Cher, yes. Christina, yes. Me, exactly.) Then I'll change outfits, moods, and masks, to dance with the pro John Larson, who has persuaded this literary snob to Viennese waltz to a song from Twilight. I will dance and I will inevitably fail, but what is failure, really? Not trying, not yearning, not risking, perhaps. I'll fail until this body quits me.
Beth Kephart blogs daily at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.