A Tribute to the Unknown Dancer

by: Peter Pachecos

He’s the fellow who was dragged practically kicking and screaming into class. Never, in his wildest dreams did he envision himself doing a Foxtrot — whatever that is. Nor did he ever think he’d ever allow himself to be persuaded to take group lessons.

Yes, he desperately yearned to be a good dancer, driven as he was by images of couples weaving down a dance floor with effortless ease and, yes, to the applause and admiration of everyone. With a gigantic effort of will, he summoned the courage to enquire about lessons and, over the bemused advice — and ridicule — of friends, signed up for a series of group sessions, along with a friend.

The class was scheduled for the evening and, throughout the day, he mentally psyched himself up to muster the courage to even pass through the doors of the community hall where the lessons were to be held. The idea of getting lost on the way to the place appealed to him. After all, he tried, didn’t he? It wouldn’t have been his fault if he accidentally took the wrong turn ... would it?

Attractive though the suggestion was, he sternly drove it out of his mind. As he drove into the parking lot, he could feel his resolve drain away but the sight of his dance partner’s car gave him fresh courage. In the course of exchanging pleasantries, he was inwardly happy to discover she was just as nervous as he was.

As he slouched up the stairs he heard voices, laughter and music. A lady sat behind a desk and gave them a welcoming smile. This made it a little easier to cover the last remaining couple of meters and commit to a defining moment in his life.

His mind a mass of conflicting ideas, he barely heard the lady’s voice as she spoke to them. Mechanically, he affixed his signature at the bottom of a form the lady handed him as she chattered in practiced monotone about the rules governing the group lessons he'd committed himself to taking.

On entering the hall, he was a overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. He fought back the momentary panic and fled to an empty corner with his partner in tow, hoping they hadn’t been noticed. From this vantage point, he took stock. He quickly spotted the instructor; she wore a microphone set as she talked animatedly with a group of people. They obviously knew each other. In as sea of strange faces, this only added to his feeling of insecurity.

The class began. The instructor seemed friendly enough even if, to him at least, her disdain for the ability of men — any man — to ever learn to dance was obvious. She first did a demonstration of the Foxtrot with another lady. Unsure who he was supposed to be observing, he was a little perplexed and bewildered.

Acutely aware that regarding men as idiots at best was a national past-time, he resigned himself to a stressful evening. Subsequent remarks by the instructor confirmed that she fully subscribed to this mentality. ("I’ll say this again so you men will understand," was one of her favorite remarks. It was said in jest, of course, and always drew laughter).

She then segregated the students, men on one side, ladies on the other. Reluctantly, he watched his partner leave his side. He felt alone in this strange and seemingly hostile world; the last thing he ever wanted to do was look clumsy and awkward all by himself. His first priority was to get right up against the wall, behind everyone, and become as inconspicuous as possible.

As the lesson began, he struggled to make sense of the instructor’s words: Slow, slow, quick, quick. What in heaven’s name is that!?

As fellow students around him moved to the cadence set by the instructor, his feet and eyes seemed glued to the floor. He suddenly seemed unable to tell his left foot from his right. He couldn’t quite shake the feeling everyone was ridiculing his clumsy attempts to master the Foxtrot. His enthusiasm began to flag until the instructor invited the students to partner up.

He searched frantically for his partner and, to his horror, saw a stranger connect with her. "That’s great!" he muttered to himself. Before he could even begin to entertain the idea of slinking way, convinced no one would ever want to dance with a clumsy ox, a pretty young lady positioned herself before him and proceeded to introduce herself. He mumbled his name and quickly explained he was new at this. "So am I," she replied. He wasn’t sure if she was merely saying this to put him at ease but it made him feel better to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, the first dance lesson can be a painful experience ...

He’s the chap who’s too painfully shy to walk up to a lady and ask her for a dance. She’s bound to laugh at him. Besides, someone told him ballroom dancing was really for graceful people: he felt as graceful as a baby elephant.

Only members of the social elite ballroom danced, he was reliably informed. He’d spent the better part of his day cleaning other peoples’ teeth. That hardly made him feel special.

He had it on authority that musical training and exposure to the correlation between rhythm and timing was the only way one can be a good dancer. His only connection to music and timing was when he’d absentmindedly tap his screw driver on the car’s fender to the strains of heavy metal music as he deftly assembled the carburetor.

At his first dance social, he knew he had to make an effort to dance with different people, if only to master the intricacies of leading, timing and, of course, floorcraft.

I haven’t have a hope, he muttered to himself as he shuffled across the room. He didn’t know which was worse: rejection, or having to go through with the dance. Half that fear was laid to rest when the lady graciously accepted his awkward invitation without asking him him complicated questions like, "How many lessons have you taken?"

His frame felt like molasses and, after congratulating himself on taking the first step, his mind went blank: he had no idea what to do next. Panic ensued. The sound of laughter echoed through the hall. They’re making fun of me, he thought. He wanted to simply disappear ... The lady smiled graciously at him and discreetly counted out the beat as she hummed the tune. Ah yes. That’s better. Timing and foot/sound coordination was beginning to seem less of a mystery.

The first dance need not be an excruciatingly painful experience.

Time passes. The odd word of encouragement. That act of random kindness when an experienced dancer graciously pulled him to the middle of the floor and had him doing things with his feet he thought magicians could do only with their hands, that momentary sense of exhilaration when she complimented him on his frame and the Foxtrot seemed easy and (dare he say it?) fun!

By now, he wanted more — much more. The thought of taking private dance lessons at one of the numerous dance studios suddenly seemed pretty attractive ...

Yes, no pain, no gain.

So, the next time you see someone clumsily weaving his way down the dance floor, give him room to manoeuvre. Be patient with him and, most importantly, help him when you can—always keeping your own humble beginnings in mind.

Remember, you could well be looking at a future Fred Astaire (or Ginger Rogers) as you tip your hat to the unknown dancer.

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