Jilly D.

Dance to find joy

In Health on October 9, 2011 at 2:48 am

Feeling joy again seemed unattainable in the wake of Sam’s suicide; two years after it happened. My muscles had habituated themselves to the sensation of trauma, loss and grief. The tiny muscles around my mouth had gone from smile lines to a deep frown. Even though I’d given in to my emotions and fully grieved Sam’s death, my body carried his unfinished life, the weight of his actions, and my survivor guilt.

In second grade I became a Brownie and I’m a Brownie for life. I had to turn that frown upside down. I’m miserable being miserable. I’d joined the fitness club and after a year felt lonelier every time I went there. I needed to do something for me that was fun. What is fun? Been so long I didn’t even remember.

I always loved to dance.

Sam never danced with me. He “slow danced” the way couples my age just hang on to each other when a slow tune comes on; he held me in a warm embrace and we swayed side to side. But we never went dancing. He liked to watch me dance. Not that I knew a single two step or how to do it. But I could make my body respond to music in way that felt good and natural. Dancing is when the mind and body and beat blend into a trance of spirit.

If I waited for someone to ask me to dance, hell might freeze over. I needed to dance and I wanted to learn how.

Then it dawned on me. I could take dance lessons. So I looked through the local listings and discovered a 45 minute class in swing dance on Fridays from 5:45-6:30 p.m.

I got myself into a black dress that had some swing to it and forced myself to drive to the Oasis Dance Club on State Route 96B outside Ithaca. Hot and humid, I was sweating profusely before I even got inside the door.

Get in there. Just go and have a good time, I told myself sternly.

A hodgepodge of buildings, additions, beer gardens and parking lots, the Oasis is on SR96B, just south of Ithaca College. When I walked in I noticed the band stand and dance floor immediately empty and quiet. To the right was a long bar and restaurant tables. A small crowd of diners and drinkers as I scanned the room.

The first person whose eyes met mine was a white guy at a table eating supper. I’d noticed he didn’t look up when I walked in and seemed to be enjoying a meal; I didn’t take a second glance. I walked toward the bar and felt everyone else in the room staring at me, wondering who I was. I didn’t recognize any one person, but I felt familiar with their friends with whom they had just gotten off work in Ithaca and were stopping on their way home heading south to Danby, Wilseyville, or Candor.

I ordered a club soda from the barkeep and the band members started to come in and set up. The sound system played a dance mix of pop tunes.

Then I noticed a woman my age with dark hair and a skirt step onto the dance floor with an older couple, the Youngs. They started doing the West Coast swing and the young woman identified herself as the instructor by her coaching of the two as a team in tandem with the beat.

I walked over to her and said I’d like to join the class lesson.

“Have you ever danced before?” she asked?

“No. Not really. Not a class. No. I don’t know a thing.”

“Okay. Well then. First I need to show you how to follow. That is the most important thing. I’m Iska and I’m the instructor and you follow me,” she said with a warm smile.

Okay then. I will at least learn how to follow. This isn’t where I’m going to meet a man who will dance with me. So relax and get something good from this; be in the moment. I took a long breath and faced Iska.

“Give me your hands,” Iska said.

I took both my hands and placed them in hers.

“Curl your hands; cup them a bit.” She interlocked her cupped hands with curled fingertips. Feel the resistance between my hands and yours. The hands are how you learn to follow,” said Iska. I followed her instructions. She pulled and then pushed very gently with her hands from her shoulders.

“Good,” she said. An affirmation I needed. I took another deep breath. “Now we learn the steps,” said Iska. My eyes dropped to her feet.

“No,” she said. I looked her right in the eyes as my heart sank. Correction already. “Look at me, not at your feet. Listen and I will help you learn the steps as you look at me, not down.”

The elderly couple were practicing their west coast swing and staying with the beat. Me, not so much. Follow. Now feet?

“Step right. Step left. Step back. Step forward.” Iska moved in sync with her instructions as I listened and stumbled.

Just then the gentleman who’d been enjoying his meal stood up and approached Iska and I. Iska let go of my hands and greeted him.

“Hi Richard. I have a new student and perhaps you can help this evening,” said Iska. She turned to me and said, “Jill, this is Richard and he’s going to help you learn the steps. I’m going to check in here on this other couple and I’ll be back.”

My heart started pounding and I was already hot, but I felt a wave of steam I could have ridden on a surfboard. I’m scared.

Looking into his eyes and seeing his smile, I sensed a warmth and openness I didn’t dare trust to be real. He offered his arms out to take my hands. I extended them.

And so my first real dance lesson began. When my hands cupped into his and found an interlocking resistance, he began to push and pull very gently. I noticed he was smiling and his eyes sparkled and stared into mine.

“Imagine our shoulders are the telephone poles and our arms and hands are the wire between them,” he said, putting a strong image in my brain. My elbow relaxed and between his shoulders and mine it became jello wiggly loose.

“Good. Relax,” he said. At that I tensed up.

“Step,” as he put all his weight on his left foot and led me to shift onto my right foot. “Step,” he said again and shifted his weight onto his right side and I corresponded with a shift to my left.

“Now, put your right foot back behind your left and step back; but don’t put your heel all the way down; it’s a rock step. You rock back and then forward. Rocking step.” Richard demonstrated the step slowly and several times. Wow. A man with patience in teaching me something.

Taking both my hands, he slowly led me through the footwork. Step. Step. Rock step. Step. Step. Rock step. He made me say it out loud. All the while holding my gaze.

“Okay. Now I’m going to take your hand and put it on my shoulder here,” Richard said and placed my left hand on his bicep and he put his right arm behind me around my waist. This feels good. He held my right hand in his left hand up at shoulder level, with his left elbow down at his side.

“Step. Step. Rock step. Say it with me. Step. Step. Rock step. Do it now. Step. Step. Rock step.” Richard had me dancing.

“Smaller steps. Think very small steps. Don’t lean back. Don’t try to lead. Just step, step, rock step. Small. Again.” Richard’s arm around me and my response to the tug and pull, the resistance and attraction, made me blush and feel an exhilaration of my spirit. This is why I had pushed myself, this is what I was looking for, a little joy in the give and take of two human bodies in motion to music. I’m coming back for more of this.

Richard asked me out to the dance floor for another round after the lesson was over and the live band drew a crowd of swing dancers. Patiently he guided me through the steps and his smile and good humor gave me a boost of confidence I hadn’t felt in decades. This was worth so much more than I bargained for.

I watched him dance with Iska, the woman instructor, and it was a lesson in itself. Small steps. Let him lead you. Be open. He’ll guide you.

I sat with the couple who had wanted the intense west coast swing lesson. Double step to every step except the rock step. They had been dancing together since 1948. I asked how they met.

“Atop a Swiss Alp in 1948. She was working for the UN and I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in anthropology,” Dr. Young told me. I felt so inspired that I knew I’d be back the next week. How did they stay so in love all these years and did dancing have anything to do with it?

Last night I went again to swing dance lessons. I felt how wonderful Richard and I connected on the dance floor. I just want to dance with someone who can lead.

I start to stumble when I overthink the steps and the movements about what’s next. I start to stumble whenever I feel I am not in control. And yet he embraces me and holds me when I am out of step and guides me back into the rhythm.

“Look at me,” Richard says. “Don’t look at my feet.” My gaze meets his and I feel a kinesthetic connection between us. I let him take over and just follow.

Small. Small steps. And in letting him take control he makes me into a dancer. The twirls, spins, pretzels and sidewinding fun stepping thrilled me to my core. Is this joy? Small, small steps.

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  1. I too have recently found joy through dance, but in a group without partners. What you described sounds so magical. I think every girl dreams of that patient, strong, gentle someone to lead us around the dance floor.

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