After hearing earlier this year that the International Olympic Committee had accepted ballroom dancing as a provisional sport, I felt that I could stand a little taller and look back with increased satisfaction on the time I've spent scuffing the hardwood of a Manhattan dance studio.
Ballroom dancing a sport? Absolutely. Right now, at its competitive heights, it boasts a superstar couple to rival former Olympic ice dancing champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean of Britain. Gaynor Fair-weather and Donnie Burns are British, too, and they have just won their 13th consecutive World Professional Latin American dance title.
For a current Stateside rooting interest, consider the cabaret-division U.S. and world champs, David and Leslie Elkins of Nashville. If ballroom does gain the Olympic medal status it deserves, the floor at the Games will be teeming with high-class hoofers.
I have found ballroom to be not only athletic but also intricate and endlessly challenging. And, I admit, I was trying to stand taller anyway, because a succession of teachers had given me hell about my posture while trying to sort out my footwork.
My passion for ballroom was kindled on Christmas of 1993, when my wife, Anne, having given up hope of persuading me to join her in her favorite pastime, aerobic dancing, handed me a gift certificate for some ballroom lessons. I had never danced. I am not notably outgoing or a show-off, and I have often suffered from stage fright. But my initial visit to the dance studio the next month was reassuring. I was assigned to a teacher named Nicky, a smiling young woman with incredibly good posture who guided me into my first travesties of the waltz, fox-trot, tango and rumba.
All the teachers I have come across since then have shared a common strategy: vocal support bordering on shameless flattery. I have had three private teachers and others in group classes, and their comments have ranged from a rock-bottom "not bad" after an awkward step to "awesome" after a pretty good one.
In that respect a dance studio is a kind of never-never land of good cheer and positive reinforcement. But one's teacher must strike a delicate balance between cheerleading and actually teaching, and because ballroom has a very technical side, newcomers must be prepared for a certain amount of constructive criticism.
One of the first things Nicky said to me as she tried to give some dancerly shape to my "frame"—the way I held her—was, "Relax your shoulders." I heard that so often over the next few months that despite my teachers' sweet civility, I began to think, Who am I? The Hunchback of Arthur Murray? On the whole, though, I enjoyed the dance scene, and I calmed down and soldiered on.
Nicky outdid herself when I signed up for more lessons after a few weeks. For our next session she appeared in a red, barebacked pants outfit and gave me a saucy leg wrap as we tangoed. As general guidance for the coming weeks she said, "Now hit me with your best shot." So I did, but she soon left the studio, and my next teacher turned out to be another smiling young woman, this one named Jackie.
Introducing her one evening at a studio affair, a staff member said, "Jackie's a ballerina, and you know how picky they are." Uh-oh, I thought. While she looked angelic and had the supportive studiospeak down pat, Jackie had the teaching instincts of a drill instructor. She had taken her first dance lesson at age four, I at age 64. Call me sentimental, but there is such symmetry there that I felt we had been destined to be teacher and student from the start.