Issue 16 / Winter 2019
I never felt as old as I did between the ages of twenty-seven and twenty-nine. Unhappily married, I was packing twenty extra pounds on my petite frame, wore shapeless hand-me-downs, and hid behind unflattering glasses. I was five years older than my husband, and he had moved to New York for me, so guilt glued me to my marriage. The deeper I sank into depression, the harder it got to muster the energy to put any plan in motion.
Then I discovered dancing.
As a kid in Venezuela, I had wanted to take ballet and gymnastics but my mother, sister, and I lived with our abuelos, and Abuela was dead set against physical activity in any form. In her view, the best position for a proper young lady was sitting as still as possible, hands demurely gathered on her lap and ankles crossed. She was a Scheherazade of infantile trauma, regaling us with 1,001 stories of loss of life and limb. In her tales, restless young children lost hands and feet, or bit clean through their tongues and gagged to death on them, or fell on their heads and had to be fed through straws for the rest of their lives. When our mother remarried an American man and we moved to the States, kids our age taunted us because of our lack of coordination and total ignorance of team sports. Our every kick, sprint, or throw sparked gales of laughter. Hell, even the teacher cracked up. Terrified of being teased, I decided that Abuela had been right all along. Sitting was the only way to remain safe. But I still dreamed of dancing.
It would’ve remained a fantasy if I hadn’t seen a flyer shortly after my twenty-ninth birthday that read: “Learn to Dance-Swing-Mambo-Foxtrot-Tango.”
Me dancing? Crazy. But my heart raced at the thought. Up until then, I assumed that grace and agility were gifts you were born with, like perfect pitch and red hair. And although I was convinced I was too old to learn anything, I signed up.
The first class was in a large loft in Brooklyn. There were five students including me: two men and three women. We gaped at each other uneasily.
The teacher was a petite Asian woman with a boyish figure who wore billowing, body-skimming clothes that would’ve looked provocative on anyone else. They looked practical on her, though, suggesting she couldn’t be bothered with buttons, zippers, or extra weight because she had to get moving.
“Don’t look down at your feet, guys! That’s a bad habit. Look at me in the mirror when you imitate me.”
Looking at myself in the mirror was odd. First off, I was not used to seeing myself in motion. Secondly, I usually only saw my reflection from the chest up, to put on make-up or brush my teeth, so I had a hard time relating to my full reflection. After a while, I noticed there was a gap between what I thought I was doing and what I was actually seeing myself do. The others were having a hard time, too. Our steps were too big, as if we were jumping puddles. Or we stepped gingerly, as if we couldn’t find our balance.
We repeated the same pattern a couple of times with the teacher and then she turned around and asked us to do it by ourselves.
Prior to this class, I would’ve quit if I had had to do the same thing repeatedly over the course of an hour. I would’ve belittled my efforts: “God, you suck. Look how clumsy you are. What do you call that?” Until I had experienced this young teacher’s gentleness, any kind of criticism would make me go blank. Her kindness got me out of my own way.
“Okay, gentlemen, move one person over to your right. We’re switching partners.”
The teacher was my lead this time. I held my breath, afraid to disappoint her or step on her feet. She counted aloud for us, all the while smiling at me.
The hour flew by, yet we had done little more than walk around the room, whispering under our breaths, “Slow, slow—Quick! Quick!”
I still couldn’t dance when I walked into the balmy summer night, but I felt alive. Everything stood out in crisp detail: the yellow cones of light spilling from the streetlights onto the grimy streets; the cement grey of the BQE against the blue-black sky; the purple neon sign of Kellogg’s diner on the corner of Metropolitan and Lorimer. The rot of garbage wafted through the air along with the scents of clean laundry and freshly baked pizza. My blood throbbed in my ears, the way it does after a first kiss.
I had stumbled unto a strange and secret world.
By that time, I was utterly disconnected from my physical self. I was genuinely surprised to realize that I was as stooped as a dowager. I had developed early. I was only nine years old when I grew breasts and, unprepared for male attention, I disguised them by bowing my shoulders. As an adult, my body still caved in on itself, as if shielding me from a strong gale or, more likely, from everyone’s eyes. People’s reactions to my body language baffled me. Someone would comment on the fact that I was blushing while my face didn’t even feel hot. But I would look in the mirror and, sure enough, I’d be flushed. Three months into my dance lessons, the teacher in a basic Lindy class asked all leads to raise their hands if their follows’ holds were too tense. After a few moments, I turned around and saw my lead’s hand in the air. My body telegraphed feelings I was hiding only from myself. The tension in my body kept me from being a good follow, from knowing myself, from just plain living.
Now, in addition to reconnecting with myself, I had to connect with someone else. That’s the thing about insecurity; it’s a prison of self-absorption. I found following challenging because I had to pay such close attention to someone else. Partner dancing is, in part, learning how to listen with your body. In traditional hold, both partners face each other. The man places one hand below the woman’s left shoulder blade, holding her right hand in his left. They each resist lightly against each other’s arms. This requires striking a balance between stiffness and looseness: too stiff and the man will feel as if he’s fighting a strong current while throwing her off-balance; while loose “spaghetti arms” won’t allow her to pick up his cues.
Social dancing requires trust and complete attention to one’s partner. One teacher taught this with a memorable exercise. She had us pair off but instead of adopting the traditional hold, she told us to stand side by side, facing the same direction. The only connection was the lead’s open palm on the follow’s upper back. The follow then kept her eyes closed while the lead guided her around the room, changing his pace, making sure not to bump into anyone else. As I closed my eyes and concentrated on my partner’s hand below my shoulder blade, I could move only if I paid attention and didn’t hesitate. Blindfolded, the space around me contracted or expanded depending on my partner’s cues.
The teacher then asked us to switch roles. As I led him, I realized how hard it was to communicate by touch alone, and how challenging it was to make sure he wouldn’t bump into anyone else. When the exercise was over, we all understood what the opposite role was like, and exclaimed with delight at the revelation.
Whereas before I had lived only in my head, dance engaged all my senses. There was the whiff of my partner’s own scent, salty or musky, masked by cologne or soap. I felt his hand on my back and the springy floorboards below my feet. Spinning disco balls threw squares of light around the room and onto other dancers. I had to focus in order to pick up all the musical and tactile clues. On the rare occasions that it all came together, my partner and I were in such perfect sync that we became the music. As long as I danced, I could forget my unhappy marriage, my paralyzing insecurity, my guilt for no longer loving my husband.
My marriage collapsed definitively one night after an explosive fight. For hours, I sat on the living room couch, waiting for dawn to break. In the morning, I took a shower, got dressed, packed my toothbrush and as much of my writings as my bag would hold, and left for work.
I didn’t consider how I’d retrieve my stuff or even where I would sleep that night. I tried and failed not to cry at the office. I ran to the bathroom where I rehearsed the Charleston, figuring that jaunty step would cheer me up. I kept failing and crying instead, but I kept dancing anyway and mercifully, no one came into the ladies’ room while I attempted to soothe myself via choreography.
My marriage was over, the last in a cycle of self-destructive relationships that had me starting from scratch over and over again. I didn’t have a career, much money, or even a place to stay. Feeling like a total failure, I toyed with the idea of suicide, but I had spent $135 for unlimited dance classes and I was determined to get my money’s worth. Besides even if nothing else was working, next month I’d be a better dancer.
I lived with my aunt and my uncle during the divorce proceedings. In my quest for the lightness and temporary happiness that Lindy afforded me, I became a dance nomad. I carried a toothbrush, my dance shoes and a change of comfortable clothing in my knapsack at all times in case the urge to dance struck. As many as three times a week, I’d stay up until 2 a.m. dancing, and crashed at my best friend’s apartment afterward. If I had danced particularly well, I was too excited to fall asleep right away. When I finally dozed off, my muscles still quivering, I replayed the moves in my dreams.
Dance taught me to accept myself and to get in touch with my body, and little by little, I discovered all the feelings I’d been hiding from myself. For all of three minutes I could connect to someone else, forget my worries, and dance. Song by song, partner by partner, dance made me whole and, little by little, brought me back to life.
M.K. Narváez is a writer and translator originally from Caracas, Venezuela. She holds a BFA in Film and Television Production from the School of Visual Arts and an MFA in Creative NonFiction from The New School. Her work has appeared in Riprap Journal, and her personal essay “Stories of Men and Women” won Carve Magazine‘s 2018 Prose & Poetry contest. Narváez lives in New York City.