I’m in Manhattan and I push open the heavy gold doors to a ballroom in a midtown hotel, thinking to myself: “How crazy am I to be doing this?”
The doors open to reveal the scene. And that’s when I think: “I’ve found my people.’’
In fact, I’m looking at more than 400 of them, all dressed in ballroom gowns and formal wear even though it’s only 10:30 a.m. on a sunny and cold Friday in March. The women sparkle in dresses dotted with rhinestones and feathers.
Just like me, they’re here for an international ballroom dance competition.
These couples are generating heat, literally and figuratively. They are so in tune, so intensely connected, it feels like there’s steam coming off of them. And, of course, they’re working.
Because trust me—ballroom dancing might look easy, but it’s hard work. Even if you’re not doing it backwards and in heels.
Here’s why I’m questioning my sanity: In about 20 minutes, I’ll be competing. I, too, will be on this giant, brightly lit, specially built wood dance floor. With a partner. In front of judges. Judging me for ballroom dancing.
Heel leads and high heels
Let me explain: I’m a writer. When I get judged, it’s by editors, people who type notes on my copy and remind me to avoid the passive voice.
They are not standing in flowing silk gowns or custom-designed Italian suits, holding clipboards and peering intensely at my feet to see if I performed the correct heel lead on the first and fourth count during a waltz.
Just for the record, a heel lead is pretty much what it sounds like: your heel is the first part of your foot to touch the floor. If you think that sounds as simple as walking, try it some time to music. Then add choreography, high heels, a gown, and a dance partner, and I guarantee, you’ll never equate it to walking again.
You see, ballroom dancing is my hobby. And that’s the thing about hobbies. They start out casually, almost on a whim, and before you know it you’re eyeing competitors from Peru and New Zealand and silently vowing to beat them. Badly.
From date night fun…
Blame it on Groupon. Nearly six years ago, my husband Andrew and I found a deal for some beginner classes and two private sessions. I figured it would be a great date-night pastime. Since my husband is a man who never turns down a challenge, getting him to say yes was easy.
Those early lessons were a blast. The dance studio was spacious and elegant and our teachers were friendly, encouraging, and endlessly patient. Every week we looked forward to our lesson, eager to learn the different dances—and how to move with each other.
But after two years, Andrew threw in the towel. He claimed I was learning things faster than he was and didn’t want to hold me back.
Deep down, I knew he hadn’t fallen in love with it the way I had. I was the one practicing dance sequences in the kitchen at night, not him. When we were in the car and a song came on the radio, it was me who tried to figure out the count and whether it would be good for a swing or a cha-cha.
Yes, my husband will always pull me up on the dance floor at a wedding, and his two years of lessons has made him pretty good at the hustle and salsa. But spending time, week in and week out, learning school figures or how to perfect Cuban motion with his hips is not his idea of a good time.
So, we agreed that he’d quit but I would stick with it. I started training and dancing with my teachers. And as I got better they encouraged me to compete.
The first time they mentioned it, I laughed out loud. I felt perfectly fine and safe dancing in the little cocoon of the studio, in front of people I knew. I kept telling myself: This is enough.
Until it wasn’t.
Here’s why. As I upped my lessons from once a week to several times a week, I started getting better. Much better. Now don’t get me wrong. It was never easy. It still isn’t.
Learning something completely new as an adult, especially something physical like ballroom dancing, is scary and humbling in a way I could have never imagined. There are days when I feel so awkward and clumsy that I leave the studio vowing to quit.
But then there are days when it all comes together and feels (almost) effortless. The promise of those days is what keeps me coming back.
So I pushed down the fear and finally told my teachers yes, I would compete in the next event. They worked hard with me, going over my routines countless times, and making corrections all along the way.
They filled me in on what the judges would be looking for from someone at my beginner level (good posture, clean footwork, and a big smile), and what not to do (stop after a mistake, frown, or look down at the floor).
Not for the faint of heart
That was three years ago and I’ve danced in about a dozen competitions since. Some resulted in first place medals, others not so much.
The closet in my guest bedroom used to be filled with extra towels and comforters. Now it holds the half dozen or so beautiful sequined ballroom gowns I’ve worn over the years in colors that catch your eyes: gold, sapphire blue, fushia, fire-engine red.
These competitions are not for the faint of heart. They’re scary, exhilarating, frustrating, and exhausting in equal measure. It will never feel completely comfortable having people judge me for something that doesn’t really come naturally, but I’m getting used to it.
In fact, on a really good day, I can forget they’re even there.
Speaking of heart, the more I dance, the younger I feel. My arms and legs look more toned than when I was in my 20s. Brain health? I have a dozen different routines in my head at any time.
Joy from the first step
That day in March was my first international “comp,’’ (yes, I toss around ballroom lingo now, much to the horror of my adult kids) but it won’t be my last.
And there’s something else. Ballroom dancing lets you—no, in fact, forces you to—become someone else. I was never the little girl who wanted to be a princess, but where else in life do you get to wear a gorgeous gown and waltz around a dance floor with a partner?
The adrenaline rush of dance is not easy to shake. Ballroom dancing is the exact opposite of writing, which is, after all, a solitary endeavor.
When that happens, I’m channeling the grace and elegance of Vienna. Other times it’s the snap and sexiness that comes from a Latin dance like the samba or cha cha.
I’m convinced it’s good for the soul and—here’s the really crazy part—ballroom dancing has made me a better writer. There’s more balance in my life now. After a long day of trying to wrestle a story into shape in front of a computer, I have the escape that a few hours in the dance studio gives me.
And the joy for me begins the minute I step in the studio. That’s not a bad way to experience a hobby—or a life.