People are terrified of partner dancing. Stricken with cold, sweaty panic when told by their waltz teacher that they’ll be—gaaaah—switching partners. 

I learned this one recent evening in the Garfield High School lunchroom, looking around at the other middle-aged couples who’d come to learn to dance in preparation for the annual student orchestra waltz at Benaroya Hall. They looked like they were about to deliver a speech, or get waterboarded. Weirdest, the men and the women appeared to be scared of different things.

 Most of the men I danced with seemed to feel nervous about being mistaken for sissies, judging from their macho comportment and large-muscle-group movements. They were the leaders, goddammit, and they wore that responsibility with wet palms, wooden steps, and counting one could hear over the orchestra, five couples away. 

Women appeared to be fearful of how stupid these dudes were making them look.

“He can’t lead…he can’t lead…my husband cannot lead,” one woman was muttering on manic repeat when I joined her off the floor. This became the refrain I would hear more than any other, whether or not it bore any relationship to the truth. Make no mistake: women had performance anxiety, too—were their steps correct? Were they adding enough pizzazz?—but far and away their overriding concern was that their partners weren’t leading them right.

Longtime dancers will tell you that this issue comes up frequently from follows—a more politically correct term than women, since, in theory, the roles aren’t determined by sex. One seasoned ballroom dancer told me that a follow can bust out her lead by asking the instructor, in front of the class, whether or not she ought to just jump in if a lead isn’t leading. Take that, wimp. 

All of which is fascinating to me, since my fear is that my husband will lead. 

I don’t claim to be unique in this. After we paired up, our instructor, the veteran Seattle dance teacher Dean Paton, asked the follows to raise our hands, then to keep them raised if we felt comfortable being follows. Most of our hands flew down. Who can blame us? We came of age in an era when the mandate that a woman follow her husband constituted fighting words. 

It’s the wrong dang metaphor. I cringe at the number of my friends whose marriage therapists suggest dancing as a good “togetherness” activity, as in my experience few endeavors expose control issues more divisively. My husband and I took a ballroom dance class in 1996; we quit after three sessions and 38 power struggles. We tried again with contra dancing, which (having a lot of musician friends) we still attempt; every time we do I marvel at how we couldn’t have designed an activity more precisely tailored to the bruises in our psyches.

Contra dancers are a thriving subculture of…well, weirdos: women who’ve never cut their hair, men who tie-dye their own skirts. Off the floor, they’re the sweetest aging hippies you’ll ever meet. On the floor, however, many go rule bound and righteous, sneering at the slow kids who forget which is their right hand (it was just for one second!), stink-eyeing the poor noob who doesn’t know a hand turn from a forearm grip. Fallen in with a particularly avid bunch, the novice can become the wounded gazelle on the savanna. She can be eaten alive.

My husband, energized by such passion and commitment, feels challenged to uphold it. Me, I just feel criticized, meeting the ferocious eye contact that’s the hallmark of contra with a gaze of cold contempt that is, I’ll admit, beneath me. I know I’m being unfair, but still I console myself by asking: Which is worse, a sweaty-handed man in a tie-dyed skirt with a creeper stare who doesn’t like me much…or one who does? 

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not burning to be a follow—especially to the man I spend every other moment of my life calling “partner.” As it happens, nobody understood this better than our wise waltz teacher. “Married people have baggage! Control issues!” he bellowed. “Why do you think I’m having you change partners so often?” 

By the time we got to the end of the lesson series, my husband and I had progressed to a decent imitation of a waltzing couple. We stood tall. I pressed my left palm into his clavicle, he curled his right fingers around my shoulder blade—and together we pushed each other counterclockwise around the dance floor. For all the pressure with which he propelled us, I exerted an equal amount pulling us. Leads and follows, we discovered to our surprise, are not terribly meaningful distinctions in waltz. It’s the tension between them that drives the movement.

The engine of waltz is not seduction, like tango, or play, like swing. The engine of waltz, we learned, is resistance

Well, well. A surly follow could muse for a month on the implications of that. Let’s just say as metaphors go, it’s a startling improvement. I think I’ve found my dance.


Published: April 2013

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