It was a month after my husband moved out, and I was visiting New Orleans for a painfully dull convention. During the evenings, some colleagues and I did as NOLA tourists do: drank Sazeracs, ate crawfish, and visited the jazz bars on Decatur Street. At one of them, a small band was playing 1930s jazz, and a clutch of dancers caught my attention.
They were an exuberant group — around six couples twirling and sliding across the small floor. They lacked the self-seriousness of ballroom or tango dancers. Their dancing had sass and sexiness and even a sprinkling of silly. I watched as they seamlessly switched partners between songs, as a few of the musicians left the stage to dance and then pick up their instruments again. I loved their ease with each other, their rootedness, their creativity and palpable joy. As my friends moved on to the next venue, I stayed behind, now transfixed. What started as an inner smile grew to admiration and then to a deep-seated ache. My thought was “I need to do that.”
I knew I would never be one of those young lovelies swiveling in pencil skirts. But maybe I could learn some of those basic swing dance steps? Maybe there were people doing this where I lived?
Back home in New York the following week, I signed up for my first Lindy Hop class. The teacher, a wisecracking woman named Elena had left her banking job years before to become a full-time swing dancer and teacher. Elena taught classes on the basics with a gift for getting us to laugh at ourselves just at the moment we might be tempted to give up in frustration.
One unavoidable truth about partner dancing is that one person has to lead, leaving the other, by necessity, to follow. That was precisely why, years before, I had decided it could never be the hobby for me.
One unavoidable truth about partner dancing is that one person has to lead, leaving the other, by necessity, to follow. That was precisely why, years before, I had decided it could never be the hobby for me. Before our wedding, my husband and I had given it a go. At my urging, we signed up for the three-lesson “wedding package.” The instructor explained leading and following and taught us the steps of basic six-count swing. Let’s just say I was the more motivated student. My soon-to-be husband would stop mid-dance and object that I was leading him. “But,” I blurted out, “I know the steps!”
The instructor patiently reminded me to let him do the leading. I tried. But it was as if I was hardwired to perform for the both of us. It’s safe to say that this experience bore some predictive truth about dynamics of the relationship ahead. During my 16 years of marriage, I changed the diapers, emptied the dishwasher, walked the dog, and got the groceries — even when it was his turn. “How else is it ever going to get done?” I asked myself.
I hear all too often, from women I know, both married and divorced, who have been overfunctioning in their relationships for a long time. Its a near cliché: In her impatience to see things done “right,” the wife takes control of more tasks, leaving her husband with fewer. Eventually, their partners cease to be willing, or even able, to tackle things that were once shared responsibilities. It’s a kind of creep factor that can’t help but create, well, creeps.
Back in the classroom with Elena, I was expected to dance with a rotation of partners, some of whom were galumphing beginners, but others who were confident leads. Sometimes, an experienced partner would test me by adding something to the basic step we were learning, just to see if I was following or dancing the steps by memory. More often than not, I stumbled, and was immediately outed. We would both laugh, as the point was made.
Elena told me to try closing my eyes. “Think less, feel more.” The prospect was terrifying, but it forced me to feel where the dance was going by reading my partner’s weight shifts and momentum. Soon I started experiencing the magical sensation of stretch and compression in synch with a partner. I started to become not just a better follower, but a better dancer. It was a revelation to discover the joy of just doing my part. Dancing was suddenly an entirely different experience. Each dance became a mini vacation in which someone else does the all the planning and you just get to relax and go along for the ride.
Before I knew it, this feeling of lightness, motion, and rhythm had become addictive. When it came time for the first vacation of my post-married life, I found myself thinking about a dance destination. Never mind that I’d taken classes for only a month.
I heard from a high school classmate who lived in Austin, Texas, about an event called Hot Rhythm Holiday offering four days of classes and social dances with live bands for less than the cost of a meal for two at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. Plus, local musicians and dancers were offering to put up festival-goers in their homes!
The following Thursday, I found myself on a stranger’s La-Z-Boy chair in Austin, in a roomful of snoozing swing dance teachers and contest winners from around the country. They all knew each other from previous years and were mildly curious about the solo, considerably older, beginner they found themselves shacked up with. As we were putting on makeup and pinning our hair for that evening, one of them called me “brave.” What I often say about divorce is that when the thing you’re most afraid of happening finally does, taking risks seems a lot easier.
What I often say about divorce is that when the thing you’re most afraid of happening finally does, taking risks seems a lot easier.
When I finally put up an online dating profile, I pondered over how to fill out the blank space under “interests.” Women I know who list “surfing” are definitely getting dates, probably with hot, sculpted guys from Montauk. Others who list road biking have found a good string of eligible men too. Plug “swing dancing” into the OKCupid search bar and you’ll see at most 10 results. Of those, half mention swing dancing as the one thing they won’t ever do, and at least a few others are actually swingers.
Under “Interests” I eventually went with biking, hiking, and boating. Under “You Should Message Me If” I wrote, “you aren’t opposed to a game of Scrabble.” And way down at the bottom, in the section headed “Most Private Thing You Are Willing to Admit,” I coyly wrote “I’m a swing dance nerd.”
A few weeks ago, I checked my inbox and saw a new face that was unusually fetching. I clicked and read the message: “I’d play you in Scrabble. If one of us gets a bingo, we’ll get up and practice our swingouts.” A swingout, I should mention, is the golden move of the Lindy Hop, the move you can work on for years and still have room for improvement. This guy was 59, blue eyed, and lanky. When we met, we talked about everything under the sun — except dance. It turned out that we had some friends in common, we both liked design, we had divorced when our kids were teens, we both loved boats and Maine. On our third date, I casually alluded to my thing for swing. Though he hadn’t gone dancing in years, he said, he had once been as fired up as I was and admitted to actually missing it.
Date No. 4 is on the calendar, and I don’t know what we’ll do. I’m wondering if I should insist we go dancing. Maybe I’ll just relax and take his lead.
Elise Pettus is founder and editorial director of UNtied, a comprehensive divorce resource for thinking women.