By Claire Walla
I wouldn’t say dancing has ever been part of my identity. As a kid I took jazz classes and ballet lessons; but, ultimately, I preferred jump shots to pliés. So at the tender age of 12, I hung up my tutu for good.
For the most part.
I admit, as a former tween who attended slumber parties in the 90s, I was subjected to many evenings with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. And, yes. Despite my proclivity for team sports and heavy-handed competition, I, like many of my naive young peers, held a secret desire to float through the air in a pretty pink dress and land on the perch of two perfectly sculpted biceps, preferably belonging to a summer dance instructor named Johnny Castle.
So, when James West of the Arthur Murray dance school called to invite the Sag Harbor Express to participate in a “Dancing with the Stars”-type event, it took me less than a minute to volunteer… then a few good days of consternation while I assessed exactly what I had signed up for.
As my coworker gently put it: “You’re pretty tall, Claire.”
At 5’10″ I’m not exactly light on my feet. In fact, I’m about as tall if not taller than many men in the dancing field, and a good seven inches taller than Jennifer Grey. What’s more, I probably haven’t been able to touch my toes since the fetal position.
Naturally, I questioned my ability to float, bend and glide effortlessly across a ballroom floor, and promptly realized I would be asked to do this before a large crowd of unknown people. (Many of us become writers because we’re averse to doing anything before a large crowd of unknown people.)
However, if there’s one thing we writers don’t lack it’s curiosity. So, I eventually called my new dance instructor, James, and confirmed my first lesson.
“Is there anything I need to bring?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Heels.”
In my line of work, self-awareness is not part of the job description. In fact, it’s somewhat discouraged. As objective journalists, our job is to look at other people, study other places, go over facts and figures and take a hard-nosed look at things as far from the core of our own beings as numbers and percentages. This rings true for what I write (this piece excluded), but it’s also reflected in the way I work: I’m either face-to-face with another person, conducting an interview; or I’m sitting at my desk, facing my computer screen and / or the back of someone else’s head.
When I stepped into the Arthur Murray dance studio, a room lined floor-to-ceiling with mirrors, reality hit: I’m the subject.
Thankfully, my instructor James was of normal human proportions, saving me from the possibility of feeling just plain Amazonian. But, he was also incredibly dapper, in a nicely pressed suit (with pocket square), a silk tie and patent leather dance shoes, all accentuated by his stunning posture and the thin line of facial hair that stretched elegantly along his chiseled jaw bone. I, on the other hand—in a loose-fitting black sweater over a black-and-white striped shirt and a pair of faded black jeans, cuffed to reveal the brand new pair of dance shoes I had just strapped on—looked more like an escaped convict in heels.
In an attempt to compensate for my lackluster wardrobe, I found myself straightening up a little bit more, suddenly more aware of the way I carried myself and the way I moved.
James held out his hand.
“Let’s walk,” he said.
As simple as that, James and I walked from one side of the room to the other. Forwards, backwards, sideways. I adjusted my long, impatient stride to feel less like I was walking through Midtown Manhattan on a Friday afternoon, and more like the nonchalant gait of a self-assured diva. Easy, effortless, slow. James told me to move my hips. I blushed. But I did, and suddenly my whole body clicked-in to the beat of the music. Much to my surprise, our movements flowed, as if just by walking, we were in effect dancing.
By the end of that first day, I had walking down. But, clearly, things would start to get more challenging. Like all participants in this “Dancing with the Stars”-like event, it was time for me to pick my dance. I reached into a top hat and pulled out a small piece of paper: I would be dancing the tango.
I immediately pictured ladies in sleek, black dresses, their hair pulled back tight, bodies crouched low and moving slowly across the dance floor while pressed up against their partner, following their arms pointed out in front of them with purpose and determination. So serious. Far from pink, twirly dresses. I asked James if I could carry a rose in my mouth. Not only did he politely nix that plan (mainly for practical purposes), he quashed my preconceptions of what tango actually is.
While the Argentinian variety is slow and sultry, modern ballroom tango incorporates more quick steps and sudden movements.
Over the course of my next few classes, James taught me the beginning sequence to what would be our version of the dance, performed to the music of “The Cell-Block Tango,” a song popularized by the musical-turned-popular-Rob-Reiner-film Chicago. Closeted dancing queen that I am, I’ve actually seen the stage play twice, and know the music by heart. So the character of the piece oozed out into the room as soon as the music cued up.
While I can’t say learning the choreography was a breeze, I gradually followed the steps one eight-count at a time—step-turn, step-turn, step-turn, step… and look! In the process, James corrected my stance, gave me tips on keeping my balance, explained the difference between my first deep lunge—for which I’m meant to plunge straight down, like an elevator—and my second—for which I thrust my leg behind me and arch my back far as possible.
It’s still coming together, and is not yet ready to be performed before—gasp!—a large crowd of unknown people. But, my photographer, Mike, got to see a preview of what we have so far. Eager to get feedback, I decided to ask him what he thought.
“It looks like you’re having fun,” he said.
I’m not sure if he was evading my question, but what he said was absolutely true. If nothing else, this whole experience has certainly been fun.