I’ve never felt quite so macho as when I finally pulled off the perfect foxtrot.
As long as I can recall, I’ve tried to be a respectable feminist. My two older sisters were immersed in the women’s rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thanks to them, I grew up hearing references to Gloria Steinem and Carly Simon and was always told men and women were equal players in the world. I’ve never flinched at having a woman boss, nor did it bother me when I learned my wife made more than I did. Women playing instruments in alternative rock bands? What’s the problem?
Then came my own Saturday night fever—although it usually took place on Wednesdays, in the early evening.
For years, my inability to dance—or move with any pretense of rhythm—has been a recurring joke in my household. I inherited my dad’s large feet and bowlegged stance. When I’ve been put in a position of having to move my body, usually at someone’s nuptials or an office party, my wife, who shimmies quite well, has to keep telling me to move my feet or do something with my torso. The sight isn’t that far removed from the dance-floor scene in Knocked Up, except I substitute fist-pumping for Seth Rogen’s “roll the dice” move.
In our home, my utter lack of grace when I try to he-bop has also been a running gag given I write about pop music for a living. I keep telling my wife Maggie that an inability to tear up the dance floor is actually a requirement for being a rock critic, but that joke started to wear thin after the first decade. So recently, with my wife’s birthday approaching, we decided it was time to correct this pathetic state of affairs. For the first time, we would take dancing lessons together.
When we first arrived at our local dance studio, we met our instructor—a svelte, cheerful woman who smiled wanly when I made a lame joke about wanting to learn the move Sherman uses in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Before long, Maggie and I were standing face to face on the wooden floor, and I was preparing to enter the great shake-your-booty unknown.
We commenced with a basic move: face to face, holding hands, two steps forward, one to the left. Not so hard. I would’ve been happy to have done that for the remainder of the class, but our instructor told us we actually had to vary that move. With each session came a reminder that dancing was hard, physical work. (How I newly admired the show-biz has-beens on Dancing with the Stars.) I had to continually be reminded to keep a rigid posture and hold my right elbow up firmly. I kept confusing rumba with foxtrot. I had to learn how to twirl my wife around and have her end up facing me, and not standing five feet away and groping for my arm as if she were a Titanic passenger lunging for a lifeboat.
But other facets were even harder to learn—or unlearn, I should say. As Maggie and I discovered, dancing also meant rethinking our core dynamic as a couple. Maggie was once described by a former boss as “prescriptive.” Although he didn’t intend that as a compliment, she is indeed a strong, take-charge person, especially in an office. At home, we divide everything—from household chores and bill paying to taking care of our daughter—pretty equally.
Once we stepped onto the polyurethane floor, the whole equanimity thing pretty much went out the window of the dance studio. For the first time in our lives together, I had to take charge and lead while Maggie followed. It would be my job to decide which combination of steps we would attempt and in what direction we’d be heading (and then signal her by pulling her gently below her underarm). The feeling was, to say the least, abnormal, and during the first few lessons, we kept hearing our instructor say either, “David, you have to tell her where you’re going!” or “Maggie, let David lead!” We’d look at each other as if I’d been asked to drag her across the floor by her hair.
Once we adjusted and gave ourselves over to this strange alternate universe, I began to realize that a part of me yearned to be a take-charge kind of guy. When I would guide Maggie around the floor—forward step a few times, then a change of direction, then into an adequate foxtrot, then a foxtrot with a twirl—I felt something I’d never really felt before: macho. Unless I wanted to become a construction worker and make lewd cracks to women between bites of a hero sandwich, dancing was perhaps the only way left in society to feel like the he-men of old.
Trying to perfect a rock step (stepping backward with one foot), I kept picking my left leg up at the wrong moment. Numerous times, I wanted to give up and leave. One night, a man stormed out ahead of his wife, and our teacher just shook her head. “I hate when that happens,” she sighed. But I sympathized. Being put in a position of having to pilot on the dance floor—and then failing—was suddenly emasculating. Then one night, we bore down on a rumba with a rock step, and after at least a dozen frustrating attempts, we nailed it. After we briefly separated, I pulled Maggie back toward me and we returned to our starting spot, face to face. When it was over, we headed home and I whipped up some dinner. But I did it with an extra, newly acquired spring in my step.