The ability to run backward extremely fast while a man steadies your waist is only one benefit of ballroom dancing.
This occurred to me as I drove to work crying the other day: I want my waltz to move people to tears, the way Luciano Pavarotti's tenor did me as I barreled down the West Side Highway in Manhattan. I was driving kind of fast because I was late for work, having had, at 8 A.M., a CAT scan of my brain to rule out any serious problems resulting from the mild concussion I'd suffered doing the tango earlier in the week. Passion is a contact sport.
In my 20s, I was a competitive ballroom dancer. After about five years (of mostly firsts), I quit abruptly to pursue a more "suitable" career in magazines. In 2001, I started dancing again, when i was in my mid-40s. I'm 48, and I have two daughters, 8 and 11, with my husband, Peter, and a full-time job. Like many women, I wake up at 5:30 A.M. and power through each day on overdrive laced with adrenaline until I fall asleep in one of my daughters' beds at 9:30 P.M., dishes undone downstairs.
Many people—mostly other working mothers—have asked me, How do you find time to dance? I give them an answer about schedules, my husband's support, and compromise (my house is untidy, I've given up on manicures, I rarely get to see my friends). But what I really want to say is, My God, how could I not? Dancing makes the rest possible for me. Yes, it's a fantastic paradox: I was too busy before to carve out an hour for myself. Who'd believe that the way to be happy as an overextended, slightly downtrodden working mom is to get busier—adding, say, six hours a week of dance to your crammed agenda?
Dancing is the eye of my hurricane, my secret place that I want to tell the world about. It allows my survival as a person, a mother, a writer, a woman. A woman. I'd lost her in the frenzy. Before dance I felt competent and productive. I didn't know how much I missed the wilder territory.
I recently had lunch with two businesswomen who were keenly interested in the physical contact. "Do you dance with your husband?" one asked. No, Peter prefers mountain biking and kayaking, but he's the reason I'm dancing now: After years of encouraging me to do something just for myself (I refused; too busy), he surprised me on Valentine's Day 2001 by taking me for a lesson at the new ballroom studio near our home in the suburbs. The other woman asked, "Is there any danger...?" I silently translated: Is dancing erotic? With its torso-to-torso contact, ballroom dancing is more intimate than tennis, or other forms of dance, because of the partnering. Dancers have an ease with their bodies and with expressing themselves physically that can seem outrageous. Like an infant, I thrive on the touching. As a grown woman, I'm glad to be so comfortable with it, settled in my body even as it ages. But sex is the last thing on my mind when I'm immersed in the demands—and promise—of the craft, and in my teacher's expectations. (I train with one of the top coaches in the country, Bill Davies, a three-time U.S. champion in the 1970s whose specialty is what's known as international standard dancing: waltz, fox-trot, tango, quickstep, and Viennese waltz.)
Next: How dance lifts the spirit
Forget yoga and Tantric sex—quickstep is the way to enlightenment. From this spirited, zany dance I have learned surrender, trust, and faith. In quickstep, the woman runs really fast backward without looking, while the man steers. I'm a rational person; I was sure this wasn't smart. Early on, when Bill's eyes lit up at the first bar of speedy music, I was like a horse being backed into a trailer. I've gradually come to feel safe when surrendering my safety—my tight mind is more willing to try new things.
This is the glorious work of dance: giving up preconceived notions and resistances in order to get, ultimately, exactly what you want. Today I run fast backward without knowing where I'm going and find it kind of thrilling. I apply this new skill everywhere: It works in meetings at my magazine. It makes family time more fun. (When we plan birthday parties, I let the children lead and no longer give a hoot how unorthodox the event turns out.) Through physical experience, I've come to believe that if you're saddled by the need to know the outcome before you set out, you limit your possibilities.
I also recently discovered that I'm not in charge of gravity. I never accepted that I was a control freak until Bill urged me repeatedly to let my weight go. I tend to hold on to my mass for dear life, tensing my quads and torso in an ancient fear that letting go means total collapse—death! One day, when I finally released my weight in a downward whoosh in the waltz, I felt an extraordinary ease traveling through space. I realized I'd been expending tremendous energy to keep myself off the ground and bring myself down to earth. How inefficient—gravity can do that for me, and isn't it perfect that a micromanaging working parent would think she controls the forces of nature?
Dancing with a partner makes me confront my upbringing, too. As a woman who came of age in the sixties and seventies, I'd gotten almost too good at taking care of myself. I was less adept at accepting support. When I first came back to dance, I was so busy managing my body through a step called checked-reverse (in which the woman acts a bit like a slingshot) that I had no idea how good it could feel to give in to my elasticity, get fairly horizontal, and let my partner support me through it. (I support him in other figures, so it works both ways.) Now I enjoy being cared for, and I see that it gives the man a kick to do his job. Two points for my inner tango goddess.
Trust is hard, though. The surrender it demands was counterintuitive for me. Physically, it means dropping defenses, thinking of my skin not as a protective barrier but as an organ of communication with my partner. Emotional barriers have to go, too. This openness makes me vulnerable—sometimes my internal alarms drown out Sinatra's jazzy fox-trot—but it also gives me my sweetest moments artistically. I have an idea this is where I'll find excellence, the thing to make you cry.
I love dance for the moments my spirit soars, lifted away from convention—and from the notion that we exist as mere separate egos, not part of a universal fabric. Albert Einstein called this idea of separateness "an optical delusion of consciousness," and he said it's a kind of prison for us—solitary confinement. Dancing is my escape from the prison. With another person, I respond to the fluid beauty in movement to music. Very occasionally, I experience a moment of monumental stillness. I'm above, observing myself in flight, moving without the usual effort. The music fills my head and recedes. I'm part of something that has become the music, and the music has become the space in a vast quietude. I'm in the eye.