Val Monroe lets loose on the dance floor
Photo: Francesco Lagnese
How our dance-phobic beauty director went from I'll-look-ridiculous to "Ay, chica!" Rule # 1: Don't "think." Valerie Monroe sheds her last inhibition.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a story here examining how it felt to go out in public wearing the kind of extremely revealing clothing that was being touted as the height of fashion (and why a woman might choose to expose herself in it). For a week, I wore a lot of almost nothing: a scrap of black fabric only very generously called a dress, another dress, transparent, revealing my underwear as if behind a pale violet scrim, a pair of bloomers—yes, bloomers—so abbreviated they were interrupted almost before they bloomed. After the story came out, a number of people congratulated me on my courage. The thing is, I didn't feel courageous at all. I could walk down the street in a bra and panties and feel pretty comfortable (if I didn't think I'd be arrested). Nude beaches? Hand me the sunscreen and point the way. I'm just not very inhibited about my body.

But I have a secret: I won't dance. Don't ask me.

That wouldn't be a problem, necessarily, except that I want to dance. Especially at parties and weddings and bar mitzvahs and anywhere else I hear music that beats out a deep, pulsing rhythm that gets into the blood. I'm just too inhibited to take the floor; I'm afraid the moment I get out there, I won't know what to do. I'm even—and I hate, especially, to admit this—afraid to try.

That's why I decided to take a hip-hop class. And who wanted to join me but Gayle King, O editor at large, who claimed that she'd been using the same dance moves since seventh grade and desperately needed an upgrade.

We decided on one of the Ailey Extension dance and fitness classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Manhattan. It's called Hip-Hop for the Absolute Beginner. If there were a class called Not Even Anywhere Near Approaching Absolute Beginner, we'd have preferred that. But this is the best we can do. We're late to the first class, on a Monday evening after work. More than 20 people of all shapes and sizes are doing stretching exercises in a large room with a wall of mirrors and a cement floor. The class is led by Tweetie, a small, muscular, wildly energetic, fast-talking young woman. Gayle and I rush to a corner in the back of the class, where Gayle drops her stuff (she came in sweats) and I change from my heels into sneakers. As I'm tying my shoe, I get a terrific cramp in my side. (Not a good sign.) Neither Gayle nor I can do most of the stretches, and I notice that when we're asked to lie down on the floor, we both hold our heads up uncomfortably because we don't want to mess up our hair. (Another bad sign.) Tweetie starts the class by showing us in slow motion a simple kind of shuffle-off-to-Buffalo routine, and I'm thinking that if I have enough practice, I'll be able to get it. Things are looking up. Funky step, step, step, forward, slide, hop, slide, hop. "I don't know," says Gayle as she shuffles and hops along beside me, "this seems very vaudeville…." She does indeed look as if she could use a top hat and a cane. But we keep at it, as Tweetie, talking at warp speed and with a kind of hip-hop inflection I have to squint to understand, tells us we need some attitude, which she then demonstrates with a move, and another, and another, till it's obvious the hip-hop train has left the station while I'm still standing on the platform awkwardly juggling my bags.

There's a person in the class—gender unclear to me—who is doing a butt jiggling move in such a way that everything seems to be going in a different direction at once. It's completely fascinating; I can't take my eyes off it. Which might be why I keep losing my balance and can't keep up. (Imagine the Queen Mother at her 100th birthday party. Now imagine her trying to do the chicken noodle. That's me.) Gayle, ever curious and friendly, asks Butt Jiggler for advice about how to do the moves. BJ doesn't waste a second: "Get grimy," he/she says. At that moment, I know I'm never going to succeed at hip-hop. Though I think I know what grimy is—it's the hip-hop equivalent of dirty dancing—I have no idea how to get there. It's a state of being, a state of being for which I have enormous respect and admiration, but not one I will ever enter. I don't have the constitution for it. What I need is a dance that can be done with or without griminess. Like salsa.

Despite having failed utterly at hip-hop, I have learned a helpful lesson. A private class is more my style; for someone as hopelessly self-conscious as I, learning to dance in a room full of strangers is just too hard. (Every single time Tweetie had said, "Whatever you do, don't do this," and then demonstrated with great flair a move exactly, and I mean exactly, the way I had done it, all the lucky grimy people in the class burst out laughing and nodded at one another. Really, I just couldn't handle the humiliation.) So I sign up for a lesson at Dance New York with Jose, a competitive Latin dancer recommended by a friend. She said he'd be great, and he is. He's tightly wound, graceful, a sleek young Latin cat, and remarkably patient. He introduces me to the basic steps, going over and over them till I can master them. Even with the endless repetitions, I make lots of mistakes. But I hardly mind at all. Because whenever I mess up, Jose, with the kind of loving, indulgent laugh a parent has for his child when she does something adorably wrong, tells me it's okay. He calls me lover and mamasita and baby, and, if I make a really egregious move, baby lover. So I'm pretty fine with egregious. "Bup, bup, bup, mamasita, do it this way!" he says as he shows me a new step. With his hand lightly touching my back, he guides me, not quite pushing me along but suggesting. He shows me how to do a turn, and when I finally get it right, he murmurs, "Gorgeous, lover." He gives no indication of how bored he is till the end of the first lesson, when he starts a crazy, loose, kicking and scooping thing all around me, like he's street fighting with a little person, and I abruptly stop my back-and-forth to ask him what he's doing. "Don't mind me, lover," he says, fondly, "I'm trying not to get bored. Keep dancing." And I do.

As I'm slipping on my jacket after the lesson, I ask Jose brightly, "Should I practice at home?" A cloud passes over his face. "No," he says, "I don't think so." Why not? He stares off into the distance behind me, as if he were visualizing something. Something unpleasant. Finally he says, "You might do something wrong, again and again, and then I'll have to teach it out of you."

But later that evening, I can't resist trying out the steps. And someone at the office has given me a salsa exercise DVD, which promises not only a tighter "core," which I could probably use, but a few good moves. One Saturday morning before I start cleaning my apartment, I remember the DVD and put down the vacuum. A minute later, I'm standing in front of my computer, trying to follow the hip swiveling and grinding. I add a couple of Jose's moves. This scene, ridiculous as it is—and, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I see that it is very ridiculous—is also a breakthrough. I've never been able to dance, even alone, in the privacy of my home.

At my second class, we take up our positions—Jose, with his right arm around my back and his left hand holding my right—and, surprising myself, I immediately assume the correct stance. "Okay, baby, let's go!" says Jose, and we're off. We practice the old steps and then we start on some turns. There is a waltz playing in the background: Other couples are swirling gracefully around the dance floor to the three-quarter beat. Trying to keep to a salsa rhythm isn't easy. I'm about to give up, when the music changes. Now it's a tango. I notice a couple to my right: I can't tear my eyes away, they're so magnetic. "Don't look at them," says Jose, compassionately, but with some urgency. "You'll lose your focus and your place." It makes me feel as if he understands my shyness; I realize that I trust him, even after only two lessons. Why? For one thing, he hasn't once asked me to do something I couldn't do. Though he's obviously a very skilled and talented dancer, he seems to want to share his skill with me, rather than use it to show me how good he is.   

When I get home, I'm so jazzed that I search for some salsa sites on the Net, and watch a few competitions on YouTube. Then I find myself trying to imitate the salsa stance, keeping the upper body still while moving the hips and legs and feet. I even look in the mirror while I do it. (This would have been excruciating a month ago. Today it makes me laugh, and reflecting on my progress gives me a small sense of accomplishment. Very small, but still.) I start thinking about parallels to my work: How did I learn to write? By reading other writers, trying to figure out how they did it, and by writing myself. The more I wrote, the more comfortable at it I became. Dancing isn't very different. The more I do it, the more comfortable it feels. It requires trust (in my teacher) and focus. I notice that whenever I lose focus on what Jose and I are doing, by looking at other (far more experienced and graceful) dancers in the room, not only do I forget my place but my self-esteem slips and falters. Then my inhibition, returning in full force, gives it a nasty shove, and I might as well just take a chair. Jose keeps telling me to stop thinking, to simply follow his lead, and when I do, finally, it's smooth sailing: He navigates me breezily through turns we haven't even practiced yet. There is magic to the letting go. Every time I become less a spectator and more engaged, my dancing improves. My engagement with Jose helps, too. You might have thought I knew this before I tried it, but I discovered that hip-hop is more about performance, while salsa—though it can also be about performance—thrives on the connection between the partners. I guess I'm more comfortable sharing responsibility on the dance floor; I know I'm comfortable when I'm relating to a guy (even, I find, a sleek Latin cat a couple of decades younger than I). A woman dancing salsa, Jose tells me, can be kind of low-key if she chooses, letting her partner show off all around her. I'm happy to let Jose do that (as I'm still more Queen Mother than Rita Moreno), but step-by-step, I hope I can learn to do some showing off myself.


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