I’m glad I tried my luck in ballroom dancing

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Years ago I saw a sign on a utility pole: “Shall We Dance Studio – we offer Latin, group and private dance lessons…” I was single, in my late thirties, a Chinese immigrant with a boring life. “Why not?” I said to myself. I found out that one of the founders was Jennifer Lopez’s trainer in the movie – hence the name of the studio. It was legitimate.

When I went for the free trial class I was a little disappointed to see mostly older people in the studio. At first Maria, the studio director, asked me: “Who is the boss in a dancing couple?” Caught off guard, I did not know what to answer. “The man!” she continued insistently. “The man leads, the lady follows. The man is the frame, the woman is the painting. It was a bit beyond the education I was raised with, including Chairman Mao’s famous quote: “Women hold half the sky.”

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We started with a waltz. Maria first showed me the basics: the preparation steps, the natural turn, the change of pace and the stopping. Growing up in a family of classical musicians, it was easy for me to walk to the rhythms. Then we joined in a hug – the ‘frame’, while Maria counted, “One, two, one step… don’t push me… two, right, turn… don’t pull me…” Frustrated, I asked: aren’t you saying i was the boss?

Smiling, Maria replied, “Being a boss is more of a responsibility than a privilege. A true gentleman would lead the way, not lead someone. Like opening the door to the lady, while retaining her balance and elegance. More intrigued than fully understanding what it all meant, I signed up.

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Fifteen years later, I’m still dancing: classes, showcases, competitions. People ask me why am I embarking on an expensive hobby with little practical benefit? What have I learned? Well, try the posture, the setting, the musicality and the style – Maria teaches dance as an art form. But there is more than that: beyond the steps, the numbers, the routines that we have to master, we learn to lead, to follow, to collaborate and, above all, to trust – in each other and in this partnership. .

Learning to dance doesn’t bring you career advancement, wealth, or fame (well, rarely). But it brings joy, raises us daily frustrations, banality or boredom. In our studio there are old couples like Jackie and Jimmy, who have danced together for over 50 years. Yet they still took the lessons seriously, often with separate teachers, detailing every move, polishing up every routine. When they danced together in studio windows, their grace, their mutual trust, their bond, were the envy of everyone. Last year Jimmy passed away but Jackie came back with the same sweet steps; she continues to dance in homage to her beloved husband. Another fun dancer to watch is Gil, a widower in the late ’80s with a hip replacement who lives in a nursing home. He learns to dance to keep moving his muscles. He might not be the sharpest dancer on the pitch, but his drive and humor always brings audiences to a roaring standing ovation. When I watch these dancers, I also feel their joy.

One of the studio’s major goals is to prepare students for dance competitions. Less than a year after my debut, I took part in my first competition in the “pro-am” category, with my teacher as a professional partner and me as an amateur. Despite intensive training, once on the pitch, I was totally overwhelmed by the number of couples competing. I felt like a novice driver on the freeway for the first time. With the crowd of flashy couples in long, shiny dresses and crisp tuxedos parading past me, I could barely remember the steps, let alone the setting, style and elegance. A simple 90 second number made me sweat. Maria did an amazing job making up for my missteps and pulling me through the routine. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much stamina is required to complete.

When people hear that I’m dancing in the ballroom, an often slightly raised eyebrow tells me what they’re thinking. I’ve heard enough about ballroom dancing stereotypes to understand their drift. But I know what it takes to be a competitive dancer. Stepping into a ballroom is more like a knight engaged in battle than a leisurely stroll through a garden. When I’m on the ground, I navigate among many couples competing to find the best path and invite my partner to join me. While following me, she watches me, pinches me gently on the shoulder to avoid collisions when I back up; I empower her by supporting her with a strong framework and I guide her through the crowd, allowing her to show the best of herself, while being courteous to all the other competitors. I know I’m far from perfect, but these ideals drive me to keep trying, to be a better partner and a better leader.

As this period of isolation and physical distancing continues, the world is rapidly adjusting. Online services are a popular and essential way to connect now – even my dance studios have online classes. But what is missing is the warmth of two kissing people, the grace of moving in unison, the intimacy of human touch. Sometimes I take a few steps on my own at home, and I long for when I can be back in the studio. And when that happens, will we all dance?

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Fang Sheng lives in Markham, Ontario.

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