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In my second or third rumba lesson, I started to think I was catching on. “Slow, quick, quick” was a breeze: I could do it in a box, and I could do it in a straight line. Except my teacher wanted more than the correct geometry. Rumba is the dance of love – and according to Anatol I wasn’t putting out.
“You have to be sexy,” he insisted, as if I was only being stubborn.
It’s true we had covered this topic already, and I didn’t doubt it was in the syllabus, though probably in politer terms. It’s also true I may very well have blown off my assignment. And that had been, give or take a few technical pointers, to be haughty from the waist up (“like Princess Diana”) and saucy from the waist down, like Anatol, by rolling my hips to a point just short of dislocation. Right.
A former Russian ballet dancer, Anatol can hold up his end of what he calls “the spicy business,” and lay it on for anyone who happens to be in his arms. I, on the other hand, am an introvert lawyer who never set foot on a ballroom-dance floor before menopause, and even then only to try such G-rated numbers as the triple swing. Now, I had to lock eyes with this guy and pretend I wanted to destroy my marriage.
I froze on the spot – quick, quick – instead.
“Don’t be panic,” Anatol said, and continued to hold my hand as casually as anyone else might shake it. “It is like go to doctor. It’s just professional.”
I was “panic,” I guess, though not because it ever crossed my mind that Anatol could take my feeble Cuban motion personally. My hang-up went deeper than that, and had everything to do with my age.
The lessons had started as a lark, something to try now that kids and career had ceded a little time. At some point, though, I sorted out my left foot from my right, and the Russian-inflected compliment “It’s get be good” became the most beautiful words in the English language. Four lessons a week are barely enough to keep me regulated. I am practising turns in a bathroom stall at the office. Here I am writing about dance, and I don’t even write.
Yet every lesson is a battle with my worst personality traits: perfectionism, impatience, negativity, excessive reserve, vanity – everything but my aversion to small dogs. None of this exactly goes unnoticed by the teacher, who contends with it with all the patience that I lack and who somehow keeps letting me rebook with him. It really is like “go to doctor.” I wanted to be a better dancer; I may come out a better person, too, if we can both hang in there.
(Not that I haven’t shown tremendous resolve on at least one front: Though the intimacy of a scalp massage at my hair salon is too much for me, I have managed to steel myself to go inner thigh to inner thigh with Anatol in the tango. Such is my commitment to self-improvement. It’s just professional.)
What am I most uptight about? I am 53. I have never been fitter or happier, and I don’t care that learning late means I can never go pro. But I am 53. The studio is filled with younger dancers, in younger-dancer getups, as well as full-length mirrors. My usual diffidence, self-doubt, vanity or whatever, is exacerbated by the fear of looking ridiculous for trying what perhaps can only be pulled off by younger women – the spicy business. “Who am I kidding?” The doubt is as big a handicap as any lack of co-ordination or rhythm.
At one point in the rumba, the woman is to shoot up her arm, wrist bent and hand deployed as if it’s cupping the apple that tempted Adam. She is also to sway her hips and caress the floor with her feet – “Your feet must love the floor and each other!” says Anatol – as she parades past her partner with enough upper-body poise to keep a tiara on. I am usually able to get the arm up for an instant (the focus required for this one task means the rest of me is unaccounted for), but I lose my nerve and drop the apple nearly every time.
I am wrong in all this, I know. The spicy business isn’t about sex, not really. It’s about attitude: “I’m alive! I feel joy, and I will show you just how much, even if you may also see how imperfect I am.”
The thing is, our imperfections are no less visible when we are holding out, dancing safe. I might as well go for it. The beautiful dancers do, without regard for what time or genetics may have done to them. That is what makes them beautiful, vital – and spicy. Anatol, my sensational middle-aged teacher, shows me that in every lesson just by doing his thing.
A few months ago, my brain awash in post-dance endorphins, I came clean with my husband. “There’s no other way to put it, darlin’,” I said. “I’m having a, uh, sensual experience with another man.”
“Well, then,” he said, “I’m going to have to learn the rumba.”
And so he is, twice a week, with Anatol and me. Arranging to meet for a lesson one night, he sent me this text: “Who puts the ‘stud’ in studio?” And then: “Anatol is not the right answer.”
My sensational middle-aged husband isn’t copping out. The least I can do is hang on to that apple.
Rachelle Henderson lives in Montreal.