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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Years ago, I saw a sign on a utility pole: “Shall We Dance Studio – we offer ballroom, Latin dance classes, group and private …” I was single, in my late 30s, an immigrant from China with a boring life. “Why not?” I told myself. I found out that one of the founders was a coach for Jennifer Lopez in the movie – hence the studio name. It was legit.

When I went for the free trial lesson, I was a bit disappointed to see mostly older people in the studio. As we started, Maria, the studio director, asked me, “Who’s the boss in a dancing couple?” Caught off-guard, I didn’t know how to answer. “The MAN!” she continued emphatically. “Man leads, lady follows. Man is the frame, lady is the painting.” This was a bit beyond the education I had been brought up with, including the famous Chairman Mao quote: “Women hold up half the sky.”

We started with a waltz. Maria first showed me the basics: the preparation steps, the natural turn, the change of steps and stop. Being brought up in a family of classical musicians, it was easy for me to step on the beats. Then we partnered up with an embrace – the “frame,” while Maria counted, “One, two, step … don’t push me … two, right, turn … don’t pull me …” Frustrated, I asked, “Didn’t you say I was the boss?”

Smiling, Maria replied, “Being a boss is more of a responsibility than a privilege. A true gentleman would show the way, not boss someone around. Like opening the door for the lady, all the while maintaining his own poise and elegance.” More intrigued than fully understanding what this all meant, I signed up.

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Fifteen years later, I’m still dancing: lessons, showcases, competitions. People ask me why I’d take on an expensive hobby with little practical benefit? What have I learned? Well, try posture, frame, musicality and style – Maria teaches dancing as an art form. But there’s more to it: Beyond the steps, the figures, the routines we must master, we learn how to lead, how to follow, how to collaborate and, most importantly, how to trust – in each other and in this partnership.

Learning to dance doesn’t bring you career advancement, neither richness nor fame (well, rarely). But it does bring joy, elevates us from daily frustrations, mundaneness or boredom. In our studio, there are old couples like Jackie and Jimmy, who danced together for more than 50 years. Yet they still took lessons seriously, often with separate teachers, detailing every move, polishing every routine. When they danced together in studio showcases, their gracefulness, their trust in each other, their bond, was the envy of everyone. Last year, Jimmy died but Jackie returned with the same smooth steps; she continues dancing as a tribute to her beloved husband. Another fun dancer to watch is Gil, a widower in his late 80s, with a hip replacement who lives in a retirement home. He’s learning dancing to keep moving his muscles. He might not be the sharpest dancer on the floor, but his vibrancy and humour always bring the audience to a roaring standing ovation. When I watch these dancers, I feel their joy, too.

One of the major goals of the studio is to prepare students for dance competitions. Less than a year after I started, I attended my first competition in the “pro-am” category, with my teacher as the professional partner and I the amateur. Despite intensive training, once I was on the floor, I was totally overwhelmed by how crowded it was with so many competing couples. I felt like a novice driver on the highway for the first time. With the crowd of flashy couples in bright long gowns and crisp tuxedos swooshing past me, I could barely remember the steps, let alone the frame, style and elegance. A mere 90-second number had me sweating through. Maria did an amazing job compensating for my missteps and pulling me through the routine. Only then did I realize how much stamina is needed to complete.

When people learn that I dance ballroom, an often slightly raised eyebrow tells me what they are thinking. I’ve heard enough of the stereotypes about ballroom dancing to catch their drift. But I know what it takes to be a competitive dancer. Entering a ballroom is more like a knight engaging in battle than a leisurely walk in a garden. When I’m on the floor, I navigate among numerous competing couples to find the best path and invite my partner to join me. As she follows, she watches out for me, pinches me gently on the shoulder to help avoid collisions when I’m back stepping; I empower her by supporting her with a strong frame and guide her through the crowd, enabling her to show her best, while being courteous to all other competitors. I know I’m far from perfect, but these ideals push me to keep trying, to be a better partner and leader.

As this time of isolation and physical distancing lingers on, the world adapts quickly. Online services are a popular and essential way to connect now – even my dance studios offers online lessons. But what is missing is the warmth of two people embracing each other, the gracefulness of moving in unison, the intimacy of human touch. Sometimes I perform a few steps by myself at home, and I long for the time when I can be back in the studio. And when it comes, shall we all dance?

Fang Sheng lives in Markham, Ont.

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