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Dancing Lessons

I ran into a light post in the first grade. My teacher, Miss Bean, called my parents in for a conference because of the accident, but more particularly because I had trouble coloring between the lines. I rode my bicycle into a tree at eight. By the time I was 21, I had broken bones in my body seventeen times. During graduate school, I walked into another light post, but I was taking Valium at the time, so maybe that does not count. I stopped taking Valium.

Fifty yards down the hillside from my house, a hawk slips off a white oak like a loose sock off a foot. Its wings widen in slow motion. It floats, a dark silhouette among the winter trees. It swims among the branches, its wing tips rocking back and forth until it sweeps upwards, drops its feet, and suddenly becomes part of another oak, unrecognizable as an animal if you had not just seen its brief narrative of flight.

When I married in my early thirties, my wife and I went to Finland on our honeymoon. I stepped on her feet a couple of times our first time out dancing in Haemeenlinna. The year before our wedding, I took disco dancing at an Arthur Murry studio, where the teacher, watching me dance, said, “Go, Mr. Rhodes,” with a voice as flat as a sheet of notebook paper. It became my wife’s cheerful mantra when I would dance: “Go, Mr. Rhodes.” She decided early in our marriage that I was a lost cause as a dancer. Never having heard much to the contrary, I believed her. She was a dance teacher.

We had dance parties in my family when I was growing up. On Christmas and other special occasions, we put on music, and my brother, father, mother and I danced a layperson’s Twyla-Tharp-cum-rhumba-line to everything from Dixieland to Stevie Wonder. My brother liked to Charleston. I did John Travolta disco long before Saturday Night Fever. The general family opinion about my father, brother, and me was that we moved like newborn giraffes. Secretly however, I loved to dance.

My wife gave me a new awareness of the artfulness of the human body, of the needs and requirements of its movement, of the conventions available for that movement and their benefits and limits. I loved to watch ballet and jazz performances with her. She often commented on how the hands of dancers revealed their skill and poise, but most important for her, their presence or, better, absence of self-consciousness.

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When I die, I want the chance to be a bird, preferably a hawk. I want all that altitude and the large view. I want to be able to swoop from two hundred feet to a single dead branch on the tallest tree in the forest in three seconds. I want to know that I am graceful, that my life depends on it.

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When we were falling in love, my wife choreographed a dance and dedicated it to me. It was a solo, danced to a popular song from the 1970’s, “Michael has Golden Hands.” The song is about an African-American boy whose dream is to shoot his way out of the ghetto–using a basketball. My wife’s dance was about dancing her way out of the working-class neighborhood of her childhood. She wore a gray leotard and vast gray skirt that she twirled with her hands rising and falling, giving her the appearance of a bird with gray wings. When she danced she never made eye contact with anyone in the audience. She was so immersed in her dance that I suspect others felt as I did, like a voyeur. Her hands drew us in, but also kept us at a distance. It was one of her most honest dances.

When we divorced five years ago, and I wondered whether life was worth living, one of the first things I did was to start dancing. I attended a week of country dancing classes that culminated each day in an evening dance composed of Contra dances, English, Danish, and squares. People took me by the hands and wove me into each dance. They understood I was a beginner and, through the grace of knowing about what it was like for them to begin, they brought me into the fabric of each dance, like a new thread. I extended my hands and tried to pay attention to the callers, but that was secondary. People’s eyes pointed me to the open space in the line I needed to move into; the fiddle and piano told me how to pace that move.

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The hawk is gone now. What is left is the music of the wind in the trees.

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My wife’s departure opened space for me. The empty space in my bed gave me new ways to shape myself on the mattress. The empty chair at the table started long-overdue conversations with myself. Movement returned to my life. My ex-wife never helped me learn to dance, but then I never asked.

A few months ago I found myself one of a handful of people who knew how to contra dance in a large group of beginners. Those of us with experience took partners and demonstrated how to turn, give and take weight, trade places, balance and swing.

(first published in Gettysburg Review)