by Peggy Pollard
This is waltz — in your partner’s arms, whirling around a room of happy couples, you flow through one delightful move after another, expressing magical rhythms that explode in your soul. When we waltz together, there is no evil in the world, only goodness, beauty, harmony — this is the waltz I want to teach the world.
Thus, in my 50th year of life, I became a ballroom dance instructor. It’s one of the least dangerous ways to resolve my midlife crisis, I explained to my husband, a non-dancer, so he gave me his blessing.
I had already been social dancing for years. While my other career saved the world and earned money, dance saved my body and soul. Ballet gave me strength and skill. Folkdance joined my hands with an ancient circle of souls carving intricate patterns into the earth. Israeli lifted my arms up in carefree joy. Contradance taught me the art of flirting and a giddy twirl more powerful than whiskey. Swing brought my college bounce back, and I tasted the chili flavor of Salsa.
But I craved more.
Then I saw it. The glorious ad for Teacher Training at Palomar Ballroom for all the ballroom dances. Ahhh! My Emerald City! My road to mastery of all genres of dance! So I enrolled.
But stepping through the looking glass to become an instructor – would this be a weird or wonderland journey??? Yes, I hungered for knowledge of dance mechanics, rules and proper technique. But only if they served my joy as a dancer, not, I worried, if it ruined it with boring stiffness and formality.
First class was Waltz — the most classic of dances, and probably the trickiest to learn. Teacher Jeremy taught us how to stand with correct posture. He inspected, prodded, adjusted our arms, back and head into proper frame. My inter-scapular muscles started to ache as I strained to lift elbows up higher than shoulders, yet stretched out wide and circular, and with a high tilt to the left, and a backwards arch in the top vertebrae of my back. It felt quite weird, like a disjointed robot, arms stuck in awkward positions. We did the basic mechanical box step, not fun at all.
Then we paired up. I wrapped my arms into closed position embrace with my partner a pretty girl 30 years younger than me. My personal spacing radar jumped to high as we stood embarrassingly close, our rib cages pressing together in a way I’d never done. I felt instinctive physical repulsion, like two positive magnets pushing away from each other.
My partner seemed relaxed and used to it, but my sensation of rib-tickling was overpowering. As my hysterical giggles erupted and subsided, Jeremy waited patiently, role modeling a teacher’s professional demeanor. I re-connected to my partner. We moved Left foot forward , right foot side, together. Lots of missteps ensued. And more giggling. My feeling of overwhelm rose.
Rotate partners, keep trying! We began laughing together. A lot. Soon instead of shame, I felt a happy connection in our shared awkwardness.
Next I learned to properly lean back in my partner’s arms, counter-balance each other, smooth our movements out. Suddenly the weirdness of our frames began to feel good. A few more songs and we got up to speed with the music. Then it got really fun.
I fell in love with waltz.
Around that time, I also discovered waltz heaven-on-earth — Friday Night waltz, a congenial community of Palo Alto social dancers. It is often taught by Richard Powers, Stanford University’s world expert social dance teacher. Thanks to his de-emphasis on structured waltz form in favor of maximum social fun, I experienced the ultimate dance nirvana of cross-step waltz. But I still loved learning dance technique. So I also haunted the more technical Cheryl Burke Dance Studio, where I took five classes a night in waltz, tango, swing, hustle, then dance four more hours. Awesome!
As I gained more skill and confidence I enjoyed helping newer dancers, young and old. Their initial nervous frowns were soon wiped away by big smiles as they felt the rhythm of the step, and felt the victory of partnering success. Whatever was ailing them, I cured it with dance!
Meanwhile, back in my teacher training the technical memorization was tough for me, but I doggedly kept at it. I practiced for hours, learning notation lingo, memorizing dance patterns, degree of turn, footrise, body rise, cues for lead and follow. That part was not fun. Plus, the steps didn’t make sense until danced with a partner back in class. Then suddenly they were simple and fun moves. Prest-o, change-o: dance magic!
I learned 17 kinds of dances, each cooler than the last, most I had never done before. Foxtrot, Tango, Hustle, East and West Coast Swing, Mambo, Samba, Argentine, and more. Each yielded new delights, unique rhythms and character. Which is my favorite? All of them! Like a wardrobe of Halloween costumes, as I tried on each, I transformed into a new persona, growing new sensibilities, my soul filled with its music.
Once I knew the basics, I danced with many new friends each with their own unique sense of rhythm and style. Once, in a faraway city, I was practicing alone on a hotel patio. A handsome man came by. “You dance ballroom?” he asked and swept me into his arms. We were instantly at home with each other, dancing waltz, foxtrot, and samba around the courtyard. I never saw him again.
To social dance is to grow new depths in yourself as you connect with others, to gloriously reinvent your identity to whomever you want to be, for that moment, not to follow a rule or win a prize, but to express the soul of the music with your hands, feet and hips in perfect harmony, partnering in the romance of your imaginations. For one song you create your own special universe of two dancers in bliss, where no one else matters, sees, or cares.
But only for three minutes.
Peggy Pollard is producer/ instructor of Santa Cruz Waltz, 4th Saturdays, 7-10 p.m.
Market St. Theater, Santa Cruz Dec. 26 features “Alvin & The Chipmunks Waltz”
choreographer of Santa Cruz Vintage Dance Society