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How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life

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My ballroom dance coach has been talking lately about how important it is for me to make myself available to him. No, not available in that sense. He's referring to my presence as half of the "us" that we create moving around the floor, doing a foxtrot or a waltz.

Such a lovely word, available--rich in meanings, all of which I ponder, naturally, right there on the dance floor of the West Side Fred Astaire Studio in New York City, while Darius, my 6' 2" Lithuanian coach, and I dance. As an editor at Town & Country magazine, I'm paid to parse words, among other things. And as a longtime ballroom dancer, I get a big kick out of the metaphors I encounter in dancing. So the word of the hour for me is available. More on this in a minute.

I began to notice the hugeness of dance lessons as life lessons back in 2002. The first instruction I got from my then teacher, Bill, was: "Your job as we dance is to think about my comfort, and my job is to think about your comfort." I immediately wished my soon-to-be-ex husband and I had mastered that lovely guideline in conducting our relationship. Bill also would urge me to let go, to give up control--which was of course ludicrous to suggest to a micromanaging working mother who assumed she was in charge of everything, including gravity. He explained that my being so controlled (or did he mean controlling?) held us back from our fullest possible movement.

I decided to write a book about what I was learning from dance. Quick, Before the Music Stops: How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life, due out in July from Doubleday/Broadway Books, if you'll pardon the plug, is a memoir about my revitalization at midlife through dance, and in it I reveal way too much about my private life--my marriage-in-trouble, my crush on my first teacher, my childhood traumas--but the engine of the book is these enriching metaphors begging to make themselves useful in my real life.

So here I am on the dance floor with Darius one Wednesday last month, intrigued to know more about his notion of availability, sensing another irresistible metaphor coming on. There's the social connotation (I am available!) and the emotional (let's hear it for intimacy!), but something tells me I'd better ask him what he's talking about.

"The woman has to be available so the man can do his job, which is to lead, of course, and to show her off in a pose." By this he means he can invite me to blossom fully into one of those big, luscious positions in which my head is way out there and it looks as though I'm bending impossibly backward.

Now Darius gestures in the vicinity of my midsection and says, "Availability means your core is active; it's engaged. And this allows the rest of the body--the arms, legs, neck, shoulders and hips--to be soft and fluid, not rigid. So the whole picture of our dancing can be really juicy." Sounds good to me.

I'm trying to be available, with my core engaged, and I notice little things like how my thighs press against his--this is critical because it's mostly through the thighs that he detects where I am and can move me around and take us to our next dance figure. And there's a benefit to me: I am steady enough for the bigger stretch through my whole upper body--no teeter-tottering on my tippy toes.

By the end of the hour on the dance floor, I know that the woman-available is ready for anything. This is the essence of following well--no guessing what's coming next. No expectations. Instead, she must embrace the unknown, be available like a Buddhist to the present moment rather than anticipate (live in the future) or dwell back in the past, making the dance molasses. Being available is a perfectly neutral readiness for flight. Being available brings, simply, the possibility of experience. (This kind of puts being romantically available in a rather nobler light, if you ask me. Unless you make yourself available, you're guaranteed that nothing will happen.)

Ready, set, be.
The weekend comes, and as I go about it in my real life -- the life I lead not as a dancer but as a mother, a woman, a single-parent head of household -- I decide to give "available" a real try. Ready for whatever.

It's weird at first not to be taking charge of what's happening next. I feel disoriented and ticklish there on the razor-thin edge between past and future.

And then Friday afternoon softens my resistance. My elder daughter comes downstairs. "Mom, look at my new manicure set," she says, holding out a gray, rectangular nail-buffing thing. Normally, I might reply, "Yeah, just a minute," or "Let me feed the dogs first." Now, I stand up and walk over to her, showing interest kind of purposefully. My core is engaged. She is reaching for my hand -- my daughter who hasn't let me touch her, much less kiss her, for several years is reaching out for my hand!

"Can I do your nails?" she asks.

I could cry. We sit together on the couch, head to head. She works very gently, I notice, as she buffs first the left hand, thumb, pointer, middle, ring and pinky. It feels really good. My, but the nails are so smooth and shiny. Now the right, all five fingers, really slowly, and I hear a nearby clock ticking, tranquilizing. All done.

"Look," she says, and I coo with pleasure.

Then we make dinner together, and sit back down on the couch in front of the TV. Come 10 p.m., we soak in the hot tub--a place I usually find myself alone -- and we talk quietly over the bubbles.

I expect nothing, and everything happens perfectly, no thanks to me.

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