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In His Shoes

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In the process of learning how to dance I discovered that I was dyslexic. I had never suspected having a learning problem, but suddenly the signs were there, unambiguously clear.

Consistently good at school, I had excelled in Italian, French, Latin and Greek, though I struggled with numbers and space. And as a toddler, in Italy after World War II, I was never urged to play with modern smart toys where bright children fit colorful plastic shapes into appropriate slots. No one in my family had ever noticed any glitch in my learning skills. I'd fooled everyone.

Unfortunately, as soon as I started my dancing classes -- well into my middle years -- it was clear that I had a real problem, mainly when asked to turn left and right and when I had to mimic the teacher's steps. Whenever John or Meredith demonstrated in front of the class, facing us, my brain exploded in flames of despair.

Muscle memory is an essential part of the learning process and finally, after months and years of repeating the same moves, my body started to relax and see the different directions. I repeat: months and years. A long process punctuated by hope and discouragement, a roller-coaster of success and frustration. My self-confidence fluctuated according to my ability (or not) to dance.

I moved to tango where the so-called close embrace made it such that I simply had to let go and follow, forced to listen to the other person.

I took on ballet, hoping to improve my technique. DanMichael was given the privilege to guide me through tendues, fondues and ronds de jambes. Unfortunately he too was obsessed with mathematics. "I said four! Four is not five!" Eight was even worse, because after five repetitions my brain wouldn't follow anymore. Either I counted or I moved; those two activities clearly couldn't go together.

And that's when, in a moment of extreme masochism, I decided to learn how to lead. It was January 2010 and I -- as Dardo Galletto's teacher assistant -- had to give it a try. Dance classes often lack leaders and I joined the fray as The New Man on the Floor.

I was in for more angst. Suddenly my world was reversed and once again I had to battle my dyslexia. I had to think about space -- but more than that, I had to move my followers in the direction I wanted. Now I was the one supposed to make their unwilling feet draw beautiful patterns on the floor.

My respect and admiration for leaders grew in proportion to the challenges I faced. Once again my brain started playing with me -- a real hard disk meltdown -- in the middle of the simplest figures. I turned red, my lungs leeched oxygen and a tinge of apoplectic purple rose from my neck up to my scalp.

I invariably mumbled apologies to the poor ladies who ended up in my arms. Their reactions were quite different, and mine naturally followed course. I stiffened up at one Japanese lady who would gleefully point out all my mistakes, but then warmed to her sweet compatriot who whispered sbarashi, beautiful, at every one of my movements. This being tango, I would at times find myself holding a partner intent on incessant wiggling, feet and legs kicking in all directions. What was I supposed to do with a squirming body? It was like trying to hold a live fish in my hands.

Not everyone who reads me likes to dance, but dancing can be equated to life: one has to learn to overcome difficulties and how we go about it will naturally change from person to person. I discovered that kindness is beneficial and patience is an unsung virtue. Most important, trying to fit into other people' shoes is an eye opener, and it makes you accept another point of view -- or several - no matter how old you are.

I've learned that weighing like an albatross on a man's shoulders is not a good idea and I've pondered my new awareness while soaking, exhausted, in a hot bath after our customary three-hour classes. I've realized that men are often even more terrified than ladies, as they are the ones who must negotiate through crowds of expert dancers in small spaces, at the same time maintaining their own balance - and that's before even attempting to guide their partners around. Who knew? What has at times felt like male arrogance has, in reality, been pure panic.

What has society, our parents, all the schools we've attended expected from us? Nothing less than success. Once again, on the dance floor, we're confronted with the same challenge; it's like re-enacting our existence.

Learning organically allows our minds and bodies to slip into specific patterns at our own pace. Find your own answers, explore, are Dardo's words. Ignoring set rules often guarantees great freedom and, eventually, a worry-free calmness and even dyslexic symptoms begin to disappear. I wish real life mirrored this philosophy.

For the time being, I'm doing my best to become my best.