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Patrizia Chen Headshot

Learning to Dance

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When I turned 50, I decided that I was going to give myself the gift of dancing. Of course, having grown up in Italy and seen every last cowboy movie, I too wanted to wear hats and boots and whooshing skirts, to gyrate to my heart's content, smiling at my handsome partners. Country Western Two-Step was my goal.

My friend DanMichael introduced me to John and Meredith and voila! I enrolled in a group class. I had to trek downtown, to Tribeca, walk several flights up (as the elevator appeared to be allergic to me) and finally I found myself in a room full of accomplished dancers. All but me.

Everyone was young and knew each other. They greeted one another and kissed, and began extracting from their big bags special fabric pouches with a long string, out of which they plucked beautifully cared-for shoes. Immediately they groomed the soles with wooden brushes, to prepare for dancing.

I was already at a loss. I had come with just my everyday shoes and a terrible anxiety that by that point was already paralyzing me faster than an epidural. DanMichael squeezed my hand and assured me that I was in the best possible school, and with the best teachers. A former professional dancer himself, he must've known, right?

The class began, John and Meredith started calling out terms I couldn't possibly recognize: out of partner, hegozshegoz (well, it actually was he goes-she goes, but that's the way I heard it at the time) pretzel and many others, all impossibly weird. Everyone knew what to do. It turned out I had enrolled in an intermediate/advanced class.

Every time a leader took my hand to guide me in some complicated figure, I saw what I imagined was a smirk of disgust on his face. Later on I would understand that the dancers were just busy with their own problems, trying to remember where to go and especially how to make me go. But at the time I felt humiliated by my own incapacity. Nothing like panic to make one forget to breathe. Almost apoplectic for lack of oxygen I bumped into everything and everyone.
The mirrors were the most terrifying things in the room. They must have had some kind of trick (was it a magnet?) that attracted every part of my incompetent body. My arms and legs collided with every inch of their surfaces, and even my head catapulted toward them. In an effort to avoid them, I tried to dance on the outside of the group and to stay there for the entire sixty minutes of the class. But I quickly discovered that there is something called the line of dance which forces one to be onto a circular path. The teachers saw to that, of course.

The scariest of all was Hank. He danced beautifully and had absolutely no time for me. Oh, the look whenever he had me in front of him! "Sorry, sorry," I mumbled, overcome, as I was led into a precise double-turn that literally took me off my shoes and into his chest. The poor man rebounded back, holding on for dear life, clutching his cowboy hat and a shoe-less Patrizia.
Private lessons were clearly a must. Maybe, one-on-one, I would be able to master balance, coordination and gracefulness. But I had not counted on the angles.

John began to exhibit a clear obsession for math and geometry, subjects that had never previously been of any importance in my life. "Make a 180-degree turn!" he would beg me, hoping against hope. Hundred-eighty degrees? Elementary school basics drained from my brain as quickly as water from a sink. I had no idea what he meant. "Open left, collect, pivot. A hundred-eighty degrees! It's easy, see?" There were 90 degrees and 360 degrees as well. A mind-boggling conundrum.

Today, many years later and by now into tango for quite a long time, I've been chosen by my maestro, Dardo Galletto, as his TA, teacher's assistant. So much water has run under the bridge! I can't quite believe it. When I demonstrate with him and correct the students, I still pinch myself, remembering those faraway days, all my fears and that dark feeling of inadequacy. How often did I end up in tears, looking at myself in the mirror and hissing at my own sad reflection that I'd better give up or else? I used to drag myself to classes, and as I sat on the side, I looked with admiration at those cool people who knew what to do. I'll never forget what it means to want to fit in, to be the only over-50 in a room full of 20-year-olds!

Now I try to give back. Dardo's method makes people explore their possibilities. "Try"! he says, "Explore!" he urges. It doesn't matter if the movement doesn't come out precisely the way we wish, it will eventually if we are patient and put in the work. Discipline and courage are the most important ingredients. Many of our beginner students remind me of myself, of all those years ago, and I try to convey to them the self-assurance I acquired in the meantime.

Who knows if they believe me when I explain that I, too , used to have two left feet?

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