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Learning to Wait: How West Coast Swing Dancing Taught Me Patience

10/23/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2013

The summer before my 35th birthday, my life was in the toilet: I'd left my fiancé for very good reasons, and found the single life to be anything but fabulous. The bottom had fallen out in the post-September 11th economy, so my work prospects looked as dismal as my dating life. To make the $1,000 rent for my closet-sized Manhattan studio, I'd taken a job writing emails for Camel cigarettes. I was depressed and worried that this was as good as it was gonna get.

So when my neighbor and fellow salsa-lover suggested we sign up for Latin ballroom dance lessons, I immediately agreed. It was exactly what I needed. I took to it like a fish that had been starved of water its whole life.

No matter how bad a day I've had, or how crappy I feel, dancing takes it all away. The young title character in Broadway's hit Billy Elliott said it best, "...Once I get going I sorta forget everything. I sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body."

Since then, I've studied and competed in over a dozen different dance styles. From salsa and paso doble to two-step, and now west coast swing. And while they all involve a man leading a woman across the dance floor, everything else about each dance is wildly different. So it must be more than a crazy coincidence that no matter what dance I gravitate to at any given moment, it always teaches me exactly what I'm working on interpersonally. Back then it was learning to follow. Today it's patience. More specifically, waiting.

"The waiting is the hardest part" ~ Tom Petty
Ever since ending my last relationship with a man I deeply loved, it's been as if I enrolled in graduate school for waiting. Waiting to see what he would do, if our love would prevail, if and when we would be together again, and after accepting that was not to be -- now waiting for someone better to appear in my life.

Waiting has always been so incredibly painful for me. I have always felt behind. I have a clear memory of arriving at Cedar Point, every Cleveland kid's favorite summer amusement park, and having an 8-year-old anxiety attack because my parents weren't moving fast enough. I was convinced that if we didn't start running from ride to ride, I would miss something. Not much has changed in three decades. I'm still this way when I get to a big social event or I'm with people I haven't seen in a while. I want to hurry up for fear of missing something.

As a result, I don't enjoy the moment as much as I can -- or the people I'm with. I'm saying "Hi, how are you?" but my mind is racing: where's the coat check, which bar is less crowded, how can I get there fastest...?" I'm like a Special Ops team leader, calculating exit strategies. I'm not able to enjoy each moment as it happens, because I'm always three moments ahead.

My compulsion was met head on with reality when I left Thom. It was like immersion therapy for the waiting-deficient. Suddenly, time was all I had: to think, and wonder. Would he face his issues, would we work things out down the line? Were we meant to be together...? Tried as I might to rush the process, all I continued to do was add to my anxiety.

So when my pain turned to despair the following fall, I turned to dance to help heal my heart. I needed something physical to take my mind off Thom, to give my brain something new to "solve," and get me out of the apartment a couple nights a week. I'd always wanted to master west coast swing: a sexy, slippery-smooth partner dance you can do to everything from B.B. King to Justin Timberlake. But I quickly discovered there was a bonus. As luck would have it, west coast swing is the PERFECT dance to learn the importance of waiting.

My compassionate west coast swing instructor, Alfredo Melendez, says he sees this all the time.

"Whether it's a tendency to be impatient, nervous, or overly aggressive -- these 'quirks' that we all have manifest themselves in dance. And if someone pursues partner dancing intensely enough, they will actually be able to work through it."

"I had major self-confidence issues that I uncovered when I started dancing," Alfredo confides at the end of an early lesson. "Once I overcame that, my dancing got better -- but it also affected the rest of my life. My self-confidence improved, on AND off the dance floor," he says.

Dance therapy -- it makes sense.

"There's a constant communication going on when you're dancing, most of it nonverbal." ~ Suzanne Perez in 'Psychology Today'

Partner dancing is the physical manifestation of how we relate to others. Each dance is a non-verbal conversation. If you're the type to lead every exchange, talk over others, and feel comfortable being the center of attention -- I can pretty much promise you that you will have trouble "following" on the dance floor. Conversely, if you are hesitant to speak your mind and suffer from low-self esteem -- chances are you'll be a weak "leader."

But here's the good news: if you're open and willing to change, the dance floor is a fun and fantastic place to learn to do it differently. For both men and women.

I asked Alfredo what he sees the most as an issue for his female students. "Patience and trust. In themselves, as well as in their partner."

This is no surprise to me.

"By being patient and a little more trustful of the process, women are able to follow better and have more fun." He's talking about dancing, but I hear so much more.

"Let him find you" ~ Alfredo Melendez
Two months into my private lessons and it's clear that my personal demons have followed me onto the dance floor. I have no patience. And in an attempt to "get it right," I have a tendency to try harder and hold on to him tighter. Just as I did with Thom, texting and pushing him ("Have you fixed it yet...??") in the months after I left.

Alfredo (and his sore arm) notices and tries to help. "Don't hold on so tight. Trust that I'll be there. Wait..."

I try, but keep doing it. The moment I'm done with one move, I rush into the next -- before he's even led it. This made the liquid style of west-coast swing impossible for me.

"In dance -- and especially west coast swing -- if you don't wait, you won't know what your partner wants you to do next," Alfredo explains.

How common is this in everyday life? How often do I dive right into a conversation, thinking I have all the answers before I even listen to the end of someone's sentence? Sometimes I'm right, but even so -- I often leave my "partner" feeling unheard and dismissed.

Back on the dance floor, Alfredo corrects me as I finish one turn and immediately reach for his hand.

"You have to let go of the leading hand, and let him find you -- so he can lead the next move. You're actually still in a position of power, because the next move can't happen until you see what your partner leads. And then YOU get to decide how to respond."

I realize how true this all is with love as well. If you don't wait to see what the guy does on his own, you'll never know what he's capable of.

The truth is, I've never seen waiting as a position of power. Quite the opposite actually. I honestly loathe waiting for men. They're often so painfully slow with everything: returning phone calls, making plans, deciding if they can face their demons and start a life with you... little things like that. But waiting to see what the other person does next gives you a great advantage.

There is great power in staying still or silent. You can respond appropriately, instead of misfiring with the wrong thought, emotion, or desire. As a creative person, it's always so tempting to react with a question or sharp come back. But sometimes you misread the situation and you can never take that back.

As I slowly start to embrace the benefits of waiting, I start to feel its power. If my last date doesn't say something worth responding to in his post-dinner text message, instead of firing back with something witty, I wait and see what happens next. What he does or doesn't do is valuable information.I've learned to only move when there's something worth moving for. Or towards.

Waiting gives you the space to see what's really going on. And gives men time to catch up. We women really are often too fast for our own good. In fact, it's a spiritual belief that this is why women are here. The Kabbalists teach that only male souls have to come back to earth to learn more. Female souls are more evolved, and they CHOOSE to come back -- to help the men. In return, men teach us the one thing we still need to learn: patience.

To listen, on and off the dance floor, you not only have to wait, but you have to give the other person room to feel heard. Something I haven't always done. Which is awful and now seems so selfish. I have a bad habit of filling in the silences: with friends, coworkers, and definitely with Thom -- who found talking about his feelings as painful as root canal without Novocain. So in an attempt to help, I'd nudge him along and fill in the silences.

I thought I was helping. Instead, I now see I was shutting him down. Just as a bad follower will shut down her dance partner trying to "back-lead," Thom stopped trying to share his own thoughts because he didn't think I would listen. We both paid dearly for his not speaking up, and my not shutting up.

"Everything in its perfect time."
After weeks of doing it wrong in my lessons, I start to enjoy the pauses. I begin to feel the power in not responding until I have more information from Alfredo. I'm getting better at listening to unspoken cues, and there's much more of a "conversation" taking place this way. But without periods at the end of the sentences.

For the first time, I'm not in as much of a rush to fit the steps in as I think they should happen. I know they can wait, they can happen later -- three beats later. Which is nothing, and everything for a recovering control freak like me. And miraculously, they're even better -- more beautiful -- than if I had rushed them.

This lesson is beyond bittersweet when I think of how it could have benefitted me in the past. But I have to believe that I'm "here" now, in this waiting place, to learn the patience I need to help me where I'm going. So I practice daily. On the dance floor and off - which can be much harder. It's one thing to be patient for a ride on the tilt-a-whirl or your turn at the Starbucks counter, and a whole other level of serenity at my age to master zen-like faith that love is just around the corner. But I'm doing my best. Because if there's one thing I do know, it's that we never know what's around the bend, and everything is always possible.

Just wait.