06/04/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

I Learned to Dance at Forty

I clutched the banister with my left hand and put a death grip on the purse in my right. I was not going to fall. A year earlier, halfway down the same wide marble staircase, I missed a step and skidded sideways. My right leg flailed in the air and I landed flat - all while my arm was looped through my husband's.

I hoped the metal railing was better support.

I slid my hand along the rail and walked slowly, planting both feet on each tread before proceeding to the next. Alone and in high-heel black boots, I did not falter. I sucked in my stomach, pinched my shoulder blades together and tried on my "I've been divorced two-and-half-months and here I am at a party alone for the first time" smile.

"I'll be there alone too," one friend assured me. "My husband has to work."

Not. The. Same. Thing.

Safely on solid ground, the rectangular room stretched out ahead of me dotted with finely dressed tables. The chatter was indiscernible, yet animated. There was no seating chart, no place cards. It was my job to make a place for myself at this cocktail party in honor of a friend's 40th birthday. After unclenching my fist and placing my purse on a chair, I unfolded my napkin with a flourish, as if I were about to do a magic trick. It would take more than magic, I was afraid, to help me fit in. This was a party full of married couples and while I was able to get down the stairs and through the room on my own, how would I hold up as number seven at a table for eight?

I tried to remember that some of those couples were my friends. They were gathered in the distance, drinking and laughing. I made them my oasis. Diamonds pierced the darkness and led the way. I shifted from side to side, nodded hello, said every requisite "nice to see you," and replied "great" every time someone asked, "Hey, how are you?" I reached for whatever kebab happened to pass and would point to my busily chewing mouth as if I'd love to chat but had bitten off more than I could chew.

Ever since the divorce I had answered the question "What's new?" countless times, in every permutation possible. "Everything's good!" "Everything's great!" I did not want to talk about my social life (I didn't have one) or even the well-being of my kids ("They're adjusting; you know kids!").

I made it through the gauntlet to my friends and joined in their conversation, already in progress. They greeted me as they always had. No one looked at me sideways for being alone. I ordered a drink. I laughed. Everything felt the same. I hadn't slipped down the steps or through the cracks.

And then, without warning, the band kicked into gear. Horns and a keyboard and everything else that makes music sound real. Add a female vocalist belting out 80s tunes and my girlfriends, sans spouses, moved in unison onto the dance floor. They were singing and dancing, holding martini glasses in the air like children clinging to balloons.

I thought I had made it to the other side of my fear if only for the moment, but now this. Because what do I get when I cross a group of girlfriends with good music?

Panic. I had not danced in 20 years.

"You have no rhythm," my ex had said, and the words still stung. They rang as loudly in my ears at this cocktail bash as they had when he said them with smirk during a college fraternity party. All that was missing was the stench of cheap beer and its stickiness beneath my well-worn Keds. But he was right. The rhythm gene had skipped a generation. My parents can dance --jitterbug, swing - you name it. I can only clap to a beat if no one distracts me. I can follow along with a line dance or mimic movements in an aerobics class, but winging it on the dance floor eludes me. What are my legs supposed to do? Where do my arms go? Moving to music to me meant tapping my feet and drumming my fingers. Anything more than that didn't feel natural. I'll admit I occasionally bob my head, but I always stayed put.

When my ex first said this to me, I was nineteen or twenty. He threw back his head and laughed at me, not with me. If the man who loved me thought I looked ridiculous, what did other people think? From that day forward, I adopted an "I don't dance" policy.

That was twenty years before.

At forty I was on the perimeter of a different dance floor. In a moment that lasted years I knew that if I didn't dance, right then, right there, I never would. The choice was mine, as would be the repercussions.

With hindsight, insight, and my stomach in my throat I walked over to my friends. They opened their circle and closed it around me.

I shifted from one foot to the other. Minimal movements were good. I added the arms. A little swinging, just a bit. Bigger steps, bigger swings. I tried my arms up in the air and then attempted a hip swivel--just one. I watched my friends and others around me. There were only a few people who looked really good, who had some 'moves.' And anyway, no one was looking at me. No one was looking at me. Perhaps it was a function of age and experience, of being at a place in life where embarrassing my kids was more of an issue than embarrassing myself. No one cared how I danced. We stumbled through lyrics and invented our own. We sang at the top of our lungs. I was still stilted and self-conscious but swinging my arms and clapping to the beat (I hope) and twirling around.

So I danced the dance. I pretended I didn't care how I looked until I really did not care. I thought it would take years. I think it took six minutes.

After an hour (or was it two?) I limped off the dance floor and sat in a chair, unzipped my boots and pulled them off. I flexed my feet back into their natural position. I gently kicked the boots beneath the edge of the floor length tablecloth. The balls of my feet burned. When I stood up I felt like I was standing on rocks. So this is what I'd been missing! I thought my identity as a wallflower saved me from a lifetime of embarrassment. It only protected me from sore feet.

I wish I'd known.

What I did know was that the night wasn't about how I looked; it was about how I felt. And I felt good. It was about laughing until my sides hurt. It was about line dances that I didn't know all the steps to, and about losing my place and starting again. It was about turning left when everyone was turning right and then turning left to catch up.

I had a lot of catching up to do.

While I implicated my ex-husband in ripping my dance card to shreds, it was I who chose not to patch it together until that moment. And it wasn't just the Macarena or the Electric Slide or the Tango that I refuted. For the past twenty years I shook my head and looked down at the floor every time the rhythmic beat of life asked me to dance.

With aching, stocking feet peeking out beneath my wide-leg pants, I hurried back to my friends on the dance floor.

A new song was about to begin.

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