Because one cannot dance without knowing what motion to gather within, our minds were disciplined as well as our bodies. We remembered positions: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, croisé, effacé, en face, écarte, and movements: coupé, jeté, rond de jambe, fondu, developpé, pas de chat, grand jeté, tour jeté. The words, exchanged among us like secret code, bestowed knowledge and real, physical power. We learned our first center combination and stood untethered from the bar, half terrified, half ecstatic at that liberty; we took our first movements across the floor, flooding the space with a rush of legs; we suffered our first point class, that slow, awkward initiation. There was no end to the vocabulary, nor to what we could ask our bodies to do.
One year, a new teacher stood before our class. I was twelve, in a forest green leotard and pale tights. We stood facing the bar in first position, beginning class with a slow, simple plié sequence, a series of deep port de bras. Suddenly, Christian stood behind me, his hands cupped around my rib cage. He urged my torso up, settled it gently into a higher place. Unconsciously my body responded. It lifted, opened, and found grace in a movement as thoughtless and essential as breath.
Christian was not a kind man. His classes were brutally difficult. Often, he was cruel. Our feet and legs were to be exact, precise and sharp as algorithms, our arms never wooden, but supple, fluid extensions of our body. Even from our face he demanded expression, and was as wont to stop our exercises for a girl’s blank stare as for a poorly extended leg. He would draft for us impossible and impossibly long rond de jambe combinations, testing our minds as well as our bodies. When poor Francine, who struggled in all of her classes, forgot the combination one time too many, Christian clapped his hands sharply. It was the sound of terror. The piano ceased. He admonished her: “What is wrong with you? You are a terrible dancer, you have a terrible body, and now you have a terrible mind.” The class was hushed. We watched, stone still, as Francine struggled in silence to recreate the combination. Finally, after long minutes, she accomplished this to his satisfaction, and we returned to our barwork together, none as humiliated as our friend, but each nearly as determined, above all, to remember. And in this way, week after week, we grew strong. We trained our bodies to do our will. We learned to dance and to think, to inhabit body and mind together. To this day I can recall that unexpected touch, that first erotic imprint that had nothing to do with sex.
Many years later, I learned to be partnered. I learned to give myself over to lifts, to surrender to the form of another body and work with limbs alongside, underneath my own. I let myself be airborne with another and, in those steps for two, I understood the gorgeous responsibility of the step that could not be danced alone.
In my last year of graduate school, I traveled to Los Angeles to celebrate the thirtieth birthday of my friend, Melissa. On Sunday morning, after a late, sunny brunch, Melissa announced we were going dancing.
“They’re teaching Lindy Hop,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked, as we rose from the table. “What should I wear?”
“I have no idea,” she said.
A few hours later, we stood among a crowd of awkward women and even more awkward men. Before us stood a glamorous couple. The woman was tall and leggy, with an enormous bosom and platinum hair swept up in perfect rolls and ribbons. She wore a fitted brown skirt with kick pleats that gave a generous view of the broad vintage garters securing her stockings. The man was tall, nearly six and half feet, handsome in a gabardine shirt and woolen trousers.
They separated the men and women. They taught us the footwork and led us through partnering. My vintage sundress was about three decades removed from the appropriate vintage era. My chic platform shoes were terribly clunky and far too stiff for dancing. And then try as I might, I just could not understand what to do. I had no idea what the strange, syncopated triple steps meant or how our part was to match up with the men’s. Who had ever heard of a basic step that was eight counts long? The last person I rotated to was Kory. He wore a fitted green t-shirt. He looked like an athlete (and so utterly unlike any boyfriend I had ever had). He had a quiet smile and made polite, small talk with me and my friend. He knew how to dance.
After, my friend and I stood on the edge of the dance floor and sipped our drinks, watching the band and the dancers. From time to time, Kory joined us and chatted. When a jam circle broke out, he drew me over to watch. Couple after couple entered the circle. The men wore pleated trousers, gabardine shirts, white bucks. The women wore rayon dresses, pleated skirts and cashmere sweaters. On their feet were blue oxfords, vintage red wedgies. Flowers adorned their hair. Their skirts switched as their hips swiveled, low and sexy as they flew around their partners. They lindy hopped, legs pumping, heads thrown back. Some Charlestoned, some held each other close and danced a fast, romantic Balboa, quick feet tapping out ever more complicated steps, turns, and dramatic slides across the floor. I didn’t fall in love with my husband that night. But I did fall in love with the dance.