I have an admission to make. I’m not much of a dancer. That’s not entirely accurate. I can shake
my booty with the best of them, but when it comes to formal dancing—ballroom, belly, or ballet—I’ve never been that quick on the uptake. I’ve got rhythm. It’s coordination that’s never been my strong suit.That didn’t keep me from trying ballet classes. As an adult. With a history of leg and back injuries.
I chronicled some of this in an article I wrote that appeared recently in Real Simple magazine. My editor there had trouble wrapping her head around the fact that I signed up for the classes on a whim. She wanted an intentional narrative. The truth is, I was just curious.
I have two daughters who started taking ballet classes when they were three. Back then, they had even less coordination than I do, only it was adorable to watch them try to lift up their arms over their heads and bend their legs at the same time. Eventually, they weren’t just cute. They were really dancing. Week after week, year after year, I watched through the studio window as their teachers, first in ballet, but soon enough in jazz, tap, and then hip hop, led them through steps and routines, and I got curious. I never took dance classes when I was a child. It was expensive, and kids didn’t do as many extracurricular activities as they do now.
The shame of it is that my father loved to dance. He didn’t have formal training, either, although that may have been a product of the vagaries of his life: he was born in Europe, in the middle of WWII, spent the first few years of his life hiding from the Nazis and then interred in a concentration camp. After that, his parents had to try to rebuild their lives. That meant coming to the US and starting again. When they arrived, they didn’t know English, and even though my grandfather had been a lawyer in his home country, he couldn’t practice here and had to start from scratch. It’s hard to imagine that in that time and place, dance classes—for a boy in the macho post-war years, no less—would have been high on the list of priorities. All that is not to say that my grandparents’ life wasn’t full of music and dance. It was. They loved the classical music and elegant waltzes of their youth. My grandfather used to sing all the time, too.
When he got a little older, my father began joining folk dancing groups. He was still joining them when I came along, going to Sunday-night meet-ups, or stopping earlier in the afternoon to dance with the regulars in Central Park. I was a kid, and he was my father: I thought the whole thing was unspeakably dorky. By the time I followed my idle curiosity and took my first adult ballet class, my father had been dead for almost 20 years. He died suddenly, in a car accident. I wasn’t thinking about him when I started my classes, but I was injured in that car accident, and I carry the reminders of it with me all the time. There in the studio, it was inevitable that I would make the connection between my past and his passion.
After twenty years, I didn’t think about my father all day, every day, but I still miss him all the time. Taking those dance classes gave me an hour each week to be with him in spirit, even as I struggled (boy, did I struggle) to master the basics of ballet. It was, in the end, a gift.
I’m not a dancer, but my father was, and my kids are. They never got to meet him, but they inherited his grace. He’s there in their feet, and in the music that moves them. I dance because...
Author of After Abel and Other Stories