Taking the lead

by Debbie Carini

William Butler Yeats wrote, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” That’s easy: if you’re looking for me on the dance floor, I’m the one trying to push my poor husband all over the place.

I can’t help it. It’s like Fred Astaire famously sang (and Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen wrote), “I like to lead when I dance.” Upon first hearing this lyrical bit of bossiness, I thought it simply applied to anyone who liked to be in charge. When I was little and played “house” with my sister, we pretended to dance like grown-ups and I always led. 

In grade school, we had square dancing for PE (and this was not Appalachia—it was Covina, California, circa 1969). I simply could not abide being pushed, spun and flung by a prepubescent male who thought the whole exercise (and this counted as a cardiovascular workout on a rainy day) was the dorkiest thing ever. I always tried to dance with another girl so that I could lead.

In junior high, I learned how to “slow dance,” and it was nothing like Fred and Ginger. It was Dennis D, who was one of the shorter boys. As everyone paired-up for a slow twirl to Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” (an improbably romantic song about a rat), Dennis often sought me out as I was one of the few girls who was more height-challenged than he. With his hands at my waist and mine on his shoulders—arms straight, elbows firmly locked—so there was at least a foot of space between us, I found I was able to steer him about the auditorium/cafeteria with ease.

I’ll skip right over the high school dances—suffice it to say, lots of polyester (Quiana had just been trademarked in 1968) and more swaying.

Onward to the wedding. And the first big dance.

My dress featured a swishy skirt, and I so wanted to emulate Deborah Kerr in The King and I during our inaugural spin as man and wife that I talked my then fiancé into dance lessons at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio on 5th Avenue in New York City (my gosh … what this man hasn’t done for me!).

Our instructor was Manuel. He was tall and young and he tried very hard to teach us to waltz and cha-cha and merengue. One-two-three, two-two-three, Manuel twirled me about the studio, but his hands were a little clammy and I like to think that’s why I wasn’t able to concentrate as well as I should have.

My husband and I did enjoy an exuberant first waltz that was truly, mostly, dancing on air (I was very happy at the reception—happy to be married and happy to have made it through a Jewish ceremony without having to speak a word of Hebrew).

Over the years, other than bar and bat mitzvahs, we haven’t had many occasions to trip the light fantastic, or each other for that matter, until this past weekend when we attended a ballroom-themed birthday party for a good friend. A pair of professional dancers taught us the “east coast swing.” My husband and I tried, we really did. And in the end, we realized that we are often most truly in sync when we are laughing and that I am never going to learn how to do everything Ginger Rogers did with Fred Astaire, backwards and in high heels.


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