It was Robert Earl Keen who sang, on his debut album No Kind of Dancer, “I tried hard to tell you I was no kind of dancer,” and I have always felt I was no kind of one either. Dance was always the one art form I looked at and thought, “I can’t do that, but wish I could.” Maybe it was inhibition. Maybe it was growing up in Texas as a white kid assuming I wasn’t given a dance gene. But that hasn’t dampened my desire to get out on a floor and know how to cut a rug.
It was at a wedding in Austin that my then fiancé and I discovered just how much we needed dance lessons. We stepped onto the floor and looked more like two bears in a wrestling match than a pair of graceful dancers. That night a friend, gentle but firm, told us we needed lessons before our wedding day. Enter our dance instructor Matthew. For the price of a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft per lesson, we met in his double-wide trailer to learn how to dance. We found him through a friend who was also getting married in the same month. He was her mother’s boyfriend. He soon became our saving grace, our Obi Wan.
In his makeshift studio, we sipped wine while he choreographed the song we would dance to on our wedding day, Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” I’ve always been told that the man is supposed to lead in a dance but it took 38 years for someone to actually show me how my body is supposed to be in order to do it. “Lead from your core,” Matthew would say. I always thought it was about arm strength, but that’s where the bear gets to wrestling. So I tried from my core and by doing so, I wasn’t pushing my partner where we needed to go. I was going there and she responded to the movement. The wrestling bears disappeared and two human beings took their place as we could feel each other respond to the slight movements of the other. I could feel her slight tensions when she wasn’t sure where I was headed. She wasn’t fighting me and I wasn’t forcing my way. I could simply be in my own skin as she could be in hers.
Dance requires presence to one another’s movement and this really came into play when we learned the various pieces of the choreography. Though we were taught certain foot movements, and turns in a certain order, I wanted to play with the order once I became comfortable. My wife wasn’t ready for the play. She would try to anticipate my next move based on the formula we learned, only to discover I wanted to do something different, something not in the script. At first, I would become frustrated at the missteps, but soon realized I was defaulting to using my arms again. In my lack of confidence I would try to force what should only come from that core movement that is essential to dance. When I relaxed into the sturdiness of torso strength, she gelled into the improvisation. There was a new sense of play because we were now in it together – she trusting where I was going and me trusting her to join me in step; feeling her relaxed allowed me to relax in the fun.
Actually listening to the music while dancing seemed to come only as I moved past the mechanics of choreography. To discover that space where I no longer focused on the structure of the dance but heard the music and let it lead the way felt more natural than I expected. I have been a musician since picking up my first violin in grade school, going on to learn several other instruments over the years. I know I hear music differently than the average Joe, but I never knew how much the naturalness of that hearing could be felt in my bones and muscles as I moved across a dance floor. I discovered a new kind of joy – something I suspect is at the center of all professional dancers – in the synchronistic way music and motion create this thing called dance. Entering into that space with my wife, I saw how her enjoyment of it accentuated my own.
For years I have heard that marriage is a kind of dance. As one who always believed I was “no kind of dancer,” this metaphor made marriage an even more daunting prospect. What does it mean to “lead” as a man and not come off as some chauvinistic stereotype? What does grace in motion look like when my partner or I miss a step, struggle to be in the dance? How will we learn to enjoy the Greater Music that is moving us along, together, if all we focus on are the technique and mechanics? Will I let myself step out of the routine and into “play,” improvising with my wife in such a way that we both have fun? And, of course, when she discovers that new joy, I have the opportunity to let it increase my own if I am willing to stay in my own skin on the dance floor with her.
Keen finishes his song, “You guided me gently, though I thought I could never, we were dancing together at the end of the song.” It might have been a contained disaster the first time my wife and I stepped onto a dance floor, but with six-pack instruction in the small space of a double-wide, we both discovered new places in each other and we were indeed dancing together at the end of the song. May we find this again and again until the Greater Song of our lives comes to end.