On the Dance Floor -- and Beyond It -- Time to Step Up

By Laura Oliver
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 13, 2005

It's already 7 p.m. and we are late because Margaret is always late and she's driving. Now she is flying down the road as if we're competitors in "The Amazing Race" -- while groping around behind her in the back seat to find her purse.

"Here," she says, dropping it in my lap, "write the check for me." And with that, she slams on the brakes. We come to an abrupt stop so close to the car in front of us that I can read the fine print on its bumper sticker: "What if the Hokey Pokey is what it's all about?"

"If that's true," I say, "we're in trouble." We're late for our first lesson in the Lindy Hop, a precursor to the jitterbug. At home, my 16-year-old daughter, Emily, is on the computer visiting college Web sites, taking virtual tours. I feel a little guilty that I had to rush dinner and leave her home alone to go out on a weeknight.

Our classmates are already on the floor when we arrive. We drop our checks at the registration table and find places in a small group of women clustered behind Tina, one of the instructors. She is petite, about 30, with a dancer's body and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other women look 35 to 45, friendly, self-deprecating. Their expressions are anxious, excited, determined; everyone has a faint flush of something else that looks like hope.

The group's attention is riveted on Tina, who has begun by demonstrating the basic "swing-out." This step is our ticket to proficiency, she assures us. A good swing-out will get us anywhere we want to go. Tina is wearing a short skirt that flares when she snaps around. She's in a sleeveless white blouse and soon we know why. The Lindy Hop is quite a workout. I glance over at Margaret. She is concentrating on Tina's feet as if they might explode.

Margaret is newly cured of a brain tumor. She lives in a state of grace and urgency -- she keeps busy. Margaret, too, has a daughter leaving for college.

Exactly one year ago we were at Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston, in a prep room, watching students insert IVs before Margaret's surgery. She had insisted on being awake for it. The first time the tumor was removed, before it began growing again, she was under general anesthesia and awoke unable to speak. It was three months before "thanks" stopped coming out "window," or "tuna" stopped coming out "sleeve."

As a group we repeatedly try to duplicate Tina's footwork. We learn steps with names: the Texas Tommy, the Side-by-Side Charleston. Tina repeats herself patiently, as if we are exceptionally slow. This is necessary. Next to us, the men who have shown up for this initiation are imitating George, the male instructor. He is also about 30 and a perfect complement to Tina; I can imagine their likenesses on top of a wedding cake. George has a headset mike. We hear the men practicing a step called the Hard Bugger. George and Tina make eye contact, "We're ready," she says.

The two groups merge awkwardly, sliding, shifting, trying to form two lines to stand opposite each other, but there are more women than men. Those who have secured partners shrug sympathetically at those still maneuvering but don't budge. Finally we come to rest with one extra woman sitting out. We turn to look expectantly at our instructors.

My first partner, I discover later, is only pretending to be a beginner -- he's actually in the intermediate class, which meets directly after ours and has come for review. Everyone wants to dance with someone slightly better, so I'm in luck. "Stop pushing," he says, then, "You're not letting me lead!" I apologize and we proceed to learn a dance so intricately stylized it won't translate to partners who have not had the same class. I ask myself again, "Why am I here?"

Am I here because of Cecelia? Cecelia was the daughter of my husband's employer. She was an exuberant 6-year-old with a very round face, and a head that appeared too large for her sturdy body. We were at her ballet recital, and the group performing before Cecelia's was a gymnastics class of 4-year-olds. They scuttled onto the stage, then tumbled, rolled, flipped and basically hopped up and down with enthusiasm. I glanced at Cecelia. She was rapt, transported. She had found her calling, and it wasn't ballet.

A second later Cecelia somersaulted onto the stage in her tutu and proceeded to imitate what she'd just seen -- careening, cartwheeling into the other ballerinas who were becoming teary as they tried to shuffle clear of a flushed and triumphant Cecelia.

Like Cecelia I need the courage for spontaneity, especially now because I don't know what's next. We are legion, those of us who don't know. Margaret is simply the extreme because her not-knowing has had a physical manifestation. The rest of us are women whose children are beginning to take flight: the mothers of teenagers who have either left home or are preparing to -- getting driver's licenses, boyfriends, girlfriends, first jobs, choosing colleges. We all knew this day was coming and we are still unprepared for it. We'd like to dance our own dance, but we need choreography now.

I have three children. The first two, a son and daughter, left home early, in pursuit of their futures, adventure. They live in other time zones and hemispheres. Now the last, Emily, is thinking about what she'd like to do with her life -- maybe a career in photojournalism. She examines the entire country for a state she'd like to live in -- not this one , she says with certainty, then looks quickly at me, in case voicing her independence has hurt me.

It becomes a club, I realize as the dance lessons continue. These people drive hours to find partners who know the reciprocal steps. I come home and try to show Emily what I've learned. I look silly and awkward counting off the Texas Tommy on the tile floor of the kitchen. There's no music, except I suppose, in my head.

Yet I am almost bursting with my desire for Emily to see this as I see it -- how fun it is when the steps are flawless and you know where to go. But my awkward attempt at duplicating what George and Tina can do is about as accurate as tuna coming out sleeve ; about as accurate as my longing for time to stand still, but instead coming out I'm excited for you, be happy. Goodbye.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company