Groove Is in the Heart

XX Files
CATHY ALTER is the author of "Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over," now available in paperback. (Courtesy Author)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Cathy Alter
Sunday, August 2, 2009

As soon as the music begins, so does the yelling.

"Toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel!"

The woman directing all this high-stepping is wearing lime green satin shorts and a T-shirt that reads "Hello, My Name Is Fabulous." She regards the sorry lot of us in a wall-length mirror, marches over to a portable CD player and turns up the volume.

"Again!" she barks. "Faster!"

The class moves at varying speeds and with varying degrees of success.

Come and meet those dancing feet, I sing in my head. On the avenue I'm taking you to, Forty-Second Street!

Except I am nowhere near the Great White Way. I'm in a rundown Arlington dance studio that smells like furniture polish and old gym socks, trying my best to make it through my first tap-dancing class.

Things are not going well. With my long body and disproportionately huge hands hanging loosely in front of me, I imagine that I look like a postmodern Fred Astaire. The mirror tells a different story, even though I try hard not to look in it. When I do, I see a figure I no longer recognize. When did my shoulders become so stooped?

A few weeks earlier, I had looked into another mirror, the one in my bathroom, just as the oldies station began playing Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." As I gave myself a long, hard look, it suddenly dawned on me: I don't dance anymore.

Gaynor's song, released a year after "Saturday Night Fever" hit the big screen, had been the surefire crowd pleaser among the bar and bat mitzvah brigade. I was in eighth grade and just starting to burn up the dance floors in the various banquet halls and finished basements where my friends were celebrating their entry, at 13, into adulthood. My social life has never compared to the one I led in eighth grade, when Friday and Saturday nights were spent perfecting the claps and turns of the Bus Stop and the finger-pointing glory of the "Saturday Night Fever" strut. My parents' bedroom, with its wall of mirrors and speakers hidden behind the drapes, became my rehearsal studio. As soon as I got home from school, I'd put on Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and slide and snap until my mother called me down for dinner, where I'd eat to the beat of the music still playing in my head.

You would think that a teenager like me -- a good foot taller than the rest of the girls and boys at my school, bony and shapeless with hair that was often unwashed and left to find its own style -- would feel clumsy and self-conscious under strobe lights. But at a tender time when I should have felt betrayed by my own body, all feet and flapping hands, I remained fully, obliviously connected to it.

Later, as a freshman in college, my world was blown open when my first boyfriend played me the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and Run-DMC's "Sucker M.C.'s." Music mattered to me back then in the way things matter when you're young and limitless and on your own for the first time. Loving music and loving dancing were the same thing, intertwined like a pulsating strand of DNA. I would sweat through my clothes dancing at frat parties, my head thrown back, arms swaying like a wild batch of sea anemones.

When I moved to New York City a few years later, I spent every weekend at the Surf Club. My roommate and I would get there early to avoid the $10 cover charge, and we wouldn't go home until we had heard the greatest dance song of all time, Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart."

I had no intention of ever stepping back into that scene when I moved to Washington nearly a decade ago. Too much had happened: the loss of a job, the eternal losses of dear friends, a painful breakup. And even though I was ecstatically remarried, I didn't dance at my own wedding (my fiance had smashed his knees to smithereens in a motorcycle accident a month earlier). The years of accumulated stress and disappointment had hunched and tensed my body into unfamiliar shapes. No wonder I didn't feel like dancing anymore.

But while listening to Gaynor in my bathroom, I realized how much I missed the joyful release that dancing allowed. Afraid that reentering the club scene would make me look like a crazy old drunk uncle at a wedding, I decided to try tapping as a more, um, age-appropriate way to get my groove on.

"I will teach you the time step if it's the last thing I do!" shouts the lady in the satin shorts. I am certain she is looking at me. "Stop thinking so much!"

There are no past regrets or future worries on the dance floor. There is only now, and the way the body moves so freely within it. I once heard someone explaining golf as "keeping your head where your feet are." The same thing could be said about dancing.

As I trip forward, trying not to shuffle when I should be hopping, I catch another glimpse of myself in the mirror and realize I am smiling.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company