“Cha, cha, 1, 2, 3.”
“Cha, cha, 2, 2, 3.”
“Cha, cha, 3, 2, 3.”
I said it out loud, over and over. In just 30 minutes, I’d be onstage before 375 people, performing a six-minute cha-cha routine with a man I’d partnered with just that afternoon.
My legs were shaking. Before I’d arrived at Dance Camp Las Vegas four days earlier, I’d never done the cha-cha. Now I had to step and turn and spin and wave my arms dramatically while keeping a smile glued on my face, even if I screwed up. (“Smile, ladies,” ordered our Ukrainian instructor, Artem Plakhotnyi. “Always smile.”)
Would I forget a step? Would I fall? Would I run off the dance floor in shame?
I love dancing, but I’m by no means a dancer. This isn’t for lack of trying on my parents’ part. They’d been big dancers when I was a girl, turning the basement of our home in Queens into a party room, complete with a full bar and neon lights, where they and their friends danced salsa, merengue and cumbia well into the mornings. But I moved out of our largely Latino neighborhood 17 years ago and haven’t kept up with my salsa. My only hope now was that dance boot camp had made me a better hoofer than I was before.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the country’s gone dance crazy. It’s not just the popularity of shows like “DWTS” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” Nowadays, there are dance-themed cruises and dance camps nationwide to help you learn how to hoof it like Fred and Ginger. (Or pale — and probably ponderous — approximations thereof, anyway.) I’d caught the fever, but could I corral my feet?
At the four-day Mastery Camp by Dance Vision at the Paris Las Vegas hotel, classes ran from 8 a.m. to about 6:30 p.m. each day, with a 90-minute lunch break. The selection of dance styles went on and on: rumba, mambo, international and American tango, East Coast swing, quickstep, international and American waltz. I’d never even heard of some of the dances.
The day before our closing-night performance, I’d been on the verge of giving up. My feet had inflated as much as my confidence had deflated. In practice, I’d miscounted and started the second half of the routine too early, throwing off our timing. Our instructor, Inna Berlizyeva, a lithe blond Ukrainian, had made us redo it multiple times. Seven other couples would be performing with us, and I didn’t want to let them down.
After practice, I’d run into Ron Davidson, a longtime dancer from central Pennsylvania, who tried to pump up my confidence. “Everyone up there messes up. The main thing to do is to keep going,” he counseled. His pep talk had worked — but only briefly. As showtime approached, I was losing my nerve again.
My new partner, Mark Brown, an always-grinning 50-something Texan, was trying to calm me down.
Apparently, I was over-rotating the spin that starts the second part of the routine. Instead of ending up directly in front of Mark, I was landing two to three steps to his right. He had to take a few steps toward me so that we’d be facing each other for the second half of the routine. It didn’t look graceful at all. We practiced my spin several times before our performance. So many times that I got dizzy. Then my shoe slipped off, and I almost fell.
We came up with a plan. When it was time for me to start my turn, he’d squeeze my hand to let me know it was time to go and thrust me forward. Then I would do one and a half revolutions — fewer than I’d been doing — so that I’d land in front of him.
“Will you catch me if I fall?” I asked Mark.
“Don’t worry. I’ll catch you.”
He wrapped his hand around mine. Places, please.
The dancing started immediately at the opening-night reception at Dance Vision’s camp. I ended up at a table with Ron. He was an “ambassador,” someone who’d been to the camp at least five times and was now tapped to welcome newbies like me.
“Everyone starts with two left feet,” he said, looking dapper in a maroon tie and crisp black pants. “If you can’t do something, sit it out. There’s no caste system among ballroom dancers.”
That night, I sat out most of the songs, even though a few people asked to get on my dance card. Then Ron grabbed my arms and dragged me to the floor to show me the box step, the most basic move in dancing. “You have to get this down,” he said. “It’s the basis of everything.”
I tried to follow his lead, but clearly, I had my work cut out for me.
It wasn’t even 8 a.m., and many of our instructors were wearing sequins. But then, this was Vegas.
Kasia Kozak, a fierce-looking, well-toned dancer in a hot pink shirt with matching highlights in her hair, led us through the beginners’ level of Ladies’ Latin technique. We tapped our heels together and swayed from side to side. We balanced on the balls of our feet, then on our toes. We segued into the box step.
“Your feet are slaves to your legs,” she said. “Think of the foot as the tire and the leg as the wheel. Your tire does not move without the wheel.”
Next was East Coast swing. Inna and Artem, the Ukrainian power couple, were our instructors. First they demonstrated the dance. Their bodies moved effortlessly, blending into each other at all the right moments. “It’s easy,” Inna said.
Easy for her to say.
“Triple step, triple step, rock step,” she shouted when it was time for us to try it. The women outnumbered the men, so we ladies had to be aggressive and grab partners before others did. I managed to lasso one guy who looked almost twice my age.
“You’re forgetting your rock step,” my partner told me.
I moved on to the next guy, who was only slightly younger. “You’re having trouble with swings,” he said.
East Coast swing was clearly not my thing. Neither was the American fox trot. I glided backward down the ballroom, pulling my partner too hard. So hard that we almost fell.
Donald Johnson, our instructor, made everyone stop and then singled me out as an example of what not to do.
“You’re going too fast,” he scolded me. “If you step first and he steps on you, whose fault is that? Yours.”
By the time I got to tango class, I had a full-blown migraine.
“Come with me,” Lynn Magnaye whispered. We sneaked out of the room.
Lynn was a Canadian dance instructor taking classes for her certification. “It’s too much,” she said. “Too long of a day.”
She advised me to pick and choose the dances I wanted to learn rather than try to learn them all. Then she looked down at my sneakers and told me that I needed better shoes. Of course, there was a vendor on site selling real dance shoes, the kind you see contestants wearing on “DWTS.”
I tried a few on but they were either too tight or too loose, or, frankly, too ugly. The vendor stared at my feet. “Your feet are shaped weird,” he told me.
Apparently, having two left feet was the least of my problems.
“This is a sexy dance,” Inna said as she and Artem demonstrated the bolero. “You have to feel the man.”
They looked deeply into each other’s eyes as they breezed through the routine. I felt like a voyeur watching them. When the music stopped, they couldn’t disengage from each other because their belt buckles had gotten entangled. The room erupted in laughter.
Now it was our turn. They separated the men from the women and showed each of us our steps. Then they had us pick partners. I chose Ray Wiedmeyer, whose wife I’d befriended in an earlier class.
“I have such a hard time with the bolero,” he said.
I was thrilled to hear someone else admit to having trouble with a dance.
“Slow, quick, quick, slow,” Inna directed.
Ray wasn’t moving his leg far enough back, which made it hard for me to take my two quick steps to the right. And when it was time for us to turn, I missed the timing and turned during the slow step when I was supposed to do it during the two quick steps.
“Sorry,” I said to Ray.
“Don’t worry, it’s me, too,” he replied.
By the end of class, I was starting to get the steps right. Then I breezed through mambo class. My confidence was growing.
Until I got to international waltz.
The room was packed and my partner was spinning me around so much that I got dizzy, lost my balance and bumped into another couple. It wasn’t just me, though. We looked like a roomful of human bumper cars.
Donald stopped us to give us a pep talk, of sorts.
“I know this seems tedious, but I’m planting the seeds,” he said. “Let them germinate. Muscle memory. You have to do something 10,000 times to master it.”
He paused and surveyed the crowd. “Yes, we have a long way to go,” he declared.
I had a very long way to go with my cha-cha routine. At the first practice, I couldn’t even get the basic steps down; then, during each session, Inna and Artem added more moves. I needed help, so I texted Lynn that second night of camp.
“Show me what you can do,” she said when I arrived at her hotel room.
I performed the first steps of the routine. Rock step back, cha-cha to the left, cha-cha to the right, rock step forward. Repeat. Then side step with arms up high.
“Okay, stop,” she said. I was too stiff, she told me.
“Seduce your partner. The cha-cha is a flirty dance. You step to the side, you’re saying, ‘Here I am.’ Then you step forward with your left leg. You’re saying ‘This is what I’ve got.’ Then you step back. You’re saying ‘I’m taking it away.’ Dance is all about lies. It’s all about illusion.”
Somehow, it all started to make sense.
On the final day, our schedule was once again packed with classes, but my mind was only on the cha-cha.
Annette Gadberry, a flight attendant from Texas who’d become my closest friend at camp, was also standing on the sidelines at most of the classes. She was at the camp with her husband, who takes ballroom dance classes regularly back home. Annette was undecided about performing the cha-cha that night, even though she’d been practicing all week.
“If you do it, I’ll do it,” she said over lunch.
“If you do it, I’ll do it,” I repeated.
I returned to practice determined to get through my routine. First, I’d get rid of my partner, who was impatient and unfriendly. I ended up with Mark after his more experienced partner agreed to switch with me. I’d met Mark a couple of days earlier, during American waltz. As usual, I’d been struggling with the routine and had sat down. When class was over, he grabbed my arms. “Don’t pay attention to the instructors,” he told me. “Let’s just waltz.” After his tutorial, I found myself waltzing correctly.
Ninety minutes before showtime, I went to Lynn’s room for a final rehearsal and some primping.
“Why am I doing this?” I asked, as she curled my hair.
“Because you’re spreading your wings,” she replied. “Remember that you’re in a group, and no one is looking at just you. Even the professionals get butterflies.”
I looked in the mirror. My hair looked great. Now if only my routine would.
It was chaotic backstage as we tried to line up in the proper order. One woman was missing. Another dancer in my group was calmly drinking a glass of white wine and offered me a sip. As tempted as I was to gulp it down to calm my nerves, I worried that it would make me lose my balance.
When the announcer gave us our cue, Mark squeezed my hand. I tried to smile, but managed just a weak grin. I lifted my arm and walked onto the dance floor as confidently as I could.
Mark counted out the routine for me the entire time and never stopped smiling. I kept my eyes on him, not on the crowd.
Then the music stopped. I’d been a bit stiff, but I hadn’t fallen, and I hadn’t given up.
I listened to the applause. And then I smiled.
For real this time.