I don’t dance. I refused to take dance lessons. Modern, ballet, or ballroom. I refused to let my dad teach me to Lindy or Waltz. It was too girly. If I had been allowed to learn how to lead, in pants, I might have done it. If I could have imagined myself as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, I might have done it. But I was damned if I was going to pretend I was Ginger Rodgers. It was a short-sighted decision. To dance naturally you have to start young; it has to be in your bones.
I never learned to partner dance. I can barely dance solo to rock or disco – I shuffle my feet and flap my arms and try to sway on beat. I didn’t dance until I was in college. I learned on a tiny dance floor in the back of The Saint (Boston). There was a mirrored ball and cigarette smoke. It was too crowded to move.
Of all the girly things I refused to do as a child, and there were many, I only regret not learning to dance. I do not regret not learning how to sew, knit, do needlepoint, put on make-up, put together an outfit, walk in heels, flirt, do gymnastics, play jacks, or use a hula-hoop. I’m thankful that I thought swimming, ice skating, and cooking were neutral to masculine activities (life-guard, hockey player, and chef).
My parents met at a synagogue dance. I watched them dance at parties and bar mitzvahs. I was always surprised that they danced so well together. Dancing changed them from parents into a couple. They looked like they knew what they were doing. They told me that dancing was an important social skill that every girl should have. I didn’t listen.
I didn’t dance in front of the mirror. I sang along with the radio, my feet firmly planted on the floor. I didn’t dream about dancing with boys. I dreamed about being a boy.
The first time I danced with Donna was in Ariels (NYC). We’d gone out with a group of women after a meeting. Donna asked me to dance, and I told her I don’t dance. Everyone else was dancing. She pulled me on to the dance floor and told me she was attracted to me. I stepped on her foot. I apologized.
For all the things I never learned to do as a girl there is an equal number of things that I never learned to do as a boy. Never got the chance. Never had the nerve. I’m still a caterpillar.
Donna periodically complains that I don’t dance. I counter complain that she won’t go out for Chinese food. Donna has taken classes in Balkan dancing, sang with a Balkan choir, studied Romanian, and travelled in Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. We go to Balkan dance parties and Gypsy music festivals in the city. Donna dances and I sit on a chair or lean against the wall and listen to the music. The dancers form a line or a circle, hold hands, and swirl across the floor in unison according to an intricate and inscrutable pattern. The first dances are simple, and then they get increasingly obscure and complex. Donna knows the patterns.
In theory, I should like Balkan dancing. There are no gender roles. There is no pairing or partners. Everyone is equal. It is a group dance. But all the bars and clubs you can dance in are straight. I feel out of place.
Every few years I half-heartedly join Donna for the first dance. The other dances never click. My excuse is that I’m dyslexic and uncoordinated. I have to think about how I’m moving and that throws me off the rhythm. I could probably learn a few more dances; if I repeated the steps enough they might come more naturally. I would have to be willing to fail. I would have to take classes, and go to weekly dance sessions. I would have to picture myself as Fred Astaire in a gypsy number in a Hollywood musical. I’m not sure the discomfort of learning would be worth the reward of joining in. I’m sure Donna would disagree.
Notes: Social dance anxiety affects lots of queer and trans folk, including those who really can dance. This post on Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing resonates with me.
The New York Gypsy Festival runs from September 18 to October 4, 2015. I’ll be leaning against the wall drinking Turkish beer.