There was one thing I overlooked when I signed up with Johanna for dance lessons. I overlooked the need to learn and remember the dance steps. In my utopian vision, I’d be learning three or four new steps each lesson and soon after I’d be magically dispersing those steps with ease as I swanned around the dance floor. What’s more, I’d be in charge of things, decisively choosing when my partner would do an underarm turn or promenade or spin quickly back to my arms. Right? Wrong.
Reality has turned out to be a bit more dystopian. I had to remember all the dance steps, I had to take the initiative and decide when to do what (that’s called leading) and I had to keep time with the music. I also had to have good visual awareness and be able to the dodge speeding waltzers who were overtaking us, and figure out evasive manoeuvres to extricate us from looming ballroom dead ends. And the final imposition? I was supposed to have a conversation at the same time. It seemed all that my dance partner had to do was to move in the direction that I indicated. It seemed I got the raw end of the deal, the pressure seemed to be all on me (and, okay, I admit I was initially annoyed).
I recently changed my mind, slightly. Arthur Murray described ballroom dancing as “a conversation set to music”. I feel confident partaking in social conversation in my mother tongue, but I realised that I was feeling stressed on the dance floor because I wasn’t (yet) fluent in this new language. I feel the same anxiety when I visit a non-English-speaking country. “You hold a dance partner’s interest through musical rhythm,” Arthur said. Feel free to pile on the pressure, Arthur. And he did. “Just as a speaking knowledge on many subjects makes you a more interesting talker, dancing knowledge of a variety of steps and tempos makes you a more interesting dancer.”
So there I was. In dance terms I was in a foreign country, having learnt the first few “Useful words” pages of the phrase book. I could dance the equivalent of “Good morning”, “How are you?”, “How much is that?” and “Two more beers, please.” Pretty boring conversation. And I was probably saying it with a terrible Aussie accent. No wonder my dance partners were misinterpreting me and stumbling around. It suddenly all makes sense. I’m counting the beat, slow-slow-quick-quick-slow, and trying to think what I should say next.
Then one night I dreamed I encountered an ancient Arthur Murray. He had retired to a cave (complete with polished wooden floorboards and mirrors) alongside a swamp on a strange little planet called Dagobah. He invited me into his cave and gave me some words of wisdom (strangely, he had the accent and demeanour of Yoda from Star Wars). “A foreigner who has not learned a language has difficulty in making himself understood,” he whispered, sternly. “Of the right words, he tries so hard to think. If thinking about each step you are, then expressing yourself you cannot. Fear is the path to the dark side. Only one way there is, to be a good dancer. Learn – and practice.”
That’s it. The same advice could have come from Mr Miyagi, or Gandalf or Aslan. Learn – and practise.
Waking from my enlightened fugue I also became more conciliatory to the dance partners whose “simple” job it is to follow the lead. Female beginners are also dealing with a new language, but in their case they are trying to understand either a local speaking rapidly in a strange dialect, or a lost tourist (me) who is mangling the language. They have to interpret and respond in kind, to ‘keep up the conversation’.
No easy task, I have to admit. Maybe I have the better deal – trying out the lingo and observing the results. What’s the worst that could happen? Hmmm. I tried to parlay a foxtrot grapevine on our chief instructor at a dance party a few weeks back. It was lost in translation. “Sorry, I didn’t feel that at all,” she said, politely.
Live and learn. Learn and practise.
Signing off now, to prepare for a conversational language practice session aka our Friday night social.