Modern life doesn’t offer us many chances at romance. We may find love, sex, companionship, and compatibility… but romance remains strangely elusive.
Except, that is, on the dance floor.
I wrote my novel The Unexpected Waltz based on my experiences in a ballroom dance studio. At the beginning of the story, my heroine Kelly—who is rich, beautiful, and recently widowed—wanders into a ballroom by accident and is immediately enchanted. While unfortunately I’m not as rich or as beautiful as Kelly, my entry into dance was likewise accidental. I had always loved the old MGM movies and was a big Dancing with the Stars fan, but the idea of actually stepping onto a ballroom floor terrified me. The surging music, the men in tuxedos, the rhinestones and eyelashes and scary-high heels—they seemed like part of someone else’s life, not mine.
One day as I was leaving a Trader Joe’s near my house, I went into the ballroom studio next door and, on impulse, signed up for an introductory lesson. Dance changed my life.
Through the studio I’ve met lots of people who have been likewise drawn into this strange subculture known as ballroom dance. On the surface, we seem to have little in common: There are surgical nurses and teenagers, airline pilots, and a mortician. Every nationality and age group you can imagine comes to the studio, but we share, I suspect, the same sort of yearning deep inside. We want more romance in our daily lives.
The couples I’ve met say that dance has rejuvenated their marriages. One man said, only half joking, “It gives us a whole new thing to fight about.” But he and his wife have traveled across the country going to competitions from Seattle to Miami, have invested in ball gowns and tails, and have even choreographed routines based on the music they used to listen to when they first dated, back in the early ’60s.
“To have something we both care about so much is a gift,” his wife says. “And even the process of learning something new together has been great for us. When you get into your sixties, you generally don’t learn that many new things and life can get stale. But with ballroom, there’s always a new level to conquer and new steps to master, and it keeps us young together.”
It’s commonly assumed that singles get into dance looking for a romantic partner, and sometimes it does work out that way. You certainly meet a lot of prospects. People who dance tend to be energetic and outgoing. At the parties my studio holds every Friday night, everyone dances with everyone, so you have a chance to meet new people. I personally know of four couples who met on the ballroom floor; three of them eventually married.
But I think for most single people, the boost that ballroom gives their love life is a little more subtle. Whether or not dance leads them into a new relationship, it almost invariably reawakens a part of their soul, which has lain dormant for a long time—feeling flirtatious in a foxtrot, perhaps, or sexy in a samba. Remembering the pulse-pounding fun of a quick dance like the jive or relaxing into the elegance of the waltz.
Anyone who dances will tell you that it helps you gain more confidence in your body. It improves flexibility, posture, and balance, of course, and the cardio benefits are undeniable. The people who really get into it, dancing four or more times a week, almost invariably lose weight and gain muscle tone. But there’s also the deeper kind of confidence that comes with learning to express your emotions through your body, acting out the mood of each particular piece of music.
Take, for example, the art of the lead and follow. Letting the man call the shots can be a hard notion for modern women, who are used to making their own decisions and being independent. (I for one had to be blindfolded before my instructor got me to really trust his lead.) But lead and follow isn’t a matter of a man dragging a woman around the dance floor around against her will; it’s a delicate interplay with each person constantly reading nonverbal clues from his or her partner. The lead involves the slightest suggestion from a man, and the follow is the willing response of the woman. My instructor likens it to constantly opening doors and inviting your partner to walk through.
When it works, it feels like magic.
In fact, when it works, everything about dance feels magical. Some people dance to spice up existing relationships. Others dance to find new relationships, some for the sheer fun of the movement, with no thought of finding a permanent partner. But what they all have in common is that while dance will not necessarily find you a lover, it will almost certainly make you a better one— one who is more confident, sensual, responsive, and relaxed.