Gulya is my dance instructor. She’s from Azerbaijan, she’s five feet tall, and I’m afraid of her. Gulya, too, is afraid. She fears I will stomp my wife’s toes. I’m wearing boots, because we are a month away from a wedding on a California ranch, where real cowboys will be dancing real cowboy dances. Faced with this prospect, I realized several weeks ago that my choices are:
1) Ask my beautiful wife to sit beside me in a gorgeously decorated barn and watch everyone else dance the night away;
2) Sit by myself in said barn and watch my wife dance the night away with cowboys;
3) Learn how to dance.
In other words, I have no choice.
We are learning a country-western waltz. This is distinctly different from a Viennese waltz. I didn’t grow up in the West, I’ve never been to Vienna, and my only dance lessons were when my grandmother would toss back an extra snort of Blue Nun, stoop to clasp me cheek-to-cheek, and dance a tango in the living room. I take Gulya’s word about what kind of waltz this is.
I first came to her in secret. I explained my dilemma, about the cowboys and the barn and my beautiful wife.
“Why you no bring your wife?” she’d asked.
“She already knows how to dance. And I want to surprise her.”
I began sneaking every few days to the dance studio. Gulya taught me the basics of the foxtrot, the two-step, and the waltz. She taught me while deftly avoiding errant strikes from my steel tips, like some kind of Azerbaijani ninja.
“Your form is good,” she told me the first day. “You have taken dance lessons before?”
“No. It’s from katas.”
“What dance is this?”
I explained that a kata is a martial-arts form. I used to kickbox. This gave her hope, which proved to be ill founded. My big toes are ruined from it, so sometimes I limp. And though I may move well, I keep my weight unevenly distributed, my torso tilted back.
“Why you keep leaning away?”
“So I don’t get knocked out.”
Gulya shook her head.
One Saturday afternoon at home, seized by a fit of romance and inspired by Leonard Cohen, I took Maggie in my arms and began to waltz her about the kitchen. “No, step your right foot back when I step forward. Now to the side.”
“Wait, why are we turning?”
“Because that’s how you waltz.”
“Well, move your feet.”
Maggie settled into a hybrid combination of stutter-steps and long strides to catch up with wherever I tried to drag her.“Have you been practicing?” she asked.
“I looked up some moves on the Internet,” I lied.
She looked at me admiringly. “That’s impressive. I don’t know many people who can learn to dance from a diagram.”
I felt guilty, because I don’t have the spatial-reasoning skills to understand a diagram. I stepped on her toe again. “I have a confession,” I said. “I’ve been taking dance lessons.”
“I didn’t want to embarrass you at the wedding.”
Maggie laughed. Then she started crying.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Sweetheart. No.” She put her arms around my neck in decidedly unsuitable dance form and we swayed about the kitchen. We agreed she would start coming with me, if only to learn how to avoid injury from my one-man stampede.
So here we are. Gulya instructs me how to turn Maggie without trampling her. You have to take short steps when she is turning, she explains. Yes, the dance has a structure, but we have to accommodate ourselves to one another. Dancing isn’t just steps, it’s you and your partner.
I gave Gulya no end of amusement, in our early lessons, when I frequently compared dancing to horseback riding. “With your hand on my shoulder you signal you are turning me,” she would say.
“Like I let the horse know with my knees,” I would reply.
“Are you calling me a horse?”
I resist the horse analogy now, with Maggie. A rancher friend explained once that you should think of a horse like a rebellious toddler. He’ll test you by cutting corners, by trying to walk when you want him still, by stooping for grass when you want him walking. Let him get away with it and he’ll keep pushing the limits. On one of my first solo rides, the horse figured out pretty quickly who was in charge, and sauntered—despite my timid rein yanking and imprecations—all the way back to the barn. On top of that, I have four sons. I know something about rebellious creatures.
I recall this as Maggie edges farther and farther left, because in her mind we should be traveling in a waltzing circle. I have other notions, because I am envisioning a barn, which to the best of my knowledge tends to come in rectangular form. I course-correct, she stumbles, gives me a look.
“Who do you want steering this thing?” I ask. It’s a question many husbands have asked, if only under their breath.
To be continued tomorrow.
Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website is tonywoodlief.com.