More than ten years ago now, I went to a group dance lesson at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, because I had to do an attempt at literary reporting for my creative non-fiction class. I was not ready to write non-fiction at that point, and anything that smelled like journalism made me hyperventilate. But I’m a follow-the-rules kind of girl, so I did the assignment.
The first Saturday of each month, the museum opened its doors, free of charge. You could view the exhibits, or watch a movie, but most of us were there for the dance lesson. This week’s dance was the Argentine Tango.
A crowd had already gathered on the third floor when we arrived. The willing dancers gathered in the center of the floor, around the small circular stage. There was a woman in a conservative black skirt suit, with stiff white wings on her back, and children running through the maze of casually dressed adults. Another group, the circumspect, sat on the steps at the edges of the floor, holding pocketbooks, legs crossed. The last group, the voyeurs, mostly well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings, leaned over the railings on the floor above.
In the center of the room, the four dance instructors stood on the podium, each facing a corner of the room. The two men wore black suits, one wearing a microphone headset. He welcomed us in a broken stream of words until the microphone was adjusted. The two women wore low cut black dresses and chunky heeled black dance shoes.
“Everyone step to your right,” the man with the microphone said. “Feet should be together – is that true for you?” he asked, and many people looked down at their feet to check. “Step to the left.” Everyone moved in the same direction at the same time, like a dial clicking one notch at a time.
The instructors demonstrated the next steps forward, hugging in the center of the stage as the rest of us tripped over each other trying to imitate them. The next part of the lesson: arm position. “This is the dance of passion,” the instructor said. “So whoever you’re pretending to hold, pretend to hold them in a passionate way.” He paused, then added, “For you youngsters – just hold your arms up.”
The music started. The main instructor, with an eyebrow raised, asked the single dancers to partner up. Two teenage girls with long blond hair and various piercings held onto each other and giggled. A grey haired couple stood side by side, wearing sensible rubber-soled shoes.
A mother danced with her young daughter. An older white man was paired with a little black girl looking for a partner. A little girl danced with her cabbage patch doll.
“The Tango is all about getting to know someone,” the instructor said. A teenage girl in a black dress and high heels pointed to her arm position and said to her boyfriend, in his jeans and ratty t-shirt, “This is my dance space, this is your dance space,” a line from the movie Dirty Dancing. He seemed to know the reference, because the next thing he did was to lean in to her dance space and kiss her.
My dogs would never be able to make sense of a Tango, with its sidelong glances and quick flicks and tension. They’re much too straightforward for that, but they have created their own dance forms. Cricket has a “Grandma’s home!” dance that involves a lot of hopping on her two back paws and reaching up into the air with her front paws. Butterfly has an outdoor dance with a lot of skipping and hopping and galloping, before she finally stops to poop. They also have a few partner dances, where they cross leashes and sniff each other and run side by side and then pull apart.
The dance floor at the museum began to look like an oversized game of Twister after a while, with a widening gap between the serious dancing couples and everyone else just playing around, snapping fingers, running instead of dancing, shimmying when that was not what the instructor called for.
A man in a long black coat, black hat, and beard, danced with a woman in a modest red dress on the outskirts of the crowd. He leaned down after a complicated step, and she reached up, to kiss him on the lips. Their teenage son, in the same kind of plain black suit, with fringes dangling out of the corners of his white shirt, wandered through the couples, wind-milling his arms, dancing on his own, twirling his coat like a black dancing skirt.
His parents watched him, but let him be. I noticed the couple because they were obviously Jewish and therefore familiar, but even more than that because they looked so comfortable in their bodies. You could see their relationship in every move they made: the private jokes, the comfortable fit of one hand in another, the playful kiss on the cheek. When I watch Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance, they’re always emphasizing the sexuality and formality of dance, but this was something more real and down to earth; this was like watching a long-married couple do dishes together, or listening in on a gentle disagreement about the color of the curtains.
This is what I love about watching Cricket and Butterfly dance, every move they make is real and expresses something they actually feel in the moment. It’s not formal or theoretical, it’s down to earth and full of life. If I could ever create a dance for myself, that’s what I’d want it to be like, especially if I could include a swirling dance skirt, and a few puppies for good measure.