by Bernice Ribler Fischman

I remember those high school dances in New Jersey in the early ’60s, walking home in tears, by myself, positive that no boy asked me to dance because I wore glasses and had crooked teeth.

I loved to dance and would have loved to dance with a boy. Little did I know that not being asked to dance had much more to do with not knowing how to flirt than a lack of orthodontic work.

Many years later, in 1989, when those dances were a distant memory, my husband and I and our three children moved to Alabama, despite the fact that my husband once drove through the state and sent a postcard home with this sentence: “We will NEVER move to Alabama.”

We are now in our 18th year. My husband always loved country western music, and we were introduced to the fundamentals of country western line and couple dancing soon after we arrived. We took some lessons and learned more and more steps.

We practiced in the living room, in the dining room, banging into the butcher block in the kitchen. The children, of course, were mortified, as we danced by the windows when the blinds were opened.

Country western music was never my favorite, but it was exciting to learn new dances, to even have people tell us that they liked watching us dance. (This only happened when the really good dancers didn’t show up, but we appreciated the flattery.) We heard about a dance hall in Dadeville, Ala., “The World Famous Rodeo Club,” or so the signs proclaimed. It was 35 miles from our house, down some very dark roads. A friend told us that Sally Field, while working on “Norma Rae,” was on that road and likened it to a drive on the moon, so vacant and remote.

On Thursday nights at the Rodeo Club, about 800 Auburn University students would crowd the place to dance, drink beer and play pool. The dance hall was enormous, and it could take us an entire song to completely circle the floor. It was a honky-tonk, and we marveled at the ubiquitous mullet haircuts and the ancient security guard, “Pops,” who couldn’t have stopped a fight or eject anyone if his life depended on it. Yet there was some magic there for us. Even my very unruly hair always seemed to look better at the Rodeo Club. Those were the glory days in Dadeville.

But after a few years, the crowds dwindled and Mark and I were often the only dancers on the floor with our own live band. It felt like we were dancing on a ghost ship. Shortly after they closed their dance floor in 1998, an enterprising group of people transformed an empty supermarket in our home town, Auburn, into a country western dance club. We were there on opening night amidst a bustling and happy crowd of about 2,000 and, a few years later, on closing night when they very rudely stopped playing music at 9:30 p.m. and asked the few remaining loyal patrons to go home.

As the popularity of country western dancing began its decline in our community in the late ’90s, most of the local venues closed, and it appeared we would have to retire our boots and our dancing career. Then we heard about ballroom dance lessons at the local Parks and Rec. My husband was hesitant, but we enrolled in Ballroom Dance I. We took it a few times, followed by the more advanced classes, leading up to Ballroom Dance IV, which we took more times than I can remember. We made friends with our fellow dancers and encouraged each other. Some drove to nearby cities for private lessons with professionals.

We still had children at home and, guilt-ridden as I was, couldn’t justify even more time away from home. Those who drove to Atlanta for private lessons were very serious — mastering posture, what to do with their arms, and a multitude of nuances that we knew nothing about. There was something that held us back from taking ourselves all that seriously. What we often noticed, though, was that some of these well-schooled couples often didn’t appear to be having fun, which was always our raison d’etre for dancing.

We have gone from learning how to do what can only be called “goofy” line dances to attempting to understand the intricacies of the Argentine tango, a dance where balance is critical, as your weight is only supposed to be on one foot, which is no easy feat (forgive the pun). You can almost set your own pace and, if you are really good at it, pause and collect yourself whenever you need or want.

The tango music from Argentina is dramatic, intriguing and staggeringly different from music that has a very predictable pattern. Combine that with the close closed-position, and there is almost nothing as romantic in a public setting. There may even be a trip to Argentina in our future so we can dance with those who know it and do it best.

My current challenge, and what will surely be one for the rest of my dancing life, is to master the art of following, learning how to respond to the minutest of movements of my partner, my beloved spouse of 35 years. It is much harder than it seems, and much more difficult than learning steps and their sequence.

I don’t think introverts (like me) make good leaders, so following should be an easy task. But in dancing, following requires the sure-footedness to always be ready to do something that you haven’t anticipated. Maybe all of this is a metaphor for life lived over 60 when one must be ready for almost anything. No less difficult for the man is learning how to lead, understanding which foot the woman is ready to move on, and initiating a step that can actually be followed.

Dancing is a dynamic hobby, a beautiful art form, enjoyed by duffers trying not to look at their feet while dancing, and by those who make it look so easy. How satisfying it is to learn new steps, to know what dance to do with what music, to be able to switch from samba to waltz to quickstep to two-step to Argentine tango without any hesitation. I have gone from the sadness of having no partner to the joy of dancing with a very special life partner.

At our monthly local dance club dance I marvel at how much people smile, how lovely it is to see couples embrace in dance position, how willingly people share a new step. When we go to Friday night dances, sometimes I think it might be nice to sit at home and relax after a tiring week, but once the music starts, the fatigue vanishes. Not much time is spent sitting on our chairs. There is something quite glorious about dancing the night away.

As a young person I thought that advancing age meant a smaller universe, boredom with tasks done repeatedly, and talking while no one is listening. Of course I now know the folly of that way of thinking. There are couples in their 80s in our local dance club who will tell you about the birth of their sixth great-grandchild and then get up and do a wicked triple swing. It is inspiration in action. You should give it a whirl.

Bernice Ribler Fischman was born in Atlantic City, N.J. She has a bachelor’s degree from Marietta College and works in the horticulture department at Auburn University doing graphics and communications. She is also a professional calligrapher. After 60 years on earth, she has learned that perfection is impossible, yet daunting, and we don’t always have to try to get there.

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  • faith childs February 14, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Wonderful story because it plays out in real time. Hard to resist your sense of overcoming physically getting in your own way and becoming less conscious of yourself and learning to move through space.
    Somehow the connection with Argentine tango music is so apt as that is so very emotive and (to my mind at least) intellectual at the same time. Am reminded of a richly complex evolution of Astor Piazzola, a king of the bandoneon, so common to tango music, whose trajectory took him from listening to Cab Calloway and jazz in the Bronx to formal study with Nadia Boulanger and then to Buenos Aires.
    In the end, we are all admixtures of the places we have lived and danced.