A Dance Story | Part 3 – I Danced Pretty One Day

Continuation of A Dance Story – I Danced Pretty One Day | Part 3 by Bryant Hankins

My Mentor

One night I struck up a conversation with the older man named Sam that seemed to live there. When he wasn’t taking lessons with Natalya, the smiling studio owner, he was practicing by himself in the corner. I liked the way he talked because he had no filter and everything was definitive.

His phrases went like this: “I will beat him the next time I dance against him” and “I will become a best-selling author.” 

He always had definitive advice for everyone and started to become my Yoda at the studio. Originally I was focusing on six different dances.

But he told me “You need to focus your energy on three dances so you can do them well. Don’t let them talk you into more dances. It’s big money for them.” He said it with complete confidence.  I looked up at him and waited for him to dispense more wisdom.

“You should focus on the rhythm dances because you are still young and can move your hips. You see him over there?” He pointed to one of the other students “He’s too fat to be able to do the rhythm dances.” My mentor was very wise.

I turned to watch Sam glide around the floor with Natalya. He had to be near sixty and she looked to be in her late twenties. He had grey hair and a salt and pepper mustache while she had long curly auburn hair. He was American and she was Russian. Even with all these differences they moved smoothly together and appeared to be in sync in every way. They danced the Waltz to music with a three count and zoomed around the floor rising and falling as one on the beat. By the end of his lesson he was dripping sweat and smiling.

I caught him on the way out the door to ask him if he had any final tips for me to properly prepare for a competition.

“Sure. One last thing,” he said. “Don’t let people at work make fun of you for dancing. They all think I’m a pervert for dancing with a woman that’s half my age.”

 He chuckled as he walked out. Like I said my mentor was very wise.

A dance story part 3

My Competition

After months of training, the day of the competition arrived. I was nervous, but was able to eat a protein bar, so I figured that was a good start. I packed all of my fancy dance clothes which consisted of a black shiny shirt and a bedazzled rhinestone tie. I made sure to bring along a bag containing important dance items like deodorant, mints, bananas and hairspray. Never forget the hairspray. That could spell dance disaster.

When I walked out the door, I asked my wife if she was still planning to attend. She was noncommittal because of a busy schedule at work, but said she would make it if she could. I knew it wasn’t her thing so I didn’t want to push. In my mind, I figured she probably wouldn’t make it.

As I drove to the hotel, I thought about all my years as a high school and college tennis athlete. I’d competed in so many tennis matches that competitions were second nature to me. Not only that, I’d even won my college intramural ping pong championship. With that kind of mental fortitude I was convinced that I’d have no problem with a simple dance competition. How hard could it be?

When I arrived at the Westin, I looked around the ballroom and was amazed by all the dresses and makeup. The dresses shown like the sun with all of their sequins and bedazzled gems. It was as if someone robbed a jewelry store and then sprayed the merchandise all over a dress. The dresses revealed as much skin as possible without becoming truly pornographic. The amount of makeup was stunning.  Women sauntered around with dark red lipstick and deep black eyeshadow caked on like sexy clowns.

Our studio had reserved a table near the dance floor almost like a sports team dugout. People were practicing and getting psyched up for their dances. Wardrobe malfunctions were being adjusted and feathers were being placed strategically with bobby pins. Everyone was preternaturally tan like they had used the whole bottle of self-tanner and then applied a second one just in case. Only white teeth flashed amid their dark tanned faces. They were ready for battle.

Arianna found me and asked her standard question, “How are you feeling?” I was terrified but said “good” as people often do when they don’t want to speak the truth. We did a quick warm-up of all our routines. It didn’t go awesome but I didn’t pass out so I consider that a success.

Then it was time for the awful waiting game. I watched others dance while waiting for my turn. I couldn’t really focus on them because I kept thinking through my steps in my head. Was it left foot forward then right? Was that hold for a half beat or a full beat? I suddenly started to forget all my routines and had visions of freezing on the floor while they stopped the competition to haul me off.

We sat down at our table and waited for our start time. After watching a handful of other heats, I finally heard them call my name to the staging area. We would be dancing against five other couples. We all lined up with our partners and waited to be called onto the floor. When I heard my name my heart skipped a beat and the blood started to rush to my head.

When we got to our position on the floor, Arianna could tell I was freaking out a bit. As we started our routine she counted out the beat or prompted me for the next dance step as my mind had gone almost completely blank. During part of one of the routines I froze and she had to almost push me into the next step. While Arianna would smile at the judges around us, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. When I looked at the other dancers on the floor they were smiling and moving gracefully through their routines. I was sweating with a pale blank look on my face. I had spent all this time and money preparing for this, but now I couldn’t wait for it to end. Finally the music stopped and we walked off the floor.

“Great job!” was the first thing Arianna said when we were back at our table.

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

I was feeling pretty miserable, but was at least glad that it was done. What was the point of all that hard work only to freeze up on the floor?

I watched James and Arianna finish their dances as well as Sam and Natalya. It looked graceful and easy for them. Then it was time for the awards ceremony where they announced the placement of all the dancers. As part of the ceremony we all walked back onto the dance floor and waited to hear if our names were announced. I felt like I didn’t do that well, but maybe I was just being too hard on myself?

As they began to announce the winners I anxiously waited to hear my name. First the waltz winner was announced.

 “First place goes to James O’Brien. Second place goes to Bryant Hankins.” Well that’s just one dance but there are many more. Surely I would have to win for one dance style? Then the tango winner was announced.

 “First place goes to James O’Brien. Second place goes to Bryant Hankins.” Ok, but third time’s the charm right? Finally the foxtrot winner was announced.

“First place goes to James O’Brien. Second place goes to Bryant Hankins.”  Well, at least I got second place. So I didn’t do too awfully bad? Right?

For a brief shining moment I felt alright. Then I looked closer at the program and realized that even though there were eight other couples on the floor, I was only competing against James because we were the same age group. In other words, I came in last place in all my heats. Damn!

At that point I went into a dark hole of self-pity and despair. What was the point of this whole thing if I was going to perform so poorly and lose at everything? For most of my life I had been a high achiever, but I clearly had no talent for this and needed to find a new hobby. I was also disappointed that my wife didn’t make it. I had put all this time and energy in. Even though I didn’t push her to attend I secretly was hoping she would be there to support me.

I just wanted to get out of there without talking to anyone. I congratulated James and started to pack up my stuff. Arianna caught up to me and sensed that something was wrong. She told me not to be too disappointed because everyone I was dancing against had been dancing for much longer than me.

“Hey, you finished your first competition and we have a great plan for you going forward!” she announced.

I told her that I really didn’t enjoy the whole experience and that I was probably done with dancing. She was taken aback by my reaction.

Then she said “Take a few days to think about it before making any decisions, but if you’re not enjoying it then of course there’s no need to continue going forward.” I nodded noncommittally.

I walked out the door feeling like my dancing journey was over and that this was a time consuming and expensive misadventure.

A fancy dinner

My Final Dinner

As I was walking out I heard a familiar voice from behind me.

“You looked great out there!” my wife exclaimed and gave me a strong hug. I was shocked and surprised to see her. I had no idea that she actually made it and was in the audience for the final dances.  “How did it go?” she asked.

Even though I was grateful to see her, I couldn’t quite shake my bad mood. Was she just being nice? She had to know that it didn’t go well?

“Terrible” I replied with a one word answer. I explained how I froze up and lost in every dance.

“Really? It looked amazing to me!” she said, looking a little deflated.  “But did you have fun?”

“Not really,” I said.

Her years of experience at coaching athletes started to kick in. “How long have you been dancing?”

I replied that I’d been dancing for about six months and some of the dances I’d only learned three months ago.

“And how long had your competitors been dancing?” she asked.

I remember hearing from Arianna that many had been dancing for years.

“So why in the world did you expect to beat them considering you just learned some of these dances three months ago? Maybe you shouldn’t be such a perfectionist about everything and just look at this as part of the process of learning something new?” I really hate it when she’s right.

That evening there was a celebration dinner for all of the dancers to relax after the hard work. I had planned to skip it based on my performance, but my wife convinced me to go and said she would go with me. For once, I decided to listen to her.

I arrived at the dinner not expecting to stay long. First off, I needed to apologize to Arianna for leaving in a huff. She was very gracious and talked about how she had recently finished a professional competition and placed terribly. It happens to everyone even after many years of dancing. She told me that I should talk to the other dancers and ask them about their first competition experience.

As I went around I started to feel better. It seemed like everyone had a story of when things didn’t go according to plan. One guy told the story of how his first competition was supposed to be mostly empty so no pressure, but then their time slot got moved and there were hundreds of people watching. He said they got through it, but it was a daze of nerves and he nearly passed out. Another competitor talked about how she forgot half her routine and just had to stand there. She laughed about it now. One lady was doing a traveling competition and her hip popped out of place in the middle of a swing dance. She had to hobble off the floor.

At the end of it all I still had so many open questions. Should I be proud of myself that I had the courage to try it even if it didn’t go well? Would I ever do another one? Was dancing bringing me closer to my wife or pulling me further away? At this point I wasn’t sure of the answers.

Finally I caught up with my first instructor Emilio.

“You just have to write off your first competition. Even my first competition as a pro was bad. Your nerves get the best of you. It’s not until your third or fourth one that you really get used to the feeling.” he said.

He put his hand on my shoulder. “Some of the best dances I’ve seen were when someone made a mistake but they recovered gracefully. You are always one step away from being back on time.”

I went back to my table and took a long sip of wine. I thought about his last sentence. No matter what happened here the past is done. Looking back it wasn’t the ideal first competition, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe it was just part of the process of getting better at something. In the end, what matters most is what we do going forward and sometimes it just takes time.

 “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well.

Just get up and dance.

Great dancers are not great because of their technique,

they are great because of their passion.”

  -Martha Graham-

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