Thursday, April 2, 2009

Land of Dance

I love to dance; my husband has a bum ankle. So I played the ‘do-it-for-us' card and signed up for a series of ballroom dancing classes at our local Fred Astaire studio. Loosen the hips, loosen the ankle — right? Besides, I figure, even the best of marriages can be spiced up with a little tango.

Our instructor is a lovely, young Russian woman who speaks broken English. She begins with the basics, a simple fox trot promenade that requires positioning one of my husband's hands in the small of my back, the other extended, straight as an arrow, clasped with mine. She puts on music, directs us around the ballroom, tells us, “This is how you do land of dance." It takes me some time to realize she means 'line of dance.' Either way there's a charm to the syntax, and whatever is lost in translation is gained in metaphor. I want a one-way ticket to the land of dance.

Once, many years ago, I was at a club in L.A. A man invited me to dance with him. Ask me his name or what he looked like, I draw a blank. Ask me instead what it felt like to be spun around, light as meringue, never losing a step, never a thought to the next one. Some moments remain imprinted in the body.

Dancing with a partner is largely about chemistry; somebody has to lead, somebody has to be led. Sometimes the give and take of making love becomes a dance. A great basketball game is a choreography worthy of Twyla Tharp or Daniel Ezralow. So, as the eighth season of DANCING WITH THE STARS picks up momentum, it's easy to see why the hunky Gilles Marini and his partner Cheryl Burke continue to win the praises of the judges, not to mention the cheers of the fans. He's a natural, and their chemistry is strong (simmering, as judge Bruno might say). There's a vicarious thrill to watching them, all the more vicarious when you're sitting in the audience four rows back from the stage. Lucky me (the envy of many of friend) to have a daughter who works on the show. The demand for tickets is high, and there's an online wait list. I would never be here otherwise.

The atmosphere at a taping is pure party, lights flashing, cocktail attire required. Security is tight, and the no-cell-phones rule strictly adhered to (they’re checked at the door, for retrieval after show). An air of expectancy greets you as you enter the ballroom, a feeling akin to being at a wedding (waiting for the bride and groom to make their dramatic entrance down the grand curved staircase) or a bar mitzvah celebration (watching dance motivators usher in the little man of the hour). There’s a behind-the-scenes emcee (not to be confused with host Tom Bergeron) who gets the party started by singling out colorfully dressed audience members (it doesn’t get more colorful than the man in the elvish green suit) and inviting volunteers to take the stage in a pre-show warm-up dance (hard as it is, I promise my daughter I'll stay in my seat). Finally the countdown begins, the audience cheers and applauds as Carrie Ann, Len, and Bruno make their way to the judges’ table. Tom and Samantha take their place, the parade of dancers and stars begins. If I’m smiling (maybe even laughing), it’s with the sense that I’m no random prime-time observer at one of the most popular shows on television. I’m here (up close if not all that personal), taking in the grace and the stumbles without the cameraman’s angles guiding my focus. Even if seems oh-so-orchestrated (it is a show, after all), there’s no room for cynicism in this bubbly ballroom; if there’s a wolf at the door huffing and puffing his reminder that the world outside is falling apart at the seams, he doesn’t stand a chance: the only thing that can bring down this recession-proof dome is a searing tango or the springiest of lindy hops. During commercial breaks we’re engaged and entertained, a captive (if not captivated) group indeed. Some light banter, a couple of DWTS tee-shirts up for grabs. My eye catches a very pregnant woman being escorted out. I like to imagine the story she’ll tell her child, a newborn dancing into the world. The camera pans, we’re prompted to stand up, reminded that loud cheering is welcome; and if we don't agree with a judge's score, that's just what booing is for.

Not that this audience needs any prodding. Fans of the show have waited long enough for tickets. Friends and family of the stars know just what they're there for. Celeb spotting? That's par for the course. This is L.A. after all. They're everywhere.

But for tonight at least, the celebs we're most interested in are the ones on the dance floor, 'stars' putting themselves on the line, trying to invigorate their careers, or just have a little fun, show another side of themselves. Every day is different, every week is different. One week LT shows a newfound light-footedness in his samba, the next week he dances a leaden tango. The Woz may get low scores from the judges but the fans text and clamor, bring him back. Even Carrie Ann and Len and Bruno can't help but give some credit for effort. Until the bar is raised, the competition narrows. Time for him to go.

In a way, there's something oxymoronic about dance competitions. The essence of dance is a social activity, the music that drives it a primal, communal force – an observation that underscores one particular finding of the Einstein Aging Study. The study, undertaken to determine the relationship between leisure activities (both cognitive and physical) and the risk of dementia in the elderly concluded that the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia is (surprise!) dancing.

Do I need some expert to remind me that dancing is good for the heart (not to mention the soul)? No. Do I need a partner (real or imagined) to sweep me around the land of dance? Yes. And if his ankle gives or he indicates (in any number of ways), yeah, it was swell but he hates missing Law and Order reruns, I give him a reassuring nod. Not a problem The gym I go to is now offering Zumba classes. Nothing like a sizzling salsa to get the blood flowing, make my heart soar.