I never thought of being able to dance a polka as a rarified skill set. But I suppose any time you step out of your usual duds into polka dot chiffon and chandelier earrings, you can expect a few surprises!
The New Year is always a time to make a few resolutions about things you want to change, and I was certainly no exception. There were the usual suspects—get into better shape, write daily, lose a few pounds—and then there was the new one: cultivate an actual social life.
I’ll be the first to admit that for nearly the past year, I’ve had the social life of a mollusk. Between “flying solo” since last spring and all the fuss and work and small and large repairs that go into putting my empty nest of thirty years up for sale, my waking hours have necessarily revolved mostly around lengthy commutes, work, and carting extra stuff to Goodwill or to the storage unit I rented.
With a nod to the incredible energy I derive from my beloved monthly book club get-togethers (I’m the lone liberal in a group of red-meat Republican concealed carry fans so you can just imagine some of our conversations when we stray “off topic”!) it lately dawned on me that I ought to get out of the courtroom and meet some folks who aren’t on the receiving end of a sentencing argument.
And so I’ve signed up to start doing some volunteer work, and also got back in touch with a friend who told me a few years ago that he and his wife enjoyed swing dancing.
My own “dance” history has been sporadic, at best. More than two decades ago, I signed my then-husband and myself up for some local ballroom dance lessons. He had absolutely no sense of humor about his, ahem, lack of lateral movement, and we never went dancing after that. By now, I couldn’t recognize a foxtrot it if came up and bit me on the ankle.
Many years later, post-divorce and looking for something fun to do with the man in my life, I convinced him to sign up for some swing dance lessons with me. We had a lot of fun in the lessons…but were in fundamental disagreement over the fact that when swing dancing, somebody has to lead. And a friend of mine who dances like Fred Astaire and owns his own white tie and tails has spun me through a few Viennese Waltzes on a crowded floor to the point where I grew quite dizzy. The fact that nobody got hurt was entirely due to his skill at steering me away from harm and other dancers.
Still, I’m an eternal optimist. And so I asked if I could tag along with my friend and his wife as a fifth wheel at some point on one of their dancing excursions. They quickly came up with an invitation as their guest to a Roaring Twenties theme party put on by a dance club they have long been a part of. As a “members and guests only” event, this required pre-approval from someone higher up in the dance club chain of command. I felt like I was rushing a sorority…or getting vetted to visit Fort Knox. I bit my tongue and did not ask if there would be a secret handshake to get in.
And so I ransacked my closet, looking for something I might wear that could channel a “Twenties” vibe. I was still twenty pounds too…fluffy…to wear the perfect cocktail dress awash in chiffon pleats, so I went with Plan B, another layered black chiffon number with white polka dots and sheer straps. I pillaged my jewelry collection until I found the sparkly rhinestone chandelier earrings that Liberace would have appreciated, and a sequined evening purse that had about enough space for a lipstick, some cash and a safety pin.
Then, wrapped in a faux-lynx coat (left over from my godmother’s estate sale) that gave the impression I was being hugged to death by a large bear, off I drove and entered a new land of mystery!
I settled in at my friend’s table and took in my surroundings. I could tell in an instant that this gathering was a constellation of people who had been dancing and taking dance lessons for a very long time! The dance floor was packed as couples circled the floor, dancing in swirls and eddies, partners moving together and in cross-currents, spinning out and in, their feet moving in tandem in intricate patterns. And they took their costumes seriously too! There were flapper dresses with miles of fringe, spangled headbands accented with sequins and feathers, long ropes of fake pearls, and boas in abundance. Many of the men wore suspenders, or fedoras, or spats, or sometimes all three.
And there were dance cards! I didn’t realize these existed outside cotillions or F. Scott Fitzgerald novels, but a full-sized sheet of paper outlined the exact sequence of the dance music in pairs. There were waltzes and two-steps, tangos and merengues, slow dances and cha chas, with the occasional “mixer” and “DJ Choice” song to break things up.
Nearly every woman there seemed to be wearing professional “dance shoes” with ankle straps or T-straps with heels of various heights. I’d come in a pair of ruffled LifeStride pumps that matched the dress, and hoped I wouldn’t lose a shoe if I took to the floor.
I was greated warmly by the group, and taken out for a spin on the dance floor a few times. Between my friend and a few other gentlemen, I managed to stay upright through what I was assured were a foxtrot, a rumba, and some East Coast swing. I managed to step on plenty of toes, but at least I didn’t knock anyone over.
A couple of women took me under their wing as I sat between dances, and filled me in on other dance clubs and social opportunities. I got the skinny on buying the fancy dance shoes, which I learned have suede soles (to better grip wooden dance floors) and steel arch supports. Who knew?
And then, as I perused the dance card, I saw a familiar word…”polka.” Now this, I certainly knew how to do. At last, my chance to shine!!
As the “oom-pah” strains began to fill the room, I turned to my friend and extended my hand. “Polka?” I asked, enthusiastically. He shook his head. Apparently this wasn’t in his repertoire. He and I both turned to various gentlemen around our table. “Do you polka?” we asked. Again, we were met by shrugs and head shakes.
We set out across the dance floor to the table on the other side. We got the same sheepish response, again and again, as my feet absolutely itched to move to the familiar one-two-three rhythm. I noticed that the large dance floor—usually filled with dozens of dancers—was nearly empty. Good grief, how could this be? We were in Wisconsin, mind you. The polka is the official state dance! If you have ever been to a single Wisconsin wedding I assure you you’ve done the polka at least two or three times. (Okay, you’ve probably also been coerced into doing the Chicken Dance, but we won’t go there…and there was probably a lot of beer before the polka so you may not remember dancing it amid the next day’s hangover…)
At last we found one potential partner whose reluctance was more easily overcome, and he gamely got to his feet and stepped out on the floor with me. He looked quite dashing in suspenders and spats, and we started to move to the familiar rhythms. And then in less than a minute, the polka music was over, and it was time for another rumba. I thanked my partner for the dance and for his bravery. He noted that this dance seemed to be “kind of like a waltz…with a hop.” Totally!!!
It was time for my friends to leave, and so I pulled my “huge hairy animal” coat around me, and followed suit. Ten miles later, I reentered my home turf, exchanging my chiffon and spangles for pajamas and fluffy robe and a seat on the sofa. Not quite Cinderella stuff, but a pretty big break from routine. The next day would find be back in spike heels and a blazer, getting ready for court.
I believe I’ve caught a touch of dance fever now, and am starting to shop around for group lessons and swing dances that are open to the public, preferably featuring a primer for the uninitiated before the actual dancing starts. My feet may not always be going in the direction they’re supposed to…and I may find myself turning in the opposite direction that a partner tries to spin me. But I like to keep a sense of humor and adventure about it.
And when all else fails, I can always polka!