In life, it’s natural to try to avoid pain and suffering. That makes intuitive sense and yet, what a boring story that would be. Obstacles, difficulties, trauma, these are essential parts of interesting stories. We like to see how those things can be overcome or dealt with by our favorite protagonists. And then we like to relate. Or feel superior, or grateful.
Failure, too. If you’re like me, you try to avoid failing as if it were warm gum on the sidewalk. But it turns out that the most successful people are those who see failure as a chance to learn something, try again, or become successful. They don’t say to themselves: you miserable idiot, you’ve messed that up pretty badly. They say: hey, I see I really need to improve on this, and now I know how! And then they do. They welcome failure.
And as of last night, so do I.
I consider myself a good dancer. I took ballet and various modern/jazz as a I kid. I have, what you could call, natural rhythm. In high school, I learned how to swing dance and I’ve never forgotten it. Several months ago, I took a swing dance class with Richard Powers amidst the fading southern light, worn wooden floors and airy old locker rooms of Stanford’s Roble Studio. Richard is the intellectual’s dance teacher. He’s got history, he’s got knowledge, and he’s got a smooth step. At Stanford, so hungry are the students for dance partners that men will dance with men, which for me, conjured up images of what I imagine Yale must have been like before it went coed. Time reversed.
A couple months ago, I took a two hour waltz lesson at Friday Night Waltz (FNW) in Palo Alto, and fell in love. There is possibly nothing more romantic that waltzing, and like very few other things in life, it doesn’t even matter who you’re dancing with as long as he can lead. Waltzing engages the brain and body with life and on every level, physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual; it’s transcendent, also like very few things in life. It’s the story of your life, as avidly and heartwrenchingly as you could ever tell it, all without words.
Last night, I went back to FNW. Set in a church gymnasium, the most motley of motley of crews: students, scientist and engineers and the like, all of whom, improbably, know how to dance. There’s something about a guy in the old cliched high water pants and thick glasses who can turn you on the dance floor that really boggles the mind.
Richard was teaching, so the class was crowded. He started it promptly on time, as is his way. He taught, for beginners, the Grand Polonaise, Irish Kerry Polka Sets, 5/4 dances, Waltz Swing and Salty Dog Rag. Then he said, if you know the waltz, you can stay up here where we will be learning pivots, or if you’re a beginner, go downstairs to learn the polka. In fact, in this email he had written, “The Canter Pivot class will probably start at 8:10. Canter Pivots are full 360 pivots done in a 3-count waltz measure. The art and skill lies in leading and following them. Pre-requirement: knowing how to do a Rotary Waltz or clockwise Viennese waltz. If you don’t, you can move to Tom’s introductory class.”
But I wanted to learn Canter Pivots and hadn’t I taken that beginning waltz class just a few months ago? I had. So I stayed and needless to say, I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to dance the pivots. I really could only barely remember the proper waltz let alone the Viennese version. It wasn’t only that I couldn’t dance them (which, because I was following, I though I might be able to do) it was that I couldn’t even figure out what was going on. Even the basic mechanisms eluded me and I spent a good deal of the evening apologising to my partners and feeling more and more like a failure, and a pathetic one at that. How did all these people know how to do this? And if I didn’t feel useless enough, there was Tracy.
Tracy Powers is Richard Powers’ younger and astonishingly beautiful wife who rarely smiles. She’s got dark, soft-looking features, and a dancer’s aloofness. It’s hard, when you watch them demonstrate together, not to imagine her as his student bewitching him into abandoning whatever life he had to travel around the world teaching dance with her, which they now do. Maybe it’s the look in her eye as she watches him talk, seemlessly adjusting her body to make whatever point he’s explaining. She’s a difficult person not to watch, and she moves with the effortlessness that years of training and hard work can provide. And yet, she never smiles, which makes her even more achingly compelling. I imagine her, a lonely and distant child, with the same swollen lips and lilting step. When I danced with her last night (which sometimes happens in between lessons for a brief moment if there aren’t enough partners), she was still completely unsmiling, looking me right in the eye, and yet, the perfect lead–the only person I danced with all night who kept their carriage firm and supportive, and all without seeming to work at it.
Which only deepened my feelings of cataclismic failure. Why hadn’t I just gone downstairs with the other beginners? Why have I not dedicated every spare childhood moment to dancing so that I too could spin gracefully around the floor, swept by various men of science often several inches short than I?
I knew not.
And so, this morning, I am resolved not to feel bad or embarrassed about my performance last night, ashamed to ever show my face in the FNW gym again, but resolved to find the time, to spend the energy, to learn the waltz, and to know the feeling of turning on the floor in a pivot, counter pivot. I have not failed; I have seen the path which I now know I must travel. Richard said the waltz is his favorite dance, explaining how it felt to move with another person in a weight balanced spin. He didn’t use the word perfection, but we all knew what he meant. Women love to spin, he said to a classroom laugh, and Tracy just watched him without nodding.