Ballroom dancing on a snowy night

Our few years at Oberlin were unusual in a number of respects, but what sticks out to me the most is ballroom dancing and bicycling (topic for another day).  When I arrived as a newly minted graduate student of psychology, I became a very young faculty member at Oberlin College.  As a tenure-track assistant professor, I was invited to the big event for all faculty – the ballroom dance.  Oberlin besides having a great liberal arts reputation has a music conservatory with plenty of wonderful musicians.  The president of Oberlin at the time was married to a former Russian ballerina who adored Viennese waltzes so each year they created a faculty ball where they enlisted (or required?) students from the conservatory to perform.

The first year Andy and I had no idea just how serious the faculty took the event, so we went in nice clothes and figured we could step on the dance floor with everyone else and just fake it.  We arrived to the event and noticed that most people were dressed to the hilt – tuxedos and gowns were the norm.  As the music began for what was a simple two-step beat we tried our hand at an easy fox trot and self-consciously danced with the rest of the group.  And as Andy reminds me, we kept bumping into everyone on the dance floor.  Where had all these professors learned to dance? we thought, puzzled with the juxtaposition of the geeky nerdy faculty who we knew and this large room of elegant people swooping around the room.

The next day we looked into ballroom lessons in the area and discovered that just a few blocks away in downtown Oberlin was a weekly evening beginner’s dance class.  So we signed up.  We had no intention of attending another faculty ball without being prepared.  We went to the first class and were happy to meet about a dozen other couples who were new to ballroom dancing.   Best of all was our instructor.  Mitzi was the perfect vision for a ballroom instructor.  She was in her mid-sixties I suspect, perhaps older, and lit up the room with her vivacious enthusiasm for dancing, her smile and sparkling makeup and clothes.  I could almost hear ringing emanate from her while she stood in front of us with perfect posture.  She told us about herself and said that she also taught ballroom dancing on cruise ships, which was very easy to imagine.

Andy and I went to class religiously and took to the classes and to our dancing partnership very naturally.  I have danced all my life, though never with a partner and Andy had never danced at all so other than my tendency to try to lead, we did just fine and we really had fun.  We learned the basics of many different dances: Waltz, Mambo, Fox Trot, Swing, Tango (which we later learned was American Tango, not Argentina Tango) and perhaps our favorite, the Cha Cha.  Andy and I had so much fun that we even played around dancing in our apartment some evenings and I went out and bought Capezio dance shoes instead of wearing Keds flat sneakers.

When at last we learned that there was to be a winter faculty ball, we were ready and very excited.  Andy rented a tuxedo and I had a strapless black gown that I had gotten for New Year’s Eve when we went to Hawaii at the start of the year.  Going to the event turned out to be quite an experience.  Andy was working in Cleveland and had to pick up his tuxedo on his way home.  Unfortunately and not surprising in Ohio in the winter, there was a huge snowstorm.  Andy made it home fine and we put on our clothes with a minor alteration in the footwear – we pulled up huge snow boots and put our dancing shoes in a tote bag.  We had no idea if the snow would keep others from attending the ball but there was no way we were going to miss showing off our new dancing skills.

We arrived at the auditorium and were pleasantly surprised to see that there was a huge area that was converted into a coatroom that was already filling up with heavy winter coats and snow boots, aligned in neat rows.  We pulled off our boots, stripped off our bulky coats and peeked into the large ballroom.  The room was larger than the previous year when we had attended the ball with no dancing experience, so even though we had some training behind us, we still felt somewhat intimidated.

We learned that one of the hardest parts of ballroom dancing is determining which dance you are to do just by listening to the music.  In our class, the instructor put on a certain piece and then said, OK, today we will work on Mambo, or whatever.  Now it is true that a Waltz or the Swing is fairly easy to determine by the music, but it seemed that almost everything else was not very easy to distinguish so we would watch what others were dancing as our cue.

Most of the pieces played by the Oberlin Conservatory music students were Viennese Waltzes, the dance of choice of the president and his wife.  Viennese Waltzes are not for faint of heart – they require very quick stepping and lots of aerobic stamina.  We did a few and even with our training, got winded.  And then the opportunity to really show our stuff arrived.  The floor emptied a bit between dances though some couples remained on the floor waiting to hear what the next dance would be.  As the musicians began to play a Tango, most of the couples left the floor.  Tango is easily identified and Andy and I gave each other a knowing look, looked around at the almost empty dance floor and noticed that no one was getting up.  Tango was a dance that we had come to really love so we took a deep breath and went to the center of the dance floor.  Andy swirled me around the room and I could feel all the eyes on us and imagined people declaring with astonishment, “who is that beautiful dancing couple?”  We glided over the empty dance floor and even when finally a few other couples joined us, we still felt as if we had a spotlight following us across the hall.  When it came time for Andy to dip me at the close of the dance, I felt so happy and in love with everything about that moment – Andy, the clothes, the music and even the snowy night.

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