Pas de Deux
Early this Friday morning, a typically blustery morning in Northern California, the dance teacher arrived late to class. She is typically late, as everyone knows. Although I’m not one of her students. I am familiar with the class and with the dance teacher. In fact, I thought I knew her well.
When she arrives, the four or five mornings a week she teaches, she charges into the gym like a lightning bolt and, even late, stops to chat with a handful of regulars who have been working out with her for years, many since she launched the aerobic workout thirty years ago in a smaller space before she moved to the community center’s gym. After that, she pairs her iPhone to the Bluetooth speakers buried in the vaulted ceiling, dons a headpiece microphone like a rock star and double checks the volume. These formalities delay the start time even longer and students have learned to arrive late in defense.
I stood at the back, to one side, to stay out of the way and minimize attention. Roughly fifty women, ages spanning five decades, stood in clusters squawking like crows. Short and tall, large and small, most wore fashionable athletic apparel and sneakers with thick soles, while some of the older women, like me, wore oversized T-shirts and leggings, as if merely out for a walk. Towels, weights and water bottles were scattered around the perimeter for easy access. Several women nodded to me, with barely concealed surprise, and I nodded in return. We exchanged scraps of small talk and then they resumed their communal chatter, which, I suspect, is as important to their morning ritual as coffee.
They might have assumed I was there to write an article, although I profiled the dance teacher three years ago and the piece was still posted on a bulletin board.
I have, on occasion, peeked into the gym to watch the throng of women hop and skip and shimmy to excessively loud music bursting from the rafters like a heady wind down the wide carpeted hallway and out the center’s tall double doors. Dance routines, combinations of roughly a dozen elementary moves, are choreographed to a playlist of hip-hop, country, techno, classic rock and Latin music, not at all the sounds one expects to hear reverberating from the Main Street of a gentrified American suburb. Decibel levels and a pounding bass rival rap music emanating from the car radios of adolescents, rhythms orchestrated to awaken the psyche as well as the body. The crowd moves nearly in unison under stridently bright recessed lights. Their sneakers squeak along varnished gymnasium floors and many sing along with, to my mind, ridiculous songs exhorting suitors to bring on the ring and with street vernacular like come get it, bae, as well as the more traditional lyrics admonishing ex-lovers for their misdeeds or welcoming long summer days. Dancers line up in rows, each occupying a small square of floor space, sufficient to move about and stretch out but avoid collision, and when, now and then, they crash into each other when one goes right and the other left, they laugh, because even though the workout is meant to be serious exercise, the intent is to have a good time. The dance teacher has been known to ponder aloud how anyone would rather run on a treadmill or spin on a stationary bike when they could dance.
I’m a runner. Four times a week, at daybreak, I jog for an hour or so to clear my mind. I’m rarely plugged in and keep my phone in my pocket — a meditative fitness regime and the exact opposite of jumping and sidestepping, swishing my hips to a mambo or feigning boxing moves in tempo to a voice shouting instructions over raucous music.
This dance teacher, whose classes are always packed, also maintains a running commentary on the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars or The Voice, reality television I abhor, but which seems to rally the crowd, and she regales them with anecdotes of her adolescent daughters, intrusive in-laws or vacations run amok. The dancers love it. For one hour, global strife, politics and personal struggles are held in check, the syncopation of snaps, taps and treads echoing the escalating beat of their hearts, until they return to daily living. I get the appeal, just not for me.
When I wrote the profile for the newspaper, I learned, although I didn’t recognize the significance at the time, that the dance teacher’s followers seem devoted to her as much or more than dance, even more than the prospect of trimmer bodies — she a Queen Bee to their hive. The sheer banality of her life, I think, is akin to reality television, infusing her with virtually patron saint status among disciples. However I failed to appreciate the complexity of that relationship because I tend to be a snob about franchised frivolity. I never peeked beyond the bright lights and spandex to the heart of the story.
In effect, I committed a journalist’s worst offense: I didn’t so much bury the lede, I missed it entirely. As a seasoned reporter and editor-in-chief of this newspaper, I should have known better.
In my defense, I might have been short of space when I published her profile or, more likely, pressed for time. One of my three children was still living at home and I produce the 16-page Weekly Times almost single-handedly, like similar newspapers across the country earning just enough revenue, largely through real estate and retail advertising, to stay afloat. Little is left after paying the printer and my meager salary. I contract a stringer or a photographer only when there’s spare change. No dedicated office either — I work from home or at one or another café in town where patrons have been known to share gossip or add perspective to a story. Locals love to be quoted. Several of them regularly submit wordy letters to the editor and sometimes the hardest part of my job is choosing which to include and which to decline in favor of keeping the peace.
Our readers fancy profiles of residents, especially celebrities or sports stars, or those whose work has become a cornerstone of the community. For that reason, when the national Dancercise Company issued a press release three years ago announcing its 30th anniversary, I arranged to meet with the dance teacher. Longevity itself is an achievement, even if I look down my nose at what seems to me bourgeois.
We met that day at a popular coffee house in town. She arrived straight from class, flushed and breathless, casting a youthful glow, although she had recently turned fifty and puffy gray bags under her eyes suggested a perpetual lack of sleep. She drank one double latté followed by one coffee refill. I never get enough, she said with a sly smile, as if confessing a sin, although I know when I’ve had enough.
She was a deceptively simple subject, one of those maddeningly cheerful people with the energy and figure of a cheerleader, not the former ballerina I expected. She joked about having to dance her way to the grave to compensate for an addiction to potato chips. She proudly described how she had come to acquire one of the first Dancercise franchises in the country and over the years cultivated and trained recruits to teach the afternoon and evening classes. When I asked why she only teaches in the mornings, she said something innocuous about getting a head start on the day. I didn’t pursue the point. She checked her watch several times and when I asked if she was rushed, she said, no, I’m just one of those people always watching the clock. This did not jive with her reputed tardiness, but I let that pass as well.
She mentioned three children, although subsequently spoke only of the daughters, who occasionally, reluctantly, she said, join her at class. Guess there won’t be Dancercise and Daughters, she joked. This I quoted.
She told me the organization, what she referred to as corporate, had recently sent her a video recording of one of her earlier classes. Around 1992, she said, although I have no memory of the dance, or the song. I usually do. I definitely don’t remember the outfit, which was outrageous. She giggled like a schoolgirl. My husband would remember exactly what he was wearing in 1992 because he’s still wearing it! She giggled again in that way people easily delighted laugh at themselves. Is it no wonder I didn’t take her seriously?
Nonetheless, I took copious notes and captured what I thought were the highlights of her story, certainly enough to paint a simple portrait. To my surprise, when the interview came to a close, she asked about my husband. Please send him my very best, she said, with a curious expression, as if I might know something I did not. I had no idea they were acquainted and when I’d mentioned that morning I was meeting with her, my husband said nothing about her.
You know Jack? I asked.
She smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary. Yes. I like the way he talks. Like a regular person, you know? And so kind.
I chuckled because so many people idealize physicians, particularly an esteemed neurologist like Jack, as if medical rock stars, and I made a mental note to tease him about it.
That night, however, when I passed along the dance teacher’s regards, he was more than circumspect. You know I can’t talk about her, he said. Patient confidentiality. We were sitting at the dinner table and as he sipped red wine, he stared into the glass the way a fortuneteller stares into a crystal ball.
I’m not asking you to discuss a patient, I snapped. Just having a little fun with how impressed she was with you. Is, I corrected myself, remembering she spoke in present tense. I might have dismissed the conversation entirely, except for a chill suddenly inserted between us that seeped into my bones when I noticed a wistful expression on Jack’s face. A subtle knitting of eyebrows. Downcast eyes. The way people look when reminded of someone significant who, for reasons beyond their control, is lost to them, or unavailable.
Jack is a wonderful man and we are a good couple. Certainly thirty-two years of marriage will attest to that. I supported him through medical school as a cub reporter and he supported me when all the children were in school and I took a few years to earn a Master’s. He is also my most trusted reader. Every week he reviews the pre-press edition, never one to ignore an opportunity to question a detail, set me straight on what he considers misrepresentation, or correct the typo or word gaffe no one else will notice.
When he subsequently commented on the profile of the dance teacher, he was critical of the piece as a whole.
You gave her short shrift. You skimmed the surface, he scolded.
In truth, which my husband surely suspected, I went into the interview believing there was not much beyond the surface. No reason to, in light of benign comments from the few students I interviewed who spoke of her good humor and hubris, her devotion to the cause, etc. Nothing piqued my interest.
When I bristled at his reproach, he became more vociferous in her defense. You wrote her off because she never finished college. Because she dedicates herself to a class of gentrified women with punishing body images prancing around to the same radio soundtrack the vast majority of people, those not devoted to NPR, tune into while driving.
He knows me well. I am unapologetically smug about a culture I believe has been dumbed down, aided and abetted by 24/7 television and social media. On the other hand, I am not disinterested in dance, not artistic dance; I am simply more interested in the literary and fine arts. I attend modern dance performances now and then and, as a girl, my mother occasionally took my brother and I to the ballet, which she considered essential, like theater and the symphony, to a solid cultural education. My father preferred jazz, also musical theater. He sang along loudly with Rogers and Hart or Cole Porter songs and I have fond memories of him when, sometimes, after dinner, usually after a scotch or two, when he heard what he called finger-snapping music on the radio, he turned up the volume, grabbed my mother and swept her across our cramped living room, deftly avoiding furniture, leading her in a lindy or waltz they must have enjoyed during courtship and reserved in later years for family weddings or the annual town festival to celebrate spring. I sat in a corner watching their shoulders and hips dip and sway, tapping my toes to the rhythm and practicing the steps afterwards in my room, a lot like the women practice in the gym.
I reminded Jack that I was appropriately reverent in the profile. I pointed out the dance teacher had dropped out of the state university in her junior year, bored, she said, as well as daunted by the challenges of a career on the stage. She used the last of her tuition savings, and convinced her rookie lawyer husband to chip in, to purchase a franchise of a novel fitness program based on popular dance. She owns franchises now in four of the tonier towns on the East Bay. Instructors across the country celebrate her tenure and she has thousands of followers on Facebook. She told me roughly two hundred members pay a monthly fee for the privilege of attending any of the seventeen weekly classes. Including drop-in charges, I estimated her gross earnings at $20,000 a month. Impressive.
I applauded her aplomb, and her success, I insisted, in an effort to uphold the legitimacy of an admittedly skimpy profile. I penned an accurate sketch: wife, mother, television addict, chronic dieter, fitness entrepreneur. That’s the story.
He sighed with exasperation and I realized then there was something he knew that he might have told me, but chose not to, or could not, and this exacerbated the nagging thought there was more to their relationship.
That night, after the newspaper went to press, I dug up the recording of the interview with the dance teacher and heard a disclosure that might have been mined for meaning. She said dance is a symbiotic relationship. We never dance alone, even if it seems so in class. Dancing bonds us. The music comes through us and from us. People think I’m the one charging their batteries, but they’re charging mine.
I should have quoted this or I should have asked for further clarification, but I was too busy rushing through the interview. Jack was right — the profile was two- dimensional. The sort of journalism I rail against. No real reporting, rather restating the obvious, but it was done, no turning back.
For weeks after the article published, the possibility of a relationship between my husband and the dance teacher gnawed at me. I had to fight off an acute fear of adultery, the apprehension of a post-menopausal female facing increasingly discernible sags and wrinkles and an erratic libido. More to the point, anyone as perpetually cheerful as the dance teacher, one who complains of only minor nuisances like lackadaisical daughters or a sister-in-law who brings inedible food to Thanksgiving, that woman would be especially attractive to a man saddled with an uncompromising wife.
Still, I buried the thought, dismissing anxiety in favor of trust, and we never spoke of it again until the other day, after I ran into the dance teacher and finally got the story.
I was at a corner table at the café where I often spend Wednesday mornings gathering content. The owner plays classical music, instead of the common Pandora rock playlists – far more amenable to concentrating on detail on a laptop before finalizing on a professional monitor at home.
It was late morning, after the breakfast crowd and before lunch, so the café was largely empty. I looked up when I noticed two people paused at the doorway. I did not, at first, recognize the dance teacher. It has been three years, and also not unusual in a different context. Teachers, like other secondary players in our lives, barely exist outside their milieu.
The dance teacher wore a cropped sky blue sweater that skimmed the hipline of dark blue jeans, making her seem like a graduate student. Black ankle boots with a short stacked heel made her taller and more statuesque. Her wavy blonde hair, freed from the confines of the ponytail she wears to class, cascaded gently to her shoulders, and layers of blush and blue eye shadow completed her, as if she arrived each morning to dance class as a sketch and in the light of day converted into the finished work of art.
She peered around the café like a secret service agent. She didn’t acknowledge me; she might not have recognized me either. Behind her stood a tall husky adolescent boy. She gripped his hand and led him tentatively forward and I saw at once he was not quite right. His head tilted, his stance seemed off kilter and despite the shadow of stubble along the jawline, had the dark frightened eyes of a child.
Autistic. The word came to me instantly, although I had only once before encountered an autistic child, the son of old friends whose lives were forever altered by his limitations. Much has been published in the press in recent years about an increasing incidence, including the accusatory rhetoric railing against vaccinations as the culprit. I read recently the AMA revised the diagnostic terminology, which previously included Asperger’s Syndrome, to delineate all forms of Autism on a spectrum, suggesting, I suppose, a position on a continuum means greater opportunity to progress.
The only time the subject had come on the radar of the newspaper was at a PTA meeting last year, in an argument having to do with the cost of special education. I questioned parents who complained they have to convey special needs children to schools beyond the town border at exorbitant personal expense, and others who bemoaned the increasing imbalance between funding special education and the arts. I wrote about the budget dilemma.
Some time ago, I read a novel, subsequently turned into a play, about a captivating autistic boy, and there have been caricatures of the savant on film, something else entirely. Otherwise I’m uninformed, like most of us, purposely blind in that there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God way of thinking.
The dance teacher guided the boy to the counter and ordered. His body swayed on extra-large feet anchored to the floorboards. He wore a black T-shirt with a silver graphic of the band Metallica, and baggy jeans. When they sat at a table facing me, I was able to observe him better and recognized the familial features. No question he was the son she mentioned only as part of the family line-up, without further description.
I felt an immediate sense of despair, for her, for all parents of compromised children. Jack and I weathered a few storms with our kids, but none bore genetic constraint. My oldest has a short fuse and from the first resisted authority, so we were often called to conference with his teachers to try to shed light on what we believed was merely a bright mind in an irascible personality. A boy, Jack argued eloquently, requiring patience, not condemnation. He ultimately worked out his aggressions on the playing field and in high school discovered a fondness for beer, but he settled down. The youngest found her passion in poetry, also promiscuity, which necessitated endless dialogue and close oversight, although I applauded her feminist spirit. My middle daughter, a typical pleaser, is pursuing a doctorate in early childhood education. I expect she will be an extremely empathetic educator. They all had their share of tussles and torment, and many tearful moments, as did my husband and I, but we never questioned their ability to evolve into fully functioning adults.
I watched as the dance teacher leaned forward in her chair toward her son. She murmured to him in a low voice as she opened a bottle of orange juice, which he chugged all at once. The owner personally delivered plates overflowing with omelets and roasted potatoes. As the boy devoured his meal, I noticed the dance teacher dived into her own as if, at any moment, the respite might end. Between bites, she sipped a tall iced-cappuccino.
The town’s silver-haired retired librarian walked in and placed her order. She nodded to me and to the dance teacher, sweetened her iced-tea, and took a seat outside under a table umbrella to read. As the only patrons inside, the dance teacher focused on her son, and I, distracted from my work, on their pas de deux.
All at once, the boy stood, looming over his mother, and with a growl, upended the table. The last of breakfast and the container of coffee slid down to her lap. She made no move. No reaction at all. Remarkable composure, I thought, considering the disruption and the mess. She swept off the detritus on her body before standing and eased slowly closer to the boy, whose arms and hands frantically punched the air around him. To my mind, decidedly threatening.
She didn’t touch him, not at first. She whispered into his ear. He snarled. He shook his head back and forth as she continued to murmur, as if they were the only two people on the planet. She placed one hand on his shoulder as gently as a butterfly landing and the boy slowly, visibly, deflated, until he hung his head. He trembled, but far less agitated. She took his elbow and steered him to sit, then resumed her seat opposite and wiped off what remained of the food and drink on her clothes. After a few moments, assured, I imagined, he was no longer volatile, she made her way to the register to order an oatmeal cookie, which, I surmised by the boy’s glee, may have been the source of the skirmish. Perhaps she had hoped to minimize sugar, perhaps the cookie was meant to be a reward, but he wanted it now – an impulsive toddler in the body of a man, with whom only the dance teacher could commune. A dance, of a sort.
As she turned from the register to deliver his treat, she noticed me and smiled and I returned the smile, not so much in familiarity as camaraderie. I made no effort to engage her in conversation, although the mother of an autistic son of his age must have inured herself long ago against embarrassment when such commotions occur. I admired her determination not to make her son a prisoner at home and to face the fate of an outing at a local café for the sake of his socialization, as well as her own, whatever the repercussions.
Over dinner that night, I told Jack about the incident and he nodded knowingly. I realized then the family must have consulted with him. I felt humbled by his silent support and this time, when I saw the pensive expression on his face, I recognized the humility there, beyond fondness for a patient: the curse of a caring physician confronted with a condition he cannot comprehend, much less cure.
Whatever my husband might have felt for the dance teacher, whatever bond they may have forged, I was more pained that I had disappointed him, having clung to the high ideals journalists expound, without living up to them.
What am I reporting? I cried with exasperation. The dean said I would win a Pulitzer. He said I had unflinching observational insight, remember? And what do I write? I write gobbledygook about sewer repairs bogging down traffic. The debate over parking meters or another Starbucks. School board scuffles. Budget battles. Stuff and nonsense! And here, a woman runs a business, as vain glorious as it seems to me, while raising a severely handicapped son, and this I completely miss. Who helps her? Where does he go to school? What services are in place? How did I not even know? It’s a small town. I’m the chief reporter and I never even got a whiff.
You were on assignment. You wrote about the dance franchise. Her son has nothing to do with that, and she never said a word in the interview, right? Perhaps she wanted to protect him as she cannot protect him from prying eyes. Maybe she deserved her moment in the sun. Wasn’t that the story you were after? That should be the presiding editorial principle – stay on topic. Sorely needed in this era, I’d say.
I’m a reporter, Jack. Not ruled by confidentiality. I’m supposed to get the story. The whole story.
And I’m saying not every story must be told.
He was right, of course, adhering to a higher standard. I tossed through the night, questioning my competency, my motives, my role as a voice of truth, and in the morning, this Friday morning, I went straight to town to dance class. I thought I might engage her on this subject. Pen an important feature story on autism. Perhaps I could make it right.
So there I stood in the gym, awaiting dance class with the crowd of chatty regulars.
Sunlight filtered through the tall Palladian windows, spreading soft shadows across the floor in the shape of half moons. A sense of anticipation filled the air, although, despite the buzz and light, the room came to life only when the dance teacher arrived. She mounted the elevated platform set at the front of the gym, added during renovations five years ago to accommodate the occasional speaker, a panel discussion or play reading, or the overflow from a particularly controversial city council meeting in the adjacent town hall. The perfect spot for an instructor to model the dance moves and also, a few hours a week, feel the commander of her fate.
This morning, even multi-colored leggings and a hot pink spandex top she wore like a second layer of skin failed to mask a heavy heart. Her whole body sagged as she set up, without a word, and then said in a subdued voice, let’s begin. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. The women in the front row inched up toward the stage as one, like an honor guard, and a hush fell over the room, as if the speakers were muted.
Whatever the source, women recognize at once the sign of heartbreak in one another. Instincts far better tuned than the best journalist. Much the way a hummingbird zeroes in on nectar or a bee zooms in on lavender. It’s the radar we share, crossing class or culture or context.
She pulled her shoulders back and lifted her head. Her legs settled firmly to the platform. To a mournful ballad by Rhianna, she steered the students to stretch from heads to toes, warming up for the aerobic portion of the program.
Mid-way through the first dance, a bouncy rock tune by Bruno Mars, the dance teacher stumbled. She looked up apologetically and I saw on her face the burden mothers take on for that which they bear no blame.
I’m so sorry, she said, the apology echoing through the gym. One of those nights. She shrugged her shoulders and attempted a smile. I really need you guys today.
And there it was – the symbiosis she mentioned in the interview that I failed to cite. The story. This woman drew the strength she needed to cope with family life from her fellow dancers, as they believed they derived their energy from her.
The crowd stirred. Followers up front cheered. The dance teacher restarted the music, resumed her place, spread a smile on her face and called out the first cue to the dance and, in the moment, I thought it best to show my solidarity by dancing.
Randy Kraft is a freelance journalist, book reviewer, and novelist. She has reported for newspapers and magazines on business, education, urban planning, women’s issues and local culture. She pens the OC BookBlog, an Orange County California culture and entertainment website. Her first novel, Colors of the Wheel was published in 2014 and her second, Signs of Life in 2016. Find out more about Randy on her website.