Our first steps were tentative, a bit clumsy. I wanted to lead and so did she, but neither of us was entirely sure how to do so. Working on learning to dance, my betrothed and I practiced the six-step "box" movement for a waltz with our instructor, Melissa. We were getting a private lesson in a back room of the dance studio, because I had never had lessons before and though it was my idea, I was nervous. My fiancee had taken dance lessons in the past, and she didn’t seem too nervous as we began to practice our steps under Melissa’s watchful gaze.
"You need to allow him to lead. It's hard for a lot of women; they're not used to it," she told Anne, who's a half-foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than me. We all laughed about her leading me around. Our first dance lesson had finally arrived, just days before our wedding, and we were both giddy. Burnt out from hammering down last-minute details of the nuptials, we definitely needed the break, though sandwiching it into the week of our wedding wasn't exactly the stress-free option. "I'm telling you, take some dance lessons," her sister had urged. "I wanted to take lessons before our wedding, and we didn't. And we looked like idiots during the wedding dance." I don't always agree with Sis, but somehow I knew we should take her advice. She was referring to what Melissa later termed the "Clutch and Sway" -- the preferred dance for those who don't know how. You see it all over the place, including middle school church dances and proms, so much so that people accept it as a bona fide dance, which it isn't. I remembered what a newly married friend of mine had told me several months back: "Just remember that you are performing for everyone at the wedding. That's what you've got to do." I hated hearing it; I'm rebellious by nature, and it kind of turned my stomach. But my bride-to-be was doing everything else right for the wedding, and it seemed only right to me that we should be able to perform a simple dance for the 100 or so sets of eyes that would be on us for those few moments. She'd look like a princess, and hopefully we'd pull off one royal dance.
A good ballroom dance has a gracefulness and effortlessness to it—a flowing that looks and feels romantic. But learning a simple waltz wasn’t simple for me. It took us a few half-hour private lessons before I really started to get the dance steps right, though she got them right almost immediately. I had to lead, with the left foot forward, then the right forward, slide the left foot to the right, then step back with the right, then back with the left, and slide the right foot to the left, tracing out an imaginary box on the floor with my feet. I was nervous as we danced in front of Melissa, and then after a few lessons, as we danced in the big room not far from another instructor who gracefully practiced a samba with a student. Anne and I looked over at the couple practicing and we missed a step or two. We laughed it off, and Anne’s eyes sparkled.
Now, just a few days before the wedding, I was enjoying picking up a few steps. "One-two-three, ... " Melissa counted out the cadence for us. And as we practiced the steps correctly, I looked down at my partner. She was blushing, looking sweet-as-17 again. I was back there too, back close to 20 years ago, when I first saw her across the dance floor after our boys' school's concert with her girls school. I was smitten back at the high school dance, but I was too nervous to ask her to dance. I really wanted to, but fear stopped me. She was beautiful then, but now, looking into her green eyes and seeing how her auburn hair shone as we haltingly moved across the dance floor, I felt she was even more beautiful.
After our first lesson, we were excited at the prospect of actually being able to at least half pull off our wedding dance. By our third and final lesson just a few days before the wedding, we'd learned the "box" and what I call the fast- and slow-forward steps. We were working in unison. She glowed with that schoolgirl radiance, and I glided along with the old schoolboy charm. We looked into each other's eyes, and I felt redeemed. During the drive home, we were laughing.
I said we’d make a romantic sight that wouldn’t leave a dry eye in the place. "All the women will cry even harder for our wedding dance--since we'll actually know how to dance," I joked. Anne added to the joke, suggesting that we stick with the lessons and learn several dances. "We could be one of those married couples that goes out dancing all the time," she said. "Yeah, everybody sees those people and laughs at them, but you know they're all envious,” I said.
Redemption is about getting something back, and it seemed that with our lifelong commitment to each other, we'd rediscovered a rosier optimism. The dance lessons, in the midst of chaotic last-minute wedding preparations, excited us with anticipation of the big day. And the new steps seemed to symbolize the new path she and I were taking.
Melissa turned on the CD player to a song with a bit faster tempo than those we started with during our first lesson. The contemporary song had more of the tempo of a Viennese Waltz, which we were working on for our wedding dance.
"One-two-three…" she began.
"We can start on our own," I said, blushing a bit.
"Oh that's right, I forgot, you guys hear music," she said, meaning we could pick out the beats.
"Yeah, we hear music all right," I said, marveling at my luck while staring into Anne’s eyes. We hear music, indeed, I thought.
We live our lives accepting regrets we have about our past, moving on into the future. But we don't often get an opportunity to go back and do something we failed to do in the past. Because I had been afraid, I didn’t dance with Anne when I was a teen—I missed my chance back then to make an impression on the girl I would later marry. This time, though, I got another chance. Not so long after the night I first saw her, I got the nerve to approach her. And, almost 20 years later, I took my bride-to-be in my arms and gave her the dance that the woman I love deserves.
Our plan to dance the perfect dance went slightly awry, because we had the wrong music. We’d planned to dance our waltz to John Denver’s Annie’s Song, but we ended up with a different tune, and we had to improvise. Robert the DJ had Crazy by Patsy Cline, and in the whirl of things after the ceremony, we just settled on that. Soon Robert was urging us to do our wedding dance, so everyone else could dance. As we danced our wedding dance, our feet couldn’t seem to keep time with the music, but we danced on. My wife clutched part of her long gown to keep from tripping, and I tried, stiff-legged, to lead in time with the music. Performing our first dance to the wrong tune, we were just happy to be stepping—already knowing, after four years together, that we wouldn’t always be able to stay with the beat.
This story was published in Pittsburgh Magazine.