Lessons in Persuasion

There was the cat to think of. And the motorcycle. On Saturdays we walked through neighborhoods collecting addendums: windows, bus lines, safety. How much we could afford. Enough room to work without distraction. David wrote down addresses; I called them with questions, called back when we’d been stood up. Finally the apartment we wanted opened up. We notified the post office, signed the lease, made arrangements for a phone, gas, heat.

David and I are not planning to get married, but have come to both living together and ballroom dance at a time when wedding invitations arrive for us like flowers: a bunch at a time. In between budgeting for a security deposit and returning RSVPs, I remembered David and I having kicked around the idea of taking dance lessons. I called for a course catalogue: “Begin the beguine–won’t it be romantic? Under the guidance of popular ballroom dancer Bernard Fiske, students will reach across time and culture to essay lessons in the style and nuance of the fox trot, waltz, jitterbug, tango, cha cha, and other forms of social dance behavior!”

David and I signed on for seven weeks. We gave the lessons as an anniversary present to ourselves while everyone around us planned weddings. We expected receptions to be good practice.

Tonight, three weeks after we’ve moved in together, we arrive for our first lesson. A small man in glasses, wearing khaki pants and a bland shirt with a shiny tie, moves to the center of the studio floor. Grinning wildly, he welcomes us to Big Band Social Dancing, rubbing his hands together while he talks as though preparing for a big meal. Bernard introduces himself as a man who wears many hats, and for a quick minute, I’m amazed by the joke, mistaking his figure of speech for a reference to his own badly-shaped toupee, a wavy gray patch that makes his age, at best, a fuzzy guess. In addition to teaching ballroom dance for the past 30 years, he is a hydrologist and cartographer. Without asking us who we are or how many hats we wear, Bernard gets down to business by staggering the group of us into two lines from where we learn our first dance.

Although the course description didn’t mention it and there’s nothing Big Band about it, I’m too optimistic to complain when Bernard shows us the electric slide. It is arguably social in a hokey-pokey sense–a dance you’d only do with a large group after a few drinks. We all seem sober, but Bernard wants us to have fun and to never have to leave a dance floor because we don’t know how to stay. The electric slide is a dance Bernard believes in.

We learn the three steps to the right, to the left, the forward step, the backward step, the way to change directions. Once the claps are integrated, we deserve music, and Bernard makes his way over to the stereo in the corner and begins the song that too zealously reminds us that “It’s electric!” In 10 minutes we’ve all caught on, even the large man in the hiked-up shorts who moves in a strange palsy. We could do this in our sleep. Dancing is easy.

I’ve seen this dance done before and it reminds me of the wedding receptions I went to with my parents when I was young. After a long mass, guests were anxious to stretch their legs. Large halls were full of round tables, an open bar, a long buffet, the bride’s bouquet finally falling towards a woman then destined to be the next one married. I never caught it, but always tried, even as a girl who knew nothing of marriage but enough to dream of its white dress. Enough to know I wanted it. Old men I didn’t remember asked me to dance because there were no cousins my own age. My mother and her sisters tried to teach me the alley cat. This dance also started in lines with a repetition of steps, ad infinitum, that got more difficult as the music’s pace escalated and the old and amateur knew enough to accept defeat. My mother could keep up with the song until it ended.

My family believes in marriage the way Bernard believes in the electric slide. Both feel that it should be taught early on and is a lesson that bears repeating. My childhood was a succession of weddings and receptions. Catholic sacraments include seats for the children, so I learned young the way things were done. I’ve sat through bridal showers, learned all of the superstitions. I know that the vein in the ring finger leads to the heart, whose family sits on which side of the church, that song I had in my ear: love, marriage, house, baby.

I haven’t been to a Catholic wedding since I’ve known David and haven’t seen the alley cat since it’s been ripped off and thrown out by the electric slide. After we’ve memorized its steps, Bernard announces the fox-trot. He tells us that this is the dance we’ll do the most in our lives and then parts the men and the women like the Red Sea. David and I watch from our respective lines. Bernard is lean, short, and smooth on his feet as he moves through the dance with his assistant. Bernard tells us that she works at a downtown department store as though she were not standing beside him.

Bernard explains the men’s footwork first, that their first step is always forward on the left foot. Then his assistant moves through Bernard’s commands as they are given; a woman’s first step is always backwards on the right. His assistant never elaborates or hesitates on Bernard’s instruction for women. Instead, she is a demure and neatly-dressed demonstration model with legs and high-heeled shoes of the same fleshy-tan color that carry her fluidly through the steps. Beneath her tidy blond haircut she looks blankly at Bernard and then at those of us studying the path of her feet. Occasionally, she is joined by Bernard so that the men and women can see what the collaboration of their respective steps will look like. None of us can take our eyes off of them.

When Bernard’s assistant is not demonstrating, she watches us until Bernard sends her to dance with a man whose lead is weak. She tries to teach him how to persuade her. The word “persuade” belongs to Bernard and I’m laying all bets that it’s his favorite verb. He calls the man’s right hand, when it rests in the small of a woman’s back, “the persuader.” After we have learned the forward travel, the side step, the open travel and the magic step, Bernard goes on at great length about the powers of persuasion.

The fox-trot has no pattern, only a series of steps that are used in a dynamic sequence depending on the space a dancing couple has to move through. In ballroom dance, it is the man’s responsibility to gauge that space and to pick each step the moment before he takes his partner into it. The woman waits for news of the lead’s choice through the hand on her back. If the heel of the hand presses into her back, she is meant to move right. If the fingertips curl in, she should go left.

Bernard gets animated when he explains persuasion. In exaggerated form, he shows the men how their hands will shift for different directions. He dances across the room with an imaginary woman and uses the words “push” and “pull” to clarify how persuasion can work, making guttural noises while he moves as though a woman’s spine was something other than bone beneath skin. Between grunts, he reminds the men not to make such noises out loud when they are leading. Bernard’s a real card.

Finally Bernard plucks a woman from the line in what he likes to call her “debut.” He demonstrates the result of a strong lead, and with him she dances perfectly. I try to figure out which man across the studio is her partner, look for a face of shock or envy of pride but find none. I’m convinced by the woman’s graceful ascension in Bernard’s arms, and when he drops her off in our line and encourages us to applaud her, we’re happy to do it.

“He does all the work,” she says. She is glowing. “With him, it’s so easy!” The tidy-haired assistant gives the transformed student a knowing smile while I wonder if David will be as persuasive as Bernard.

There is a question from the men’s line: How do you persuade the woman to move backwards? Bernard stands in front of his assistant, he leans his chest towards her, looks straight ahead and begins moving forward. She retreats with each step that he gains. In this case, persuasion comes through the eyes.

It’s an option to take Big Band Social Dance without a partner. To come alone costs more than the couple’s fee split in half, but people still come. In our class, only women do this, and they take their turns with Bernard while the couples-proper circle past them. If a man comes to class when his partner cannot, he dances with one of these women. One woman who comes alone stands beside me in line. She is very friendly and plain, and I root for her to get the spare man, when available. Another woman has long blond hair and a lot of gold jewelry. She is dressed to the nines in a black linen dress, cut high on the thigh. She is very tan. Bernard picks her out for a debut early on in our first lesson.

Otherwise, it’s a world of pairs. There’s a young couple from West Virginia, who drive an hour into Pennsylvania every weekend for their lesson. There’s an older couple who, as far as I can tell, are the best dancers in the class. There is an ease between them that the rest of us lack. There is the man who moves strangely, with his long-haired, athletically-built wife. They don’t talk to anyone other than Bernard and laugh at all of his jokes, seem competitive on the dance floor. There is a squat, Italian-looking older man who asks questions constantly and cuts Bernard off mid-answer. I find his manner both abrasive and satisfying, depending on how I feel about Bernard at the time. This man’s wife is tiny and much younger than he is, and she never says a word.

Most people seem to be in our class for weddings–to dance in their own, to brush up for their kid’s, to become the smooth-moving couple in a bridal party. Bernard even tells us that he has been invited this weekend to give a quick lesson at a reception. The newlyweds are not only former students, but one is also the child of former students. They must have loved their lessons, embraced Bernard as a tradition.

Finally, Bernard sends us to find our partners and begins a record. We’re excited to merge our new steps into a seamless path around the studio. David will lead and I will follow. When his left foot moves forward, my right will glide back. We have met each other’s families, integrated our furniture, claimed our sides of the bed–so it’s hard to believe how graceless we are when we begin ballroom dancing together. We bump into couples. We step on each other. We stop. We begin again.

I am stunned as the couples careen around us, both at their bliss and our stagnant huddle. I hate moving backwards, seeing where I am only after I have arrived. David hates that I am slow to follow his lead, that I seem to be taking a different path that the one his hand prescribes on my back. After one song, Bernard begins another and we search for the way that we will make the fox-trot work.

I ask David to call out the steps before we take them, wanting to know by name how I am expected to move, rather than being pulled and pushed at whim. Soon this fails us. We are pausing after each step as David decides which steps he wants to take next and then flips through the catalogue of names before finding a match.

I suggest that we agree on a pattern, our own predictable fox-trot. We agree to a sequence of four steps that we commit to repeat over and over, an incantation to ourselves that will deliver us from anger. But we soon learn the dynamics of a ballroom. The space around you changes without logic. Territory is temporary. We wind up on the outskirts of the counter-clockwise circle. We dance ourselves into corners.

I blame David, David blames me. Our anger turns acidic. I cannot lead or suggest the way I want to follow. As a partner, I’m wholly uncooperative. I take issue with David’s lead. His hand lacks persuasion; it’s a wet rag. For the rest of the record and the one after that, we feign effort only when we think Bernard is watching. Otherwise, we mangle our steps around the studio floor in an uninspired circle, as though we are trains on a track: inanimate and responsible for nothing. I stop meeting David’s eyes, disconnect myself from the hand on my back. When we move past the mirrors, I refuse our reflection.

These lessons are a gift, a present in honor of time spent together. Bernard is all smiles and jokes, an enthusiastic monument to the timeless joys of the ballroom, generation after generation. Bernard thinks this is fun and I look for the reasons it is not. I am not used to being led, to conceding the powers of persuasion, to being forbidden to anticipate. The women who make a poor debut with Bernard are easily corrected. They either ignore Bernard’s lead or imagine how Bernard will lead them before his persuasion begins. I hate that what Bernard calls the forward travel means I must move in reverse, that I never know where I’m going, that Ginger Rogers had to do everything backwards and in high heels. Even though this is only dancing, I bristle at the lack of equity in the fox-trot. But in Bernard’s class, there are no protests or questions about it. The women are persuaded. I must learn to like being led, to admit in breathy relief that “He does all the work!”

Finally, Bernard separates the men from the women. It is time for disco dancing. I remember my parents taking dance lessons when I was young. Again, those wedding receptions return to me–my parents moving towards and away from each other, my father spinning my mother, my father turning himself as my mother’s hands slid over his back before falling again into his sure grip. The steps Bernard shows are identical to those I remember–the forward-back-back-forward footwork with his assistant. Bernard likens the hand-holding to an accordion. We will press our hands together and then widen them apart. In and out. In and out. Together and apart.

Bernard has selective methods on interpretation. The electric slide, now disco. I’m beginning to wonder who the liar was who wrote the course description. And even though there was a sexual revolution in full swing during the days of disco, not to mention 200 years between the hustle and the fox-trot, Bernard is unconcerned. Persuasion is not open to re-interpretation. It is the sun to his dancing orbit.

There are only a few minutes left tonight and Bernard teaches too quickly, so that when “Ring My Bell” begins and we are sent back to our partners, David and I are no worse that everyone else. The floor is a swarm of broken travel, couples stepping out of sync, hands losing their grip. During the spins, either David is not lifting his arm high enough or I am holding on too tightly because I keep whacking myself in the head with my forearm. Learning a dance we will never use, David and I are less invested in this one, and our mistakes are what makes “YMCA” bearable as the evening’s last song.

Two forkfuls into my curry shrimp, David tells me that tonight, for the first time, he saw our relationship spiral away from him. I look at the blue eyes and long chin across from me and keep chewing. I’m not surprised at what he says. In one dance lesson, a mere two hours, we’ve become a bickering old couple, oil and water, cat to bird.

To live together does not dull the lessons of my girlhood, that song in my ear, the volume of the weddings David and I attend. But I’m suspicious of tradition, that which relies on repetition, history, blind faith. I want something of my own invention with David, even though I know every couple is bound to tradition if only as a means of measurement–how closely they adhere, to what degree they diverge. I’ve watched the men offer and the woman accept, the men eating what the women cook, the wives riding beside their husbands who drive. Dancing places me face-to-face with these gendered prescriptions, that being a woman beside a man brings a host of expectations from which there is too little departure. It is either lead or be led.

I want to ask the women whether they mind the arrangement, tell Bernard that we have alternatives, offer David my lead. I’m unsure about how much to make of this, but am afraid of not making enough. Should I give voice to my silent protest or remind myself that this is only ballroom dance? There is no winning.

Collapsing the borders of two lives within one home has become a litmus test. As much as we’ve agreed that moving in is absolutely not a trial run or impending promise of marriage, I have watched the way we’ve moved around each other in these past weeks. There is significance, when you look, in whose name is put on which bill and what groceries get bought and when the laundry gets done and who a room is cleaned by. I am not looking to split hairs or halve the chores in all their minutia, but I am looking for a collaboration that soothes my fear of domestic and societal predictability–that he will this and I will that, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

I am watching and listening to the both of us to see how we lay claim to a single space, collectively. We’ve been dancing for nearly a month without knowing what to call it: the distance necessary for privacy, how to rise without waking the body that remains in bed, the pleasure of absence and return, the power of habit, the alarm triggered by a tone of voice, the subtle and changing demands of time and space, the affect of one body in a room with another. This is a new song about instinct and habit and movement. Everything is a lesson in persuasion.

My irritation with Bernard and impatience with David come less from the dancing and more from my fear of gendered tradition. I’m afraid of losing myself in the role of wife that I have not embraced, but cannot ignore–the person I may be preparing to become. I’m afraid of turning into someone I don’t recognize until I find myself tracing her footsteps. I’m afraid of repetition, history, blind faith. I’m afraid of knowing too well the song in my ear–love, marriage, house, baby–and forgetting what else there is. I’m afraid of euphemism, that word “persuasion.”

I taste David’s soup and decide I’ll order it next week if we come here again for dinner. There is much to be said for sitting across from each other, having a meal cooked for us, plates brought to our table, our dishes washed by anyone other than ourselves. David continues talking about how awful we were, says that during our fox-trot, he was grinding his teeth so hard that he was afraid he might damage some fillings. I am not offended. Away from Bernard, we laugh at our miserable debut, pick off each other’s plates, vow to practice as soon as we get home.

And we do. We move without music through the living room, in and out of the bedroom, settle in the study. We do a lot of forward travel, David’s favorite step, and open travel, which is mine. In 15 minutes, we perfect the magic step, a direction change Bernard has taught us to use when we’re backed against the bandstand or close to colliding with another couple. In our apartment, we use it to move away from his desk, to avoid backing into my bookshelves. We practice all week.

There are books about ballroom dancing. Old ones. Some suggest that dancing most likely predates language. A mode of self-expression before words. There is also the idea that dance is first and foremost instinctual. The most primitive art seen even in the behavior of apes, ostriches, penguins, insects. Dancing as release, as recreation, as courtship, as initiation, as territory. I think of these animals separated from us by language, but contributing to it: henpeck, hound, pussyfoot, weasel, bully, fox-trot.

Tonight after most of us have arrived, a small man in glasses, wearing khaki pants and a bland shirt with a shiny tie moves to the center of the studio floor. There is a strange sense of deja vu during our second lesson. We begin again with the electric slide. Bernard is a creature of habit. He is slowing the pace of our class down, devoting tonight to a review of what we learned last week before we move into the waltz.

When David and I begin the fox-trot tonight, I suck in my breath before I remember: anticipation is forbidden. I do not know what will happen; I must trust David. The practice rounds through our apartment pay off. Like Bernard, we are all smiles. We compliment each other through the first song. David has learned a firm hand and I’ve learned to accept his persuasion. Halfway through the second record, Bernard stops us.

“You’ve got the footwork down nicely,” says Bernard. David and I pretend it’s natural. “But you’re not listening to the count.”

Bernard takes me out of David’s lead and into his own, speaking the count out loud, “Slow, slow, quickquick. Slow, slow, quickquick.” Bernard says that some people have to listen harder to the count than others. He returns me to David, but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

When we return to our respective lines, Bernard reviews again the steps to the fox-trot. He calls out to the students to make sure they’re paying attention: Which foot, Steve? The magic step, right Ruth? Is Bob persuasive enough, Vicki? Bernard is a whiz with names. After the quiz, Bernard walks towards me with his arm extended, says, “And now, Kathleen will make her debut.” I am drawn along by Bernard through a dozen steps. With a lead like this, dancing become swimming—fluid legs, strong arms, no hesitation. Every week more of us are transformed before our partners’ eyes.

David grins from his line, confirming the theory he has that Bernard gives the lessons to get to dance with all of the women. Soon Bernard drops me off, his assistant gives me a nod, and the other students applaud. I’ve been initiated.

Bernard doesn’t acknowledge the body politic of ballroom dance. You take your lessons, you practice, you use the magic step to get yourself out of a tight corner. In Bernard’s class, dancing requires tradition, the negotiation of space, the way two people move in synchronicity, the repetition through which grace may, hopefully, be learned.

David and I continue to fox-trot, this dance we will do the most in our lives. We come within the counter-clockwise parameter and say the count softly between us, trying for our version of perfection. The other couples are peripheral forms we navigate beyond, too intent on our own path to look anywhere else for more than a few seconds. David’s hand is firm on my back, and I can’t see the space we’re about to step into.

I imagine Bernard making maps, marking precise boundaries and ageless waters with his persuader. I remember Bernard’s instruction and lean back slightly to receive David’s lead. I don’t allow myself to anticipate.

About the Author

Kathleen Veslany

Kathleen Veslany’s work has appeared in Sycamore Review and you are here, among other journals. In 1999 she won second prize in the Annie Dillard Essay Awards. She currently lives in Tucson with her husband, David, and works at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy as an editor.

View Essays