When we moved to this great city, we expected to see new things and meet new people. What we didn’t anticipate was that we might become new people.
Please don’t be alarmed. I’m not talking about plastic surgery, or about any upending of character or values. I’m talking about small shifts in what we choose to do, how we opt to spend our time.
Here’s what I mean. Back in London, L1 was not a shopper. If the trend over the past decade has been towards men making up at least fifty percent of supermarket traffic, L1 hasn’t been part of that trend. He’s been the anti-trend. And yet, within days of moving to Manhattan, he transmogrified into someone who positively embraces the supermarket shopping experience. Could he possibly pop into Morton Williams on his way home from work to pick up some milk and broccoli? No problemo. Does he want to accompany me to Whole Foods on Saturday morning to pick up some grass-fed beef for dinner, and the other twenty items we need for the week? Nothing would give him more pleasure. I’m enjoying this new supermarket persona, but every now and again, catching sight of him wheeling the trolley through the fresh produce aisles or testing the ripeness of an avocado, I have the odd sensation of wondering who he is and what he’s done with my husband.
It’s not just shopping he’s taken to. We’ve both developed a new enthusiasm for perusing galleries and museums. London has an abundance of world class galleries and museums, but we seldom used to visit them. We’d venture into town to see an exhibit three or four times a year, at most. In New York, we’re members of MOMA, the Met and the Frick, and we see something almost every weekend. Our new devotion to viewing art might be attributed to the fact that it’s more easily accessible to us here (involving a short stroll rather than a trip on the Underground), but it also has something to do with the shaking up of our obligations and habits. In London, there was always a tennis or golf game to play, a dog to walk, a cricket or rugby match to watch, a meal for ten to prepare. Without these fixtures in our weekly schedule, both our time and our minds have opened up to accommodate new ways of entertaining ourselves.
And into these new, opened up spaces has come something else, something even more surprising to us than L1’s proclivity for supermarket shopping or our fondness of a gallery: dance. (Talented dancing nieces: take note)
The dancing thing started after we booked a family holiday in Wyoming which will start in Yellowstone Park and finish up at a dude ranch. The dude ranch offers many activities, including horseriding, hiking, fishing and – somewhat teriffyingly – line dancing.
L1 said, one morning back in January, “When we’re sitting around the camp fire in the evenings and there’s a call for people to come up and join the line dance, what are we going to do?”
“I guess we’ll watch,” I said.
“But wouldn’t it be fun,” he said, “if we joined in? And if we actually knew how to do it?”
“The kids would drop dead from surprise,” I said.
“Ahuh,” he said.
“Let’s do it,” he said, eyes alight with brio. “Let’s take country dancing lessons and get really good.”
Believe me, I was surprised as you all are. But I took L1 at his word and sought out some private lessons, settling on the Arthur Murray Dance Studio at 286 Fifth Avenue. “I’m so excited to be teaching you!” gushed the head of the dance studio over the phone. “Almost nobody requests to learn country dancing anymore.”
The night before our first lesson, L1 got cold feet.
“Are we sure about this?” he said.
“I don’t know. Are we sure about this?”
We sat in silence for a moment, and I considered, just briefly, letting us both off the hook. But I stopped myself from saying those cowardly words: I’ll call and cancel.
“How bad could it be?” I said. “If we’re really rubbish, who’s going to know besides the instructor? And we never have to see him again.”
So we set off on Saturday morning, opting to walk the thirty-six blocks to the studio. We’d also done a stint in the gym, which we realised, when we arrived at the studio drooping with exhaustion, was possibly a mistake.
“Are we really going to do this?” L1 said, finger hovering over the button that would grant us entry into the world of dance.
‘Press the damn button,” I said.
We exited the lift and walked straight into the backstage bits of Strictly Come Dancing. An entrance foyer full of glamorous dance dresses; walls bedecked with photographs of the studio owners in full dance competition mode; large, mirrored dance studios bookending the foyer, and alarmingly open to general view; half a dozen couples practising their moves in one of the studios, with varying degrees of expertise.
“Welcome!” said a young man named Chris, effervescing with dance spirit and leaping up from behind the desk to shake our hands.
There followed some filling in of forms and a nervous wait for our instructor, whom, it transpired, was the co-owner of the studio and six times National Dance Champion Gherman, the Ukrainian I’d spoken to over the phone.
Gherman was outfitted in a slim fit cowboy shirt in a pale blue and silver check, a glittery turquoise cowboy hat slung across his back. “You like it?” he said. “I wore this for you.” One of the other instructors appeared to shake our hands. “I want to thank you both,” she said, “because you are responsible for this.” – she gestured towards Gherman, posing in his Western garb – “and it’s a treat for everybody here.”
Gherman led us back to the dance studio, where we told him that we’d never danced before and that there was a every chance that we would prove to be rhythmically challenged to a degree that would make him despair. He assured us that a lifetime of golf, tennis, rugby, and gym-going would stand us in good stead, and that we would pick it up in no time. He started us off with four basic steps which are, apparently, the bedrock of all forms of dance, from foxtrot to rhumba to country swing.
We spent an hour learning these basics, to a variety of musical tracks. We each danced with Gherman, and with each other. I would have imagined the sight of L1 in the embrace of a rhinestone cowboy to be very strange, but it was strangely normal. At the end, Gherman declared us to be A* students. L1 declared us to be “not half as crap as he’d expected us to be.”
“And that side step thing,” he added, “It’s kind of like what I used to do on the rugby pitch.”
At some point during the lesson, Gherman gleaned that we were Strictly fans. He dragged us back towards the foyer, where he pointed out the many photographs of him and his dance partner, Iveta Lukosiute of Strictly fame. Iveta has hung up her Strictly shoes in order to spend more time at the New York Studio and with her baby. “She is not here today, but she is here often so you will meet her, for sure.”
And we did meet her, when we went in for our second lesson on a Tuesday evening. Well, I say meet her. What I mean is that she smiled warmly at us, from a distance, as she arranged a sequinned gown on one of the mannequins or skipped past us towards the studio where she was to give a private lesson. I must admit to being somewhat star-struck. Gherman is a delight – full of warmth and humour – but Iveta is like a real-life version of a fairy tale princess. Watching her dance with the lucky woman who was her student that evening was like watching Usain Bolt run the hundred, or Johnny Wilkinson execute a drop kick. Pure grace and magic.
“One day I’m going to have a lesson with Iveta,” I whispered to L1. “No matter what it costs.”
That evening our lesson was not with Gherman or Iveta, but with Louisa. Louisa was determined to take us all over the dance map, learning small sequences of foxtrot, rhumba, waltz and country. Let’s see if I can recall exactly what we learned. The magic step, otherwise known as the L step from the foxtrot. The Cuban walk and the Cuban box step from the rhumba (but maybe also from the waltz?). The Cuban walk with turn. Yes! The country swing. The country swing with spin. Whoo! I have no idea why she picked these steps, in this order, but it was surprisingly fun and gratifying to grapple with them. And we’ve been assured that somehow, someday, they will add up to an assured triumph at the dude ranch.
But first, L1 and I have to master the art of the small step. Apparently we both take big strides (and L1 takes giant ones) which is making our dance life harder than it needs to be. “Smaller steps! Smaller steps!” Louisa kept insisting. “Especially you, Mr L1. Baby steps, please!”
Now we are dance obsessed. Anyone peering into our apartment might spy me doing a few swing steps while waiting for the kettle to boil, or witness me practising a Cuban strut while vacuuming the sitting room. Slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow. Sideways step. And I caught L1 doing a magic step while brushing his teeth.
The cat’s being let out of the bag as I write, of course, and there will be no surprise at the dude ranch. Unless it’s the surprise of just how bad we are after five months of dance lessons. Never mind. I have to think that simply trying to learn these steps will do something for our bodies and our brains.
So it’s all new tricks for these old dogs. Of course, you don’t have to move to a city like New York – or move anywhere at all – to try new things. Amongst my loyal readers there are countless examples of the old dog-new tricks phenomenon. L1’s parents moved from the Hampshire countryside to Wimbledon, and his mother suddenly found herself riding on buses and shopping on-line. My Canadian friends L and J are spending more time down in Florida and have taken to a game called Pickleball. (I promise you, it’s a thing.) A fifty-something friend has started making ceramics and regular excursions to exotic destinations, and another friend, a talented and highly accomplished painter, has taken up knitting in a big way. And didn’t I read somewhere that Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon is to run for governor?
I guess the world is full of new beginnings for those who want to make them. But L1 and I have been gifted something in our move, which is a kick up the backside and a whole new set of opportunities arrayed on our doorstep.
The trouble is, what with all the gallery-going and dancing, I’ll be hard pressed to carve out time for writing. I’m counting on you to keep me honest.
Onwards. Slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow. Sideways step.
P.S. While we’re on the subject of dancing, I must tell you about the utterly wonderful Victoria’s, where I was taken by two of my old university chums during a brief trip to Florida this past week. Victoria’s (in Bonita Springs, not far from Naples) is like no other shop I’ve ever been in. Entering through the front door feels like walking into a party in full swing. There’s music (mostly Motown, but with some Hall and Oates and Pharrell Williams thrown in), raucous laughter, exuberant chat and a joyous, infectious energy. Glitter balls and ruby-red hearts dangle from the ceiling. Women of a certain age (all well on the north side of fifty and many pushing eighty) are everywhere amongst the racks and tables, holding up items to show their girlfriends, draping themselves in colourful scarves, posing in floaty summer dresses or t-shirts with flowers or starfish emblazoned on the front or the back or both. Men who are waiting for their wives and girlfriends (and a number of the wives and girlfriends in addition), are seated at a small bar where a handsome, grey haired senior citizen in a crisp, white dress-shirt and bow tie serves them tea, coffee, juices and sweet delights. (The delights used to include wine and champagne, until the insurance costs spiralled out of control and the alcohol license was reluctantly relinquished. “If you think this is wild,” one woman said, “you shudda seen the place in those days.”). It’s hard NOT to dance as you browse, and many of the women don’t even try to stop themselves.
Admittedly, some of the merchandise is on the wrong side of that line between eccentric and tacky – a bit too loud, a bit too colourful or shiny, adorned with a few too many giant daisies. And you’d have to think twice before wearing some of the items in places like London, New York or Toronto. (“No, no, no,” said my friend J, holding up a chunky, multi-coloured wooden bracelet.) But no matter. Mostly what you see is older women who’ve refused to give up on style, and who still find immense joy in seeking out that adorable, fun necklace or that flattering waterfall-blouse-and-palazzo-pants combo. They’re doing it with friends while dancing to Marvin Gaye and they’re having a blast.
It was a life affirming experience.