The Magazine

Strictly Ballroom

Maria Santos, bodega ballerina

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By MARIA SANTOS
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Like a lot of people, I used to hate dancing in public. But unlike most people, I have professional ballroom dancers for parents. When you regularly lose your father in the grocery store only to find him practicing waltz turns down the bread aisle, a fear of public dancing is not sustainable. 

Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan

When I was very young, I loved to dance. “Life is a musical,” my dad sometimes says, and I’m not sure how old I was before I realized that isn’t actually the case. In our house, feet tapping under the dinner table usually meant someone was about to spring up to salsa in the middle of dessert.

I spent a lot of time at dance competitions, where I envied the glittering gowns and ran to the floor after each set to collect fallen sequins. I watched practically every Fred Astaire movie ever made. By the age of five or six I had most of the routines down by heart (at least my interpretations of them), and I would put the movies on and dutifully practice in front of the TV. My specialty was a tap routine from Easter Parade—Ann Miller’s “Shakin’ The Blues Away.”

But eventually I started to notice that some aspects of my life weren’t totally normal. My friends would be over playing and suddenly ask why my dad had been hovering over a bunch of coins spread across the table, muttering to himself and humming, for the past half-hour. Wasn’t it obvious? He was choreographing a dance routine! The quarters were the men and the dimes were the women. What else would he be doing? 

I also began to realize that I would never get to watch a dance scene in a movie only once through. As soon as the scene came on, my father would inevitably snatch up the remote and rewind the scene to the beginning, asking something like, “Were they using right turns or left turns? Come in here and see this!” My mother would emerge from the kitchen and offer her analysis: “I think they’re doing International Style, aren’t they?” Before long they’d be dancing around the dining room arguing about which way those turns went, and I might as well give up on the rest of the movie for the next hour. As a result, my family knows by heart the contra dances in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, the disco line dance in Saturday Night Fever, and most of Michael Jackson’s Thriller routine. 

Of all the epiphanies, the saddest was the shattering of my dream of becoming a dance critic. Already the aspiring journalist, I would sit at the edge of the studio floor and scribble detailed descriptions of my parents’ students: “Good footwork, but terrible arm movement.” “Awkward hips.” “Legs look crooked.” Once the students discovered what I was up to, my career was brought to a swift and bitter end. 

Then came the harrowing days of middle school, when I first really rebelled against dancing. My parents, in a moment of weakness, had volunteered to teach a children’s dance class at our church—obviously not realizing the exquisite diplomacy this would require. First there was the problem of having girls dance with boys, at an age when both like to pretend they don’t get along. My parents quickly learned that any dances that involved kicking in your partner’s general direction could easily devolve into all-out civil war.

It’s also an age when showing enthusiasm in public is mortifying. My parents, deaf to my protests, would force me to get up at weddings and parties and teach line dances to the crowd. It got to the point where the first few bars of the “Cha Cha Slide” could send me into a panic.

Suspecting that I might not be destined for ballroom, my parents instead dragged me to Irish step dance lessons (think Riverdance). The first few times I performed, I made a thousand mistakes and grimaced the whole way through. “When you make a mistake,” my mother scolded me, “just smile more. No one will ever notice.” I now know that if a dancer is smiling really hard—or worse, laughing—there’s a significant chance they’ve either completely forgotten what they’re doing or they’re yelling at their partner through their teeth. 

It took a few years of lectures on turning my toes out and holding my shoulders back, but eventually it became natural again, loving to dance. These days you can find me merengue-ing my way through the produce section, or calling up my dad to ask him for some good dance scenes to watch. Now I only regret the years I spent being embarrassed instead of learning the family trade. 

Although I still don’t care for the “Cha Cha Slide.” 


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