Contest #191 shortlist ⭐️

The Virtue of the Foxtrot

Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Write a story that includes someone saying, “I feel alive.”... view prompt


Fiction Romance

I won complimentary passes for Wednesday afternoon lessons at the Cheek to Cheek dance studio. I never win anything, and at the time, I wished my losing streak had remained intact. The "gala dinner" at the church hall was designed to raise money to preserve a local heritage home - McDougal House. Hattie Headly had donated the passes. Her sister was married to an English dance instructor who was a Canadian champion within some sort of specific category. There are always enough competitions and levels to reward decent talent, even if it is just a tier three medallist - code for "you didn't win but were close enough to impress."

Sarah, my girlfriend, was thrilled with the win. She grabbed the envelope from my hand and examined the passes. "Ballroom dancing! Awesome!" she squealed.

I wished I had won Greg's prize, a massive bottle of olives from Mr. Papadakis' grove in Greece. The free passes were clearly just a way to fill up a new session. Wednesday afternoon is hardly a popular time slot for anyone who is actually doing something. I had suggested that we just forget about my win, but Sarah was excited by the possibility. Dancing for me was about jumping and gyrating in the university pub on Thursday nights, sweating to old standbys from AC/DC and Billy Idol. It was about being generously lubricated with alcohol, pheromones and attitude. Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, was different. It was all Disney and happily ever after and horribly feminine.

When we first arrived, it was immediately clear who was available on Wednesday afternoons. The group comprised of five women, three well into their silver years, Joannie, Louise and Carol; one tired and disillusioned fifty-something housewife, Margaret; and an 87-year-old grandmother, Betty, who was alert but tiny and frail. Her daughter had dropped her off and quickly retreated to a nearby coffee shop for the duration of the lesson.

As a group, we waited in the corner for the private lesson ahead of us to finish. A young couple was rehearsing a romantic wedding dance to impress their guests. It was clearly the bride's idea. She wanted to give her day that extra special detail. The groom was uncomfortable, especially when he saw me. Generally, guys don't want other guys to know they take dance lessons. Either you have it, or you don't. It's not a pursuit you actually put effort towards, or at least not publicly. Most guys are more than happy to admit, "I can't dance."

As they glided across the polished wood floor, our class swooned. The couple was not quite effortless yet, but they were definitely in sync, and we could tell they had made wonderful progress. After some final pointers, the couple disappeared from the floor, and Richard, their instructor, approached us. He was a heavier-set middle-aged man with a perfect posture and a deceptively easy step. He flashed a broad smile and immediately joked at our uneasiness. "You all look like you've been sent to the principal's office." He spoke with a slight British accent, not the kind that is authoritative, but rather the one that's your best mate. He immediately answered the group's need for gossip and detail. "That couple, Kelly and Kevin, have had private lessons for six weeks. Their wedding is in the summer."

"Oh they are wonderful!"

"How lovely!"



It was a chorus of awe and praise.

Kelly and Kevin? Even their names had been matched. The wedding was too planned for the marriage to last. My anxiety fuelled my disdain. Sarah, however, was absolutely smitten. I could see her eyes wide with wonder.

"Don't worry," Richard spoke directly to me. "we'll be starting right from the beginning this afternoon. No previous experience necessary."

Everyone smiled and let out an audible sigh of relief. I was still suspicious. This all felt like a trap.

"I would like to begin by welcoming and congratulating our winning couple, Julian and Sarah. They won our door prize at the recent McDougal House gala."

"Oooh." The older women were delighted at our good fortune and applauded respectfully. As a shiny young university couple, we immediately became the darlings.

"Now, we usually don't get many gentlemen in our classes, especially during the daytime. Julian, would mind helping us out as a lead? And Sarah, would you mind sharing?" Richard asked the two questions simultaneously directing both at my girlfriend.

Sarah helpfully replied, "No, not at all."

"Fantastic!" Richard was pleased, and the whole class murmured with excitement.

How wonderful! I had just been pimped out as a gentleman host. I quickly attempted to lower everyone's expectations. "I've never danced before."

Richard smiled at me. "I know exactly what you're feeling. You'll do fine." He nodded using the masculine code: relax, no one is watching. "We'll start with a basic foxtrot."

We lined up in two rows facing each other, ladies on one side and "leads" on the other. I had been emasculated to make the other volunteer lead, Louise, feel more comfortable. Women are not so visceral about gender roles, at least when it comes to dancing. They are more interested in the experience than the perception. On the other hand, I could feel my brethren, all of mankind, watching my every move.

The first step, step, side, together was awkward. Sarah and I watched each other and overcounted our precision. There was no flow. All thought. It was even worse when we came together and held each other's hands. The timing was supposed to be slow, slow, quick, quick but we broke up in frustration. Richard sensed the growing tension and swooped in. He desperately wanted us to last more than one session. After all, we added cachet to his afternoon event. He took hold of Sarah and immediately floated her through a basic box step.

"You two need to stop trying to help each other. Julian, why don't you practice with Joannie for a bit."

Joannie smiled broadly at the opportunity. She was a silver lady with extra blonde hair and a glamour-shot complexion. Her eyes were vibrant, defined and enthusiastic. She positioned herself in front of me, took hold of my left hand and rested her other hand on my shoulder.

"Women love to dance." She smiled. "I don't understand why men don't get it. They could have their pick. You're very smart to come here with Sarah. And lucky too!" She winked at me, promising that Sarah would show her appreciation later.

I laughed for the first time.

"Now come on Julian, let's show 'em how it's done!" Joannie cheered.

Now, if this was a movie, I would have channelled my inner Fred Astaire and Joannie her Ginger Rogers, and together we would have dominated the dance floor. Alas, such potential really wasn't there. Instead, I counted my way through the steps and was very pleased the one time Joannie whispered, "I think we just did it!" Neither of us was entirely sure we had connected the dots, but it seemed to work, so we agreed to claim success.

The following week I suggested we didn't have to go back, but Sarah again insisted, arguing the class desperately needed a lead.

"Louise will be there." I offered.

"It is not the same." Sarah scolded. "All the ladies enjoyed dancing with you."

"They were all so impressed that you went to the first lesson. They couldn't stop talking about how lucky I was. Besides," Sarah put her arms around me and smiled deviously. "I like you there too. It's very hot that my man is the lead." She kissed me full on the lips, her tongue unexpectedly butterflying mine and promising more. Praise for just showing up. Joannie was right.

In the second lesson I was still not good, but I was definitely better. I became more aware of my partner and less obsessed with each step. There's something about dancing that made these women sparkle. I was working on an underarm turn with Betty, the 87-year-old lady, and when we finally got it, when it felt just right, she looked at me with a broad smile and said, "I feel alive! Let's just keep doing that!" She shuffled when she walked, but her twirling was effortless.

On the other hand, Carol intimidated me because she had danced before. She would always sigh in frustration at my learning curve. At one point, Richard came to my rescue. He pulled back my shoulders and raised my elbows. "You have a nice tall broad frame. You need to take up all the space around you. Pull on her arm and press on her shoulder just a little bit more, so she'll know exactly what you want her to do."

With my chest stretched flat, Carol enthusiastically agreed. "Yes!"

When Robert left us, I asked her what she wanted to practice, and she replied dreamily, "You're the lead. It's not up to me. I'll do whatever you want."

No pressure!

It was not until I danced with Margaret, the sad housewife, that I actually noticed the music - Harry Connick Jr. crooned, "It had to be you." We were counting along with relative success when I suddenly realized a three-turn was necessary - the "get out of trouble sequence" of the foxtrot. I took my left step forward, then pulled her back into the turn. She was not expecting my "guidance" as we flowed, yes flowed, through the corner. She lost her breath for a second, then said, "Oh! Oh, that was good." I had to agree, and her expression said it all. It was then that I realized this was the motion and moment they wanted me to lead them into. Don't get me wrong. The entire session was not full of such moments. In fact, it was mostly mechanical non-moments, but when everything went just right, it was wonderful.

It was another week before Sarah and I stopped trying to help each other, and instead of holding hands, I was holding her. After our first successful promenade with a double side turn, I smiled at her and brimmed with confidence as if to say, "Hey, I got this."

She laughed, delighted with my newly found foxtrot swagger. Our three turns became breathless, and we managed to travel the room without once having to recount ourselves in. Sarah's eyes sparkled. It was magical until it happened: I slow, slow, quick, quicked when I should have slow back quick quicked, and we crashed into the tea cart. Ya, I didn't notice quite how fluid our motion had become and had misjudged our speed. The teapot shattered, and the orange pekoe splashed everywhere. It was impressive. Even the Peak Freans broke on impact. All the ladies rushed to our aid. At other times in our life, our embarrassment at such a failure would have erupted into fault and blame. On that day, though, Sarah and I laughed at our mishap, and it wasn't long before we again floated off with Frank Sinatra.

I'll admit, we never quite learned how to flow like a majestic river. We were always more of a babbling brook, but we felt comfortable in the motion, suspended and full of life. The following week we brought a new teapot along with a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. I make a mean toll house cookie. The ladies were delighted, and Richard was too. I'm not sure why we stopped dancing. It was never intentional. In fact, we had promised all the ladies we would return, but then exams and term papers and... life got in the way. We didn't change the world over those four weeks, but life felt good in the moment, living in the flow.

March 30, 2023 16:37

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Joe Sweeney
12:53 Apr 04, 2023

Nicely done! I teach ballroom and DJ dances, both as side gigs. You captured it pretty well.


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Arielle Baines
15:03 Apr 14, 2023

A good lead is worth so much! I tried to replicate the first time I waltzed with someone once but even when we repeated it it was definitely not the same as that first time being spun around the room to a live band and being dipped at the end like I was a princess. In my mind the lights were low and I wore a flowy dress that swirled with me but I was in college in a green button shirt and flared jeans and sneakers and it was in an elementary school gym. Thank you for the story! I enjoyed it very much!


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Amanda Lieser
03:46 Apr 13, 2023

Hey John! Congratulations on this charming shortlist! I loved the way that the story used that trope of people trying something they really think they’ll just like, but being pleasantly surprised. I thought this piece was incredibly sweet and imaginative because I’d never think to set a story during a dance class. Congratulations on this charming shortlist! I loved the way that the story used that trope of people trying something they really think they’ll dislike, but being pleasantly surprised, I thought this piece was incredibly sweet. I a...


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Russell Mickler
17:15 Apr 07, 2023

Hey John! Congrats on the shortlist! :) R


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Wally Schmidt
17:00 Apr 07, 2023

This story captures so much in a single event - the embarrasment, the growth, the easy, the awkwardness-it's all there and the reader is there along with you. Congrats on the short-list!


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Viga Boland
16:46 Apr 07, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted


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