You know how this works. You are 8 years old and have your whole life ahead of you. There is no question whatsoever that you can realize your dreams just by remaining alive and getting through third grade. Career-path fantasies like becoming a fireman or a ballet dancer if you are a boy—an astronaut or a rock star if you are a girl—seem utterly within the realm of possibilities. Bring ‘em on, in fact. Never say never, your parents say to you over dinner. You can do anything, they reinforce in the car on the way home from little league. You begin to accept parental intelligence and acknowledge that anything is possible, and the bigger your dreams the better. Then, without warning, but as a result of the passage of time, those fantasies collide with aptitude, talent, peer pressure, interests, availability of funds, puberty or all of the above, and suddenly you’re staring at the grey-white walls of your office cubicle wondering how that happened. In fact, your parents are also wondering what the hell happened.

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Every once in awhile, though, there is a glimmer of how different things might have been had you actually chosen that race-car driving trajectory or that Navy Seal route. Perhaps not in the form of a lightening bolt but more like a gentle fairy-wand swish, the whisper of a feeling wafts over you and you think to yourself, “what if?” Maybe and most likely, that’s as far reaching as the conscious brain of a grey-haired adult can go…the occluded neural pathways try and save us the pain, suffering, and mortification of knowing we peaked at age 40. But, as it happens, there was apparently a quark in my personal universe. It took the form of a mythical tap on my shoulder, followed by a flickering realization of possible potential (FRPP)–and all of this took place over about 3 hours at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel’s Grand Ballroom. In fact, there were glimmer and glitter involved. I’m telling you, when fairy wands are brandished, expect the unexpected. Otherwise, to try and manage your fears or expectations based on actual reality based on what you’ve definitively experienced…chances are good that you’d climb under the bed covers and shut all the blinds. Believe me, you couldn’t cope. It’s just better not to know what could possibly go wrong.

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Prior to this auspicious day at the hotel, I thought all hotel ballrooms were the purview of wedding receptions, Bar Mitzvahs, and convention lectures. Most ballrooms have similar names, like The Redwood Room, or the Pavilion, and I conjure up cavernous rooms where vast acres of floor are covered in grotesque floral-patterned carpets. Industrial-strength accordion-pleated doors run on metal tracks mounted on the white, foaming ceiling tiles. Fluorescent lights offer enough light for surgery but cast a frightening glare on faces–turning white skin to a whiter shade of pale. And, not surprisingly given what these rooms look like, there is no way a ball was ever actually held there. Or so I thought. However, there are immense yawning rooms dotted throughout the bigger hotels of America, where a secret society meets. The hallways outside these enormous spaces are boggy with racks of sequined clothes and shelves of satin-covered shoes; there are tanning booths and teeth-whitening cubbies. There are accessories for hair, eyes, ears, and wrists—each laden with Swarovski crystals if they are costly and some cheap glass bits if they are not. These certain ballrooms are not carpeted but instead house a football-sized wooden dance floor, the perimeter of which is dotted with chairs and tables draped with floor-length cloths in an attempt to replicate a cabaret. Think basketball game meets Westminster Dog Show.


I had been taking ballroom dancing lessons for a few years prior to finding my way up that hotel’s escalator on this particular Saturday. Weeks before this infamous day, I had entered myself into my dance school’s homespun competition, which was a knock-off of the “Dancing with the Stars” TV program that had recently begun to air. Of course now, after its 5,064 season, everyone is familiar with the show’s concept. But several years ago, the spectacle was a unique and wholly entertaining view into a world most were unaware of. The dance teachers were my school’s equivalent of the TV show’s professionals, and the students were the “stars.” Heady and serious stuff as is usually the case for dedicated hobbyists of all kinds. I was partnered with a male teacher, 25 years my junior, who ran me through my paces three to four times a week trying his best to get this old mare in condition to run the Kentucky Derby of dance contests. His strength and agility didn’t fail him or me as he hoisted me overhead and twirled me from front to back and hustled me at lightening speed around the dance floor. I hear that dance teachers have referred to their experience of instructing amateurs like me as the equivalent of moving furniture. Built not unlike a small end table myself, I marveled at my partner’s composure to pick me up and place me down with a modicum of gentle maneuvering. The practicing paid off and we won. The next adventure was to take our routine on the road. I thought this sounded like a fabulous way to keep in shape and not lose a second of the newly found momentum I had garnered on the home front.


To those of you unfamiliar with the ballroom dancing world, there are competitions held more frequently than you would ever imagine. Teachers and students gather in any number of hotel ballrooms across the country–in fact, the world–to compete. The place for me to begin, however, was at a local hotel–the above-mentioned Marriott. My partner and I were registered for the event and given our assigned time for our heat. Let me add that I’ve lived my entire life waiting for the chance to be in a sport’s heat. It was thrilling to contemplate that this was a professional competition, held in San Francisco, and that I would be judged by professionals. The thrill was tainted a bit when I was told the hour of our heat…7:30 a.m. Just imagine, if you would, that if you had to schedule the least impressive people to do anything at all in a public arena when would you schedule them? Hmmmm? We had to be there no later than 7:00 to warm up. It was a Saturday morning; there was no traffic. I begged my partner to get there early. He complied, and we arrived before the hotel’s Starbucks was open for business.


The escalator deposited us on the ballroom floor just in front of the reception desk where we received our numbers to pin on our backs. I wore an off-the-rack Betsey Johnson dress that I bought on sale and sported slightly more mascara than I would wear to the grocery store. Surprisingly, even at that early hour, there were lithe dancers of all ages in the hotel lobby wearing pink polyester robes with the names of their dance studios embroidered on the back. Others were stretching their fishnet-covered legs over their heads to warm up. And, those were the 70-year-olds. Still others were checking on hair and makeup appointments that were scheduled in different hotel rooms that morning. My hands were cold and clammy, and I felt as if my underpants were wrapped around my ankles or I had forgotten to remove the curlers from my hair. You know that dream of being naked in front of the class? Not unlike how I felt. I had won my dance studio’s competition with my lucky dance shoes. The pair I was now wearing. These were black laced-up short-heeled shoes that unbeknownst to me were not regulation issue and had no business disgracing the professional vibe of this environment. All I knew was that they drew only a little blood on my abused feet. I learned quickly that this was only one of many costume gaffes I committed that morning.


Our heat number was called my partner and I entered the room. Actually, only he went in. I lingered at the doorway not for the sake of drama but because I felt my knees buckle and my heart skip. I reeled from a heightened feeling of terror compounded by the way I was dressed and now as I caught sight of the dancers warming up. I was woefully, pitifully out of my league. I should hasten to add that my teachers had more than adequately prepared me for the physicality of the competition. But they were not licensed therapists. So that if one harbors even a shred of self doubt, leave it to a ballroom full of chiffon-swirling, ultra-coiffed women and vainglorious men to ramp up that insecurity. Before me, even at this daybreak of an hour, were scores of dancers in various forms of shimmery, glittery costumes which I came to find out later were standard issue. Tuxedoed men with shiny black patent-leather shoes and slicked-back hair; women, no matter the age, with hair plastered to their skulls and further held in place with jeweled barrettes and combs and tiaras. One woman had a necklace of sorts draped along her hairline and a nugget of a rhinestone falling precisely between her eyebrows. The hems of the gowns were lacy or feathery, slit up the side, the back, the front. The amount of sequins (I now know to call stones) per dress could have sunk a battleship. Feathers formerly adhering to gowns, even during practice rounds, were flying off the dance floor like pollen in the wind. No woman had on black dancing shoes except for the very few children warming up for their salsa dances. But, even those were voguish in a petite sort of way.

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What was my partner to do now that I wouldn’t go into the room? He did what seemed expeditious, I guess…he ignored me and perhaps assumed I would change my mind. Which I did, eventually. Much like the proverbial toe in the water, I stepped into the room with my orthopedic black footwear thinking that my steps made a sound heard around the ballroom. Tripping, in fact, on the light fantastic and not gracefully recovering. But, of course, with all the twinkling apparel seemingly levitating off the floor and luminescent disco balls swinging overhead who was paying attention to me? No one. I suppose not even my partner.


Our heat number was called and we were corralled into the bullpen like ball players. Again, the comparison to other sports was clunky and mismatched but still somewhat satisfying for a non-athlete like me. The MC announced the dancers’ names one by one. His staccato pronunciation was faultless and daunting considering the multisyllabic names of nearly all the eastern-bloc professional teachers’ surnames. Arm in arm, my partner and I scurried to the spot on the floor where the leader strategically stakes out his claim for a coveted swath of real estate. There we assumed this pseudo I-can’t-wait-for-the-music-to-begin pose. All phony smiles and jumbled nerves. The DJ’ed waltz music started, my partner held out his hand for me to join him, and just like Cinderella (minus the prophetic footwear) I took a few steps in his direction to assume my dance position. Fueled by adrenaline and steadfastly adhering to memorized steps, I did my best to encircle the room. Over and over again. These heats are comprised of 8 or 9 individual, 3-minute dances. We shared the floor with others of my age group and level of ability. My endurance was waning as the event proceeded, and my abilities were dwindling. I had little recall of my name let alone what the dance steps were, and I could see (and feel) the sweat accumulating on the forehead and back of my furniture-moving partner. As is the custom, after each dance, the leader rolls out his partner like pulling a sheet off a paper towel roll. It is here, after the twirl, where I am expected to courtesy before the judges. They shoot horses, don’t they?

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Mercifully, off the dance floor, I waited for some tough love from my partner. His assessment was rough and unforgiving but oddly motivating to me. In other words, I was pissed. Mad at him for proffering such an unfeeling critique and upset with myself for not performing the way I thought I could. So that when we took the floor again for perhaps the most frightening and potentially appalling moment, I was (again, sports fans) pumped. Pissed and pumped to be exact. This was to be the solo performance referred to as the Showcase. It was only about 8:00 a.m. now; however, it felt as if a lifetime had skidded by and I no longer cared what I was wearing on my feet or in my hair. I actually began to believe in myself and in my preparation and most of all did not succumb to feelings of self-loathing. Quite an improvement. I just danced for the pure and unadulterated pleasure of being out on the floor, as the center of attention, with a young stud, moving to beautiful music.

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Maybe that’s why we received high praise for the solo. The judges saw a woman who loved her moment in the sunshine and danced like no one was watching. I collected our swag from the podium and rushed out to the hallway where I could better catch my breath and inhale some air that wasn’t laden with the medicinal aroma of bronzing lotion. On my way to reward the two of us with double cappuccinos at the now-open Starbucks, my eye caught a pair of flesh-colored satin dance pumps. The kind that all the other dancers were wearing, and I bought a pair. Actually, I bought two.

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Fantasies can keep you searching for freshness in life and fuel one’s urge to compete or hanker to excel. It could be that the desire to reinvent oneself or to create something novel is a way to conquer–or just to experience–something that has been elusive. Whatever it is, sports fans, you just put one black-laced ugly shoe in front of the other and enter a world that you have no preconceptions about because you literally know nothing. I recently saw a woman at a cocktail party whom I hadn’t seen in ages. I asked what she was up to, and she told me that she was taking figure-skating lessons and was about to fly to Lake Pacid in upstate New York to compete as a beginner. I asked her what she thought it would be like. She said that she wasn’t sure exactly. There would be an enormous ice rink, maybe some gorgeous costumes, but she had just purchased nude tights to keep her warm and cover up her unsightly varicose veins. She was bringing her lucky, black-laced skates. Other than that, she didn’t know what to expect.

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May I have this dance?