John Sergeant and I have two things in common. Both of us are journalists, and both of us — how can I put this? — have known tsouris on the dance floor. Sergeant is just one of the many celebrities to attract criticism for their performances on the BBC’s reality show Strictly Come Dancing — famously he was dubbed a “dancing pig in Cuban heels” by judge Arlene Phillips.
I have never, ever been likened to a dancing pig, but at a recent simchah I did think I caught the words “three left feet” as I skipped off the floor after a waltz.
What with thousands of people across the country being inspired by Strictly to take up dancing, the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) is hosting a fast-track ballroom course next month. Sensing an opportunity to avoid total humiliation at my wedding, a mere nine months away, I decided to get a head start.
And so I find myself at premier dance centre Pineapple, in Covent Garden, waiting to be transformed from a rhythm-free reporter to a swirling, twirling dancing queen. As I sit in the cafeteria, surrounded by tall, slim, leg-warmer-clad professionals, I suddenly feel slightly out of place. The girl next to me, hair scraped back into a tidy bun, wearing the kind of outfit last seen on the set of Fame, is effortlessly bending her limbs in directions I thought impossible as she chats casually to a slender, muscular man who has positioned himself on the floor with his legs at 180 degree angles.
I experience the first flutter of nerves when my name is called from across the room. Michael Litke introduces himself as the man who is going to teach me to dance. I wonder how he knew who I was among the 20 or so other dancers in the cafeteria but before I can give it too much thought, he has whisked me into one of the dance studios.
Michael tells me we are to learn two dances, the classic waltz, and the Latin American cha cha cha. Whereas celebrities on Strictly have weeks to rehearse, I have just one hour to master the basic steps of each dance. Oh, well — in today’s fast-food, instant-gratification society, who has the time to attend weekly dance classes for months at a time? Ballroom in a jiffy is the way forward, as I am hoping to prove.
“Ballroom dancing is all about learning and remembering the moves and listening to the rhythm,” Michael says. “You need to listen to the beat in the music and have that on your mind when you dance. Then you’ll always be in time and it will be easy.”
This probably is the time to tell him I have zero musical talent but I decide to nod politely instead. But, as he plays the CD, the music is definitely energising and it is hard not to be enticed by the beat.
The waltz is a beautiful dance — when performed correctly. Partners glide across the floor, almost as if on water, their bodies effortlessly entwined in an intimate embrace. It is a dance position, it turns out, that is extremely demanding to maintain.
“Prepare to get very intimate,” Michael quips. “Your hips need to be locked against me while the upper body remains apart, open and in a straight line.”
Any embarrassment I might feel about getting physical with a total stranger is quickly replaced by the feeling of strain on my hips and lower stomach. Michael informs me that the best waltz dancers have solid six-packs, even the female ones.
Surprisingly, I find the basic waltz move relatively easy, a simple box step. Facing the mirror, side-by-side, Michael and I repeat the step, gradually adding other aspects such as how to hold our the arms and the way our bodies have to rise and fall. But as soon as we return to the partner position, I find that combining the steps with maintaining the frame is a lot more tricky.
After a few more practice runs, Michael adds the music — another spanner in the works. I now have to remember all the steps, keep my body in the correct position and move in time with the beat. But I actually find that the music helps get me into the right mindset and to realise when I should rise to my toes and when to bend my knees.
“Great,” Michael praises. “But my shoulder is about to cave in.” It turns out that so deep was I in concentration, that I have been gripping on to him like a stress ball.
He has no time to recover as we have to move straight along to the cha cha cha. Michael has provided a piece of slow music “to help ease me in”, he says. It appears his and my versions of slow are very different and I am thrown by the sheer speed of the dance, despite his reassurances that the track is half the speed of a normal cha cha cha.
The position and beat of this dance are completely different from the waltz, the frames are more closed, the hips further apart and the steps are taken from toe to heel. It is, also, more fun. Practised dancers take the opportunity to inject their personalities, adding extra hip movements and playful expressions. I am too busy concentrating on my footwork to think about what kind of expression I am wearing — probably a look of deep thought with eyes squinting and tongue half out. Again, once I have mastered a step, Michael introduces something new — a turn, a side step and a backward glide. It is only when I peer up at the mirror that I realise the reflection is actually making the appropriate moves. Astonishing.
Before I know it, I have learned the steps to two dances and with five minutes of the hour to go, I am able to whisk through each dance again to the music and actually enjoy it.
The lesson was hugely satisfying. Thanks to Michael’s clear instructions, I had picked up all the steps, although issues of style and flair would have to wait for another day. I had taken my first, er, steps in a transformation from anxious shuffler to twirling dancing queen. And that is something John Sergeant could never say.