Let me start off by explaining that I don’t dance.
Never learned as a child; wasn’t interested. I took lessons for a while as an adult, but I was already training in martial arts, and was confounded by my instinct to throw the dance instructor to the floor and punch him in the head.
I felt that I ought to learn to dance because my husband dances beautifully. And really, I thought: I can spar. I should be able to dance. Laila Ali can dance. Kelly Osbourne can dance. Fucking Tom DeLay can dance.
But I never could learn, and my failure was painfully, publicly evident a couple of months ago when I ended up dancing with my karate instructor, Sensei Joy, at a drag show.
I don’t have time to provide all of the back story, I’m afraid, but the important thing to remember is that Sensei danced for years before she started karate—ballet and ballroom both. This means she is one of the few people who can dance with me without risking injury. “This would be so much easier if I could hit you,” I shouted above the din—a thought I have at least a dozen times every day, but am rarely in a position to say out loud to whoever I am thinking it about.
She was very kind about it; Sensei knows me well. It was weird though, and it took me back to the evening, years ago, when I finally realized I was not, and would never be a dancer.
When my husband and I arrived at “Social Dance” night at the Arthur Murray studio, I cast my eye over the sign-in sheet, trying to guess from the signatures what sort of people I would be inflicting my dancing upon. Five strangers, and at the very top of the list was scrawled, in a primitive runic hand, the name “Sven Knudsen.” You don’t run into many Svens down here in Austin, so as we walked into the studio I naturally looked around for the blondest person there.
That turned out to be our dance instructor—a woman, since we had one extra man (at Arthur Murray, you’re still expected to dance with the opposite gender). There were two other couples: A retirement-age husband and wife and a younger man and woman who were wearing actual dancing shoes, with leather soles.
And then there was, obviously, undeniably, Sven Knudson.
I’m not sure if Garrison Keillor invented the literary stock figure of the Norwegian bachelor farmer, or just popularized it, but as soon as I laid eyes on Sven I knew I was looking at the original type, the ideal—the Platonic Form, if you will, of the bachelor farmer.
He was, I’d say, in his late fifties, with thinning white hair, and he was big—a couple of inches taller than my six-foot-one husband, and a good eighty pounds heavier. He would have presented a fairly conventional appearance behind the counter of a plumbing supply store, or standing in line at the DMV. But there was something subtly off about him in the context of a social dance class. I’m just guessing here, but it might have been the lanyard he was wearing around his neck—honest to God, a lanyard, straight off the summer camp craft table—from which hung his grocery store shopper identification card and a huge and lethal-looking clump of keys.
I’m almost as bad at math as I am at dancing, but my brain stumbled rapidly through the problem: Say three minutes per dance, plus two more to switch partners and listen to advice from the instructor; twelve dances total in a one hour class, divided by three and a half couples; it worked out to at least three dances with Sven Knudson for each woman in the room. None of us appeared to be looking forward to them.
I was last in the rotation, and had to lurch through a waltz with my husband, a foxtrot with the older gentleman, and a cha-cha with the young man before reporting to Sven. The other three women had survived, I told myself nervously. I probably would too. As we waited for the music, I gripped his enormous paw in my sweaty right hand, took a deep, calming breath, and immediately choked on a dense cloud of aftershave—it must have been some brand marketed exclusively to dairy farmers, intended to cover the odors of manure and tick medicine. Sven gazed stoically over my shoulder, saying nothing.
Then the music started, and with a terrible sense of foreboding, I recognized the rhythm: It was a tango.
The tango is often referred to as “The Dancer’s Dance,” meaning that I really had no business attempting it, and neither did Sven. Even in the tame Arthur Murray style, the basic step requires multiple tempo and direction changes.
Three measures in, I realized I was about to receive karmic payback for every time I had stomped on my dance instructor’s foot, or turned the wrong way on a reverse turn, or performed a calf-to-calf sweep between the two and three counts of a waltz (where it just fits perfectly). For once, I was the one being stepped on.
But the punishment my toes were receiving was quickly overshadowed by the threat to my eyes.
I had been worried about the lanyard, and in fact my instincts on that point were quite sound: With every second step, the gigantic wad of keys suspended from Sven’s neck swung with devastating accuracy into my eyes, my temple, and my lip, like a medieval war flail.
Now, I’ve been taught to block shots to the head; I’m reasonably good at it (better than most dancers, anyway), but you really need your hands free to do it properly. Locked into the tango with Sven, I could only time things so that, when the lanyard reached the end of its arc somewhere around my partner’s left armpit, I would begin turning my face to his right, hoping to absorb most of the impact on my right jaw. This prevented me from being blinded outright, but it added another complication to an already tricky dance.
Sven was tiring badly by the second half of our tango; rather than merely standing close in the box position, he began to actually lean on me, which I didn’t appreciate at all. Our progress around the floor slowed perceptibly as I was forced to carry more and more of his bulk. Sven appeared not to notice my struggles, or at least he didn’t mention them—he puffed and gasped with the effort of unfamiliar movement, but he never said a word, not one single word, to me. His watery blue eyes just stared off into the distance, his gaze inscrutably Scandinavian, and I could easily picture him on the prow of a Viking longship, preferably one about to be set on fire and pushed out to sea.
I found his silence unnerving, even though there never was much conversation at Social Dance (people tended to do a lot of counting under their breath). But Sven seemed perfectly happy without small talk. And what was there to say, really? “I see you shop at Randalls”?
When the tango was over, I staggered back to my husband.
“Having fun?” he asked innocently. I did not answer.
My second dance with Sven was a rumba. You don’t have to travel much for a rumba, luckily; it’s a “spot dance.” We plodded through the box step, and I was pleased to see that our lack of forward motion kept Sven’s keys mostly below eye level.
Unfortunately, perhaps because the movements of the rumba are fairly slow and hypnotic, they had a soporific effect on Sven, whose head began to nod gently toward his chest as the dance progressed. Gradually, his chin descended to rest on the top of my head, and from that point on, he was pretty much dead weight, propping himself up on me as we wobbled back and forth to the strains of the Latin Waltz.
Sven seemed quite comfortable in this position, but I think I can be forgiven for resenting it. The Arthur Murray instructors were very strict with male students about providing a strong frame for their partners. Sven wasn’t even trying. Where did he get the idea that it was my job to hold him up? I wondered, until it occurred to me: This was exactly how a farmer sits when he milks a cow, leaning into her uncomplaining side with his head buried in her flank. Sven, I realized, was just transferring one set of physical skills, honed in the barn, to another arena—the dance floor. How could I blame the man for that? I did the exact same thing every time I tried to take out my partner’s knee. His trust in me was rather touching, really, and I almost started to grow fond of the man.
But by my third dance with Sven, I no longer had any awareness of what music was playing, what step we were supposed to be doing, or what sins I might have committed to land myself in this circle of Hell. Sven, exhausted from his evening of social dance, abandoned any pretense of supporting his own weight, and simply hung his enormous frame over my shoulders, which, though they can crank out a few pushups, were not designed to have a full-grown dairyman hung off of them.
Trapped beneath Sven’s torso, I discovered that the ratio of oxygen to aftershave was not quite up to life-sustaining levels, and dizziness washed over me in waves. Eventually we ran out of floor and caromed off a wall, and as we turned, the clump of keys on Sven’s lanyard shifted, lodging itself between his shoulder and my neck. Borne down by Sven’s full weight, it dug into my carotid artery, and a series of bright, geometric shapes flashed across my field of vision. I tried to breathe, and couldn’t.
And I thought, Well, this is it; I’m going to have to kill him. And I felt kind of sad about it, like a bullfighter, or the kid in Old Yeller, because we’d been through a lot in the course of one short evening, Sven and I; and there’s a bond that forms during times like that. Fighting with someone, or dancing with them, or being in that gray area between the two, is a very intimate experience. You get to know the other person in a way you never could in a hands-off relationship. After three dances with Sven, I felt like I knew him better than his own mother had (she was, I surmised, the reason behind his presence at Arthur Murray—I pictured a deathbed promise: “Yes Mama, I’ll go to church more often. And I’ll learn to dance. Sure, and I’ll meet a nice girl”).
And just at that moment, when I had realized, this is it—it’s me or him—and I prepared to drive my fist up into Sven’s throat, collapsing his windpipe . . . the music stopped. The agonizing deadweight on my shoulders miraculously lifted, the keys embedded in my neck were pried away, my lungs filled with air, and I could see again. I was unharmed, and no one would have to die.
What’s more, I had achieved clarity in that dreadful moment. Sven was no dancer, and neither was I. He belonged on his farm, and I belonged in the dojo. To pretend otherwise was to defy Fate.
Sven, of course, said nothing; just nodded his head, turned away, and shuffled silently out of the room. I never saw him again, but I’ve never forgotten him. He was a worthy foe, and he taught me something essential about myself.
As I slowly re-entered the land of the living, I saw my husband, who makes friends as effortlessly as a horse draws flies, walking over with the young couple in dancing shoes. “Hey, come meet these guys,” he told me. “They’re here every week.” I smiled politely, still a trifle dazed, and shook hands with the woman.
And then the young man next to her held out his hand and said, “Hi. I’m Sven Knudson.”