Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dancing with Strangers

My husband Matt and I had overnight guests this weekend – my sister Shawn and her new husband Frank drove up from California for the weekend.  They pulled up in front of our house hauling a 16 foot trailer built in 1966.  It was a nice addition to our existing collection of over-the-hill vehicles, older than my sister by one year, and beating out our antique Dodge mini-van I bought off my former employer by 20 years. 
When the trailer was safely tucked into place on the large concrete apron in front of our garage, it was a few accessories short of the perfect kitschy/trashy look needed to send our neighbors off the deep end.  So I went to the garage and pulled out the rusty fire pit and a camping chair.  I made Shawn and Frank pose in front of the set – a trailer-trash mecca, an urban camping scene.  I made them guzzle beer and pretend to roast marshmallows in broad daylight.  All we needed were some mangy dogs and an old tire to gather water for prime mosquito larvae infestation.  It was a weak attempt, but it was temporarily exhilarating pretending to mount a tiny challenge to the societal norms of neighborhood propriety. 

We had our fun, then went inside for dinner.  Frank, an amiable, dark haired 50-year old auto-mechanic with anti-government sentiments, picked at the shrimp etouffe suspiciously and seemed intimidated by the pumpkin soup.  “I’ve never had this before,” he admitted.  But he eventually seemed to warm to it and, over second servings, conversation turned to the housing market.  Frank lamented the burden of owning a house that was worth less than what he paid for it.  “It’s a dead weight”, he complained. “We would like to have a little freedom, get out on the road and see the country.” 

He and my sister had purchased the trailer and fixed it up in the hopes of circling the US, seeing something new.  So far, our house in Portland, Oregon was as far as they had gotten.  It was a start!   
Before the newlyweds arrived, it had been decided that we would go salsa dancing that night with our other sister Margaret.  The event was a Meetup – a social outing organized online for like-minded strangers.  This one was to practice our Spanish, take a salsa lesson and do a little dancing.  The description reminded us that salsa dancers like to look spiffy.  So at 8pm, Shawn excused herself to go hole up in the trailer and doll up.  I went upstairs to do the same, putting on makeup for the first time that summer.

Having seen women dancing at other Latin parties, I knew what kind of attire to expect.  I had a hard time deciding between raunchy, skin-tight or just sexy.  There was practical – a form-fitting pair of black slacks.  There was sweat tolerant – a dressy tank top.  But, in the end, I settled on an old dancing standby – a blue and white print dress that was tightish at the torso, but which flew out in almost a full circle during spins.

We arrived at Aztec Willie’s at around 9 pm.  The main room had been cleared to reveal a decent-sized dance floor with the traditional wood floor boards like in a school gym.  The place was only sparsely populated with a handful of 20-somethings – most of them friendly, nerdy types, none of them speaking Spanish.  It turned out the organizer had combined three Meetups for the same event.  One was for Spanish language practice, another for Latin culture appreciation and the third was a singles group.  I counted only 4 other Spanish speakers.  We ended up not speaking much Spanish at all, not even Adrian, Margaret’s Puerto Rican husband.

Margaret and Adrian had taken dance lessons before and knew the basics of salsa, but the rest of us were newbies.  We stood around trying to find something in common with the youngsters as we waited for the salsa lesson to begin.  Scheduled for 9:30 pm, the lesson would be an essential element to our enjoyment of the evening.  But we waited and waited, until finally at 10:15, a short stocky Latina woman put on a headset microphone and introduced herself to the now crowded room.  Once she got us organized, there must have been 30 women lined up on one side of the room, and a similar number of men on the other.  I looked around, but couldn’t see either Matt or Adrian among them.
The instructor paired us up, one boy, one girl, just like in high school gym class – whoever was directly in front of you was your partner.  I started with one of the Meetup boys.  He smiled and put some effort into learning the very simple steps.  He was a bit clumsy, but good natured about it. After 10 minutes, all the men moved one partner to the right.  My next dance partner was Miles, from Argentina.  He spoke to me in beautiful Spanish that sent a chill up my spine.  He was obviously not in need of lessons, and augmented the teacher’s bare-bones repertoire with a few simple spins.  He was patient, explaining to me what he was about to do and how I should interpret his physical indicators.  I just about melted at the combination of his sexy accent ringing in my ears and the structure of his firmly-held upper body guiding me into and out of each turn.  His girlfriend, who danced to my right, probably felt the same way, because when he moved on to her, she couldn’t keep her mouth off of him.  Young love is sweet, and it was especially touching watching them because she was new to salsa, a bit klutzy and goofy with smooth Miles.  The two of them laughed at her deficiencies.  At one point, she fell against his chest and wrapped her arms around him mid-step amidst gales of giggles. 

My third partner was a young Korean man, one of the singles.  He counted out loud as we stepped back and forth monotonously.  He was an agreeable guy, trying to learn something new and have a good time.  Naively, neither he nor I could have predicted that that which lay ahead would inevitably drown us both.  I should have done my research.  As it turned out, the level of dance at Aztec Willies’ is famously top caliber.  We would be so far over our heads that we might as well have skipped the paltry lesson and just done the Hand Jive instead. 

The teacher was done before she even got started.  Our lesson was 30 minutes shorter than promised, an hour behind schedule, and so crowded, it was pretty much worthless.  We walked away knowing how to step forward and step backward to the beat, nothing more.  I was sorely disappointed, and totally unprepared for the rest of the evening.

The teacher gave a plug for her dance studio in Hilsboro, and just like that, we were on our own.  A song started up.  I was surprised when Matt approached me for the first dance.  I had figured if he didn’t take the lesson – lame as it was – he wasn’t planning on dancing at all.  But here he was, apparently hoping I would teach him what I just learned.  I wasn’t sure if he avoided the lesson on purpose to avoid dancing with strangers, or if it was just coincidental that he had been getting a beer the moment the lesson began.  In any case, here he was, 30 fewer minutes of practice than he needed.  It would have done him some good.  My brave, but perhaps foolish, husband offered himself up as my partner, putting something precious and delicate in my clumsy hands.  Thank god the song wasn’t too fast.

We joined hands in front of us.  I lay my palms on top of his and curled my fingers into the mirrored ‘C’ shape of his fingers.  Right away, I had to loosen his anxious grip.  Then we began:  I stepped backward and he stepped forward on one side.  Then we returned to center.  “One, two, three, and…” I instructed.   I stepped forward and signaled that he should step backward on the other side. “Five, Six, Seven, and…”  He kicked me in the shin.

I smiled and ignored our fumbling start, but decided to try it half-paced so it would be super easy.  Unfortunately, my body was having a hard time with the math.  We futzed around a bit, then I figured the music didn’t really matter anyway and we should just try to master the movements.  We pulled off 4 solid steps, but then it all crumbled away.    

I had mastered the rhythm during the lesson, but barely.  The first practice songs were quite easy, hand-picked for us novices.  But already, the music had become difficult to feel.  There was no thumping bass beating me over the head with an insistent 4/4 count like in my favorite funk tunes.  The instruments all sort of blended together in a melodically pleasant but rhythmically subtle composition my ears couldn’t decipher.  This was not the Commodores’ “Brick House,” or Michael Jackson’s jamming “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough”.   Losing one’s place in the rhythm was dangerous: it was next to impossible to hear when to start back up again.

This was my number one salsa handicap for the evening – being out of touch with the rhythm.  My second was a complete inability to read cues from my partners.  And my third was my husband.  If I was having a hard time - me, who keeps the dance floor interesting on disco night - just imagine how Matt felt.  He admits he has no rhythm.  He has a hard time step-touching to a rock and roll song.  Needless to say, couples-dancing was not one of his top ten favorite activities. 

I gave up on trying to instruct him.  I didn’t really know what I was talking about, and he just argued with me about how he couldn’t do it anyway.  So we fumbled along, bumping toes and looking as graceless as a drunken dog with three legs.  I tried to encourage him, but my heart wasn’t in it.  He was determined to be unhappy and there was nothing I could do to change that.  He got angry.  I got exasperated – I had not come to a salsa night to trip over his feet and jerk about haltingly like a broken toy.  As the song ended, it was with relief that we moved back to the table.  But I wasn’t ready to just sit down for the night.  I had learned a little, I wanted to use it – and learn more!

So I let Matt sit down and then stood alone in front of our table, facing the dance floor.  I could have been wearing a sandwich board that read, “Dance with me!” and it would have been just as subtle.  A small pinkish man in a Scottish beanie, perhaps in his 60s, held out his hand to me.  I accepted.  I thought this would be an easy transition from beginner status because he was short, old and a little effeminate.  Surely he would be an easy-going dancer, not a threat to my husband’s bruised ego in the least. 

Looks can be deceiving.  The old guy took my hand and snapped me instantly into a spin, catching my waist expertly before he twirled me furiously the other way and began to lead me about like a yo yo on a string.  He set up residence for the duration of the song in a narrow corner where he whirled me within inches of close-set tables loaded with drinks.  We were hemmed in by onlookers, furniture and booze.  It was a miracle I didn’t fly out of his grasp and land face-first in the beer. 
Obviously, his skill set was well above Matt’s, but that I couldn’t keep up with him surprised me.  I was a little shocked at my ineptitude and what was required of me.  Not only did I have to move my hips in a sexy way, I had to read every tilt of his torso and snap of his wrist.  He helped me along by pushing my hips through the arch he created with my own arm over my head.  But it wasn’t like swing dancing, which I can fake my way through.  I consistently missed the beat.  His cues would probably be considered heavy handed by a woman who knew what she was doing.  He was very patient as he valiantly tried to camouflage my flagrant ignorance – it was only my second salsa dance after all.  At the end of the song, he thanked me and walked away.  He didn’t ask again. 

I suddenly felt exposed as an impostor.  I tend to stand like a ballerina (some say with a stick up my ass).  I move gracefully.  I look like I might be able to dance.  Standing there in my tight dress with the great flared skirt, attentive and eager, I might have seemed a good prospect.  But when he tested me out, the old guy got a glimpse of the actual goods and crossed me off his list.  He wanted, like everyone there I suppose, a partner that was of his caliber.  He didn’t want to babysit, just as I hadn’t wanted to try to teach Matt.  Beanie man wanted a partner who could hold her own, respond appropriately and make him look good.  He simply wanted someone who knew what the hell she was doing.   He tried me on.  He threw me away.  I understood. 

Sadly, this was the repeating theme of the evening.  A new guy would come in, ask me to dance, and be sorry he had. The slicker the lead, the clumsier I became.  On a few occasions, I found myself at the end of my partner’s extended arm, frozen like a deer in the headlights, not knowing what I was supposed to do next.  The keener observers learned from their predecessors’  mistakes, at which point they all stopped asking.  I was branded, appropriately, incompetent.

But it didn’t dampen my spirits too much.  I still had the friends I came with.  Throughout the first half of the evening, I asked our party’s men to dance.  I liked dancing with Adrian.  He kept time on my waist with his hand, tapping his fingers so I could feel the beat better.  He smiled and we talked.  We were comfortable together and there was no pressure.  He danced to my level.  Either he wasn’t into showing off his skills by spinning me to and fro, or he was politely notching it down for my sake.  I danced with him a few times when Margaret was on the floor with someone else. 

I danced with Frank only once.  Frank was like Matt, but maybe not quite as hard on himself.  He revealed that he too got lost in the subtleties of the music (I was not alone!).  He couldn’t feel the beat very well.  Latin music was not his favorite, and he didn’t really like the dancing part either.  Our song was super short – I bet he was grateful! 

I asked Matt if he wanted to dance, but I didn’t want him to feel obligated - I knew this wasn’t his cup of tea.  He danced with me one more time before returning to his seat behind the table.  There, he blocked himself in, cut off by two chairs’ worth of people on either side.  Frank and his new bride canoodled to his right, while some singles from our Meetup group chatted to his left.  He sat drinking his beer in an uncomfortable and atypical speechlessness as the music roared.  It was so loud that he couldn’t do what he liked best – talk.    

Between us sisters, Shawn, Margaret and I, we have quite a bit of dance experience.  But of the three, Shawn reigns supreme.  She can dance circles around Margaret and I.  With a history of high school dance team and, later, stripper poles, she is the most proficient at following commands, learning choreography and memorizing steps.  Between drill competitions and making a living from dance, she probably could have kept up with any of the experienced leads on the floor.  But she chose to stick close to her inexperienced hubby.  The two of them danced only a few songs and then retired to their chairs as spectators.   

Margaret, on the other hand, has put in the most time dancing in pairs.  As a teenager, she square-danced with our mother’s club a lot.  We have blackmail photos to prove it.  She and Adrian also took ballroom lessons in preparation for their wedding, where they performed a tango for the audience.  Margaret certainly has the most salsa-specific training and her confidence on the dancefloor showed.  She and Adrian danced together numerous times that night, and, being 10 years my junior, she was a popular choice for the Meetup singles who were brave enough to ask.   

I, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to say that I have much dance training or experience.  I have only taken a few years of classes throughout my life - ballet, square, swing and belly dance.  But I like to think that I am the most expressive, maybe the craziest of the dancing sisters.  I am frequently one of the most revered boogiers on the floor, given the right music and an appropriate amount of alcohol.  However, most of my dancing takes place alone in my bedroom with my headphones on. 

But being a generically ’good’ dancer won me no points with the early-night salsa crowd.  Couples dancing requires a different set of talents, more than being able to shake booty in your jammies for You-Tube.  To exacerbate the situation, by around 11 PM, the crowd had shifted.  The later arrivals looked immaculately manicured.  Their moves were exponentially more fluid and languid and sexy.  It slowly dawned on me that I should stop.  Stop asking, stop hoping, stop dancing.  I was obviously out-classed.

About that same time, Matt broke out of his self-made prison behind the table.  He stomped towards me in a mild furor.  He had been tensely watching me and the others all night, his eyes alternating between dagger-shooting and exasperation.  He had had enough.

“I’m going home,” he spit out, vitriol in his voice. 

I knew what his answer would be, but I asked anyway:  “Why?”  I had to yell, trying to sound sympathetic and open over the roar of the conga.

In essence, he was not having fun.  He wasn’t dancing; I wasn’t dancing with him.  The music was too loud to converse.  There was no reason for him to be there. 

“I am the last person you want to dance with,” he said.  I couldn’t determine if it was an accusation or a question.  “I see you having a good time with everyone else and I am not a part of it.  We aren’t here for us.  I am here just because you guys wanted to come.  I didn’t even know about it until yesterday.”  He was right.  I had invited him to include him in the group, hoping that the Spanish Meetup and the family connection with the two other men would keep him entertained while I got a little dance fix.  It hadn’t worked out that way.  He had sat stone-faced next to Shawn without speaking while I fished for suckers to spin me around the floor without throwing their hands up in disgust. 

I couldn’t blame Matt for wanting to leave.  It doesn’t feel good to be left out.  And he has always hated couples dancing, always felt incapable and klutzy.  And he is right.  He is not a good dance partner.  A good dance partner is confident to a fault.  He pushes and pulls the woman around and all she has to do is stay light on her toes.  A good dance partner maintains a stiff arm, or as the woman’s perception becomes more sensitive, a stiff wrist.  He has rhythm, he has a repertoire of moves that spotlight the beauty of the female form.  A good dance partner is the master of his partner’s body like an artist is with his brush.  He is responsible for the choreography, the flamboyance and the cleverness of their routine. 

The woman is truly the accessory in this partnership, the object to be whipped and spun and dipped and moved about as if she had no volition of her own.  As troubling as this kind of relationship would be in life, as a foundation for dance, it seems to make perfect sense.  Women are beautiful.  Men are strong.  What better way to combine these two gender-specific traits? 

I don’t claim to know what every women thinks, but in general, I believe women like to be objectified.  They like to be looked at, picked up, pursued, complimented and ogled (discreetly).  On the dance floor, then, it’s a win-win when all eyes follow her.  The man gets the credit for the beauty of his partner’s performance, but she gets the attention.   

Matt was mad.  I doubt it was simply because he was wasting his time.   “Are you mad at me?” I asked. 

“No,” he said, still frowning.  But he softened a bit at my vulnerability.  I tried to show moral support.  I was pretty sure he was angry with himself for not being a good salsa dancer.  He probably wouldn’t admit it, but I think he was also uncomfortable because I was.  Or at least it appeared that way to him.  He didn’t see the bruised toes of my dance partners or the strained expression in their eyes as their cues went unheeded and I unknowingly sabotaged their plans.  They struggled for patience.  I stumbled about haphazardly.  But all Matt saw was the gulf between us, made wider by the centrifugal forces that twisted my skirt tightly around my legs in one direction, and then sent it flying in the other, powered by another man.  A good dancer.
I knew going in to the evening that Matt was rhythmically challenged.  I had hoped that he would find something to keep him engaged while I danced.  I had also hoped that he would be able to enjoy my successes.  

I had planned to dance the whole night, slowly improving under the patient tutelage of the more merciful skilled dancers.   I imagined my husband gazing at me with pride, taking in my graceful, rhythmic metamorphosis in the expert hands of artists who knew how to turn ordinary women into beautiful pieces of moving art.  I pictured returning to Matt’s side every so often, his smiling face welcoming me back, reflecting the happiness he felt in my accomplishments.  I imagined him thinking me lovely and graceful as I spun.  My humble but delightful performance on the floor would add to his esteem for me, serve as a badge of honor for us both.

When parents watch their children compete or perform, they cheer them on and show support with their presence.  They feel the associated honor of a kick-ass solo or a personal best on the field.  Matt and I attend each other’s office parties to support one another.  My workplace clout increases when my witty, charming, attractive partner reminds my co-workers that I must be something special to have landed a catch like him.  I envisioned Matt feeling similarly elevated as he looked upon his beautiful wife doing well at something she loves. 

Matt didn’t see it that way.  He saw my dancing as a threat.  My body was in close proximity with a man that was not him.  It is true that dance is physical.  It is rhythmic, intimate, even breathtaking.  Dance is sensual in that it stimulates your senses.  But more so, dancing elicits a feeling of a physical task well-executed.  My body gets to be a body – the well-oiled, finely tuned, miraculous results of millions of years of evolution.  Partner dance incorporates these elements into the coming together of two people, a yin and a yang, a leader and a follower, a feminine and a masculine – an intricate combination of influences.    

Dance is also a great channel for creativity, originality, expressiveness and productivity.  That is why it is considered an art form.  Art evokes emotion or portrays beauty.  A fine painting might inspire tears, and a successful dance might demonstrate the strength and grace of the human body.  But partner dance is far more than physical activity.  Running a race can be glorifying, digging a ditch gratifying.  Partner dance is more.  It is an ideal showcase for the art of being a human being.  Moving in time with another person, synchronized in time and space, attuned to their moves and intentions adds a dimension not found alone in front of the mirror.  It is connection. 
Just as a successful painter connects with her viewers and communicates a message across time, a stunning dance piece in the theater delivers a sense of shared understanding to the audience.  Paint endures but does not move; dance moves, but does not last.  The sense of connection while watching performance art is fleeting, but when it is your body creating the art, the muscle memory stays with you.  The experience sinks into your brain from multiple stimuli – tactile, auditory, rhythmic, muscular and social.  It moves you, deepens your connection to what it means to be a member of the human race, interacting and learning and growing with other people.

Human connections cannot be restricted to a sole source, a single central figure in each of our lives -a mother or a spouse for example.  We need connections with many other people to develop and expand, to attain knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.  Talking, looking at each other, working side by side, touching, even something as physical as dancing – these are all ways we can connect with many people without fear or threat.  When Matt saw me on the dance floor, he saw my needs being met by another person.  But you see, my needs are impossible to meet without other people.
A dancing pair collaborates to shape and discover a unique experience.  When those two are highly-skilled, it is a sight to behold.  After Matt went home, Aztec Willie’s morphed into what appeared to be a haven for Dancing with the Stars’ instructors.  The quality of dance was so high that not a single person from the Meetup dared step onto the dance floor.  My table remained seated the rest of the night, mesmerized by the show five feet from our gaping mouths.

Those who continued dancing appeared to be professionals – professional dancers that is.  (A few of the women looked like the other kind of “professional”.)  Skin tight seemed to be the preferred style – no swinging skirts here.  One woman wore a black ‘dress’ that ended just below the curve of her butt-cheek.  More like a tee-shirt, it boasted a peekaboo lace side panel that showed skin and the provocative black strip of underwear at her hip.  She constantly had to tug the hem of this garment down as she executed the spins and moves demanded of her.  Her war with the dress was like a sporting event; we were all taking wagers on who would win.  By the way her partners seemed to lift her arm as high as they could during the turns, they seemed to be rooting for the dress.  But you had to give her credit – she managed to keep the beat, obey her partners’ signals and keep her ass covered.

There was a noteworthy woman dancing directly in front of our table.  Her skin-tight white leggings were scrawled with random black letters and symbols, drawing attention to a rear-end that might have challenged J Lo’s to a duel standing still.  And when she put her hips in salsa-gear, they swung and popped like a tilt-a-whirl on speed.  Her meat was flying to the left and right like wrestling panda bears.  Hypnotized, we couldn’t keep our eyes off of bootie-girl’s goods.  She also happened to be a beautiful woman, young and dark-eyed, and an exceptional dancer.  Needless to say, the ‘great white’ never touched the seat of a chair.  At the conclusion of every song, a new escort took her hand right off of the arm of the guy before.  Waiting even a split second longer would have been too late for a chance with this hot ticket.

There were a few ballerina bodies, lithe and flexible, yet quick and nimble.  One woman held herself taut and upright from the waist up, as if she were classically trained.  Her hips, however, had no problem swiveling and bumping while her torso remained as composed as mother Theresa.    
Some of the men deserve mention as well. Those who really knew how to dance added a little beauty of their own to the formula, swiveling their hips, adding flourishing hand gestures and cocky postures to augment the swirl of passion embodied in their female companion.  A suave hottie with black curls and a chiseled jaw spent his night impressing us with his confident mastery of his partners’ bodies.  He only danced with the best.  In a neat, well-fitting pair of stylish jeans and a white button-up showing off his broad, muscular shoulders, he could have been a model.  And he had flair!  He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he struck poses, kicked up his heels and improved the performance with customized hip thrusts and tap-dancing steps.

There were plenty of shortish Latino men tossing around tallish Caucasian women.  One especially energetic young man added so much bling to his routine that it was barely recognizable as salsa.  I saw him on the ground at one point – he appeared to be breakdancing in the time it took his partner to finish a spin.  The law of the jungle seemed to take over the place.  The challenge for the men was to make a name for themselves so that the best female dancers would deign to dance with them. 
When I ventured beyond our box seats – the best seats in the house - to find the bathroom, I discovered a glut of men I hadn’t known existed.  Rows of hungry-looking Latinos lined up on the far side of the dance floor as if corralled there by an invisible fence.  They seemed to be awaiting the opportune moment to approach a new arrival or maybe get their courage up to ask one of the famous females to be their partner.  I wasn’t quite sure what was holding them back, other than the same thing that now held me back:  the skills of the dancers out there now far surpassed my talents.  Were they lying in wait for a lost lamb without a steady partner, or just waiting for someone – anyone – to get drunk and go home with them?  Was there some intricate system of graduating to the dance floor of which I had no clue? 

I pushed through five lines of men whose eyes did not flicker from the dance floor.  All of them had browned skin, stood around 5 foot 6” and not a single one met my eye or even checked me out.  This place was not good for my self-image.  Was it my advanced age?  My average bootie?  Then I guessed that they must have seen me dancing earlier, tormenting the other men with my missteps and bungles.  With one energetic partner, I had actually stopped dancing, not understanding what he was signaling me to do.  Motionlessness on the dance floor is a no-no!  The 12” height difference made little difference as he moved fast and furious, making spin after spin and twisting my arms around me and around him in so many creative ways that I just stood there and let him.  My non-participation made him look foolish – every salsa dancing man’s nightmare, no doubt.  In the end, I did receive a very well-executed dip, where he lay me back across his knee to support my not-insignificant weight.  My partner maintained his honor - he hadn’t given up on me, and the dip made it all worth it.  It washed away the humiliation of looking so out of place and not meeting expectations.   My first dip: an experience I will always remember.

When I returned to my seat, I resumed my observations, this time looking for more than flying flesh.  The dancers’ smooth flowing companionship with partner after different partner seemed impossibly complicated in its simplicity.  After all, they were connecting with lots of different humans fluidly and intimately in a system that seemed well established in its boundaries.  Dancers did not go home with other dancers.  They came, they performed physical feats of grace and beauty, felt good about a job well done, had fun, got their human touch quotient for the day, and they went home satisfied.  
It was clear to me how important this dance connection must be for them.  Luckily, for those of us not salsa-proficient, there are many different ways to connect.  Connecting can be a deep conversation, or physical exertion, like pushing one another through a difficult ski run.  Connecting can occur while collaborating on chores, works of art or meals.  It teaches us something new.  Not everyone grocery shops the way I do – without a list, up and down every aisle, thoroughly evaluating every possibility as it appears before me.  If I were to shop with my neighbor, I would see a new way of doing it, and as we proceed down the aisles together, I would learn more about her as a person.  People are meant to learn from each other.  Our need to grow and learn and experience new things depends on a greater community, often times on strangers. 

We all have family members that we depend on and support.  We receive something beneficial from them, and they from us.  Sometimes we expand that sphere of influence to interesting or talented people with whom we share common characteristics or shared enthusiasm, but who are not related by blood.  We call them friends.  Take one step further, and accept education from a wider circle – people who may not have a lot in common with us.  People who think very differently than we do.  People who are not bound to us through societal expectations of kinship, matrimony or peer pressure.  How much is there in this life that we do not know because we have been protecting ourselves from the discomfort of venturing afield?  My first salsa dip - a gratifying physical moment with an expert I had never met before – came only after I had endured humiliating and frustrating attempts at an activity in which I have no talent.  The dip, in fact the whole salsa experience, gave me a new understanding of so many things: women’s bodies, men’s bodies, structural anatomy, dance rules and patterns, stigmas, and the unspoken wealth of do’s and don’t’s at high-level couple’s dancing events.   All of this from staggering around 4 or 5 times on the dance floor with people who knew these things far better than me, let alone my husband.

Earlier in the evening, when the dance floor was still available to beginners, I looked at Shawn over the shoulder of my short Mexican lead.  She and her new husband sat together pleasantly, enjoying the show and sipping beer.  They stuck together on the sidelines the entire evening, even though Shawn, a great dancer, could have been dancing with the experts up through the end of the night.  She sacrificed an experience she had probably had many times before for the new experience of being together with her hubby in a Portland nightclub.  I saw Adrian, alone behind his pint, smiling and relaxed, enjoying the sight of his wife spinning and stepping accurately with one of the Meetup men.  I looked at Matt.  He was watching me intently, his eyes tense and unsmiling.   

By choosing to dance instead of sit protectively by Matt’s side, the message to my spouse is not that I don’t want him.  It’s not that he doesn’t teach me and help me grow.  It’s not even that he can’t dance.  I do, he does, and he can!  My hope was that he would feel some amount of pride in my growth, and those rare moments when I shined.  That he would share laughter over my mistakes and blunders, like Miles from the dance lesson.  

The message is that he is not the only teacher.  He is my center, my backbone, my safe haven from which I venture out to experiment with new ideas, new experiences, new relationships; new for the sake of seeing things in a different light.  I won’t ask my husband to teach me how to skydive.  I will ask an expert for that.  I won’t count on him to fulfill my every need.  I will depend on him for the things he can and wants to provide – food, family-time, sex.  I will seek companionship outside home for things that he isn’t interested in.  Everyone does it – they have work relationships, beer-drinking buddies, work-out companions, gossip-sharers, running partners. 

My external relationships will satisfy my unique needs.  I want to get to know people deeply, but without any further expectation.  I want to be completely honest with people, unfettered by the typical safety and protection I maintain with my most dependent family members.  I want to discover new concepts and challenge myself to see things from a different perspective. 

These connections shouldn’t be limited by a person’s religion, culture or marital status.  We all need, as human beings, to reach out and bond with others.  It may be a hug for the beleaguered oncologist whose heavy day job brings him down, or a conversation with a homeless couple panhandling on the street.  It may be a shared dance with a stranger at a club.  People need each other. We need to touch and hear and see each other.  We cannot wrap our lives tightly in a mantle of protectionism, unseen and unseeing.  If we fall into smug complacency and limit our influences to that which we already know, the world will continue to change and evolve and we will wake up one day to find that we are small-minded and one-dimensional. There are millions of opinions and perspectives to see and hear and accept or reject as we please.  We don’t have to cling to the same ideas we had in our 20’s - in fact, we can’t, because the world is a different place now.  There is so much to be learned.  Who knows, when we experience a novel new way of carrying out an objective, it might become our new favorite.  Or perhaps we learn that we don’t like it.  One thing is for sure, we know more for trying it.

This is why I have kicked off a campaign to try new things.  I try to walk home from work a different way each time - I might come across a long lost friend or discover a beautiful tree I have never seen before.  Trying new things introduces me to more, plain and simple.  More opportunity for good and for bad (I am still not sure how to classify my salsa experiment).   Not trying new things leaves us unsure if how we are living is indeed the best way.  Granted, the certainty of having achieved the pinnacle of satisfaction is unattainable, but with each new iteration, each new foray into the unknown, we are reshaping what we know, and therefore what we can choose from to create that ideal space around us.  Each new experience leaves us with wisdom:  knowing better what to wear, when to eat, who to call, how to love, where to go, how to get there, who to trust.

As I fill my life with the people, places and exercises that are closer and closer to the ideal components for my life in particular, I will get closer and closer to truly living my fullest life possible.  My campaign will involve pleasant walks and encouraging words, but it may also include rude remarks and flipping the bird – new things for me!  They might prove to be useful tools, or not…

I will try things that make me uncomfortable, things that I oppose without ever having experienced them, things that I have rejected as incorrect without knowing why I judged them so in the first place.  I have already begun:  I ate olive oil ice cream.  I wore jeans and sneakers to work.  I slept in til 2 pm.  I skipped work without explanation.  I ran 20 miles without training.  I jumped off a 50 foot cliff into the ocean.  I looked into a stranger’s eyes without looking away for a full minute.  I put my body in the hands of a spiritual healer.  I prayed and said hallelujah.  I dreamed big.  I fantasized boldly.  I danced with strangers.

The adventures become significant, and I can say my life is more interesting because of them.  Stay tuned. 

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