Is it possible to have three left feet?

A FEW WEEKS after discovering duck burgers in Duras, we were driving through our little village on the way back from Leclerc. Eileen spotted one of those A-frame menu boards that advertise “Menu du Jour, 19 Euros” off to the side of the road. Except this one said, “Dance Lessons, Tuesday Night.”

I don’t know about you, but when I see a sign like that I avert my eyes. I can’t think of anything worse than paying good money to publicly demonstrate my lack of grace and coordination. Obviously, Eileen had no such qualms.

“We were just thinking about learning to dance, and here it is, a sign. Literally!”

My mind raced. “Tuesday,” I said. “Isn’t that when we go to the Issigeac night market?”

“No, sweetie, that’s Thursday. Tuesday is the Eymet night market. They only serve moules and frites. Besides, the sign was in English!”

With a single stroke she wiped out my second argument. A sign in English means lessons in English. This instructor had our number. I realized that my next step was going to be a dance step.

“Let’s do it,” I said, giving the words as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Why compound fear with inconsistency? A few weeks ago I said it was a good idea, so it should be a good idea now. I just needed to locate my inner trooper.

The salle polyvalente, or multipurpose room, was filling up fast with nervous students. They came from a variety of backgrounds and age groups. There was an older English couple who brought their own dance shoes; a tall, thin young man, probably French, who tried against the odds to be invisible; two women in their thirties, one large, one small, who seemed to be good friends; three teenage girls we recognized from the beer stall at the Bodega; and a man in his fifties with ill-fitting pants. There were about twenty students in all, including Anton and Sophie from Friday night boules.

A confident young man glided to the center of the floor and clapped his hands twice. A woman in her forties followed him.

Bonsoir à tous,” he said in a loud, clear voice. “My name is Tony. This is Bérénice. We are your instructors for the Tuesday dance. Ça va?”

Everyone responded ça va.

“Bérénice teach the advance class, I teach the beginner. Please go with your class you sign up with.”

A group of seven people, including Anton and Sophie and the English couple, followed Bérénice to the far side of the dance floor. Our group of thirteen stayed with Tony.

“In this class we do West Coast Swing,” said Tony. Eileen and I looked at each other. We’re from the West Coast. We’ve never heard of West Coast Swing. Is it the west coast of France, maybe, or the west coast of Australia?

“These are the dance you have all the time in France—at the night club, the wedding, the Bodega in Issigeac, and so on. After you learn the West Coast Swing, we go to try the Lindy Hop and the Charleston.”

Eileen whispered, “The Charleston? What is this, 1925?”

“The leader—the man—line up on this side. The lady line up on that side. We have seven man and six lady, so I will be the lady, too.”

Tony went over to the music system and put on Wilson Pickett’s classic, “In the Midnight Hour.” He demonstrated the basic six-count rhythm: “Un. Deux. Trois et quatre. Cinq et six.” With each count he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Now you try, and count it loud.”

“Un. Deux. Trois et quatre. Cinq et six.” We repeated the rhythm together, doing our best to mimic his movements. When half the song was done, he stopped the music and showed us how to apply the rhythm to the steps.

At first I did everything wrong. When the dancers stepped backward, I stepped forward. When they turned right, I turned left. When they paused for a beat, I kept going. Eileen seemed to be doing fine.

It dawned on me that learning to dance would be a matter of overcoming my inborn tendency to do everything backwards. My first instincts are almost always opposite of what they should be. When I drive up to an unfamiliar intersection and have to decide which way to go, I’ll usuallyt choose the wrong direction and have to make a U-turn. When I emerge from my hotel room in the morning, I’ll automatically turn the wrong way and wonder what happened to the elevator. When I have to make a business decision, I’ll sometimes pick the counterintuitive path. This is a powerful strategy if your goal is to innovate. But if your goal is to dance, it’s just wrong.

By the end of the lesson, Eileen was staying with the rhythm and getting the steps right. Her ability to grasp these concepts was impressive. Sara would be proud. Myself—well, I was able to reverse most of my natural tendencies and get into semi-sync with the rest of the dancers.

“Whew! That was draining,” said Eileen. “I need a glass of rosé. Tout de suite!”

Tony came over and pulled us aside. “Listen,” he said. “I don’t know how to say. You two are not beginners.”

I was dumbfounded. He must have spotted something special in us—some latent talent that only a true professional could see.

“You are not beginners. You are pre-beginners. I think you must take private lessons before you can join this group.”

My mouth fell open. Eileen inhaled deeply and raised her eyes to the ceiling. She finally asked, “That bad?”

Tony was apologetic.“Désolé.”

On Saturday morning we took our first private lesson. All we did was work on rhythm.

Correction: All I did was work on rhythm. Eileen watched. Tony was determined to get me up to speed so that I could eventually dance with my pre-beginner partner. In other words, I was pre-pre-beginner.

He put on some music and told me to count out the rhythm: Un. Deux. Trois et quatre. Cinq et six. No problem—I passed with flying colors. Then he said to move my feet while I counted. The numbers and the moves refused to mesh. It was as if my feet ceased to think. Or maybe they were thinking too much. I tried to stop my feet from thinking. No luck. I looked at Eileen. Her eyes were shut and she was slowly shaking her head.

“Okay,” said Tony, “Let’s try something new. Just walk to the music in time. Right, left, right, left, right, left.”

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. I walk all the time. I can even walk and listen to music. But somehow focusing on right and left made it more complicated.

“Just walk!” said Tony, exasperated.

I was walking, but it wasn’t a normal, human walk. I looked like R2-D2 with a faulty circuit. We continued this way for an hour, then he stopped the music.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “Now I work with Eileen.” He took her hand and smoothly pulled her forward as he stepped backward. They went through the basic swing routine without a hitch.

“You can count!” he cried with relief. Then he looked at me. “See? Simple.”

Going home in the car, Eileen turned to me. “I’m confused,” she said. “You used to be a musician. You even played the drums for a while. How is it possible that you can’t count to music?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I think I just relied on my instincts. All this counting and walking . . .”

Three private lessons later, Tony promoted us back into the beginning class. Miraculously, we were no longer behind the others. All that personal attention had given us more confidence. We were swinging and swaying and switching hands, doing inside turns, outside turns, tuck turns, and sugar pushes.

“That is all for this evening, everybody,” said Tony. “I see you next week. And please,” he added, “come to Eymet for the dancing tomorrow. Some students from both classes will be there. It is very good to practice. And you can see some fireworks!”

I shivered.


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