Boomerang Days: Dancehall Days

A Longhorn does college all over again.

I’m not a strong dancer. I’m more likely to catch a rare disease than the groove. Watching me on the dance floor is like watching a spastic squirrel trying to squirm free of a net of cotton candy. It’s off-putting. One might say it’s downright disturbing.

But UT taught me German (Ich bin ein Longhorn!), medieval literature, and how to rig a dorm washing machine to give out free spins. Surely it can teach me to dance. Just because I graduated 20 years ago doesn’t mean I have to stop taking classes, right? So I am back on the Forty Acres for a UT Informal Class called Introduction to the Texas Dancehall: Jitterbug.

I’m late arriving (UT never quite taught me punctuality) and I get a little lost in the building. For a few minutes, I mistakenly sit in on the Mortgage Lending Institute. Eventually the lack of music or even a dance floor clues me in. Soon enough I find a large studio space pumping swing music to half a dozen people who are nervously grinning at each other. There’s the young, heavily-tattooed couple; there’s the husband and wife in glasses and earth tones, possibly professors or at least longtime devotees of NPR’s weekend programming; and then there’s the middle-aged couple with the frowning husband who’s likely been lured to the proximity of DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium, probably promised hot wings and beer, and surprised with a dance class.

I’ve made a horrible mistake. I’ve come alone. Showing up to a dance class without a partner is like arriving to accounting class without a calculator or a creative writing class without a drinking problem. Would I dance solo? Would I dance with the grey-bearded, bright-eyed instructor? Would I ask a couple if I could join them, if just for one night? (UT taught me to be open-minded.)

Our instructor Johnny Bryant dives into a detailed description of different dance techniques. There’s the Austin two-step, the double two-step, the three-step … it’s a lot more math than I was expecting. He’s got charts and dots and numbers on a screen like we’re balancing a small nation’s budget. I’m terrified. I mean, I know a bit about country western dancing from spinning around the Broken Spoke to classics like “12 Steps is 10 Steps Too Many” and “I Kill Deer for Fun.” But the jitterbug is more complicated than reverse-angle parking. And I’m still not sure with whom I will sashay across the dance floor. To my relief, Johnny informs us we’ll be dancing round robin throughout the night and switching partners more often than Larry King.

We start slowly. Johnny instructs the men to lead with their left and women with their right. “Women are right. Guys get what’s left,” he says. Soon we’re moving through steps, carefully counting aloud to eight, often losing our place. It’s like an Aggie math class.

I don’t get a chance to meet the men, but I dance with each and every woman. I learn the tattooed woman is here to perfect a dance for her wedding. I’m told the middle-aged woman has a long history of dancehall shenanigans. And I discover that the NPR woman can really move! I wish I were more graceful. I wish I hadn’t eaten garlic pizza and Oreos for lunch. I wish I weren’t wearing a free, inside-out Yahoo! T-shirt and my wife’s jeans (this happens more than I’d like to admit).

Patiently, Johnny takes us through spins and twists and more steps than an Ikea instruction manual. I’m not a tall man, so any woman over 5 foot 3 is in mortal danger. Elbows find nostrils, eyebrows discover armpits. We’re like awkward teenagers playing spin the bottle. I’m reminded why most dancing takes place in establishments that serve alcohol.

I should mention that so far we haven’t been moving to music. Plenty of counting and a few colorful exclamations of pain, but no music. With 20 minutes left, Johnny turns on the tunes—and things click! It doesn’t matter that we’re in a brightly lit classroom, that we’re complete strangers, that we’re dangerously sober—we’re dancing! All the counting comes together, all twists and turns seem possible. We may resemble squids being slowly electrocuted, but we’re smiling squids! Even the hot-wing husband is shaking his moneymaker.

As the class ends, we stand about, sweating and out of breath, complimenting each other’s grace and agility. Hugs are shared and emails are exchanged.

In the parking lot I catch a glimpse of the Tower and whisper a quick thanks to UT for once again teaching me a new skill. My jitterbug may look like an actual bug jittering, but it’s close enough. Ich bin ein tänzer—I am a dancer!


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