We were flattered recently by an invitation to a friend’s birthday party - not just an un-structured free-for-all in a house ill-suited for mass entertaining, a make-do arrangement with the kitchen turned into an uncomfortable, standing-room-only bar, the dining table spread with cling-filmed plates of buffet food and the lounge cleared for a late finale of drunken dad-dancing – but a thoughtfully organised event set in a properly resourced function room and featuring a grown-up, seated supper. We marked our diaries immediately and resolved the inevitable ‘drinking and driving’ dilemma well in advance so that we could look forward to an evening with our much-loved host and assorted friends. There remained just one minor concern: we were all required to take part in a session of ballroom dancing.
Now, we are all familiar with the theory of ‘comfort-zones’ i.e. we like to be in them but we know it’s good for us to get out of them from time to time (presumably, for therapeutic reasons). Nevertheless there’s no denying that it feels good to be doing only what lies within your own capabilities and is part of your own nature. That way lies confidence and self-assurance. Not that I am averse to formal dancing: it’s just that I don’t know the moves and am prone to freeze up on my partner or, worse, do damage to her feet. Whereas our host is an accomplished dancer, quite comfortable with gliding through waltzes or swinging her hips to complex Latin rhythms, some of us lack practise, confidence or inherent ability: in some cases all three. I braced myself for an excursion out of my comfort zone and into someone else's.
My limited experience of formal dancing is defined by the lessons I had as a seventeen-year old boarder at an all-boys school. The curriculum there was rigidly orthodox and, since it was run by a religious order, the cultural ethos was much the same. In the year prior to our release, however, a token effort was made to introduce us to some of the social skills we might usefully employ in the future pursuit of suitable wives. Dancing was one of these and weekly evening classes were duly mandated. Of course it was deemed too risky to co-operate them with the nearby all-girls school in case scandal might ensue so, during the lessons, we were obliged to take turns at impersonating females. In this way the school succeeded not only in making formal dancing appear farcical but also in destroying any chance we might have of acquiring a wife in a ballroom. On leaving school, having abandoned hope of gaining close contact with girls by the formal method, I reverted to free-form dance.
On the night of the party I was called to account. I need not have worried about being conspicuously incompetent as it turned out: others shared that distinction. And we were not left simply to sink or swim: our host had engaged professional instructors to guide us through the steps. Their method is tried and tested. First they show you a short sequence of steps, forward left back and...Then another, forward right left and... And then put them together, forward left back and forward right left and... After a few goes at this they introduce the tricky part, sideways turn and... Then, just when everyone appears to have mastered the entire sequence, they play the music. And everything falls apart.
I suppose there eventually comes a point at which you can stop mouthing instructions while staring at your feet and just let the rhythm guide you. But I didn't get there that night and, by the following day, I was in a distinctly uncomfortable zone - nursing a sore sacroiliac joint on account of the Cha-Cha-Cha.