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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

I Took A Chance on Ballroom Dance

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

This was my first published work, in the First Person section of The Globe and Mail, on July 7, 2021. I'm thankful for this opportunity, though not completely happy with their edits. I'm reposting my original submission here, to allow readers to have a glimpse of how I really feel. I'm deeply grateful to Beth Kaplan, my writing instructor at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, for her invaluable encouragement and coaching.

Fang Sheng in competition with his teacher Maria Elent.
Fang Sheng in competition with his teacher Maria Elent.

In 2006, I saw a sign on a utility pole: “Shall We Dance Studio – we offer ballroom, Latin dance classes, group and private…” I was single, in my late thirties, an immigrant from China with a boring life. “Why not?” I told myself. I found out that one of the founders was a coach for Jennifer Lopez in the movie – hence the studio name. It was legit.

When I went for the free trial lesson, I was a bit disappointed to see mostly older people in the studio – far from the club scene I had imagined. As we started, Maria, the studio director, asked me, “Who’s the boss in a dancing couple?” Caught off-guard, I didn’t know how to answer. “The MAN!” she continued emphatically. “Man leads, lady follows. Man is the frame, lady is the painting.” This was a bit beyond the education I had been brought up with, including the famous Chairman Mao quote: “Women hold up half the sky”.

We started with a waltz. Maria first showed me the basics: the preparation steps, the natural turn, the change of steps, and stop. Being brought up in a family of classical musicians, it was easy for me to step on the beats. Then we partnered up with an embrace – the “frame”, while Maria counted, “One, two, step… don’t push me…; two, right, turn…, don’t pull me…” Frustrated, I asked, “Didn’t you say I was the boss?”

Smiling, Maria replied, “Being a boss is more of a responsibility than a privilege. A true gentleman would show the way, not boss someone around. Like opening the door for the lady, all the while maintaining his own poise and elegance.” More intrigued than fully understanding what this all meant, I signed up.

15 years later, I’m still with Shall We Dance Studio. Lessons, showcases, competitions…, people ask me why I’d take on an expensive hobby with little practical benefit? What have I learned? Posture, frame, musicality, style – Maria teaches dancing as an art form. But there’s more to it: beyond the steps, the figures, the routines we must master, we learn how to lead, how to follow, how to collaborate, and most importantly, how to trust – in each other and in this partnership. Indeed, learning dancing doesn’t bring you career advancement, neither richness, nor fame (well, rarely). It’s joy that elevates us from daily frustrations, mundaneness, or boredom. In our Studio, there are old couples like Jackie and Jimmy, who danced together for over 50 years. Yet they still took lessons very seriously, often with separate teachers, detailing every move, polishing every routine. When they danced together in studio showcases, their gracefulness, their trust in each other, their bond, was the envy of everyone. Last year, Jimmy passed away at age 88. But Jackie returned with the same smooth steps; she continues dancing as a tribute to her beloved husband. Or like Gil, a widower in his late 80s, with a hip replacement and living in a nursing home. As a “new” student, he learns dancing not just as a way to move some muscles. He puts his heart and mind to mastering entire show routines and prepares diligently for studio showcases. He might not be the sharpest guy on the floor, but his vibrancy and humour always bring the Studio to a roaring standing ovation. When I watch these dancers, I feel the joy they radiate to the people around them.

One of the major goals of the Shall We Dance Studio is to prepare students for dance competitions. Less than a year after I started, I attended my first competition in the “pro-am” category, with my teacher as the professional partner and I as the amateur partner. Despite intensive training, and despite the fact that my teacher Maria was my partner, once I was on the floor, I was totally overwhelmed by how crowded it was with so many competing couples. I felt like a novice driver on the highway for the first time. With the crowd of flashy couples in bright long gowns and crisp tuxedos swooshing past me, I could barely remember the steps, let alone the frame, style and elegance. A mere 90 second number had sweating through. Maria did an amazing job compensating for my missteps and pulling me through the routine. Only then did I realize how much stamina is needed to complete a decent dance.

When people learn that I dance ballroom, an often slightly raised eyebrow tells me what they are thinking. I’ve heard enough stereotypes about ballroom dancing, that ballroom dancers are snobs, that male dancers are either sissy or gay. Through these years, I’ve attended over a dozen competitions. I know what it takes to be a competitive dancer. Entering a ballroom is more like a knight engaging in battle than a leisurely walk in a garden. When I’m on the floor, dancing the elegant ballroom dances or the passionate Latin dances under the glamorous lights, I navigate among numerous competing couples to find the best path and invite my lady to join me; as she follows, she watches out for me, pinches me gently on the shoulder to help avoid collisions when I’m back stepping; I empower her by supporting her with a strong frame and guide her through the crowd, enabling her to show her best, while being courteous to all other competitors. I know I’m far from perfect, but these ideals push me to keep trying, to be a better partner and leader. To be man.

As the time of social distancing lingers on, the world adapts quickly. Online services are now a thing for many organizations that considered it unimaginable just 18 months before – my kid goes to online school, I as a professional interpreter work for online conferences, my family doctor offers online consultation, and dance studios roll out online lessons... Missing in this “trendiness” is the warmth of two people embracing each other, the gracefulness of moving in unison, the intimacy of human touch. As I sometimes move a few steps by myself at home, I long for the time of such togetherness to come back. And when it does, shall we all dance?

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Shall We Dance Studio is a dance school based in Toronto, Canada, offering private lessons, group classes and children's dance programs in ballroom, Latin, competitive, and social dancing.

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