After my divorce, and before my second marriage, I was dating. For years, I was dating. I was in my thirties and in Chapel Hill, and I was dating. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I was going out with men, falling—sometimes more, sometimes less—and enduring breakups, and some of these were easier to bear than others.
I forged one of these relationships long-distance. I met him contra dancing. Because he lived four hours from me, I banked on this fact to assure myself that whatever breakup we might one day face would be made easier because of the great chunk of North Carolina interstate between us. I fell hard for him—his deep laugh, his tenderness, his smooth, olive skin—so much so that after the last time he left my house—just after a beach trip, at the start of which I knew the end was looming but I didn’t want to let him go—I cried for weeks. Weeks that felt like months. And even though we had broken up because he had hoped to change me and I wasn’t changing (or perhaps we had hoped to change each other), none of that meant we didn’t still care deeply for each other, or at least that I didn’t still care deeply for him.
Six months passed, and I was still smarting from the breakup. In the contra dance community where I lived, there was a sweep of dance weekends that many dancers went to, and whether or not you went to those weekends, you knew exactly when they were: Gypsy Meltdown (March), Spring Dance Romance (April), Lake Eden Arts Festival (May), and Summer Soirée (June). And if you were a rabid dancer, as I was, then you marked the dates faithfully on your calendar and you did not miss a single one. But that year, for me, was different.
The former boyfriend lived in one of these dance weekend locations. In fact, we had gone to this weekend together the last time it had been held. My foot had been injured then—I could walk but not dance—so he had given up dancing, too, and had spent the weekend strolling with me to all the artist booths and listening to music, and at some point during that Saturday evening we had lain on the grassy ground in the middle of the hustle and bustle and thrown a blanket over our entire bodies, including over our heads, and pretended we were invisible to the world. We had giggled as if we were both five years old.
That blanket, that evening, those giggles were what were going through my head when Dean Snipes asked if I was going to attend that particular dance weekend again, which was coming right up.
I knew Dean because we were both regular dancers at the Vintage, a weekly Tuesday night dance in Winston-Salem, suited for rabid dancers like me and Dean: I drove an hour and a half from Chapel Hill just to dance there for two hours, and Dean drove an hour and a half from Charlotte. In fact it was during a break at the Vintage that Dean had asked whether I was attending the upcoming dance weekend. The expectation was that I would.
Dean was not just a fabulous dancer but a great caller, too. He had a wonderful Southern drawl and a voice that could boom across the heads of dancers and make you look up. It’s the exact kind of voice needed to correct a wayward dancer going in the wrong direction.
To his question about whether I was attending the dance weekend, I must have said, “I can’t,” and then explained that my former boyfriend lived there and would probably attend.
Dean didn’t bat an eye. He looked right at me. And with his booming voice, he said, “Claim your space!”
I did then what beginning dancers do: I fumbled. I tried to keep moving in the direction I was aiming for, and I mostly did until I figured out how to make the correction, how to execute the right move. In other words, I showed up at that dance weekend. Not for the entire thing, just for all of Saturday, and I made a friend go along with me and stick by my side the whole time. What I did not know then, but what I understood later, was that I was only beginning to learn how to claim my space, and that it would become harder but necessary if I wanted to forge ahead. And I wanted to. I was determined to.
A year or two later, when a different contra dancing man and I broke up just before that exact same dance weekend, I packed up my car solo, and I drove the four hours to it alone. I set up my tent. I slept curled in my sleeping bag in the cold. I danced. I won’t say that it wasn’t at least part-misery—the ex attended, too, and he started dating someone else that weekend. I saw them everywhere I went. I didn’t want him back; I just wanted my weekend world without him in it. But since I could not have that, I chose what I could.
On the last morning of that weekend, there was going to be an hour or two of waltzing to live music in the biggest dance hall. I got there early, while the band was warming up, and I put on my dance shoes. My ex showed up early, too. But so did one of the best waltzers—tall, handsome, muscular. He took me by the hand and twirled me, and we had the huge wooden floor to ourselves. We danced for several songs while the band practiced some of my favorite, crescendoing tunes. While we could, he and I claimed every single inch of space, and the music, the light, the wideness of the hall made me forget, in those moments, the sadness, the disappointment, the very difficulty of it all.
You can read more about my lessons in love and dancing in my newly released memoir, The Going and Goodbye.