I used to sit up nights wondering what it would be like to handpick the characteristics I could inherit from my parents. Why should I be content to accept the ones that had been dumped on me in some devious game of genetic Plinko? I wanted my father's sense of self, my mother's unfettered passion. For the most part, my Plinko balls have bounced favorably; however, one bad break has resulted in an irrevocable life sentence of humiliation at wedding receptions and trendy clubs.
As a kid, my mother was plucked from the performance halls of the San Fernando Valley to become the youngest-ever recipient of a coveted Ford Foundation Ballet Scholarship and shipped out to New York for the summer. Every day, she would head across town, dance bag in hand, to a studio underneath Lincoln Center to train and dance with greats like Edward Villela and George Ballanchine. Villela, who later became the first ballet dancer on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was so taken with my mom's skill that he specifically made her an example for the class to emulate.
Thirty-seven years later, and with the burden of inheritance weighing heavily, I walked intoWilson Recreational Center for my first "Social Dance" class. My girlfriend, Amanda, and I had decided to take the class together--it was a mutual decision, I swear--but I still was not completely keen on the idea. With windows on two sides and a full-length mirror on a third, the dance studio was an unforgiving chamber of intimidation. Passersby could stare in on their way to the parking lot or see me in all my graceless glory en route to their treadmills. My only previous public dancing had consisted of stumbling through the Electric Slide at my bar mitzvah.
" One, two, three. One, two, three. Break step," called out Liliya Shcherban, a recent Russian immigrant who was attempting to teach us the Shag. "One, two, three. One, two, three. Break step." The instructions seemed simple enough, and I grabbed Amanda authoritatively, hoping that a little swagger would compensate for any deficiency of talent. The swagger instantly dissipated, however, as my feet turned into non-compliant entities.
Liliya pulled me aside and took it upon herself to resolve the conflict between my head and my feet. Instead of coming to a reasonable compromise, my feet steamrolled the negotiations until, after five minutes of ineffectual instruction, Liliya exclaimed loudly in her broken English, "UGH! YOU NEED PRIVATE DANCING LESSONS!"
The entire class, working so diligently on their own Shags, halted in midstep as her words reverberated off the walls. With the stares of my classmates digging into me, I contemplated a number of reactions: anger at Liliya for embarrassing me; self-loathing for stumbling over the most elementary of steps. Instead, I felt a begrudging acceptance.
" You really are your father's son," my mother said when I called home looking for consolation. I knew what she meant. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, cocktail parties--he's a good sport, because he does dance. But he's just kind of uncoordinated. The man dances like, well, a construction attorney.
" Keep at it, though," my mother said before she hung up. "Maybe you've inherited some of my dancing genes."
If I did inherit any of her skill, it wasn't showing. But the end was in sight: After that disastrous first class, all I had left was twenty-five more--and the Fox Trot, Cha-cha, Tango, swing, waltz (Viennese and traditional), Rumba, and Polka--until I could receive my "Pass" and walk away. According to the class syllabus, I would one day grow to develop a "lifetime enjoyment of dance and physical movement." In the meantime, every Tuesday and Thursday at a little past noon, I would stroll, bad attitude in hand, to class and, seventy-five minutes later, I would leave, Amanda in hand, acid on my tongue.
It was the same routine every time, and I grew to dread it. Learn a step. Practice the step with multiple partners. Step on some poor girl's sprained left foot. Learn another step. I became famous. My fraternity brothers began making special trips to the gym just to watch me stumble over a cross triple-step or get caught in a reverse underarm turn.
Time dragged on. Class 9. Class 16. The fraternity brothers lost interest. There was no moment or class I could point to and say, "That was it!" But slowly--real slowly--I began to improve. First, I developed the ability to count time in my head. Then we moved on to more structured dances like the Fox Trot and Waltz, which, instead of requiring that I coordinate my whole body, allowed me to memorize basic foot movements. I could do that. About two months into the class, Liliya even went so far as to say that I had "nice posture."
Toward the end of the semester, pressure began to mount as our final--a two-minute, fully choreographed performance--loomed. At first Amanda and I were dumbfounded. Then, I realized another trait that I had inherited from my father: a loving acceptance of self-mockery. Liliya had taught us the Polka as a lark on the final day of class, and the dance's sheer ridiculousness drove nearly half the class off the dance floor. So, the choice for our final dance was easy. To save a little face, Amanda requested that we at least start with the Tango, and as long as I got to keep my Polka, I was in.
I arrived at the final in a sleek, black suit; she, in an elegant long dress. When our turn came, we earnestly and cleanly executed a fairly challenging Tango routine. Then the music switched from strings to tubas. She threw off her heels, and we polkaed ourselves silly. I even squatted down and did a series of mini-hops as Amanda pranced in a circle around me, patting my head. The crowd whistled and hollered in delight.
After catching our breaths, we were handed a sheet evaluating our performance: "Beautiful dress, Amanda. I never thought I'd see Greg move, much less like that."
Edward Villela might have scoffed, and I have yet to receive an invitation to perform at Lincoln Center, but Amanda gave me a kiss after our performance and told me how much she enjoyed taking the course. Maybe the Plinko ball bounced the right way, after all.
Veis, a senior from Pacific Palisades, California, is editor of Recess, The Chronicle's weekly arts and entertainment supplement.