Approaching the intersection of Main and Second Avenue, Elizabeth eyed the elegant dancing couple framed in neon which no longer lit. She’d always thought the sign had faded, aged like the interior of the Merlin Dance Studio itself. But now, poised above a slightly sagging, black canopy in the mid-afternoon drizzle, the dancers seemed vivid and animated. Eyeing them between swipes of the windshield wipers, Elizabeth imagined the man in black tux and the woman in flowing red gown moving to their own rhythm.
The dashing couple vanished from sight, replaced by a mental image of Art and herself, dancing the rumba to Julio Iglesias’ “Hey.” Skillfully, Art leads her into an underarm turn; then, holding hands, free arms extended outward, they glide forward, synchronized in a slow, quick, quick Cuban rhythm.
The performance at Merlin Studio had been captured on video during a practice session about six months ago. Elizabeth has not been to the studio for four months. She and Art are no longer partners. Though they were dance partners only, not romantic partners, the circumstances of becoming “unpartnered” were unpleasant.
Feeling something akin to self-pity welling up, she abruptly switched off the video image. She hadn’t expected this charge of emotion. It had tripped her up like a new dance step when the brain understands what to do but the feet haven’t yet received the message.
She parked the car and turned off the engine but felt immobilized — unable to make the effort to go out into the rain and climb the stairs to the studio for a Sunday afternoon social dance.
She pictured the studio — the ceiling glitter ball, the Chinese lanterns, and the miniature silvery white lights on branches stuck in large vases; the mirror-lined walls, and the photographs of smiling dancers dressed for exhibition.
Elizabeth had started going to the Merlin Studio for lessons about two years ago. At age 54, she’d been a widow for two years. A friend had talked her into trying ballroom dancing as a social activity.
She was surprised to find that she had a talent for dancing. Except for dancing at high school proms, she’d rarely been on a dance floor. Maybe she’d absorbed some moves from Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, Doris Day and Gene Nelson—-the dancers in all those old musicals she’d loved.
After the first several lessons, she’d been paired with Art, an experienced amateur. It was the studio’s practice to ask the more accomplished students to help teach the novices. Dancing became even more satisfying because she had a regular partner whose movements she learned to anticipate and complement. Art led her firmly, with sureness and economy of movement.
Elizabeth knew little about her dance partner, other than that he was divorced. Art was polite but quiet; self-contained, almost aloof. He seldom laughed but had a nice smile that radiated from his eyes, subtly softening his otherwise sober demeanor. Of medium height, with graying hair and a moustache that seemed an integral part of his face, he was approximately her age but had the slender build of a younger man. They never saw each other outside the dance hall except when he walked her to her car after their lesson or a couple of times when several people from the class went dancing at a local nightclub.
They danced so well that they were asked to be the entertainment at show time for one of the studio’s weekly Saturday night dance parties. That time, they bounced, strutted, turned, and twisted through a triple swing. Vera Atkins, the owner of the studio, said they did so well that they should prepare another exhibition, the rumba perhaps, and they began to practice each Wednesday night for an hour after the regular group lesson was over.
On a snowy Saturday evening about a month before the scheduled exhibition, a woman Elizabeth had never seen before came to the dance. When she entered, she attracted little attention. If anything, the people who looked her way might have thought her somewhat down-at-the-heels. She had on a long coat that looked rather worn, a pair of practical, lined, low-heeled boots, and a woven, plaid scarf that loosely covered her hair and tied under her chin.
She disappeared directly into the ladies’ lounge, and reappeared a few minutes later with a stunning transformation. She looked about 5’10″ in 3-inch heels; she had long shapely legs, slender hips, and a Marilyn Monroe bosom. All her assets were displayed to advantage by a bright-blue fitted dress with a side slit above the knee. Her hair was of medium length, permed, auburn-dyed, framing a pretty, though not beautiful heart-shaped face and large brown eyes. She appeared to be in her late thirties, with only the slight lines around the mouth hinting that she might be older.
She stood at the end of the dance floor, packaged to be noticed, yet somehow detached. She surveyed the dancers and swept her gaze briefly across the group of single women, including Elizabeth, who were sitting together on one side of the room. She appeared not to even consider the possibility of joining them.
At any rate, she didn’t need to think much about sitting, for, within a few minutes, the men discovered her. Attracted by her looks, they also found that she was a good dancer, who had a beguiling smile and a way of concentrating on each of them in turn, making them feel special.
It was as though a spotlight followed her as she glided around the dance floor with successive partners. The single women, always a majority over the number of male partners, noted her with envy as they pretended not to watch. The gossip grapevine quickly went into action. Georgia was her name, and she had come to the studio a few years ago for lessons. She was separated from her husband, a man reputed to be a wonderful dancer, but also an alcoholic who abused her.
Elizabeth watched Art watching Georgia as she danced with other men. After she had danced several times with others, he made his way toward her. She turned to him with her radiant smile, and he smiled back in his way of not quite smiling but with lights flickering in his eyes. Their eyes locked as they began to dance.
Painfully fascinated, Elizabeth watched them, and thought about the scene in “Picnic” in which Kim Novak and William Holden dance together in sensual discovery.
The rumba ended, and they stayed together for a fox trot.
Marge, a brassy, orange-haired woman who delighted in couples’ intrigue, nudged Elizabeth. “Look at your partner!” she smiled knowingly.