Ballroom Misery
Home Up

Rick Archer, written July 2006

My first experience with Ballroom Dancing occurred in 1975.  I was all of 25 years old. I knew very little about partner dancing, but I was definitely interested in learning.  One day I noticed the University of Houston Sundry School, a 1970s precursor to Leisure Learning, was offering a 6-week course in Ballroom Dance. 

I was a lonely guy in those days.  I did not have a girlfriend nor did I have any prospects either.  Mostly I was a jock - almost every evening was spent playing in some volleyball or basketball league or taking karate.  But I was having a hard time meeting any girls at these venues.   I was dimly clever enough to sense this Ballroom class might actually have a few single girls in it so I signed up for it.

Our first night of dance class covered Swing Dancing.  The instructor, a man named Jack, was twice my age.  He was a pleasant, easy-going guy who was good at demonstrating the patterns. He was easy to understand and I liked him. 

Jack's dance class moved pretty fast.  Our class was only an hour long, but Jack knew his stuff.  We must have covered six different patterns in just one hour!   My head was spinning! 

But I didn't mind because I was in love.  Contrary to my hopes, there were not very many single girls my age in that class. In fact, there was only one.  But that turned out just fine because the solo single girl was unbelievably cute.  Her name was Katie.   Katie wore some sort of WW II -style dress that first night.  With her long, beautiful legs I was mesmerized.  I couldn't decide whether she made the dress look good or vice versa, but either way it was Crush at First Sight. 

Katie and I paired up immediately because we were clearly the "Kids" in the class.  None of the other twenty-five students were within ten years of our age. 

Katie loved the class.  And since I was smitten with Katie, I paid better attention than in any class I have ever taken before or since.  I was definitely motivated to succeed.

At the end of the first night of class, Katie said her farewell to me and added with a smile, "I enjoyed meeting you.  See you next week!"

As you might guess, I spent the entire week day dreaming about Katie.  Loneliness will do that to you.  When it was time for the next class, I was full of anticipation.  Katie and I learned Cha Cha.  What a neat dance!   Jack did not worry too much about the Cha Cha hip motion.  Instead he taught six more patterns.  I handled them pretty well.  I do remember being curious why we didn't review Swing at all, but I was so preoccupied with the fast pace I quickly forgot about Swing.

This was the class where Katie became my "confidante".  Whenever I had a problem with a move, she would explain it to me.  Or if something funny happened in class, we would exchange smiles.  In other words, we were becoming friends.  At the end of class, Katie said, "See you next week, Rick!"

The next three weeks were a blur.  Week Three of the class was Tango.   Week Four of the class was Waltz.   Week Five of the course was Foxtrot.   Sure enough, each week saw me learning six more patterns to a new dance.  And by the end of the evening, I told myself I had learned this dance just fine.  I was no master, but I handled the material presented fairly well.

Truth be told, I did more than okay despite my lack of experience.  Katie whispered to me I was the best guy in the class, a compliment I took great pride in.  Katie's compliment was music to my ears.  As I looked around, it did seem to me I was doing pretty well compared to the other guys in the class.  I was quiet about it, but inside I was very proud of myself. 

Okay, so I was becoming a hot Ballroom prospect, but what about my Great Romance? 

As far as my Crush on Katie was concerned, I wasn't doing very well on that front.  I was petrified of rejection.  I liked her so much that I was scared I would lose her as a friend if I made the wrong move. 

Instead of asking her out after class like any normal guy, I decided I would make my move at The Big Event - our Graduation Night dance at Melody Lane Ballroom! 

Graduation Night was an event Katie and I had talked about several times.  Each week at the end of our Tuesday class, Jack would remind us that the week our sixth and final class ended, he would meet us at Melody Lane Ballroom for their regular Friday Night Ballroom Dance.  He called the event "Graduation Night". 

Katie asked me if I wanted to go.  Are you kidding?   I was ready to go over Niagara Falls for her. 

My plan was to meet Katie there, put my new-found skills to use and dance the night away.  At the end of a particularly exciting dance, my fantasy had me sweeping her into my arms.  I would arch her back into a dip, bring her back up and kiss her right there on the floor.  From there we would fall in love and live happily ever after. 

As I daydreamed, for some reason it never occurred to me I didn't even know how to dip a woman.  Oh well.  Why let reality interfere with a really good fantasy?

At the end of the sixth and final class (Rumba) after we finished our six patterns, I made sure to double-check with Katie if she was still planning to come on Friday Night.  She smiled and assured me she would be there.



Melody Lane was a major landmark on the Ballroom Dance Scene. Every Friday night, Al Marks and his Band held a Ballroom Dance at Melody Lane that was open to the Houston public.   

Back in the 1970s, Melody Lane Ballroom was located on Richmond near the Loop between the Windsor Theater and a club known as Todd's.   Later on Mr. Marks moved Melody Lane to its current location on Crossview near Fondren.

Jack had chosen Melody Lane for Graduation Night because it was the only place in town where you could go to dance Ballroom for the fun of it.  Otherwise you had to be a member of a Ballroom Dance Studio if you wanted to find a place to try out your Foxtrot and Rumba.   Sad to say, after Mr. Marks retired in the late Nineties, his popular Friday Night dance disappeared.  In the decade since, no weekly venue with live music that I know of has appeared to fill this void.  But that's another story.

As for me, as I approached Melody Lane that evening, my heart was thumping.  This was my big night.  I was counting on this evening a lot more than I had a right to, but in my defense I was young and foolish. 
Lead me not into temptation.  I can find it all by myself.  

Katie smiled as I entered.  I gulped as I saw her.  She was wearing that dress again!  She was too darn pretty.  'Oh Gosh, stay under control,' I thought to myself.  I was pretty nervous.  As I sat down at my group's table, I noticed that perhaps ten brave souls from our Beginning Ballroom class of 25 had shown up.  We all banded together at the table for courage.

A song came on.  Katie looked at me hopefully.  I gulped.  'What the heck do you dance to this song?', I wondered.  I would have asked Jack, but he was already out on the floor.  So I asked the guy next to me. He said he didn't know, but if I found out, would I be nice enough to tell him?  Hmm.  It felt like the blind leading the blind.

Katie guessed it was a Foxtrot.  It turned out she was right.  We got out there and I immediately froze up.  I realized I didn't remember a thing!  

So Katie and I walked back to the table and I reviewed the Foxtrot syllabus.  Box Step! 

I ran back out on the floor with Katie and danced the Box Step for the rest of the song.   Unfortunately, I stumbled more than once and knocked her off balance.  Other than that, I supposed we survived the dance. 

As we returned to the table, it bothered me that I couldn't remember any of the other patterns.  All in all, it was a pretty shaky start for such a hot Ballroom prospect.

The next song came on.  I didn't have a clue what kind of dance the music called for.  Jack said it was a Waltz.  I looked at my syllabus.  Box Step!   I was about to ask Katie to dance when I realized she was already out on the floor with Jack. He not only led her through all six patterns, he was leading her into stuff I had never seen before.  I wondered where she had learned all those moves.

I asked her that exact question upon her return. Katie replied she didn't have a clue what she doing, she just let him lead her.  'Lead her?'   You might be surprised to learn that I did not know what she meant. 

Jack had spoken briefly about leading, but he had never explained how it worked.  I was so naive that I thought if the man did his footwork and the woman did her footwork, the move would work automatically.  In other words, I had absolutely no idea that the man was largely responsible for the success of each dance.   I mean, after all, didn't he show the women their footwork too?   When did it become my job?  I didn't get the memo.

In fact, one of the men had asked Jack a question about a lead.  Jack replied there wasn't enough time with just an hour lesson to spend much time on 'leads'.  He said stuff like 'let go here' or 'reach your hand through here', but he only said it once.  Looking back, obviously I did not understand the importance of what he was saying.

How I missed the chapter in the course on 'leads' may not make sense, but my guess is there was no chapter. The class was taught using 'Simon Says'.   Jack and some woman he picked from the class would demonstrate the move.  Then Jack would put on the music. While he danced with his partner, we would all copy them. In other words, I would copy his footwork and Katie would copy the woman.

Katie and I would do our footwork and try to mirror each other.  I could dance this memorized pattern just fine, especially when I could watch Jack in the process. This meant for 6 weeks I had foolishly assumed we were learning to dance. Meanwhile I remained oblivious about how 'lead and follow' worked in Ballroom Dance. 

As a result, I was baffled how Katie had done all those moves.   It seemed like Magic.  Was it eye contact?  Was he telling her what to do?  Did she read his mind?  Had they secretly met ahead of time and practiced?    The guy could have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and I would not have been more impressed.  How did he do it?  I was bewildered.

Another song came on that sounded different.  What was I supposed to dance to this one?   I was angry that I couldn't tell one song from the other.  Some woman said Cha-Cha. That had been one of my favorites.  I looked at my syllabus and remembered the Basic went forward and back.  Rock Step Cha Cha Cha.  I asked Katie to practice with me a couple times by the table.  Yep, I had it.  We went out and danced the Basic for the entire song. 

As we returned to the table, Katie asked what had happened to the other five patterns on the list.  I bit my lip at her disappointment.  I had been bothered all night long by the fact that I could remember the names of the patterns, but once I was out on the floor I had trouble remembering what the footwork was to save my soul. 

Maybe it was nerves, but I was drawing a blank.  Cha Cha was over a month ago!  I mean, I could kind of remember how some of the patterns went, but I couldn't figure out how to get into them from anything other than a dead stop.  And the only way to end the pattern was to simply stop dancing.  "Transitions" were completely out of the question. 

She looked at me funny as I confessed I didn't remember how to do them any more.  I stared at the syllabus.  Yes, there were the names of the patterns, but they didn't mean anything to me.  I asked Katie if she remembered.  Maybe she could show me what the patterns were and I would remember.  Katie shook her head and said, 'I just let the guy lead.' 

I furled my brow in confusion.  There's that Word again.  What was going on with this lead stuff?   I was starting to feel both overwhelmed and discouraged. I secretly wished Jack would demonstrate the patterns on the floor one more time so I could mimic them again.  This Ballroom business was a lot more complicated than I had been led to believe! 

I ruefully thought back to how proud I was that I was the best guy in the class.  What a joke!  I was in the process of getting my ego thoroughly hammered.  

Meanwhile Katie danced two songs in a row with Jack while I sat at the table staring in disbelief.  Not only was she doing even more patterns than before, she wasn't even remotely nervous.  Instead Katie was laughing her head off and having a great time.  How did she know how to do all those moves?   I shook my head in consternation.

As I watched, I bitterly began to realize that the women clearly got all the breaks in this game.  Here I was stuck at the table feeling like a moron while Katie was dancing like Ginger Rogers out there.

I felt the heat rise.  I realized how jealous I was of Katie and Jack!

Before I could dwell on my insecurity any further, a woman from our group asked me to dance.  The woman told me she was getting tired off sitting.  Truth be told, she had a point.  It seemed like Katie was getting three out of every four dances with Jack.  Nor were the other guys dancing much either.  I guess they were in the same boat I was in. 

Something warned me this wasn't a good idea.  I didn't know the woman at all and she was old enough to be my mother.  There was something about her strong approach that intimidated me and I was very reluctant to accept her offer.  However I couldn't think of a graceful way to say 'no', so out on the floor we went. 

I asked her what dance it was.  She frowned.  "Aren't you supposed to know?"  

I suppose she was right, but I honestly didn't have a clue.  The woman stared at me waiting to see if I would figure it out.  Finally she rolled her eyes and said 'Tango'.  The woman and I got into dance position and she immediately got much closer than I was comfortable with.  She told me she had taken lessons before and this was the 'correct' way to dance the Tango.  This night wasn't going very well, was it?

Forward Forward Tango Close.  I remembered this much from the notes.  We did it again.  We did it a third time.  We did it a fourth time.  The woman barked at me, 'What about the Promenade?'   I cringed.  I remembered the pattern being listed on the syllabus, but I couldn't remember how to do the Promenade and told her so.  She jerked our bodies into the Promenade position only to find I wasn't sure what the footwork was.  That started an avalanche of criticism.  'Well, then try the Fan!'   'Do the Flare!'  I just stared at her.  She rolled her eyes and began to lead the Fan herself.  Together we looked like fools out there.  At that point the woman began to insult me.  'I thought you took the class.  Don't you remember anything?'  

Yes, I was over-sensitive, but she was in a bad mood about something and I provided an easy target.  Her words stung.

I was feeling too depressed to stand up for myself, so instead I got more depressed.  I was feeling so much pressure that whatever I did remember earlier on was now long gone.  I admitted I didn't remember anything and said we should give up.  As the song ended,  Katie and Jack were returning from another successful spin around the floor.  Just as they reached the table, the woman turned her back to me in disgust, grabbed Jack and hauled him out on the dance floor.  Katie did a double-take at the angry woman.  I am sure she wondered what that was all about.

I was feeling very shaky.  Katie asked me what was wrong.  I told her I felt like an idiot.  I couldn't tell a Tango from a Waltz.  I couldn't remember more than one step to any dance.  These notes were worthless.  I slumped in my chair in defeat.   Katie was sympathetic.  She said I just needed more practice and to cheer up.  I smiled wanly.  I had wanted so much to impress her and please her, but it was obvious I had completely struck out.  But I couldn't tell her that's how I felt. 

The next song came on. It was Swing, the dance I had liked the best.  Katie looked at me hopefully.  I looked at my notes and screwed up my courage.  We got out there and danced the Basic.  Katie said, 'Swing me out like Jack does.'  I looked at her blankly. 

'Katie, I don't know how to do that pattern.'

So she lifted my arm and swung herself out.  Then she swung herself back in.  While I did the Basic, Katie bounced in and out of my arms doing her Swing Out and Swing In.  I felt humiliated.  A ladder with a rubber arm attached probably would have stood in for me just fine.  

It was no use.  Sometimes when I get too frustrated I just lock up and go into a shell.  I was way past the point of the good old college try, even to please Katie.  I told her I would rather just go back to the table.  Katie wasn't mean to me like the other woman, but I could see she was disappointed. 

In dance class we had been equals, but tonight Katie was the star and I was the clown.  This was not working out like I hoped it would.

The next song came on and Jack asked Katie to dance.  My heart sank as I watched her face immediately light up with excitement.  She couldn't wait to dance with him again!   Sure enough, pretty soon Jack and Katie were doing another Fred and Ginger impersonation to a Waltz.  I still couldn't believe how well she danced together with him.  How did she improve so fast?

My pride was deeply wounded.  I wasn't very brave around girls I liked in the first place, so this horror story was way more embarrassing than my weak self-esteem could tolerate.  Once Katie and Jack got to the far side of the floor and I was sure she couldn't see me, I got up and left the building.  There was no point in sticking around.  I was way too embarrassed to have the courage to ask Katie out after my performance that night.  No more risk-taking for me on this evening.   Shame permeated every nook and cranny of my psyche.  Too bad Katie had never seen me on the basketball court, but here at Melody Lane I was clearly out of my element. 

On the way home I analyzed what had gone wrong.  How could a woman who didn't know any more than I did dance so well?   I knew the answer had to do something with the secrets of lead and follow, but I was angry that my evening had depended so much on something I didn't even know about.  I felt so helpless!

Regrettably, there was no second chance.  There was no follow-up to my Beginning Ballroom class.  Nor did I have Katie's phone number.  In other words, when I walked out the door, I had kissed any chance of seeing Katie again goodbye.   

I had no way of knowing I had been totally set up for failure.  I didn't know 'why' at the time, but our lack of work on leads had doomed me to this fate.   No man could ever acquire the skills needed to succeed on a Ballroom Dance floor under that format. 

Our instructor had chosen to entertain us with new material each week rather than get down to the hard work of explaining the leads, practicing the leads with students and a female instructor, and making us review the patterns each week whether we liked it or not.  I liked Jack, but I doubt he was a professional instructor.  He was probably just teaching the class for the fun of it.   Instead of giving us what we needed to learn, he fed us Cocoa Puffs instead.

There had been no dance practice after class.  When the hour was up, we were out of there.  In other words, not once had I ever danced on my own without the crutch of watching Jack.  This kept me blind to the importance of leading.  Furthermore I had no chance to develop any muscle memory.  Practice would have made a big difference.  Instead each week's patterns probably disappeared from my feet about the moment I got to my car, but I didn't know it since there was no review.  I stayed blissfully ignorant that I knew practically nothing.  Unaware, that is, until the Fateful Night.

I never had a chance.  It was more futile than the Charge of the Light Brigade.  At least they had the chance of being wounded.

As a side note, about the same time I was taking a karate class.  One weekend we all had to pass a tough test to earn the right to wear a higher-level belt and progress to the next class.  The test included a demonstration of blocking, kicking, and punching skills, we had to break a board with a kick and a chop, plus we had to spar with someone in our class.  The test was an all-day ordeal.  Nor was it a whitewash - a quarter of the class didn't pass.  When I came to class the following week after passing my test, I noticed several people were still stuck in the White Belt class. 

Intensely proud of ourselves, my classmates and I were ridiculously cocky.  As we waited for our new class to begin, we were all punching each other and acting tough.  Our body language was pure arrogance.  'C'mon, kick me, just try it!' 

Our new instructor walked in, took one look at us, then started to laugh.  Someone had the temerity to ask what he was laughing about. 

He replied, "Last week if someone had pulled a knife on you on the street, you would have had the sense to run for your lives.  Today you think you are so good you might actually be stupid enough to stand there and get yourself cut to ribbons. You are all in great danger and fortunate to have me tell you so.  I just saved your life." 

As the man spoke, you could hear the hiss of a dozen egos deflating.  However his words had a different meaning for me. Inside a light bulb went on.   My Ballroom instructor had taught me just enough to get me cut into ribbons.

It took a while, but eventually I bounced back.  Fortunately I stuck with my dancing, which is good since I was totally unaware I was on a career path at the time. About a month later I found another dance class to take.  Humbled, but not defeated, I started over.

I learned many lessons from the Nightmare at Melody Lane.  Mostly I learned about the pain of embarrassment.  Katie faded from my thoughts, but the memory of my shame did not.  Three years later when I went on to become a dance instructor myself, I vowed never to set up a student like that.

This is a true story.  It explains once and for all why I am so fanatic about the value of Practice Night. 

SSQQ Front Page Parties/Calendar Jokes
SSQQ Information Schedule of Classes Writeups
SSQQ Archive Newsletter History of SSQQ