Shooting for the Stars and Missing
Only once in my
career have I ever received a direct request for a "Dancing with
the Stars"-style wedding routine. I gathered it was a
High Society Wedding and the bride desired to create a very
involved exhibition complete with a grand entrance and much
fanfare. This woman also wanted every dance
movement matched to the music, meaning she wanted to
develop a highly technical routine.
There was something in the way
the request was worded that suggested this would be a very
request came right on the heels of the story I am about to tell, I
was too burned out to show interest. I referred the lady to a friend who was a
Ballroom choreographer. He was thrilled beyond
was right up his alley. He later told me he made $1,000 in
the process. Good for him; as for me, I kept my nerves
Francis and Jeff
were the couple who removed any temptation to bother with
that woman's "Dancing with the Stars"
encouraged her future husband to
shoot for the stars... and came up short.
appreciates ambition. Without it, we wouldn't
have Christopher Columbus or the Moon Landings.
as we all know, the loftier the goal, the greater
the chance of failure. There are consequences
to aiming too high.
lighting doesn't strike twice in the same spot, but in my
case, I have had two difficult situations that were eerily
Both times the problems started when an
instructor at a franchise Ballroom studios taught material
that was over the skill level of her students.
Both times the female instructor became overly critical of the
fiancé and both times the male student became so frustrated that
he wanted to quit. Both times the bride decided her
only hope was to find another instructor and pray for the
One couple I
have already written about.
Rick and Michelle
had signed up for lessons with an instructor at a dance
studio near their home. However, the instructor was
inexperienced at this process and taught moves that were
much too difficult. Frustrated with Rick's progress
after two or three lessons, Michelle decided it was time to change
ships. Michelle heard that my wife Marla was very
patient, so they switched to her before Rick, her fiancé,
got even more discouraged than he already was.
Marla took Rick
for their first lesson, but then I entered the picture in
Lesson Two. I substituted for Marla in the second lesson
after she got a "Girls Night Out" invitation.
Seeing how much Marla wanted to go, I offered to take the
lesson with Rick and Michelle. During the lesson, I developed a rapport
with Rick and Michelle, so I ended up teaching them their final three lessons.
with Jeff and Francis started the exact same way, but ended
up with a situation far more malignant than Rick and
disengaged from her instructor before Rick became completely
defeated. Not Francis. Francis picked a much tougher instructor
and waited much longer to jump ship. By the time Jeff
got to me, he was seriously damaged goods. Using
medical terms, Jeff barely had a pulse.
Like Michelle, Francis was
a lady who very much wanted a “Dancing with the Stars” Waltz
at her wedding. And not just any Waltz either; she wanted to look
wonderful. So she went out and
hired the best instructor she could find. Well, sad to say, Francis
was on the verge of seeing her hopes dashed
to pieces. Jeff had threatened to completely quit. He
was ready to skip the wedding dance entirely. That's a good
indication of how frustrated he was.
It became my task to pick
up the pieces. This led to the most
difficult teaching assignment
of my career.
Russian Ballroom Dance Teacher
The story began
with Francis calling
around town. She located a championship Russian Ballroom
dancer who was affiliated with a franchise Ballroom studio
here in Houston.
Let's call her 'Olga'.
Olga was a highly credentialed dancer who
regularly entered competitions. Olga had a pedigree a
mile long and an attitude to match. Her teaching price
was very expensive.
Olga from Volga believed if you want the
best, you should be prepared to pay for it.
price was $100 for a 50-minute lesson. However,
Francis bargained with her. As a “favor” to the couple,
Russian dance instructor discounted her lessons down to $80 an hour in
return for the couple signing up for
five lessons. That’s $400
if you are counting. They had to
pay the entire amount up front before the first lesson even began.
paid for 5 lessons ahead of time turned out to be a
curse. It meant Francis stuck with Olga much
longer than she should have due to the expensive
From what I gather, Olga
herself had been trained
in Russia by highly critical,
who expected excellence and perfection. Their
teaching style had rubbed off on Olga.
imagine Olga would be the perfect instructor for
someone who aspired to greatness themselves, but for
ordinary dancers like Francis and Jeff, her cold, critical
style was a complete mismatch.
By the end of the
five lessons, no one was happy.
Francis was appalled.
She had paid all this
money and her fiancé Jeff could barely dance a lick!
He couldn’t keep the beat, he couldn’t remember the sequence
of the patterns and he couldn’t lead anything.
As opposed to teaching 'lead-follow' social dancing, this woman
had been teaching nothing but choreography
to a beginner. What was she thinking? Every
movement was memorized. Since Jeff
couldn't 'lead', he had no way to recover from a mistake.
They were constantly starting over.
Francis was worried sick, Olga was impatient, and
Jeff’s head was swimming.
Jeff did not get along
well with Olga.
Not at all. He was so frustrated that he
had stopped speaking to the woman.
Instead Jeff just took
orders and fumbled around. Olga was
losing patience fast. These lessons had reached a total
So now Olga and
Francis began debating how to salvage the process.
I have to assume they
completely ignored Jeff as they argued. Jeff was
standing there the whole time, but he was invisible. Olga
suggested signing for another 5 lesson wedding package, but
her body language was saying something else… these people
were a total waste of her precious time.
As Francis later
described, Jeff was shocked beyond belief. The sight of
Francis negotiating with his nemesis for more lessons was the final straw.
That was it; Jeff had
had enough. Jeff put an end to it without saying a word. Disgusted by the
bargaining for more
lessons, Jeff found a unique way to express his wishes.
With Olga’s back turned to him, Jeff made a
dramatic slash across the throat gesture with his finger and
shook his head 'no' emphatically. There was no way he was ever coming back to
In fact, on the way
home, Jeff put his foot down. He said he was done with
the whole damn thing. This was total bullshit.
If he had his way, there would be no Wedding Dance at all.
Putting Humpty-Dumpty Back Together Again
Well, as all men
know, throughout history lots of men have put their foot down
only to find out
their wife had other ideas. Francis knew there would
be no more Olga, but maybe someone else could do better.
So now Francis was forced to start over.
Someone suggested me. I will never forget
the phone call.
It went something like this:
“Hello, Mr. Archer,
this is Francis soandso. I was referred to
you by my friend soandso. My friend said you might be able to help.
Can you give me your credentials?
How long have you been teaching? Do you have experience at
performing? Have you won any contests?”
I was seriously taken aback by
all these questions. This woman was a
complete stranger to me; why was she coming on so strong?
initiate this sort of conversation by explaining what they want.
Not Francis. She began by asking me to justify why she
should even bother talking to me. I was put off by her sharp
approach, but curious enough to respond nevertheless.
I explained as best I could that I was
something of a renegade dance instructor.
And that is the truth. If anything, I am the
Anti-Olga. If she is white, then I am black.
For starters, I
have little interest in dance competitions. As for qualifications,
although I have had quite a bit of
formal training, I have never
been one to seek pieces of paper telling the world how good
I am. Unfortunately, this particular lady wanted to see
those pieces of paper.
I did not know the background story at
this point, so I was surprised at how aggressive Francis
was. Never before in my career had I been
grilled like this.
I understood that she had a right to know if I was
qualified, but these were dance lessons, not brain
surgery or a major lawsuit. Even if I
turned out to be the wrong person, all they were risk was one
hour of their time. So why was she so intense?
had eased up. Since she was still on the phone, I assumed I
was "still in the running". So I decided it was my
turn to ask her some questions.
I started by asking
what she was so worried about.
I almost fell
out of my chair with her response.
“Well, I am concerned because your
price is so cheap. You
only charge half the price of your
competitor.” (Francis was referring
to the original $100 a lesson quote).
Frankly speaking, I
felt insulted. I have a very thin skin when it comes
to a slap like that.
Normally I would say something
sarcastic like I would charge the same price if it would
make her feel any better, but I could tell
this lady was really
worried about something. I decided any
smartass remark at this point
would probably rub Francis the wrong way.
So, despite my
anger, I chose the soft touch instead. I explained that
I taught classes at my house. This
meant I did not need to
pay rent or pay some studio a “floor fee”.
Although $80-$100 was indeed the going rate
for many top-flight instructors, I told Francis I preferred to pass the savings
onto the students and charge the more modest rate because it
made me feel better. Personally I think $50 an hour is a
lot of money, but I suppose everything in life is relative.
They say soft words turneth away
wrath. Although typically it is not my nature to take the
soft approach, I have to say it definitely worked like a
charm this time. Francis must have
liked something in my
explanation because her approach changed
immediately. She melted on the phone and began to explain
her dilemma. I can't be sure, but I think she
was crying. The poor lady actually choked up a couple
times as she told me her wild story.
My eyes grew wide.
Thanks to Rick and Michelle, this was not the
first time I had heard a story like this. There are some
instructors who are so gifted that they take their gift for
granted. Some gifted dancers don’t
necessarily have the patience for people who are slow
learners. They can't understand why normal
people have so much trouble picking up dance steps when it
comes so easily to them. I think that was
On the other hand,
I struggled to
learn to dance. If you don't
believe me, read my classic
to Dance tale. You will soon believe I know
full well what it feels like to have trouble learning a
dance move. My own difficulties explains why I have infinite sympathy for others
starting on the path.
The truth of the matter was that
Francis was in quite a fix. Francis had a deeply discouraged
fiancé, she had wasted $400 with virtually
nothing to show for it and, worst of all,
wasted two precious months with the Olga monster. Now the Wedding date was approaching
fast. They had only three weeks to go.
I didn't have the heart to tell
Francis this over the phone, but their reduced time frame
could very well mean
they did not have enough time to start over and get the kind
of wedding dance Francis so cherished. It would all
depend on Jeff. If his learning curve was as slow as
Francis indicated and his attitude as bitter as she
indicated, we were in for a rough first meeting.
I was very tense as
the first lesson loomed. How was I supposed to salvage
this situation? Jeff had taken five lessons from one of
the best dancers in the world. According to Francis,
Jeff had ended up a basket case. Taking my cues from
Francis and her tales of woe, I could only assume Jeff was a
very slow learner. How was I supposed to solve all
their problems with just three weeks left?
When I finally met
Jeff and Francis, my
first impression was terrible. Just their demeanor was
enough to make me give up on the spot. I have never
seen two more discouraged people in my life. Francis was so
nervous she was almost shaking. Jeff didn't shake my hand
and had all the enthusiasm of a man
appearing for sentencing at a trial. With that ugly
sinking feeling, I wondered
what I had gotten myself into.
Looking for an idea
what I was up against, I asked them to dance to their song,
the classic "Could I have this Dance?" by Anne Murray.
I was shocked at
what I saw.
Jeff could dance little more than a Waltz Box Step.
After 30 seconds, he quit dancing.
I wasn't just
shocked, I was astonished. How can any man take five
hours of lessons and have nothing more to show for it than a
damn Box Step? Most people learn the Box Step in five
minutes, not five hours. This was hopeless. The
thought crossed my mind that maybe Olga wasn't as bad as
Francis had claimed.
I was in for one more
Francis pulled out
a stack of notes. I
frowned. What was this all about?
was a note taker. While Jeff and
the Russian instructor had engaged in hand to hand
combat, Francis had been busy carefully writing down all the
patterns they had been taught
with lengthy descriptions.
explained to me that they had covered 5 of the 12 phrases
planned by Olga.
wanted me to pick up right where the woman had left off.
This note-taking sounded suspiciously like choreography.
At least that cleared up one mystery. That would explain why Jeff could only dance the Box
Step. The only move he could lead was the Box
Step. Everything else had been memorized and
blocked it out of his memory.
was the case, this couple was in worse trouble than I thought.
choreographed dance routine is meant for experienced
dancers, not beginners like Jeff and Francis. On
Dancing with the Stars, the dance pro leads the
"star" through all sorts of complicated maneuvers
that they have rehearsed in advance. On the
show, not only does the male professional dancer
"Lead" the amateur through the material, the female
professionals "Lead" as well through a process known
as "Back Leading". In this case, choreography
has a chance to work.
believe that Olga was used to pro-am competitions
where she could back-lead her male students. I
think she received a nasty surprise when she
discovered this technique didn't work for two beginners
dancing with one another.
beginners try to dance advanced material using
choreography, it becomes the blind leading the
Out of curiosity,
I took a look at those notes. Francis had
six pages! I glanced at one page
and frowned. These notes could have been
written in Greek for all I understood. It is extremely
difficult for a non-dancer to write down dance moves in any
way that another human being can understand.
I didn't have a clue what these notes meant.
I looked at Francis
and asked a question. What was with all these notes? Why didn't they
the routine? That would make so much more sense.
a whiter shade of pale while Jeff turned his back and stared out the window. Uh oh.
I had just hit a nerve.
Without making eye
contact, Francis explained that their instructor had
forbidden them to videotape anything.
Now I was mad.
No videotape? Okay, I had been ready to give Olga the
benefit of the doubt, but now I decided Olga's old school
rigidity was a bad mistake. Why would Olga deprive this couple of
the best chance they had to practice the material at home? I
doubt I could remember all those notes, much less a beginner
This was the moment I quit being mad at them for the
mess they had gotten themselves into. I wasn't mad any
longer at Francis for being rude on the phone. I
wasn't mad about these ridiculous notes. I wasn't mad
at Jeff for knowing nothing more than the Box Step.
Instead I suddenly took pity on them. Francis
deserved better than this. She
had found a highly-trained individual to help them, but it
wasn't her fault that Olga
was not the right person for the job. Now Francis was
terrified she would pick another loser which was why she had
grilled me so hard. Jeff would not tolerate another
I was literally
their last chance.
a Way Out
I took a deep
breath. We had three weeks to go. There was no
way I could teach Jeff very much in this short a period of
time. I needed a short-cut. That's when I had an
idea. I needed to see if there was any way to
piggyback the material that Olga had given them.
I asked Francis
to talk about her instructor and these notes. I noticed her glance at
her watch and I told her not to worry about time. I
said I fully intended to extend the lesson, but first I
needed a better understanding. So Francis relaxed a
bit. Francis said
that Olga had taught them some very complicated patterns
right from the start and seemed extremely impatient when they didn't pick
material very fast.
Francis added that
she really liked Olga's patterns. If Jeff hadn't chafed under the
constant criticism, she would have loved to keep learning
from Olga. But then again, Francis added, Olga never picked
on her. Just Jeff. Jeff was Olga's perpetual
For his part,
Jeff said nothing. However I could see that Francis
was correct. Someone had definitely taken the fun out
of the learning process for him.
Hmm. So Francis really liked
Olga's patterns. Well, we better take a look. Perhaps
I could build on the material
they already knew rather than start from scratch. This
was probably the only chance they had to beat their
Francis and Jeff that if they could show me
some of the moves
in those notes, then maybe I
could recognize the move.
considerably. She went to her notes and picked out a
pattern. She told Jeff the name of the pattern and
went through the motions herself to cue Jeff. To my
relief, Jeff responded to his wife's reminders. Once Francis back-led him a
little, he began to remember enough of what he was supposed
to do to give me the rough idea.
Jeff was terribly ragged, but he was close enough that I
was able to recognize what they were doing. Since Olga
had taught them advanced "social" patterns that were
lead-follow, I wondered for the umpteenth time why Olga had
not bothered to teach Jeff how to lead them.
We went through
this process one move at a time. Jeff would finish a
pattern and Francis would pick out another pattern to
To his credit, Jeff remembered enough so that I could make out
syncopations. There was particular relevé
move where Francis stopped and kicked her leg into the air
while Jeff added
motions. I nearly choked to death
suppressing a laugh. They looked ridiculous. These were the kind of moves one would see in a Ballroom
competition, but with Jeff doing them
they resembled a DWTS mockery skit on Saturday Night Live.
for a Lecture
Given the amount of notes Francis kept, I estimated they would need three months to complete the routine.
We didn't have three months. We needed to adjust
the pattern to the time we had left. If Jeff could
learn half of the patterns he had demonstrated more
thoroughly, we would have the makings of an impressive dance
routine. In other words, we needed to use less
material and also to show Jeff how to actually lead the
material we kept. The Chassé
could stay, but the Syncopations and the Relevé
had to go.
I took a deep
breath and smiled. It was time to lay it on the line.
"Well, guys, I don't like telling
people what they should and shouldn't do, but since you have come to
me for advice, I think you should simplify things a bit.
Fortunately, you know
enough patterns already to make it through most of the song.
Let's take what you already have learned and work from there.
I suggest we group what you know into four
basic patterns. Then we can work on an ending."
When Rick heard that I
wanted to simplify things, I
detected the first hint of a smile. The idea of
simplifying things worked for him just fine.
I still could
not believe that Jeff and Francis had memorized most of their
patterns. What was that Russian woman thinking? Jeff didn't know the first thing about "leading"
these moves. Nor did Francis have much of a clue how to follow.
Instead she did most of the footwork on her own while Jeff moved his
feet and stared into space.
I was angry. This
was ridiculous. All those fancy patterns and no one had taught
this young man how to actually dance.
Now that I knew
what I was up against, I added one more thing.
I said, “For tonight, let’s do it my way.
We need to teach Jeff to lead. The
two of you can use tonight to decide if you like my
style and wish to continue with me.
If at the end of the night you don't think I
can help, we can shake hands and no hard feelings.
You will owe me nothing.”
I don’t enjoy confrontation,
especially with total strangers. But in this case, I
had no other choice.
I might not be
able to help, but I was willing to try. However, I
knew things wouldn't work doing it their way. I had to
insist they give me a chance to implement my own ideas.
In other words, I asked them to trust me. And I
absolutely had to teach Jeff how to lead.
I hoped they would see that they had
nothing to lose by trying things my way. However, since my
approach to the lesson was literally 180 degrees different
than Olga's, my radical approach might not be to their
Fortunately, my gamble worked. My first step
was to take some of the more practical moves they already knew and teach
Jeff how to lead them. Jeff wasn't
so sure, but that plus using some
of Olga's moves won Francis over
immediately. Francis was
deliriously happy to see all that work they had put in with
Olga wasn’t completely lost. She also liked
this strange concept called ‘leads’.
Francis did make me
laugh. "Gee, these moves are so much easier when you lead
them!" Gee, what a discovery.
As for Jeff, he was nowhere
near as bad a dancer as the picture Francis had painted for
me. Jeff's aptitude for learning to dance was average,
but he was certainly not slow in any way. Jeff's
problem what that he was extremely
analytical. The only way to teach an analytical person
is "methodically". There are no short-cuts and they
cannot be pushed to learn faster. Typically the only
way an analytical person can speed up the learning process
is through massive doses of repetition. I should know
because I am very analytical myself. Jeff began to
make progress because I knew how to break things down in a
way he could more easily comprehend.
But it was still
touch and go. By the end of our first lesson, if I had
been asked to predict, given the time we had left, I would
have given this couple maybe a 33% chance to succeed.
Analysis of the Predicament
I suppose there is a place for “Dancing
with the Stars” at a wedding, but maybe for one couple in
hundred. A top of the line dance routine requires natural
dance ability, plenty of lead time, and lots of money… none
of which was present in this couple!
Francis had gotten them
into this fix. She was quite the gung-ho dynamo.
She obviously had very high hopes for her
Wedding Dance. I got the feeling that Francis was used to
setting high standards. For that matter, probably Jeff did
too, but maybe not about dancing. Jeff was a successful
engineer, so he was clearly a bright guy. However Jeff wasn't
nearly as enthusiastic about this First Dance as his fiancée
fact, he was completely disgusted with the whole thing.
It is a credit
to Francis and her will power that Jeff was willing to try
one more time with a new instructor. But this was clearly
his last try.
If it didn't work with me, Jeff was prepared to stick to his
guns and can the Wedding Dance completely.
attitude, I could see why Francis was so nervous. Jeff
had about one ounce of patience left for the wedding dance.
That meant I was treading on thin ice. One wrong word
and I would lose him completely. Francis knew the
success of her dreams hung in the balance. Francis
didn't realize it, but during our first lesson she had been chewing on her nails
from the moment she walked in. I could not believe the amount of
tension in the room!
If I had to fuss at
Francis, her anxiety about the perfect wedding and the best "First
Dance" affected Jeff adversely. There was no doubt that
he loved her and wanted to please her, but he was very angry at her for
the humiliation of the previous experience with Olga. Francis and
her dream for an impressive First Dance had turned this process into
a nightmare for him.
there was no happy end in sight. Jeff resented being
obligated to dance at their wedding when he was so clearly
ill-prepared. Like any man, Jeff had pride. He
didn't appreciate getting set up like this. Francis'
ambitions for the First Dance were way beyond his ability,
especially given the limited amount of time they had.
Jeff completely expected to fall apart during the Wedding
Dance and embarrass both of them. What a rotten way to
start a marriage.
Incorporating the prior
dance material meant
that even the toned-down routine
that I recommended was still far more difficult than
Jeff's skill level called for.
lesson went two hours. Our second lesson went two more
hours. These marathon lessons were the only way I
could catch Jeff up.
Despite running the
lessons twice as long, I refused to accept more money.
Francis offered to pay more, but I shook my head. I
was still irritated at how "cheap" my services were.
Never in my life had I expected to lose respect for charging
what I thought was a fair price. I wanted to prove my
point that I taught these lessons as a way to contribute to
their lives, not as a way to keep the meter running thanks
to Jeff's snail-like progress.
In the second
lesson, I was proud of
Jeff. He hung in there. His
improved demeanor signaled that Jeff had decided to give me
the chance to salvage this fiasco. It wasn't easy for
either of us. Jeff was forced to continually work
very difficult patterns that were frankly over his head.
That ratcheted up the pressure in the days to come.
as hard as he could, but the anxiety was killing him.
He was miserable the entire time at both the first and the
second lesson. Not once did I see a smile. This
was torture for him.
This led to a very
tense moment in
the third of our four lessons. Jeff was tired and growing impatient. The
wedding was ten days away. I told
my couple that was time to dance the five different patterns
for the first time to music. Previously it had been
one large pattern at a time to music. Now I wanted all
five patterns danced in a row without any break.
Jeff nailed the
first two patterns, but then he drew a blank. For the life of him,
Jeff could not remember how to
He just stood there staring in confusion.
Francis let her
disappointment show through a little too transparently and
snapped at him the name of the next pattern. She
immediately chewed him out for not being able to
remember. Jeff lost his temper and snapped
back at her
to get off his case. The room grew very silent.
Francis was discouraged because she had
gotten her hopes up that this would be the breakthrough she
so desperately wanted. Jeff was
discouraged at his continual failure.
I had no choice but to call a time-out. I
of them to sit down and relax.
While they sat, I decided
to do the talking. It was time
to bring up a touchy subject. I
asked Francis to let me do the fussing
from now on. I gave her the
lecture about why it wasn't a good idea for her to correct
Jeff or scold him either.
To be honest, I wished
I had given
this lecture in the first lesson.
I knew Francis had a tendency to be hard on Jeff.
However, I was so worried about
developing a rapport that I had put it off. Now however I
had no choice. It was time to deliver the strong medicine
or risk seeing things get even worse.
But I was on the verge of losing the patient
anyway, so I had to say something.
I concluded by
saying that Jeff was trying as hard as he possibly could.
Francis nodded. She knew she had made a mistake.
I'm not sure if she knew this, but I was also
fussing at Francis as a way to save face for Jeff.
Fortunately, Francis handled my
words with class. She apologized to Jeff.
Jeff never acknowledged that he liked
what I said, but that apology worked
wonders. His demeanor improved by leaps and bounds
after that. When Jeff got back up, he was ready to try
again. Thank goodness this intervention did the trick.
progress for the rest of the night that
in the end, Jeff was able to do all five patterns back to
back. Wonders never cease.
thrilled. She was all over Jeff with hugs and kisses.
I was astonished at the transformation. This was the
first time I had ever seen them happy together.
Jeff and Francis left arm in arm.
I heard them laughing on the
sidewalk all the way to their car.
And why not? For the first time, they had been given
some real hope that they could pull this off.
I am not quite sure how they did it,
but in the end, Jeff and Francis did
indeed pull off their Grand Waltz.
I know because I got a short, but highly ecstatic thank
you email from Francis after the wedding:
"Rick, We did it!!! thank you thank you thank you!
the difficulty of their routine with what little time we had
left, it is a testimony to their determination that they
I took some
satisfaction in my successful patch job, but it was a grim
satisfaction. I am used to having fun with my wedding
couples, but this wasn't fun at all.
I never developed a
real bond with either person. This was mainly because
there was so much drama and so little laughter. Jeff
was a very moody young man. Jeff and I had what I
would call a "respectful relationship". Jeff never
said a single cross word to me, but at the same time I never
saw him warm up to me either. In other words, he
tolerated me. Jeff was always so serious and so
tense. To say he was 'sensitive' to criticism was an
understatement. However, I had the same problem at his age,
so I knew the antidote. I refused to lose patience
with him. I gave him huge doses of
encouragement and only the lightest of rebukes.
Jeff even fought me
much of the time. I had to defend the reason behind
many of my suggestions before he would cooperate. I
could easily see how an authoritarian person like Olga would
resent his challenges to her authority.
I also remember how
reluctant Jeff was to dance with me. Some men simply
don't want to dance with another man. I can respect
that, but it makes my job that much tougher.
For fear of
losing what rapport we had, I was afraid to insist.
Still, I kept 'suggesting' we dance
together so I could show him how to create a dance move.
The breakthrough did not come till
late in the second lesson and
only after Francis urged him to give it a try. It was
a move that failed over and over again. Francis
pleaded, "Jeff, please dance with Rick. He can show
you what you are doing wrong."
Jeff was so desperate to catch up, he finally gave in.
And it is a good thing because now I was better
able to teach him how to lead.
I think one of the
things that bothered me the most was deeply personal.
I was thrown out of graduate school mainly because I never
learned how to deal with criticism. (Learning
Jeff with his thin skin reminded me very much of myself at a
similar age. It hurt me to see how immature I must
have been back at that age. But since I was unable to
reach him, I never developed the kind of rapport that would
allow me to share my own experience and maybe clue him in a
little. Jeff would have to learn these lessons in life
the hard way... just like I did.
As for Francis, I
always got the feeling she was the sort of woman who would
do whatever it took to help a man become successful in his
career, but it would never be an easy marriage. She
was determined to light a fire under her husband whether he
liked it or not.
made a mistake getting Jeff into the fix they were in, I never felt she was a “Bridezilla”. There
was never any hint of the screaming sort of theatrics that
make the reality shows so painful to watch. Instead Francis
was always unfailingly polite and grateful for my help.
I gained her trust far more quickly than I did with Jeff.
Once she decided I was her best hope, she backed me all the
way. Almost from the moment the first lesson started, she
was always cooperative.
was high-strung and ambitious. I am
not sure who she was trying so hard to impress, but she
definitely wanted to be amazing. I was constantly tiptoeing a fine line between curbing her high hopes yet keeping her
confidence in me at the same time.
wondered how the lessons would have gone if they had
come to me first. As it stood, both of them
came to me in a highly distrustful mood. For
sure, they were damaged goods.
forced into the role of 'referee', the
constant need to be so carefully diplomatic
to both of these touchy people
made these lessons my toughest assignment to date.
Winning their trust after what
they had already been through was quite an
accomplishment. I was more therapist than I
was dance teacher.
My parting memory of Jeff and Francis
was that their routine was probably the second hardest
routine I have ever taught. Only my
Cinderella couple had a
tougher routine, but it wasn’t nearly as much of a challenge
for Aubrey and Billye since they were
already highly experienced dancers
before they even started.
In the end,
I have to give Jeff a lot of credit.
at best an
average learning curve plus the handicap of a
serious chip on his shoulder
and the pressure of the looming deadline, Jeff covered a remarkable amount
of ground in a short period of time.
Once he saw that this
project had some hope, he committed strongly to seeing it through to the
end. And I have to say his future wife’s indomitable will
played a huge part in his determination. From what I
gather, some marathon practice sessions at home turned the trick.
Sometimes when you shoot for the stars
and miss, you may still end up hitting the moon.
As one might gather, rarely do I know my students ahead of
time. They don't always come in
willingly either, especially the men. Many show up on
my doorstep like Jeff with a silent resentment. Most of
these men typically have no idea
how to dance or they would not have sought out my help in
the first place.
My biggest fear is always that the couple has waited too
long to contact me. Seeing what the pressure of fighting a
deadline did to Francis and Jeff, I always worry I might
have another similar situation on my hands. Learning the
Wedding Dance typically requires three one-hour lessons.
However, one couple in five struggles and one couple in ten
struggles a lot.
A couple that really struggles may
require up to six lessons.
Six lessons. Now let’s think about that number. Most couples
do best with one lesson per week, but assuming two lessons a
week, I would still need three weeks to get them up to
speed. When a student calls me up and says they don’t have
much time, I always worry. There is a one in five chance
that this couple won’t have enough time to pull it off.
Since I know nothing about their background, I am flying
blind when they show up on my doorstep.
The reader might assume that few people wait till the last
minute. Guess again. About
four times a year, I get a last
minute request. I am immediately on guard. I want to help
these people, but at the same time, I don’t want to feel
guilty when I am given a hopeless task.
Furthermore, when I do get an
“emergency wedding lesson”, I usually expect the worst.
Typically some of the worst dancers
put it off till the last minute in much the same way that
some people put off visiting the doctor over a troublesome
pain. It is called “Procrastination”. The easiest way to
avoid a fear is to delay facing it.
As for me, I always say I will try to
help, but secretly I worry that these
people expect me to perform
a miracle. This makes me grumpy right from the start.
Michael and Stephanie: The Emergency Dance
I remember one couple that had me seething before I even met them.
such a terrible
attitude about Stephanie and William’s wedding dance
that I almost emailed to say don't
even bother coming. You will soon understand why.
Thursday Phone Call
On a Thursday morning in late June
2012, a lady named Stephanie called me on the phone to
schedule a lesson. Unfortunately, at the time she called
Internet was down. Since I was unable to use the Internet
to determine the speed of the music, I had no idea what
dance I would be teaching.
So I asked Stephanie to email me some
information on her music. Here is what she said:
Stephanie to Rick:
Sent: Thursday, June 28, 2012 3:24 PM
Subject: Wedding Songs
Hi Rick, it’s Stephanie. Our songs are
going to be "My Kinda Crazy" by Brantley Gilbert and
"Honeybee" by Blake Shelton. Let me know if you need
anything else. See you Saturday!
Rick’s Reply to Stephanie:
Thank goodness the internet came back
up an hour later!
My Kinda Crazy is 072 bpm (beats per
minute). Honeybee is 102 bpm.
Crazy is best danced to an unusual
dance known as Night Club Twostep. It is tricky, but not
too tough to learn for experienced dancers.
Honeybee is either an uptempo twostep
or a relaxed polka… whichever dance you prefer will work.
As I said over the phone, you
understand that you don't have a lot of time to experiment
if the wedding is a week away. Therefore you might want to
rethink dancing to two different songs. You and William
should talk it over. If he is a complete beginner, I
recommend you stick to one song.
I recommend that wedding couples dance
for 2 ½ minutes. Even experienced dancers seem to agree the
spotlight gets old if you push it much longer.
That said, I could see dancing some
romantic night club for a minute in one spot on the floor,
then switching to an energetic twostep for the final 1 ½
minutes. I will happy to splice your music together if you
want me to.
See you Saturday. Just come through
the big wooden gate. I will be waiting for you.
In my private thoughts, I was very skeptical. Over the
phone, I had told Stephanie we didn’t have enough time to do
two dances if William was a beginner. That is when
Stephanie had explained they were both dancers. Based on
that statement, I accepted the lesson, but my intuition
suggested William wasn’t that good. Otherwise why would he
need this lesson? I had a nagging feeling that Stephanie
wasn’t being square with me. There was something in her
voice that made me suspicious.
And now Stephanie had just sent me a
ridiculous email suggesting again that she wanted William to
learn two dances in one hour. Stephanie’s expectations were
completely unrealistic. Memories of Francis and Jeff came
flooding back. What if William turned out to be the dreaded
I felt myself bristle. I didn’t like
being set up for what seemed like a colossal failure.
However, I had accepted the lesson, so I would just have to
see what happened.
On Friday a day later, Stephanie sent
me a follow-up email.
Stephanie to Rick:
Thanks for the response. I understand
we don't have a lot of time...we don't need a whole
choreographed dance, but we would like some input as to how
to maybe go about it and we'd like to learn some spins to
That would be awesome if you could
splice the music.
We could do one minute of the slower
song and the other minute and a half of Honeybee? Let me
know what you think.
Thanks again! Stephanie
Rick’s Reply to Stephanie:
Stephanie, I hope you won't think I am
being aggressive to say we will need to meet at least one
more time next week.
I have both songs on the computer, but
it requires 10-15 minutes to do the edit. Before I do the
splice work, let me meet with you and let me get a better
idea what you guys want.
Once I see you both in action, I can
make some accurate suggestions, Stephanie. Then during the
second visit we can dance to the edited music.
See you at 10 am tomorrow!
That afternoon, I received another email from Stephanie.
Stephanie to Rick:
Rick, I hate to say this, but we are
so tied up with commitments and appointments next week, I
think tomorrow’s lesson will be our only chance to see you.
Will you make that Wedding splice anyway and we will try to
make it work?
I groaned. The chances of this lesson
working were slim to none. This woman wanted me to teach
her fiancé Nightclub, Polka, and how to lead double turns
(what she called ‘spins’) in one hour. She was asking for
three different things all in one hour!
A woman might be able to pull
the Trifecta off
if she follows well, but to teach a man to lead all this in
just one hour was impossible.
For a man who was the fastest learner
on earth, I would estimate two hours for all that material.
For a man with an average learning
curve, I would estimate four hours.
For a slow learner, six hours minimum.
I had a very bad feeling about this. I
deeply resented being expected to do the impossible.
This woman’s expectations were
ridiculous. By waiting till the
last minute, Stephanie didn’t even have enough respect to give me
the time I needed to do my job. I was so irritated that out
of spite I didn’t even bother doing the splice job I had
To heck with both of them.
I do my wedding lessons here at my
house in the Heights.
the large dance room
shown in the picture built onto
the side on my house.
Unfortunately, I have a weird address so I made
sure Stephanie had access to a map I have posted on the
morning of the lesson, I decided to go out to
the street and keep an eye out for them.
We had no time to
As I read the morning paper
while sitting on the
sidewalk curb, it was now 10:10 am. Still no Stephanie and
I was just about to go back inside
when a car drove up and turned into my neighbor's driveway
across the street.
I stared at the car as it idled in the
driveway with a thick wooden fence blocking their path. Was
I stood in front of my garage and
watched. No one got out of the car. Four more minutes
passed. This was ridiculous.
I could feel my irritation rising by the moment.
Finally I decided to take a
chance that my wedding students were in
that car. So I crossed the street and knocked on the window.
Sure enough, it was my wedding couple. They were thoroughly
lost despite my map. Good grief.
Now they pulled out of the driveway,
turned around, and parked in front of my house.
Stephanie's first words out of the car
were, "Look, William, there's ‘608’ (my address) right over
the garage. Why didn't we see that?"
Why not indeed? How could they miss
it? This was a very bad omen. I had
felt premonitions of
disaster before the day even started, but with this pathetic
start had me more convinced than ever we were doomed.
I had warned this lady we had one
lousy hour to get this done and now
they were already 15 minutes
late. I was expected to show them spins and teach them two
different dances in 45 minutes? I certainly hoped their
expectations could be dealt with. I felt pessimistic.
I took a good look at the couple.
Stephanie, 27, turned out to be very
attractive. She was a highly-poised
young lady who seemed unusually confident
for her age. On the other hand,
William, 26, was anything but confident. He looked like he
had just arrived for his execution.
After noting Stephanie’s good looks
and strong presence, I concluded she was one of those rich
and beautiful women who figure
her money and her good looks will
ensure she will always get
her way. Well, we’ll see about that.
Mind you, I was
jumping at conclusions, but I was almost certain I was being
taken advantage of.
Now I got a chance to
in action. I put their Honey Bee song on. Uh oh. The young
man had the correct Twostep rhythm, but no one had ever
shown him how to pass his feet. He
barely moved. Furthermore, he knew only
one pattern... making Stephanie dance backwards. I shook my
head. So this was my ‘experienced dancer’?
William showed no more understanding than someone with 10
minutes of practice in dance class.
I reminded myself
again this lesson didn’t have a chance in
hell of success. No way.
However, it would be unprofessional to send them home.
So I decided to soldier on. I strongly toyed with the
idea of not charging them. That's my way of keeping a
now I played
Stephanie's second song. To my
surprise, William did much better. His Polka
was far superior to his Twostep. I felt a
small glimmer of hope.
I smiled, "So where did you learn to
"Stephanie taught me, Mr. Archer." I
Stephanie said, "I grew up in a
dancing family. I danced on my Daddy's boots from the
moment I was old enough to walk." I nodded
again. That made
I danced with
Stephanie myself. I realized Stephanie had
spoken the truth about her own dancing. She was pretty
good. In fact, she was so good
I actually considered teaching her to be the ‘lead’.
I am completely serious… We were running out of time and
desperate times call for desperate measures!
We wasted another 10 minutes as I
evaluated their dancing to their two different songs. I
demonstrated with Stephanie the different dance
possibilities there were to the songs. William looked on
with dismay. He was totally overwhelmed.
I actually began to feel sorry for
him. Stephanie had no business getting him into this
Except that I
started to like Stephanie. In fact, she may have been
pretty, but she wasn't rich and she certainly wasn't a diva
either. Instead, Stephanie was a top-notch lady.
I felt so guilty for jumping to
The two people were not even remotely arrogant.
They genuinely wanted my help and would do anything I asked
them to. Now I started to be depressed. They
were depending on me and it hurt to feel helpless to do
anything about it.
Stephanie took a deep breath.
She knew we were in trouble. It was now 10:25 and I hadn't shown them a
Fortunately I had an idea. Since
Polka was William's best dance, I could show him how to
dance an 8-count Polka (a trick I call the “Three Step”) to
the slow song and a 4-count Polka to the faster song. That
way, whatever footwork and patterns I taught him could be used to both
This turned out to be an exceptionally
good idea. To my surprise, once William learned to pass his
feet, he caught on very quickly. Despite his woeful
Twostep earlier in the lesson, I had to admit Stephanie was right - William did
have some dancing ability. He just needed someone to explain
things to him correctly.
I assumed William’s Polka was good
because the girl’s footwork and the man’s footwork are
identical. Stephanie's instruction in the Polka was easy
because all he had to do was copy her. But Stephanie didn’t
know the man’s footwork to Twostep, so that was his
What a shame they had waited till the
last minute. With just one more lesson, William would have
done very well. But now after teaching him a couple new
Polka patterns, it was 10:50. We only had 10 minutes left in the lesson.
Strangely enough, although I had been
absolutely determined to not like this couple,
I had completely changed my mind. I
didn't just like this couple,
I liked them a lot. They were great young adults! They were
polite, they concentrated as hard as they could, and I could
see they had great chemistry together. Stephanie was really pulling
for William and William was giving it everything he had to
please her. I respected that a lot.
Gee whiz, I thought to myself, if they
could have given me just one more lesson, we could have
pulled this off. So close, but so far.
Frustrated, I couldn't contain my
curiosity any longer. "Stephanie, why did you guys wait so
long to come see me?"
I crossed my arms and waited for the
inevitable lame excuse.
"Oh, gosh, we would have loved to have
started sooner," Stephanie exclaimed, "but we are both in
the military. We are stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia.
There are no dance instructors on our army base. Atlanta,
the nearest city, is a hundred miles away. Besides, even if
there was a city nearby, it would have done us no good.
When I called you on Thursday, that was the first chance we
have had permission to leave the base in nearly six months.
We are here in Houston for this week
only because they had to let us get married sooner or
My jaw dropped to the floor. A huge
wave of shame shot through my body. I had spent this entire
morning silently criticizing this couple for waiting too
long to call me and then for wasting part of their lesson
sitting in the driveway across the street.
Now that I realized the true reason
for their last-minute lesson, I was crestfallen. These two young people risking their lives in the military
to allow people like me to lead
my soft life as a dance instructor without a care in the
world... and all I could do was think of
how inconvenienced I was. I felt unbelievably
ashamed of myself.
To think I had been mad at them for
their last-minute lesson because it put pressure on me.
How pathetic was my attitude? I was
so ashamed of myself.
Right on the spot, my bad attitude did
a one-eighty. I asked them if it would be possible to stay
another hour. No charge. My treat.
They both glanced at each other with
immense relief. Yes, they could stay another hour.
Given a second chance, William was
amazing. By the end of the second hour, he had mastered as
much material as any man I have ever seen who is a complete
beginner. But he was also overwhelmed.
Based on my experience, I fully expected
William to forget half of what he learned.
He needed one more lesson to lock in this material.
So I asked them if they could come
back one time the following week. No charge. It would be
my wedding present.
At first they said no. Stephanie’s
family had them committed to do something with relatives
every night of the week.
I said, “Who said the lesson had to be
at night? What about Monday morning? What will you be
doing on Monday morning?”
William and Stephanie looked at each
other and began to smile. Yes, they could come back on a
Monday morning. Suddenly this desperate project of theirs
had a fighting chance of working.
Over the weekend, I spliced their two
songs together. 45 seconds of slow “Three Step”
Polka and 2
minutes of fast Polka.
They returned on Monday morning to
learn Synchronized Polka. I figured this pretty dance was
perfect for their Wedding Dance. The Sweetheart position
would lend itself nicely to photographs.
Furthermore the moves were
easy to learn, yet quite eye-catching nonetheless.
William got off to a very slow start.
As I expected, he had forgotten much of the fine details
from Saturday. The hour passed quickly, so I asked if they
could stay longer. Yes, they could.
The second hour... or fourth hour if
you include Saturday... did the trick. By the end of the
second hour on Monday, William and Stephanie had mastered a very
polished pattern. Just as I had
predicted, an "average student" would need four hours.
Just to be sure they didn’t forget
something, I had them videotape me dancing with Stephanie
for later reference. Now all they would have to do was
practice. I could not have been prouder of the two of
them. By this point I had adopted them like they were my
own kids. We had an incredible rapport.
There was only one problem. No matter
how hard he tried, William could not bring himself to start
on his right foot in the Synchronized Polka. He messed up
so many times I began to wonder about it. Finally I asked
him what the problem was.
"Gosh, Rick (he had dropped the "Mr.
Archer" some time ago), the Army has drilled me a million
times to start with my left foot. I just can't start with
my right foot. I am scared to death I will start with my
right foot when I get back to the base and get latrine duty
for a week!"
Talk about a footwork excuse I had
never heard before! This was definitely a new one. I
couldn't help but smile. In 32 years of teaching dance, you
would assume I had encountered every learning obstacle in
the book. The funny thing is that William was serious!
Oh, this poor, confused delightful
wonderful young man. William was trying so hard my heart went
out to him. I told William to explain to the drill sergeant
that if he messed up, he could tell the sergeant he had to
learn to start on his right foot in order to get married.
Maybe even the meanest drill sergeant might cut him some
slack for an excuse as original as that.
William grinned. "Good idea! If he
still doesn't believe me, I will go get Stephanie and show
him our dance routine!" We all got a good laugh.