Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kim Wright on Dancing (and life): Balance is Easier to Maintain While in Motion

by Joyce Lamb)

(Photo: Gallery Books)

Kim Wright, author of The Unexpected Waltz (sequel to Love in Mid Air), shares her dance journey — so timely as we bask in the glow of the finale of this season's Dancing With the Stars (no spoilers here, though!).

Kim: I like to tell people I stumbled into a ballroom by accident. It makes a good story ... In fact, it makes such a good story that it's the opening scene of my novel, The Unexpected Waltz. My heroine, Kelly Wilder, is rich, bored, beautiful and widowed and she finds her way into the world of dance almost by magic.

In real life, my own waltz wasn't quite so unexpected. (Nor am I rich, beautiful or widowed, although I do get bored on occasion.) I signed up for an introductory ballroom lesson when I spotted the studio out of the corner of my eye one day as I was leaving a Trader Joe's. The sign-up may have been impulsive, but I had always wanted to dance. As a child I'd been obsessed with the classic MGM musicals and my earliest images of romance were informed by the black and white glamour of Fred, Ginger, Gene and Cyd. As an adult, I was a passionate fan of Dancing With the Stars, holed up on the couch each Monday night with my dog and my popcorn, enviously watching the transformations take place right before my eyes.

Because here's the thing. Dancing is romantic. And most of life isn't.

Oh, we may find lots of ways to have fun. We may find love and sex and adventure and success and maybe even self-actualization ... but romance remains elusive.

My instructor, Max, was Russian and ridiculously young. As in younger-than-my-kids young. At first I began taking private lessons once a week. But dance is a drug, and pretty soon you find yourself upping the dosage just to get the same rush. I started competing, to the astonishment of my friends. I am ordinarily not a false eyelashes and rhinestones sort of girl, but there I was, in the icy cold "ballroom" of an airport Hyatt, dressed like a hooker, at 6 in the morning. (In competition, the beginners go first, which means an early wakeup call to get your hair and makeup done. This is not a sport for sissies, as anyone who's been spray tanned in the bathroom of a Hyatt at 4 a.m. can attest.)

But competing is expensive, and I couldn't do it often enough to sate myself. I added on show dances, which let me scratch my Ginger Rogers itch even more effectively. And I started social dancing.

Social dancing is a whole different animal. In pro-am, at least one person knows what they're doing and the professional can usually guide the amateur through the routine. In social dancing, you have two amateurs, which creates the sort of complicated mathematical algorithm that always seems to result in bruised toes and bruised egos. But social dancing also is a true test of a dancer's balance, timing, and poise. It's where you learn to hold yourself up, to really dance on your own two feet.

Since then, dancing has been a bit like a pilgrimage. As I've progressed along the route, there have been setbacks and disappointments, times when the learning doesn't come so easily. I remember one day I was so frustrated over my wobbly spins that I sat in my Prius in the studio parking lot and cried. Max saw me there but left me to sob and the next time we had a lesson I said to him, rather shamefacedly, "I'm sorry I lost it over these stupid turns."

And he said to me, "That's all right. All cry. Some cry and come back."

Some cry and come back. That's the beauty of dancing. It's romantic, sure, but it's also a discipline, and those who stick with it seem to find it a metaphor for all the wobbles of life. Dance has taught me that balance is easier to maintain while in motion — a lesson no amount of therapy or meditation had been able to drum through my thick skull. And that following another person's lead doesn't make a woman weak, but instead can be a sign of responsiveness and confidence.

Dancers are an interesting crew, all drawn to the sport for their own reasons. I dance with surgical nurses and airline pilots, people who are pregnant and those who have had hip replacements. Shy men and wounded women, people of every nationality and age group. Pieces of their personalities populate The Unexpected Waltz, which is not only the story of how dance saves Kelly but how dance can save a whole community. Non-dancers sometimes ask me if I took up the hobby to meet a man, but the truth is I've met any number of interesting men ... and fascinating women, too. People who have the courage to pursue their dreams, even if their dreams may look foolish to others — no, better to say especially if their dreams seem foolish to others — are inspiring to be around.

So ballroom dance has given me the inspiration for a novel and also a whole new lease on life. Where will it lead me next? Back to competition, into a new genre like jazz, or perhaps even toward a relationship? I'm not sure, but it doesn't really matter, because I do know this: Women who know how to dance always live happily ever after.

Here's the blurb for The Unexpected Waltz:

From the author of the critically acclaimed debut Love in Mid Air comes this moving novel about a middle-aged widow who finds her feet by embracing a new hobby: ballroom dancing.

Kelly Wilder becomes recently widowed from a much older wealthy man with whom she spent her married life doing charity work, building a lovely home, and, as she says, "pretending to be a whole lot more conservative and stupid and nicer than I really am."

Now, with too much time and money on her hands, Kelly has absolutely no idea what happens next. So on a whim she signs up for a ballroom dancing class, and slowly, step by high-heeled step, begins to rebuild her life with the help of friends old and new: Nik, a young Russian dance teacher who sees the artistic potential she left behind; Carolina, a woman in hospice, anxious to experience a whole lifetime in a few months; and Elyse, Kelly's girlhood best friend who knows all of her past secrets—including the truth about the man who long ago broke Kelly's heart.

In the vein of Jennifer Weiner's novels, The Unexpected Waltz is a deeply felt story about moving on after loss and finding a new walk—or dance—of life through the power of second chances.

Find out more about Kim and her books at Goodreads.