You’ve heard this story before: shy, overweight, non-assertive Southern girl grows up, bringing all that baggage along. Well, maybe not all of it. I did lose weight, and I did learn that if someone cut in front of me in line, it was acceptable to say, “Excuse me, I was here first, wait your turn or I will hurt you.” But still, when I was in my late twenties, I wasn’t quite assertive enough to approach a man, not confident enough to make that first move.
Here’s how that changed.
Being a pianist and a fan of ragtime music, I was excited to find the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin wrote his famous “Maple Leaf Rag.” It’s a five day celebration of ragtime, and people and entertainers come from all over the world. And of course, there was dancing. I took the free lessons and learned the one-step, the two-step, and the novelty dances of the era like the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. But partners were in short supply. Usually the dance instructor took turns dancing with the single women. The rest of the time, I sat, my feet tapping to the infectious rhythm, wondering why I bothered to learn dances when I didn’t have anyone to dance with
The highlight of the festival was the Ragtime Ball, a gala affair with a fine orchestra and everyone decked out in vintage suits and gowns. Just like a turn of the 19th century Cinderella, I wanted to dance at the ball, and not just a few dances with the instructor. I wanted to dance every dance. I had my gown. I had my dancing shoes. I was going to have to push through my self-effacing upbringing and snag a partner.
At the dance lessons the afternoon before the ball, I saw a man about my age sitting by himself, watching with interest. As I kicked aside that small but heavy carry-on bag of Southern manners, I tried not to listen to the voice that said: People are looking at you. Women don’t ask men to dance. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that no one knew me in Sedalia, Missouri, walked up to the man, and said, “Would you like to dance?”
He smiled and answered in a pleasant Latin accent, “I only know how to tango.”
Tango! I took a moment to recalibrate. Maybe this was too much. But I was in it now and had to keep going.
“Well,” I said, continuing my out of body experience, “if you can tango, you won’t have any trouble with the one-step.”
He shyly agreed to try. When he realized how easy the dances were—even the tricky Grizzly Bear—he became very enthusiastic about learning them and agreed to meet me at the ball that night. We danced all night and the rest of the week whenever music was playing, all through the nights and into the early mornings. When the festival was over, he went home to Argentina. I went home to North Carolina. For the next five years, we met in Sedalia, Missouri, and danced and danced and danced.
I found out he was just like me, worried about looking foolish, paralyzed by the thought of rejection, but willing to take a chance and try something new. And I learned that if I could ask a man to dance, then it was entirely possible I could do whatever scary thing came along, even if people were watching, even if it was something “women don’t do.”
I’ve been coming to the Ragtime festival by myself for over thirty years now. Every year, I ask a man if he’d like to dance. So far, every one has said yes.