When I lived in New York right after college, I was doing a soul-sucking job, one that paid me a lot of money for a 23-year-old (more than I make now with a Master’s degree, National Board certification, and 12 years in the classroom—thank you, N.C. General Assembly!).
To deal with the spiritual discomfort of selling something I didn’t believe in, I DAHNCED. I bought an unlimited pass for ballroom and Latin dance lessons at DanceSport on Broadway and 60th, and I would go directly from work to the studio. I took salsa and swing and hustle and cha-cha, rumba, foxtrot, everything. I would take a 5:30 class, a 6:30 class, a 7:30 class, and an 8:30 class, and sometimes I would stay for the 9:30 “practice party” of mixed dances too. Every night of the week. Hours and hours.
The way the classes worked was, the leaders (usually men) would stand in an oval around the room, and the followers (usually women) would partner up with them. You’d practice a few steps, and the instructor would say, “Rotate,” at which point the followers would move clockwise one man. Repeat.
Since you were dealing with/being close to/touching a bunch of strangers, there was an etiquette to these classes. Common-sense stuff, but just in case, they had laminated pages posted in the bathroom, that said:
BE A GOOD DANCE PARTNER
2. Wear deodorant.
3. Manage your breath.
Those kinds of things.
You met all kinds of characters there:
- a lot of adorably awkward white businessmen, a lot of them;
- the Dominican instructor who asked me out for a drink and, while actively trying to get in my pants on this date, told me about his wife and kid at home (I left him at the bar); and
- then there was this Russian guy. In his 30s maybe, like six-two, brown hair, mustache, horrible body odor—the kind that singed your nostril hairs and made your eyes water—always wore black pleated Dockers and a black rayon t-shirt, and based on the smell, I think it was the same t-shirt. At the beginning, I thought he was chewing gum loudly during every class. It was a few classes in that I realized he had a full set of dentures, which he would pop in and out of place.
So many breaches of etiquette. I was like, What is wrong with this guy?
One day, I noticed too that he had abrasions all over his forearms, like up and down, angry red marks. Next class, same thing. A month or two went by. I couldn’t figure it out, but one day, when the instructor called Rotate, I gestured toward his forearms, looked up at him, and said, “Do you have a cat?”
His eyes widened, and his fists clenched. He turned his forearms up and, with a look of abject fear, he said, “She is creissy!”
And all of a sudden, I pictured this poor man in his apartment, a prisoner to his crazy cat. The B.O. and the same outfit every day—totally forgiven because an animal that inspired that kind of terror surely guarded his bathtub and his laundry pile with an iron claw. She probably popped out his teeth in his sleep!
I learned an important lesson that day: Don’t judge people because you never know who’s being domestically abused by a pet.