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Good Letters

Continued from yesterday.

elegant-barn-decorating-ideas-with-barn-dance-decoration-ideas-10Traditional dance is, by modern standards, inherently misogynistic. The man leads, in most basic arrangements, by stepping forward. The woman must step back to make room for him. In some dances, the couple maintains a squared frame with their arms, so the woman can sense when the man is going to turn her, or shift direction. In others, like swing, they hold hands, and he alternately sends her away and tugs her back again, or pulls her into his embrace to send her twirling outward.

They’re at odds with the mood of the age, but the dances we’re learning are certainly less misogynistic than what passes for dancing these days. Gulya will never instruct Maggie to bend over and twerk while I pretend to spank her.

Still, I suppose we could follow in the steps of feminists trying to strike a blow for equality by having their male ballroom partners learn the traditionally female, back-stepping role. I wish them well, but I’m having a tough enough time learning one set of steps per dance.

And no matter who’s stepping forward, you can’t escape the fact that someone has to lead. You can learn a thing or two about marriage when you’re dancing. Like how frustrating it is for the other person when you don’t signal your intention. How you can walk your partner directly into a curtain, or a chair (I’ve done both) if you’re indecisive about when to pull her into the ninety-degree sidestep that allows you to turn a corner during a waltz. That if you keep not deciding, your partner will start deciding for you.“Who do you want steering this thing?”

“Well, then, steer the damn thing.”

Gulya grabs my hand, which holds Maggie’s hand. “You have to hold it higher, so she can feel you moving. She cannot follow if you’re not leading.”

During the course of my first marriage, I saw a bevy of marriage counselors. I can now say with some conviction: to hell with therapists; get yourself a dance instructor.

Gulya instructs us on waltzing and relationships and I ponder how in two weeks we’ll be in a barn full of cowboys, my wife one of the prettiest girls in sight, and me still having trouble recognizing whether the country song on the speakers is a four-count (bust out your best Texas two-step, boys!) or a three-count (waltz your gal around the barn!).

God help me.

We practice every day. We dance in the kitchen, down the hallway, through the living room, past the dining room table (“I’m trying to steer you, dammit.” “Then steer, dammit.”). The boys are amused. They scamper for cover whenever Maggie makes to snare one of them into dancing with her. But they don’t scamper too fast. They’re nearly as smitten as I.

In our last lesson before the trip, Gulya marches us through everything she’s taught us. She’s drilled us in as many fancy turns and promenades as she thinks my coordination and memory can bear. “Bring me some video,” she says, smiling.

We fly across the country and drive hours to a community where people leave the keys in their pickup trucks. I throw my scarce talents into helping prep the barn, and Maggie disappears with the rest of the bridesmaids. We see each other just a little over the next day and a half, and then the wedding is upon us. The groomsmen are all lean cowboys in black hats. They are ranchers and rodeo riders.

A lesser man might feel insecure.

A crowd of 700 gathers on the ranch. We are fed roasted beef tips, fresh corn salad, warm bread. There are kegs of beer, crates of wine. Then the music begins. The father of the bride waltzes his daughter on the dance floor he and his sons have made, and though he is a towering, bow-legged rancher, he moves as smoothly as anyone I ever saw back when my grandmother watched Lawrence Welk on TV.

The dance floor opens to all comers, and I take Maggie’s hand. It’s a four-beat country song. Perfect. Only . . . nobody is two-stepping. Apparently cowboys in California don’t do a Texas two-step. They do a kind of swing.

We never learned to swing.

Here we stand on this dance floor, surrounded by cowboys twirling and slinging their gals hither and yon, and a decidedly retrograde question forces itself to the front of my mind: Are you going to be a man, or not?

I take hold of Maggie. We are going, by-god, to two-step if it kills us.

It’s like steering a car through rush hour in Bangladesh. I keep my frame rigid, so she can feel when we need to cut a hard left to avoid the 300-pound rancher hurling his wife at us like a fastball on a rope, when we must veer right in order to take advantage of a sudden clearing on the floor, an opportunity to strut the promenade Gulya taught us. Maggie keeps her eyes on me; she trusts I won’t steer her into harm.

We dance for an hour, for two hours. Gulya’s insistence on frame serves us well. When a waltz comes, we’re ready. People think we know what we’re doing.

A tall cowboy, a friend of ours, asks to cut in. He’s the best dancer here, by far. I suppose I have no choice in the matter.

I sit, they dance. Watching another man dance with your woman feels something like what I imagine watching him have sex with her must feel like. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know the first thing about men and women, dancing and sex. I keep a smile plastered to my face, but I’m tempted to sulk.

Are you going to be a man, or not?

The song ends, and now he’s showing her his triple-step version of swing. I join them, and ask him to show me as well. We get a quick lesson, and now we’re swing dancing. Our cowboy friend moves on, whirling girl after girl about the floor. He’s the best dancer by far; there’s no close second.

A strip of real estate unexpectedly opens up, so I pull Maggie into a promenade. I laugh, so effortlessly that it surprises me. There’s no excuse for it, other than the lights and the music, the stomp of boots on fresh-cut wood, the evening breeze sweeping this barn end to end, and the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen holding on to me for dear life.

Holding on to me, for while I’m nowhere close to the best dancer here, I’m hers, and for this reason alone I’ll dance for as long as these busted feet will carry me, as long as she’ll have me, as long as the music plays.


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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website is

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