At 56, I traded my granny clothes for plunging necklines, turquoise spandex and glittering rhinestones. I entered the competition floor with other bedazzled participants from across Canada and the northeastern United States and waited for the music to begin. Looking around at the other artificially bronzed women, I realized that I had become part of some freakish bubble.
It started innocently. Each decade of my life propelled me to new physical challenges. In my late teens I’d been a competitive gymnast of no particular fame. Interclub tennis in my 20s led to an award of “the most promising player,” a claim I never lived up to. By my 40s, I cycled in a double centennial, 2 days and 200 miles of pedaling through hill-hugging road. However, in the summer after my 50th birthday a back injury threatened to end my continuous push for a sport-induced adrenaline high. Two pinched nerves left me without reflexes in my right leg and a limping walk.
Months of bed-rest followed in a drug-induced state to stave off the pain. Then, physiotherapy and a regime of basic core strengthening dominated. Throughout I watched many episodes of Dancing with the Stars. I wondered, “Could I ever become one?” (In my younger years I’d paraded on the stage in local theatre, even performing with my group at an off-Broadway venue.) Recovery came slowly.
At some point, I convinced my husband Syd that we should take up ballroom dancing. I imagined myself a glamorous star rather than a faded athlete. Muscle fatigue left me watching the greater part of our one-hour lessons. However, the sheer pleasure of listening to great music combined with the welcoming ambience at our school — Centre BallroomDanceSport — kept me coming back weekly.
Gradually, both my skills and physical condition improved. With owner Michel Milmore I began working on my first pro-am event. He’s been treading the boards for 29 years, turning klutzes into graceful swans.
We began with three dances that resembled something I’d gyrated to in my youth — cha cha, triple swing, and rumba. It took a humiliating number of hours to learn the basic footwork. While younger protégés repeated routines with less difficulty, I wanted to throw my high-heeled suede shoes out the window. Though my ankles wobbled like Jell-O, I pushed on. An adrenaline junky, I hoped to bring back that all-too-familiar, and now lacking, rush that I’d once had from serious sports training and competition.
I gasped at the $1,000 price tag for the privilege of dancing 18 times with my professional partner. “You may not get richer, but you’ll be enriched,” Michel said, as I handed him my credit card. The cost didn’t include dance lessons, dress rental, spray tanning, a stylist to paste my hair in place, and other necessary items.
Competitors from our studio ranged in age from 25 to 65. On the big day, newbies like me danced first; professionals strutted their stuff late in the evening. When my moment came, I entered the arena like a well-honed gladiator, while judges circled with pad and paper in hand. Each dance lasted 1 minute and 15 seconds, with a maximum of 12 couples on the dance floor at a time. Adjudicators spent no more than ten seconds looking at any pair. I tried to cover up errors with a big smile — not difficult given the catchy music and excitement at finding the joy in movement again.
Incredibly, I won medals in all eighteen dances (11 first, five seconds, and a sliver medal in the three-dance championship). I didn’t experience much physical challenge during the competition. Michel had explained that I’d need to dance in both the smooth and rhythm categories.
Still, the training left my hips one size smaller and my body with improved posture and muscular control. With my newfound friends, I plan to compete again soon. I’ve added “American smooth” to my workouts — a much more daunting challenge since I have to follow my partner. As an extra bonus, Syd and I continue our new hobby together, even attending a summer dance camp for adults.