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More enlightenment from the dance floor

Quick, Before the Music Stops How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life Janet Carlson Broadway Books: 260 pp., $19.95

July 11, 2008|Samantha Dunn | Special to The Times

PEOPLE WHO don't dance may well suspect that some kind of cultural conspiracy is brewing. "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars," "Dancelife," "America's Best Dance Crew" and more crowd the TV channels, the participants flush with a zeal that must seem nearly evangelical to those who have never known the beauty of a reverse turn or a chassee.

Bookstores too are stocking true-life testaments from the dance floor, such as Marina Palmer's "Kiss and Tango," about her immersion in the world of Buenos Aires milongas, or Anne Soffee's "Snake Hips," about the transformative power of belly dancing. No matter the style of dance, the arc of experience generally takes the same shape: Something is wrong in a woman's life (and yes, it is usually a woman); by some fluke, she ends up taking a dance class, loves it, finds herself, has some sort of romantic entanglement that may or may not work out, resolves a few problems in her life, usually gets in shape and lives a little happier -- although never perfectly happy -- ever after. The phenomenon is ubiquitous; it could well become its own narrative form, like the recovery monologues of speakers at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Janet Carlson, health and beauty director of Town & Country magazine, now adds her own account to the pile in "Quick, Before the Music Stops: How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life." Perfectionist mom and lifelong hard-charger, Carlson is stuck in a marriage alternately marked by resentment and estrangement. As a surprise gift, her husband takes her to a ballroom dance studio and hands her to the instructor with the old Henny Youngman line, "Take my wife -- please."

The moment, of course, portends the ultimate demise of their marriage, but not because the overbearing but handsome Russian instructor sweeps Carlson off her feet. While she does engage in a little cat-and-mouse with him, the flirtation is merely a side note; the two never consummate their attraction. Instead, what undoes Carlson's marriage and launches her on a path to examining her life choices is falling in love with waltz, foxtrot, samba, cha-cha-cha.

Or rather, falling in love with them again. Carlson was an amateur ballroom competitor in her 20s; rediscovering dance half a lifetime later feels to her like a revelation, unearthing parts of herself she either never knew or believed to be long gone: ". . . I feel more and more like a goddess exulting, too, moving seductively and elegantly in the arms of a man to beautiful music. My dancing has unleashed some feminine powers in me, and I'm really into it for the first time since the 1970s quashed all that for women. Finally, though, I am only a human being finding my way in a sport that has a gigantic pitfall: the touching feels good. And I have a dawning awareness that life will have to get a lot messier before it will be set straight again."

And it does, but along the way Carlson comes to understand her part in the failure of her marriage, through experiencing the shared responsibility that makes for good dance partners. As the title suggests, she also becomes more spontaneous as she begins to see what makes a great dancer: She learns to "be in the moment," a skill she believes helps her to better appreciate and enjoy her daughters.

This memoir is based on a 2003 feature article Carlson wrote for O, the Oprah Magazine. It was undoubtedly an engaging, uplifting article -- full of the girlfriend-y banter, the earnest, unguarded confessions and the pointed insights that make those articles as addicting for women as chocolate. Yet in a book-length work the premise is stretched too thin. Observations that are initially fresh start to drone, hitting the same note over and over in yet another description of yet another dance class. Carlson's writing feels strained, as if she's struggling to keep the dancing analogy on beat while she weaves in episodes about her work, her daughters, her feelings for her ex.

This is not to cast doubt on Carlson's sincerity or her evident desire to convey how meaningful and healing the process of learning to dance can be. The problem with writing about a moment of enlightenment is that it's easy to leave anyone who hasn't already had it outside. The writer's challenge is to render the experience of one art form through another, and this, unfortunately, is what Carlson's everyday prose and pop psychology lingo can't achieve.

So let's appreciate the fine title of this book and the sentiment therein and go sign up for dance classes. L.A. Dance Experience in Westwood is a good choice, as is 3rd Street Dance by the Beverly Center or the old Westmore Studio in Koreatown. It's like combining a gym membership and therapy. Plus you get to do it in heels.


Samantha Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation."

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