Every year around this time, one of my favorite fundraisers is held: the annual Crossroads Gala, benefiting the homeless in Rhode Island. These past few years, they've worked magic all over the state, turning a baseball stadium into a night club, a skating rink into the land of Oz, and (my personal favorite) an abandoned factory into the land of Oz. This year was no exception, as a car lot in not the nicest section of Providence became the setting for a trip back to the 1950s, complete with classic cars, fuzzy dice, bowling pins, a jukebox filled with music, and even a friendly neighborhood motorcycle gang. And, for a good cause.
This time around, this past Saturday night, I was tasked with filling the table, something that, sadly, even though it's such a terrific event, is always a challenge. Unable to find anyone from work, I asked for a little help from my friends. In short order, I had Pauline on board, dragging along our friend Joann. Then, at the last minute, about two hours before the start of the event, Coco and Matty said they'd go.
Coco, of course, her usual beautiful, insane self: "Cinderella has nothing to wear," she wrote to me an hour before the event. "It's Grease!" I wrote back. "Come as a Pink Lady, in tight jeans and a leather jacket."
Instead, she decided on dressing up as a Bobby Soxer (Sandy, if you will), but right before she got onto the highway, she decided she didn't like what she was wearing and drove back home to turn herself into Chacha Digregorio, the best dancer at Saint Bernadetts with the worst reputation. The bad girls always have the best times.
Coco arrived at the Grease Ball looking terrific, and even managed another amazing transformation later in the evening. She actually made me look good dancing.
Look, I'll admit it hear and now, when it comes to putting on my dancing shoes, both of mine are lefties. I can sing fine, I can act decently, but just try to get me to do a few dance steps, I dare you. Let's just say I have to work harder than the rest.
Not that I don't want to be a good dancer. Oh, if only! I just get too self conscious, though. I think too much about it. I once had an Eskimo friend who told me that he was a spirit of the sky, and I was bound to the earth. I'm not sure he wasn't on to something: to dance is to fly, and while I'd give anything to do so, these feet want to stay where they are.
That might explain why I'm so fascinated by Fred Astaire, I suppose. He always made gliding across the ballroom look so easy. The man even danced on ceilings!
What I didn't realize until recently, though, is how hard he worked. According to the book I'm reading now, Putting on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache , he wasn't the best natural dancer in his family. That was his sister Adele, who didn't need to practice to be good.
For Fred, he had to work, day in and day out, to become better, to become brilliant, and then, he had to work twice as hard, to maintain his level of seamless perfection. "You will always have to work this hard, and you will always have to sweat," he once told a young Debbie Reynolds. "If you don't sweat, you're not working very hard."
Anyways, after dinner, my dear friend David, somehow sensing Coco's potential, invited her out onto the dance for a turn. Now, David's a good dancer, and honestly, the two of them were amazing to watch. It just seemed so natural, so graceful. When they returned back to the table, I sighed to Coco, "I wish I could dance like that."
Coco flashed her winning Sicilian smile and extended her arm. "Then why don't you?"
I stood there, flustered. "Oh, I just can't...I mean, I always wanted to, but..."
"Then let's do it." She grabbed my hand. I hesitated for a second, then stood up. And before I knew it, I was out of the dance floor.
"Now, move like this." Coco held my hands and started me into a simple box step, which somehow worked well with the song that the Motown-style singers (think The Temptations) were crooning. Then, before I knew it, the Twist was playing, the beat picked up, Coco was moving me across the floor at lightning speed. "You'd better lead!" I managed to call out. She nodded. I was there for the ride.
And, for some reason...maybe it was the instruction, maybe it was the four Cosmos inside my belly...I was actually picking it up! Coco had me extend my arm, then she'd spin out away from me, then spin back in and cross past me. We'd pull out, we'd weave back in, she'd smile, I'd laugh, and it was almost as if my feet were pulling away from the ground and I was learning to fly! For just one moment in time...
A few hours later, sober again (but not quite), my feet back on the ground. "That felt incredible," I said to Coco, in the parking lot of a bar.
"And you weren't bad, either," she said. "You have natural rhythm. You don't force your partner to follow everything you do. In ballroom dancing, the man leads, but it's more of a suggestion. You were in tune to that."
It was nice to be in tune with the music, to be an inch or so off the ground. It was nice to be inspired enough to actually set aside my insecurities and simply dance. Dancing lifts you up, moves you out of the physical realm, makes your body do things you didn'tr know it could do. But Fred's damn right, it does take hard work and a lot sweat.
Worth it, though. For just one magical night, I had shoes with wings on.