Sunday, November 13, 2011

My grandmother's anniversary dance with another man

Yesterday, a flash of typically Floridian sunlight on the pavement threw me back to the sensations of childhood visits to my grandparents, who had retired to North Miami Beach. 

I then remembered when I flew down from college one weekend in 1975 to attend my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary party. They were really my father's aunt and uncle, but since his own parents had perished in WWII, I had always known this couple as my grandparents, whom my father and mother called "Aunt Selma and Uncle Joe".  As a teen, I would explain this incongruity to my friends saying that they were my "surrogate grandparents". 

Nanny Selma and Papa Joe were a very united couple, who took great care of each other and bickered constantly. They were childless, and so my father's role became that of their only son, and my three brothers and I were the light of their lives. We often found them waiting for us at 3 o'clock when we came home from school, which would delight us. My grandfather, who was born on New York's Lower East Side, called me "Princess" and he called each of my brothers "Bub".  My grandmother had left Poland in 1923 to join her brothers in New Jersey, while her sister Helen ("Hinda" in Yiddish, after whom I was named), my father's real mother, was still alive back home. Selma and her American husband Joe kept sending money to bring over her favorite nephew, who finally managed to get a visa in 1938. I am grateful to them for having saved his life. (There were very few Treitmans in the U.S. in 1938, and now there are many!)

I remember noticing when I arrived at their 50th anniversary gala a strangegray-greenish undertone to my grandfather's complexion that I would later recognize in others as a visible sign of cancer not yet detected. He was happy this Saturday night, surrounded by loving family and so many dear friends. My grandmother was tiny, slim and radiant in her evening gown of a shimmery, crisp silky fabric of the most beautiful chartreuse I had ever seen, etched with an embroidered gold-and-white floral pattern, and with a flattering, scooped neckline that framed her face and a favorite necklace my grandfather had given her. She had gotten so slim back in her 50's after a series of surgeries for ulcers. My grandparents posed for the photographer, embracing happily in one of their poses perfected over 50 years, and danced the first dance, my grandfather good-naturedly doing his usual obligatory shuffle.  There was a live band, and all the couples joined, dancing foxtrots and cha-cha's throughout the dinner.

Sometime around dessert, the band surprised everyone by playing a lively polka, an anomaly to me and most of the guests from our suburban New Jersey culture. I turned from my chocolate mousse to witness my little 75-year-old grandmother whirling around the dance floor in the arms of Sidney Unger, a childhood friend from the countryside near Krakow.  They spun expertly along the edge of the floor like a tornado, leaving us all breathless. When the polka ended, my grandmother (whose health had always been delicate) collapsed, laughing gaily, into a chair at her grandchildren's table.  "Nanny Selma!", I demanded, totally amazed, "When did you ever dance like that?" I grew up thinking that there was no dance culture in our family.  "Oh", she panted, still smiling with all her teeth, and relaxing against the back of the upholstered chair, "Sidney and I used to dance like that all the time when we were kids."  

I had never seen my grandmother dance more than a shuffle. I wondered why she had not married Sidney.  I knew that my grandfather had won her heart in 1925 through his kindness and extreme attentiveness.  Yet today I still wonder whether, had my grandfather learned to dance at any point during their 50 years together, they would have avoided much of the tension and bitterness that laced their relationship.

When I began teaching in Naples in 2009, a very lovely local couple joined my Introductory Tango Summer Class. They were already avid dancers of Ballroom and other dances. "We've been married 45 years!" the charismatic husband told me proudly. I asked them later that evening, "Do you think that dancing together has played a role in your harmonious relationship?"  I was surprised that the answer came from his quiet, reserved wife; her big eyes widened enormously and she looked into mine and said, "Oh, yes!!"

Please forgive me if it seems I sometimes tend to moralize.  I know that many people are as reluctant to dance as I am to play sports.  But in my 11 years of teaching Argentine Tango, one thing I discovered is that some people who have never imagined themselves dancing anything discover in Argentine Tango  - so different from every other kind of dance -  an intimate medium with which to express their feelings, intellect, and creativity, and to explore and more fully realize their masculine or feminine identities. Most everyone I know who dances Argentine tango talks about how it's enhanced their relationship with their mate or with the opposite sex in general. For many of my students and friends, like for me, discovering Tango meant discovering - and owning - a reliable, ongoing new source of joy.

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