I was a dancer for much of my youth. Good enough that as a teenager I started charting a course toward Julliard and beyond to what I thought could be a professional career. Then two things happened: Got tall. Got boobs. That might have led to a promising career as a Vegas showgirl but I had Balanchine aspirations. Somewhere around 1983, I gave up the dancing dream.
Fifteen years later, I got it back.
It’s Manhattan. I’m single. Me and the girls are tired of flirting our way past velvet ropes into tediously hip clubs which for some reason in the mid-90s all have one-word names: Jet, Wax, Chaos. One night Doris (the creative one) plans an evening of Latin dance lessons followed by dinner at Cuba de Asia. (It was a theme, see.)
We descend upon the dance studio in a silly, cosmo-fuelled gaggle. While my friends laugh and stumble their way around the mambo lesson, I feel something flutter to life inside me.
I am dancing. I haven’t set foot in a studio in two decades but here I am. There is a gazelle of a girl inside this 30-something body and she’s ready to move.
I go back for private lessons. I casually mention that I’d appreciate a tall instructor. No problem, I am told. We have just the teacher for you.
I hand over the registration forms, am led to the dance floor and there he is.
It’s not exactly love at first sight, though he’s certainly easy on the eyes. It’s not the looks or the accent or the sexy baritone. What strikes me is his kindness. This is a sweet man. He will be gentle with me as I fumble my way around the dance floor.
In his hesitant English the Russian reads to me from a questionnaire: “What are your goals for these dance lessons?” Without blinking I respond that I want to learn to surrender to my partner, to follow a lead, to move with another person as one.
I could have said – oh, I don’t know – lose weight, meet people, learn how to swing dance like that cool Gap commercial…but I go straight for the metaphorical stuff and I do it without hesitating.
He looks at me intently. “You are susceptible.”
I learn later he means sensitive. He is groping for the words to say he understands how dancing touches me. What he doesn’t realize yet is how deeply-felt my answer really is. I am 33 at the time, not over the hill but badly worn down by the Manhattan dating scene. I’ve been in serious relationships, co-habitated, longed for wedding proposals that never came. I have pretty much given up on finding The One. Until the Russian asks a simple question that unlocks the truth. I am ready to move as one with a partner, for real and for good.
The first time my mother sees us together she says, “You will marry this man.” It’s performance night at the studio and she says this after watching us dance a rhumba together. I wear a flame-red dress, he is sleek in head-to-toe black. Mom tells me that together we give off light.
That was September 17, 1998. The day we became a couple. We were married exactly one year later. Somewhere along the way Mom introduced us to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” She’s no longer with us, but this song — like her premonition all those years ago — stays with us like a gift and a reminder.
Happy 10th anniversary, my darling.
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love.
Observing my husband-to-be and me in the first flush of romance, my mother observed that “you haven’t been loved until you’ve been loved by a Russian.” She wasn’t speaking from first-hand experience (as far as I know) but she saw what I had been feeling for weeks — the depths of the Russian heart laid bare.
(Caution: sweeping generalization follows.)
Russians feel deeply and express it lavishly. Passion, anger, melancholy, joy — there are no half measures. I saw it the moment my husband danced into my life 11 years ago (yes — danced — but that’s a whole other post). And not just romantic love — it’s there in the bonds of friendship and family, too. When my husband and small son made our first family trip to Russia, we were welcomed warmly into homes in every city we visited. From Moscow to St. Petersburg to the relative wilds of Chelyabinsk, we were fed and fussed over, transported to and from airports at ungodly hours by friends who wouldn’t let us take taxis. Our son was cared for so my husband and I could wander the Hermitage freely. Tables were set with special china, soups and blinis and meat patties were made by hand and served with love.
The hospitality was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Russians are wonderful hosts — but as houseguests, they are spectacular. Remember those lessons your mother taught you about how to behave in someone else’s home? Never come empty-handed. Offer to help in the kitchen. Tidy up after yourself. Russians elevate these basic courtesies to an art form.
They bring their own bed linens and towels. It does not matter how many times you assure them this isn’t necessary. They don’t want to trouble you with their laundry.
They clean your house. Seriously. (If this is a commentary on my housekeeping, so be it. I’ll take the implied criticism in exchange for a clean bathroom any day.)
They bring food. No… they really bring food. I’m not talking about some fancy-pants box of store-bought pastries. They cross your doorstep laden with sweet wine and vodka and enough food to feed an army, most of it made from scratch.
We just had Russian friends up to the house for a country weekend, and this is what they brought:
- Six pounds of pork, three pounds of short ribs, six pounds of chicken wings — all perfectly marinated and grill-ready
- Fifty or so home-made cream puffs (who makes cream puffs, and who makes 50??)
- Two and half pounds of homemade oliv’e, also known as salade russie, also known as the most unbelievable potato salad you’ve ever had
- A pound and a half of homemade Georgian bean salad (Russian, not southern U.S. Georgian, a cuisine I’d love if not for the evil omnipresence of cilantro)
- Too many tomatoes and cucumbers to count
- Four varieties of smoked kielbasa and three different cheeses
- Many quarts of mixed olives (lost count)
- Loaves of fresh-baked Russian brown bread, warm and steamy in their bags
- One whole watermelon, the size of a large toddler
(By the way, this was to feed five adults and two children. And the kids only picked.)
And yes — they brought their own linens.
Russians may not have the world monopoly on good manners and warmth, but the ones I know have certainly taught me a thing or two about selflessness and generosity.
Especially the one I married, which I’d probably do well to remember a bit more frequently.