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Ballroom Dancing: A Wrinkle in Time

By Yona Zeldis McDonough ’79
Standing still, Estelle and Alfonso were an ordinary couple ... But when they danced, all that changed.
Standing still, Estelle and Alfonso were an ordinary couple ... But when they danced, all that changed.

During the late 1970s at Vassar, disco ruled both the airwaves and the dance floor. It was the era of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Donna Summer’s truculent “Bad Girls,” and Gloria Gaynor’s belted-out “I Will Survive.” Matthew’s Mug was going hot and heavy, with students regularly strutting their stuff to the percussive disco beat.

So, try to picture the small time bomb that was detonated when Estelle and Alfonso, owners of the eponymous ballroom dancing studio and school in downtown Poughkeepsie, appeared on campus. They had been hired by the college to teach a once-a-week dance class to any student who was interested. At 10 dollars for the entire semester-long session, the class was a bargain, even back then. Plenty of my classmates found the whole idea hopelessly retrograde or just plain wacky. I, however, was intrigued enough to sign up.

I had had no experience with social dancing, but my ignorance was not unique. A generation or so before, everyone would have known at least the rudiments of the steps, but, by the swinging ’70s, it seemed that no one our age did. Estelle and Alfonso were set to change all that.

One evening a week, we’d line up in two rows in the gym, while Alfonso explained the nature of the dance he was about to teach us, breaking it down into its component parts. Then, he and Estelle would demonstrate. During these demonstrations—mini-performances, really—a strange alchemy would take place.

Standing still, Estelle and Alfonso were an ordinary couple—attractive but unremarkable. But when they danced, all that changed. They became the best, most ethereal, and poeticized versions of themselves. Moving seamlessly, they were harmoniously linked in both gesture and spirit. Theirs was a beauty earned by the endless repetitions of prescribed movements and their willing subordination to an external set of patterns and rhythms. They were, in short, enchanting. How lightly he twirled her around on the polished gym floor; how easily she leaned back in his arms.

But Estelle and Alfonso did more than perform for us. Week by week, with patience and tact, they showed us how to fox-trot, Lindy Hop, cha-cha, and waltz. The classes were stimulating and engaging, an ongoing puzzle that required a new set of skills to master. And they were fun. It was fun to listen to music that was popular long before any of us was born and fun to acclimate our arms and legs, feet and heads to an unfamiliar physical repertoire.

After the class was over, I still wanted to dance. So, I corralled my friend Glenn—who was also enrolled and an excellent partner besides—into joining me at the Mug when it opened at 5 p.m. We’d stuff coins in the jukebox to play Glenn Miller’s “A String of Pearls” and take a spin on the empty floor. I’d wear a skirt—the better to twirl in—and a pair of heels. It was, I can happily report, a little bit of heaven, right there in Poughkeepsie.

I wish I could say that I continued with my training, but I did not. When the semester ended, so did my formal instruction in ballroom dancing. Even years later, when I lived mere blocks from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in New York City, I was somehow never able to make the time to take classes. My dancing days, it would seem, are done.

But every now and then, the jazzy strains of “A String of Pearls” still echo in my mind, and I see Estelle and Alfonso twirling away in the suspended animation that memory allows. Are they still alive? Still dancing? I can only hope so. And hope, too, that when they have put away their dancing shoes for good, there awaits them an eternity of undying grace.

Yona Zeldis McDonough ’79 is the author of four novels. Her fifth, Two of a Kind, will be published by New American Library in September 2013. Estelle Weinlein passed away in 2009. Alfonso now lives in Texas near their son, Craig (’84). Though Alfonso no longer teaches dance, he regularly returns to Poughkeepsie to visit his dance studio.