• Ideas
  • Family

How Dancing in the Kitchen Saved My Marriage

8 minute read

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter. www.JenniferAnneMosesArts.com

I’m gliding across an empty dance floor in the arms of a tall, strong, graceful man named Shane. Shane wears too much jewelry, reeks of men’s cologne, and is about half my age. But in his arms, I can do it all: not just a simple waltz, but also the West Coast and the East Coast swing, the jitterbug, the rumba, the cha-cha-cha. I am beginning to have feelings for him, my ardor building with each dip and turn, until I catch a glimpse of my husband standing against the wall with a look of utter bewilderment on his otherwise intelligent face. “I’m supposed to be able to do that?” he says.

Almost 30 years ago, I fell in love with my husband because I could be myself with him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome—versus now, when he is tall, white-haired, and handsome. He liked dogs, tolerated my father, and adored me.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t dance. It’s not that he had two left feet, either—he ran like a deer, swam with speed and agility. It was more an inner-ear thing. He had no rhythm. Correction: he had negative rhythm. He wouldn’t know a down-beat if it beat him on the head.

Whereas I love to dance, courtesy of my mother, who used to dance me around the house to the soundtracks of various Broadway shows. For me, dancing is pure joy—utterly freeing. All I have to do is listen to the music, and the steps are just there, under my feet. I love to dance so much that, before I met and married my husband, I seriously considered running off with a man named David, who was sleazy, furry, hyper, and insistent, for the sole reason that the man could shake his groove-thing like nobody’s business.

For better or for worse, I chose my husband over David, and we closed the deal one gorgeous June night in the company of friends and family, celebrating afterwards in the usual way, with music, wine and food. It was a fairy tale, with me in the starring role, arrayed in a gown, and with flowers in my long hair. The magic moment arrived with the first dance approached: my brand-new husband, tall and elegant in a tux, took my hand, led me to the dance floor, stepped on my feet, kicked me in the shins, and pulled me this way and that, in accordance to some inner music that he and he alone heard: perhaps it was something by Pink Floyd.

More than 25 years later, though, we have come to this point—a crossroads. We’ve made it through all kinds of ups and downs, including cancer, two major moves, my mother’s death, a career crisis or two, and a couple of hurricanes. The eldest of our three children graduated from college and made Aliyah and served as a soldier in the Israeli army. The other two, right behind him, have little need for me beyond my college-tuition paying abilities. Even my dog isn’t as interested in my ministrations as she once was. Which leaves what, exactly? A house, a garden, work—and a husband who wouldn’t know a good boogie-woogie if it abducted him and took him to Mars.

It goes right to the heart of our marriage, too: on the one side there would be the wife, me, dancing around the kitchen, and generally being slightly less than constrained; on the other side, there would be the husband, his life conducted entirely within the space behind his forehead. Our fights, over the decades, went something like this:

Husband: the problem with you, Jen, is that you follow your instincts with no regard for actually thinking. You’re too emotional, too out there. You need to rein it in on occasion.

Me: the problem with you is that you can’t even locate your feet, you brainiac over-intellectual psycho-nerd.

Hence Shane. Initially, when my husband and I first started dabbling in dance lessons, it was because, for our anniversary, I thought it would be fun to give my husband two private dance lessons—with me along, of course. But after the first lesson—at $70 a pop—Shane told us point-blank that with only two lessons he wouldn’t be able to do much other than teach my husband how to count out a one-two beat. So we came back a few more times, and a few more times after that, and so forth and so on, hoping against hope that, within the confines of the dingy, over-air-conditioned studio in a half-vacant mini-mall off a side street behind a Walmart near a main truck route, we might transform ourselves into rough equivalents of people who actually know how to dance.

And you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I really do love my husband a whole lot more than I ever loved our dance instructor. A lot more. Because in fact I didn’t really love Shane at all. But when the man took me in his arms to glide me around the dance floor, my body just melted away, becoming both more and less than it was, and I was in utter and complete bliss. I was one with the music, one with the dance itself, as Shane led with strong manly resolve. Versus my husband, because when my husband leads, he’s reluctant to apply much in the way of pressure to my back or my shoulder or any other body part where we connect, and hence, I am just supposed to know when he’s wants to, for example, execute an underarm turn.

“What are you doing?” I’d say.

“Excuse me. But aren’t you supposed to be following me?

“Yeah. And I would, too, if you actually led.”

“I’m doing better. Aren’t I doing better?”

“Why ask Shane? Shane’s not the one dancing with you. I am, and I don’t have a clue where you want me to go. It’s like dancing with a flaccid noodle.”

“This was your idea, not mine.”

“Oh, come on guys. This isn’t marriage counseling here.”

“Shut up, Shane.”

He started us on the Foxtrot, because the Foxtrot is easy, like walking to music. The next easiest is the box step—the foundation of both the Polka and the Waltz—because here again, the steps are dead-easy—front, side, together. As summer rolled into fall and then winter, and winter unfolded into spring and then blossomed into summer, we went on to learn various flourishes, and finally continued on to scale the heights of swing, which my husband actually enjoyed, a little, because he got to spin me around, or at least he did when he remembered to exert enough physical conviction to indicate which direction I was supposed to turn.

How much money did we spend, anyhow, before my husband finally got the hang of the box step? Truthfully, I didn’t keep track, and I don’t really want to know, but estimating from memory, I’d say in the range of somewhere between one and two thousand dollars, or enough to fly to Paris for a romantic weekend. And the man still couldn’t dance. On the other hand, he continued to be uncomfortable when I took to the dance floor either alone or with some other partner. Sometimes, afterwards, he’d make remarks: “You’re too old to be doing that, Jen.” Or: “Next time, would you please restrain yourself?”

By the time our next anniversary rolled around, our threesome with Shane was at its apex. Which is to say that we were still shelling out for private dance lessons, but by now were coming out of denial about our prospects of, say, making it onto one of those dancing shows on TV. I gave my husband a CD, he gave me a book, and we went out to dinner, where we discussed the profound mystery of why anyone chooses to be married.

And then, one day, just like that, we looked at each other and realized that Shane was no longer someone we particularly needed, or wanted, in our lives. By now we’d been neglecting to go to the studio for weeks, coming up with one excuse after another for our negligence. But the truth was, and we both knew it, no amount of private dance classes could teach us to glide gracefully, and in unison; no amount of coaching might heal the rift that our own inborn personalities had brought into our marriage.

Nonetheless, like elephants we’re in it for life, and every now and then, as I’m washing the dishes after dinner, my husband will put his arms around me, turn off the water, spin me towards him, and lead me, slowly across the kitchen floor, where we will sway in each other’s arms to music that the two of us alone can hear.

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.