Quick, Before The Music Stops: How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life

Quick, Before The Music Stops: How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life

by Janet Carlson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767926829
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/08/2008
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Janet Carlson is the Beauty & Health Director at Town & Country magazine. She has written articles for O the Oprah Magazine, Elle, Redbook, and Departures, among other publications, and she blogs for the Huffington Post Living Section. She studied ballet and jazz as a child and began ballroom dancing during her college years at Yale University. After graduating, she competed around the country for seven years, and then stopped to pursue her magazine career and start a family. She returned to the dance studio twenty years later and is now certified by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, and has co-taught a social dance program called Dance for Joy in the Caribbean. Carlson lives in Westchester County, New York with her two daughters. Visit her website at www.janetcarlson.net.

Read an Excerpt

A Cold Day for Marriage,
February 2001

It's a bitterly cold morning in Hastings-on-Hudson, and I can see my breath in the car as I say, "Seat belts," and listen for clicks in the backseat of our gold Buick LeSabre sedan (not exactly our vehicular style--we try to be much more modern and hip as a rule, but it came cheap). Our two daughters comply. Peter backs the car out of the driveway.

"Did anyone feed the rabbit?" I ask.

"Yes, I gave him hay and pellets," says Alden, only eight and so responsible. I glance back at Lucky's hutch by the trash bin. "I hope his water's not frozen." We drive the two blocks to drop off Erica at Hillside Elementary School. I watch as she climbs out lugging her turquoise backpack that's almost as big as she is. "Remember, number one rule at school, don't have any fun," I tease.

"Ma-a-a," Erica groans as usual, fighting a smile as I look into her blueberry eyes, and she slams the door as hard as she can. I see the window frost splinter.

"These brakes suck," Peter says as we drive down the hill to the middle school. "You should have Tom check them. This car has to last. We can't afford two lease payments."

I think of several responses, but don't feel like wasting the energy it would take to choose between them and deliver one. The silence doesn't feel awkward anymore. Though I'm wearing my heavy sheepskin coat, the cold has seeped into my bones and I tense against it as if I can fight it off. I slowly inhale as deeply as I can but an involuntary shudder interrupts the breath before it can find its way in.

"Mom, we have to go to the library tomorrow to do my research on Ecuador, don't forget," Alden says sternly. I hear the worry in her voice and want to reassure her.

"Okay, honey. When is the project due?"

"February twenty-sixth."

"Odie, that's two weeks from now," Peter protests, using his affectionate nickname for Alden. To me he says under his breath, grinning in my direction, "She's not my daughter." I look at him in his black shearling, thick and worn almost to gray. His hair is mostly black, but I can see a few more grays at the temple now--still, not bad for forty-seven. I notice he isn't wearing a hat or gloves. He holds the steering wheel like a teacup, elegantly, with just his thumbs and pointer fingers.

In a couple of minutes, he pulls to a stop in front of Farragut Middle School, where Alden will meet her class for an orientation meeting. She'll be switching to this school next year. Alden steps out and turns to utter her usual blasé good-bye. I can tell from the tiniest difference in her voice that she's battling some nerves. Then I notice she is dressed only in a pullover and sweatpants, and no hat, her light-brown fusilli curls pulled back in a tight ponytail as usual.

"Take your jacket, honey; it's really cold today," I say, passing her puffy red ski parka through the open window.

"I hate wearing this," Alden says, taking it from me anyway. "I mean, it's a nice jacket and everything, I just feel big and fat in it. I'll carry it." I wonder how painful it is for her to be so cooperative and concerned for my feelings--I chose the jacket at the Gap and clearly picked the wrong one.

"Will you be home at the regular time?" she asks before turning to go.

"Yes," I answer. "Actually, I'll pick you up from horseback riding."

"Oh, yeah, good." She looks over. "Bye, Dad."

We head up Farragut toward the Saw Mill Parkway. Peter turns on the radio and jabs a button just as I feared. I hear Howard Stern's voice, my cue to get out my headphones. I like driving in alone, I think, feeling a little guilty. I flip through my CD holder and choose Frank Sinatra, Shania Twain, and the new Norah Jones. Howard is asking some bimbo about her breast implants, so I move faster with numb fingers trying to get the headphones on without messing up my hair, determined to prevent the shock jock from contaminating my hard-won and fragile morning peace.

The old Buick, still cold, protests metallically as Peter accelerates onto the parkway southbound toward Manhattan. I look out my window at the geese on the bank of the Saw Mill River and let Norah Jones's voice locate my secret life. Come away with me . . .

Norah is just one of my escape hatches. I don't see it yet, but I will find several other escape hatches for myself over the coming years. I didn't always escape; I used to have a knack for facing things head on. But I guess I've lost my inclination to stand and fight, or stand and defend, or stand and care, love, challenge, implore, believe. I escape--into Norah's world for the moment, lulled by her voice. I wriggle out of the predicament. So much easier than persisting and declaring, "Peter, stop--let's stop this nonsense. Let's be together. Let's love each other."

But it all started so promisingly, as most marriages do. And sweetly. Do you know? That sweetness? The story of Peter and me meeting is nothing if not sweet and promising.

I was thirty-three and sick of being alone in my austere apartment on New York's Upper East Side. Sick of waking up on a Saturday morning and tidying up and going to the gym and taking extra long in the shower because I had nowhere to be next. Sick of eating alone in my apartment: round food--bagels, oranges, hard-boiled eggs (everything round, a random and meaningless coincidence or symbols of my ovaries ticking, urging me to find a mate?).

One Friday evening in April of 1988, wiped out from a full week's work, I forced myself to go to Donna's cocktail party. Hugh, my ballet date, my gay friend, said he'd go with me. Donna was a magazine editor; she worked at New Woman. Peter was dating Ellie, a sex therapist who had her own radio show, and she was a friend of Donna's. My sister, Alison, was invited, too.

When Hugh and I arrived at Donna's apartment, we chatted together a bit, then mingled separately. I spied Ali in a corner of the living room, and I went up to say hi. "Hey, Janet," she said. "This is Peter. Peter, this is my sister Janet. I'm prettier and younger, but she's smarter." That was part of our sister act. I smiled. Peter tilted his head to one side, lowered his eyes in a kind smile, and extended his hand to shake mine, and I fell into a deep crush right then and there.

We talked, Ali, Peter, and I, and we monopolized the crudités tray. Ali and I were a little silly and shamelessly flirtatious; whenever my gregarious kid sister and I had a chance to perform socially, we'd be unabashed and our chatter and repartee would get more outrageous as we worked our audience. Peter seemed to enjoy it, and he played right along, nonplussed--or as he would say, non-pulsed. At some point, he let us know he was a photographer. His client list was impressive: New York Times, Business Week, Newsweek. Later, he introduced Ellie. I found her intimidating. Ali and I left together at midnight. On the street, I said, "Wow, he was cute."

"Who?" Ali asked. She had a boyfriend at the moment, so I knew she wasn't interested herself. "Oh, Peter? He's not your type."

Well, that's for sure. Because of my job at European Travel & Life magazine, I was used to dating suave European men in shiny suits, some with names like Count Gelasio Gaetani Lovatelli d'Aragona. Actually, he was a friend, not a date, but you get the idea of the crowd I'd been hanging out with--wealthy, sophisticated, worldly, treacherous men. French, Italian, Austrian, didn't matter, they were all dangerous, and invariably neglected to mentioned that they were married.

Meeting Peter, my radar immediately detected his nice, safe American aura. He was a trustworthy, manly cowboy in black Levi 501s, black Reebok sneakers, and a blue denim shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps, with a beeper on his belt. God bless him, I thought, he looks like the messengers who show up at my office. But so hip, and very attractive! What a refreshing change from the guys I usually picked. I liked that he was tall, in great shape, and he had really black hair a little wavy at the back where he'd let it grow to just below his collar. I also liked how laid back he seemed, and smart--though unpretentious about it.

We exchanged business cards at Donna's party. Peter called me the next day to ask me out, and we agreed to dinner the following Thursday. Dinner at my place. I didn't think he'd show--I was used to men making excuses, having a change of plans, or just not showing--so when my phone rang at six that evening (I'd left work early to dress and prepare penne alla vodka and salad just in case) I assumed he'd say, "Sorry, I can't make it" or "Oh, was that tonight?" Instead, he said, "I'm about to head uptown from Canal Street. Is seven okay? Should I bring bok choy or asparagus?"

By seven-thirty, I was watching him prep the asparagus in the kitchen of my one bedroom on East Fifty-second. I poured two glasses of Pinot Grigio and offered him one. He took it and started chopping. He chopped with an elegance that took my breath away. He chopped the slender asparagus on the bias. The bias! I stared at these lovely diagonals of spring green and swooned.

"Where'd you learn that?" I asked.

"I was a chef in Switzerland," he answered.

And that was that. I had to marry the guy. Of course, it turned out he'd worked in the kitchen of an inn in the Swiss Alps where he was a ski bum in his twenties. But still, he had a way with that knife, I tell you.

Four months after we met, we went to Anguilla, the little Caribbean island where my family had spent summers for years. After a day of swimming, sex on the deserted beach, picking coconuts from the tall palms, windsurfing, and dining on lobster and snapper at a waterside restaurant, he proposed to me in bed, in the dark.

"Janet, I want us to spend the rest of our lives together," he said.

That was a declarative statement, I noticed, not a question. So I said nothing in response, just let his statement hang there in the heat of the night air between us while my mind raced. I should say something, I thought, because, I don't know, he might have just suggested marriage.

"Okay . . ." I started. "Um, is that a question?"

"Yes, it is," he said. "Geez, you had me nervous there. Were you just stuck on the grammar? Was that it?"

"Yes," I said. "My answer is yes."

He could have killed me, he told me later. And this became one of our cherished stories, me leaving him in the lurch of silence there, and the silliness of grammar getting in the way of romance.
the early times for us were filled with magical moments, and if I squint, I can still see them forming, feel the superb weight of them anchoring us. Like the first time I brought Peter to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to visit my mom and stepfather at their sprawling harbor-front home. One afternoon, I was on a beat-up old bike, barefoot and wearing a floaty, pastel summer skirt, and he was on foot, camera in hand. As I rode ahead down the dirt path, he started shooting, and I remember hearing the automatic shutter firing away and feeling a rush of desire because of his manly competence with his equipment. Halfway down the path, I lifted both legs up and out to the side, flirty show-off, in a sort of gymnast's pose, and heard his camera rush to capture the kooky moment. At the bottom of the hill, I stopped, put my feet to the ground and turned to look back for Peter. He was approaching me, camera lowered now to his chest, tears in his eyes. As we walked back to the main road, he told me that it was my playfulness, a quality of little-girlishness, that had moved him.

We got married at my family's home in Hastings, the suburb of New York City where I grew up. Many of our friends observed that we were a Barbie and Ken couple, which I took to be a comment about our appearance, mostly--Peter being tall and dark, and me being tall and blond. But I suppose it meant even more, something about us belonging together like the dolls, a magazine editor and a photographer, a fetching couple. We bought a co-op in Chelsea when that neighborhood was still a drug dealer's haven but on the verge of becoming chic. On the weekends, we shopped for art deco finds at Depression Modern on Sullivan Street, went Rollerblading in Central Park, made dinner together for friends. Then we bought our own home in Hastings and moved out and started having kids. There is a photograph in our album of Peter holding Alden, just moments old, in his two palms, bending over her, marveling, already loving her.

That could be called our midway point, our turning point. Because after that, things happened that didn't seem so Barbie-and-Ken idyllic.

I believe (not just because I've done this) that when two people meet, feel an attraction, and start to get to know each other, they often are in a rush, greedy to fully know the other right away, and because they begin with a sketchy picture of the brand-new person, they fill in the blank regions with their own fantasy details of the ideal mate. So in the beginning, as they fall in love, it's with a composite of real and imagined aspects of the other person. Slyly, the imagined ones become assumptions. That's a gigantic but undetected pitfall in the process called getting to know each other: two people operate in their relationship based on their pictures that are part real, part fantasy. Part of the fantasy, naturally, is that the other person is going to complete us or rescue us, and this gets us into really deep trouble.

As time goes on, reality rudely interferes and more true aspects of the other begin to emerge, elbowing out the fantasy aspects and upsetting the dreamer. Thus originates a disappointment and a sense of betrayal too vast and amorphous to comprehend-- so I was told by Steven Goldstein, a New York psychologist I once interviewed for a story. We harbor the bad feeling deep down without knowing it, and then we pin our vague discontent on something else, something immediate and concrete--like the dishes or the finances or the TV remote.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Cherry Hill, New Jersey, 1978     1
Introduction: Sitting This One Out     5
A Cold Day for Marriage, February 2001     9
Back on the Boards, Forgetting the Groceries     23
Delirium in the Arms of Other Men     33
Fun and Punishment in Competition     46
Grown Woman Crying     65
The Golden Rule of Ballroom Dancing     74
Trying Hard Is No Excuse     84
Demons on My Dance Card     96
Spring Fever     104
Why Can a Woman Be More Like a Man?     114
Paradoxes, Ambiguity, and Separate Bedrooms     128
No-Fault Foxtrot     144
Passion Is a Contact Sport     150
You're Not the Boss of Me     162
I Can Take Care of Myself, but I'll Get Over It     172
Perfect Timing     184
Back to the Present     192
Good Fences Make Good Dancers     201
Paring Down     214
Will the Real Janet Please Stand Up?     220
Leaving Providence     230
Change Partners, Dance Another Dance     237
The Good Soldier Stands Down     245
Acknowledgments     257

Reading Group Guide

1. Janet theorizes that new couples base their attraction on what amounts to a sketch of each other’s real characters, based on limited facts and filled in by assumptions and fantasy. What do you think of this theory? Is it true of other kinds of relationships? In your own life, what assumptions do you make upon encountering a new person at work, socially, or in passing?

2. Janet describes herself as having “a cerebral appreciation of dance.” How would you describe her emotional relationship with dance? Is it more important to her than her physical connection? Do you think this balance changes during the course of the book?

3. Between the strict International style, looser American style, sexy Latin, and meticulous Standard, could you describe your own personal style in dancing terms? What styles do you think other characters in the book would dance? Peter? Greg? Erica and Alden? Janet’s parents?

4. One of the first revelations Janet attributes to her return to dancing is that a woman’s beauty comes from “doing.” Do you think she believes this? Would she apply this standard to her daughters? Do you think she comes to appreciate her own beauty in other ways?

5. Janet is amazed by the idea of “touch dancers,” who not only anticipate each other’s direction, but even seem to relinquish a sense of boundary between their bodies and breath. This sounds like the kind of loss of control that terrifies her–not at all the “pared-down and essential” Standard style to which she is naturally drawn. Why is a loss of control at once so frightening and so thrilling for her? Is this a worthwhilestruggle? How “in control” do you think she is at the book’s conclusion?

6. Describing an incident with Yuri, Janet says, “Maybe he thinks it’s PMS….I don’t even get PMS. I’m not a victim of these forces.” And then “Crying saps my power.” What does she mean by “force” and “power”? Do these seem apt terms to describe her emotional fluctuations?

7. “My dancing has unleashed some feminine powers in me, and I’m really into it for the first time since the 1970s quashed all that for women.” Janet often seems to have a bitter regard for “women’s lib.” Do you understand her mixed emotions where female empowerment is concerned? Where does this conflict stem from? Does this relate to her affinity for partner dancing?

8. When Janet approaches Bill at Dance New York for the first time, he asks, “What are you doing with your dancing now?” She explains that her lessons with Yuri are not working out. How else could she answer this question? What do you think she is “doing” with her dance at this point, and later?

9. In an early lesson, Bill advises Janet to focus more on making her partner comfortable. She thinks, “I’m so well trained in that in the outside world.” Is she? What do you make of this claim given her relationship with her husband? How would she justify it?

10. One of the positive benefits of dance that Janet acknowledges is the validation of her multiple inner selves: the good girl, the good soldier, the geisha. What other characters does she discover? Do you think she is identifying distinct forces that have been there all along, or just being playful in analyzing very normal emotions? Do you ever think of your own personality in this way? Who are your dominating characters?

11. Janet’s concept of “trying easier” is initially difficult for her to grasp–and more difficult to execute–but nevertheless is an important step for her toward better dancing. She uses this principle in her job when she prepares less rigorously for a meeting and, as a result, pitches a successful article idea. How does it apply to her personal life? Do you think she applies the lesson as it was intended? Do you think she applies it well?

12. What do you make of Janet’s statement, “We don’t dance only for joy; if we’re lucky, we sometimes dance for pain”? What does this mean in her life? Does this sort of thinking imply that dance and art are necessarily a therapeutic process? Is this a valid assertion?

13. Of all the men in Janet’s life, Bill is perhaps the most striking foil to Peter’s shortcomings. Janet admits to falling under the spell of “teacher love” in a fairly platonic way–but are you surprised that she doesn’t feel more of a romantic attachment to him? Why or why not?

14. Janet struggles during her group lessons to “dance as man,” and uncomfortably finds her way to simply pushing harder to emulate the dance leader’s role. In her life, she exerts power less directly to get her way. “I know how to get my way, and it’s not with physical force,” she says. Does this statement surprise you, given her struggles to get her way in her marriage? What do you think she considers “her way” as she says this?

15. In the introduction, the author describes the feeling of being half-dead while at a bar mitzvah with her husband. Consider this with her description, later, of dancing at 7/8, and then living at closer to 15/16. What do you make of this concept of living by parts? Is negotiating the “wholeness” of life a natural part of living? Does it have anything to do with the concept of a marriage’s half-life, which comes up at the end of the book?

16. Janet feels early in the book that she has returned to “her tribe” by finding dance again. But it’s clear that she also has some very loyal and beloved non-dancing friends. Would they be considered part of her tribe? Why or why not?

17. Why is Janet so devastated by the death of Lucky the rabbit? Does this have to do with her general fear of death-as-worst-case-scenario? What does Lucky symbolize for her?

18. What do you think of the open-marriage experiment? Could it have worked? Why or why not?

19. Do you think that the lessons Janet learns from dancing will serve her well in her next relationship? Why or why not?

20. The subtitle of the book is “How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life.” Did it? What do you think would have happened if ballroom dancing had remained a memory for Janet?


In her forties, Janet Carlson appeared to have it all: two beautiful young daughters, a glamorous magazine job, a charming suburban home, and a handsome and talented husband. But though her many blessings kept her life busy and her home running (more or less) smoothly, she came to realize that she herself was somehow missing from the equation.

Though her struggling marriage bore the blame for much of her unhappiness, it was Janet’s husband, Peter, who gave her the gift that would change everything: ballroom dancing lessons. Twenty years after abandoning competitive dance for a more traditional path, Janet finds herself relearning not just the steps, but also the joy and confidence she once found in dancing.

Although her lessons become a joy, a refuge, and a source of therapy, the dance studio is not always a safe or simple place for Janet. As in life, she finds unexpected challenges in her dance relationships. The surly and conflicted Yuri is partially responsible for her happy return to dancing, but proves in the studio what Janet is learning in her marriage: that some relationships simply cannot go on. On the flipside is Bill, the supportive and encouraging mentor who helps Janet examine her feelings and fears, and brings her to life on the dance floor. As her confidence and creativity overflow into her work and family life, Janet learns to trust and be trusted, to exist in the moment, and to live and dance with the balance and poise that she’s been missing for so long.

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Quick, Before The Music Stops: How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*walks in, sitting down*