By Mara Zepeda
Attendance is taken at the ballroom dance class at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center. The teacher is John Benanti, a man who hyperarticulates words, pronouncing each consonant with precision. He claps his hands. “Okay my dear friends. Before we begin the fox trot, let us first review what we learned last week. The rumba. Now recall that we had our Cuban walk.” Benanti swishes his hips and takes a few paces across the linoleum floor. “Now you are not going to apply a Latin motion to the fox trot. If you do, you will look ridiculous.”
Before he retired, Benanti was an administrative assistant for top-notch executives. Given his precision and scrutinizing eye, it is not difficult to imagine him as an exceptionally gifted secretary.
The class is gathered in two straight lines, divided by men and women. They stare at their teacher, concentrating on his motions and footsteps. He demonstrates the three step, and the pupils follow his lead, pointing their toes and progressing forward. Benanti moves on to describe the natural and reverse turns. It’s a challenging concept and he calls upon his assistant. She has been dancing with Benanti for the past three years, attending nearly every class he teaches at various senior centers throughout Brooklyn. Benanti transitions to the rumba. He and Evelyn bow to greet each other. He takes Evelyn’s hand and they deftly work through the steps. Spinning her forward and back. “Gentlemen, your hand will be going toward the young lady’s tummy,” Benanti says, as Evelyn’s abdomen rounds the bend of her partner’s palm. “You have to know how to lead her and give her the proper resistance or she will go on and on forever.” Benanti thanks Evelyn for her assistance, and she returns to the group. He refers to Evelyn as his protégé. As the night progresses she will approach dancing couples, interrupt their efforts, demonstrate the correct step, and then critique their next effort.
The students begin to mimic the steps. They pause, whisper to themselves, start over and count aloud. Benanti makes the rounds, shuttling between the three women who out number the available men for the evening. “Take a deep breath. I know you are working very hard,” he says. Sweaters come off and the dancers recommit
The class is ready to begin. “Posture! No hands in the pockets. Nice and tall like in ‘Dancing with the Stars.'” He approaches a woman who is biting her lip in concentration. “My dear friend, you need to bend your knees.” He interrupts the dancing. “There is no Cuban motion. We do not stick out our buttocks,” Benanti says, thrusting his behind out. “No, they are tucked it.” He beckons Evelyn to demonstrate the proper technique. “Now, there is body contact, as you will see. I’m not getting fresh with Evelyn. She’s known me a long time.”
A woman pipes up and asks about the rhythm. “I’m going to get to the rhythm next my friend. You first learn how to crawl, then you learn how to walk.” The dancers pair off and Benanti gestures with delight towards a woman who’s mastered the moves. “Look at Karen. She’s gliding…gliding!” Another, who is now doing as well, has furrowed her brow and she stumbles over her feet. “Come here my dear,” Benanti says, reaching a hand out towards her. “You look totally confused.”
They pause for refreshments and gather around a table with a box of cookies, five cans of soda and instant coffee. Revived, they return to their places.
Benanti leaps over to his boom box and announces the next song, “Strangers in the Night.” The instrumental version comes on, and plays throughout the rest of the evening, on repeat. The students configure themselves in different pairings throughout the night. Some couples gracefully circumnavigate the light lavender room. Others exchange tense words with one another. “I am on the right foot. You should be over there, starting with the left.” Sometimes they sigh, shake themselves out and start again.
As the session concludes, Benanti gathers his students in a circle and asks for a show of hands. “My friends, how many of you feel that you know more than you did when you first arrived.” Arms extend. “I am so proud of you. You have no idea.”