7/6/08 By Susan Konig
Two to tango
She found freedom (er, infidelity) by dancing
Betty Friedan called it “the problem that has no name” — that feeling of married life as meaningless, women sublimating themselves for the betterment of their families. The wife’s plea: “Is that all there is?”
Janet Carlson seemed to have it all: She was the health and beauty editor of Town & Country magazine mother of two kids, a handsome and successful husband, a house in the ‘burbs, domestic help and vacations. But she felt “half dead,” which she defines as “unconsciously giving up any expectation of real happiness.” In “Quick, Before the Music Stops,” Carlson describes going through the motions of a life until her husband buys her ballroom dancing lessons. Call it “Eat, Pray, Tango.” Or “How Janet Got Her (Literal) Groove Back.”
Dancing was her pastime in her 20s, and she is reborn at age 45 to the point of obsession. She instantly plunges into the world of dance, gets in great shape and everything is looking up, including her formerly “flabby butt.”
It also gives her the courage to say goodbye to the man who bought her the lessons. Carlson and her husband can’t seem to communicate, but she doesn’t even need words with her dance partner. “Sergei gives reassuring smiles and gentle hand signals that we are fine.” At home, she throws her husband’s dirty laundry out the window. She is looking for “something that feels better.” The rest of the time, she is trying to make up with her two daughters who, it turns out, needed her all along.
As a wife and mom, Carlson denied herself the chance to thrive and be happy, until she meets the characters in her new dance community. But with dancing comes sexual tension, insults, tattoos and sweaty dancewear. Carlson prepares for her first competition by jazzing up her rear view: I hand her the Swaroski crystal tattoo…and ask her help in applying it to my lower back just above my butt. It should sparkle nicely while I’m dancing; I like the raciness of it.”
Her dance teachers say things like: “Would you open your legs for me?” Even Carlson has to giggle the first time she hears this. Before long she is defending this chutzpah. “Good dancers aren’t reluctant,” she says. “It’s so funny how ballroom dancers have no shyness about flesh — they’ll show themselves half naked, even fully naked.”
Well, maybe that’s why almost everyone ends up having affairs with each other. It doesn’t help that Carlson also fancies wearing hot pink Prada pants with zippers up the back. But she is celebrating her newfound beauty. “After having two kids and hitting forty-something, it just feels so damn good to be stronger and faster…Beauty is an action verb.”
My own days as a high school tap dancer involved five girls in wool kilts taking lessons from their geometry teacher. Heel, toe, heel, toe, tap, tap, tap. In Carlson’s more mature world, the instructor barks, “Stay!” “The command is nice and loud, and so I say in the back break. This is often the woman’s opening figure in a rumba routine, when she and her partner start by standing a few feet apart…The man steps forward on the slow four-one count and the woman allows him to get close. She stays…not budging her body one millimeter…a quiet, teasing response to his charge.”
You get the picture.
Lest you think Carlson’s ex-husband is cast adrift, he and his new partner are thanked in the acknowledgments as part of Carlson’s “modern extended family.”
Still, the book will do little to dispel the impression — encouraged by “Dancing With the Stars” — that dancing is simply a gateway to infidelity. Carlson draws you into the experience until you feel you are in the arms of a muscular Eastern European in tight pants. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps not — but no husband will ever give dance lessons as a gift after this.
It turns out Peggy Lee may have had the answer to Friedan’s question, “If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.”