THE DANCE INSTRUCTOR
by Dean Jollay
Nervous, unsure what to expect, Nails enters the Bougainvillea Dance Studio for his first lesson. In the empty lobby, he tries to recall what brought him here, what voice said, Nails, my man, this ballroom gig is for you. On his way to and from work every day, he drives past this Pasadena Avenue strip mall. Ordinarily he pays no attention, but last week he spotted a small plastic yard sign by the road. A couple danced in silhouette. He hit the brakes and read the message: Introductory Special—Two Private and Two Group Lessons for $99. He believes in Fate. Fate has decided that Martin Yablonski ought to take a few dancing lessons. Who is he to question her?
Yes, the price tag made his balls tingle. Ninety-nine bucks is some real cheese, his average electric bill for a month in the hot Florida summers, a payment on his 2009 Dodge RAM. He balked. But there she was again—Fate whispering in his ear, saying, Nails, you cheapskate, get your skinny ass in there. Your divorce has been final for nine months. Change things up, dude. Have some fun. Somehow he’ll come up with the cash. The roofing company where he works is busy. It’s July—peak hurricane season in the Sunshine State. Half the roofs in town are leaking. He can pull all the overtime he wants.
Dressed in black jeans and his best shirt, a Tommy Bahama he scored for five bucks at the Volunteers of America thrift shop, he stretches his neck and peers around the corner. The room, mirrored on all four walls, is smaller than he remembers. Nikolai, the guy who signed him up, rushes him, shakes his hand, and points him toward a knot of fellow students gathered on the dance floor. Teeth bleached white, Nikolai is dressed in black. His brown hair is slicked back. He introduces Nails to the group. Heads nod. Hellos are murmured. Nails tries to act friendly, but these folks aren’t his people—roofers, guys he works with or used to, men who tip a few brews and speak his language. If they knew he was here…
A heavyset woman sits at a round table beside the dance floor. Looking sad, she sucks down a glass of red wine. Nikolai extends a hand to her and tries to coax her onto the floor. She pushes his hand away. He tells her she looks “great this evening, never better” and asks if she’d like to join the group. “No,” she says, “I want to drink my wine. Maybe later. Maybe not.” Nails wonders why this woman would pay good money to drink a glass of wine and sulk.
The only other single guy is a smooth-faced kid in his early twenties. A head and a half shorter than Nails, he’s all grins and giggles, as if he can’t wait to get started. He’s making nice to a dark-skinned, stringy-haired girl. Good for you, Nails thinks, hoping a little action might come his way too. But as he looks around, the talent pool disappoints him. Three middle-aged women in slacks and gauzy blouses are huddled up, laughing and talking. Regulars, he guesses, women he’d not give a second look if he met them in a bar or on a sidewalk. And half the class is definitely off-limits—two lesbian couples, on the opposite end of the dance floor, are stepping and turning, watching their feet, rehearsing their moves.
Nails has that horrible (déjà something or other) feeling he’s been here, done this. A few years back, he thought he’d try skydiving. He was used to working up high on the roofs of buildings. Piece of cake, he thought. But when he found himself in the airplane thousands of feet above ground, he clamped his fingers onto the seat and froze. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! What the fuck have I done? The instructor begged, threatened, and did everything except throw him out of the plane. But Nails couldn’t overcome his fear. This dancing stuff isn’t the same. Of course it isn’t. But what if he embarrasses himself? What if the class laughs at him? He considers a fast exit, but thinks about his ninety-nine bucks, down the drain if he doesn’t follow through this time.
As if sensing Nails’s hesitation, Nikolai appears beside him. The boss puts an arm around his shoulder, steers him to the middle of the dance floor, and introduces him to Tatyana, the woman who’s teaching the class this evening. “You might have met her when you signed up,” Nikolai says. “Trust me, she’ll take good care of you.”
Trust me was one of his ex’s favorite expressions. “Trust me, Martin. We’ll never make it on what you earn from that dead-end job of yours.”
Nails shakes Tatyana’s hand. Her grip is firm and confident. She asks if he’s taken dancing lessons before. At another studio, perhaps.
He shakes his head. “Where I grew up…”
Tatyana wrinkles her forehead. “What?”
Nikolai was partly right. Nails first set eyes on Tatyana when he strolled into the studio to ask about the introductory special. She was giving a private lesson, trying to show a flat-footed, bald-headed schmuck how to move his hips in time with the beat of a Latin song. From a distance she was a stunner, a damn fine reason to hand Nikolai his credit card. Glossy dark hair, red lips, tiny waist, and a dancer’s long legs. Tonight, seeing her up close and personal, he notices her large ears and tiny lumps and bumps on her face, blemishes covered with heavy makeup—a teenager’s acne perhaps, except she isn’t a teenager. She’s thirty or thereabouts, he’d bet, a little older than he’d have liked. Still, he’s attracted to her. Flaws make a woman real. He’s always been suspicious of perfection. Beautiful women are too into themselves. Face of an angel? No, that’s not for him. He prefers a few minor dents and scratches—something he can relate to, like the weariness he can see hidden beneath Tatyana’s forced smile and made-up energy, the look of a tired hunting dog—a hound run hard all day long, eager for its kennel. And this too—the disappointment in her eyes. Nails has had his share of disappointments from time to time. He doesn’t know her story, not yet, but he feels a connection.
“Welcome, Martin.” Fists resting on her waist, Tatyana looks past him and moves her lips, silently counting the students who’ve shown up for group.
“People call me Nails.”
“Nails? Really?” She laughs, an annoying-as-hell, high-pitched cackle that rattles from her lips like machine-gun fire.
“What would you like to learn tonight?”
“Whatever you’re teaching, that’s what I’m learning.”
Actually, Nails has no clue. He’s not here to tango, that’s for sure. Tango is way too complicated, he thinks, though Pacino pulls it off in Scent of a Woman, one of his all-time favorite movies. Pacino’s character is the blind retired army colonel, in New York for one last fling before he blows his brains out. At a fancy restaurant, Donna—a beauty he’s just met—confesses that she’s always wanted to dance the tango, but her slug of a boyfriend isn’t interested. So Pacino takes her on a way cool cruise around the dance floor. Batting her eyelashes at him, Donna, nervous as a whore in church, says she’s concerned she’ll screw up. The colonel tells her not to worry. “There are no mistakes in tango, Donna. You just tango on.”
Nails is no Pacino, not even close. He knows his limitations. “I’m up for almost anything,” he tells Tatyana. “Except the tango. It’s a no-go. Off-limits. Everything else—bring it on. I used to play the guitar. I catch on fast. You’ll see.” Young enough not to have back and hip and knee problems like all the older guys he works with, Nails is as agile as a trapeze artist, scampering up ladders and across rooftops, never once falling off. Dancing will be breeze.
Tatyana gives him a big cherry-red-lipped smile, turns away, and claps her hands. “Let’s get started, everyone.”
The Thursday evening class is called social dancing—forty-five minutes of instruction for beginners—waltz, rumba, and fox-trot—followed by a “party.” Tonight’s meet and greet is an ice cream social. Nikolai and his wife, Pasha, are wearing cone-shaped party hats, putting out Styrofoam bowls and plastic spoons on a table across the way. Pink and blue crepe paper streamers crisscross the ceiling. The scene reminds Nails of the only birthday party he ever had. He was eight. He’d told his mother he never got invited to other kids’ birthdays, so she had a party for him in their basement. She fixed the place up by hanging animal posters on the concrete block walls. No one but his best friend Billy came. His mother wrapped the uneaten store-bought cake in foil and kept it in the freezer until his ninth birthday.
Tatyana lines up the class in two rows facing one another. “Leaders on one side, followers on the other.” She laughs at her joke. Nails is confused, so she grabs his shoulders and guides him to the leaders’ side.
Tatyana announces they’ll begin with the waltz. She snatches the young man for her partner, demonstrates the position of the arms, proper posture, the basic step, and the under-arm turn. “Leaders, you have to keep doing the box step while you’re turning the lady.” Her English is nearly perfect, but spoken with a Russian accent. She or Nikolai or Pasha might be some of the Russians who got President Trump in hot water. Tatyana could be a KGB agent, one of those sleeper types they made that TV show about. This dance studio would be the perfect cover for a spy ring. Who’d ever suspect a hottie with excellent legs, a woman who looks like she’s danced every single day and night of her life, is a Russian agent?
Nails is opposite one of the gauzy-blouse ladies. He takes her in his arms and cranks up the box step. From the get-go his feet are like rocks he’s dragging around. He thinks he’s managing okay until it’s time for the under-arm turn. The step blows his mind. As he lifts his arm and hers, his feet tangle. He looses his balance, trips, and barely misses knocking her over. He shakes his head. “Sorry about that.”
The woman admits the waltz isn’t her favorite either. “Just relax,” she tells him.
Easy for you to say.
He takes a deep breath and gets ready for another try. His left hand gets caught up in the flimsy layers of her half-sleeves. One, two, three. One, two, three. His feet complete the four corners of the box. He’s making it happen just fine, grooving to the music, then Tatyana calls out for the leaders to turn their partners. He lifts gauze lady’s hand. She turns beneath his arm, gracefully, he has to admit, for a woman of her size. But as she rotates, once again his feet forget what they’re supposed to do. He steps on her dance shoe. She cringes, then forces a smile. He apologizes.
“Change partners,” Tatyana says. Because there aren’t enough men to go around, women must sometimes dance with women. Nails is happy it isn’t the other way around. He couldn’t dance with a guy. No way. But if he could dance with Tatyana, if he could hold her in his arms, he could for sure do this under-arm-turn thing. He wouldn’t feel like such a loser.
The rumba is the same deal—he’s cool with the basic step, a box similar to the waltz, but the turn is another train wreck. Who knew dancing would be this hard? A half hour later he’s sweating and frustrated. Mercifully the lesson ends. He’s embarrassed at his awful performance and needs fresh air. He decides to skip the party and slip out the door. He almost pulls it off, but Tatyana runs over to him and says, “Leaving? You’ll miss the ice cream.”
He tells her he’s sorry, but he has some place else to go this evening.
She gives him a look that says she doesn’t believe his sorry lying ass. “Tuesday, 5:00, your individual lesson. You’ll be here, right?”
* * *
Tatyana sits on the couch opposite the dance studio’s front desk and waits for her 5:00 appointment. She’s barely met the man who calls himself Nails, a curious name, even for an American. She’ll give him the two private lessons he’s paid for, and that will be the last of him. Clients who sign up for the introductory special seldom return. The studio makes its money off the wealthy fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-somethings: divorcees, widowers, single men and women who can pay up for two or three lessons a week at a hundred dollars per.
Last February Tatyana turned twenty-eight. She’s been in America five years now, three working here at the Bougainvillea Dance Studio. Dancing is her passion. America is the only country where ballroom dancing is taken seriously, where it’s a legitimate profession and not a hobby. The lessons she gives at the studio are a way to make a living, a way to finance her goals. She has aspirations to compete on the national level, win a title eventually. She thought she was making good progress until Nikolai fired her dance partner, Demetri, last week. He wasn’t pulling his weight in the studio, Nikolai said; wasn’t generating revenue by convincing his students to go to competitions, racking up the paid lessons necessary to prepare, and the fees and prize money the events generated. She made a half-hearted attempt to change Nikolai’s mind, but he’s not a man who reconsiders his decisions. She misses Demetri. They’d been dancing together for two years. Intimidated by her, she admits now, he lacked her intensity, her dedication. Nevertheless, he was improving. They were improving. Now she’s without a partner and the numbers of her students are dwindling. Perhaps Nikolai will fire her next.
Tatyana thought she might have found a new partner, a Russian boy several years younger than herself, so tall she had to stretch so they could stay in frame. With only two days to prepare, they danced beautifully together at a local competition out on the beach. She wore her new dress. A friend videoed their performances, and still smitten with the boy, she watches the recording constantly on her cell phone. Sadly, his visa expired. He had to return to Russia. When she asked if he might come back to the States and dance with her at the world championship competition in New Orleans, he said he was very sorry but he already had a partner. Every day she has to choke down her disappointment, keep her clients happy, and think about her future. But it’s difficult to stay positive when you’re sitting alone in an empty studio, waiting for a man to show up who calls himself Nails.
And here he is, her last student for the day, pulling his pickup into the parking space closest to the front door. She watches him through the plate glass windows. He takes his time getting out of the truck. In the same jeans and shirt he wore to the group lesson, he shuffles along the sidewalk. He has a slight curve in his shoulders, so she makes a mental note to work on his posture. The door opens. Careful to keep daylight between them, she greets him with a hug. Hugs are standard procedure at the studio. Kisses are forbidden. She tells him to take her arm and escort her onto the dance floor. It’s the way a gentleman is supposed to accompany a lady, she explains. He seems bewildered by the suggestion and grabs her hand instead. Gently, as if he were in a small child’s little red wagon, she pulls him through the plastic bead curtain toward the dance floor.
“Never thought of myself as a gentleman, but I do like the idea.”
His fingers are calloused, his left thumb is black-and-blue, and his palm is as coarse as a grinding wheel. The underarms of his blue/gray shirt are already wet with perspiration. He smells of soap, sweat, tar, cigarettes, and a faint odor of decay—as if the tropical birds on his shirt have died and are moldering in the hot sun. He wears clunky black shoes with a mirror finish and buckles on the sides—surely not real leather. They appear to be a size too large for his feet and are not in scale with his slender frame. She imagines the pain these weapons of mass destruction will inflict on her feet this afternoon and flinches.
When they get to the center of the floor, she tells him to stop right here. Since he started to learn the waltz at group, she suggests they begin with it now, then ease into another dance if they have time. There’s only so much she can show him in forty minutes. Maybe waltz this afternoon and a little rumba for his last lesson. “Or perhaps you’ll sign up for more lessons, yes?” Another aspect of the studio routine—sell the regular lessons hard, flirt, bend the client’s will to yours, turn him into putty. “Any questions? Shall we waltz then?”
With an unexpected shyness, he nods. She was certain that a man called Nails would insist on learning the Texas two-step, the Electric Slide, the Chicken, or some other stupid, not-ballroom popular dance.
“You can set your cap on the table over there.” She points, then steps over to the computer console and puts on Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, hoping he might recognize the song and gain a bit of confidence. She remembers the face-plant he nearly took at group.
She spends a few seconds positioning his hands and arms, urging him to stand up straight, then shows him the box step again in case he’s forgotten it from the other evening. “Martin, look in the mirror over there. See how your shoulders are slumped? Your body should align straight up from your feet.”
He stiffens his spine to match hers. “You speak English real good, if you don’t mind me saying so. I’m impressed.”
She thanks him for the compliment. “I studied English in Russia… Okay. Let’s begin.”
Martin manages to pound out a few rough approximations of the box step, narrowly missing her feet and only because hers are so much more nimble than his. Defensive dancing, like defensive driving, requires vigilance and quick reactions. “Not so bad,” she says, arranging her face to register mild surprise. She moves beside him, takes his left hand in her right, and urges him to mimic her steps, to feel the music and move with its beat. Unleashed, freed from the responsibility of holding and leading her, he does better.
She moves back to the normal face-to-face position, adjusts his shoulder downward, his elbow up, and says, “Once more, please.”
He’s hopelessly out of sync with the music.
“I’m sorry I suck so bad. This is way tougher than I thought.”
She tells him not to worry. He’s trying something he’s never done before. She’s been dancing her entire life, and she’s still learning every day. “All of us here at the studio are, even Nikolai.”
The lesson continues with little improvement on his part. She urges him not to be discouraged. “It takes time.” At 5:40 she tells him his lesson is concluded, not to forget his cap on his way out. “Friday. Same time? And you’ll think about some more lessons?”
* * *
Since his first private session, Nails has been thinking about the lovely Tatyana, how her hands sent a jolt through his body, how kind and patient she was, and how pissed he was with himself. He’s as graceful as a giraffe on a skateboard. He imagines that Tatyana, no matter what she says, must be dreading his next lesson. He wonders how she does it, every day, every week, working with talentless assholes like him. Make them all believe they’re improving. Convince them that, if they’d only hang in and stay with the program, the possibilities for growth are fucking awesome. Knowing what a scam the studio is running, Nails would, nonetheless, love more lessons from Tatyana. Fate wants what she wants—if only she had a VISA or a Mastercard to lend him. His credit card balance is at its limit.
Nails is planning to get the most out of his final lesson. Not dancing with Tatyana the whole time, but talking with her, listening to her story. How did she make it to the US of A from Russia? Why did she come? What about her family? Being with her, having a word or two, quieting the ache in his chest, is more important than learning the rumba. Maybe he’ll take her across the street for coffee after their scheduled time. He gets up the nerve to call the studio. Nikolai answers. Nails asks to speak with Tatyana, but the boss says she’s busy giving a lesson. He’ll be happy to pass along a message. “No message. I’ll see her Friday.”
* * *
On Friday, Nikolai greets Nails from behind the counter in the reception area. He bought a bright red golf shirt and khaki pants for the occasion. His ex often told him that red was his best color because it matched his eyes. He rushed home from work and took two showers—a cold one to recover from the heat, sweating on a roof all day, and a hot one to get rid of the stink of tar on his skin.
“Sorry, but Tatyana called in sick today,” Nikolai says. “Pasha will give you the lesson instead.”
Nails wonders if he’s the reason Tatyana called in sick. He wouldn’t blame her a bit. If he were her, he’d be terrified at the thought of another forty minutes in the ring with a stumblebum like him. “I’d like to postpone, until she’s better, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Nikolai says that won’t be possible. Introductory lessons are given by the teacher who happens to be available. “And, you see, my wife is available.”
Nails doesn’t see. Not at all. He’s the customer, isn’t he? “Bullshit. You’re screwing me over.”
“However, if you sign up for regular lessons, you can pick the instructor you’d like. We have a special going—ten dollars off each lesson for a 25-lesson package. Fifteen dollars off for fifty lessons. Payable in advance, of course. It’s a great deal. You should consider it. Tatyana says you have potential.”
Potential. The word makes Nails laugh out loud. Po-tential. What utter crap. Lure the sucker with Tatyana, dangle the bait, hook the fish, and reel him in. The whole thing smells like a gut job. He needn’t bother with the arithmetic.
He’s not up for a lesson with Pasha. He tells Nikolai, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’d like a refund instead.”
“No refund,” Nikolai says, smiling, revealing his blindingly white teeth. “Read the agreement you signed.”
Nails doubts Nikolai has any idea what it’s like to work for a living, what it’s like to spend five or six days a week on a roof in the hot Florida sun. That is unless you call stealing money from suckers like Nails work. He’d like to reach across the counter and seriously mess up Nikolai’s perfectly gelled hair, dim the light in the man’s baby blues. But he doesn’t. Tatyana wouldn’t approve. “Give me a second and I’ll haul ass out of here.”
Nikolai shrugs and returns to whatever he was doing on the computer before Nails walked in.
There’s no point asking the boss for Tatyana’s phone number. A no-no for sure. Nails needs to get her last name so he can contact her on Facebook. He has something he wants to give her, a thank-you for her kindness. Hanging on the wall next to the counter are her certificates for various levels of teaching proficiency—Bronze, Silver, and Gold; Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced—all with “high honors” or “distinction.” Her last name is Alekseevna: Tatyana Alekseevna. With no pen or pencil to write down the spelling, he must memorize the name. He concentrates, spells it several times in his head, then leaves. But by the time he reaches his pickup truck, her last name has disappeared from his memory. “Fuck!”
He heads back inside and tells Nikolai that he needs a pen and a scrap of paper.
“You must leave,” Nikolai says. “You’re trespassing. Don’t make me call the cops.”
“Be my guest.” Nails circles around the counter and shoves Nikolai out of the way, thumping him against the wall. Nikolai slides down into a sitting position. Nails grabs a pen from the holder next to the computer and scores a Bougainvillea Dance Studio notepad. From a certificate on the wall, he scribbles Tatyana’s last name, then heads for the door.
He drops the paper into the RAM’s glove box and rolls out of the parking lot toward his apartment. He thinks about what he’ll say when he gets in touch with Tatyana. Perhaps he’ll explain how disappointed he was, how he’d hoped to see her one last time at least. He has a small gift to give her, a gold chain to repay her for her kindness. (No need to tell her he found the thing in the dirt at a jobsite.) It’s not much, but he hopes she’ll like it. Maybe he’ll even ask her how on earth she can work for a prick like Nikolai. She deserves better.
Lost in his thoughts, Nails doesn’t see the police cruiser behind his pickup until its siren wails. On Central Avenue, two miles east of the studio, the cruiser pulls him over to the side of the road. He’s been driving below the speed limit, careful because his insurance expired two months ago. He couldn’t afford the premiums to renew. State law requires insurance. Any traffic stop will land him in jail.
Two officers sit inside the patrol car. In his rearview mirror, Nails watches them watching him. He knows they’re running his tag, knows what they’ll learn. The driver cop exits and approaches cautiously. He tells Nails to put his hands on the steering wheel. Sunglasses hide the patrolman’s eyes. His hand rests on the butt of his revolver. His face looks soft and rubbery, as if he’s wearing a Halloween mask, as if this stop is a prank he and his buddy have cooked up to have some fun at Nails’s expense.
“Why did you stop me, Officer?”
“Shut up and do what I tell you. Name?”
“Martin Yablonski.” Nikolai sicced the cops on him. The fucker. Nails vows to return the favor.
The cop orders Nails to get out of the truck and assume the position. Nails knows what the position means. No need to panic though. Before it’s too late, he’ll explain everything to this policeman. How this misunderstanding is all about a slip of paper with Tatyana’s last name written on it. How he had to write her name down so he could remember it. How he aims to contact her and give her the gold chain he found. His intentions are honorable. Beyond reproach. The paper is all the proof he needs.
Stretching sideways across the seat, Nails reaches for the glove compartment.
“Stop!” the cop shouts. “Put your hands back on the wheel!”
Nails turns his head toward the policeman and smiles to reassure him. Give me a second. Everything is under control. You’ll see. Slowly, in a calm voice, he recites each letter of Tatyana’s last name. “A-l-e-k-s-e-e-v-n-a.” Officer, you do understand, don’t you? Nails’s head swivels toward the glove box. Amazed he’s remembered the spelling, Nails reaches out, wiggles his fingers, and touches the latch. His dance lessons were a blessing. Fate was right to send him into the studio. Now he knows Tatyana’s name as well as his own.
About the Author:
As an undergraduate, I studied history and went on to earn an MA from the University of Chicago. My law degree from Capital University propelled me into a career that has ranged from legislative aide and researcher to lobbyist and CFO of a manufacturing company. I have continued to hone my writing skills by studying at Kent State University and attending writers conferences at the University of South Florida, Chautauqua, and Eckerd College. I recently received my MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. While serving on various arts and education nonprofit boards, I founded AHEAD, an organization serving at-risk students. My legal writings have appeared in numerous publications, and my creative writing has appeared in Limestone Journal, Notre Dame Review, New Plains Review, and elsewhere.