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My Left Feet

Still sifting through the emotional fallout of middle-school mixers gone wrong? Take a lesson -- then take back the floor.

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The first time I saw my boyfriend dance, I laughed out loud. Not to be cruel -- I honestly thought he was joking. But after that, no amount of cajoling or martinis could get Patrick back onto a dance floor. So when he recently invited me to his cousin's wedding, I saw my chance: 'Love to," I told him. "As long as we learn how to dance first."

Ever since Jennifer Grey dirty-danced with Patrick Swayze, I've yearned for an able, or at least willing, partner. And recently, with the resurgence of swing and the craze for all things Latino, including salsa dancing, my wistfulness has turned a tad frantic. So, seizing the opportunity, I signed us up for Argentine-tango lessons at Fred Astaire in the Village.

When we arrived, a dozen men and women in their twenties and thirties, some tangoing, some waltzing, were navigating the dance floor. Some were recently engaged couples, here to prepare for the big night. Before we joined them, our smooth-talking instructor, Terry Barber, pulled us aside. Looking at me, he said, "I know you're the one who scheduled the lesson, but he's the one who has to learn the steps." To Patrick, he said, "You're the leader. You guide her. You have to be comfortable. So we'll start out with what you want to do." This put a smile on Patrick's face. "I need you around more than just this half-hour," he replied to Barber, giving me a smug look.

Taking dance lessons is like learning to play an instrument. You have to be willing to be really, really bad -- while practicing in front of people who make it look as easy as breathing. Patrick and I were suddenly seventh-graders again, excruciatingly aware of our presence on the floor. But Barber's running commentary helped put us at ease: He made fish faces as we tangoed, telling us "You must be suave -- like a cat." Soon enough we forgot about the more practiced dancers stepping and gliding past us.

Most dance studios offer free, or relatively inexpensive, introductory deals that let you test the waters. When Patrick and I took a free "newcomer night" swing class at Shall We Dance, a small studio on the fourth floor of an office building in the financial district, we were the only students who didn't own a pair of swing shoes. The rest were regulars brushing up on their basics. Feeling out of our league, we weren't happy to learn that we would be switching partners throughout the session. (Besides, I had no desire to dance with some sweaty-palmed stranger.) But it turned out it was for the best, as everyone was happy to offer pointers.

The husband-and-wife owners of Shall We Dance, Meredith Stead and John Knapp, are veteran country-and-western dancers with several championship titles under their tooled leather belts. They've also taught quite a few Texas-two-steppers to competitive greatness, including a recent prize-winner at the Big Apple Country Dance Festival.

For a beat that's more town than country, head to the Sandra Cameron Dance Center off Cooper Square. The young crowd that fills the floors here each evening could put the khakied hipsters from the Gap ads to shame. The studio was a focal point of swing revivalism in the eighties, under the guidance of old-timers Al Minns and, later, Frankie Manning, who headed a group of Lindy-hoppers at the Savoy in Harlem during the thirties and forties and still teaches here. Nowadays, with swing (and salsa) more popular than ever, its four studio rooms regularly fill to capacity -- with up to 50 people packed into each.

The Arthur Murray Dance Studio, on Fifth Avenue, has a slightly older clientele and a more refined atmosphere. Arthur Murray prides itself on tailoring its group classes to individual needs. Teachers gauge the level and learning ability of new students during a complimentary private session, then assign them to an appropriate group class. Beginners are taught in a separate room altogether, so you don't feel completely upstaged, and the large main space is divided to ensure there are never too many couples dancing different styles at one time. (At most places, several lessons are given simultaneously in the same space, and teachers take turns changing the music, so you occasionally find yourself in the curious state of waltzing to a salsa beat.)

Specially targeted classes round out the dance card at Stepping Out Ballroom and Latin Dance Studio. One program, "OUTdancing," is for same-sex couples; traditional gender roles sit this one out. "Leading and following are very personal things. What matters is who you are as a person, not what your gender is." says co-owner Diane Lachtrupp. Also, three times a month, Stepping Out hosts Tango Salons, usually with live music. It also offers a two-hour crash course for couples in need of emergency dance instruction. Granted, you won't win any contests, but it should be enough to keep other people from feeling sorry for you.

As for us, by the time we went back to Fred Astaire for the second of our lessons, which Patrick now calls his male-empowerment sessions, we were feeling much more confident. As we danced, a new couple watched us enviously from the side. Fred and Ginger we're not, but we're no longer Laurel and Hardy.

Prices listed are for five private sessions. Fred Astaire, 666 Broadway, at Bond Street (212-475-7776); $380. Shall We Dance, 200 Church Street (212-566-1081); $300. Arthur Murray Dance Studio, 677 Fifth Avenue, at 53rd Street (212-935-7787); combinations of group, private, and practice lessons range from $95 to $500. Sandra Cameron Dance Center, 20 Cooper Square (212-674-0505); $300. Stepping Out, 1780 Broadway, at 57th Street (212-245-5200); four classes, $272.


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