The trick, they tell me, is to form the tango connection.
I learned that much when I studied tango one evening with the Madison Tango Society. The tango connection has to do with how the man and the woman - or, in dance-class parlance, the lead and the follow - hold each other. "The follow tends to push out a lot," said society co-founder Steven Fosdal. The pushing creates a certain tension, so that when the two dance, they move practically as one body.
And indeed, when Fosdal and fellow instructor Angie Fadness danced in a mirrored studio for the eight students assembled that night, they did seem to move as one body. I have never seen anything so elegant as their demonstration of tango, the gorgeous, stately Argentinean step.
Their dancing was particularly elegant compared to what happened when I finally got on the floor. Even though my first partner of the evening was Fadness, the instructor, my body felt completely out of control as I tried to move it in this unfamiliar - if slow and methodical - way. "Try holding your hand a little higher on my back," she suggested.
I was there on a mission. All my life my inner nag has told me I can't dance. And so, generally, I don't dance. Yet dancers, whether they are whooping it up at a nightclub or practicing intricate ballroom moves, always seem to be having a marvelous time. So why should I be a wallflower forever?
I took inexpensive, very informal lessons in three popular styles - tango, swing and salsa - and I learned that, provided I practice, my teachers could make a dancing fool out of me yet.
The Madison Tango Society teaches lessons Tuesday nights at the Madison Multicultural Dance Center, 1421 S. Park St. At my lesson, we learned four variations on the basic step and changed partners frequently. During practice dances, I tried to remember what I had been learning, but mostly it was an effort simply not to fall down.
With one exception: There were more men than women at the lesson, so that presently I found myself dancing with Fosdal. He led, and for the first time in my life I understood why they call it following. I felt like the most graceful dancer in the world as he swept me about the floor. But that feeling lasted only until we switched partners again.
After the lessons came an open dance, where tango practitioners at all levels stepped their way around the floor. Next, some of the group retired to a weekly tango event at Restaurant Magnus (120 E. Wilson St.) for still more dancing.
After the lesson Fadness, a graphic designer by day, confirmed what I had just learned: That Steven Fosdal dances one forceful tango.
"I don't even try to lead Steve," she said. "It's too hard. He tries to out-follow me."
I'm grateful there are lessons, because when it comes to dancing, I do need all the help I can get. The reasons are partly theological, and have to do with my rearing in Nashville, Tenn.
Until I was 14, I went to a school associated with the Church of Christ. This is a fundamentalist sect that proclaims the literal inerrancy of scripture - King James Version only, please - and forbids (among other things) alcohol, musical instruments in worship services and, especially, dancing.
So there were no school dances. There was not even a prom, as such. There was a prom-like social event in the spring, but it was called a banquet. Young men and women dressed in the finest rented evening wear assembled in a hotel ballroom and...ate.
I've come a long way since then, religion-wise and dance-wise. I graduated to a nonsectarian high school, and in those years I learned to do a vigorous New Wave pogo. I even took private dance lessons for a high school musical. And after I arrived in Wisconsin I became fond of the polka, a very easy step that actually has a lot in common with the New Wave pogo.
But I mostly have shied away from dance floors. In college, when friends went out clubbing to the palatial nightspots of Chicago, I stayed home. At a wedding this past summer, the DJ insisted everybody at the party get on the dance floor, and everyone did - except me and my very patient boyfriend.
All these years later, I think there still is a scared child inside me who believes that hell awaits if I so much as fox-trot. That's why dance lessons are good for me. They're cheaper than therapy, and better for my cardiovascular system.
No one was bowling at the Badger Bowl, where the Madison West Coast Swing Club holds weekly dances. At 7 on a Wednesday night, every lane was deserted in the facility at 506 E. Badger Rd. All the action was in the spacious bar, where some people were drinking and watching TV, others were eating pub fare, and a group of 24 had formed two rows of couples on the big hardwood dance floor.
They were there for the first of the evening's two lessons, this one for intermediate students. Most looked 40 or older, and wore jeans and T-shirts.
"Rotate!" yelled Crystal Fischer, the instructor. She wore black pants, a black top and tennis shoes. At the command, each man moved to his left, and a dozen new couples were formed. As at the tango lesson, there were slightly more men than women, so some couples were same-sex. A laptop computer played pop music through a sound system.
The Madison West Coast Swing Club formed 11 years ago, when a revival of swing dancing was under way. You may recall it from TV: A thrilling ad for the Gap featured sexy young swing dancers in khakis. A swing group, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, played a Super Bowl halftime show. Former Stray Cat Brian Setzer appeared with his swing orchestra on an episode of The Nanny.
And of course, there was much non-televised swing dancing at clubs and private functions everywhere. I remember a Chicago house party - this would be about 1998 - at which a woman declined to dance with me when I glumly admitted that I did not, um, swing.
The swing dance craze eventually petered out, like country line dancing before it. But groups like the West Coast Madison Swing Club keep the tradition alive, even if the members are older and a fraction less energetic than those kids in the Gap ad.
Fischer was teaching the dancers a step called the Sugar Push. "One, two, three, and four, five and six, with the hands at the end," she said. "Rotate!"
She was jolly. "I don't want to see no armpits!" she said, by way of explaining that the dancers should keep their arms at their sides. "Act like you haven't shaved!"
She finished explaining the step. "Sugar push, and open up the door," she said. "Rotate!"
After half an hour, the intermediate lesson was over, and it was time for me and my fellow beginners to have our turn. About 10 of us formed two lines, with women facing men - mostly. There were still more men than women, so my partner was a man.
Fischer showed us a fundamental move that had us stepping forward, then back, and then swinging around. I tried to watch her and concentrate and not look at my feet, all at once.
"Try to relax," my partner said. Indeed, I had begun to hunch my shoulders in that way I do when social anxiety is setting in. Fischer counted off the beat, and I clumsily did the step.
"Rotate!" she said. I took a new partner, and I fretted over etiquette. Do I introduce myself? But Fischer was already counting off the beat. We danced the step, then rotated again.
We men made our way down the line three or four times, and after 30 minutes I was feeling more confident. Then, the lesson over, Fischer played a new track and urged more experienced swingers to join the newbies for a dance. She paired me with a pretty young woman who wore a pixie cut. I awkwardly led her through my limited repertoire of steps as we went around the dance floor.
"Try to relax," she said.
For as long as there has been dancing, there surely have been dance lessons. Seventeenth-century French courtiers didn't learn the minuet on their own, and for much of the 20th century, studio chains bearing the names of Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire educated generations of Americans in the fine points of social dancing.
The big studios eventually fell on hard times, though. In addition to drugs and free love, young people in the 1960s embraced the notion that in dancing there should be no predetermined steps. The notion persists. Visit any nightclub today, and - minus the odd line-dance fad - what you see is freeform movement not altogether different from what went on at Woodstock.
"What was happening in the '50s and into the '60s was liberation and freedom," says Chris Walker, a lecturer in the UW-Madison's Dance Program. "The individual dancing spirit created a whole new movement, where people created dance forms based on what they were feeling."
Even so, dance lessons may be staging a comeback. Television shows like Dancing With the Stars are generating new interest in the old steps, and here in Madison, studios still offer classes in every style - to say nothing of what I looked into, the sort of informal instruction that goes on at nightclub events.
"When I came here 13 years ago, I didn't see everybody dancing," says Walker, a native of Jamaica. "On the whole, I think America is dancing more."
When people take lessons in social dancing, they may be doing more than simply learning steps, according to Jin-Wen Yu, UW Dance Program chair. "When you are part of this specific society, a social dance group, you get educated, you learn how to behave yourself," he says. "Once you're good at it, you've got a sense of accomplishment, and the community also feels you're good."
And more than simply building community, he says, dancing serves a basic human need. "There's no way people can truly express their inner feelings without movement," he says. "Look at how football players celebrate after they score. They channel their excitement into movement."
For better or worse, there was no partner dancing at Latin Move 'n' Groove, which is the name of the evening lesson in Afro-Cuban movement I attended at the Cardinal Bar (413 E. Wilson St.) one Thursday.
In Madison there are more and more venues for Latin dancing, and especially salsa, the dance with the distinctive, shuffling step that gets skirts swirling. There is salsa dancing weekly at the downtown nightspot Frida (117 State St.) and at Con Safos, the ballroom at 5100 Erling Ave. in McFarland.
At the Cardinal Bar, energetic Edgar Molina led a group of about 20 beginners in a line dance of basic salsa steps. Molina is artistic director of Madison's Dando Mambo Dance Company , and that night he and Dando Mambo collaborator Hallie Savage were an encouraging presence.
The lesson began at 7 in the Cardinal's mirrored dance room. There were about 20 people, in two rows. Nearly all of them looked younger than 30 - many much younger. The men mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, but several of the women were outfitted in the signature flowing skirts. They looked ready for the long night of dancing that was to follow the lesson. Intoxicating salsa music blared from the speakers.
Savage joined us in the rows, and Molina got right to work teaching the evening's moves, a series of forward and backward steps interspersed with kicks, hip swivels and a sideways motion that Molina accompanied with the chant, "merengue, merengue, merengue."
He taught the moves one at a time and led plenty of repetitions, for practice. "One two three, five six and go!" he counted, over and over. Soon we were piecing all the moves together, and each time getting a little further without erring, as if we were playing a videogame.
"Rotate!" he demanded, and the two rows switched places. The song ended. "I will be right back," he said as he disappeared into the next room to put on more music. "Watch Hallie."
I tried to watch Savage, resplendent in skirt and leotard. But she danced even more energetically than Molina, and her arms and legs became a cartoon blur as I tried to follow along. I felt dizzy and exhilarated and finally had to stop watching. I tried simply to let my body remember the moves - which, I gather, is the whole point.
As the lesson neared its end, Molina had the men dance and the women watch. Then the men rested. "Okay, beautiful ladies!" he instructed, and they danced in a row, their skirts swishing. It was a lovely sight, and it made me realize that I had enjoyed salsa dancing the most of the three styles. Tango and swing are doubtless both sublime, but salsa had an energy and an easy grace that resonated with me.
One salsa student, I noticed, had been at both the tango and the salsa lessons: Tung Doan, 28, a Hanoi native who studies civil engineering at UW-Madison. He was learning to dance so that he could keep up with a friend. "I came to the bar with her and saw her dance very well," he said.
With practice, I'm sure he too will dance very well. As for me, my poor soul retains the childhood worry that dancing will send me to hell. But I am trying to listen more closely to my feet, which tell me: to hell with worrying.