The first thing I learned in folk dancing was the categorical excuse. “Sorry!” “Forgive me!” and “Does it hurt? On this dance floor, I was a well-meaning threat.

My wife, Chrissie, said that dancing would improve our quality time together. Folk dance circles had few African Americans at the time. I was as easy to spot as I was difficult to avoid.

Why we wrote this

Perseverance can be misinterpreted by others as selfishness. But persistence breeds mastery – and ultimately respect and affection. When our essayist began to learn folk dances, he also found grace and friendship.

Determined to succeed, I began to attend several dance groups to speed up my progress. In remote areas of New England, where people of color were rarely seen outside of televised crime dramas, there were a lot of jaws dropped. Astonishment became the alarm when, after a first session of bruises, I continued to show myself.

The turning point came when I finally mastered some of the more difficult dances. In my fifth year, I regularly taught and coached others. I began to see the experience as a connection with others, not just an imitation of movement. Not only that, but I danced deeper, more gracefully.

My wife and I have achieved our goal of spending quality time together. And upon embracing a new experience, we discovered to our surprise that she had embraced us as well.

The first thing I learned in folk dancing was the categorical excuse. “Sorry!” “Forgive me!” and “Does it hurt? There was no question of pretending it was my kind of dance or my kind of music. On this dance floor, I was a well-meaning threat.

My wife, Chrissie, said that dancing would improve our quality time together. The folk dance community was not so sure. As I struggled to learn Greek, Turkish and Balkan dances – all much more complex than ballroom dances – I’m sure my fellow dancers were hoping that I would quickly find a new hobby.

Folk dance circles had few African Americans at the time. Tall, tall and older, I was not a typical folk dancer either. I was as easy to spot as I was difficult to avoid. I also came with a cultural background: the interactions between the guys in my neighborhood, growing up, did not include the finest social graces. The general attitude was mistrust and physical aggression, followed by bouts of breathless sprinting. It was not an ideal preparation for folk dancing.

Why we wrote this

Perseverance can be misinterpreted by others as selfishness. But persistence breeds mastery – and ultimately respect and affection. When our essayist began to learn folk dance, he also found grace and friendship.

The dance etiquette came as a shock. I found myself dancing in lines while holding hands with other men. What would Grandmother Nana have said? She had taught me, in clear terms, the standards of behavior for her. Another of them was to never look at anyone, lest it be seen as a threat. It was a lesson I had to give up quickly. How could I learn from a dance teacher without watching him?

Chrissie and I stayed with – or, rather, Chrissie stayed with me as I wrestled. I measured my progress by decreasing injuries to those around me. It was humiliating to watch the others grind their teeth from painful prior contact. But there was usually a shortage of men in folk dancing, so I could at least fill the space or be an emergency stand-in, which didn’t reflect my folk dancing prowess well.

But I was determined. I started hanging out with several dance groups away from me to speed up my progress. In remote areas of New England, where people of color were rarely seen outside of televised crime dramas, there were a lot of jaws dropped. Astonishment became the alarm when, after a first session of bruises, I continued to show myself.

I wasn’t trying to be mean, but my focus made me less sensitive to the stress of others. My quick wit should have been a blessing – except that it also made me unmissable. Experienced dancers who wore an extra belt that people could hold onto during fast, energetic dances risked tearing their clothes if I grabbed the wrong belt – and there was no stopping for the malfunctions of the wardrobe. A sincere and prompt apology followed. I was just trying to improve myself.

I inspired fear, but I was not immune to it. Few things scared me like a particular dance teacher did. She was determined that I would learn pair dances and stationary dances, in addition to line dancing. I couldn’t count on an understanding of Chrissie as a partner, so it was dangerous territory. When I saw couple dances on the program, I would retreat to the safety of the men’s washroom. This teacher would find me and demand that I go out – or she would come in. So I learned couple and set dances as well.

The turning point came when I finally mastered some of the more difficult dances. Few of the participants could lead these dances, so my ability to do so began to break down barriers. Even my detractors were looking for me to lead these dances, because they were also favorites. As I became recognized for my hard-learned skills, I felt motivated to reach out to help others. In my fifth year, I taught and coached regularly, finding ways to connect with those who needed help. As I had already broken all the rules and made all the possible mistakes, I was well suited for this task. And that, in turn, helped me obtain forgiveness.

The lesson for a loner like me was to see the experience in terms of connecting with others more than just mastering the movement. Dancing has become a means of friendship that I never would have imagined. Patience, benevolence, compassion and camaraderie have propelled me from the unknown to accomplishment. These qualities, the encouragement of my wife and this transcendent vision of dance have colored and influenced my way of dancing. As I grew in skills and mastered my technique, I was no longer a danger to those around me. But more importantly, I danced with more soul, with more grace. And limited views on race have given way to a more inclusive sense of sibling.

My wife and I have achieved our goal of spending quality time together. And upon embracing a new experience, we discovered to our surprise that we had embraced others as well.