Quick, Before the Music Stops
How Ballroom Dancing Saved My Life
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About the author
Janet Carlson is the Beauty & Health Director at Town & Country magazine. She has written articles for O the Oprah Magazine, Elle, Redbook, and Departures, among other publications, and she blogs for the Huffington Post Living Section. She studied ballet and jazz as a child and began ballroom dancing during her college years at Yale University. After graduating, she competed around the country for seven years, and then stopped to pursue her magazine career and start a family. She returned to the dance studio twenty years later and is now certified by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, and has co-taught a social dance program called Dance for Joy in the Caribbean. Carlson lives in Westchester County, New York with her two daughters. Visit her website at www.janetcarlson.net.
“I’ve been dancing steadily since that Valentine’s Day. I have taken countless lessons and classes, passed a professional certification exam, done several shows and a competition—yes, dressed in those outrageous gowns and false eyelashes—and then gone back home to the kids, the soccer, the housework, and to work the next day. It hasn’t been easy to make room in the schedule for my passion, but I have done it, because I’m certain now that it is necessary for life. This new period is rich—as rich in some ways as having my two children because it has been a kind of birth—but it has also been extraordinarily painful thanks to the self-examination that dancing has provoked in me. And so, because of dance, I can say, unequivocally and gratefully, that I am alive at last.”
– From Quick, Before the Music Stops
“There is no time for regret in dance. You have only now, this moment, for your performance, your glorious movement. Whatever you’re going to do, do it now, quick, before the music stops.” – Janet Carlson
In her twenties, Janet Carlson was a successful competitive ballroom dancer, but she abandoned dancing to raise a family and pursue a more conventional profession as an editor for a luxury lifestyle magazine. Twenty years later, she seemed to have it all: two beautiful daughters, a glamorous job, and a handsome, talented husband. Despite all of her successes, she felt a terrible void - her marriage was deeply troubled, and she was somehow withdrawn in the very midst of her own life and the lives of her children. Then, one Valentine’s Day, her husband gave her ballroom dancing lessons as a gift, and everything changed. She discovered the joy, passion, and confidence she hadn’t realized had gone missing for so long.
Over time, Janet discovers that ballroom dancing also contains the secrets to life and love: the give-and-take of dance, two bodies in rhythm and harmony, mirrors the reciprocity of human relationships. Total trust between partners is as vital on the dance floor as it is within a marriage. And yet, both partners - in dance and in life - must stand on their own two feet. The unadulterated joy Janet feels as she intuitively moves to the music speaks to the kind of absolute, whole-body happiness we were born to have. On the dance floor, she finds resolve in the waltz, self-confidence in the tango, and passion in nearly everything. Embracing dance once more allows her to let go of a marriage that was completely out of sync; put more heart and emotion into her work; find more time to truly be with her children; and ultimately rejoice in her intrinsic balance and poise.
Told with precision, grace, and painstaking honesty, Quick, Before the Music Stops is the tale of one woman’s midlife renewal through dance, and how her newfound empowerment transcends the dance floor and becomes immediate and relevant in every aspect of her life. It shows us how to recognize and celebrate both our strengths and our flaws, reignite passion for the everyday, and how to step from the periphery into the light and surrender to the music.
; July 2008
271 pages; ISBN 9780767930055Read online
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Title: Quick, Before the Music Stops
Author: Janet Carlson
A Cold Day for Marriage,
It's a bitterly cold morning in Hastings-on-Hudson, and I can see my breath in the car as I say, "Seat belts," and listen for clicks in the backseat of our gold Buick LeSabre sedan (not exactly our vehicular style--we try to be much more modern and hip as a rule, but it came cheap). Our two daughters comply. Peter backs the car out of the driveway.
"Did anyone feed the rabbit?" I ask.
"Yes, I gave him hay and pellets," says Alden, only eight and so responsible. I glance back at Lucky's hutch by the trash bin. "I hope his water's not frozen." We drive the two blocks to drop off Erica at Hillside Elementary School. I watch as she climbs out lugging her turquoise backpack that's almost as big as she is. "Remember, number one rule at school, don't have any fun," I tease.
"Ma-a-a," Erica groans as usual, fighting a smile as I look into her blueberry eyes, and she slams the door as hard as she can. I see the window frost splinter.
"These brakes suck," Peter says as we drive down the hill to the middle school. "You should have Tom check them. This car has to last. We can't afford two lease payments."
I think of several responses, but don't feel like wasting the energy it would take to choose between them and deliver one. The silence doesn't feel awkward anymore. Though I'm wearing my heavy sheepskin coat, the cold has seeped into my bones and I tense against it as if I can fight it off. I slowly inhale as deeply as I can but an involuntary shudder interrupts the breath before it can find its way in.
"Mom, we have to go to the library tomorrow to do my research on Ecuador, don't forget," Alden says sternly. I hear the worry in her voice and want to reassure her.
"Okay, honey. When is the project due?"
"Odie, that's two weeks from now," Peter protests, using his affectionate nickname for Alden. To me he says under his breath, grinning in my direction, "She's not my daughter." I look at him in his black shearling, thick and worn almost to gray. His hair is mostly black, but I can see a few more grays at the temple now--still, not bad for forty-seven. I notice he isn't wearing a hat or gloves. He holds the steering wheel like a teacup, elegantly, with just his thumbs and pointer fingers.
In a couple of minutes, he pulls to a stop in front of Farragut Middle School, where Alden will meet her class for an orientation meeting. She'll be switching to this school next year. Alden steps out and turns to utter her usual blasé good-bye. I can tell from the tiniest difference in her voice that she's battling some nerves. Then I notice she is dressed only in a pullover and sweatpants, and no hat, her light-brown fusilli curls pulled back in a tight ponytail as usual.
"Take your jacket, honey; it's really cold today," I say, passing her puffy red ski parka through the open window.
"I hate wearing this," Alden says, taking it from me anyway. "I mean, it's a nice jacket and everything, I just feel big and fat in it. I'll carry it." I wonder how painful it is for her to be so cooperative and concerned for my feelings--I chose the jacket at the Gap and clearly picked the wrong one.
"Will you be home at the regular time?" she asks before turning to go.
"Yes," I answer. "Actually, I'll pick you up from horseback riding."
"Oh, yeah, good." She looks over. "Bye, Dad."
We head up Farragut toward the Saw Mill Parkway. Peter turns on the radio and jabs a button just as I feared. I hear Howard Stern's voice, my cue to get out my headphones. I like driving in alone, I think, feeling a little guilty. I flip through my CD holder and choose Frank Sinatra, Shania Twain, and the new Norah Jones. Howard is asking some bimbo about her breast implants, so I move faster with numb fingers trying to get the headphones on without messing up my hair, determined to prevent the shock jock from contaminating my hard-won and fragile morning peace.
The old Buick, still cold, protests metallically as Peter accelerates onto the parkway southbound toward Manhattan. I look out my window at the geese on the bank of the Saw Mill River and let Norah Jones's voice locate my secret life. Come away with me . . .
Norah is just one of my escape hatches. I don't see it yet, but I will find several other escape hatches for myself over the coming years. I didn't always escape; I used to have a knack for facing things head on. But I guess I've lost my inclination to stand and fight, or stand and defend, or stand and care, love, challenge, implore, believe. I escape--into Norah's world for the moment, lulled by her voice. I wriggle out of the predicament. So much easier than persisting and declaring, "Peter, stop--let's stop this nonsense. Let's be together. Let's love each other."
But it all started so promisingly, as most marriages do. And sweetly. Do you know? That sweetness? The story of Peter and me meeting is nothing if not sweet and promising.
I was thirty-three and sick of being alone in my austere apartment on New York's Upper East Side. Sick of waking up on a Saturday morning and tidying up and going to the gym and taking extra long in the shower because I had nowhere to be next. Sick of eating alone in my apartment: round food--bagels, oranges, hard-boiled eggs (everything round, a random and meaningless coincidence or symbols of my ovaries ticking, urging me to find a mate?).
One Friday evening in April of 1988, wiped out from a full week's work, I forced myself to go to Donna's cocktail party. Hugh, my ballet date, my gay friend, said he'd go with me. Donna was a magazine editor; she worked at New Woman. Peter was dating Ellie, a sex therapist who had her own radio show, and she was a friend of Donna's. My sister, Alison, was invited, too.
When Hugh and I arrived at Donna's apartment, we chatted together a bit, then mingled separately. I spied Ali in a corner of the living room, and I went up to say hi. "Hey, Janet," she said. "This is Peter. Peter, this is my sister Janet. I'm prettier and younger, but she's smarter." That was part of our sister act. I smiled. Peter tilted his head to one side, lowered his eyes in a kind smile, and extended his hand to shake mine, and I fell into a deep crush right then and there.
We talked, Ali, Peter, and I, and we monopolized the crudités tray. Ali and I were a little silly and shamelessly flirtatious; whenever my gregarious kid sister and I had a chance to perform socially, we'd be unabashed and our chatter and repartee would get more outrageous as we worked our audience. Peter seemed to enjoy it, and he played right along, nonplussed--or as he would say, non-pulsed. At some point, he let us know he was a photographer. His client list was impressive: New York Times, Business Week, Newsweek. Later, he introduced Ellie. I found her intimidating. Ali and I left together at midnight. On the street, I said, "Wow, he was cute."
"Who?" Ali asked. She had a boyfriend at the moment, so I knew she wasn't interested herself. "Oh, Peter? He's not your type."
Well, that's for sure. Because of my job at European Travel & Life magazine, I was used to dating suave European men in shiny suits, some with names like Count Gelasio Gaetani Lovatelli d'Aragona. Actually, he was a friend, not a date, but you get the idea of the crowd I'd been hanging out with--wealthy, sophisticated, worldly, treacherous men. French, Italian, Austrian, didn't matter, they were all dangerous, and invariably neglected to mentioned that they were married.
Meeting Peter, my radar immediately detected his nice, safe American aura. He was a trustworthy, manly cowboy in black Levi 501s, black Reebok sneakers, and a blue denim shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps, with a beeper on his belt. God bless him, I thought, he looks like the messengers who show up at my office. But so hip, and very attractive! What a refreshing change from the guys I usually picked. I liked that he was tall, in great shape, and he had really black hair a little wavy at the back where he'd let it grow to just below his collar. I also liked how laid back he seemed, and smart--though unpretentious about it.
We exchanged business cards at Donna's party. Peter called me the next day to ask me out, and we agreed to dinner the following Thursday. Dinner at my place. I didn't think he'd show--I was used to men making excuses, having a change of plans, or just not showing--so when my phone rang at six that evening (I'd left work early to dress and prepare penne alla vodka and salad just in case) I assumed he'd say, "Sorry, I can't make it" or "Oh, was that tonight?" Instead, he said, "I'm about to head uptown from Canal Street. Is seven okay? Should I bring bok choy or asparagus?"
By seven-thirty, I was watching him prep the asparagus in the kitchen of my one bedroom on East Fifty-second. I poured two glasses of Pinot Grigio and offered him one. He took it and started chopping. He chopped with an elegance that took my breath away. He chopped the slender asparagus on the bias. The bias! I stared at these lovely diagonals of spring green and swooned.
"Where'd you learn that?" I asked.
"I was a chef in Switzerland," he answered.
And that was that. I had to marry the guy. Of course, it turned out he'd worked in the kitchen of an inn in the Swiss Alps where he was a ski bum in his twenties. But still, he had a way with that knife, I tell you.
Four months after we met, we went to Anguilla, the little Caribbean island where my family had spent summers for years. After a day of swimming, sex on the deserted beach, picking coconuts from the tall palms, windsurfing, and dining on lobster and snapper at a waterside restaurant, he proposed to me in bed, in the dark.
"Janet, I want us to spend the rest of our lives together," he said.
That was a declarative statement, I noticed, not a question. So I said nothing in response, just let his statement hang there in the heat of the night air between us while my mind raced. I should say something, I thought, because, I don't know, he might have just suggested marriage.
"Okay . . ." I started. "Um, is that a question?"
"Yes, it is," he said. "Geez, you had me nervous there. Were you just stuck on the grammar? Was that it?"
"Yes," I said. "My answer is yes."
He could have killed me, he told me later. And this became one of our cherished stories, me leaving him in the lurch of silence there, and the silliness of grammar getting in the way of romance.
the early times for us were filled with magical moments, and if I squint, I can still see them forming, feel the superb weight of them anchoring us. Like the first time I brought Peter to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to visit my mom and stepfather at their sprawling harbor-front home. One afternoon, I was on a beat-up old bike, barefoot and wearing a floaty, pastel summer skirt, and he was on foot, camera in hand. As I rode ahead down the dirt path, he started shooting, and I remember hearing the automatic shutter firing away and feeling a rush of desire because of his manly competence with his equipment. Halfway down the path, I lifted both legs up and out to the side, flirty show-off, in a sort of gymnast's pose, and heard his camera rush to capture the kooky moment. At the bottom of the hill, I stopped, put my feet to the ground and turned to look back for Peter. He was approaching me, camera lowered now to his chest, tears in his eyes. As we walked back to the main road, he told me that it was my playfulness, a quality of little-girlishness, that had moved him.
We got married at my family's home in Hastings, the suburb of New York City where I grew up. Many of our friends observed that we were a Barbie and Ken couple, which I took to be a comment about our appearance, mostly--Peter being tall and dark, and me being tall and blond. But I suppose it meant even more, something about us belonging together like the dolls, a magazine editor and a photographer, a fetching couple. We bought a co-op in Chelsea when that neighborhood was still a drug dealer's haven but on the verge of becoming chic. On the weekends, we shopped for art deco finds at Depression Modern on Sullivan Street, went Rollerblading in Central Park, made dinner together for friends. Then we bought our own home in Hastings and moved out and started having kids. There is a photograph in our album of Peter holding Alden, just moments old, in his two palms, bending over her, marveling, already loving her.
That could be called our midway point, our turning point. Because after that, things happened that didn't seem so Barbie-and-Ken idyllic.
I believe (not just because I've done this) that when two people meet, feel an attraction, and start to get to know each other, they often are in a rush, greedy to fully know the other right away, and because they begin with a sketchy picture of the brand-new person, they fill in the blank regions with their own fantasy details of the ideal mate. So in the beginning, as they fall in love, it's with a composite of real and imagined aspects of the other person. Slyly, the imagined ones become assumptions. That's a gigantic but undetected pitfall in the process called getting to know each other: two people operate in their relationship based on their pictures that are part real, part fantasy. Part of the fantasy, naturally, is that the other person is going to complete us or rescue us, and this gets us into really deep trouble.
As time goes on, reality rudely interferes and more true aspects of the other begin to emerge, elbowing out the fantasy aspects and upsetting the dreamer. Thus originates a disappointment and a sense of betrayal too vast and amorphous to comprehend-- so I was told by Steven Goldstein, a New York psychologist I once interviewed for a story. We harbor the bad feeling deep down without knowing it, and then we pin our vague discontent on something else, something immediate and concrete--like the dishes or the finances or the TV remote.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
With insight and humor, Janet Carlson shares the joy, exhilarations, and self-revelations that ballroom dancing has brought her. She draws the reader into her lessons, her partnerships, and her life, and in doing so reveals just how accurately ballroom dancing both reflects and transforms life.
-- Bruno Collins, Vice President, American Ballroom Company; previously National Dance Director, Fred Astaire Dance Studios
"How gratifying to read a book that uses dancing as a metaphor for life and shows how it inspires the steps forward that every woman needs to take. This riveting personal story is guaranteed to help anyone find their center and balance. Brava Janet!"
-Evelyn Lauder, Senior Corporate Vice President of the Esteé Lauder Companies, Inc.
"Janet Carlson beautifully describes ballroom dancing as intricate, joyful, athletic, and most importantly, a way to learn how to live life. If you can't hit the dance floor, read this book. Better yet, do both."
-Barbara Lazear Ascher, author of Landscape without Gravity and Playing After Dark