Learning to dance with somebody

Bestselling author and journalist Jo Piazza moved to San Francisco after meeting her husband on a boat in the Galápagos Islands. Her compelling new travel memoir tells the story of her journey around the world, from France to Kenya to India to Scotland, to figure out what marriage means. Piazza’s witty, hilarious and moving account has become a go-to wedding present for newlyweds, and a must-read for non-honeymooners seeking an empathetic ally on the quest to navigate modern love and commitment. In this excerpt, she surrenders to the power of dance to bond lovers for the long haul.

By Jo Piazza

The intertwining of two lives is fraught with stresses—financial pitfalls, career fails, caring for sick parents, childbearing, child rearing, and overcoming crises large and small together.

For me, the concept of learning to live in tandem with another human being—all of the time—was daunting. I’d been single so long in part because I reveled in the solitude and independence. While the cliché tells us it’s the man in a relationship who “needs more space,” in my relationships, it was me. I delighted in stretching out alone in my queen-size bed. I loved taking myself out for Chinese food and a matinee. I even preferred dancing alone. I was always the girl on wedding dance floors fist pumping and doing the lawn mower solo while couples bobbed and weaved their heads and hips in tandem. Awhile earlier, well before I’d met Nick on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I’d gotten it in my head that dancing well as a pair was an important asset for a successful long-term relationship. When I first moved to New York thirteen years earlier, my neighbors were a Chilean couple in their sixties who were approaching their fortieth wedding anniversary. The wife wore long gypsy skirts that rustled when she walked on four-inch heels down the hallway, always carrying their feeble terrier in her arms like a baby. The husband was smaller and quieter with an interesting mustache and I never saw one without the other. They leaned in close to one another whenever they spoke, their heads touching. They didn’t have kids. It was just the two of them and a sequence of ever-daintier dogs, but they were both kind and nurturing to me, a broke kid new in the city. They’d often have me over for drinks that turned into meals so large I wouldn’t need to eat for another twenty-four hours. This was welcome during a time in my life when I survived on appetizers passed at parties and drinks paid for by dates. When I broke up with my lousy college boyfriend and began lusting after someone equally unsuitable, I asked them the secret to their long marriage.

The woman threw her head back and laughed straight from her fleshy belly.

“We dance together every week,” she said. “We’ve been dancing for forty years. When we dance we become one. He sees me, and I see him. Everything I know about him, I learned while dancing.”

Many years later, I still had my ex-neighbors’ advice rattling around in my brain when I was given a reporting assignment in Chile at the end of August—four weeks before our wedding day—entitled “Skiing in SUMMER? Head South of the Border!” Besides the prospect of hitting the slopes, Chile was enticing as a launch pad for writing about marriage. The South American country has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world, mainly because it was one of the last countries in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce, in 2004. But more important, Chile was a country where Nick and I could learn to dance together.

Dancing successfully with a partner is all about patience and anticipating what the other person is going to do. It demands communication without speaking. These three skills are also cornerstones of a successful marriage. A bit of research also informed me that dancing has been proven to boost general happiness and improve emotional well-being. The novelist Vicki Baum once wrote, “There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them!” In a study conducted at the University of Derby in England, depressed patients were given salsa-dancing lessons. Their moods improved significantly after only nine weeks of hip swiveling. Researchers attributed the improvement to the endorphin boost from exercise and the increased self-confidence brought about by learning a new skill.

There also happens to be a good amount of scientific research that couples who dance well together tend to feel more emotionally and psychologically connected. I have no idea if this is complete bullshit, but it certainly worked for my neighbors.

Following soccer, dancing is pretty much the national pastime in Chile, and most Chilean couples perform an elaborate dance at their own weddings, often involving a particular style called the cueca, an intricate, multipart dance of seduction, love, and attracting your soulmate.

“We have to learn this dance for our wedding,” I insisted to Nick before we headed to Chile.

“I thought you wanted to dance to ‘Crazy Love’ by Van Morrison,” he said as we tried to narrow down our wedding guest list one final time.

“We’ll do both!” I replied. “The people won’t care. We have a fully stocked bar.”

Nick waggled his bushy eyebrows, snapped his fingers, and threw an arm over his head.


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