To me, a worn pair of dance shoes was an illustration of commitment to craft. That is, until one day in 2011 and a particular dance lesson.
Twenty of us were assembled in a classroom, waiting for an instructor. Ten men and ten women stood in segregated lines against opposite walls of a long room. The men stood with their backs against a blank wall, facing a mirrored one where each of them was expected to observe their frame and how they held their partner within it. The women backed against the mirror. Precisely on the minute that the lesson was to begin, the senior instructor slipped through the door, and closed it quietly. He did not apologize or explain why our regular instructor was absent. He simply began the lesson with a scrutinizing glare that swept the room.
We waited patiently while he sized up the skill set of each student; waited for him to invite us to cross the room and find a partner; waited for him to begin the lesson.
I saw and heard it all, and yet, I saw and heard nothing, so focussed was I on the instructor’s shoes. Even now, I can see them clearly. They were black leather-topped shoes used for smooth dances like waltzes and foxtrots, creased where the foot needed to bend, and worn from constant use. The condition of his shoes, I thought, confirmed his commitment to the art of his craft: ballroom dancing.
The condition of his shoe tops, however, was not what attracted – and held – my attention. It was the sole of his right shoe. The stitching on the sole had worn through. With each step, that sole flapped ever so slightly.
The instructor never took his eyes off of us. He watched us as a hawk watches a mouse, ensuring that we maintained our poise, that we understood the steps, that we placed and pressed our feet into the ancient oak floor, that we bent our knees, rolled our hips and held our frame. He watched us practise over and over until he deemed us capable of advancing to the next sequence.
Never once did our instructor mention his shoe. Never once did he misstep. He held his head erect and his back straight. He glided across the room from one couple to the next, fixing our flaws.
As the class concluded, I realized that, while a worn pair of dance shoes may symbolize a commitment in time and an effort to craft, they do not a master make. It was that senior instructor’s unflappable presence, his skill, his dedication and his passion for dance that transcended the trifle of a broken shoe.
That day, I learned what it means to be a master of the dance.