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I Learned the Dirty Dancing Moves With a Millennial Named Brennan

Does the reality of nailing those famous dips live up to the fantasy?

Illustration by Pablo Lobato
Illustration: Pablo Lobato

Writing a monthly magazine column can be an exercise in self-discovery. For example, I never knew I harbored a dream to channel my inner Frances “Baby” Houseman until I found myself salsa-ing with a man 10 years my junior to the smooth sounds of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, a giant grin plastered on my face.

When I arrive at Duet Dance Studio, a ballroom dance space in Logan Square where couples can practice for their wedding or just do a date night, I’ve got multiple deadlines and I’m not sure I can spend an hour learning choreography, even if the choreography is from Dirty Dancing — quite possibly the best dance movie in a genre that includes Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Save the Last Dance, and, my favorite, Honey (a Jessica Alba classic that I may or may not have seen twice in the theater).

I’m extra bummed once I get to my lesson, in which I am paired with Brennen, a male instructor, because the first thing I learn is that we will not be doing The Lift. (I bet nobody told Johnny it was an insurance risk.) But after breaking the news, Kathryn, another instructor, immediately starts teaching me some salsa. First, it’s just a quick how-to while facing the mirror. Front, back, together. Back, front, together.

I practice with Brennen, who’s in his mid-20s and told me he has fond Dirty Dancing memories because it’s his mother’s favorite movie. Kathryn prompts me to start with my right foot with the mnemonic device “Remember, you are right about everything.”

“Tell that to my husband!” I say. (Classic mom joke, Brennen is surely thinking.)

Kathryn teaches me how to follow Brennen’s lead and where to place my arms, and she reminds me to look around a bit when she notices that I’m hardcore staring at Brennen’s top button. After a few silent practices, she says we are ready for music, and I’m telling you, the minute we start moving our feet to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” I cannot stop smiling. It feels kind of like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment. (Which, I admit, is maybe a little sad, but the heart wants what it wants.)

We learn the rest of the choreography. There is no lift, but there is a cheesy staged opening and two serious dips and even that moment when Johnny — er, Brennen — traces his arm down my body. He should be grazing my armpit, like that scene in the movie when Baby can’t stop laughing, but it is 6:30 p.m. on an 80-degree day, so Brennen just kind of air-traces as if there’s a force field around me.

I do not stop grinning for 45 minutes. When I get home, I find myself salsa-ing in the kitchen, not unlike Baby on that white bridge. “I carried a watermelon,” I say to no one in particular, and then it’s back to real life.

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