I got engaged a couple of months ago. It was a stunningly romantic proposal on a beach at sunset. Despite discussions about marriage, I had no idea the proposal was coming, and my fiancé is very pleased that he was able to pull off a huge surprise.
With the proposal accepted, we’ve started talking about a wedding, and that has led to a lot of conversations about our relationship and the people who are important to it. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes – by our count – at least five people to create a couple. With Thanksgiving approaching, we’ve been reflecting on how grateful we are to the people who made a difference in our lives.
The first is a former coworker of mine from Massachusetts. I moved to the western part of the state for a job in 1996, and I knew no one. A few days after I met her, she asked me if I liked to dance.
“Sure,” I said.
“Have you ever done swing dancing?” she asked.
The answer to that was no. I had done a little jazz and even less ballet, but no partner dancing.
“My ex-boyfriend will be at your apartment at 6:30 on Wednesday to pick you up,” she said.
Her ex-boyfriend eventually became my dance partner. I learned East Coast Swing and then West Coast Swing. Then I moved for another job and gave it up.
Flash forward seven years: I was in the midst of a drawn-out and painful breakup. The photo editor at the newspaper where I worked was an incredibly empathetic soul who would come in each morning, check on me and, if needed – and it was almost always needed – give me a pep talk to get me through the day.
“You need to find a way to be happy again,” he said during one morning chat. “You need to find something that makes you happy.”
My response was immediate.
“I used to dance,” I said. “I still think about it sometimes. When I’m at the gym on the elliptical or treadmill, I think about dancing.”
“Well, that’s it,” he said. “You need to start dancing again.”
I moved to Rhode Island and took salsa classes. But I still had West Coast Swing on my mind. In 2006, I moved to Milwaukee and found a West Coast teacher there.
Meanwhile, my fiancé, Greg, was trying to fill his time with hunting trips, home construction and a boat repair business. Then a coworker came into his cubicle, sat down and announced that she wanted to dance. Her husband wasn’t interested. She wanted to know if Greg would go to a lesson with her.
“Sure,” he said. By his account, he had nothing better to do.
They began taking East Coast Swing classes. His coworker quit after a few months, but Greg kept going. He’d made a friend in class, Donna, who encouraged him and, in the early days, counted the beats of the music for him. They danced for a few years, and then Donna took him to an event where he saw West Coast Swing for the first time.
“I want to do that,” he said.
Donna found a class. She found my class.
The first time I met Greg, we were in class, rotating through the line. A couple would dance for a few minutes, and then the men would move to the next woman. I noted that Greg was the right height. That can be important if you’re looking for a dance partner, and I was.
After class, my teacher asked me if I had danced with him. I said yes.
“He has potential,” she said.
I spent a month being friendly to Greg. Meanwhile, Donna was advocating for me. “You should ask her out,” she told him.
Eventually, I told Greg that I hoped to compete someday, and I was looking for a partner.
“That sounds fun,” he said.
“Would you want to practice sometime?” I asked.
“Can I buy you dinner?” he responded.
“After we practice,” I said.
Dancing is still at the center of our relationship. It’s what we do for fun, and it’s where we’ve made most of our friends.
But it’s not something that we would have come to on our own.
And so, we are indebted to the coworkers who got us started, and the friends who kept us going. We’re incredibly grateful for our teacher, who has seen dozens of couples meet and marry in her class.
I once told the photo editor at my old newspaper this story. “You changed my life,” I said.
“I don’t know if I want to be held responsible for that,” he joked.
I know he didn’t know at the time the impact his words would have. Neither did the others. But they reached out to Greg and me when we were lonely, and they helped us find a community. Even if our romance didn’t work out, their acts of kindness still would have been blessings.