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Perspective

Dear bride and groom: Watch your steps

Want to know how a marriage will turn out? Pay attention to the first dance.

Juliette Borda

LAST YEAR, I WATCHED HALLE RUSHOLT coach an engaged couple through their third lesson at Extreme Dancesport, her studio in Cambridge. Paul Fombelle, the husband-to-be, was clean-cut and self-deprecating, but not overly so. His partner, Gina Poppe, was statuesque, a little shy, and laughed at Paul’s jokes. As the Avett Brothers’ “Swept Away” played on the speaker system, Halle peppered the two with dance instructions that, it struck me, were also lessons for a successful marriage.

“You’ve got to fully commit to the movement,” she said at one point.

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When Paul complained to Gina that he felt her pulling away, Halle said it was his responsibility to lead her back in.

Take small steps, said Halle, so you can do them well.  

“Dancing is a sweat job,” Fred Astaire once observed. Marriage is a sweat job, too, and I have a theory that you can tell a lot about a couple by how they approach their first dance. Work well together, and you’ll live well together. During our engagement, Reid agreed to take six lessons to prepare for our first dance. The steps were difficult, yet he approached them openly, ready to tackle the challenge. Reid made time to practice with me even though it was the fall of 2004 and, like any proper Red Sox fan, he had other, more pressing rituals to attend to. 

Looking back, those lessons were a microcosm of the marriage to come: We showed up, worked together, failed, laughed, laughed harder, got angry when one of us was laughing too hard, and tried again. We kept at it until it worked. We’ve repeated that pattern again and again — when we moved from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Boston, when we parented two young children while the norovirus paid our house a visit.  

Halle, too, thinks you can tell much about a couple during their dance lessons. “When the couple is positive, committed, respectful, and having fun,” they’ll do well together, she says. In contrast, she once had a bride who cried the day before her wedding because the intricate routine she wanted to perform, for which her fiance had prepared by coming in for his own lessons, fell short of the bride’s expectations. 

During the dance lessons my friend Nicole took before her first marriage, she and her fiance fought for the lead position. A self-described klutz, Nicole felt nothing but clumsy during those humorless lessons. Their first dance was as awkward as the two-year marriage that followed. Their divorce was written on the dance floor. 

Later, Nicole returned to lessons with another man, and the two of them guided each other toward gracefulness. The result: Nicole says she felt as if she were twirling and whirling at their wedding. They’ve been happily married for five years.

Michele Cloutier, owner of Brookline’s Dance in Boston, says the dynamics of a relationship always play out during lessons. For her, the number one sign of a healthy relationship is the couple’s ability to laugh at themselves. “If they don’t take themselves too seriously, and I see them collaborating to figure out a problem they’re having with a pattern, then I feel like it’s a good partnership.”

At Extreme Dancesport, Paul’s and Gina’s feet got tangled during the third run-through of their song. They giggled. I was relieved. Before that, their faces had been scrunched, their teeth clenched. “If you screw up, you just keep dancing,” Halle called.

By the 12th and last run-through, their muscle memory had kicked in, their faces softened, a thunderstorm rolled in, and Chacha, the studio’s chocolate lab, was lying near the speaker watching.  

Paul never lifted Gina the way Johnny lifts Baby; they would never win a Mirror Ball Trophy like those couples on Dancing With the Stars, but I walked out of the studio knowing they were going to make it.

They married in upstate New York in July. Their dance was by all accounts beautiful.

***

“EVERYTHING”

By Michael Buble

The most popular song for a first dance these days, says Michael O’Neill, who DJs 45 Boston-area weddings a year (djmichael.com)

Tara Lynn Jordan is a freelance writer in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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