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Garrison Keillor: Dancing aboard the Queen Mary 2

June 19. 2018 10:55PM

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamour and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will. But she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

We eased away from the dock in Brooklyn and sailed past the towers of capitalism and Miss Liberty and under the Verrazano Bridge and around Sandy Hook out onto the vast inhospitable ocean, sitting on deck chairs with blankets over our legs. My wife looks as if she were born to this way of life; you’d never guess she’s from Minnesota.

The cruise business is booming as a way to see the world while sleeping in one bed and not having to pack your clothes every day. What QM2 offers is something more. It’s the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, a slender ship, and its selling point is a style of life. An enormous dance floor with a first-rate dance band playing foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and cha-chas, and the floor crowded with dancers in tuxedos and gowns, expressing their inner elegance. The songs are not about rebellion and being true to yourself, but about the nearness of you, being unable to take my eyes off of you, fascination, walking hand in hand, side by side.

Ballroom dancing is a vanishing culture. If someone came to Minnesota and asked me where they could foxtrot to a live band, I wouldn’t have a clue. There are music clubs where people in their 20s can jump around in the dark to hip-hop and punk, but ballroom dancing is not about self-expression, it’s about two people making each other feel graceful. It’s a conversation. The tango has parameters. So does the mambo. But within each dance is a whole stylistic vocabulary of dips and turns and spins, kicks and bows, hands outstretched, a shimmy shimmy shake. The handsome crooner sings: “Music and passion are always in fashion at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana,” a song out of the deep archive, but the dancers take to it like fish to water, old coots and grandes dames, the limber, the arthritic, the expansive, the conservative, all dancing to the same rhythm but in variant styles.

Everyone has had a life — captain of industry, civil engineer, investment banker, p.r. exec, trial lawyer — but none of that matters now, as the band swings into “I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, but I get a kick out of you” — the dancers are all united in courtship, the men in black-tie uniformity, the women individual, in a gala performance that seems to be vanishing from the world.

The textbook pattern of the dance is only the entry point, and within each form is a whole vocabulary of variations, a bounce, a twist, a kick, a spin. To find freedom of expression within a form is one of the chief pleasures of life.

My wife loves all this and I love to be her consort. We hike around the promenade deck, one-third mile, the Atlantic sliding by, we dress for dinner, we go dancing. A man needs to extend himself when called upon.

I chatted with the singer between sets. Michael Burke. He’s Irish, young, rock ’n’ roll is his natural style, but he is very convincing as a crooner. He has seven sisters in Ireland and so he needs no home of his own, he sings on ships and when he needs a month off, he picks which sister to lodge with. This man knows about family.

As for me, a week on the ocean dancing with Madame has changed my view of things. Self-expression is fine for other people, but not for me. Freedom is much overrated as an experience. Harmony, love, closeness, adoration are to be preferred.

Garrison Keillor lives in Minnesota.

© Garrison Keillor 2018


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