The First Drop in my Bucket List

The First Drop in my Bucket List

The Conclusion of My Big Fat Ballroom Competition

Written by Cherri Ellis Photographed by Liesa Cole

I was in line at the Birmingham airport at about 5:30 am. It had just been refurbished, and the line for security was a mile long queue of sleepy faces staring up at the new colors and flashing screens. It was sort of awkward to be packed in with other people so closely so early, so the lady next to me and I struck up a conversation. I told her I was on my way home to celebrate my mother’s birthday and she said she couldn’t go through security because of her pacemaker. She looked way too young to be sporting a pacemaker, and when she told me, she said it with a look that I interpreted as “yeah, it’s sad but what do you do?” It got quiet, and I was thinking large thoughts about how we are all really dying when she said quietly “I am on my way to go skiing again…my last time.” I looked her in the eye and said “You don’t know that. You don’t know it’s your last time.” She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “I meant this season.” As you can imagine, the rest of our time together was even more awkward.

So there it was. How ironic. Just when life seemed great and I was back to doing what I wanted, breast cancer still had me looking at life through a filter of imminent death, to the point that I thought a stranger who was going on a trip was about to die, too. Dumb. All in my head.

So since I apparently am unable to forget the transience of life, I have decided to engage with it in a positive way. I am starting my bucket list, now, while I am brimming with health.

Last month I challenged myself to compete in a ballroom dance contest after one month of lessons. Fabian Sanchez of Dancing With The Stars fame gave me eight private lessons and I made some really great friends. One of them was Aubrey, a 7–year–old girl who had come through cancer at the same time I did, and one of them was Barbara, a lady of elegant, indeterminate age who took me under her wing. In a Fred Astaire Studio tucked behind an Outback Steakhouse on Montgomery Highway in Hoover, I had a little life breathed into me.

The subculture of ballroom dance has reached new popularity. There are local salsa clubs and swing nights, and Fabian and Jackie Sanchez’s Fred Astaire Dance Studio is one of the top 15 in the country. I went from being intimidated by it, to engaging with it, to full out embracing it. I bought the shoes. I rented the dress. I skipped lunches to take lessons, I practiced in my kitchen. I practiced in my head. I ate the words of countless speeches to my daughter and got a spray tan. It was my Super Bowl, and I wasn’t going in without pads.

The South Central Dance Championships and Freddy Award Ball is no small thing. It is a fascinating cross cut of every demographic you can imagine. The one I was in had every age from children to octogenarians, and while they were all shapes and sizes, they all came ready to dance. The atmosphere is cordial with an old world elegance, tinged with just the right amount of cutthroat competition. This particular event has been going on for 30 years in one form or another, and it drew people from Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. In attendance are a Master of Ceremonies, three judges, a person who chooses the music cut for each heat, a Deck Captain who releases the dancers to the floor, and a Scrutineer who makes the call in the event of a tie.

My number was an open East Coast Swing, which meant it was individualized moves that Fabian choreographed just for us, as opposed to standardized dance steps like compulsories. Dancing with him is difficult to describe without sounding like a schoolgirl or a stalker, so I will just say…it was the most biggest fun EVER and I wish I could lock him in a tower so I could dance with him all the time. He is used to his affect on women. When we first met he gave me the tongue in cheek speech he gives many new students. He poured on the Colombian accent and said, “Listen, Darling, you will think you are falling in love with me, but it isn’t me. It is the music, and the movement…” I met his gaze and replied “OMG! That is exactly what my OB/Gyn said! We worked through it.” A friendship was born.

My biggest problem during my lessons was learning to follow. I would memorize the choreography and get ahead of myself, which did not fly with Fabian at all. When I didn’t wait for him to lead me into the next move, he was all over it. “Look at me!” he would whisper sternly as he spun me around. Flustered, I would lose my place. When he told me that we wouldn’t practice again before the competition, I looked at him with eyes the size of pie plates. “Now,” he said to me as I hugged him goodbye, “You get out there and have fun. The judges will know it if you aren’t.”

Though easily worth it, it is not an inexpensive pastime. Aside from the cost of lessons, many of the people who were dancing in the Marriott Highway 280 with me routinely traveled to tournaments in San Juan, LA, and Orlando. The clothing involved is an elaborately constructed display of color and glitzy excess. You can find the gowns online for a fee of $350 to several thousand dollars, and that’s rental, not purchase.

I rented mine from Barbara, and when I first tried it on I was terrified; it looked like I needed to be standing by a white tiger in a circle of pyrotechnics. It was cheetah print, shirred and covered in clear sequins except for my right breast which was inexplicably one solid teal sparkle. It was stretchy and skin tight and erupted into a flouncy ruffle right where things get serious on a woman. It took me several tries to get it on correctly, since it’s NASA engineering involved attached trunks and a separately fastened bra. Little did I know that the outfit would eventually include flesh colored fishnets, seven flashing teal bracelets, a gemstone choker that covered my whole chest, and six–inch long earrings that acted like facial numchucks when I turned my head too quickly. When I walked out in it I expected laughter, but Fabian simply said, “Yes, you will wear that,” and went back to what he was doing. Barbara, who takes lessons nearly every day in her goal to be World Champion in her category, smiled and whispered “You will dance differently in that dress.” I looked in the mirror and did an experimental pivot. The weight of the ruffle snapped around my body in a satisfying crack, and I understood. It was time to finalize my preparations.

To get a spray tan, you first have to make a dizzying array of decisions. Possibly due in part to the wine I consumed beforehand, I purchased every additive option and upgrade available. I was taken to small, clean, modern room with a giant, upright, gleaming booth. Naked except for a surgical cap and special blocking cream on the soles of your hands and feet, you step inside the pre–heated booth and hold your arms up like you are being scanned in the airport. A pleasant, female, recorded voice instructs you to put your left foot on the number one and your right foot on the number three, and then a micro fine mist begins spraying you from the floor to the ceiling. You hear a click, and a warm soft stream of air blows you dry from your face back down to your feet. The nice lady’s voice comes back and puts your feet on different numbers until you have made four quarter turns and voila! You are done. No rubbing in, no nothing. Looking in the mirror at home that night, I was shocked at how amazing it looked. I went in a pasty white woman from Inverness—I woke up as J Lo.

The morning of the competition I was ready to accept my fate. As I signed in at registration I ran into Aubrey, my beautiful 7–year–old buddy who seemed nonplussed. While her Mom juggled the details of the day, Aubrey smiled up at me with the peaceful, excited face of a girl who learned too early that dancing like a princess is more fun than getting 52 blood transfusions. She hugged me tight and our hearts beat together just for a second. She is sort of my hero. I was scooped up by Barbara and put in front of her personal makeup artist who specializes in the ballroom look. No time to waste, I took the elevator down to the Grande Ballroom, where I nervously waited in the background, maniacally going over the steps in my head.

I was in Heat #277, Championship American Eastern Swing Bronze Open, and when that number flashed on the screen Fabian came to me, gave me his arm, and led me to the edge of the floor. He looked at me and smiled, and my nerves gave way to gratitude. I mouthed the words, “Thank you,” and the next thing I knew we were on the floor. Our dance was a blur of music and motion and pure, crystallized fun. At one point I realized I had zero idea what came next, but Fabian spun me around hard into a drop move, which was sort of the money shot of our number. I thought I had made a mistake and he had covered for me, but he later explained to me what had happened. Sensing that the music was about to end, he had cut out some steps in order for us to get to the drop move. I hadn’t made a mistake. He had changed the choreography. And I had followed.

Jackie and Fabian run a magic shop and you are cheating yourself if you don’t go get yourself some. Aubrey danced like a little pro and got outstanding scores in all of her heats. My check to Barbara for dress rental never cleared because she has ridiculous class and generosity and ripped it up without even telling me. I placed first in my heat. It was thrilling, but paled in comparison to what I learned on the way to the judges’ stand.

Nobody knows how many drops go into their bucket before it gets kicked, but this I do know: It is never too early to start filling it up.

One Response to “The First Drop in my Bucket List”

  1. Jeanette Steen says:

    Another amazing article. I would love to read about your other bucket list experiences too one day. You have inspired me, as Aubrey’s mom, to finally start thinking about my own bucket list. To enjoy life to its fullest.

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