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You Gotta Know How to Dance

"The whole girlfriend business is a family affair."

Published onAug 14, 2023
You Gotta Know How to Dance

Photo by Khoa Võ:

“You’re working out? Now?” my mom asks me. “You want to be strong for your girlfriend? Future wife?”

Life’s a delicate balance, and I’m yet to break it to her that there’s no longer a girl in the picture. There will be no wedding bells. She’s the one that started this whole thing, after all. My mother. But I don’t want to see her hurt, and that factors heavily into everything I do.

Cecilia effectively broke off our relationship, as things started going downhill with a simple question that I asked her: Will you marry me? Mom introduced us about a year ago when I still lived at home with her in Boston. “She’s the daughter of my coworker,” she said. “You’ll like her.” Coworker at Verizon wireless. Sure, I didn’t mind at the time. Seemed like that old adage mother knows best applied. Why push back? Why not try it out? I’d thought at the time. See where things go. Especially since the least of my worries was a breakup.

“How’s the weather down there in Atlanta?”

“It’s windy with a drizzle,” I lie.

The sun’s actually out in full force as I look out my window. The neighbors have a U-Haul in their driveway, fully loaded and ready to go.

“Please be practicing your dancing, whenever you get a chance,” Mom continues. “Charles danced at his wedding, and soon it’ll be your turn.”

Charles, my brother who dated his partner for five years before they wedded. Cecilia and I will be a year soon, assuming we’re still together, which we’re not. Assuming I never proposed to her too soon, and all the other little things.

“Mom, I’ve gotta go before the rain starts,” I say, trying to end her pressure campaign.

“How’s Sarah?”

Sarah, my sister who moved in with me after her undergraduate years at Georgia Tech. Even with that fancy education she still needed someone to supplement her rent, so of course I had to be the one to share my condo with her. Nothing like sharing a space with your sis and a roommate who’s barely ever in town, all on a meager bookstore salary with your mom holding the purse strings.

“She’s fine.”

“I hope so. I haven’t heard from her today.”

I’m not sure what she expects from me, but there’s silence. Until she finally breaks it.

“Alright, I’ll let you go. We’ll talk later. Bye, now.”

I end the call, pocketing my phone. “Sarah, Mom called! I’m headed out.” I knock on her door and hear her say “in a meeting” before heading down the stairs. She’s in a meeting, though I doubt it’s anything like the pressure of knowing you’ll have to dance one day at a wedding that’ll never happen.

I’m at the bottom stairs when I hear Sarah’s door swing open.

“What does she want? I told her I’d be in a meeting.”

I shrug. “Why are you mad at me? She only asked about you. I’m going to the gym. Is your interview going on right now?”

“It’s about to,” she says.


“You asked me this before. Yes, Moderna.”

I want to ask her whether her interview is as disorganized as the COVID vaccine rollouts once were. But I’m not looking to start something, so I head out.

“How long will you be gone for?” she asks.


“Cause Mom’s probably gonna call and ask me.”

“I don’t know. Tell her after the gym I’m headed to the dance studio down the street.”

“You can afford that? Cecilia’s paying?”

She apparently doesn’t know Cecilia very well. Even though they met several times, before our breakup. I’m trying to figure out whether I should yell we’re no longer dating. But before she’s finished, I’m already out the door, banging it shut.

The whole girlfriend business is a family affair. Unbeknownst to Mom and Sarah, I tried. I really tried. Even before I popped the question, compromise became my best friend. Cecilia in traveling home to Texas and back often brought her uncles and aunts. They all loved me, except a certain Uncle Julio who advised that Hispanic girls from Texas don’t mesh well with boys from Boston. I ignored that garbage, of course. However, going out to Tex-mex restaurants with her family and not being able to order anything vaguely resembling Mexican cuisine may have taken its toll. But we were brought together by two moms who liked each other, I figured, so why not keep the relationship going.

I’m about to cross the street to reach the sidewalk on the other side. The walk signal appears. I run across the road. A sedan approaching makes me pick up my pace. Reaching the other side, I begin to walk at a moderate pace, past the Kohl’s and toward Planet Fitness. I pull out my phone and see a message from Mom. Sarah’s not answering her phone. I ignore it.

When I reach the gym, I enter though the double doors. There’s a muscular lady with a thin frame in front of me, someone who I recognize. She’s usually on one of the blue mats in the gym, stretching out like an acrobat. I want to be as energetic as her when I’m practicing my own dance, whenever that may be. But today, she doesn’t look too animated. She holds the door for me and I quickly grab it, saying “thank you.”

Kevin, my trainer, is waiting for me at the reception desk.

“Hey, how’s it going?” he says. He extends his fist and I do the same.

He’s a short and brawny black guy, shorter than me at least. His hair is overgrown as usual, as though a comb hasn’t raked through it in years.

“You alright?” he asks.

“Good, good,” I say.

He’s looking at me like he knows what’s up. The same way he looked at me the last few times I walked in the gym.

“You had a good weekend?”

“Yeah, I did,” I reply. “Do you all teach dance here?”

“Dance?” Kevin doesn’t hide his bewilderment. “You want to learn how to dance? You’re in the wrong place, man.”

“That lady I just walked in with.” I’m looking around for her as I speak. “She’s always on the mat doing her thing.”

“Yeah, but that’s different,” Kevin says. “That’s athletic stuff. You want to learn that, or something else entirely?”

“I want to learn some actual dance moves.”

“Walk me with,” Kevin says.

I follow him, staring at the word trainer on the back of his orange jersey. We head over to the back of the gym where the pull up bars are.

“What type of dance are you looking to do?”

I’m drawing a blank.

“Where’s your water? You forgot your water today?”

My face is getting warm, but I try to pretend otherwise. “I’ll bring it next time.”

“I see you got a lot on your mind,” he says, looking at me. “So, what’s the dance lesson for?”

“Not for right now, but possibly the future.”

“What’s going on man?” he says, adopting a more serious look. “You going to fill me in, or what?”

“Nah, I’m good. We can start now if you’re ready.”

“Alright, if you insist,” Kevin says. “I mean I know we’ve only known each other for a week or so. But I’ll be around if you change your mind.”

I get in position and grab the bars up high. My legs are crossed when I yank myself up. I do ten pull ups, making sure my chin dips below the bar each time.

“You’re getting better!” he exclaims.

My feet land on the hard ground and I take several breaths to recover. He pats my shoulder hard.

“Nice job. Don’t rest. You’ve got two more sets.”

He’s so buff I want to ask him to compete with me, to yank his body up and down in a show of strength, just so it’s not all talk from his side. But it’s likely he won’t agree given the gym sessions aren’t about him or his superiority.

Again, my hands go up to touch the bars. I do another set of ten before lowering myself down.

“Remember to always bring your chin below the bar,” he says.

I nod and pull my body back up to do the last set.

“Don’t forget to cross your legs,” he reminds me.

If only dancing were this easy, I say to myself as my lower limbs intertwine. My mind races back to my younger years, when I actually could dance, according to Mom. I was happier and not burdened by relationships, I imagine. One time I won a huge bar of chocolate after my moves on the dance floor carried me to victory in a competition with a girl. Cadbury, I seem to recall, and that’s not according to Mom’s account.

Lowering myself down after the last set of pull ups, I again notice how Kevin looks at me.

“Where’s your mind at?” he asks.

“I just did ten.”

“Yeah, man. I saw you.” He smiles as though it’s funny. “You still thinking about dancing?”

I want to rebut him.

“My girlfriend ended our relationship after I asked her to marry me. I thought her giving it a few days to think about wasn’t a good sign. Turns out I was right. She texted me saying she didn’t think we were going to work, after all.”

Kevin’s eyes appear sympathetic, so I go on.

“She wasn’t my type anyways. Too high maintenance.”

“Hey man, at least you asked her,” he says, laughing again. “Now you’ll go learn how to dance so when another one shows up, you’ll be ready. You know I’m a dance instructor, right?”

I perk up on hearing him offer himself.

“I’m kidding, just kidding man,” he says, smacking me over the shoulder with a playful smile. “Learn how to laugh a little, bro.”

I want to punch him, but I hold back, hastily moving on to our next activity.

“Slow down, man,” he says, catching up to me. “I know you’re eager to do things, but I’m the instructor.”

I want to tell him that I’m paying for my gym membership for a reason. But I don’t want to antagonize him.

“You know, in order to be a good dancer, you’ve gotta get those muscles toned. That’s the first thing.” He walks over to the bench press. I follow him.

“Alright. You ready for some squats?”

I’m looking at the wet bench as he searches for something. Then I look at him. My eyes go back and forth.

“What? Oh, the bench?” he says, shoving it toward the wall. “We won’t be using it.” He summons me to come near him and stand with my back propping up the bar.

I’m moving toward him when I hear a gravelly voice.

“You guys know I was using that, right?”

He’s from appearances a middle-aged man, yet his veins are coarse and visible, running from near the top of his shoulders down to his forearms. His bald head complements his ripped figure.

“Were you?” asks Kevin. He comes out from behind the bar where the bench sits. “Give us a few…”

“I can’t do that,” the man says.

I want to look away at the coming car crash. Kevin and the man are staring each other down. But Kevin blinks.

“C’mon Isaac, let’s skedaddle.”

I hear the man grunt. He’s looking in our direction as we walk away.

“Some of the folks around here,” Kevin says under his breath. “White trash.” He looks around and then heads for the front desk. I follow.

“Sorry,” he says. “Most of the equipment’s being used. Lemme get some water before we continue.” He heads behind his desk and grabs a bottle. “You want some water?”

He nearly bumps into the chubby guy manning the desk, before tossing a chilled Dasani bottle my way.

I catch the bottle and chug the water down.

“We’ll get started again in a few,” Kevin says.

“Cool,” I reply. I set the bottle down on the desk.

“Nah, that’s yours. Take it.” He pushes the bottle toward me. “Don’t throw that away. You’re gonna be sweating and thirsty when we start up again.”

My hand squeezes the plastic, holding on tight.

“Aw man. Is he coming here?” asks Kevin. “Here he comes. Here he comes.” He looks legit worried for the first time, so I look around for who’s coming.

The bald guy. His face is scrunched up as he nears and I’m not getting good vibes. I back up toward the door.

“Yo, are you leaving?” asks Kevin. He wears a baffled expression. “We’re not done, yo.” He switches his focus to the aggressive looking man now feet away.

“Have you guys seen my phone?”

Kevin turns his back, slowly walking toward the cubby holes on the other side of the reception space. The guy manning reception simply shrugs.

“You must be new. Where the hell are you going, man?” asks the bald guy. “I asked you a question.” He now turns to me. I push open the door ready to walk out, possibly run.

“Hey, he’s not the one with your cellphone.” Kevin steps out from behind the desk area. “Don’t be bothering folks. This it right here?”

He extends his hand to reveal the device in his palm. The man latches onto the phone.

“Take it, damn it!” Kevin says.

They stare at each other, with the guy almost snarling. Then he suddenly snatches the phone from Kevin’s hand, turning around to swagger away.

I figure that’s the end of that. Until I hear Kevin say fuckin’ idiot.

The man rushes back and takes a swing, smacking Kevin across the face.

The guy behind the desk yells “hey!” like a helpless animal being led to slaughter. But it’s already too late. Kevin after a brief stagger backward licks the insides of his mouth for blood.

“You wanna try me? Let’s dance.” He rushes forward, taking a swing at the bald guy. But he misses. The bald guy grabs him and tries to do a chokehold. I’m panicking as several big guys run up to him, trying to dislodge his massive forearms from around Kevin’s neck.

“Call the cops! I saw one outside!” one says.

Kevin manages to break free with help from the guys, his throat canal no longer being obstructed. He coughs repeatedly.

“The fool is NEVER coming in here again!”

The two stare each other down for the last time before the bald guy darts my way. I’m aware he’s coming for the doors so I run further inside the gym, through the hallway next to the reception desk. One that’s rarely used by patrons. I see the bald guy burst through the doors, and I finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“Why’d he run? Tell me why he ran?” barks Kevin, now more confident.

I walk over to him. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He dusts himself off while looking around. “The coward ran for the hills.”

Coward. I don’t share the same definition of the word that he does. But I keep my thoughts to myself.

“We’re gonna have to call it a day man.” He checks his watch. “You know, you should look up dance classes around here. They probably have some cheap ones.”

I want to tell him I appreciate his thinking about me considering what just occurred. I also want to tell him he’s provided the most action I’ve seen in a very long time, more than any dance class will likely ever provide.

“Are you alright?”

The acrobat lady is back. She approaches Kevin with deep concern in her eyes. But he quickly informs her that he’s doing fine.

“You good man?” asks the guy at reception.

I want to not think it, but I feel he’s been useless. It’s a thought I try to erase.

“Yeah,” Kevin says. “I’m fine, guys. He will NEVER be allowed in here ever again.”

I’m right behind him as he leaves the gym with several others.

“You gotta be in great shape to fight someone like that,” says one of the guys.

You gotta know how to dance, I’m thinking. No one’s taking on a guy like that unless he’s a great dancer.

“Sorry about today, man,” Kevin suddenly says, turning. I’m again surprised that he’s thinking of me in the midst of such attention swirling around him.

“What a godawful day,” he says, wiping his forehead. “But you know what, man? You don’t have to put up with anything or anyone you don’t want to. That includes dancing.”

He’s forcing a smile, though I see the cut on his face. I appreciate that, so I extend my fist to him. I’m initiating for the first time. He comes through, our knuckles meeting.

 “You need a ride home?”

“Yeah, I’d appreciate that,” I reply.


Kevin’s just dropped me off when my phone starts to ring. I’m literally standing at the front door while Sarah’s calling. I pick up.

“Mom wants to know where you are?”

“Sarah, I just spoke to Mom.”

“She says Cecilia sent her a message saying you guys are no longer a couple.”

I pause. “Yeah, what about it?”

“She says you could have just told her when it happened.”

Yeah, right, I’m thinking.

I open the door and bang it shut.

“I’m back now. I’ll give her a call.”

I hang up on Sarah, though I’m not sure whether she did too. What I am sure of is that I won’t be dancing anytime soon. Mom’s bound to get over her disappointment. The call can wait. I reach my room and bang the door shut. I can hear Sarah in hers, not cracking under the pressure of the interview that’s just begun as she’s asked question after question. For me, there’s no need to dance any longer, there’s no one to dance for. But I will say that having that girl out of my life is perhaps worth a celebratory waltz.

Chen Okafor is a Malaysian born Black writer with Nigerian roots who resides in Atlanta. In addition to being an active member of The Atlanta Writer’s Club, he proofreads for two literary magazines (The Malahat Review and Gemini Magazine). His poem “Living Among the Miscellaneous” won 2nd place in Vox Atlanta’s Art, Poetry & Essay contest (May 2008). Several of his poems have been featured in Children, Churches & Daddies literary magazine. He’s currently at work on a novel.

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