Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A bit of cha-cha-cha helps relationship rah-rah-rah

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At first I was taken aback.

I'm not sure where it came from, but my friend felt the urge to share something personal over coffee.

He and his wife had been to a marriage counsellor.

I was surprised because they seemed happy enough together; he loves his wife and his wife loves him.

Then he explained why they need counselling. The kids are grown up and gone and suddenly they are in the season of life our annual backyard visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Robin, experience every summer.

Their nest is empty.

Now, the middle-aged couple -- what the heck let's call them the Robins -- only have each other to care for. And, as their marriage counsellor told them, they need to find a way to reconnect, so the counsellor suggested they look for something they could enjoy doing together.

Something like ballroom dancing.

Actually, when you think about it -- not that most husbands want to -- ballroom dancing has a lot going for it as a substitute for formal marriage therapy. After all, it takes two to tangle.

And two to tango.

Which is sort of what a South African post-graduate psychology student named Ramona Hanke explained to the world in a master's thesis on the subject back in 2006. She entitled it: The Impact of Ballroom Dancing on the Marriage Relationship.

As it happened, Hanke had stumbled upon the concept prior to university while teaching the tango, the waltz and the cha-cha-cha.

Hanke found evidence during her research of dance as movement therapy in various psychology-related areas, but she couldn't find any literature on dancing as marriage therapy.

In her paper, Hanke reflected on her time as a ballroom dance instructor and how out of step couples were when they arrived for dance lessons. Over time, though, not only did the relationship between the husbands and wives become more intimate, but so did her own relationship with the couples she was teaching.

Part of the closeness had to do with connecting on the floor, but the dance studio also encouraged togetherness between students and teacher at weekend social events. Soon, Hanke was sharing her students' birthdays and weddings; their pregnancies and job promotions; their dreams and their aspirations. But she also experienced their arguments, illnesses, miscarriages, discoveries of infertility and family deaths. And as Hanke's relationships with the couples deepened, the couples began to reveal more and more of "the true nature of their marriage and themselves." Initially, they were "very constricted, polite and appropriate." That changed while they were learning and refining the basic steps. The facade slowly faded.

Under it, Hanke saw "a silent, yet deafening anger when a partner had stepped on a toe for the tenth time..."

As Hanke phrased it: "They now started to dance their personalities and their marriage."

It was during this phase she also began to see how the process of learning to dance in step with each other was having an effect on their relationship, although, at first, Hanke didn't know why or how.

"Our marriage has never been as good as it is now," one student told her. "Dancing has changed our marriage," said another.

Ultimately, Hanke made the connection in her post-graduate psychology class. She found lots of literature on movement therapy or dance as a psychiatric, rehab and psychoanalysis tool, but none relating to couples and dance. What she discovered, in the formal research that followed, was essentially what my friend Mr. Robin learned during three months of dancing with the star of his life at the Fort Rouge Leisure Centre: There is something magical about learning to dance with your wife.

There's all that time touching and being in touch. The constant communicating. The fun of gliding gracefully across the floor together.

Just the two of you.

As my friend Mr. Robin described it: "There are no cellphones, no TV, no making dinner. No distractions. Just two loving humans spending two hours together, touching and moving. It's very sexual. But it's not sex."

No, but as Hanke discovered with the subjects in her study: "Since dancing, the married participants described the reoccurrence of early courtship behaviour such as flirting, caressing, hand-holding and the feeling of being in love."

Finally, I asked my friend Mr. Robin if -- as Hanke found -- all this rekindled togetherness and communicating had carried over to the relationship off the dance floor.

"Definitely," he said emphatically.

Yet, in the end, that's not what Mr. Robin loved most about learning to dance with his wife.

"Did you know," he asked with a wide-eyed smile, "that the man gets to lead."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 B2

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