Dance first, eat later

Payments whittled my budget until things got so dire one week my fridge held only carrots and mustard.

Voluntarily eating for one week on a $21 welfare allowance, though uncomfortable, is a far cry from the reality of being forced by financial circumstances to face the everyday grind of an inadequate food budget week after week with no relief in sight.

This I learned at age 24 when I naively signed up for an enjoy-now, pay-later deal simple math would have convinced me was foolhardy. I could not afford it.

I was working in a New York City hospital 40 hours a week for a weekly salary of $84, a respectable secretary’s income at that time.

All winter I had attended night courses every Monday and Wednesday evening with plenty of homework sandwiched between work and classes. My only physical exercise consisted of a 30 minute walk to work each morning.

When May arrived and classes suspended until September, I saw an opportunity to flex a few leg muscles.

An ad in the daily paper for Dale Dance Studio showed the silhouette of an elegant couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in evening dress.

Impulsively, I signed up for a 10-month course of ballroom dancing.

What possessed me to select ballroom dancing is something I’ve never been able to explain satisfactorily even to myself.

The surest gauge of my fear and folly has to be my memory loss of that signing moment. Beyond the fact the course cost $900 with $90 monthly payments, I recall only an office person asking, “Are you sure you can handle the cost of the course and the size of the monthly payments?”

Without hesitation, I signed on the dotted line.

And so began months of evening practising by myself of the cha cha, the dance craze of that summer, to the beat of an LP spinning on my record player.

The dance studio on Broadway was hangar-sized with a hardwood floor and mirror walls. A few wooden chairs offered minimal seating.

Students paid to dance, and that’s what we did, in the arms of young instructors with ramrod spines wearing suits so fitted by comparison Howard Wolowitz’s attire is roomy.

The studio offered degrees of classes, from bronze beginner level up through silver and gold to platinum. Platinum students tended to be elderly ladies who took the lessons year after year more for companionship and the occasional school party.

Carrying a bag lunch was routine for myself and the 12 women I worked with and that didn’t change.

We took our coffee breaks in the hospital tea room where a coffee was probably 10 cents, and augmented our lunches in the cafeteria with an iced tea or slice of iced cantaloupe.

On paydays, three of us would go to the nearby bank to cash our cheques then order lunch at a diner next door. My choice was always franks and beans; it was my comfort food.

I’ve never been much of a cook. My tastes range to fresh produce, veggies such as carrot sticks, apples, or other fruit.

For my solitary suppers, I liked to fry a quarter pound of ground beef and have that topped with either ketchup or Libby’s mustard along with bread and a salad.

When I signed up with Dale, I failed to comprehend how those course payments would sap my weekly food budget, little by little, like ticks on a deer.

Payments whittled my budget until things got so dire one week my fridge held only carrots and mustard. That I remember clearly. Even I could see my situation wasn’t sustainable. I refinanced my lessons to lower monthly payments.

Dale’s lessons didn’t make me a great dancer, but they did teach me to save first and always pay cash.