Once upon a time, I wrote for the parents in the same trenches as I. The moms who smiled often but felt lost inside. The dads who planned the perfect family vacation that had gone awry. The life transitions that catapult a family into change without warning. I wrote for everyone who saw their own childhood in their children’s lives. 

I reflected on the trials, tribulations and celebrations of parenthood and marriage. I never intended to paint rosy pictures because the truth is—all of it—is beautifully brutal. Every ounce of self is consumed by ensuring the overall well-being of the family. Nourishing meals, clean clothing, academics, financial stability, emotional and physical wellness, healthy relationships—the list goes on and on and on. I wrote about it all and enjoyed doing so. I feel blessed to have published documentation of a life well-lived.

“Opening the door and crossing the threshold was like stepping through a closet 
into Narnia.”

Fortunately, as with anything, life has its phases and stages. I am entering the phase of “without,” where I will be without: children under the roof, dinner to prep, sports to organize, doctor appointments to make, late-night fretting, digital device battles, reminders, random socks discovered everywhere, shuffling kids, raging basement parties, sibling bickering, school photos, etc. And while, yes, I will still need to help and support my young adults, it’s nothing compared to the demands of full-time parenting.

Yet… yet, while my new world is without so much, it is doubly full with new experiences, which overshadow the absences. Within this newness is where I will spend my time over the next few years. The “Parenting & Beyond” column has reached its beyond point. This column will shift into experiences of a life outside of parenting. And my first new adventure to write about began where I least expected—on a dance floor at the Mercury Café in Denver.

My friend, Kelly, invited me to a group swing dance lesson on a Sunday night in Denver. My first thought was, Who leaves the house on a Sunday night? But that was the tethered Sandy thinking. The one who used Sundays to meal prep for the week and ensured laundry was caught up (okay, that’s a lie, but I tried). Also, Sundays were intended to wind down the week, help kids with school projects, organize something in the house. Whatever the day entailed, it never included swing dancing. Of course I accepted the invitation and met my friend in a seedy parking lot where white paper sheets clung to fences, litter was strewn about and dark bundles of clothing shifted in corners. Not necessarily where I thought it would be, but my friend hopped out of her car and greeted me with the biggest hug that made all my worries dissolve like salt in a cup of warm water.

The exterior was painted deep purple and the sign that read Mercury Café was missing a letter or two. Opening the door and crossing the threshold was like stepping through a closet into Narnia. To my left was a stage being set up with instruments—people were shuffling papers and sitting at small tables. A poetry reading was about to commence. We walked past while heads turned and smiled in greeting. As we ventured further back, the scent of coffee welcomed me with a warm embrace as we found a cozy booth to slide into and ordered some food.

I took it all in.

It’s as if I stepped back in time. A time and space I would gladly visit again and again. Twinkle lights dangled on healthy floor plants, and eclectic retro items adorned the pale blue walls and shelves. A brilliant red wall held an array of mugs used by regulars. We decided it was a cross between ’50s beatnik chic and Mama Cass’s living room. It was a whole world inside a world.

Within a few minutes, two elderly gentlemen approached a simple stage. One with a violin, the other sat at the old beat-up piano, and before long, melodies that would melt your soul filled the room. Their version of “What a Wonderful World” lived with me long after.

With bellies full, I followed Kelly up a dark set of stairs that led to an enormous dance hall with a full stage on one end and a bar with high top tables at the other. Along one side of the dance floor were more small tables with chairs. We were invited to join the other 50 people who were in a large circle with two dance teachers inside. These two were super fun and cute. She, a tiny powerhouse of a dancer, and he, tall with an inviting personality and a playfulness that eased the room. We were divided into “leads” and “followers,” as is traditionally the case for any organized style of dance. I assumed I was a follower considering I had not a clue what I was doing.

Like good students, a room full of individuals with the same intention, we quietly listened for directions and began the basics of swing step dancing. I held about 50 pairs of hands as I met each new partner who practiced the moves with me. We’d shake hands and introduce ourselves, then either admit we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, or explained if they had danced before and understood the general idea. This was merely practice for them. I felt more comfortable in their presence.

After an hour and a half of stepping on toes, bumping into random people, a million apologies and retrying of moves, I kid you not, a 10-piece brass band set up on stage. I was so focused on the moves, I didn’t even realize they were there. When the lesson came to an end, the dance floor opened for business.

Mesmerized by the brass swing band, William and the Romantics, I sat at one of the tables and took it all in. The band was composed of 10 brass pieces, a bluesy male singer, and a soulful woman whose voice made the hair stand up on my arms. How could I not dance?

Soon, I discovered that all it takes for someone to ask for a dance is an extension of the hand and eye contact. Like a girl at a middle school dance, I sat on the side, watching the floor fill with dancers. Spinning and smiling, flailing and twirling. The rhythm and base of the band filled the room with an ecstatic energy. My toes tapped and my body gyrated to the highs and lows of the music. I was awestruck. Mesmerized. I couldn’t believe this world of dance still existed!

Then the question echoed in my mind: Is someone going to ask me to dance?

Now, it’s important that I tell you there is no intimate intention in the invitation to dance. Everyone in the Mercury Café that night was there to dance and dance hard. I was asked by a silver fox of a man who spun me around the dance floor like it was his job. I didn’t have a choice in where I was going. A good lead does that for you.

While I followed my lead like a pro, I had a flashback to a moment in my childhood: a vision of myself in my mother’s kitchen when I was 10 years old. My mother and father had danced professionally before they had a family. My mom would turn up the radio and spin me around the kitchen in the swing style fashion. I didn’t know that’s what it was then, but I remember laughing and feeling out of my own control. Minutes would turn into an hour until we finally collapsed on the living room couch.

As my mind returned to the dance floor and back into the moment, I recognized these steps were a part of me. I felt the vaguely familiar moves begin to rise through my body. My confidence grew and I put a little zing in my step, an extra sway in my hips. My partner was so kind and supportive. He would talk me through certain moves and remind me to go this way or that. By the end of that first song, I felt it in my bones… I’ve missed having a partner to dance with.

As it turns out, there’s a world of experiences holding out a hand, inviting a dance. I just have to say yes!