Dancing in the Dark

“And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon.”Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

My childhood memories are jumbled, jagged and incomplete – entire years wiped clean of any clear recollections or defining moments. But certain people and experiences stand out. Lucio and Stephanie Costanzo, who literally danced their way through life with the kind of joy and abandon I always envied, loom large in my memories.

Lucio taught school with my mother, and his ruddy, long beard and booming laugh echo through my earliest memories. Stephanie wore her auburn hair long and her laugh was lighter, higher pitched and full of life. They were younger than my parents, and pretty much full on hippies who churned their own ice cream, ate granola before granola was a word you’d recognize, sewed their own clothes – you get the picture. And they danced. Oh, how they danced. Stephanie was Polish and Lucio Italian. And when they glided onto a dance floor, everyone moved aside just to watch them.

At my older brother Gordon’s bar mitzvah, I remember being mesmerized as Lucio – in red plaid pants and a powder blue sports coat (this was the 1970s) – whirled Stephanie all around the temple dance floor. I recall watching their faces as they moved effortlessly around the floor, Lucio throwing his head back in laughter, Stephanie smiling up at him as they executed the most intricate of steps with a grace I didn’t know was possible. And I felt a little of the joy I knew they were feeling in that moment.

They lived on Long Island, but far enough away from us that our families didn’t get together that often – but when we did it was a daylong affair – my four siblings and me commingling with their three children, Sergio, Stacia and Gavin – and then later on Lance, their fourth. We played Parcheesi and Yahtzee and Boggle in their sunken living room and ate huge, communal meals. When it was time to go home, I was always incredibly sad. It was a magical, happy place and I never wanted the joy to end.

Although we lost touch over the years, I sent them an invitation to my wedding in 1997. They were an integral part of my childhood and I wanted them to meet the man I was marrying, – and, selfishly, see them dance again. They were unable to make it that day, but Stephanie sent a beautiful woodcut painting she created as a gift.

A while back, after decades where we hadn’t seen each other, I attended their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. I finally got to introduce them to my husband, and my siblings and I reconnected with their children. It was a beautiful, wonderful day. Stephanie and Lucio moved a bit slower on the dance floor in their 70s than they had back in the 70s, but the joy still burst forth from them as if they were teenagers.

They told me they were still teaching dance classes, and were enjoying spending time with their children and grandchildren, who all lived nearby. When we left, we promised to get together again soon.

We never did, and I learned yesterday that on Feb. 18th they were in a serious car accident. Stephanie died at the scene and Lucio has been hospitalized ever since, but is expected to recover.

Aside from a box step waltz I learned for my high school prom, I never willingly entered a dance floor as a teenager. I felt awkward and uncomfortable and just figured it wasn’t for me. In college, under the influence of some good pot and even better reggae music, I found myself unselfconsciously moving towards the dance floor at one of SUNY-Binghamton’s underground “Shut Up and Dance” parties. And for the first time, I understood what it meant to let the music move me. I chased that exhilaration for years, until the drugs and booze stopped working and turned me inward once again.

In 1993, in a rec hall in Pawling, NY, I was dancing my heart out to Whitney Houston’s “I’m every woman” in a cut off white tee shirt, shorts and black cowboy boots. I was now nearly five years clean and sober, on a weekend retreat with my sober friends and dance had come back into my life.

At one point, I danced with abandon up to a group of gay men and paired off with the most exuberant dancer in the group. Turns out he wasn’t gay at all, and after two years of dating and dancing, he twirled me around a floor again in Pawling, New York, – this time, as his wife.

I am so sad that Stephanie is gone, and that Lucio has lost his dance partner. I never told them how brave and beautiful and inspirational they were to me as a child. Stephanie would probably have downplayed it. Lucio would make a joke. But they were, they are, a beacon for me in how to live life – freely, joyfully, recklessly, letting the music move me.