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A power play on the dance floor unsettles the score

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Being swirled around the ballroom was different from how I approached life: in control. But there I was, being blindly guided to step, turn, twirl and dip to changing tempos.

"There should be absolutely no jerking of the body," the dainty instructor shouted over Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." "Men, you must embody rhythmic command so you can flaunt your woman seamlessly across the dance floor."

The instructor was looking at us. Was it because we were the couple engaged in a waltzing warfare of lead versus follow? Or was it because we were the couple who appeared to be fighting with one hand and grasping for balance with the other? Or was it because we were both women?

Years before, during a formal Human Rights Campaign luncheon with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as speaker, I had known it was love when I mistook a ramekin of half-and-half for ranch dressing. I pretended not to notice. The creamer began dribbling down the side of my salad plate and onto the black tablecloth. I heard her laugh. Soon the infectious giggling sent us into complete hysteria. I later would realize that my occasional flightiness was key to my future fiancée.

When people asked about how my girlfriend, Heather, and I met, I was shot with giddiness at the thought of telling the ranch dressing story. But then they would ask the follow-up question. When you have two fiercely independent and feminine women who fall madly in love, who is the dominant one in the relationship? Who is more like the man?

We answered the same way every time. We didn't subjugate ourselves to gender labels. We both wore the pants.

But secretly we kept tabs on the question of power. We employed mental score-keeping on who won more cribbage games, who said sorry first, who cooked more.

Four years into the relationship and the score was still even. When Heather expressed interest in two-stepping one night at a country-western bar, I had the ultimate solution to our relentless power struggle: ballroom dance lessons. Only one person was allowed to be the lead.

On the first day of class we were split into two groups: men and women. Men were leads, women were follows.

We were in West Hollywood. Didn't everyone get the tweet to be inclusive of same-sex relationships?

Heather and I stared each other down as the men were asked to step forward.

"Males have been chosen as leads because they are typically physically stronger and taller than females," the instructor said.

Everyone was staring. Heather and I knew that she had won every arm-wrestling match since our first date. My mediocre muscle mass fated me to follow.

Heather, armed with her 4-inch stilettos, stepped forward with the men. Click, click, click. As if the tension wasn't enough to make things awkward.

The class seemed to consist of newly engaged couples prepping for weddings and older couples trying to put some swing back into their marriages. Then there was us: the power-struggling lesbians, pioneering our fox trot across traditional ground.

"Now, men, command your ladies through an entire song," the instructor ordered. Why couldn't she simply address the class as leads and follows? It was making everyone uncomfortable.

Or was it just me? Regardless, our first couple dance was shaky. I felt vulnerable. Heather tried to fix the situation by demonstrating her gripping power around my left palm. This infuriated me. I tried to back lead us left, but she shuffle-stepped me right.

"You need to lead me better!" I demanded when we slammed into the third couple.

"You need to let me lead you!" She dug her hand firmly into my back and resentfully twirled me.

As we struggled across the ballroom dance floor, I realized that the maddening-yet-alluring quarrel was no longer about lead versus follow. The pursuit of control had become a display of out-of-control emotions. The environment made us feel insecure.

"Relax!" I heard Heather shout when she failed to trot me backward.

"You relax!" I shouted back 10 seconds after the music stopped playing.

We had caused another scene. This time everyone was staring at us because we were unapologetically arguing. Loudly.

I glanced at Heather and saw a smirk on the brink of a howl. Once again, we found ourselves rapt by hysterical laughter. For two women hungry for control, we seem to exude the opposite.

At that point, I could close my eyes and pretend we were alone. I felt her grip loosen. I felt the rhythm of our bodies sync to the four-four tempo. When I surrendered, Heather let her guard down. And we glided across that ballroom floor with giddiness.

We didn't return for the next dance class. In a failure to define who was dominant, we withdrew our need to know. As for our back-and-forth tally-keeping, we stride forward by treading lightly. Sometimes the secret to a long-lasting relationship is keeping our questions unanswered.

And sometimes we are just exhausted by the dance.

Lisa Donato is a freelance writer and producer in Los Angeles.

L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at home@latimes.com.

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