It’s that moment when you walk into a room, the music screeches to a stop and everyone turns around to stare.
That’s exactly how I felt the first time I walked into a dance hall crowded with Italians for a Debutante Ball rehearsal in Cordenons, Italy.
Six Airmen and I were there to participate as “cavaliers”, or knights, in a tradition dating back to the 1800s which introduces women into society once they are considered mature enough, around 17 to 18 years of age. Though I was nervous, I understood the history behind the ball and what an honor it was to participate in such a culture-rich event.
Before we began rehearsing, the instructors lined the girls from shortest to tallest and began pairing them with their male partners. Immediately I felt like an outcast. I’m 6 feet 4 inches tall and was nervous they would not find a girl as tall as me.
They also tried to pair the Americans with Italians who could speak a little English to help us communicate. There were only four. Alice, the partner that was selected for me, did not speak English. She was also not very tall.
With seven Americans that were only proficient in saying “Ciao, come stai?” [Hello, how are you?] and instructors who only spoke Italian, we were in for a three-month experience like never before.
Now, for those who don’t know me, other than dancing to Chris Brown and LMFAO songs in my room, I have no real dance experience, let alone choreographed dancing. But, as the weeks went by, we began to learn the basic steps to the Viennese Waltz, Modern Swing dance and a choreographed dance for the song “Skyfall” by Adele.
From the beginning, I shined as one of the instructors’ favorite cavaliers. They would call out “Matteo,” and I knew to join them in the front.
At one lesson, we had reached the part in “Skyfall” where we had to lift up our partners and spin them around. I heard my dance instructor call me to demonstrate the dance move. “Matteo,” she said, and she ran to me and I lifted her up and spun her around flawlessly.
Despite the challenges of learning intricate dances — and the occasional toe-squishing — we had finally reached the day of the performance we had worked so hard to get to: the Debutante Ball in Cordenons June 30.
As the crowd buzzed with anticipation, there wasn’t a single dancer who didn’t feel butterflies fluttering in their stomach.
As we stepped onto the floor, the music started and we began to dance. In my head I could visualize the steps, but my feet felt like they wanted to do something different.
Practice had paid off and after showing everyone our sweet dance moves, we were presented with a certificate of appreciation. The American cavaliers then presented the dance instructors with a U.S. flag in a shadow box, thanking them for their time, patience and dedication.
When I saw how moved the instructors were by the gesture, it hit me then how meaningful this experience was, not just for me, but for everyone involved.
Despite my initial nervousness, I’ve improved my Italian, danced in front of an audience of nearly 2,000 people, and made memories that will last a lifetime. Most importantly, I’ve made friendships within the local Italian community that I will keep for the rest of my life. Without a doubt, Airmen should begin working on their dance moves to be prepared for next year’s Debutante Ball. Will you be the next “Matteo?”
PHOTO: Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz presents a rose to Alice Bertolin during the 15th edition of Ballo delle Debuttanti June 30, 2013, in Cordenons, Italy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)