When I was running and racing regularly, I was in very good shape, even though many people thought I was extremely skinny. I lived and breathed for running. Occasionally, I did all three at once. For a while there, I ran a lot of races. I was obsessed by racing because I wanted to become a good enough runner to get an athletic scholarship to a university. Unfortunately, I never improved enough for a scholarship, but I did begin writing for running publications, which I really enjoyed. Once I went to Vertel’s, a running shoe store on North Wells Street, to pick up my race packet. As I was leaving the store, I saw a sign that read, RUNNERS WANTED FOR EXPERIMENT. My heart raced and I immediately wrote down the phone number because this sounded like something I really wanted to do. Perhaps this experiment would greatly improve my running so I could get that running scholarship. I could just imagine myself in a running laboratory with all kinds of scientific equipment to measure my enormous runner’s ability. Yes, count me in, I thought. I imagined myself running on a treadmill, wearing an oxygen mask that would measure my excellent runner’s oxygen uptake, my wired chest sending electrical impulses to the ECG machine that would record my highly athletic heart rhythmn, and me drinking experimental electrolyte replacement beverages, even though my finely tuned body didn’t need them, and then reporting which one made me run the fastest. I was really excited about this experiment!
I was afraid to get left out because I was too late, so I called as soon as I got home. The woman who answered the phone was happy that someone had finally called her about the experiment. Apparently she had put up her notice at many other races and I was the first runner ever to respond. Then she dropped the bombshell on me. She was not a doctor, not even a nurse. In fact, she had never even taken a first aid course. She was a polka dancer! She and her husband were national polka champions and they toured the country dancing at all kinds of festivals, parties, and picnics. So what was the experiment? You better sit down. I wish I had been sitting down when she told me. She wanted runners to learn to polka! Why runners? Well, runners would be able to learn to polka faster because they had very good endurance. This was not at all what I had expected when I read the sign at Vertel’s! She finally persuaded me to sign up for polka lessons. Luckily, they were free. So I agreed to be her guinea pig since I had always wanted to learn to dance and I really didn’t have any plans for the next two months anyway.
On the very first day, she paired me up with a nice Polish girl named Andrea. We would be partners throughout the “experiment.” In her mind, my polka lessons never ceased to be an experiment. Well, I had no rhythmn and I kept stepping on Andrea’s toes. She said something in Polish to the teacher/dancer/mad scientist that I didn’t understand and then smiled at me. I smiled back, but I could tell Andrea was complaining about me. I apologized to her and told her that I couldn’t help stepping on her toes because I had two left feet. She suggested that I find someone with two right feet. The polka woman came back to us and said something in Polish to Andrea and she continued to dance with me. The dance lesson went on for about two hours, and because I was a fine specimen of a runner, I didn’t even break out into a sweat. I didn’t have to stop to rest during the whole session, even though Andrea insisted that I rest so she could rest her toes a while. Well, the polka teacher was right about runners having a lot of endurance, but I don’t think that she had counted on me stepping on someone’s toes for two continuous hours.
The next week, the polka woman tried something different. Since I had told her my name, she was fascinated by the fact that I was Mexican. I’m not sure why. Was it the fact that a Mexican was learning to polka? Anyway, she tells me, “I want you to listen to this song. It’s from your country.” I listened. Someone was singing in Spanish. “Did you hear that?” she asked. “Hear what?” I asked. “The beat!” she said, but I could tell she was losing her patience with me. “Oh, the beat!” I repeated. “I’m sorry. I was listening to the words.” She played the song again and I listened carefully to the beat. I’m not very musical, so I had no idea what beat I was supposed to listen to. Finally, she said, “Did you hear the beat? It’s a polka beat, oom pah pah, oom pah pah, in a Mexican song!” “Oh, that beat! Of course, I heard the polka beat!” I lied, but I didn’t want her to get mad at me. Then we danced to this song. I actually danced a little better this time.
The funny thing about all this, she never mentioned the experiment again. She gave performances during day to seniors and terminally ill people at hospitals. I guess that’s why I liked her so much. She was such a nice person. One day, she asked me to go with her and her husband to one of their shows. “You mean you want me to dance with you for these shows?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I want you to videotape us dancing. We need a demo tape.” I agreed to do it since I didn’t have a job at that time anyway and they always bought me lunch when the hospital or nursing home didn’t give us free food. I got pretty good at recording them once I realized that they improvised everytime they danced and I learned to expect the unexpected from them. Plus, I learned one special effect with their video camera that absolutely amazed them. I didn’t tell them. I let it be a surprise for them. They were exstatic when I zoomed in on them while they danced! So from then on, they insisted that I tape all their shows. And she extended my polka lessons for three more months, much to Andrea’s chagrin. Well, no other runners ever volunteered for her experiment. And, I never did find out the results of the experiment. However, I did learn to videotape moving targets.