I Tried It: Ballroom Dancing Like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

A lesson in how dancing is harder than it looks in the movies.

As I watched the always-lovely Jennifer Lawrence sweep down the red carpet at Sunday’s Golden Globe awards, I couldn’t help but wonder: How long did it take her to master the box step?

Two days before, I’d dragged my husband, Chris, to Society Hill Dance Academy for a waltz lesson, a first for both of us. Owner Shana Vitoff-Heidorn had told me that since Silver Linings Playbook hit theaters—the same film for which Lawrence took home Best Actress at the Globes—inquiries for waltz lessons were up 50 percent.

“But wait, isn’t that movie about, like, mental illness?” I asked. Sure it is, but it turns out that movies like Silver Linings, in which dance is more of a footnote than a title theme, tend to drive more wannabe dancers out of the woodwork than hardcore dance movies (Black SwanDirty Dancing). It could also be that people get all warm and fuzzy—and want to replicate the feeling—when they watch an on-screen couple fall in love while learning how to dance (how romantic!). Whatever the case, the dance de rigueur is the waltz, and we have Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to thank.

I was hesitantly curious to try it out—hesitant because, well, need we remind ourselves about that whole Eagles cheerleaders thing?; and curious because I’ve always secretly wished I could dance like that. I have this problem where I watch a person do something and, without ever actually having done it myself, I begin to convince myself that it’s not that hard and I could totally do it if I wanted. On the first try.

This is the sort of attitude I’ve adopted with dance, particularly ones of the two-person variety. They make it look so easy on screen, and if Ricki Lake and David Hasselhoff can hack it on Dancing with the Stars, I should be able to master the basics easily enough, right?

It is with this foolish confidence that I waltzed (ha) into Society Hill Dance Academy on Friday morning, husband gamely in tow. Shana first had us walk back and forth to get used to how walking and moving naturally feels. “You’d be surprised at how unnatural people get when they start thinking about how to move their bodies,” she said.

Next, we stood in a line facing the mirrors practicing the box step: one step forward, a step to the right, one back, one to the left, and back to the front. We were 15 minutes in, and while we weren’t yet making dramatic, sweeping circles around the studio—or even touching each other, for that matter—we were moving. Progress.

The hardest part for me was remembering which foot to move and when. Shana first tried reasoning with me, getting me to focus on which foot I would naturally put my weight on after taking a step. The problem was, when I stopped to think about it, I started over-thinking it, and soon couldn’t remember what it felt like to move normally. Dang it.

“How about this? Just remember that you always want to step with the foot that’s on the outside of the box,” she explained. To keep up with the one-two-three count of a waltz, the inside foot sort of sweeps through the box’s corners, like this. Okay, got it.

It was all making sense until Chris and I had to do it together. Suddenly, there was the added obstacle of not stepping on his feet and of keeping ourselves lined up correctly—me, off to the left, just slightly—to keep our steps in sync. And then there was the whole lead-and-follow thing. If you know me, you know I don’t do the whole “follow” thing very deftly. Or at all.

“Most women are like that,” Shana reassured me when I told her I couldn’t for the life of me seem to hand over the leading reins to my hubby. This is why she likens dance lessons to marriage counseling: “I’m like the therapist,” she said.

After about 30 minutes, we were ready for music. Chris, of course, looked born to dance: good posture, confident footing. I was basically a disaster on legs, as I continued to over-think my one-two-threes and internally chastise myself when I stepped with my right foot instead of my left. It was one of those situations, like learning how to strum a guitar, where it all made perfect sense in my head, but I couldn’t seem to translate the head-knowledge to execution. And that, my friends, is frustrating.

Shana did her best to console my wounded ego. She said she doesn’t push most students beyond the mirror-facing box step on the first lesson, and that some of her students take several lessons just to master properly shifting their body weight.

“But you guys,” she said, mostly looking at Chris, “you’re naturals.”

Society Hill Dance Academy, 409 South Second Street, Philadelphia, 215-574-3574, and 4401 Cresson Street, Manayunk, 215-482-1611.

>> Read more posts in our “I Tried It” series here.