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Lord of the Dance

Every Saturday morning for nearly 10 years, I faithfully made my way to a funky building in a run-down part of San Francisco, along with 50 other hardcore devotees. At an hour when most fellow urbanites hadn't yet contemplated their first low-fat latte, we embarked on a spiritual journey of sorts. We worshiped with a master of secular ecstasy named Paul.

Paul -- part therapist, part lust object -- attracted a loyal band of followers. He was high-spirited, almost euphoric. We indulged his dramatic late entrances, desire to primp, and drag diva poses. He was tall and boyishly handsome, with eyelashes a girl would pay good money for. On him, toe rings were sexy. And on Halloween, he could look quite fetching in a tutu.

It's clear that Paul relished his role as the exalted one, watching over his disciples from on high. He stood atop a stage as members of his pseudo-congregation filed in. The most devout headed straight for the front row. Recent converts tended to gravitate towards the rear. To the left of the stage, a gaggle of fit, muscular, middle-aged women planted themselves in the same spot they'd occupied forever.

What was going on here? A dance aerobics class, but one with such devoted patrons that some of them had an even longer attendance record than mine. The studio Paul worked for, Rhythm & Motion, was run by professional dancers, and it offered daily dance workouts in everything from hip-hop, modern dance, and jazz grooves to salsa, tango, and African and Brazilian beats. Those sessions reminded me more of what it felt like to go out dancing in my nightclubbing '80s youth -- minus the drinks, drugs, and sleazy pickup lines. The prevailing mood: Big fun. And besides, it was good for me.

While I was bopping to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, swaying to samba rhythms, or squeezing my thigh muscles to the postmodern pulse of Portishead, I was also immersed in a community, a safe haven. Here I could gladly set aside the irritations and disappointments of the real world -- if only for an hour or so -- in exchange for the unencumbered joy of dance.

Paul loved to move among the masses. By the time the warm-up was over he'd jump down from the stage to mingle with his students. He'd toss off a "Go, girl" here, a coquettish "Don't be shy!" there, and the all-purpose: "C'mon, give me something."

With his background in modern dance, Paul's approach to teaching unleashed a kind of free-form frenetic energy in the room; his signature dance moves -- splashy leaps, spins, and kicks -- seemed to push us all to try a bit harder. Depending on your mood, his over-the-top style either egged you on or simply made you marvel at his ability -- and his terrifically toned body.

It was almost de rigueur for most newcomers -- male or female -- to develop a crush on him. A straight, married friend confessed she was smitten. Hanging around after class to chat with Paul, who (no surprise) was gay, she left it ambiguous whether or not she was a lesbian. Her thinking, she explained later, with a logic I'm still trying to figure out, was that maybe she'd stand a better chance of wooing him if he thought she was gay, too. Hello?

As it turned out, though, Paul wasn't the only instructor with a following. By now, many of us have heard from friends that crushes on the aerobics instructor are fairly universal. And plenty of longtime Rhythm & Motion instructors had their own devotees. I became a fan of Peter, a lanky jokester who laced his class with a mix of pop-psych advice and Jewish shtick. I dropped in on classes with Howard, a sinewy Chinese-American who encouraged us to live in the moment. His mantra: "Get rid of any emotional junk or mental chatter -- out the door."

Amara and Rhonda's classes were packed because they exuded great girl power. And then there was Toni, a teacher who favored tiny, neon-pink shorts, midriff tops, and an array of dreadlocks. He began each class with a grace that concluded: "Love yourself, love your body. Your body is your temple." Truth be told, though, Paul was my main man.

Paul's appeal went beyond his glamour-boy good looks. His energy was contagious. People were drawn to him because of his warmth and generosity of spirit -- and his ability to get a room full of sweaty souls grooving as one to the beat.

In our class, his easygoing ways helped inspire a comfortable camaraderie among the students. We'd catch up on each other's lives and swap stories when we stretched before class or between routines. I've come to think of some of these classmates as friends -- even though in many cases I don't know their names and seldom, if ever, see them outside of class. We were united in our reverence for Paul.

One morning, as we slipped on our tights, shorts, and T-shirts, a classmate began telling me about the trouble in her marriage. This intimacy took me by surprise. I'm not sure why. After all, most of the students had known each other for years. We had helped each other handle injuries, commiserated about jobs lost, sickness and love troubles, and celebrated budding romances, career changes, new babies, and travel adventures.

Then one day it was over. After more than a dozen years of teaching, Paul wanted to make a change. "It breaks my heart, but it's time," he told us apologetically when he announced his departure. We had a couple of months to adjust to the news. But as his final class drew near, I felt a little lost. I wasn't the only one. Meg, a class veteran, summed it up: "Let's face it, there's no reason to get out of bed early on Saturday mornings anymore."

Paul's last class was unusually subdued. We were all aware, I think, that a unique relationship was coming to an end. Some students bought bouquets. Others left treats on the stage. Most of us had written tributes on cards that had been passed around in previous weeks. The overwhelming sentiment carried in each note was as loud as Paul's new Dennis Rodman-style 'do.' It was, simply: Thanks.

A while later, when I was out with my non-dancing husband, we ran into Paul. I said hello, fully expecting that he would remember me. He didn't. But he recovered by remarking in his sweet, gentle way: "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you with your clothes on."

I couldn't help smiling. I was still going to Rhythm & Motion classes religiously, and so were my fellow students. Our love of dance, as it turns out, didn't evaporate with Paul's departure. Even though the beloved pastor is gone, the congregation lives on.

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