An (old!) fill from the Tiger and Bunny Anon Meme. Prompt: Through a series of circumstances, Kotetsu ends up taking ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and he gets really good. The other heroes get suspicious of him disappearing, and decide to investigate, bringing his secret to light. Also, Kotetsu/Barnaby + Dancing.
I took this prompt as a novice dancer myself, and after another year of experience, I've revamped chapter 1 and decided to deanon. Enjoy!
Above Antonio and Kotetsu's favorite Hero Bar, there hung a small, square sign for a place called "Lawton's," written in loopy green cursive letters. Kotetsu had wondered "Lawton's" was for a long time. Maybe a law firm? Another restaurant? Something else entirely? What was up there that belonged to Lawton? Sometimes when he looked up above the bar, he'd consider just verging a little to the right, taking the small door up to the second level and just asking, but there was alcohol straight ahead, and Antonio straight ahead, and sports and Hero TV late broadcasts straight ahead, so he ignored the mysterious sign and chose the bar, time and time again.
He wasn't sure why it started to bother him so much one wintery night. Blame it on a lull in conversation, or the television playing a stupid ad that he just couldn't listen to again, or how once he got to the fourth beer he started felt antsy instead of tipsy, but with a slam of his hand on the table, Kotetsu excused himself with some reason he didn't even bother to articulate and staggered out of the bar and to the little door. Tonight, he'd solve the mystery of Lawton's, like a super-awesome explorer detective-hero!
Behind the little door, Kotetsu squeezed into a hallway much narrower than he had imagined, with worn wooden stairs and a varnished handrail rotting from the inside. Gripping the artificially smooth wood tightly, Kotetsu took the stairs slowly, up to a tiny landing with a small white door, also bearing the same cursive-green sign for "Lawton's." He opened the door.
A smooth hardwood floor dominated the brightly lit space, with two walls of mirrors and another wall of chairs. The last wall had a combined reception-sales desk, made of glass cases filled with shoes: strappy high heels for women, and slick dress shoes for men. A few doors peppered the corners, showing glimpses of similar wooden-floored rooms. Some classical music with pronounced repetition poured through the hidden speakers as sets of couples danced with varying levels of success, an instructor calling out rhythm: "One, two, three-four! One, two, three-four!"
"Can I help you, sir?" the young, black-shirted woman at the desk asked.
"Yes!" Kotetsu sauntered over to the desk, and definitely did not trip on anything. "What's Lawton's?"
"A dance studio."
"…Yes. That's why there are people dancing."
Kotetsu looked out at the dancers, then back at the girl. "What are they dancing?"
"Foxes can trot?"
"Sir, I think you're actually searching for the bar downstai—"
"No, no, I was just there! I came up here to find out what Lawton's is," Kotetsu looked back at the dance floor, squinting a bit. "Don't you have to be a fox… to trot?"
"No. You don't."
They stood in silence for another minute, Kotetsu still puzzling over the meaning of foxtrot.
"It looks fancy," Kotetsu noted. "The dance."
"It's not that fancy. These are just some basic steps."
"Why are they learning all this fancy dancy… fancy?" Kotetsu gestured vaguely with one hand. "I mean, what are they gonna do with it?"
The girl slowly smiled. "Ah, the common myth that men cling to. Ballroom dance is too delicate and girly for them, with absolutely no practical applications, so they might as well not try. I hear that all the time, and it's wrong."
"I was asking about foxy trotting, not ballrooms."
"Foxtrot is a ballroom dance. That's the kind of dance we teach here at Lawton's. Ballroom and Latin dance, social dancing, partner dancing."
"Partner?" Kotetsu scratched at his beard, absently pondering the word.
"You know what I think about men who dance?" the girl leaned a little further across the desk, gesturing with her finger for Kotetsu to lean in, too, as if she had a fantastic secret to share. Whispering, she said, "Men who dance are the strongest in the whole world."
"Really?" Kotetsu's eyes widened.
"Absolutely. Ballroom is the ultimate proof of power. You can move someone around a room any way you want, and not break her. Not only are you strong and in command, but you're not a slave to your own power. You decide how and when you use it. It builds confidence, agility, and strength. Men who dance ballroom… are heroes."
The magic word. She couldn't possibly know that she was speaking to an actual hero, but that sudden reminder of everyone who was disappointed in him—the look on Ben's face when he dropped to fifth place, one from the bottom, the pessimistic articles starting to circulate, "Maybe Wild Tiger just isn't the hero he used to be," and Kaede calling after a Hero TV broadcast just to tell him what a loser Wild Tiger was—all that, coupled with a promise of a way to bring back what he lost…
"When are classes?" Kotetsu said.
Still smiling, the girl slid a slip of paper across the counter. "Write down your number. I'll call you later, when you're sober."
Of all the things Kotetsu had ever done while drunk, giving his name and number to a dance studio wasn't the worst thing, not by a long shot. He remembered most of the conversation come morning, too, and what he had forgotten came flooding back when the girl—Tanya, she gave her name this time—from the desk called, and after a quick refresher on her sales pitch, she entered him into a beginners class for working adults, meeting once a week late at night, even later than Hero TV prime time.
But, the instant he walked into class, Kotetsu regretted his decision, 'confidence, agility, and strength' be damned.
First thing, the instructor, a middle-aged dancer-like woman named Natalie, separated the dancers into 'leads' and 'follows,' which translated into 'men' and 'women.' Kotetsu shuffled over to the men's side, and realized that most of the males looked in the midst of mid-life crises: hair thinning, shoulders hunched, with nervous, seeking eyes, and since they couldn't afford a sports car, they fell back on old stories of Prince Charming who could sweep a beautiful princess off her feet in the span of a single night just because he could dance. Kotetsu's skin crawled as he joined the ranks of sorrowful salarymen, struggling to convince himself, I'm not like them. I'm still worth something. Right?
Looking back at the women's side, he realized they weren't much better. First off, they outnumbered the men at least two to one. They seemed divided into three types: The majority of them looked a lot like the men, aged thirty to forty and scrutinizing the lineup of men for potential late-bloomer boyfriends. The second type, also starting to age, were very clearly wives attending with their husbands, because they had their eyes fixed on an individual man on the opposite side of the room, almost trying to catch their spouses starting at other women. Then, the smallest type, with only three or four girls, consisted of surprisingly young women, barely in their twenties, with lithe dancer bodies in leotards who stoically stared at the instructor, clearly there to learn, not socialize. But wasn't this supposed to be a lesson in social dancing? How could they be part of a pair if they acted like the other partner didn't matter?
"All right!" Natalie clapped for attention. "Now that you've been separated into leads and follows, it's time for lesson number one: the frame."
Kotetsu blinked. Frame? Like a picture? What did that have to do with dancing?
Natalie immediately set to answering Kotetsu's unspoken question: "The frame is the way that lead and follows communicate with each other. Both partners must have strong frames in order to communicate effectively, and dance together. For leads, this is an exercise in thinking, planning ahead, and staying forceful, but never harming your partner. For follows, this is an exercise in absolute trust. Maintain your frame and go where you are moved, and trust the lead knows what he is doing."
Natalie stood perfectly straight and spread her arms, elbows gently bent so that her hands hovered about the level of her belly button. "We'll begin learning the frame in this position: double hand-hold. Several Latin dances use this frame. You'll start practicing this frame, so you can get the proper feeling of dancing. Never let your arms extend fully, and never let your elbows pass behind your body."
She snapped her fingers and pointed at a man two down from Kotetsu. "A volunteer!" she ordered. Though the man looked as if he'd rather melt into the floor than volunteer, he took two hesitant steps forward into the center of the room. Natalie molded his arms into a frame and took his hands.
"Both partners must be strong," she said. "If a follow has a weak frame, then she cannot be led."
Natalie indicated for the man to step forward, pushing against her hands with his. The instructor's elbows passed behind her body, and she stood absolutely still, like streetlight stuck in the ground. Her volunteer almost ran into her.
"Then, if a lead has a weak frame, he cannot direct the follow." Natalie switched their handhold around, and walked toward the man, presumably 'leading.' But once again, her jelly-elbows fell behind her body, and she bumped into the man's front. He tried to apologize, but she just waved him away, allowing him to retreat back to the pack of men.
"In these beginner lessons, you can probably survive without a strong frame. The steps are simple, easy to read, there's very little variety. But these fundamentals are crucial—crucial!—if you want to be real dancers and not soulless robots."
With her opinion of dancers who failed to master the frame explicitly clear, Natalie ordered the assembled students to take a frame position, then started circling the room, testing each person's frame and critiquing it, usually telling student "stronger." Kotetsu experimentally took the frame Natalie had demonstrated, broad-shouldered, straight-backed, arms open. It surprised his how it felt so much like a push-up or bench press frame, rigid but prepared to move.
It took ages for Natalie to get to Kotetsu, but he poured all his hero-strength into that pose, everything short of using his. She pushed on his shoulders, upper arms, and wrists, and found the whole frame absolutely immobile.
"Good," Natalie said, and she moved right on to the next student. Kotetsu looked after her, a little put out. Just good? Even in his secret identity, Kotetsu had a physique the envy of Olympians! He spent hours each day in the gym, crafting a body perfectly honed for crime-fighting, and all Natalie had to say about him was 'good?' So much for being appreciated here…
Once she finished her rounds, Natalie clapped for attention again.
"Now! Follows, pick a lead. First come, first serve. If you don't get a lead, stand between a couple. We'll rotate you in later. Go, go! It doesn't matter who!"
The ladies skipped forward, the married Type Two women picking their husbands and leaving the rest of the class to comb through the leftovers. Kotetsu found himself chosen by a mousy-looking Type One woman with thick glasses. She waved at him with her fingers, and Kotetsu waved back.
"I'm Kotetsu," he said, trying to strike up conversation.
"Hi," she squeaked, and didn't give her name. Kotetsu chewed the inside of his cheek and scratched at his beard, waiting as Natalie struggled to iron out the clumps in the rotation: sliding single follows in between couples, spreading people scrunched at the end of the dance floor, and matching leads that somehow got passed over during the feeding frenzy. Kotetsu and his follow stood in silence, and Kotetsu wondered, Is dancing supposed to be this awkward?
"For this exercise, you'll practice communicating with the frame," Natalie called out at last. "Leads, direct your follows, and follows, be directed. For the handhold, leads, put your hands as if you were reading a book. Follows, imitate kitten paws. Your fingers will fit into your lead's hands, where his book would be. Now, take hands!"
The mouse-woman enthusiastically offered her hands, but too close for a proper frame. She just latched onto the "kitten" part and did cutesy little cat paws. Much less eagerly, Kotetsu took her hands and spread them further apart as he took his frame. She mumbled and approximate "thanks," and Kotetsu nodded.
"Now, the lead will walk forward and backward at random, keeping his frame strong. If the follow has a strong frame, this should be nearly effortless. Now, go!"
Shocked, Kotetsu hesitated for a second, but then took a step forward. His follow didn't seem to notice Kotetsu's hands pressing on hers until it was almost too late, and though he avoided her feet, she stumbled back awkwardly, shoes clicking harshly on the floor.
"Sorry," Kotetsu muttered.
"It's okay," she whimpered.
The exercise proved excruciatingly uncomfortable, Kotetsu trying to come up with a random pattern of forward and back steps, while each change in direction jerked his follow around. Even with the excuse of their first day, Kotetsu hated it, and he almost sighed with relief when Natalie called out, "Rotate!"
Maybe it was just that woman. She didn't understand, or maybe lacked the talent, whatever it was, probably the next woman would be better. Unfortunately, that was just wishful thinking. Kotetsu's second follow, another Type One blonde with a puffy hairstyle that reeked of styling products, proved equally inept and a lot gigglier, almost shrieking with laughter whenever she stumbled as if she could laugh off the mistake. It just made Kotetsu's ears hurt, and he couldn't wait to pass her on, too. The third woman was a Type Two wife, irked that apparently this class didn't mean dancing all night with her husband, who rebelliously dragged her heels through the whole drill.
This was a bad idea. All of it. Kotetsu didn't feel strong, or in control, or anything that had been promised to him when signing up for this class. He'd rather be anywhere else—at home, or drinking with Antonio, or… at home… Maybe I am like the rest of these men, old and washed-up.
"Stop!" Natalie called suddenly. "Everyone, stop. Split back up, leads, follows."
Kotetsu wandered away with the cloud of men, until he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"You come with me," Natalie ordered, pulling Kotetsu away from the leads and depositing him at the front of the class. Then, Natalie pulled a young woman out of the clump of follows—an aloof Type Three dancer in a leotard and leggings with dark brown hair.
"I'm Molly," she said boldly, sticking her hand out for Kotetsu to shake.
"Kotetsu," he said, a little bewildered, accepting her handshake—one firm pump up and down, before she dropped his hand.
"Well," Natalie began. "Since you're all having such difficulty with the frame, these two volunteers, who I've seen doing well at this drill, will demonstrate. You've all heard the phrase that it takes two to tango? It takes two to dance every single social dance. Both the follow and the lead must work equally to maintain the frame!"
Natalie turned to Kotetsu and Molly and clapped her hands. "Go!" she told them.
Kotetsu, still trying to reconcile Natalie's harsh tone with her words, looked to his new partner, Molly, and took her hands. She adjusted their hand-hold a bit into a better book hold-kitten paws, but then did absolutely nothing, waiting for Kotetsu's move. Already, he could feel she had strength in her arms, unlike his previous partners.
He took two steps forward. Molly backed up. When he switched directions and took three steps back, she followed the change seamlessly. No matter what Kotetsu did, forward, backward, in whatever random pattern his brain could imagine, Molly moved without a single hitch or stumble. And somehow, with the tension running down his arms and into Molly's hands, Kotetsu didn't stumble, either.
Confidence, agility, strength… A smile unconsciously crept onto his face. I think I see that now!
"Stop!" Natalie called, though Kotetsu didn't want to. Finally enjoying himself now that the two halves of the partnership were equal, Kotetsu kept leading the dance for another few steps, until Natalie said again, "Stop, stop!" The lecture that Natalie delivered to the class went in one ear and out the other as Kotetsu stared at his hands, remembering the dance. Such an easy motion, but still physically draining, that connection with another person… Fantastic.
They spent the entire class on that exercise and one variation, where they switched from hand-hold to the actual ballroom frame—Kotetsu's right hand on his partner's upper back while his left hand held hers to the side. Little changed for the girls who were already un-leadable, but not all of them were atrocious, and a few actually improved throughout the night.
At the end of the lesson, the girl he had demonstrated the frame with, Molly, approached him and put her hand on her hip.
"Is this your first time dancing?" she asked.
"Yeah," Kotetsu nodded.
"Huh. I wouldn't have guessed."
"I work out a lot," Kotetsu said. "Dancing has a lot in common with strength. Who knew?"
Molly nodded curtly.
"Is this your first time dancing, too?"
"First time coming to class. My boyfriend is an Intermediate. He's tutored me a little." She switched her hand to the other hip. "You're coming back next week, right?"
"R-Right," Kotetsu answered, partly because he didn't know how to say no to such a severe person.
But the weird thing was, he meant it, too. He wanted to come back. Even in such a small way, getting picked to lead a demonstration, feeling that connection with another person, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he still had value in a world that kept changing on him, this class gave him hope.
The world continued to change—Hero TV gained a new executive producer, Titan Industries traded Storm Scream for a teen idol singer, Odysseus Communication muscled into the Hero scene with a tyke from China, TopMag got bought out and he gained an arrogant prettyboy of a partner (who he eventually learned to like)—but Kotetsu always returned to Lawton's Dance Studio, again and again, for three and a half years of lessons. Three and a half years of preparation for one super-important night: the night that every Lawton's student dreams of. The night that all of their hard work pays off.