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The Midlife Crisis Cha-cha

He lost it all but found the will to dance.

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In February Lyle Sande Zerkin lost his job, his home, and his marriage. The building superintendent's position he'd had for ten years was eliminated, and the small apartment that came with it was slated to become an office. He'd just digested this news when he discovered his wife was having an affair. Zerkin would have stayed in New York had his wife been willing to work things out, but she wasn't. In late March he gathered up his belongings and U-Hauled himself back to Chicago, the home he'd left 16 years ago.

Moving had been easy then: Zerkin had decked out his fire-engine red '65 Impala convertible with tiger-striped seat covers, grabbed his dog and a couple of buckets of tools, and headed east to find his fortune. He rolled back again in a brown '84 Volvo with a different dog, a few months' worth of savings, and a trailer full of personal effects. At age 47 Zerkin maybe was due for a midlife crisis, but this was ridiculous.

He didn't have kids or a mortgage, however, and a pal told him a lot of guys their age would envy him the chance to start over. Zerkin tried to see things that way. He had in fact felt straitjacketed by his job, and had been thinking of leaving New York for years. He moved in with a friend in Rogers Park, near the house he grew up in. But even though he knew his way around, he still felt lost.

One way to respond to a cave-in is to keep pushing forward. Zerkin's first move after returning to Chicago was to book a round-trip flight to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where another friend lived. He had a one-week job waiting for him in New York--putting up an installation at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery--so he arranged for his return flights to lay over there. Saint Thomas was heaven on earth, but even in paradise he couldn't forget his anger and pain. Boarding the flight to New York he wore sunglasses to hide his tears. But flying back to Chicago a week later he was dry-eyed. He knew he wasn't going back.

A glimpse of a possible new direction had come to him just before the Caribbean jaunt, while watching a favorite DVD, a Latin music video called Los gigantes de la salsa. He'd bought it for the concert footage, but suddenly he wanted to learn to dance to the music. "It all came together," says Zerkin. "I'm lonely, I'm not getting out of the house, I needed to do something. And dancing was something I really enjoyed."

He looked under Dancing Instruction in the yellow pages and arbitrarily picked a school, Chicago Dance, then dropped in at their studio at Irving Park and Elston to watch an advanced salsa class. "I knew I was going to go there when I came back," he says.

For a guy who'd gone to four high schools and incurred disciplinary problems at three of them, Zerkin made a dedicated student as an adult. He'd been studying music and martial arts for over 15 years. But his first love was dance: he began ballet classes with instructor Eldon Parrish at age 18. The following year he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, but on the day before orientation he went to see Rudolf Nureyev dance with the National Ballet of Canada. He went home and told his father he was giving college a pass in favor of dance. His father said, "Do you think you could move out of the house today?"

Parrish, who also ran a group home for abused and neglected children, allowed Zerkin to board there in return for help tutoring the kids. A few months later, Parrish moved the facility to Orangeville, Illinois, population 250. Zerkin stayed there a year before the rural quiet got to him, then moved to Elmhurst, a bustling cultural hub by comparison. In Elmhurst he worked as an apprentice machinist while taking three dance classes a day, six days a week, at the DuPage Dance Academy. "That was years before the movie Flashdance," he says. "I was just way ahead of the curve."

By 1979 Zerkin was back in Chicago and still studying ballet, but he'd realized he wasn't going to be a primo ballerino. "If you're not a soloist by 21, you're not going to be a star," he says. "So what does that come to? Teaching. But when you're in your 20s, being a teacher is for people who didn't make it, and I wanted to set my sights higher. I figured I was going to be a star in music, playing blues and reggae."

In the late 1980s--before Billboard proclaimed that Wicker Park was the new Seattle--Chicago musicians had to strike out for LA or New York or settle for a more local sort of fame.

Zerkin chose New York. He didn't get famous, but he built a life there. He studied studio composition at SUNY Purchase, apprenticed as a sound engineer at a hip-hop studio in Queens, produced jam nights in city and suburban clubs, took guitar, tai chi, and dance lessons. He landed the caretaker's job and rounded out his income with odd little gigs--like teaching a few basic ballroom steps to sixth graders preparing for their cotillion in Briarcliff Manor, a ritzy suburb in Westchester.

And he met a pretty Venezuelan girl in a Cuban cafe where she was a waitress. Two years later they married. "This year's my seventh anniversary," says Zerkin.

Since signing up at Chicago Dance on May 1, Zerkin's taken every salsa and ballroom class he could, six days a week, two or three hours a day. When classes weren't in session he took private lessons in swing and foxtrot. Another student once asked him, "Don't you have a life?" He just laughed and kept dancing.

Zerkin's previous training helped him skip from beginner to intermediate levels right away, but his advantage wasn't as great as he'd expected. "I had no idea of the technique that's involved in ballroom dancing," he says. "You think, 'Oh, I studied ballet and classical dance,' but you break it down and you see that the cha-cha has as much technique as ballet."

When his first two-month semester ended, Zerkin signed up for two more terms. He's planning to show off his new moves at the Chicago Harvest Moon Ball tournament in October. He regards the competition as the beginning of a new career. "If I want to be a teacher," he says, "it would be good to do well."

As a young man Zerkin looked at teaching as a consolation prize for also-rans, but all his years as a student have led him to rethink that position. "I realized how much I had gotten from them," he says. "I think it would be nice to be their peer one day. The worst that's going to happen is I'll be a much better dancer."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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