Author ~ R. Cooper
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 20th January 2016
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Two years of living with his controlling boyfriend left Chico worn down long before that boyfriend revealed he’d been seeing someone else. With no other choice, Chico moves in above his cousin’s garage in a small town in the redwoods, where he merely goes through the motions. To get him out of the house, his cousin pushes him to volunteer at a local dance studio to help with their annual show.
He’s not expecting to end up in a dance class, or to start feeling alive again in the arms of his dance instructor. Rafael is the studio owners’ son and was once a well-known dancer in his own right, but now enjoys being a teacher. Although Chico likes him, he’s afraid of taking a chance. But Rafael is determined, and it only takes one dance for Chico to start to realize he might still have something to learn.
This is not the first R. Cooper book I’ve read, so I expected it to be a bit unusual, and it was. Ms. Cooper seems to specialize in damaged males, young men who finally get their heads on straight and fall in love. “Dancing Lessons” is no exception.
Chico (pronounced “sheeco”) is in Brandywine, a tiny town of just six blocks, twenty miles from the Northern California coast. During most of the year, it’s just a small country town, until the tourists flock in season. But it’s the perfect place for Chico to hide away and try to get his life back, living above his cousin, Davi’s, garage rent-free.
Chico is recovering from a bad breakup. Actually, a bad relationship that led to an inevitable breakup three years after it began. He had done everything right and thought everything was going great, until John came home, one day, and announced he was in love with another man. Good-bye.
Chico was too astonished and destroyed to react. He just left. He had no place to go, his money had all gone into their life together, and he’d left all of his meager possessions in the apartment when he ran. The relationship was abusive. No, there was no physical abuse, but his partner had molded Chico into the image he wanted and needed, John’s friends had become “their” friends, and he endlessly put down the too-eager-to-please Chico. Trust destroyed, cast adrift, former friends now loyal to John and his new boyfriend, he ends up at Davi’s house in Brandywine with his head under his pillow, too afraid, too demolished, too damaged to deal with other people.
Eventually, he gets a part-time job working as a shoe salesman, barely making a living, and fine as long as he doesn’t have to interact, on any personal level, with his customers and co-workers. Chico is one depressed boy with major self-esteem issues.
Davi’s patience is wearing thin as Chico doesn’t seem to be getting any better, so he coerces him into volunteering at the local, but world-renowned, dance school. Davi already volunteers there, building sets, designing stage lighting and working as technical director for the school’s may recitals and performances. Chico shows up for his first volunteer session and steps into the wrong room, where a bevy of people, from young kids to seniors, are learning to dance. He freezes in fear, as one of the most gorgeous, graceful and hot men he’d ever seen grabs him by the wrist and proceeds to use him as his dance partner. Rafael (Raf), the teacher, has mistaken Chico for a new student and starts putting him through instructions for a simple box step when Chico panics and runs for the door.
I’m sure you know where this is going. Rafael, the gorgeous one, is immediately smitten by the small, thin waif with the huge eyes who appeared from out of nowhere. It must be destiny or Karma, but perhaps not quite. The rest of the book is about this insecure young man (34) trying to find his footing, trying to believe that such a beautiful and special man would ever want a fragile loser like him. Fortunately for Chico, Raf is surprisingly and generously patient, or their relationship might have been over before it had begun.
What makes this book special, what makes it rise above the endless angst of the terrified main character, is the way Ms. Cooper ties it all together with the dance. As it turns out, Chico is a clever tailor and designer who comes to love designing, building and repairing all of the costumes in the school’s storeroom - costumes worn, adapted for each new ballet, then worn again, with volunteers desperately trying to save them with clumsy stitching and a glue gun. Chico finds himself enthralled with the magic of the ballet, tears flowing down his cheeks as he mourns the tragic characters and exalts in the sheer beauty of the stage and the beautiful dancers upon it. The story, the ballet and the relationship seem to be bits of the singular journey back to confidence and love for the sensitive and passionate Chico. I always love when writers use art, dance or music to punctuate and illuminate their stories as Ms. Cooper does exceedingly well.
This is more a character study than a fully-plotted novel. And while I felt deeply for the characters, and admired the evocative writing, I couldn’t give it the five stars the writing probably deserves, due to the abrupt ending. I had no idea it was coming. I’d wanted more. The author leaves the reader not knowing what’s ahead for the men, if Chico stays in Brandywine, if they have a fulfilling relationship as Chico comes to trust Rafael fully and without question. Unfortunately, almost all of the secondary characters just disappear at the end, as though they were never there, and that’s a shame because many of them also had great stories to tell.
Perhaps Ms. Cooper will follow up this book with the rest of Chico and Rafael’s story, and explore Davi’s future and whatever happens to Jase, the baker, who was also interested in Raf. There is a hopeful ending, but lots of strings hanging, the future promising but not guaranteed. The only thing we can be sure of is that, by the end of the book, Chico is obviously well on his way to recovery – and that, yes, he is learning to dance.
If you like beautiful men, lots of angst, and a deep connection to dance, you’ll love this book. I did, but I just wished the author had added another fifty pages. The story deserved it.