David Usborne: Our Man In New York

From stripping to sailing, beware of 'adult enrichment' has a hidden cost


They say you are never too old to learn new tricks although judging by my painfully slow progress in trying to learn Spanish I am not convinced. And even if age isn't important, it seems that deep pockets can be.

Self-improvement is a regular racket in New York. Posters in the subway and flyers in the post exhort me daily to take some kind of class. Recently, I got an invitation to attend a seminar with Donald Trump on how to become a property tycoon. They wanted $75 for a seat in a room next door to the room where Trump would be speaking - I would be watching him on closed circuit television.

That seems a footling fee if you have been reading about the Hong Kong court case involving a banker called Mimi Monica Wong who agreed to pay the former British dance champion Gaynor Fairweather $15.4m (£8.1m) to teach her the rumba. The deal was for eight years of lessons, but half way through Ms Wong fell out with Ms Fairweather's dance partner and is seeking the return of the $8m she has already spent.

A study by the National Centre on Education Statistics says that one in two Americans take "adult enrichment classes" at one time or another. Some want genuinely to burnish a new talent - say cooking, grape treading or pole dancing - while for others it's a way to get out and maybe find romance.

I will admit that I have on occasion succumbed to the draw of the night-class ads in New York. I prefer to forget a spur-of-the-moment visit to a slightly shady looking ballroom dancing school off Fifth Avenue that promised to turn me from the stumble-footed Brit that I am into a swan of grace and elegance.

It was obvious from the minute I stepped into the room - my partner and another friend in tow - that this was a bad idea and we should have gone to the cinema as originally planned. The instructor announced we would be learning the meringue and I scanned the other students aware that soon I would be clinging to one of them trying to pretend I had at least one Latin bone in my body. We fled an hour later when the sweat circles on my shirt, caused not by heat but sheer terror, had become too large to ignore.

While it never occurred to me to get my money back - I only paid fifteen bucks - maybe I should have sued for loss of dignity. What the experience apparently did not do, however, was damage my powers of self-delusion. My next, ill-advised quest: to learn the mysterious Chinese discipline of t'ai chi. No one had told me that physical aplomb, not to mention strength, would once more be required. This misadventure sprang from a recent trip to Vietnam and an overnight cruise on Halong Bay in the north. For an hour at dawn, we and the other passengers stood on deck trying to mimic a crew member going through what had been the t'ai chi regimen of Uncle Ho - Ho Chi Minh - during his years as a prisoner of the British. We thought we did rather well and enrolled in a series of weekly classes on our return to New York.

After enduring just one session with a group of students who had clearly been in training for years, we once more gave up, exhausted by the stress of trying to stand on one leg while making the sign of a serpent with our wrists.

If you are in Chinatown anytime soon and spot all those folks doing t'ai chi in the parks before breakfast, you can be assured I will not be among them.

You begin to see why I am wary of taking on anything else. Today, the same friend who came to the dance class begins a five-week sailing course on the Hudson River. She works near Ground Zero and it is just a few steps to where the boats are moored. When she begged me to sign up with her I used the $600 fee as my excuse to demur, but really I was afraid of tipping her into the drink.

I don't mention pole-dancing flippantly. Scanning the "classes" section on the New York page of the internet listings website craigslist I find more ads for women anxious to perfect their striptease techniques than anything else. (Fifty dollars for an introductory hour at Exotic Dance Central, loose clothing encouraged.) But I'm only looking for a new Spanish teacher; and I don't have millions to spend.

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