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Flirting 101: Coaches teach daters to cozy up

By Shanon Cook, CNN
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 2149 GMT (0549 HKT)
Flirting is a skill that some people have to put effort into learning.
Flirting is a skill that some people have to put effort into learning.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dating coach Tracey Steinberg takes hopeful singles out on the town to learn how to flirt
  • For people who overthink the process, flirting can be an exercise in paralyzing failure
  • Steinberg advises clients to keep things light and breezy but maintain good eye contact
  • Clients say they've gained tools to talk to strangers regardless of the circumstances

Editor's note: Shanon Cook is an entertainment contributor for CNN and has interviewed Peter Gabriel, Sting, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Yo-Yo Ma. Cook grew up in Australia and now lives in New York with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @ShanonCook.

(CNN) -- My name is Shanon and I'm a flirtaholic. As you're reading this, I'm probably flirting with some poor unsuspecting male -- a doorman, my doctor, a rock star.

My come-hither-ness was first called out when I was 22. It was a gloriously sunny day in Sydney and the male friend I was having coffee with leaned across the table and said, "You know, you're an insatiable flirt."

"That's ridiculous!" I scoffed while batting my eyelids at him.

Flirting is a skill that might come quite naturally (perhaps cringe-inducingly) to some, yet a woman I recently met at a friend's party introduced me to the idea that many people find flirting as terrifying as swimming with sharks. Her name was Tracey Steinberg; she smiled an awful lot, and she told me she was a dating coach who hosts "flirting parties" in Manhattan.

Shanon Cook
Shanon Cook

"Go on," I said with a raised eyebrow.

Many of her clients don't know the first thing about breaking the ice with strangers they're attracted to, she explained. They freeze, go mute, look at the floor or blurt out a depressing fact about hurricane devastation.

Steinberg arranges outings for groups of five or so adults with the desire to boost their courting potential, takes them to a busy bar, gives them a pep talk, then forces them to approach attractive strangers and, well, get cutesy.

This sounded like something I had to witness firsthand. And it made me wonder, if people are willing to pay experts to teach them to flirt ($95 for one of Steinberg's two-hour flirting parties), what does that say about the role flirting plays in our lives? Is it just a bonus skill that's nice to have, like being able to roll sushi or pole dance? Or is it a necessary function of bringing soul mates together?

The lost art of offline dating

According to Fran Greene, a dating and flirting coach and author of "The Flirting Bible," it's a bit of both.

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"Flirting allows you to meet someone you would ordinarily be too timid or terrified to approach," she says. "No matter what the outcome, there is a sense of magic that occurs when you flirt. The more you flirt, the better you get and the more people you will bring into your life."

Sadly, when I rocked up to Steinberg's flirting party in my flirtiest maternity dress, bitterly cold New York temperatures had kept all but one of her clients away. But this was good news for the single lady, Becky, because with Steinberg all to herself, she'd get more bang for her buck (so to speak.)

Over drinks at an upscale pool hall, Steinberg prepped Becky with a recap of the do's and don'ts: "It's about having a natural smile, soft eyes"... "make yourself available and approachable"... "be complimentary' ... "maintaining eye contact is key"... "don't be too quick to dismiss him if he says something weird"..."keep the conversation light and breezy."

Becky, an artist in her 30s, nodded slowly, hanging on every word as though she was learning of a secret plot to end the world. Becky's main obstacle to being a pro flirter, Steinberg told me later, is her brain.

"The people I work with tend to be very accomplished in their career, very intellectual," she said. "But it really gets in the way of flirting because flirting is with your body, it's not with your mind."

Perhaps to emphasize that last point, Steinberg put Becky through one final exercise before we got to the practical portion of the evening:

"Who is your ideal hot guy?" she asked.

"Hmmm. Daniel Craig," Becky said.

"And what would you say to him if he was standing right over there?"

After a couple of dud suggestions from Becky, Steinberg chimed in and threw out a bunch of icebreakers that might snag the attention of our current James Bond.

"OK, let's go meet some guys!" Steinberg said, all gung-ho.

Not satisfied there were enough men at the pool hall, she led us across the street to another bar to find Daniel Craig.

To be clear, these parties are not about hooking up. Nor are they about finding your future husband or wife. They're all about getting practice.

Nick is a journalist in his late 40s living in New York who found the hands-on approach useful when he attended a flirting party just for dudes a couple of weeks ago.

"Basically, I'm a successful guy," he said. "But the notion of walking up to a woman I've never met and striking up a conversation is paralyzing. Imagine the terror you might feel if you had to give a speech to 10,000 people while wearing only your underwear. That terrifies me less than approaching a woman in public."

Gosh. What helps, Nick has learned, is to get that large pesky brain out of the way.

How technology has changed romance

"Don't think too much," he says. "I can be paralyzed by, say, the fact that I don't have the perfect opening line. ... Tracey preaches not thinking at that moment. You've just got to plunge in and say something."

To be honest, I wasn't sure Becky had the mustard to talk to a single guy in the bar, and I was starting to feel nervous for her. But when she emerged from the restroom, she'd taken her long dark hair out of her ponytail, a definite step in the sexy direction. And with Steinberg at her side goading her, she suddenly picked a target and just went for it. (This was actually Becky's second flirting party, so she knew the drill.)

"Are you all here for a group function?" she asked a man in his 40s who took an instant liking to her. They chatted for a while until Becky noticed he was wearing a wedding ring and gently extracted herself from the situation.

Later, as Becky made her way to the bar, flashing a warm smile was all it took for a tall, handsome guy sipping a glass of red wine to ask her which sport she was watching (we were in a sports bar, because that's where you go when you're looking for bountiful testosterone).

The conversation that followed was promising. The handsome dude was from Nigeria, and Becky came up with all sorts of questions to keep things flowing. Unfortunately, one of those questions was "Do you have a green card?" which as Steinberg pointed out later, didn't exactly fall under the "light and breezy" category.

But it didn't matter. Nor did it matter that she'd be going home without a phone number or a date planned. Becky had achieved her goal; she'd put aside fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being boring, fear of being too short, tall, old, young, whatever, and had broken the ice with complete strangers.

"I'm really proud of you," Steinberg said sincerely after a quick debrief. "You did really well tonight."

Becky looked exhausted but somewhat triumphant as she waved goodbye and headed for the subway.

Sure, flirting experts will tell you it's possible to go from having no flirting skills whatsoever to becoming a flirting genius. Greene says she's transformed people in 30 days. Steinberg contends that everyone has the ability to flirt; it's just a matter of accessing that ability and putting some muscle behind it.

Dora, a busy finance executive in her mid-40s, rated her flirting skills as one out of 10 before she started flexing her flirtimus to the maximus.

"It was not something that I thought was important in meeting single men in my age range," she said. "My thinking was if someone is interested they will speak to you. Not the case, as I have learned. Men need to know you are open, friendly and approachable.

"For me it was a six-month process of learning this new skill and putting it to work in my life. But once you learn, you realize how easy and fun it really is. You have nothing to lose and all to gain. I can walk into a restaurant, a bar, a dry cleaners, a coffee shop and easily strike up a conversation with a potential adorable single guy."

Scoff all you like at the idea of a dating coaches and the like. But at the end of the day, what they're offering -- for a fee, granted -- is getting you one, two or three steps closer to life's most potent and enduring resource: love.

Opinion: Why traditional dating is dead

Would you ever engage a flirting coach? What's the toughest part about flirting for you? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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