Dance Steps

When I was 11,  a year before the Beatles came to town, 1963, I had my first glimpse at ballroom dancing.  My brother was headed for the Junior Prom and had covered everything except —

I think it was the Wednesday before the event, when he suddenly realized that he had no idea how to dance. Never one to panic, he gave me a sideward glance at the table and then mentioned the problem to my parents, while carefully folding his peas into his mashed potatoes.

“No time for dessert,” my father announced, as he pushed one of the couches closer to the wall and made room to practice.  My mother picked up the dishes, while my father began hunting for music. Not quite like when they built a sailboat together, but nonetheless another chance to pass down an old trick or two.

My brother and I watched from one of the couches in the living room, while my father began stacking albums. “Benny Goodman?” he shouted breezily to my brother.

“Huh? No, Jane doesn’t want to double. … Benny who?”

My father shook his head and plopped an album on our turntable. Then he looked for my mother and reverently took her hand. I’d made my own dessert and was getting some fudge sauce on the good couch while they pranced across the room on through the dining room..

My father beckoned my brother. “See how I gently took your mother’s hand and how she gracefully rested her other hand on my shoulder?  I bet Jane’s getting pretty excited.”

My brother was buried in the current issue of Mad Magazine. I was trying to hide the fudge stains.

“Daddy, can we dance when you’re finished?”  My brother dipped his elbow into my ribs.

My parents made it seem so easy.  I was so impressed with the way they glided and spoke in soft tones about the recent dryer repair.  My brother didn’t look too inspired.

“Are you watching?  Come on, we’ll show you the box step,” my father prompted him.

“Look at our feet.”

My older sibling was busy folding and re-folding the pages together in the back of his magazine. “Dad, that’s great.  But, you know,  Jane said she doesn’t really care that much about the dancing part.”

My mother tuned in at once and cast a long glance at her son – not eager to hear about what Jane liked to do.  She wondered if the chaperones were well-trained.

“Mom, don’t worry.  It’s not like that. Her mother went to Wellesley or Smith and she’s more interested in getting high grades than slopping around on the dance floor.”

My father then ordered my brother to stand up and use his fencing expertise to glide across the floor with my mother – who’d lost some of her early enthusiasm as she began wondering if this possibly wanton Wellesleyite  was planning to lure her son, who won the school math medal –”

“It works like this,” my father went on – “you excelled in geometry, now try it with your feet. Look I’m tracing the sides of a square as I gently guide your mother. That’s what you’ll be doing with Jane.  But first, get the hang of it with your mother, one of the most graceful dancers ever.”

I started laughing as my brother attempted to lead my mother between our couches — diving for pretzels at one point, and then back to completing his polygons.

My mother followed and said little.  She didn’t want to discourage her only son, who’d caught the eye of  a very smart girl — who she hoped wasn’t looking for trouble.  What was there to say except, “You’ve got the idea, dear.”

My father put on a new record and the tempo perked up.

“Daddy, when I go to the prom — will you teach me, too?”  All this attention my brother was getting was starting to weigh heavily..

“Apple of my eye, dance with me!  The whole family can practice together.”

“Like a square,” I proudly proclaimed, staring down at the floor as I outlined the sides.

“Okay. But this time,  look into my eyes and pretend – well, don’t look at the floor while you’re dancing. Look up – look at me!”

“I don’t really like this music,” I said loudly, as I struggled to remember the steps without watching my feet. “I never took fencing lessons and geometry isn’t till high school.”  My impatience was simmering..

“Look it how beautifully your brother and mother are dancing,  Pam,” my father said,  as he turned his attention back to the trophy couple.  My cheeks were starting to burn.

“Okay,  the box step gets a little boring,” he confessed to my brother, “but it’s a good  basic to fall back on at the prom.  Now,  lead your mother toward the kitchen,  don’t lose eye contact, and say something nice about her dress.”

My brother bristled. “Do I have to talk while I’m dancing?  I don’t have anything to say  to Jane.  I didn’t even think she’d say yes when I asked.”

“It will all feel so natural – Jane in your arms – the music – the scent of her corsage that you put on the family tab —   Pam,  don’t stop.   Just because I’m chatting with your brother doesn’t mean you can start looking down again.  It just takes a little practice like Chopin.”

My brother and mother looked like they were born to dance   – boxes and boxes all over our living room floor.  My mother was smiling – my father released me to put on a little faster music, and that’s when it started changing.

“Pamela, what are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing?”  I giggled and responded to the new tempo.

”Look at how nicely your mother is following your brother. Lucky Jane will have a pro at her side.  You’ve got the makings, too.  The way you tinkle those piano keys…”

My brother starting getting dizzy. “I told you,  Dad. She’s not really looking forward to the dance part.”

I could see my mother tensing again..

“What *does*  Jane like to do?” I asked my brother – not quite sure where his answer might lead us.

“Oh,  she’s looking forward to the steak dinner at Manero’s.  Like me.  I made our dinner reservation nice and early so we’d have plenty of time to eat dessert, too.”

My mother relaxed into her son’s confident strides – three years of epee, foil, and saber were transferring well.  I was still the problem.

“What’s wrong Daddy?” I asked, remembering that I had a math quiz tomorrow, and that  my story about Elizabeth Livingston needed an ending.

“How do I explain this — boys and girls have different roles.”

“Oh,  the hunters and gatherers speech?”  I always wondered where Nellie Bly fit in.

“Pamela, when a boy asks a girl to dance, he assumes a leadership role.  He becomes a guide – that’s a better word.  That’s right – he’s the guide.”

“And …”

“You’re trying to lead our dance.  Can you feel the pressure against your back – that’s how I convey –“

“This isn’t fun anymore. I have no desire to go to a stupid prom and wear a flower on my wrist.  Jane’s just going for the dinner and dessert, anyway. And why should her meal be free?”



My husband and I chaperoned a teen dance fundraiser last month. Two hundred kids and an invisible DJ who served up mostly rap music, along with some lightning-like, monotonous visual effects. Boys in their button-downs and alligator gear… girls squeezed into close-fitting fabric tubes that ended before they began.

Of course, not a single couple even pretended to know the box step. And those snuggly bear-hugs that replaced the formalities – blooming straight from the heart – they were gone, too.

Some of the teens were “freaking.”  Yes — start with the obsolescent bear hug, turn the female partner around so that now both dancers are facing the same direction – no eye contact, like my father taught me about.  The boy’s hands guide the girl’s hips and so goes the dance, I mean — the grind.

I came very close to slipping the invisible DJ a significant bribe to play a few of the old songs that I love. “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time, (Delfonics) or “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye), almost anything by the Spinners. And now quite suddenly – I was a chaperone in a sea of teens …   I started remembering the old Friday night mixers in Pem East, my favorite dorm. The dining room was cleared after dinner,  Dingo set up their equipment, and they always started off the night with the same old song — “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”  What could you do but dance

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