Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Light Fantastic

The lady across the street on Meadow Lane, Clara Miller (Don's mother), was a dance teacher. Tap, ballet, and ballroom. When she first started, she held her classes up at the Teen Canteen, across Hillwood Avenue from the high school, and my sister Marie played the piano for those classes. When the Canteen closed, the classes moved to the Miller's basement. They didn't have a piano down there, so Marie couldn't play, but Mr. Miller, Joe, was a hi-fi buff and the entire house was wired for sound. He had a huge collection of records, both 78 rpms and those new 33 1/3 rpm "long playing records," and of course Mrs. Miller bought her own records with music for her classes, so there was no dearth of accompaniment for her budding ballerinas and Arthur Murrays.

When we three Meadow Lane musketeers, Judy, Don, and I, were 11 or 12, Mrs. Miller started a big new ballroom class for kids our age. Those classes were held Saturday nights in an elementary school cafeteria and they attracted a pretty good crowd. All three of us went (Don had to, of course, because how would it look if the neighbor kids were there and Mrs. Miller's own son wasn't?) and it was there that I became confident enough in my all-legs, baby-fat laden pre-adolescent body to glide along the dance floor in a pretty good slow-dance (basically a box-step that eventually relaxed into the kind of rhythmic, wandering shuffle that we all still do today), cha-cha (a must, because much pop music of the day was driven by that one-two, one-two-three beat, even though entirely non-Latin in theme) and jitterbug. We had to get dressed up for those classes. For me, that meant a sports jacket and a clip-on bow tie. In those days when my parents were doing everything they could to point their iffy boy in the right direction orientation-wise, I was not allowed to have the long, floppy hair I so loved seeing on my head. Instead, I had to have a flat-top. The picture above is of Don and me in front of his house on my 11th birthday. For some reason we had to get dressed up for the occasion in our dance costumes. I don't remember which mother talked the other into bow ties.

Those dance skills, and the self-confidence that came along with them, carried us kids a long way. We had innumerable impromptu record hops in each others' basements after school, and of course formal parties and school dances were actually fun for us because we knew what to do on the dance floor. We started high school in the 8th grade and stayed in the same school all the way to the 12th. Even in the earliest years, we never witnessed the typical scene of having all the boys on one side of the gym and all the girls on the other. Even if some of the younger kids arrived with that idea in mind, they were disabused of it soon enough by the example of the older kids who made no bones about being there to get close to the opposite sex. In spite of the personal torture I endured in gym class for three years, I have great, fun memories of high school, and Mrs. Miller's dance classes were what made that fun possible, at least for me.

Chubby Checker had his hit with The Twist in 1960. The song introduced an entirely new dance style that I was very uncomfortable with--all that gyrating and frank sexuality right out there in front of everybody--but for a few years it was just another style; when it came on I could sit it out until something I liked better was played, and most of the music was still the kind that at least allowed you to hold your partner's hand. As we all matured into our late teens and twenties, of course, the music became much more laden with sexual meaning and dancing morphed in the same direction, to the point where all anyone ever did was stand there and bump and grind (or try to) for their partners. This gave the word "spastic" a whole new meaning, especially as applied to the clueless guys who thought they were gyrating themselves right into the sack with their giggling partners. The poor saps never knew what those partners were giggling at.

Me, I didn't want to be giggled at, so I basically became a non-dancer. Things stayed that way until I went to Ghana, heard Santana for the first time, and won a dance contest. That's a whole 'nother story.


Ravel said...

What a nice pic. Just a few years ago. Kids still dress well, like that, nowadays...
We all have to try some stuff in our youth that may not be meant for us. I tried to be a Scout, didn't stay long. But dancing? I knew it would be a bad idea...
Thanks for sharing the experience and the pic.

Ralph said...

I actually wanted to be a Cub Scout, but that didn't last long. When it came time for Boy Scouts my brother-in-law was a scout leader, so of course I had to be in. made it to Staar and then quit. Steve's an Eagle Scout.