Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dance Dream

One of the best moments in the movie Enchanted was at the ball near the end when Giselle says to Robert, “But you said you don’t know how to dance,” and he replies, “No, I said I don’t dance, not that I can’t,” just as he sweeps her into a romantic waltz.

It was a satisfying moment for me, because I spent so much time as a kid and teen watching Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers and other partners, Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple and many other dancers, and I loved ballroom dancing. If anyone had asked me then what I thought romance was, I would have answered, “Dancing in a long, lovely dress in a big room with the man you love.” Something straight out of the coronation ball scene in the 1937 or 1952 versions of The Prisoner of Zenda.

This wasn’t simply the result of watching old movies. My parents had financed their dates during the Depression by entering and often winning dance contests up and down the Jersey Shore—which meant that they danced to the live music of greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Beiderdeke, and Dad’s favorite, Glenn Miller. On special occasions, they may have taken the train or Dad’s car up to dance at a New York City club.

When I was 7, thanks to being the unofficial mascot of the Blue Ridge Drum & Bugle Corps Band, my ambition was to be a baton twirler like Ginny Gulick, their majorette. Mother enrolled me briefly at Mrs. Taylor’s Dance Academy for lessons in baton and dance. Her younger daughter Wendy was in my big brother’s class; a year or so later, the school was closed so that she could take her daughter to join the June Taylor Dancers (no relation) on the Jackie Gleason Show in Florida. But such a void didn’t last long; soon after, Mother informed me that I was going to be attending Madame Selandia’s dance classes on Thursdays after school, at the Grange Hall on Main Street, for acrobatic, ballet and tap.

Mother had no ambitions for me to become a second Shirley Temple, unlike some mothers; in fact, other than making sure that I had a clean leotard and the dollar fee each week's lesson, after the first time, it was up to me to get myself there. No, Mother’s desire centered around a wish that I be graceful. It was a nice ambition, although mostly doomed to failure.

Mme. Selandia was a large, stout woman arrayed in a black leotard and layers of colored tutus, always topped off by a black one, fishnet stockings, and worn ballet shoes. Her dyed blond hair was styled like Betty Grable’s in the 40s, long out of date, and she carried a long wooden pointer—although I don’t recall her ever using it. Her husband was a comical contrast: much smaller, with thinning, slicked-back dyed black hair, thick glasses and a too-large suit. His role was to collect the money and change the records on the record-player behind a desk. She was the artiste.

The Grange Hall was a long rectangular room with splintery wooden floors, lined with folding wooden chairs. At the end farthest from the door was a low stage which we never used, and behind it a small kitchen, also never used except by girls hiding out from the lessons, perched on the formica counters and gabbing.

Each lesson always began the same way, with acrobatics to warm us up. We would stretch and tumble around on red gym mats, cartwheeling and doing headstands last.  That was fun! I was born double-jointed; this was something I could do well with little effort except for a headstand. My star turn was to lie on my stomach on the mat, arch my back, stretch up my legs and touch my head….This was hard for some, I could not only do that, but rest my heels on my shoulders for seven minutes at a time with no discomfort.

The largest girls having dragged the mats out of the way, we’d pull out folding chairs to serve in lieu of a barre, go through the five feet and arm positions while she slowly walked around correcting us, and then we’d be lined up to try different steps to the music and finally a dance. I liked that too, although I was soon aware that I was far from the best at that. Last would be tap, which I learned to hate.

The problem with tap dancing lay in my shoes. I was very proud of my dance bag, bright red with a picture in rhinestones of ballet shoes on the side. The top part was big enough to hold a leotard (although I always changed at home) and one’s tap shoes, and in the bottom was a cunning little space for ballet or toe shoes. Tap shoes were different from regular shoes in two ways: by tying with ribbons over the instep instead of laces, and in the taps on the tip of each shoe. And therein lay the problem: no matter how often I outgrew and got a new pair, my taps never tapped. Every other girl in the class went tappety-tappety- tap; I came after them, going clack-clack-clack. They thought it was funny. I thought it was hell.

But every time I thought I’d ask if I could quit, it would suddenly be April and we’d begin practicing for our annual June recital, and that was exciting—we’d wear costumes like real ballet dancers! And makeup! I’d be graceful AND beautiful!

Alas, it didn’t work out that way. We had the recitals, attended by parents, at the grade school auditorium, and the magic departed when I saw my face in the bathroom mirror after Mother dutifully tried to follow the directions I'd brought home. She was a brunette; I was fairer. Her black mascara looked odd around my eyes under blond eyebrows. She never used rouge or blusher, so she had me spit on a dab of liptick on her fingertip, which was then rubbed unevenly on my cheeks, and her scarlet lipstick looked peculiar on my mouth, as well as tasting…strange. I burst into tears. And at the recital, while I managed not to fall, I was wretchedly aware that I was not a graceful swan even before it was time to clack-clack-clack through our tap routine. I had five years of dashed optimism before I rebelled in favor of Opera Festival.

I was in high school when Daddy got it into his head that I should learn ballroom dancing, although he never called it that. Mother had gone to her night job, and he put some records on the record player. For the first time, I heard the strains of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple-Tree” and other standards straight out of the movies…and his past. “Come out to the kitchen,” he commanded, showed me the correct position with a stern, “Not too close!” and thus we embarked upon my new adventure.

The Dip
Daddy wasn’t a teacher. We had had epic struggles when he’d sought to teach me how to ride a two-wheeler bike, and we would again when he tried to teach me to drive both automatic and stick-shift. He simply could not clearly explain what he wanted me to do, and then he’d get mad—he had very little patience—and I’d get so frustrated I’d cry. But somehow, that didn’t happen with this. Although he grumbled that I steered like a Mack truck at first when we attempted a quick-step, he went on to a polka. “I know that!” I cried happily. I did, too. In 7th grade I used to go up to pre-teen dances at the Episcopal Church Guild Hall with Maureen Tierney, who taught me to do the Mexican hat dance. Daddy didn’t know that one; he was intent on my social future, although I didn’t know it. From the polka we moved to the fox-trot’s box step. “You can count to four! You know left from right!” and then the waltz, my favorite. Before long we were dancing out of the kitchen through the dining-room and living-room and back, and he was teaching me the trick steps that had won contests: Broadwaying, spins, crossovers, dips and others as he hummed, "It's Three O'Clock in the Morning." I wasn’t wearing the fancy dress, but it was magical, and my optimism revived. Someday....

Did I attend high school dances? Dad would drive me to the high school for the first sock hop of the year, and after being a wallflower and completely ignored by everyone for an hour or so, I’d slink out to the phone booth, call him to come pick me up, rush up to bed when we got home and cry myself to sleep. As a junior, I was on the most prestigious committee for the Junior Prom, the social event of the year, but my date got the measles the week beforehand, and Mother refused to buy me a dress when no one else asked me. Once again, I cried myself to sleep, as drearily sure that those dancing dreams were dead as only a teenager can be. Nobody asked me my Senior year either. I was certain I was the only girl in Warren County, if not New Jersey, who didn’t own a prom dress.

My social past was so dismal that Mother would not make me a long formal for college. Instead she insisted on making me a short cocktail dress which I hated and never wore. Luckily for me, the college was celebrating its centennial my freshman year, including a formal ball—for which I had a date, plus a borrowed gown. Its owner was about half-a-foot taller than I was and wore it with three-inch heels, so we tacked up the hem about nine inches. There was no time to find new shoes for my midget feet, so I had to wear the admittedly ugly black flats with huge studded buckles which were the only non-casual shoes I owned. Partway through the evening, those buckles gnawed through the temporary hem and I suddenly found myself wading around the dance-floor with what felt like miles of extra fabric while my date was trying to pull up on the back.

That was where I learned that one should always have, if not a sewing-kit, some extra safety pins in one's purse, which I did…and that most men I would date would not know how to slow dance other than to steer a girl backwards in circles, or else gyrate during a fast tune, period. None of them seemed to have even heard of ballroom dancing.

The other memorable dance in my college years was the one in which I went with a date who was 7 ft. 4 in. tall. Sam was a very nice guy, but since I was at the time barely 5 ft with a low heel, I could just about chin myself on his belt buckle. Mother had provided me with a lovely yellow damask brocade dress, very simple, the fabric making the dress, and a hand-knit  mohair shoulder cape that was like wrapping myself in a white cloud. At first, things went wonderfully (in other words, fast dances), although I was getting impatient for the romantic waltz of my dreams. At last the band began a slower tune, and we went out on the floor…and that was when the problem began. Sam wanted to dance cheek-to-cheek, which might have worked if he’d been willing to get on his knees. But no, he chose to pick me up. This might still have worked if he’d put one arm under my knees, but he didn’t; he chose to lift me up as if we were of an almost equal height, whereupon two facts came into play:
  •    Damask of any color is a slippery fabric. I began to slide down out of my dress.
  •    With my feet dangling over two feet off the floor, and feeling insecure, I reflexively attempted   to climb higher inside the dress. The end result was that, well, the toe of one foot connected with um, a vulnerable part of his anatomy. Sam folded over in half, set me on the floor, and hobbled to the nearest chair.
We broke up not long after that…..Once again, the romance of the waltz had eluded me.

Near the end of graduate school, my former roommate Betsy and her fiancé Bob introduced me to a guy named George. He was almost 6 ft. 2—but I always seemed to date tall guys (yes, Sam held the record for height. The shortest was 5 ft. 9). As I discovered, however, George had one very valuable quality the others lacked: he was an excellent dancer. Moreover, he loved dancing as much as I did. It is not the reason we got married, but I admit it was a consideration. He taught me to cha-cha, rumba and tango.

The good band we had for our wedding reception also played for the rehearsal dinner the night before. It was a delight to watch my parents, who made the most difficult steps look effortless both evenings.

I wanted to wear Gramma’s engraved silver lapel watch which Grandpop had given her as a wedding-gift, without its vanishing into the decoration of my dress. As a result, I chose a candlelight ivory knit fabric, made into a very simple long dress, no train—but what made it different was that the sleeves went to the elbows and then hung in long panels to the floor. No matter how I sat, stood or moved that day, for once in my life, I was graceful, to Mother’s almost incredulous joy. And waltzing in it, with George and later Daddy, was perfect. Finally!

Later George discovered disco. No, don’t laugh. If you have ever seen a really good routine, by an excellent dancer with a good partner who’ve rehearsed a lot, it can actually look better than you might think. And George and I did practice a lot, learning all kinds of steps and moves. It was fun. I remember one dinner dance (he was an advisor for a chapter of his college fraternity) when I wore a slinky black dress—this was very long ago, before the sands in my hourglass figure shifted—and by the time we finished one dance, we were the center of a ring of onlookers. This was held at a suburban nightclub owned by one brother’s father; he asked us if we’d give lessons. We said no, but it was nice to be considered that good.

John, at our wedding reception
Much later I married John. My husband is a wonderful, wonderful man who is the greatest blessing of my life. If I could change one thing about him, it would be that he had not been stricken with rheumatoid arthritis when he was a little boy.  Telling you that he went from twenty years in a wheelchair to years on crutches to just a cane six months before I met him barely expresses the minimum of one of his journeys. We did not have a band or even a DJ at our wedding; I didn’t feel it would be right to spend our first married evening with him watching me in the arms of other men, and he told me over and over that he does not dance. But that was fine; we were together, and that was enough. I was happy. It was a perfect day.

A few years after our wedding, we decided to go to one of my high school class reunions. My classmates like to dance—the floor of the old American Legion hall was shaking under our feet. Yes, our—no longer constrained by etiquette that the boy had to be the one asking, I boldly invited some of my male classmates to dance with me. Despite not dancing, John had such a good time chatting with them that he agreed to go to another one five years later. That one was held in a country club ballroom with a good dance floor.

Near the end of the evening, John shyly asked me to dance. We stood on the edge of the floor, he hung his cane over a chair, put his arms around me, and we swayed to the music for two songs. That was what it may have looked like outwardly. Inwardly, we were doing all kinds of fancy steps, the hem of my dress swirling around us, and the only word to describe it was and is…perfectly enchanting.


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