In my hometown, there was no escaping Miss Valentine’s School of Social Dance. No one enrolled by choice; it was an indignity that accompanied puberty, like menstruation or body hair.
Miss Valentine was, in fact, married. The courtly Mr. Valentine was always on hand to demonstrate the fox trot or fix the leaky faucet in the bathroom. But “Miss Valentine” was what we called her.
On a typical Wednesday evening, she arranged us in rows on opposite sides of the room, boys on one side, girls on the other. At her signal, the boys began a reluctant march toward us. Miss Valentine flitted among them, birdlike, straightening shoulders and collars. Each boy was to select a partner and request the pleasure of a dance. Dread was palpable in the room. The girls outnumbered the boys, so some girls didn’t get chosen the first time around.
Miss Valentine showed us the steps — slowly at first, without music, and then faster, to recordings with audible scars from years of service. My partner, Eddie, was shorter than I. He counted the steps. “One, two, three” for a waltz, “one, two, three, four” for a fox trot. We also learned the polka, the Charleston, and, for some reason, the bossa nova. It was the year of Chubby Checker, and we begged to do the twist, but Miss Valentine shook her head.
At the end of each lesson, Mr. Valentine materialized and took his wife’s hand. They looked into each other’s eyes, bodies poised. Then they cast themselves off into a waltz or a tango, as if into a wild and thrilling ride on white water. They spun and sailed. Miss Valentine’s eyes shone and her rose suede, size-five wedgies flashed. The Valentines must have been well past sixty then, but they made dancing seem effortless, joyous, sensual. The sheer exhilaration of watching them kept us coming back week after week, kept us trudging and counting and gingerly holding one another’s damp hands.
Every year, Miss Valentine gave a Christmas dance. It was a kind of party and commencement exercise in one. Invitations went out to parents. Fancy dresses and real suits were required. Girls made appointments to have their hair pulled into French twists. For weeks in advance, Miss Valentine drilled us in the arts of making introductions, holding a punch glass, wearing a corsage.
Eddie asked me to the Christmas dance, of course. My mother mailed the response card included in Miss Valentine’s invitation. She could hardly wait to meet Eddie. She had known his father for years, she said. And wasn’t it nice that he could come to the dance during his busiest season?
“What does he do?” I asked.
“Why, you know him,” she said. “He’s the Santa Claus at Duquesne’s Department Store.”
The Santa Claus at Duquesne’s! A Santa Claus! Surely he could not be anyone’s father. Above all, not the father of my first date. Not so many years before, I had perched on his lap and asked him for a Betsy Wetsy. What if he remembered? What if he laughed his Santa Claus laugh at the dance? What if — it was unthinkable — what if he came in his Santa Claus suit?
He did not. He and Eddie’s mother were as boring as my own parents. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking of them as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. We all rode to the dance in their car. Eddie sat in front with them. I sat in back with my parents.
The introductions went without a hitch. Miss Valentine glowed. Punch and cookies were served. Late in the evening, someone slipped an extra record onto the spindle: Chubby Checker. Miss Valentine shrugged. We twisted.
In my parents’ album is a snapshot of Eddie and me. I hardly recognize that pudgy girl, but the worried expression is mine, all right. The frames of my glasses slant upward at the outside, a style that was supposed to look glamorous. Eddie’s mouth is open. He appears to be saying, “Three.”
That night, as always, the Valentines danced the last dance alone. She was decked out in satin and rhinestones, and they floated past us as if the whole world held only them and the music.
The only dancing I did for the next several years was to rock ’n’ roll, and the only time I thought of Miss Valentine was when, at weddings, I’d dance one or two stiff numbers with my father.
But more than twenty years later I went to an old-time music festival in West Virginia. The musicians got tired of fiddling fast, and a voice called out, “How about a waltz?” And somebody asked me to dance.
I didn’t know him and I never saw him again after that evening. We started out tentatively, but soon we were making great loops around the room. He was an excellent leader; I could have closed my eyes, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to watch his face because I could see that he was enjoying himself. And I could see in his face that I was, too.
But perhaps I did close my eyes for a few moments, because there was a time when it didn’t seem that we were dancing. We were flying, we had risen a few inches off the floor, and we existed somewhere outside the law of gravity. The music, the other couples on the floor — none of these were there. For a few moments, just that once, I danced in perfect joy and grace, the way Miss Valentine always hoped I would.
Charleston, West Virginia
In sixth grade we had to have dancing classes. Once a week the chairs were folded up in the music room, and we had square-dancing and waltzing lessons. This was in the days of Elvis, of penmanship lessons, when drugs still meant penicillin.
Because there wasn’t an even number of girls and boys in the class, I was almost always paired up with another boy. We had to take turns leading, but since both of us were total klutzes, it didn’t matter. I never learned to dance. In fact, I was terrified even to try, almost all the way through college. (I was terrified of a lot of other things, too.)
I came out in my senior year of college, in Berkeley. A gay men’s rap group that I belonged to had a dance. My lover loved to dance, and he dragged me along. But I stood by the food table watching him. I could feel the music in my body, but the terror was strong. Pretty far into the evening, a wonderful older man (who could only be called an old black queen) came up to me and said, “Honey, all niggers and faggots can dance.” (I considered rephrasing this, but that is what he said.) Suddenly, it was as if a great wind had whipped through my body. The music was in me, in my feet and in my hips and in my arms. I knew that I really could dance, and I’ve been dancing ever since, joyfully, if still a bit disjointedly.
From time to time, I think about the boy I used to dance with in my sixth-grade class. I wonder if he was as lucky as I was, or if he’s still standing off on the sidelines, eating tortilla chips, with a twitch in his foot that he still won’t let above his ankle.
Brooklyn, New York
The year was 1950. My adopted daddy and my mother were gone because there was a war in Korea. I was living with my beloved grandmother, in a new school, starting the third grade. This was public school, where they taught square-dancing. Previously I had been in a private school, where I was taught that people of my religion do not dance. Ever.
It was my own idea to have Grandma write a note excusing me from dancing. I believed what I had been taught — maybe even to the point of self-righteousness. Perhaps more than morality, though, it was fear that held me back. I read books while the other kids danced.
One day there were not enough couples to make a square, and the cutest boy in the class asked me to dance. They needed me. “Come on, Lynda. Please? Just this once.” I made the decision. I stood up, left the book behind, joined the play, the fun, the music. The teacher smiled. The dance began.
I was a very bright child. I had no doubt that I could learn whatever I needed to know for any endeavor. And yet, there was something wrong. The movements of the dancers became confusing. I was lost. The dancing stopped. The music stopped. The teacher came over and asked my adorable partner what was wrong. With a trembling voice he announced to the world, “She won’t swing!”
It was the end of my dancing. “God’s will,” I thought. I returned to my books.
When I was thirty-eight, I was at a music camp. There was a square dance, and Prince Charming asked me to dance. I said, “No, I don’t know how.” He said, “Come on, it’s easy. I’m just learning too.” I said, “I’m afraid,” and he said, “Damn it, I’m really sick of dating women who won’t dance with me.” Well, this was Prince Charming, so I danced. No one got confused, and the music didn’t stop, and I pretended that I could swing, and that was good enough.
But that was years ago. Prince Charming is now a recovering adult child of an alcoholic in Northern California, and I am a chemical dependency counselor in Southern California, and life goes on.
In my work, once a month, the patients and counselors have a group where we are all asked to remember the most painful experience of our lives. As the months go by I have recalled the lost men, the lost children, the lost homes, the divorce, the years lost to marijuana and alcohol, the misery of adolescence, and finally the story of the little girl who couldn’t swing. At age forty-six, in the story I’d told for humor for so long, I suddenly heard the cry of the inner child who wanted the chance to connect, and to participate in her own life. I heard the longing for boyfriends and girlfriends, and felt the tears that she could not then shed. She wanted to swing. She didn’t know how.
I know now that I can do the steps, but I still doubt that my being can “swing.” I am not comfortable in the play and friendship of people turning in each other’s arms.
Unrepentant in my stubborn individuality, I live by myself. And although on this gentle evening, I will choose to read yet another good book, I do not fool myself. With all my woman’s heart, and with all my child’s heart, and for all the days of my life, I want to be and have wanted to be with people, linking arms and twirling and laughing in the lights.
I was an introvert growing up; I watched the stiff way my mother moved in her plaid skirts and sprayed hair, and felt overwhelmed by the easy amiability of the cheerleaders at football games. I thought dance meant seduction: to charm the crowd or to show off your body or to make him desire you. In high school and college it seemed too intimate to dance so close to some strange boy, who wasn’t really dancing with you at all.
In my twenties I began doing aikido. During those five years, I realized how much I love to move, to spiral down to the ground and roll back up, to blend energy with a partner, a series of partners.
Now I can’t get enough dancing in my life. “GOTTA DANCE,” a friend jokes, but I know what he means. Our dance class did a “healing ritual” based on the four elements, as part of a creation-centered church service on Mount Tamalpais, and I discovered that dancing outdoors is a special ecstasy.
Our teacher told us a story about how we usually assume the soul is a tiny speck somewhere in the body. What if the soul is big, bigger than the body, and the body is inside the soul? As we dance through space, extending feet, hands, elbows, ribs, we are brushing up against and moving within an energetic circle that is our soul. The body inside the soul! When I move from that image, it’s like I’m taking a walk and I’ve turned a corner suddenly, and the air is very alive.
For so long I have put stillness and solitude on the high altars. But I need to keep moving, through the doubt and fear and pain and beauty, instead of trying to freeze myself into a mask of stillness that looks a certain way. I need to kick up my heels or jump or let my hands tell their stories or slice the air with my elbows or, exhausted and breathing, sense blood moving through my limbs to my toes.
I say yes to that grand old dance of seduction, but yes also to all kinds of other dances, ankle dances and hand dances, shy dances, bold dances, dances to communicate, dances to express frustration, dancing to decide something, dancing yes, dancing no, dancing with my friends, dancing with my lover, dancing alone, dancing to combine earth and sky, dirt and cloud, inside and outside the body. Dancing for God.
J. Ruth Gendler
Dancing is a sin. And it should be. Dancing is about union, bodily union, a dangerous, uncontrollable thing. Dancing puts you right in the arms of God, and who knows where that might lead.
I got the prize for best folk dancer in fifth-grade summer school. After that, I was never taught anything about dancing. For a long time, I didn’t even know I could dance. Once, at a high-school dance, a black girl asked me to show her the steps I’d invented, and I thought she was making fun of me. Later, I was at a party my college-aged sister threw, and some man came up afterward and said, “I loved watching you dance.” I thought he was making fun of me too.
After I got away from my family and found out that compliments weren’t invariably back-handed insults, I realized I must be a pretty wild dancer. While other people were shifting from foot to foot with their eyes closed, I was taking up half the floor. Once, I accidentally knocked some poor guy’s glasses off and sent them sailing across the room — and he was sitting down drinking a beer at the time.
When I dance, I don’t get tired. I have worn through the skin of my feet without noticing. I also always dance alone, even if I have a nominal partner; no one can keep up with me, and I won’t follow. The only times I’ve ever danced successfully with a partner is when I’ve been so drunk I could be swung around like a life-sized doll.
I have pretty much given up dancing in public, though. I get watched. I can’t accept how much I like it, how much it influences me. I feel something like a stripper, a body displayed. The mixture of feelings is too strong for me. I want everyone to stop dead and watch me, and at the same time I hate how imagining their eyes on me makes my dancing external, no longer pure.
Kay Levine Spencer
There’s something about reggae music. Rock music seems to just bounce off me, and I bounce back; reggae seeps inside and pulls on me from the root, the first chakra, down in the pelvic region. I’m hypnotized. I lose myself. It’s very sensual music to dance to.
These days, it’s uncool to ask a woman at a bar if she’d like to dance — especially at a reggae concert. Everyone just jumps onto the dance floor. Anything goes: men dance with men, women with women, and everyone with each other, alone and in groups.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice her across the dance floor. So beautiful, eyes closed, hips swaying gently, she loved the tunes, and the music seemed to make love to her. God, I wished I were that music!
I wanted to inch closer to her, to “share the vibration” with her somehow. But I didn’t want to appear uncool. (God no! Anything but that!) I tried to imagine what I might say to her. Something really original like, “Great music, huh?” Shyness set in; my chances were blown for good.
Then I realized what I was doing. Instead of enjoying myself and digging the tunes, I was getting stuck in my self-consciousness. I closed my eyes and let the music move me, bass lines vibrating through my entire body. It was easy for me to lose myself — I love the music so much. Soon, self-consciousness fell away as I became one with the music. I was the music.
After the tune ended and I slowly regained consciousness, I opened my eyes. There she was, standing right next to me. As I looked her way, she smiled at me and said, a little out of breath, “Great music, huh?”
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I have the picture in one of my photo albums: we three tiny girls, posing like real ballerinas, with costumes barely covering our baby titties, which at that time were no more than sweet little freckles. The recital consisted of five or six steps, and to the best of my memory we executed them perfectly — as perfectly as four-, six-, and seven-year-olds could. I didn’t think it was entirely fair that I was put in that dance number with my sisters, who were smaller than I and who, I thought, couldn’t dance as well. But we were cute together. The dance school always smelled musty and was extremely cold when it rained. The wind would sneak into the thin cracks in the plasterboard walls and nip our skin. Our teacher had jet-black hair and wore it swept up; I don’t think she smiled often. It saddens me, now, after all these years, that I can’t remember her ever dancing for us.
Santa Ana, California
One night in Harare, Zimbabwe, I went dancing. I was drunk to the point of enlightenment. The band was playing Kwela music. Kwela is the springiest, most joyful music, often played with gleeful, innocent abandon on pennywhistles. We were in an open-air courtyard. From somewhere outside, beer bottles started flying into the middle of the dance floor. People would be startled briefly, and would jump away from the exploding glass, grin at each other, and continue dancing. After a couple of minutes the bottle-bombing stopped; the music and movement flowed on, nobody harmed. We were moving in a protective sky of sound and rhythm; the earth was our drum and our trampoline.
Today, thirty years later, I shake my head and wonder. What was that innocent invincibility? Where is it now?
Paul was writing a book about rock ’n’ roll that required his attendance at many concerts, one of which was the Grateful Dead concert in Oakland. I felt out of sorts that day with a headache — which was very unusual for me. I had only been to one Dead show before and hadn’t been impressed, so I thought I might skip this one.
Our friend Lory was going with us. She told me of the first time she’d seen the Dead: she had the flu and a high fever. She went anyway and danced and danced to the music. She was well after that; it was “healing music,” she said. Ha, I thought. I know what healing music is: soft harps, piano, flute — not loud drums and guitars.
I packed up my pain and resistance and went anyway. I went out of duty, curiosity, and fairness — to give these guys at least one more chance.
I stood, doing the only kind of dance that’s possible when people are packed about you on all sides: moving mostly vertically, with a bit of horizontal hip action when a space opens up. As I was swaying to the rhythm and trying not to think, I suddenly felt like a little girl again. There was a question running through my thoughts: I was asking my mother if she had ever missed my dad after she divorced him. Then I was crying, tears streaming down my face; I was dancing, crying. All at once I was my daughter asking me if I ever missed her dad, if I regretted leaving him, if I wondered what our life would be like if I hadn’t left. . . .
It was as if there were inside me an actual physical place — an encapsulated infected area — where I had for years and years been stuffing my grief, loneliness, vulnerability, and feelings of loss. The music, audience, dancing, all had lanced through to that festering place, and it began to clear. I grieved openly and unashamedly. I grieved for my family, for my mother and father, and for myself as a wife, a mother, a woman, a girl.
I danced and cried for forty-five minutes. When I left I felt complete — cleansed, whole, healed.
Glen Ellen, California
My mother used to tantalize us with tales of jitterbugging in Calcutta. She and my father dated while he was stationed there during the war. He would take her out, and, since he didn’t dance, she’d “bug” with everyone but him. Then he’d take her home.
The only time I saw my father dance was when he got drunk the night before my brother’s wedding. Someone put on fiddle music and he did the “Lee Alexander,” a little flatfoot jig from the Blue Ridge. People have begged him to repeat the performance, but he always refuses. He says he’ll do it again when one of his daughters gets married. Whenever I’ve gotten close enough to a man to talk of marriage, I’ve thought of the necessity of having fiddle music at the wedding at just the right moment — after the champagne but before Dad passes out.
About three years ago my sister started dancing. She does everything — folk-dancing, square-dancing, contra, swing, clogging, step-dancing, tap. She learned quickly, with her usual competitive efficiency. Now she has thirteen pairs of flat black shoes, and she just quit her job to manage and dance in a semi-professional troupe.
I started going to contra dances about two years ago, tagging along, hoping to crash my sister’s scene. We didn’t communicate very well, and she didn’t seem to want me around; I had thought that if I did something she loved, she would love me. It didn’t work, but I still dance occasionally. I do it for the endorphin high, the pleased exhaustion afterward, and the sense of connecting with something outside the moment. I’ve started teaching my new boyfriend to waltz; I take it as a positive sign that he’s willing to learn, that he likes dancing with me, that he gets a little dizzy at times.
Takoma Park, Maryland
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character was taken prisoner and threatened with being eaten alive by rats, because rats were what he feared most.
The thing I fear most is dancing, and here I am living in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and home of Mardi Gras. My therapist finds this fear of dancing interesting. Together we are searching for clues from the past. I have eighteen aunts and uncles, at least as many cousins, and three adult siblings, and I have never seen any of them dance. My family values academic degrees, and the body from the cerebellum down is not supposed to be a source of pleasure.
So here I am, in the city that care forgot. In spite of unemployment, high-school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and low teacher salaries, people seem to be dancing all the time. Inexcusable, my family would say.
So, this is why I’m in therapy: to learn how to go out dancing in spite of the fact that — or even because — we live in an imperfect world.
New Orleans, Louisiana
My twelve-year-old sister, Linda, went to Rosalind’s Dancing School. Every Saturday morning she happily left home carrying her little brown case, which held black patent-leather shoes with grosgrain ribbons and kidney-shaped taps. The shoes interested me, but, being a seven-year-old tomboy, I loudly rejected any idea that I, too, might be enrolled in prissy, sissy dancing school.
The annual dance recital was approaching. Mom spent weeks making Linda’s costume of turquoise satin, with stiff wrist and ankle cuffs of blue and cerise net, edged with sparkling ribbon. It was breathtaking to behold, but I was more than happy to let my sister wear the costume.
The night of the recital, I sat with my parents. We dutifully applauded the opening acts, reserving our enthusiasm for Linda and her shimmering flock. We endured a musical interpretation of Hansel and Gretel that even I had to admit had its scary moments.
And then it happened. The lights dimmed to just a spotlight on a stage, empty save for one small suitcase and a little girl not much older than I. She was dressed in a perfect miniature bellhop uniform, complete with pillbox hat and chin strap: the dearest outfit I’d ever seen in my life, and I wanted it.
For the next five minutes, the bellhop tapped and strutted, comical and playful as she executed charming, almost acrobatic moves around that suitcase. She was the most magical being I’d ever seen, and I wanted it to be me. I coveted the bellhop outfit. I yearned to be the center of attention. I wanted to be a star!
I stared hard at my lap, memorizing with blurred eyes the little yellow embroidered tulips on the hem of my red skirt, swallowing back a mystifying great lump in my throat.
The audience laughed and clapped its delight at the little bellhop and I fell apart. Oh, the ignoble embarrassment of crying like a silly baby in public, fussed over by clutching, clucking grownups!
Humiliated, done in by envy and remorse, I was taken home. My parents assumed that I’d been frightened by the witch in the Hansel and Gretel sketch. I went along with the story: it was too confusing to explain what was really wrong. I knew deep in my heart that no one would ever let me live it down if I told them I’d changed my mind — I wanted to dance! So, Linda continued to go alone to Rosalind’s, and I stuck to my original plans to become a cowgirl.
Years later, I am among the first to buy a ticket to Broadway’s “A Chorus Line.” I sit in the second row and my heart feels like it’s going to break.
New York, New York
I call home. Alex wails in the background, a baby siren; he obviously has not fallen asleep. I am due home now to nurse him and put him down. I fly about the office, throwing letters into a satchel and failing to turn off the lights, the radio, the teapot. I’m down the grubby stairs and out the door before I realize I’ve forgotten my jacket. I run a few steps, try to force myself to walk, run again halfway down Grand Avenue to the Val, a ’67 Valiant. Check the traffic and head for the driver’s side. Wrong move. This car no longer has a door handle on that side. I don’t drive it often enough to remember. Duck down under the canoe rack, open the passenger door, and slither across the graying black vinyl, pump the accelerator once, flip the ignition, and she roars. I’m on my way — still half at work, now half at home.
I flip on the radio. A blast of announcer hype and prattle. KQ 95. Not my station. It used to be progressive rock, but now it’s Golden Oldies, bubble gum rock, and heavy metal. I could use something soothing. I’m about to switch stations when the next cut comes on and my hand stops on the knob. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. No. Yes. They’re fast into “Devil With A Blue Dress.” My hand’s on the knob. I travel up Lexington buzzing in my seat, bopping a little with my left foot and my shoulders. My hand on the knob turns up the sound. Again. What the hell — again. I’m surrounded by 1967: the car, Mitch, and the band.
I turn onto St. Clair. Can’t sit still. Wonder vaguely what the people behind me think, but shrug it off fast. I’m dancing. I’m hitting the wheel, shimmying my shoulders, bouncing my butt.
I’m at a small-town cafe on tour with my college drama group, feeding quarters into a jukebox and letting my fanny flounce under my polyester miniskirt, to the chagrin of all the chaperones. A Christian college, after all. A Christian play.
And then I’m back — not at the cafe, not at the office, not at home. I’m driving the Val, smiling and grinning and having unimpeded fun. I wouldn’t put it past myself to be that devil in a blue dress, and I’m on my way home to nurse my baby.
A couple more turns, past Mississippi Market and onto Osceola. By this time the guys have medleyed into “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and I’m twirling the wheel to let the power steering guide the Val into place in front of our house. John and Alex are out front waiting for me. The cool air has calmed them both, I think. I roll down the window and holler, “Can you believe this music?” I’m happy. I’m glad to be here. I’m running up the steps with my chest sparkling.
I swing Alex out of John’s arms and croon to him. “Here’s Mama. Were you waiting for me? Honey, some good milk’s gonna come out of these breasts. They were just dancing,” and we dance all the way up the stairs to the rocking chair.
St. Paul, Minnesota
My dancing began early, on top of father’s shoes, to the accompaniment of the radio: the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or the Dorsey Brothers with Frank Sinatra singing. Off we went, doing mostly the fox trot with our own interesting whirls and flourishes.
When I was thirteen, my two brothers and I dressed up, Dad put on a sportcoat, and we went to the American Legion clubhouse dance. I sat and tapped my feet, listening to “Mack The Knife” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” “Come Fly With Me” and “Mood Indigo.” My father, after a warm-up drink, turned and said simply, “Let’s go.” Off we sailed, very smoothly executing the steps he had learned as a young man (though he was still young then and I didn’t realize it).
Over the years I danced with him — on New Year’s Eves and at wedding receptions (even his own, sixteen years ago); I have always danced, and still do, by myself now in my living room, at times when some music particularly moves me. I don’t worry, as my mother did, about wearing out the rug; nor do I worry about how it might look to someone passing by.
I remember everyone I danced with and how; I remember whom I didn’t dance with and why; I remember just barely moving in joy with a body that “fit”; and I remember how my father danced — arms just right, leading, guiding, sharing the rhythm.
My father died two months ago. For years he had suffered the physical effects of diabetes — including two amputations. He couldn’t dance during the last five years, but he still wanted to hear Frank Sinatra. His fingers would snap and his voice would soar, and at those times I believe he still danced.
Battle Creek, Michigan
Dancing was the evening’s perfect climactic event for this group of seven women unfolding into girls, during their weekend at a getaway cottage in the mountains.
That day we hiked, laughed, and meditated on the bluffs. After dinner we staged self-timed photos of our noses in the whipped cream from the chocolate raspberry tarts. Then, with just the right amount of dizziness from wine and chocolate, we giggled our way into the dark night toward the local graveyard.
Barely able to make out each other’s silhouettes, we managed to clasp arms immediately when the big noise from the edge of the gravel road frightened us. We sucked all we could from this opportunity to scream and run and hope to beat the monster back to our safe place with doors that locked. We did beat it back, hysterical with laughter.
It was midnight, but there was unanimous agreement that we should dance ourselves to sleep. It took only minutes to roll up the rugs and clear our dance floor. We started with Aretha: “What you want . . . baby I got it. . . .” We watched each other at first — discreetly of course, as some of us had just met. But soon we were moving and singing as if we meant it, stopping only to change tapes. Inhibition lessened, and I watched Minda remove her blouse and her bra. She wanted to feel the freedom on her body. Some few giggles later, Ann’s top was shed. I followed in fifth place. One of us thought to pull down the window shades. After all, it was well past midnight in this small town of mountain folk who would hardly understand seven topless, dancing women who just wanted to feel absolutely free.
Debbie W. Hill
We all loved to dance — all of us in the “big girl’s ward” in the crippled children’s hospital. Crutches didn’t stop us; neither did wheelchairs or artificial legs. Some even danced flat on their backs, with casts covering two-thirds of their bodies. Those who had missing arms or crooked spines had the advantage of two good legs. And a few, scarred with burns, had the greatest advantage: whole bodies — arms, legs, hips, hands, fingers, wrists, necks — that moved when and where they told them to. I cannot say I envied them, for some were quite disfigured, but when they got up to dance, the rest of us cleared the way.
We listened to all the hits of the day on the morning radio, then snuck it back on after “lights out” for one last dance. But the most magical times for me were those late afternoons watching the black-and-white television, high on its pedestal at the end of the ward, tuned to “American Bandstand.” Our minds and bodies were transformed from “crips” to “norms.” We knew all the regulars on the show; we’d even write to them, and sometimes we’d get an answer, a picture.
Not only did I know every step of those late-Fifties, early-Sixties dances in my mind, I also created characters to dance them — not imaginary friends, but imaginary selves. The first one was four years older than I, a mature sixteen. Not only could she dance, but she could sing and act as well; she was a starlet who dated all my favorite movie stars and TV actors. She was a rich, beautiful, and sexy blonde. But she was a bit too much even for me, so I invented another — a kid my age. I toned down her looks from beautiful to pretty and gave her the long, red hair I wished I had. This one could really dance! I made her a “Bandstand” regular, and with her amazing talent she won every dance contest.
These characters lived their imaginary lives simultaneously with my real one: I had lots of boy-crazy girlfriends and a hospital boyfriend; I got crushes on doctors and rebelled against hospital rules, torturing nurses I hated and worshipping nurses I loved. My fantasy life borrowed from, embellished, and nourished my real life, and vice versa.
After I returned home, during my freshman year in high school, I visited a friend from the hospital who lived in a tiny town a few miles away. I was no longer in a cast or wearing a brace; however, I was cursed with corrective shoes and a limp that still plagues me thirty years later. My friend, on the other hand, had arthritis throughout her entire body. Her joints were so stiff and inflexible she could neither totally bend nor straighten out her legs, arms, and fingers. Nevertheless, we attended a high-school dance that night.
A young man asked my friend to dance. He was one of those “good” boys that all mothers seem to want for sons, though no one in high school wants to be like him or even be friends with him. He was well-intentioned, polite, a church regular — in short, the only boy there who would ask a crippled girl to dance. I watched from the bleachers as he and my friend slow-danced on the gym floor. When he asked me next, I went into mental paralysis trying to think of a way out. The possibility of dancing with a boy who wasn’t missing an arm or who didn’t have a leg in a brace or a lift on his shoe was so threatening that I blurted out, “I don’t dance with people I don’t know!” My physical awkwardness was nothing compared to the social awkwardness of that moment — the stupid grin on my hot, red face, the stifled speech and breath.
Drifting, I found myself swaying to a music heard only by me on a familiar, internal dance floor. I stood there poised and aloof, gave my long, red hair a toss, and said, coolly, “I don’t dance with strangers.”
It isn’t easy to attract attention at Dancehome. Jingles, a tall, string-bean hippie with a circle of dark curls around his head, wears a velvet outfit with tiny lights that flash on and off as he dances. Most people wear comfortable, loose clothes: drawstring pants, soft skirts, T-shirts, leotards. Some people drape themselves in layers of scarves that billow out as they move. The Esalen-types wear beards and khaki pants and leave their Birkenstocks at the door.
At Dancehome you can dance with someone else or you can dance alone. You can dance out any feeling — joy, anger, sadness, excitement. Some people dance with their babies until the babies get tired and sleep on the cushions that line the walls. Some people leap and spin; some run around fast, in a circle, barely missing other dancers. One man simply walks, weaving through the other dancers, loudly clapping out a beat to the music. My friend Gary dances quietly, like he’s tiptoeing on cotton, but he mostly likes to sit and watch the other dancers. A café-au-lait woman with rusty dreadlocks down to the middle of her back seems to move every muscle in her body when she dances. She smells like patchouli and clean sweat. Sometimes a group will form and dance in a circle or a line. Often the music is too much to express in movement, and I hear it coming out of me in whoops. Nobody stares. This is a great place to go crazy.
Until I was seven I danced alone in my room almost every day to music like “Copelia” or “The Nutcracker Suite.” My dances incorporated stories. In my favorite, I played Persephone forced into the Underworld, my mother’s red beach cape swirling to the “Peer Gynt Suite.” Then I got a ballet teacher who pounded the floor with her cane and pounded the dance right out of me. Dancehome danced it back in.
Most people look stiff when they first come to Dancehome. No alcohol, no cigarettes — it can be hard to loosen up. Men who are new often make clumsy attempts to pick up women. Later they realize that the mating dances here are subtle and require patience and grace. In spite of the large wooden floor, newcomers dance small with their arms held in, as one might dance in a crowded disco. Some never return; but if they do, their dancing gets bigger and more distinctive, until I can see more of who they are by their movements. When I first came to Dancehome, I tried to dance in a way that looked good, but then I learned that I could let the music dance me. Good music grabs me up by my heart and dances me around and around, requiring no effort.
I love to twirl when I dance; I like the feel of my hair moving through the air like a flag in a storm. I flirt at Dancehome, like I might have in junior high or high school (but never did). The joy I feel in my swirling dance, in my limber body, attracts people to me. I have the power. I can make eye contact or not, dance with someone or not. I am the queen of the hop, barefoot in a cotton skirt and leotard. Sometimes my heart dances me right into someone else’s heart, and every movement we make is reflected in each other’s body. I feel my dance changed by someone else’s dance, my body moved by another body, that body moved by mine. Sometimes when a song ends, we laugh and try to say something but find there is nothing to say. Other times we can talk while we dance.
Since I’ve been married I almost never go to Dancehome. The music doesn’t sound that good to me anymore. My hair is short. My heart never carries me away as it did during the five years I danced there once or twice a week. I took my husband Jim there once, but we both felt awkward. Jim, with whom I talk, make love, plan, work, giggle, sing, and play so well, loves to dance too, but our dances don’t mesh well. He’s tall: my heart hits at about his belly. I can’t feel where he dances in his body.
But last weekend we went to a free Cajun zydeco concert at the local junior college. C.J. Chenier warmed up with some old rhythm and blues. I taught Jim the Dirty Bop, which is sort of grinding to music. Jim picked it up fast. I could feel his heart, even though the dance connected us at the genitals. We danced all night, the Cajun waltzes, the two-steps — it didn’t matter. We could dance together. I could feel his dance.
The next day we went to a wedding — an obligation. We decided to make the best of it, and we danced and danced. I think for me now, Dancehome is Jim.
Santa Monica, California
Throughout my adolescence, I lived for the dances in the school gymnasium on Saturday nights. These weekly hops were my social life as far as girls and possible romance went. The odd thing about it is that I didn’t dance. Oh, I slow-danced — awkwardly, but well enough to get by — but I didn’t fast-dance. I was a wallflower, even though I played varsity football and generally wore my letter sweater to these affairs.
There were always enough of us non-dancers to stand around in a little circle all night, and talk and laugh and look over each other’s shoulders at the girls. Now and then, I would spot an opening, stroll over to a covey of girls, hands in my pockets, probably whistling, and I would tap one on the shoulder and ask if she wanted to dance. Generally she accepted, maybe in deference to my varsity letter, or out of courtesy to my feelings — though by the cool way she held me, I knew she was wishing I were someone else.
Once I was dancing, my personality turned instantly flat. I might have been the life of the party with the other wallflowers, but now I couldn’t think of what to say, except to ask how she was doing in geometry or if she liked the decorations or if she’d gone to the game last night. Neither did I know how tightly or loosely to hold her, or if she would consider it rude if my hand on her back rested on her bra strap. My lead was frightened and unimaginative, three little steps that went around a circle with no variation. If I did try something different, I was sure to trip over myself or step on her foot. It was easy for me to imagine, before the dance was over, that she was looking over my shoulder at her friends and rolling her eyes. Mercifully, the songs only lasted two or three minutes.
Meanwhile, I observed how the girls looked at and held the boys they really wanted to dance with. I could see that they liked best to slow-dance with the boys who fast-danced. If you fast-danced, you didn’t have to be that great-looking. And how much more relaxing it was to move from fast-dancing to slow-dancing, to be already on the floor when the slow dance came on, having fun, moving around, shaking yourself, swinging. There was a rhythm there, fast-dancing to slow-dancing, but I couldn’t get into it.
This painful inadequacy dragged me down all through high school and college. Sometimes I tried to learn the new dances as they came out. I was a regular student of “American Bandstand,” but by the time I had gotten the crawl or the chicken worked out in front of the mirror, everyone else had already moved on to the swim or the dog. Over time it became clear to me that I would never master dancing. Practicing steps in front of a mirror didn’t work, because the whole body had to be involved — not just the feet stepping here, then there, then back to here. There were your arms to consider, and your butt and hips and torso and shoulders; the whole thing would have to come from the inside somewhere in response to the music. Everything would have to move together without your thinking about it. By the time I graduated from college and got married, I’d long before given up.
Ten years later, after my marriage broke up, I was in primal therapy, digging down into my buried emotions and repressed body, learning to cry and laugh again, expressing anger at how much life I’d missed by being afraid. Roberta, my therapist, said I was doing really well in the therapy — so well, in fact, that she saw a potential therapist in me down the road. One night there was a party, and Roberta and the other therapists were there, as well as a lot of the clients. After food, the rugs were rolled back, music was cranked up on the stereo, and the whole party began to dance. Everyone danced except me and a couple of others; we stood on the outside with forced smiles on our faces, mortified by this exposure but unable to do anything about it.
In our next session, Roberta asked me why I didn’t join in the dancing.
“I don’t dance,” I said.
“What do you mean, you don’t dance?” she asked.
“I don’t fast-dance. I never learned how.”
“Why didn’t you just get out there and shake your butt, then?”
“I was afraid I’d look stupid.”
“And do you think you didn’t look stupid standing around with that pasted smile on your face? This therapy is about taking risks, Jim — not only here in this room, but out there in real life.”
I knew she was right, so after I licked my wounds for a few days, I found another guy and two women who were also afraid to dance, and we agreed to go to a club with a dance floor and just do it: face our fear head-on. It might be easier if we made fools of ourselves together, we agreed.
When we arrived, we took a table near the dance floor, ordered a drink, and waited for a song with a lively beat, hoping that some others might come out first to give us a place to hide. It was an amusing situation — four adults, all with the same childish fear, sitting around looking at each other, feeling a little sick inside.
I knew waiting would only make it harder for me. I asked Charlotte if she was ready. “Oh God, not yet,” she said. I asked Chrissy. “Let’s wait till some other people get out there,” she said. “Let’s do it now,” I urged. I could see in her face the same fear I was feeling inside. “OK,” she said.
Next thing I knew we were both standing out there in the middle of the floor, stiff as boards, looking at each other, feeling absolutely nothing, numb with fear and embarrassment. I guess you just start by moving something, I thought. So I moved something, I can’t remember what — a hip, a leg, an arm. And then something else sort of moved in reaction, and then suddenly, as if God cared, the music broke inside me, and I was dancing. “Look, Chrissy,” I said. She was also dancing. And in a minute, Steve and Charlotte came out on the floor and we all were dancing.
Ever since that night, I’ve been a dancing fool. I dance alone. I dance with strangers. I dance with men. I dance where there’s no dance floor. I dance, sometimes, where there’s no music. Once, in a bluegrass bar, I overheard the bartender say, in reference to me: “He’s the best dancer in Alleghany County” I felt so proud of myself, knowing what I knew.
Petersburg, West Virginia