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Dancing, or How to be Old and Bald and Still Get Chicks

When I was young, ballroom dancing was a popular pastime for many folks, although I rarely participated. My very conservative religious leanings, (actually the leanings of my parents and their church brethren and sistren) prohibited dancing. They considered such a display immoral and believed it led straight to perdition, if not to pregnancy. In fact, people of my particular religious persuasion wouldn’t even make love standing up for fear that somebody would think they were dancing.

Curiously, although this attitude generally prevailed with regard to ballroom dancing, the opinion about square dancing was more permissive. While the waltz did not appear virtuous, and the tango was downright sensuous, square dancing did not involve the one configuration of partners that caused the most alarm: clutching a member of the opposite sex to your bosom. In square dancing you might grasp the hand of a dissimilar gender member, but such fleeting contact couldn’t stimulate the dancers’ baser instincts. At least that’s what the church elders thought, they being of an age that they did not remember that the ratio of hormones to body weight among teenage boys (my gender) even exceeds our ratio of appetite to body weight. Everything arouses teenage passions. An oak tree with branches that fork has been known to enflame an entire football team. (I played defense.) So, even though I wanted desperately to clutch Deanna Durbin to my bosom, and swing and sway in time to the music, because of my parents’ strictures against ballroom dancing, I never learned it as a youth, although I became pretty good at allemandes and promenades.

Memphis, 1988. Tonight’s entertainment for those of you here at the convention will be a moonlight riverboat cruise on the Mississippi, complete with barbeque dinner and dancing to the hopping sounds of . . . The dance floor was small and for the first song, unoccupied. The band was playing a swing tune, the kind of music that won’t let you keep still even if you can’t dance. Up and down the deck feet were tapping and hands were slapping time. All those strangers away from home, looking for a good time, but not sure how to have one. Finally, my colleague Dwight, all the way from Athens, Georgia, took to the dance floor with a very attractive young woman and proceeded to set the pace for the evening. As long as the band played and the riverboat cruised, Dwight swayed and dipped, shimmied and shook, with an unending succession of eager partners. I should point out that, then as now, Dwight was several years older than I and had considerably less hair. That didn’t keep every good-looking woman on the boat from jostling to get another chance to dance with this energetic fellow. Although I no longer felt any religious constraint, I was forced to be a spectator because I didn’t know how to dance. All I could do was tap my foot and smile wanly as I watched Dwight in action.

I was jealous beyond words. There was Dwight, practically in his dotage, rubbing convention badges with every pretty girl on the boat (including my good wife Lynn), and there I was sitting on the sidelines, pining for a cuddle and picking barbecue from my teeth. It was clear to me that I had to learn to dance.

Back home, I went looking for a dance class. The local Continuing Education brochure presented me with options: ballroom dancing or contemporary dancing. My observation of modern dancing is that dancers stand somewhere on the dance floor and shake any moveable body part not necessarily in time to any music or in conjunction with any other dancer. I wanted legal, socially acceptable contact with the opposite sex, and one at a time, if possible. I wanted to look smooth and sophisticated, two skills I did not get from my square dancing days. My choice was already made. I signed up for ballroom dancing.

I didn’t have a partner at the time (Lynn was off working – she says – in Florida), so the dance instructor said he would provide one. Good! With the wife out of town (but with her blessing), and with memories of Dwight’s Big Night still clouding my judgment, I anticipated dancing opposite a lovely young lady who would learn with me the charms of the Open Box and the Cross Body Lead. I suppose dreams, like promises, are all too easily broken.

Hildegard was my partner. She could have ridden straight out of a Wagnerian opera except most Wagnerian operas don’t have 84-year-old women in them. Both her presence and appearance were formidable.

But, man could she dance! She didn’t have to learn; she already knew. Hildegard had been dancing since before it was a sin. I’m pretty sure the first entries on her dance card were from the Old Testament. The scuttlebutt was that she had actually been Salome’s classmate. She knew every step, and despite her years had lost nothing of her dancer’s grace. What she had lost was her hearing. I suggested that, since we were going to be dancing together, I might call her “Hilda.” (It rolls off the tongue a bit more readily than “Hildagard.”) “NO”, she said. So Hildagard it was.

You probably noticed how loud she said “NO”. She said everything that loud. She assumed everybody operated at her decibel level. When the dance instructor would give us an instruction, she would repeat it to me by way of reinforcement. Once, while we were learning a rather elaborate jitterbug move, she shouted for my benefit “PUT BOTH HANDS UP AND TURN AROUND”. Someone next door in ceramics class overheard this outburst and called 9-1-1. Minutes later police officers surrounded our classroom, guns drawn, thinking they might be in time to avert a serious hostage situation. But it was only Hildegard, repeating instructions. When she SPOKE, not only I, but everybody in the class, jumped. It became such a conditioned response that to this day all the alumni of that dancing class have a recognizable twitch to their Lindy Hop.

Hildagard was a demanding taskmaster. She had probably been a marine drill sergeant in her younger days. She made me learn to dance. I actually got pretty good at it, but I didn’t really enjoy it until I found out for sure what Dwight already knew: young good-looking women really love a guy who can dance no matter how old he is. How sweet it is.