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Anti-Social Dancing

Good riddance to ballroom dancing classes.

Recently, an article featured on the front page of The New York Times lamented the demise of ballroom dancing classes. Why don't they just find a scab on my body and rip it off? As far as I’m concerned, the effect would be the same.

Anyone who attended middle school knows of what I speak. In seventh grade, at the apex of our species’ most awkward developmental phase, our collective mothers signed us up. Scrubbed and brushed, we were herded into school gymnasiums for what promised to be, and turned out to be, some of the most humiliating and damaging social indoctrination of our lives.

Welcome to social dancing.

I’m sure that those who taught the classes and those who carpooled us to the classes believed they were promoting cultural mores of the highest order, not to mention continuing a fine tradition of civility and courtship counted out in three-quarter time. After all, “May I have this dance?” held the promise of beginning long, beautiful and polite relationships.

I suppose it would not be considered appropriate, at this point, to snort with derision. And yet, the impulse is overwhelming. So is the impulse to see a therapist for the rest of eternity to work through the psychological damage one year of social dancing can inflict on an unsuspecting adolescent.

Consider the middle-school population. These are cruel years, when pimples begin their reign on unsuspecting foreheads and hormones surge. Braces are de rigueur, and the mixed aroma of sweat glands and Jean Naté After Bath Body Splash could make even the sturdiest among us want to duck and cover. Most girls tower over the boys in their class, and inevitably the only guys who shave regularly are the ones who don’t need to. 

This is the group meant to engage in the box-step?

Let’s make this personal. By seventh grade, I was five feet, nine inches tall. Forget claiming to be in the top one percent of the height charts. At Edgewood Junior High, there were only two guys taller. The rest of that Bar Mitzvah-aged gang? In a generous mood I’d say that they hadn’t yet started their growth spurt. It would be mean spirited to point out that at our 25th high school reunion I’m still taller than most of them. The guys I went to school with might make up a minyan, but a basketball team?  Not so much. 

The height difference between me and 98 percent of the boys in my class translated into the following: it looked like I was breastfeeding my dance partners. Not surprisingly, I rarely sat out a dance. These remain some of my darkest adolescent memories.

Mr. Frank Morgan, the peppy octogenarian who taught the class, set out a few ground rules. All the boys were required to ask for a dance by saying, “May I have this dance?” And all the girls were mandated to smile and reply, “Yes, you may.” Such direct lines of communication with seemingly obvious consequences required an elaborate and unspoken set of rituals to subvert. 

Girls immediately perfected their deceptive broad smiles accompanied by the not-so-subtle horizontal shake of the head indicating, essentially, “Stop your forward progress because there is no way I’m going to dance with you.” 

Meanwhile, all the boys had their eyes glued to one person, and it wasn’t Mr. Morgan. That Fred-Astaire-wannabe was no fool. He brought his own dance partner to class. Think Regis and Kelly. Think Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Heck, think Monty Hall and Carol Merrill. This crusty old fellow got to do the Cha-cha-cha with a curvaceous Ooh-la-la.

Which leads me to the final insult. For reasons known only to himself, Frank Morgan believed that instead of starting everyone off by saying, “Go” or “Start” or “Begin,” he waited for the music to play and then announced, in a booming voice, “Its.”

If you can’t imagine what that sounds like, or rhymes with, then quit reading here.

“Its.” What’s with the silent “t” at the beginning? This is middle school, after all.

Let me digress and tell a little story about my experience as a substitute teacher at the intellectually elite Chicago Lab School. In the midst of teaching seventh graders something or other, I asked the class the following: Who erected the Berlin Wall?

Chaotic laughter, universal embarrassment, and then utter silence ensued. Why? Because I said the word “erect” in a room full of thirteen year olds. To be fair, I was just a substitute. But still, this is the population I’m talking about.

The point is, how can The New York Times, or any other established organization, lament the diminishing numbers of adolescents taking social dancing? It seems a bit far-fetched to believe that enrolling kids in dance class propagates any semblance of civilized society. 

As for acquiring the actual skills of ballroom dancing? Yes, if you find yourself on “Dancing with the Stars” it could come in handy. But when you get to the point in the Bar Mitzvah where they play Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, you don’t have to wait patiently until some boy courteously inquires, “May I have this dance.”  You just have to wait until the DJ says, “Snowball.” 

Betsy Brint November 12, 2011 at 09:24 PM
All I remember about social dancing was that Kim Zimmerman had the coolest pair of Frye Boots ever! I was totally jealous - though my Corkease were pretty excellent too.
James Paradiso November 13, 2011 at 12:25 PM
Wore white gloves to learn ballroom dancing in Miss Polcock's dance class during the late 50s at the Oak Park Club. Did her class "propagate any semblance of civilized society" during the mid-60s at UW-Madison? For a clue, please view my photo.
Karen November 14, 2011 at 03:20 PM
Hilarious article. Bizarrely, though, I have fond memories of ballroom dancing at Honey Adams School of Dance in Larchmont, New York. But that may be because I signed up with a group of boys and girls and we had a pact to only dance with each other -- hardly a demonstration of good social etiquette.
James Paradiso November 14, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Karen, Miss Adams was more progressive than Miss Polcock. We couldn't choose our partners. Girls and boys faced each other in straight lines. A boy's first partner was the girl directly across from him, and the girl to his left was his next. Oh, as I recall, ice cream after class at Petersen's on Chicago Avenue trumped Miss Bonnie's piano accompaniment as the most exciting part of the evening!
Karen November 14, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Ice cream at Baskin-Robbins for us. Last time I was there with white gloves on!

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