Taming The Dancing Bear
“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb
It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday. It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it. Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha. Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.
The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.
“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker. For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia. For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners. A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm. “ Come with me, young man. Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!” Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.
Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived. The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances. As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones. An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt. The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens. The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar. The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind. And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls. We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows. Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.
I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances. There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure. My father was no help. The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”. He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground. It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop. My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged. My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle. I was the dancing bear in the circus.
I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS). SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder. My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings. Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation. She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out. I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs. The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.
It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression. They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray. The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo. I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.
The girls were still beautiful. The music was still intoxicating. The best part of all was no one cared. Not even me.