Dancing the Night Away

The church organised dance classes on Sunday nights. The church didn’t do much socially. It left social activities to the Methodists. Ballroom dance classes, waltzes, military twosteps and so on. I was twelve. The other kids in my year started. I wanted to go. We could’ve started as a group. I could’ve started in a group. Mum said, no. I was too young.

          It was the only time as a kid I was denied anything. Or at least it was the only time as a kid that I resented being denied anything. It might have been a small resentment, it was definitely an unspoken resentment, I never raised the matter, never whined about it, never complained, but it stuck. It must’ve stuck because I remember. Remember it now fifty years on.

          It had an impact.

          Occasionally I’ve announced over the years what I would have most liked to have been when I grew up. It would’ve been a dancer, a Fred Astaire, a Gene Kelly.

          I dunno know whether taking lessons on a Sunday night as a grade seven of St Joseph’s Convent School at Holy Redeemer church would have set me on the path to being Gene or Fred, and I certainly don’t want to sheet home any blame for never attempting to follow in the footsteps (dance steps) of Fred or Gene down to Mum but … But not going to dance classes got me off on the wrong track.

          For me the wrong track was not juvenile delinquency, not a misspent youth, I was always a gentleman, maybe too much of a young gentleman for my own good. What I lacked was confidence, social confidence with the opposite sex.

          Freddie Tooby asked me to his birthday party. I was thirteen, he might have been fourteen. It was the first birthday party I went to where girls had been invited – ‘dames’ we called them following American cultural influence. And after the party pies and pasties and cream cakes had been washed down with coke and lemonade Freddie’s mum or dad put on some dance music and everyone took their partners. Everyone except me.

          I remember Trevor Canwell, ever fun as the class jester since I’d begun school, now deadly serious with his arm around a girl. Right hand pressed against the small of his partner’s back as he shuffled, and I mean truly scraped his feet on the concrete floor of the Tooby’s shed. He should have lifted and glided as he attempted a waltz. I could tell Trev he had no class, no style on the concrete shed floor, but he was the one with his arm around a girl. I was left behind, gawking on.

          Mum said I should go to the social in my first term at high school. I didn’t want to. I had to be persuaded. I couldn’t dance. At fifteen already it was like having a disease. I took precautions. In the privacy of my own bedroom, and after taking a shower, I wrapped a crepe bandage around my right ankle before securing it with a safety pin, and pulled a long sock over it. I didn’t have to limp out of home. I didn’t need to. But I did limp into the social. I don’t think anyone really noticed my limping as I took my place on the side of the Lutheran church hall along with the male wall-flowers. I was shy, really. I didn’t know to handle girls. And I had an excuse.

          Denis didn’t buy this. My ‘sprained’ ankle, my bandage. Denis was the headmaster’s son. He was half-way through a waltz with Caroline, a prim, plain-looking girl from our Intermediate class, when he came across and asked me to complete it. I couldn’t refuse. Although I’d never given Caroline a second thought day in day out I couldn’t refuse. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly to refuse and I was (if nothing else) a gentleman. I completed the dance not well, but ably, better than Trevor Canwell. At least I lifted my feet if I didn’t quite manage to glide.

          The social was a 60/40 dance as they used to style them – a common mix – 60 per cent old-time ballroom and 40 per cent rock n’roll. And when they rocked some dancers could really rock, and some could jive. Cheryl was a pert little blonde, all bounce and bubble and sweet sixteen. She might have been what was known as a bobby-dazzler because any of those male pop stars of the time who were called Bobby this and Bobby that would have been dazzled by her. Cheryl could really jive and when she did so her blond her flew, her red dress twirled and her matching red shoes twinkled.

Baby with the red dress on

 Well, she won’t have it on for long

Or words to that effect. Cheryl was in Leaving, a year ahead of me. You stuck with your own class. Pity.

          I gained a modicum of confidence, emboldened by partnering Caroline. I spied a girl I liked. Sue. Sue was a girl I had eyes for, who sat on the far side of the room for all of our lessons except Physiology when we were a little more intimate. A girl who once asked me point-blank whether I loved her and I didn’t know where to look, let alone what to say. I did my best to avoid weeping.

 But now she was dancing with Ray, dorky bloody Ray, who was practically minded, harmless, yet without an imaginative bone in his body. You could imagine he would be the sort of bloke who would end up working as a line technician for the PMG (Post Master General’s Department). I think he did.

          Now was the time to make a move. I’d seen lots of films – flicks/pictures we called them then – and not just Gene and Fred but Errol (Flynn) and Clark (Gable). At dances and balls Errol or Clark, having arrived late, would go up to whoever was dancing with the prettiest girl in the room, tap him on the shoulder, and declare, ‘I’m cutting in’, and the man who was partnering the girl would know he was just an extra in the greater scheme of things, and give way, the gentlemanly way.

          So I gathered myself, strode purposefully amid the whirl of dancers to the centre of the floor, tapped Ray on the shoulder and announced in an authoritative Clark or Errol manner my unmistakeable intention.

          Except that no one had bothered to tell Ray the rules of the game. His film education was sadly lacking, his understanding of gentlemanly etiquette was equally absent. He failed to give way. ‘Piss off, dickhead’, he said.

          If this sort of thing had ever arisen in the pictures Errol or Clark would have settled it like men. A fist fight would have ensued: hooks, jabs and upper cuts would have followed, furniture would have been rearranged, the orchestra or band would have stopped playing, the girl – Maureen or Greer or Vivien or Bette – would have stood aside from the encounter, looking on admiringly, awaiting the winner, the real man to emerge.

          If a real man emerged from my first social it wasn’t me. There were no punches thrown, no claret flowed, no one was inconvenienced, the dancers continued whirling, the band played on. I slunk from the floor, limping slightly, to the company on the sidelines.

          ‘What happened out there?’, somebody asked.

          ‘Oh, I just congratulated Ray on being such a lucky fellow, dancing with the best-looking girl in class.’

          And with that I rolled down my sock and adjusted my bandage.

          ‘Ankle’s killing me’, I said.

Bernard Whimpress

30 May 2010

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