In honor of tonight's finals round of my favorite show, this morning you get a few early moves from my life as a wannabe dancer.
First, you need to know that when I was four, I wanted to learn to dance. My best friend across the street--the girlish friend who wore patent leather shoes always, even when we were playing in the rocks outside my house's front door--took tap, as did my equally girlish next door neighbor. I did not. I suspect that my mother had a tough gig, sorting out what I really wanted to do from what I really thought I really wanted to do. I have inherited this tough gig now: I tend to be overexcitedly interested in a lot of things that come my way, and if I had the energy of eight of me, it would be fine. As it is, I have to pick and choose.
When I was eight, my new best friend took ballet. She spent an afternoon teaching me the four basic positions. I started feeling a hankering for dance yet again. By this time, though, I was four years into my career as a child pianist; once again, the dancing did not happen. I started to have dark, tempting visions of myself as a cheerleader. Fortunately, these visions were cut with visions of myself as a soccer player or a member of the basketball team.
When I was twelve, my family moved to a new town, one where things were a little more chi-chi than our first Indiana town. (One of my friends said to me on the last day of seventh grade, about a month before I moved, "You're going to the promised land!" It was a twenty-mile move.) My father's boss's sons had all attended a cotillion run by a stately, white-haired woman who traveled down from Indianapolis once a month to run this deportment-and-dance class. My father's boss's wife suggested to my mother that signing up for cotillion would be a great way for me to meet other people my age. What you have to know in order to understand my excitement about this cotillion option: I was nervous in the extreme about this move, because I was not exactly the coolest kid on the block at age twelve. I was rocking the full mouth of metal, replete with giant rubber bands to correct the mysterious gaps that had opened up between my upper and lower teeth (the orthodontist could only assume that I'd been thrusting my tongue between my teeth in my sleep); I also wore enormous, squarish, purple-framed glasses--up until the moment I traded them in for contacts, which kicked my self-esteem up quite a few notches. And I had short, short, short hair (the many-months-later result of a disastrous haircut early in seventh grade--one of that variety that starts with an extremely near-sighted kid saying, "Take about this much off," and ends with her putting her glasses back on and bursting into tears). Overall, I was pretty sure that the other eighth graders were going to think I was a big dork.
Now, of course, I know that I'm a big dork. In fact, I tell my students, particularly my youngest students, that they never have to worry about seeming like big dorks at the seminar table, because I've got the biggest dork in the room territory covered. But back in 1988, I wasn't so secure in this status.
And so, my mother and I ventured out to the local fancy-clothes-for-teenagers store and found a dress. I half wish that I had the dress here so that I could take pictures of it for you; it was vaguely like the dark dress in this picture, but far nicer. It was a Jessica McClintock in black, flowered cotton, with a dropped waist, a snug bodice, puffed short sleeves, and an enormous lace sailor collar. This description makes it sound hideous, I fear, but it really wasn't--especially not for 1988. My mother was already helping me realize my best physical attributes--the small waist, the "ample bosoms" (as my grandmother would call them)--and this dress showed them off. We bought the requisite white gloves (yes, white gloves) at the suggested store, and I was set.
Cotillion turned out to be a pretty crazy experience, equal turns exciting and demoralizing. In the exciting column: at every class, everyone had to dance with everyone else, and so at least once every class, I got the chance to dance with the person for whom I nursed an undying and totally baseless affection for the next four years. In the demoralizing column (leaving aside the fact that at 12/13, most of us women were taller by about a head and a half than most of our male counterparts): at the last class, we received old-fashioned dance cards, the kind with the pencil attached, and we were supposed to line up five dances. The fourth dance slot was the one that yielded our partner for the year-end dance competition. I had a difficult time getting five dances together; even without the glasses and even with the braces' having been removed at Christmastime, I was still pretty awkward, and I've never been good at small talk, particularly with people my own age, so chances are pretty good that I was trying to waltz and cha cha with short thirteen year olds while talking about how much I loved Ray Bradbury and classical mythology. Those suspicions aside, the mathematics of this situation were pretty simple: there just weren't enough men to go around. Ultimately, I only ended up with four, and my fourth slot was the one that went unfilled. And so, when everyone else started the dance contest, I sat out in one of the chairs that ringed the room's edge, waiting for someone to get eliminated and then put back into the contest with me. Which happened. And then we won.
My ballroom dance career screeched to a halt the moment I left that last cotillion meeting, clutching my championship trophy, but my dream was nutured in secret by the release of Baz Luhrmann's utterly, unrestrainedly excellent Strictly Ballroom (1992), which screened at my college in 1994 or so. And the dream restarted in increasingly pleasant ways once I was in graduate school. In preparation for a friend's wedding, my Floridian friend persuaded me that we should take one of Cornell's wackier physical education offerings, Introduction to Ballroom Dance, and so we did, and it was nuts. We were champion merengue dancers (cf. my earlier explanation about hip dancing). We were also quite good at swing. We sucked a lot at polka, but then, who didn't, in that class. And you've heard the story about how my New Yorker friend and I taught some other friends to rhumba and fox trot for their wedding. We had such a good time that we met up and danced on our own for hours at a time that summer, working out rhumba turns and cha cha routines in the basement of Cornell's theater building late into July evenings. Some of my favorite evenings in graduate school happened that summer; when we were done with the dancing at midnight or so, we'd take our sore hips and feet back to my car and drive off to pick up my soon-to-be-Chicagoan friend, and the three of us would go sit at the diner with the flip-down seats, or at Friendly's, where we'd inevitably be challenged to say "kickin'! Buffalo chicken!" to the waitress, which none of us ever did. On a balmy late-July evening, Cornell Cinema screened Strictly Ballroom (which by this time I'd seen probably ten times, two of them on that year's birthday alone) outside, on a terrace overlooking the valley and the lake, and it was all a small-scale version of one paradise I can imagine. When Doris Day started singing "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps," I half-expected my friends to spring into position and do their rhumba, a la Pavlov's dogs, since their practice song was Nat King Cole's rendition of "Qui Sas, Qui Sas, Qui Sas."
By the end of the summer, I was actively scoping out formal dance shoes, hoping that we were going to continue the dancing into the school year and beyond. I still want the shoes--not to mention the dancing. In December, some of my students who dance ballroom here tried to convince me to come to their practices. I can't quite imagine how that would work--though I can well imagine how melancholy it would make me to be back on the edge of a room, watching couples work towards championships. So, until I find the next entry point--and they seem to come around every few years--I'll settle for Dancing with the Stars, even though no TV show really gives me a good excuse to get a pair of heels like these.
sources for today's images: 1) an AOL site devoted to answering that deepest and most crucial of human questions, "Why dance?"; 2) Grandma's House; 3) the Helsinki City Museum; 4) Amazon.com, of all places. I don't know whether it's good for me to know how many of my addictions can be fed at Amazon.