We could have danced all night - but not at the Yale prom

THERE are those of us who pride ourselves on our aplomb, on the dance floor and off. But we were positively flabbergasted to learn that the Yale prom had been canceled.

''What's the world coming to?'' we blurted before we could get our Ivy League poise buttoned down again.

Not since 1859, the year of the first Yale prom, has there been so definitive a case of dancer's ennui. Only 40 of the $32-per-couple tickets were sold. Why, you couldn't rent a hall and a bad polka band for that!

At the end of the '60s, the Yale prom ran into resistance, but didn't everything? That was another matter. One simply could not execute the ''Blue Danube Waltz'' while wearing a cartridge belt and Che Guevera boots, even if one wished to.

But here we are in the tradition-loving '80s, when the Big Bands are back, and everybody is supposed to be searching for any excuse to ''go formal.''

Only 40 tickets! It's enough to make a former secretary of Yale, Henry Chauncey Jr., probe for an explanation.

Mr. Chauncey concludes that the publicized revival of tradition has a ''certain superficiality'' to it.

''You see a lot of things that make you think it's happening,'' Mr. Chauncey observes. ''People are trying out former things because it's kind of fun. But you can't go backwards.''

Yale men had a tradition of thinking about tradition. William F. Buckley Jr., writing about ''God and Man at Yale,'' was for it. Charles Reich, writing about ''The Greening of America,'' was against it. Tom Wolfe, writing about the Right Stuff and the Wrong Stuff (otherwise known as the ''Me Generation''), placed himself in the middle, and a little above it.

Is the canceling of the Yale prom to be interpreted as a drummer's rim shot heard around the world? After so brief a respite, is the American revolution against tradition on again?

Let Buckley or Reich or Wolfe join Chauncey in answering. Not being a Yale man, we have trouble with these larger questions. But we have no doubt that, on the political spectrum, a prom must be classified as conservative. Or as one historian - not even a Yale man - asserted: ''Ballroom dancers prefer the certainties of prescribed forms; the knowledge that there is a rigidly established right and wrong way of doing things is a great source of security.''

There are grown men today for whom ballroom dancing represents, in retrospect , the civilizing of the savage in them. Dancing school was the agency that got the little terrorists to slick down their hair, shine their shoes, put a crease in their trousers - and then wrinkle them with a bow from the waist while genteelly requesting what was known as the ''pleasure of this dance.''

There are grown women for whom ballroom dancing symbolizes Cinderella being set up for a lifetime of male oppression. Reread Alix Kates Shulman's ''Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,'' where ''Stardust'' plays like an early-warning alarm.

Both these positions are also political, we suppose. But that's part of the problem. Dance is always being used as a metaphor - even when the dancing stops, as at the Yale prom.

In his novel ''Loving,'' Henry Green had the originality to treat ballroom dancing on its own terms. Two servants, Kate and Edith, are performing their duties, airing out rooms in the closed sector of a great English country house, when they find themselves within the red-velvet walls of the ballroom, playing a waltz on the phonograph behind the gold-and-white doors. Suddenly they are spinning in each other's arms. ''Above, from a rather low ceiling, five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor, reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day . . . and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pieces of glass.''

In their triumph over being earthbound, Kate and Edith become more than themselves. The dancers become the dance. And at that moment, trend-watchers, even at Yale, must forget about the plodding comings and goings of tradition in honoring a higher truth: When dance succeeds, history stands still.

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