Gotta dance?

AS one who was inadvertently born too late to be politically correct during the student uprisings of the sixties, I spent a good part of the Vietnam era learning how to rumba. With my white cotton gloves and party manners, I was mortified at being that well-groomed, that well-behaved in 1967. During that ignoble year, I was an unwilling participant in a rite of passage known in our suburban neck of the woods as the Fortnightly Club. This, I discovered, was an excessively coy title for what was really The Dancing Class. Amid all the peculiarities that constituted my junior high school life -- and they were legion -- none was more dreaded. As the saying goes, we met the enemy and he was ours -- our own two feet.

Every other week all the hapless 8th-graders whose parents insisted that a proper education comprise more than reading, writing, and the new math, were chauffeured to the Lyons School gymnasium.

Under the unrelenting glare of the fluorescent lights and our instructors, the ample Miss Adele and the tuxedoed Mr. Frank, we shuffled, two by two, through the waltz, the fox trot, and the inevitable Latinates -- the tango, the rumba, and, of course, the cha-cha.

Sensing that there was safety in numbers, we girls traveled in packs. We arrived by the giggling carload and huddled nervously on our chosen side of the gym. That is, until the inevitable pairing up occurred.

Smoothing down our mini-skirts and wadding up our gloves, we eyed the boys across the room. Those grinning creatures lounged insouciantly against the wall, rabbit-punching one another and uttering such articulated exchanges as ``Hey.'' In their hopelessly knotted ties and worn corduroy trousers, they were, if nothing else, sartorially out of whack.

All began with the Receiving Line, the kickoff, as it were, to every class. This was the act, we suspected, for which our parents had plunked down their cash and their children -- not to ensure our agility on some future dance floor, but to school us, their offspring, in the ways of the courteous response.

``Good evening'' was the simple part.

The trick was to let Miss Adele and Mr. Frank initiate the dialogue, so that all that remained was an obligatory nod and a sincerely repeated, ``Good evening.'' The rest of the pleasantries in the 30-second exchange ran the abbreviated gamut from the weather to our attire to our supposedly accumulating dancing skills. Out of this trio of responses, Miss Adele would select one and then utter it appreciatively while grasping our gloved hands in her own. For our part, an audible ``Thank you'' constituted a n adequate response. Toward the end of the 16-week class, some of the more self-possessed among us had mastered a jaunty tone and a wider repertory of retorts. I squeaked by on sincerity and brevity alone.

During each week's class, we reluctantly paired up and went dutifully through the motions. We began with the simplest box-step. A step-glide-step-glide arrangement that Miss Adele assured us was the nucleus of all the ballroom dances ever conceived. Mastering this simple equation, she insisted, would enable us to move with agility through many a social situation.

Some of the more daring couples, those who were already boyfriend and girlfriend, relished the extra, and totally licit, hours in each other's arms. But woodenly carving out a box-step, politely clutching some boy even less kinetically inclined than myself never ignited for me. By the time we graduated into high school, the Twist held an immediate allure.

Even in that heyday of homecoming dances, senior proms, and fraternity parties, I never caught the spirit of, well, boogieing. I enjoyed listening to ``Stairway to Heaven'' and ``Heard It Through the Grapevine'' as much as any co-ed, but I seldom expressed my appreciation on the dance floor.

Ironically, I found my attendance at the Fortnightly Club had not prepared me for the free-form gyrations of dancing in the 1970s. (Although Miss Adele had once grudgingly conceded to a half hour of exploring the intricacies of the Pony and a rough version of the New York Hustle, by the time I was in a position to use them, these dances, so right on in 1967, had passed into oblivion.)

Not that all of Miss Adele's tuteluge was wasted on me. Numerous weddings and even a lone White House reception have provided me ample opportunity to display Fortnightly Club social maneuvers. The courage to trot out my meager dancing skills, however, surfaced only this past summer.

Maybe it was due to ``Singin' in the Rain'' on Broadway. Or possibly it was induced by the general mood of the nation coming to terms with its own sixties history. Most likely I was simply beyond being intimidated by a gleaming dance floor. After all, it really did look like fun. And fun, in the 1980s, had become OK.

I was at a party populated by a comfortably motley group of graduate students, teachers, and writers. We were also sequestered on a Vermont college campus, a safe remove from daily life. The B-52's, which I understand are a group, were playing on the stereo. Make that sound-system. To my unschooled ear, this was akin to listening to a TV test-pattern. But all around me people were dancing; I use the term loosely.

Suddenly, in the midst of all this physical and aural anarchy, the order and precision demanded by a fox trot seemed just the ticket. I grabbed my only slightly startled partner and swung into the familiar step-glide-step-glide rhythm of the box-step. As in the old bike-riding axiom, one apparently doesn't forget how to dance.

Miss Adele, you should have been there. The two of us started slowly. Step, step, step step. And then, less jerkily, we added some twirls and a few over-the-arm catches until finally we were whipping through spins so swiftly and professionally that my partner was shooting me in and out with an 'elan that made me glad for my hours in the Lyons School gymnasium.

``What are you talking about?'' he hollered as I whirled once again within earshot. ``You can dance!''

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