May I Have This Dance?

IT is not unusual in our small coastal town for services to be exchanged through the barter system. Last week I agreed to watch the antique store owned by friends who have cared for my children.

In a time when life moves so fast, their shop grants permission to slow down, to pay attention to how things smell, feel, look. It evokes different stories and memories for everyone who walks through the door.

People come in carefully. The door shuts with a soft click. Customers step quietly, as if they'd entered a church. Some pause at the entrance and glance around before they make their circle through the glass-door bookshelves and china cases.

In the store, people meander instead of stride. Speech lowers to a hush and slows to a drawl. Various collectors come in. Because I'm new to the business, they often offer me their knowledge as though it were a gift. They tell me the intricacies of collecting things like fountain pens, old guns, books, and faded worn quilts. We marvel together at how things work, and share surprise at how carefully things were constructed. "Newer," said the fountain pen man, "is rarely better."

In the back, a small machine heats water for tea. It looks out of place among the dusty books, the stacks of wooden carved decoys, handmade dolls, and baskets. It has a cord and a plug.

The last time I worked at the shop, a young woman came in to browse. It was hot. Even with the door wide open, the air was still and had heated the store to a point where leather, cloth, and wood smelled pungent and thick.

The woman wandered the shop and came to rest at a large glass-covered case by the register. She asked to see a bracelet. I opened the case and set the bracelet on the top for her to look at. She was about 16, had long black hair, stylishly faded jeans, and a black leather jacket. She wore several silver bands at her wrist.

She continued to look in the case after the bracelet was returned.

"What," she asked "are those?"

She pointed to what looked like a pair of tie clips nestled in a faded blue box in the corner of the display.

I pulled out the box and set it between us on the counter. We held the small silver pieces so we could view them at different angles. We positioned them as though we wore ties. They definitely were not constructed to hold a tie.

I turned over the box. Small letters on a tag said "dance card holders." Of course, they were just right to pin on a lapel or dress to hold the names of people scheduled to spend a song together.

I looked at the girl's face. It was what some people might call a hard face. It had no lines, but I suspect if it did, they wouldn't be from smiling. "Do you know what a dance card is?" I asked her.

"No," she replied.

I told her about the only time I had a dance card. It was when their use was fading, when a friend talked me into going to her dance class as a guest. I was only 11 and had never been to a dance. The hall was old and smelled not unlike the antique shop. A young adolescent boy, with a skinny neck and a snug tie that didn't quite fit, asked me to dance.

We were supposed to have dance cards, only something had gone wrong. No one could remember where their cards were or how to affix them. Some had been crumpled in sweaty hands; most found their way back to the punch table.

I danced with the young boy, feeling a mixture of pride that I'd been asked, mortification to be one of only several couples on the floor, and a deep desire to be climbing the lilac tree in my backyard.

The girl smiled as though I'd told her one of her own stories. I told her more about dance cards, what I knew of them through my mother and grandmother. I shared stories of my parents who used to dance the weekends away on hardwood floors to the sounds of the big bands. I shared the memory of being taken, as a teenager, to a fancy restaurant where my father asked me to dance.

I reluctantly returned the holders to the glass case. She wandered slowly to the door. Just before she left, she turned and said "thank you."

Dance cards seem such small things in light of all the bigger events in history. At that moment, though, it was important to tell about young couples twirling around a floor with all the promise of the evening's conversation listed on a white card.

The warmth in telling a good story stayed with me the rest of the day. It had connected the girl and me not only to each other, but to all that has happened before and will continue to happen.

The world may be divided by wars, by history, but it is connected through the stories that evoke a commonality, that make us smile in recognition that in our differences, we are also very much alike.

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