By 9 we kicked off our pumps

ONE of my earliest childhood memories is of exploring the black caverns of the closet in my parents' bedroom. There, behind the racks where their everyday clothes hung in orderly rows, was a world of seldom-seen treasures. I would be careful not to knock over the pairs of high-heeled, open-toed shoes when I hunched down and crept under the hems of my mother's dresses. There I had discoverd a mah-jongg set, discarded because of missing tiles, an old ukulele, and a dull, silver-colored loving cup inscribed with my father's name. He had won that prize in a ballroom dancing contest c. 1920, before he had met my mother, hence its banishment to a dusty closet corner. When I grew older, on special occasions -- my parents' wedding anniversary, my brother's high school graduation -- my father invited us for dinner and dancing to one or another of the downtown Chicago nightclubs. The Chez Paree was the biggest treat. Dressed in my royal-blue taffeta party dress, pearl barrettes in my hair, and black patent leather mary janes on my feet, I would jitterbug with my brother, then dance the fox trot, the rumba, and the two-step with my father as partner. He was very correct about our position. We stood tall and regal, as if still waiting to be judged for a prize. With my hand on his shoulder, his hand at the small of my back, we would dip and glide, dip and glide around the shiny wooden dance floor, my father always in control. He never lost the skills that won him the silver loving cup.

My high school prom was held at the Knickerbocker Hotel, where the ballroom floor was lighted from below with colored bulbs. My parents were among the chaperons, but I didn't dance once with my father. My date and I assumed the requisite 1950s clinch, his arms around my waist, mine clasping behind his neck. By 9 p.m. my girlfriends and I had kicked off our high-heeled linen pumps dyed to match our dresses and were swaying in our stocking feet. My father never forgot that night.

For years afterward he described the scene with horror. Dancing was no longer an art. ``Indeed,'' he said. ``They don't know how to dance.'' Where were the couples of his youth, where had the pride and elegance gone?

My husband and I also celebrate family events by going out with our son and teen-age daughter. We dine at elegant restaurants where the space is too dear to leave room for a dance floor. My children dance at parties with their friends in movements that echo the jerks of a subway train stopping and starting. No two dancers ever move alike, not even with their partners.

My father never saw this kind of dancing, but I can sometimes hear what he would say. I find I'm saying those words myself.

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