Two Left Feet On the Dance Floor

A NOTE in the paper reminds me to observe National Ballroom Dance Week. I do so. I have hitherto concealed that I attended a school of ballroom dance in my youth. I did for three miserable months of Saturday afternoons, with the Misses Evelyn and Ethelyn Guthrie, whose instructions meant nothing to me at the time and less now.

My mother felt that my sister needed the poise, grace, and gentility that dancing school would impart, and my sister wouldn't go unless I did. As her escort, I was exposed. My sister was shortly a beautiful girl, while I remained ugly and inept. The lessons cost 50 cents each, and at the end of the series we had a recital and I carried a shaker.

Dancing school made me a nondancer. That is, a nonballroom dancer. I came to like the square and contradances that the rough country bumpkins of our town admired. I couldn't count one-two-three for a decent waltz, but I could swing any young lady off her feet - and grandmaws, too, because they loved the Lady of the Lake. During the evening, usually after a fox trot, the orchestra would play a few bars of ``Turkey in the Straw'' to announce a contradance, and partners would line up for Lady of the Lake, Portland Fancy, and maybe a Virginia reel. Then away the orchestra would go, the violinist ``calling,'' and the resultant community festival ending with Mary out of breath on the settee and Johnnie gone to fetch her a sip of lemonade.

Even the orchestra would take a breather. And we had Lemuel Port Said Haskell, too. Born you-can-guess-where, he lived and farmed on Birch Hill, and he never missed a Saturday-night dance at the town hall. He would do Money Musk all by himself. Money Musk is a stately dance, more gentle than some others, and the pace is slower. Done by multiples of two couples, the ladies pass gracefully back and forth and around.

So sometimes during the evening the trumpet player would give a tootle that indicated Lemuel was ready, and up he'd get to walk to the middle of the floor and make a courtly bow in four directions. Then he would walk to the sideline to choose a partner, bow, and extend his arm. With his partner he would then take the center of the hall. Except that he had no partner! She was imaginary, and he acted out the whole complicated routine of Money Musk all by himself!

The orchestra went through the whole thing, and nobody on the floor but Lemuel. But his partner, and all the other dancers, were very real in the minds of everybody as Lemuel dos-a-dosed his lady off and she swung and did a left-and-right and came back to him. Now and then he would bring out his handkerchief to assuage the exuberance from his brow, and while waiting for his lady to return he would tap one foot and clap hands to the music. When the music stopped he returned his partner to the sideline and bowed his thanks. It was all beautiful.

I heard John Philip Sousa say one time that his ``Stars and Stripes Forever'' should never be attempted except by a full military band. Little did he know! Edith Folger played our piano with Ed Littlehale on the drums, Clyde Barrows on the clarinet, and Nonnie Curtis on whatever he was holding in his hands. Nonnie could play any tune on any instrument, but was gainfully employed at the Farley pickle shop and vinegar works where he pasted labels on bottles. And when this orchestra tackled Sousa's masterpieces for our grand marches, nobody thought anything about Sousa.

Cornmeal was important. I wonder if the sponsors of National Ballroom Dance Week know about cornmeal? Just before one of our town hall dances commenced, Ruel Dunbar would go up and down the floor dispensing good johnnycake yellow cornmeal from a shaker. This was to get the floor ready for the graceful movement of the community's feet. Nothing better. And each evening after ``Good Night, Ladies'' and ``The Last Waltz,'' Ruel brought out the push broom and swept up the cornmeal.

My dear wife is the ballroom dancer; she's good at it and has frequently deplored my two left feet. I encourage her to tempt other partners. Once I had the last laugh. We were in St. Louis, and we took the sail on the good ship Admiral, which has an air-conditioned dance hall below decks. She and our friend Jim Coleman went to dance. They got kicked out because Jim didn't have a jacket. A jacket?

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