Learning to Dance the Night Away

Social dancing class on Saturday nights struck terror in our 13-year-old hearts. To our young minds, it seemed more like boot camp. But we had all been convinced by our mothers that every civilized young lady and young gentleman must learn social graces, and this included dancing.

When we were all assembled in the community room of the local church - the girls in one group and the boys huddled together in another, as far away as they could get - Miss Burns, our intrepid instructor, would click her castanets and we'd come to attention.

After a brief ''Good evening,'' Miss Burns would explain a dance step like the waltz or fox trot, choose a reluctant lad as her partner, then whirl around on the dance floor as the faithful accompanist played loudly on the upright piano. It always seemed that Miss Burns was leading and the boy was hanging on for dear life.

There we were, the girls in taffeta and velveteen party dresses, and the boys with their hair slicked down in starched white shirts, ties, and navy suits. We all wore white cotton gloves, which was good because it helped dry, somewhat, our sweaty hands.

Then Miss Burns would click her castanets and bark out the order: ''Boys, choose your partners and dance!'' Looking like wind-up stick figures, we would lope, stumble, and lurch around that dance floor, elbows flying, heads bobbing with grim determination.

If your partner was shorter than you, (which happened quite often), you'd awkwardly place your hand on his shoulder, six inches below your own. You'd try to look nonchalant as you bobbed about with never a word passing between you. Just labored, heavy breathing, an occasional grunt, or a stifled giggle. Mercifully, the music would stop and the dance was over.

On the occasions when there were more girls than boys (quite often, it seemed to me), the girls had to dance with Miss Burns! Oh, horrors!

The evening ended with punch and cookies. Breathing became more normal, and we relaxed a little. There was even some conversation.

Two years we ''suffered'' through the agony of social dancing and never stopped to think we had been getting the rudiments of social etiquette - and could now have some fun.

Soon we left Miss Burns and the community room behind and moved on to a more exciting era. Our hometown, New Rochelle, NY, was a short drive from Long Island Sound. There, all the big bands - Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw - played each summer. The click of the castanets gave way to the deafening drumbeat of Gene Krupa in Benny Goodman's band.

We danced away the summers - cheek-to-cheek when the music was romantic, jitterbugging, or doing a dance called ''The Westchester,'' which included ''spieling'': You and your partner turned round and round as you traveled across the dance floor, often bumping into other partners who were doing the same step. It never mattered.

Now, eons later, my husband and I watch the Lawrence Welk TV show on Saturday nights, dipping, twirling, and fox-trotting in our small kitchen.

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