It was two weeks before my eighth-grade graduation. My dad, a screenwriter, was working on a movie in Ireland. It was becoming clear to all of us - my mother, my father, and I - that he wouldn't be home in time to see me graduate, home being southern California. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I understood. The hard part for both of us was the fact that he'd miss the father-daughter dance, the highlight of the graduation-night party.
Dad said he'd make it up to me somehow, and I should go and have a good time. Dance with my friends. Reluctantly, I agreed. This wasn't my first dance solo, you see. At my second-grade ballet recital I'd been forced to do a pas de deux une, if you will, when my partner was sidelined by a tummy ache. He was fine the next day. I was embarrassed for a week. There's a home movie of it somewhere, me leaping boldly if not gracefully into the arms of the invisible man. Very post-modern. Very weird.
I wasn't about to do that again. I'd just sit out the father-daughter part.
Graduation day came, and I got my hair done in that goofy way teenage girls did then, and sometimes do today. Bangs down to my eyeballs. Hair long and blow-dried bone straight. And lacquered. A garland of silk daisies circled my head. I wore a white dress not nearly short enough to suit my tastes, but as short as the principal would allow. With sheer white nylons and white patent-leather shoes, I looked like a love child student nurse.
One-hundred and twenty of us crowded into bleachers on the school's front lawn that afternoon. There was talk of carrying the torch, going out into the world, making a difference. (But we were only going half a mile away to the high school.)
Graduation was followed by a dinner for the graduates and their families. After dinner, the dance began: two hours of rock 'n' roll. The last blast before the next leap. My mom left after dinner, as did all the parents, except chaperones. She said she'd pick me up at 9:30 and we'd go out for ice cream. She winked and said, "Have fun!"
And I did. We were all bright, shiny, happy kids, relieved to find we still had some childhood left after all. We danced hard and happy. Something was ending, and something was about to begin. Nothing to do but hold on and enjoy the ride.
At 9:15, the DJ announced that the fathers had arrived and it was time for them to find their daughters on the dance floor. Time's up, I thought, and started to leave, feeling like Cinderella would have felt if she'd left the ball before dancing with the prince.
Then, looking up, I saw him standing there. Not my father - my godfather. He was grinning, and he was making his way toward me. Dad had called him and asked him to fill in, which he was only too happy to do. He was my dad's best friend after all, and his wife, Marge, was my mom's best friend. She and my mom stood on the sidelines watching with matching smiles. I raced toward him. He hugged me and said, "Shall we dance?"
And then it hit me. There was one little problem. My godfather wasn't some nice old klutz. He was Gower Champion.
Maybe you've heard of him? The dancer? The choreographer, the director of Broadway shows? The guy who had so many Tony awards on his desk they looked like coasters?
True, he was a father, but here, surrounded by stodgy bankers and doctors in business suits, he looked like a date. He was wearing white pants and a blue cashmere sweater, loafers with no socks. And I was about to dance with him. I felt faint.
Sure, I could do the steps I saw on "Soul Train" and "American Band Stand." But this was serious. The father-daughter dance was all foxtrots and waltzes. Dad and I could have stumbled through it, laughing as we took turns stepping on each other's toes. But dancing? With Gower Champion? I was going to make a complete fool of myself.
But then he circled my back with his arm and, placing my clammy right hand in his (which was warm and rock steady), he said, "Just relax, and follow me."
The music started. Fred Astaire singing "The Way You Look Tonight." We glided, we twirled, we moved like twin swans. Gower was a good enough dancer for both of us. All I had to do was keep breathing. Somehow I managed.
I leaned my head against him. He whispered, "You're doing fine." By the end of the song I was soaring. It was better than being Ginger Rogers. Better than dancing with Fred. It was dancing with Gower. It was pure and simple. And yet it was a new step, a dance into adolescence.
THEN the music changed to rock 'n' roll. This was a recent addition to the tradition, basically to embarrass the dads. The rest of them stumbled and sweated to the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" while the daughters laughed and blushed at their fathers' foolishness.
Not me. I was dancing with Gower. He could out-dance most of the boys in my class. He was in a class all his own. No, they didn't form a circle around us and watch us groove (this wasn't the movies; it just felt like it was). But I did feel more than a few furtive glances shot our way as we shimmied and shook. My, oh my!
Mom, Marge, Gower, and I all went out for ice cream after the dance ended. Marge gave me a garnet necklace - I still have it. And from then on, I always felt I was partly Marge and Gower's daughter, too.
Finally, we said good night. Marge and Gower walked arm in arm to their car, and Mom and I got into ours. He turned one last time as he drove away, to smile and wave and hug me with his eyes. My heart danced as he did.