Another son's turn at the dance

When my seventh-grader left the house for his first school dance the other night, I was filled with a mixture of awe, wonder, and nostalgia.

Just that morning, enjoying the largess of some free time, I had been cleaning out a storage room in our home. One set of shelves was filled with accumulated toys and games that Alyosha had long outgrown. Every building block, every Matchbox car, every counting game filled me with images of the little boy scooting about the living-room floor, making motor sounds as he raced his cars around chair legs.

I have to admit that it was with reluctance that I OK'd his going to the dance. And it had nothing to do with his not being old enough or responsible enough. Rather, I was hesitant to admit that, with the passage of time, my son was belonging a little less to me and a bit more to the wider world.

Of course, I have mastered the old trick of easing difficult decisions by comparing my son's experiences to my own, one of which I can recall with startling clarity. I was 14. Eighth grade was drawing to a close, and its end would be celebrated with a graduation dance.

I duly panicked, of course. What would be demanded of me? Would I have to actually - gulp - dance? I could do the Twist (this was the '60s), but beyond that - nothing. Despite my independent and hectic teenage lifestyle, in my moment of greatest need I was forced to become the little boy again and turn to good old mom.

My mother, of course, was thrilled to have me ask her for any advice at all. She immediately dropped the stereo needle onto an "easy listening" LP, ushered me into the living room, and - like a combination drill sergeant and fashion designer - manipulated my hands and feet into the appropriate starting positions.

I watched as she glanced heavenward for a moment, feeling for the rhythm. Then, without warning, she launched the two of us into Perry Como's "It's Impossible."

Although I was supposed to be the one leading, my mom found it necessary to cart me around the living room like a sack of potatoes. But every time I flirted with despair, she squeezed my hand and kept me on my feet. "Keep dancing," she'd say. "Just keep dancing. You'll get it. You're doing fine!"

It took me the longest time to learn the ridiculously simple box step. "This is good for 90 percent of the songs you'll hear," assured my mother.

Still dancing, I looked up at her with panic in my eyes. "What about the other 10 percent?" I asked.

"Don't worry," was her recurring advice. "I'll teach you to waltz, too!"

If I was middling at the fox trot, I was a disaster at the waltz. Andy Williams's "Moon River" may have been "wider than a mile," but it was still not roomy enough for me to avoid backing into the TV, kicking over the magazine rack, and stepping on my mother's toes. "There," she finally said, maintaining her poise against all odds.

There? There what? I felt more inept than I had before we started, because I now had proof of my terrible dancing skills. I watched with a sinking heart as my mother shut off the stereo and moved - no, danced - into the kitchen. She had it in her blood, and I clearly didn't. Maybe I was adopted.

Well, true to teenage behavior patterns, I frittered away a perfectly good week worrying about the dance. When the big night finally came, there were, of course, neither fox trots nor waltzes. For the first half hour, I didn't even dance. None of the guys did. We watched as a few girls dominated the dance floor. And then, suddenly, I was part of a crowd.

Everybody seemed to be moving impulsively to some forgettable rock-'n'-roll lyric. I found myself facing a classmate, Barbara Chuck, and with a respectable two feet of space between us, we began to swing our arms and heave our legs in asynchronous directions, our movements bearing no relation to the music whatsoever. If dance had changed since my mother's time, then it had become more democratic - anybody could do it.

I returned home that night flush with victory. My mother had stayed up, waiting for me. "Well?" she asked. "Did you do OK?"

"Yeah," I said, radiating a newly acquired confidence. "I did OK." Then I went straight to bed, before she learned that the dance steps she had taught me now seemed to be extinct.

WHEN Alyosha returned from his school dance the other night, he was just as taciturn as I had been. "How was it?" I asked. "OK," he said, and then skipped up to bed.

We're both still doing OK. Speaking for myself, I don't know how much of this wellness I can attribute to thrusting myself into the new frontier of the school dance.

But such recollections help me to approach my son's own milestones with faith and trust. After all, he will be passing through many doors in the life that lies ahead of him. This time, he returned home through one of those doors a bit happier, a bit more independent, a bit more the young man than the little boy.

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