A dance to the music of life

It was my turn to be hostess/mom at the Barclay classes. The Barclay classes, formerly known as Miss Covington's, is a time-honored tradition in my town. It is what used to be known, when I was a girl, as a cotillion. It is open to all children from third to sixth grade, though boys are especially welcome for reasons all too obvious. There may be equality in the 21st century, but most boys still prefer T-shirts and jeans to white shirts and slacks. Not to mention the jacket and the tie.

In other words, most boys still have to be dragged there by their metaphorical ears, bribed or threatened or cajoled into attending. My son is no exception, though he's a very good dancer. My daughter says she doesn't want to go, but I know she's just pretending. Though she also prefers wearing T-shirts and jeans, her party clothes have a decided advantage over her brother's. Her clothes twirl; her brother's are just scratchy.

The classes meet twice a month from September until March. Mothers like me (if there is such a thing) can volunteer to host a class, which means sitting at a table with a list of children's names and checking them in as they arrive. Some of these children I've known since they were 3, so it was amusing to say, "And your name is...?" to kids I used to strap into car seats. They played along, though, saying their names clearly enough to hear, but not loud enough to shout. That's part of the purpose of the class: eye contact, speaking distinctly, smiling. It used to be called acting human, now it's more like humane.

Then the moms (there are two for each class) shake hands hello with the children, and shake hands goodbye at the end. The class is only an hour long. The third-graders meet from 4 until 5, the fourth-graders from 4:15 to 5:15, the fifth-graders from 5:30 to 6:30, and (gasp!) the sixth- graders have a veritable soiree from 6:45 to 7:45. Quelle surprise!

My kids are third-graders, they dance at 4. They tell me it's torture, and they make monster faces at me, but I don't care, and neither do the other mothers. For us, it's the high point of the month. We love everything the Barclay classes represent: not only the learning to dance to live music (a drummer and a piano player), the faltering steps of a cha-cha or box step, but the gentle chiseling away of playground rowdiness and the occasional emergence of something from a bygone era - manners.

During the hour, the children forget themselves, or rather become themselves, sweet and silly and, well, polite. It's enough to make you cry. I often do, and not because my kids are wooly mammoths in their spare time. It's just that this arcane custom seems to bring out the best in them.

I'm not sure why the girls wear white gloves. I only know I like it. Even the mothers have to scrounge up a pair when they serve as hostesses, though mine were given away to a girl who came without hers and was considering painting her hands white in hopes of blending in. Not that it would have been necessary. The people who run the classes are good and kind, not martinets. After all, you can't teach good manners if you don't have them yourself.

Once a girl came in a lovely dress, but without her party shoes. The girl had come with a friend, who unfortunately is a boy. I say "unfortunately" because he couldn't lend her a pair of shoes. But his mom assured the girl that she looked marvelous with her blue sneakers peering out from under her taffeta skirt. "Just hold your head up high and smile," the mother told her. I held my breath as I watched her walk in, wondering if she'd be turned away at the door. She was not. That wouldn't have been good manners, that would have been snobbery. There is a decided difference between the two.

Allison is a mother I've known for a very long time, since her son was 2 and before her daughter, Grace, was born. Grace is in kindergarten now. If you were casting a movie called "The Adorable Tomboy," Grace would get the lead. She wears pigtails and overalls. She has the face of an angel and the upper cut of a prize fighter. She doesn't start fights, but she's been known to finish them.

The day I was hostess, Grace was there with her mom. They were watching Grace's brother Luke dance with a girl who was slightly taller than he. Luke was doing quite well, so well that it inspired Allison and Grace to dance by themselves in the hall. While the third-graders fox-trotted to "The Way You Look Tonight," Grace and her mom took turns twirling each other, just out of view, so Luke never knew and was therefore not embarrassed.

But I saw them dancing, mother and daughter. It only lasted a moment or two. It wasn't a poem, exactly. But it was lyrical. That's the effect that the Barclay classes have. They make the mundane magical.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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