Mama always said I danced as soon as I stood up. "Whenever we put music on the old Victrola, Betsy would pop up in her crib and start jigging around."
Of course, I have no recollection of this; but I do remember being in a Maypole dance performance when I was 7, and going the wrong way. I was joyfully unaware of ruining the whole pattern; skipping and humming along, until I saw my teacher's anguished expression and her wild gestures to turn back! Which I did; and found myself with a short bit of ribbon while the other kids were still weaving with their longer ribbons. But I gamely went on, and ended up with my ribbon being woven into a tight little knot.
"Well, at least she didn't give up," said Mama when relating this event to Daddy.
When I was 9, Mama decided I should spend the money Grandpa sent me for Christmas on tap-dancing lessons. Tapping was in vogue. This was the time of vaudeville in movie theaters. Troops of little Meglin Kiddies, dressed in flouncy polka-dotted costumes, tapped cunningly away on stages after movies.
Mama thought tap lessons might improve my poise and grace, and get me exercising instead of reading all day, as I was wont to do. I learned the buck-and-wing and a few other steps. Every evening, at home, I tapped across the kitchen linoleum, showing my family what I had learned. I loved tap-dancing, but all too soon my money ran out. This being Depression time, I had to give up tapping. Daddy prized the metal taps from my black patent dancing shoes, which I wore to Sunday school for the rest of the year.
In 1931, when we were 12, my friend Petty Bryan and I were enrolled in a ballroom-dancing class by her mother, who thought we needed to learn some social graces. We learned a lot, some of which might be called social graces, but we didn't improve our dancing skills substantially. I did, however, fall in love with a curly-headed boy, so it wasn't a total loss. But that's another story.
It was in my high school years that I really learned to dance. There were dances for juniors and seniors every Friday after school, in the cafeteria. Tables and chairs were cleared away, and we danced to popular music played on a record player. Aromas of creamed tuna and clam chowder, our usual Friday lunch fare, still hung in the air. A senior boy named Bob, who had a crush on me, asked me for almost every dance. He was a fine dancer, and had the additional merit of being tall. Most of the boys in our grades had not yet attained their full height, and were inches shorter than I. It was disconcerting to feel their hot, moist breath right on my shoulder, or worse, on my neck, while dancing.
College at UCLA was Dance Heaven, as far as I was concerned. I was a good student, but I lived for the end-of month afternoon dances in an elegant, vine-covered Masonic building. Bob was still around and I enjoyed our dancing together, but I met other dancing partners, also tall and good-looking. I lived near campus, and, although I usually walked home, I always accepted a ride after these dances. Good thing, too, as I was footsore from dancing for hours wearing pumps.
The most dancing fun of these times occurred when a group of us would go to Catalina Island on the Big White Steamer. My older sister, Jean, and her friend Lois accompanied me and a friend on these weekend trips. Mama regarded 20-year-old Jean as a suitable chaperon. We danced on the ship's sunken dance floor going over, laughing as we slipped and rolled with the motion of the vessel.
We slept in one of the cheap tent camps in Avalon ($5 per night). We danced each night at the beautiful Casino Ballroom. These were "stag" dances, so our partners were strangers, which added a shivery excitement to the adventure. I was always nervous waiting for someone to ask me to dance. It never occurred to any of us "nice girls" to ask the boys. Walking back to our tent together, late at night, we paused in front of the island bakery, to inhale the delicious, yeasty aroma of fresh bread baking for the coming day.
At the age of 17, I was allowed to go on more sophisticated dates with boyfriends. We danced at the Hollywood Palladium to the music of the Big Bands, and even, on rare celebratory occasions, at the glamorous Cocoanut Grove.
War, marriage, and babies stilled my dancing feet for a while. But when my children were old enough to be left with sitters, I discovered square-dancing. My husband and I joined an adult night class at Beverly Hills High, and were soon doh-si-do-ing as though we had been doing it all of our lives. We both loved the old-fashioned fiddle music, and the challenge of responding to complicated calls.
"This is the way my grandparents in Kentucky danced," I said as we formed part of a Texas star.
"And this is the way George and Martha Washington in Virginia danced," he puffed back as we did the Virginia Reel.
We stayed with square-dancing for years, dancing on football fields, in auditoriums, and in village squares, until eventually we had to phase it out of our lives. But still, when I hear a fiddler play "The Arkansas Traveler" or any of our old favorites, my feet begin to tap and I listen for the call "Ladies and gents, find your partners and form your squares!"
Times changed, and the '60s were upon us. My pal Carrie and I joined a Greek dancing class, hoping we could persuade our mates to join us. They did, but soon dropped out. Carrie and I stayed. Before long we were dressed in white gowns and forming part of the elegant line of Zorba's syrtaki, with backs straight, arms entwined, dipping, rising all together; and looking, I fancied, like part of a frieze on a Greek vase.
This, too, has passed. I no longer go out dancing. But every now and then, alone in my living room, one of "our songs" comes on my radio, and I rise up and I find myself with arms outstretched, circling the room. I know I'm not Ginger Rogers, but I'm still dancing, dancing, dancing.