Dancing Lessons

Since 4th grade I’ve danced with partners including girls, boys, relatives, strangers, and men and women of all ages. In the process, I gained comfort with my body and with being close to others in a sensual but not necessarily sexual way.

My grade school allowed 4th through 8th graders to attend monthly dances in the gym, and my parents, who were avid dancers, encouraged my sisters and I to attend. The parents of most of my friends said their kids were too young. I don’t know what they were afraid of — in the mid-60s, we didn’t grind up on each other. Rather, we did the Pony, the Hitchhiker, the Monkey, and the Swim several feet away from our partners because our arms and legs were flailing to the music. Slow dancing consisted of partners rocking side to side (while turning in a slow circle, if the boy was coordinated) with arms fully extended, each girl’s hands on her partner’s shoulders while his hands were on her waist. If we really liked our partner, we would bend our elbows to get closer.

The mother of one of my closest childhood friends shared a memory of that time: “I was a young mother nervous about saying that it was okay for my little 4th grade daughter to participate in dancing WITH BOYS! (something that was not permitted for me until I was 16). Your mother looked me in the eye, chuckled, and said, ‘What?? You would want her to miss the pure joy of the music and learning to dance with friends? Do you honestly think that we should wait until they reach puberty and then put them into a darkened room and tell them it’s okay to rub their bodies up and down on each other and not think of anything except the music and dancing?’ It was a great lesson from your mom, and all my daughters happily threw themselves into wonderful, expressive dancing and music and boy and girl partners long before puberty arrived!”

Our 6th grade teacher taught us to square dance, ballroom dance, and to negotiate the Virginia Reel. Boys and girls often danced in the classroom during recess on rainy days, and in 7th grade, 3 of my girlfriends and I partnered with 4 boys — the ones we had crushes on — to perform a square dance for the school talent show. I vividly recall the fluffy purple and white checked skirts my friend’s mom made for all of us.

By starting partner dancing young, I became comfortable with boys in a non-pressure way. When I got older and began having crushes, I felt nervous while dancing, but the nerves were exciting! “Accidentally” brushing against a partner’s body was thrilling, as was the anticipation of waiting to be asked to dance or getting up the nerve to ask someone to dance. The dances in grade school and high school built my confidence in a way that no other activity could.

In high school, I DJ-ed for ballroom dance classes my parents attended. I did Samba, Rhumba, Foxtrot and other footwork under the table while I popped music cassettes in and out of the cassette player. In college, I took ballet, ballroom, and African-Haitian dance classes for phys ed, dancing the male lead in ballroom classes when we had too many female students (My oldest daughter had a similar experience recently in her college Tango class).

My husband and I first danced together at a single’s event 27 years ago, and since then we’ve taken lessons, taught basic classes, and performed in student showcases and (very) amateur competitions. This week, we are attending two nights of Ballroom Dance Camp, which equates to 4.5 hours of Cha Cha and 4.5 hours of Rhumba. It’s sweaty fun that we’ve missed since we gave up disciplined dancing several years ago.

How long has it been since you hit the dance floor? Or your kids? How about putting on a CD of music from your youth (or an album, perchance?) followed by one from today, and swapping dance lessons? They’ll be mortified at first, but after seeing you dance old style, they will enjoy the chance to show you what “real” dancing is. Don’t judge; enjoy.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I hear an irresistible beat playing in the living room…