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Constance Alexander: Sharing fond memories of tripping the light fantastic with the divine Mr. M

It wasn’t my mother’s idea to sign me up for Friday night ballroom dance classes at the local YMCA. The mother of my best friend, Anne, had suggested it, and my mother must have agreed. After all, Anne and I were in eighth grade and our class at St. Francis was all girls. It was high time we developed social skills for high school, where there would be boys, dances, and dating, a Trifecta of temptations, according to the nuns.

Ballroom dancing sounded glamorous. I pictured old movies of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and imagined a dance floor that gleamed like a mirror. I could see myself being twirled around by a graceful guy in a tuxedo. We would chat and smile and would dance on the ceiling if we had a mind to.

In reality, dance lessons were in the Y’s old gym. It smelled like sweat and dirty sneakers; the floor was dull and splintered. The first night, the girls looked surprisingly grown up in their Sunday best. The boys were another story altogether. They squirmed in starched collars with ties long enough to tuck into their pants cuffs.

The instructor, Mr. Marcason, was no Fred Astaire. He taught industrial arts at the public high school. Woodshop and mechanical drawing. Dull as a T-square, he was all gray – hair, suit, socks, teeth. He reminded me of the Tin Man in “Wizard of Oz.” When he directed us to line up, males and females on opposite sides of the room, he looked as stiff as that rusting hero.

While we sized each other up, like enemy armies poised for battle, Mr. M. turned on the music. Suddenly, he was transformed. Chin up, head thrown back, he curved his arms as if holding an invisible partner. He was no longer gunmetal gray, but shimmering silver.

After demonstrating the male and female steps separately, he plucked an unwilling partner from the lineup of girls, never noticing that she was cringing, stumbling, and sometimes barely moving her feet.

After a few minutes of that spectacle, he clapped his hands and beckoned to the boys. “Now it’s time for you to try. Señors!” he commanded.

The music was more akin to our parents’ preferences, and the dances he taught were nothing we might actually use: mambo, rumba, samba, tango. The closest we got to something contemporary were the Lindy and the cha-cha-cha.

That first night, I clenched my teeth and counted silently as I waited to be asked to dance. Suddenly I realized I was too tall, my dress too frilly, my smile too desperate. And once out on the dance floor, it was clear I was no Ginger Rogers.

Over time, the routine got a little easier. The girls divided into two groups. One gaggle cultivated fetching, come-hither glances, while the others managed to appear that being asked to dance was so ho-hum, they could barely conceal their yawns. For me, waiting to be tapped by a sweaty-palmed boy, half-a-head shorter than I, continued to be excruciating.

In just a year I was a freshman in a public high school. The same grungy gym where we’d suffered through Friday night ballroom dance class became the site of Saturday night dances. Co-eds, as they were called, were like sexless soap operas. With the lights turned low, the air was charged with giddy expectation. The scent of the girls’ cologne mingled with the tang of Old Spice. Boys gathered in small groups, as did the girls, checking each other out between records.

Most boys eschewed the fast songs, so girls danced happily together. Slow numbers were different. Had the nuns been present, they would have tried to keep an arm’s length between couples. The pairs who were going steady pressed together, with no room for light in between. The girl hugged the boy’s neck while he cradled her waist with both hands. The others kept to the more formal stance advocated by Mr. Marcason.

As I got older, I learned to like dancing, and always felt bad for those who had to take lessons in order to get through wedding receptions and other formal occasions. But to this day, although I’ve tripped the light fantastic many times, I have never been called upon to mambo, rumba, samba, or tango. Nevertheless, I will never forget those Friday nights at the Y and the divine Mr. M.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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