You could have knocked me over with a feather. A babysitter announced the other day that she had to hurry home to get ready for dancing school. Dancing school? I almost wondered if I had heard aright through the wads of chewing gum. Dancing school? Can it be that dancing school has survived the breakdown of the family, the advent of the pill, women’s lib, and all the rest of it? Fourteen year olds in California are backstroking to swimming records; in Minnesota they are hitting the road at thirteen to become hookers in New York. Can there be thirteen and fourteen year olds in other places who still wear white gloves and practice the box step?
Somehow I suspect that there must be. Dancing school as I remember it seems an inseparable part of adolescence, a rite de passage as full of torments in its way as any pagan initiation ceremony. Dancing school was the suburban equivalent of self-mutilation: The body may have emerged from dancing school intact, but not the psyche.
Dancing school was the province of one Miss Nettlebush, a clone from the genes of lady Macbeth who came to the United States after an apprenticeship training the Lippanzer stallions. At the time of her debut Miss Nettlebush had had one of her feet trod upon by a sturdy cadet who was attempting to nuzzle her neck. From that point on Miss Nettlebush’s face assumed a permanent, tight-lipped smile in order to hide the malice in her soul, and the principal objective of her life changed from becoming a Russian Czarina to seeking to make all contact between the sexes as difficult and unpleasant as possible. As the only other objective of Miss Nettlebush’s life was to wear a replica of every gown ever worn by Loretta Young, she eventually had no choice but to open a dancing school.
Miss Nettlebush’s dancing school convened every Thursday evening in the auditorium of a local church. Miss Nettlebush presided with a regal air, enforcing order with the aid of a pair of castinets and a store of scathing sarcasms developed over three decades of study of the remarks of women characters in plays by George Bernard Shaw.
Miss Nettlebush had a silent accomplice in torture: an upright little Scotchman named Mr. Klimchock who played brisk foxtrots on an upright little piano. Actually, since Mr. Klimchock is never known to have spoken, not much about his history is known. In fact it is only assumed that he was a Scotchman because one Thursday each winter Miss Nettlebush would bring us to attention with a clack-clack-clack of castinets and point out that Mr. Klimchock was wearing a tam o’shanter and kilts. Then Mr. Klimchock would play a few bars of The Blue Bells of Scotland and Miss Nettlebush would warn him in a facetious, Shavian voice to take care that his knees and other, unnamed anatomical parts not freeze on the way home.
Serving as Miss Nettlebush’s accompanist did not take inordinate skills. In Miss Nettlebush’s view, music and indeed all of Western culture had reached its consummation in those two monuments, the fox trot and the waltz. Learning the waltz consisted largely of whispering “Long, short, short” while facing the four points of the compass. The fox trot, however, was more complicated. Here we were asked to master a set of maneuvers elaborate enough to have set Busby Berkeley’s head spinning and driven Fred Astaire into a career in accounting.
These maneuvers were a dead language, like Latin. They could not conceivably be executed by anyone on an actual dance floor. A couple attempting them would find themselves careening into innocent two-steppers, shattering glasses, scattering honeymooners hither and yon. But of course the idea that any of her students would actually venture onto a real dance floor after she was finished with them might almost have prompted an outright laugh from Miss Nettlebush.
No, the idea of dancing school was not to encourage dancing. It was to convince us, at a singularly awkward age, of just how awkward we were and should remain: awkward, no matter how often Miss Nettlebush caused us to don white gloves and navy blue suits; awkward, no matter how frequently she chided us to bow or curtsey; awkward, no matter how many times she clacked at us to follow the beat, tighten the corners, stand up straight.
Miss Nettlebush placed great emphasis on posture, grooming and a code of deportment. There was no end to the bowing and curtseying. White gloves were a required part of the dress, and woe betide the youth who tried to survive inspection on the strength of an old woolen mitten.
Miss Nettlebush’s female pupils were taught never to decline a proper request for a dance, whether the request came from Frankenstein’s monster or the wavy-haired captain of the Yale basketball team. Yale, however, can have only one basketball captain at a time, and Miss Nettlebush’s female students managed wordlessly to convey that fact to the rest of us. With time, many of them developed replicas of the perpetual Nettlebush smile.
Miss Nettlebush had fixed ideas about the way in which a young man should put his arms around a woman and the manner in which a young woman should respond. Presented with the question in the abstract, she would have replied not at all. But unfortunately she did run a dancing school, and at least for the dances of that era, putting arms around a young woman could not altogether be avoided.
In Miss Nettlebush’s classes the position of young man’s arms never varied. The height and girth of the young man, the weight and stature of the woman he held in his arms — these never interfered with Miss Nettlebush’s calculations. Miss Nettlebush’s calculations were based on abstract principles and Loretta Young, not on the varying physiques of fourteen year olds with growing pains.
But held in the arms is scarcely the phrase to describe the situation of a Miss Nettlebush female vis a vis her male partner. Locked in mortal combat would be more like it. The young man extended his left arm from his body as if taking aim with a duelling pistol; the young lady reached out with her right hand to deflect the pistol and grasped the boy’s hand as obligingly as if it contained a snake. The boy then crooked his right arm in the manner of someone preparing to hold an overcoat — something the boy dearly wished he was doing since it would mean he was on the way out. The young lady, however, inserted herself into the space for the overcoat, placing her left hand delicately on the boy’s right shoulder and then pushing away with a stiff arm that Bronco Nagurski would envy.
Every Thursday night ended with what was euphemistically called free time, a diabolical Nettlebush invention in which boys could choose partners for three or four minutes of social foxtrotting. At the beginning of free time the girls sat themselves primly on a row of chairs on one side of the auditorium; the boys assumed a variety of sprinters’ poses on the opposite side. At a clack-clack-clack from Miss Nettlebush the boys sprung into action. A din as of thunder echoed through the auditorium; a chaos of activity, beside which a game of rugby would seem a model of order, ensued. For this was Social Darwinism at its most basic level — a race to the swift, a triumph for the firmest calves and strongest biceps. Because of the rule that no one could ever be denied a dance, the first one to arrive before beautiful Miss A with breath enough to ask her for the honor of the next dance, got it. The combination of herd instinct and sexual desire was too much to overcome. Every boy in the room made a beeline for Miss A. When she was taken, the stampede shifted to pretty Miss B, cute Miss C and so on.
Free time was a dread embarrassment for all concerned. Even fetching Miss A cowered before the onslaught of hot-blooded youth. Less attractive girls quivered in agony as they remained unchosen while gangly, buck-toothed tomboys from the middle of the alphabet disappeared to the right and the left. Fat girls fainted, skinny ones trembled, and those with braces had palpitations.
But for the boys it was no better. On their dash across the floor the boys could feel contempt curl the lips of the lovely, could see fear dilate the eyes of the plain, could hear nervous laughs fill the mouths of the ugly. The girls seemed so distant and cool. They smelled of bath oil and talcum powder. The boys, in contrast, felt sweaty, breathless and tongue-tied. They smelled of fireballs and furtive cigarettes.
Yes, free time was a dread embarrassment for all concerned, a time of blushing faces, queasy abdomens and conspicuous silences. Only one person could possibly have derived pleasure or satisfaction from this degrading ritual. And while it cannot be said that Miss Nettlebush’s facial expression ever changed, yet there did come moments during free time when the corners of her mouth seemed to open and her eyes almost to sparkle. At such moments one caught glimpses of the teeth behind the tight-lipped smile and grieved the fact of adolescence.