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Friday, April 27, 2012

Shall We Dance???


Talk about overnight changes.  I never saw them coming.  In a few short months, I went from the carefree days of sixth grade at a public school, playing in the neighborhood creek, and riding my bike everywhere to prep school, dress code, car pools and Fortnightly Club. 

It was a different era.  At that time in the 1960s/early 1970s, it was proper for Southern young ladies and young men ages 12 and 13 to learn the accepted social behaviors of the adult world.  In addition to the table manners, ma’ms, sirs, pleases and thank-yous we’d had drilled into us since our toddler days, we learned to make introductions, to properly shake hands, to attire ourselves for various social situations…and to ballroom dance.

For many of us, that boy-girl thing was pretty uncomfortable at that age.  Throw into that the fact that to ballroom dance you actually had to touch hands, shoulders and waists, and the entire situation was awkward.  Really, REALLY awkward.  I’m pretty sure our parents signed us up for this to torture us.  And they were successful.

“It only meets every two weeks for about an hour, and many of the kids from your new school will be going, too.”  That didn’t sound so bad.  Then came the first Thursday night of Fortnightly.

Fortnightly Club was held in the downstairs of what had been an elegant brick mansion near downtown Nashville.  The owner taught ballet there for decades.  She allowed another popular children’s dance instructor, Eleanor Hankins “Hank” Fort, to use the facility to teach ballroom dancing to ‘tweens. 

I climbed the imposing steps to the brightly-lit house.  The acrid smell of too many cats and not enough clean litter hit me as I entered a large ballroom with hardwood floors and mirrored walls.  Naturally, the girls clustered together like twittering birds on one side of the room and the boys huddled in the entry hall.  Boys wore dress shirts, ties and dress shoes; girls wore “nice” dresses and panty hose.  No mixing of the sexes. 

At precisely 7 p.m., we were instructed to form a circle of boys and an outer circle of girls.  Adding to the awkwardness was the fact that most of the girls towered over the boys.  We then had to match up with the nearest boy and were instructed how to (gasp!) properly place our hands on one another in order to learn our first ballroom dance steps. 

Hank Fort was a vivacious entertainer.  She’d written songs that became mid-20th century hits and had performed for U.S. presidents.  She stood in the center of the circle and demonstrated with much enthusiasm the steps to be learned for the evening.  Her assistants roamed the floor to provide assistance to those who simply didn’t get it or who were tempted to participate with little enthusiasm.  At Hank’s command, we rotated partners, barely giving us time to wipe sweaty hands before taking the clammy hand of the next partner.  Did I mention the word “torture.”

Counting, as in counting steps in order to keep up with each other was important.  So was not making a big deal of getting toes stepped on.  It happened often.

Finally, mercifully, the session would end.  Kids scurred out the doors and down the steps like it was the last day of school.  Thankfully, this only had to be repeated every 14 days!

Torturous months passed.  Somehow most of us mastered the box step, the fox trot and the waltz.  Then came the ultimate humbling experience – the dance card.  In a practice that must have been drawn from the Dark Ages, we were given dance cards with 10 blank lines. The boys then went around the room asking girls for a dance later in the evening.  A boy signed his name on a line and then returned the card to the girl.  The girl signed her name on the boy's card so he'd know who to look for for which dance.  We rotated partners as different songs were played.  Girls with blank lines on their cards faced the humiliation of having to “sit out” a dance.

Such was my initiation into a Southern adolescent ritual.  As the fortnights passed, the atmosphere changed.  We began to feel more comfortable with the opposite sex, laughing when we made mistakes or stepped on each other’s feet. 

Do I remember any of the dances steps?  Amazingly, some of them.  And I can pick out country songs with a waltz beat after just a few riffs. 

Have I ever been in a situation where I needed to use such formal skills?  Absolutely not!  This is the girl who soon after completing Fortnightly Club attended rock concerts by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Three Dog Night. 

I once shared with my daughter my archaic ballroom dancing experiences.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Ewww, seriously?  Glad you never tried to make me do that!”