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MISSTEPS.

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IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT FOXTROT. PLEASE TELL ME THAT THERE ARE STILL PEOPLE DOING THAT ... SOMEWHERE
[posted 02.14.2001]

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FROM CHIN UP HE appeared to have his hair in a normal, short, largely nondescript do, but as I conjure the image further, as I really let myself recall…

All I can see are those long curls hanging down the back of his neck, dangling out of some silly black cap (not a baseball cap, but something sillier) he wore to Woody’s, the youth center we junior high kids frequented on weekends to socialize amid fits of coughing brought on by the cranked-up smoke machine — Woody’s, where he perfected his twitching, MC Hammer-emulating moves in front of the MIRRORED WALL, for god’s sake, only taking the time to pay attention to the friends who came to find him there.

I am so embarrassed.

He, the first — he, the vain dancing machine who thought he had all the answers and made me second-guess the most mindless to-and-fro it is possible for two bipeds to engage in — had a mullet.

And I chose to dance with him?!

SPIN YOUR PARTNER

In the 1980s we beneficiaries of the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin (population just under 40,000) public education system were well-versed in dancing. Square-dancing, that is. At least one unit of gym class a year, from first grade through seventh or eighth, we were forced to allemande left and do-si-do our partners. We all groaned and complained, some out of honest hatred of the activity, others out of a need to sound just like our unhappy classmates. (Who, after all, would admit to enjoying square-dancing?) The boys begrudgingly held our hands in their limp grasps, shuffling beside us, not revealing the teensiest bit of anything other than displeasure at the activity. We girls tripped along, buoying ourselves with frequent rolled-eye glances at our friends, sharing in a single thought: This is so lame, but oh well, the boys are acting even dumber about it all. And then another thought, tailored to the individual girl: It might be cool, though, if I could manage to dance with so-and-so…

Personally, I didn’t mind the square-dancing so much. The boys’ annoying protestations about girl germs aside, the unit had its advantages. I didn’t have to change into the phy. ed. uniform of blue T-shirt — last name written in bold black letters across the screen-printed white box in the center — and shorts. And, hey, anything that didn’t involve the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge or practicing the mile run was just fine with me.

But what I longed to do — no, what I knew I would do soon enough, when I emerged from elementary school into the whole wide world of seventh grade and eventually high school and beyond — was to really dance. No fiddle music and shouted directions; just a band or a jukebox and a step I knew so well it seemed I’d been doing it all my life.

Dancing was, I believed, something we in my family just did. I’d grown up with countless anecdotes from my mother, tales of how she and her high school friends — the girls, that is — jitterbugged like crazy all night at the school events. They partnered up together while the boys stood along the wall, stubbornly waiting for A Theme From a Summer Place or another suitably slow song.

Oftentimes, in the midst of these tales of her small-town high school exploits in the early 1960s, she would hop up and grab my hand, nudging me back and forth as if the contact alone could channel the jitterbugging talent directly into my body.

“Like this,” she’d say, looking down at her socked feet. “Toe, heel. Toe, heel. STEP —” and with this she’d push against my hand, directing me to lean away — “BACK! Toe, heel….”

I’d flail and lose my balance, unsure how far to lean, with no concept of when or how to come back or where we would go from there. “Loosen up,” she’d say, shaking my arm like it was a noodle, her feet still moving. I’d laugh, and try. And then become annoyed. Surely some information was being left out here. Surely a song would help. Or a diagram.

But there wasn’t time: My mother was toe-heeling away right in front of me, not one to let a bad dance partner slow her down.

Time and again I was decreed, laughingly, hopeless. “You should get your grandpa to teach you,” she often said. “He was a wonderful dancer. He and Grandma were always out on the dance floor….”

There was one step I did manage to grasp, though. A complicated maneuver known as the Box Step. A waltz for dummies, you might say. I liked to make her do that with me, because, well, I could do it.

“But that’s so boring.”

COOL DUDE

This home-schooling in the jitterbug was, of course, in no way necessary for a successful navigation of junior high dances, the seasonal Tuesday or Thursday night events held in our school’s cafeteria and adjacent hallway. Slightly more evolved than the boys of my mother’s day, our male cohorts danced not quite with, but near the girls during the fast songs — all of us jumping and hopping en masse to Pour Some Sugar On Me and George Michael’s Monkey. But with so much to be done behind the scenes there wasn’t always time to spare for such lighthearted fun. Slow songs would be played. There were couples to arrange, go-betweens needed to gather the proper “If so-and-so asked you to dance, would you say yes?” information….

Such was the scene at Sabish Junior High circa 1990, at the Valentine’s Day dance held February 13th — a Tuesday.

In the hours prior to the dance, I’d done a stupid, dumb, incredibly short-sighted thing. On the phone (by means of some platonic circumstance) with the boy I liked that semester, or month, or week, I had told him — Jeremy, he of the mullet — that I knew of someone who liked him. But of course I wasn’t at liberty to say who that person was.

And of course the only person I knew of who liked him was me.

Why did I do this? I don’t know.

He pleaded and prodded for a name, I stalled and giggled. Then my mom came home and I hung up.

He rushed up to me that night at the dance, anxious to finish the conversation. I played secretive and avoided him and considered leaving altogether. He approached me again and pulled me away from the crowd so that he could urgently explain that he needed to know the identity of the girl who liked him because there was another girl — April B. or H. or P., I forget which — who liked him, too, and he needed to be able to decide between them.

Gr-reat. Entirely at a loss, I stalled via the time-tested device of repeating what you’ve been asked.

“You really want to know who likes you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the person I was referring to…” I looked him in the eye, having summoned more suicidal daring than I ever thought I possessed, and delivered the news as challenge, not compliment. “It was me. I was the one who liked you.”

He just looked at me, mouth open — not in awe or anything so romantic, but simply in shock. Totally confused.

Before he could finish whatever he started to mumble — what I assumed would be some bumbling “I didn’t know” tempered with an obvious “but I don’t like you that way” — I looked him in the eye once more, and, with all the cynical self-defeatism and “I don’t need you anyway” attitude my eighth-grade self could muster, said: “You can go dance with April now.”

And then I walked away — and into the hallway, where I found my friend Becky and promptly began shaking as I reported what I’d done and said.

For a second time, I considered leaving the dance altogether…but then I would, of course, never know what might have happened had I stayed.

Much chaos ensued as the news spread, as Jeremy turned to his own friends for help in understanding this bizarre turn of events. “Sam likes Jeremy?!” I heard someone squeal before rushing over to grill me further. This was an event, because Sam — uh, I — never admitted liking anyone.

I lurked in the bright hallway, fending off giggling friends, unwilling to go into the dark of the cafeteria and face the prospect of Jeremy dancing, as he assuredly must be, with April.

But he never did. As it neared nine o’clock, I deduced he must be opting to choose neither for now, to spare us the humiliation. But then he walked up as I was talking with Becky, and she, not one to stall where others’ circumstances were concerned, asked if he was going to dance with me or what.

He was.

We walked nearer the DJ, he turned toward me, I put my hands on his shoulders and we began to shuffle-step at no discernible rhythm to the rock dirge then playing.

Then: “Is this the first time you’ve ever danced with anyone?”

WHY, after all the self- and other-imposed humiliation I’d been through already, was this mulleted playboy asking me such a RUDE question?

“Why?” I asked, avoiding a direct answer with annoyed sarcasm.

“Because you’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to have your hands up here, like that,” he instructed, motioning toward girls with their hands clasped viselike behind their partners’ necks.

We walked together to McDonald’s afterward. But we did not exchange valentines the next day. Or ever.

BE MINE

Two ideal couples — two dancing ideals — forever skip and twirl, dip and shuffle in the ballroom of my mind. There’s the obvious pair — the glamourous twosome I see tangoing and swinging through movie dream sequences and at hipster clubs offering Free Lesson Tuesday Nights. And then there’s the everyday couple, the kind you see two-stepping in country western bars or foxtrotting around the dancefloor, nimbly avoiding the boisterious bride and groom at family weddings. They don’t do anything fancy — they’re just tripping the light fantastic into old age together. Alas, there’s no signing up for lessons in that.

And what of my eighth grade valentine?

As my mother once said, “All that hanging on each other and swaying back and forth…. What you kids do, that’s not dancing.”

No, I suppose it’s really not. But it can be. Because when the boy matters, the steps do not.

I could be perfectly satisfied — no, thrilled — dancing barefoot on an Oriental rug in a bachelor’s dusty apartment, waiting for dinner to be ready, swaying to a song sung in my ear by the boy who knows me so well. And then, knowing me, I would interrupt the moment.

“Have you heard the story about the first boy I ever danced with?”

He’d have to excuse my loquaciousness, my having so many things to tell him now that I finally have someone to tell. The right partner is so hard to find.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.