“Do you want to dance?” I said these words and my life changed forever

You needed a language to bridge the gap between boys and girls when you were in the 7th or 8th grade. Dancing was it.

So much was forbidden. Or unknown. Or unknown and forbidden. Or off limits. Or just out of reach. Girls existed in a different universe. There they were, three or four of them standing in a clutch down the hallway, three-ring binders and schoolbooks pressed against their abdomens like Kevlar vests, looking at us, then looking away, then back at us, whispering. About what, who knew?

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We were watching them, too, shuffling our sneakers or Weejuns on the linoleum floor, goosing each other, laughing nervously, talking maniacal nonstop nonsense, but mainly marveling at them, wondering why they were watching us, why we were watching them, trying to figure out what was causing the charge running up our backbones like we had plugged ourselves in a wall socket.

They were pretty, or ordinary looking, or dark and exotic, or cherry-cheeked and blonde, in pigtails or bouffants, in blue eyeshadow and lipstick snuck out of their mothers’ purses, 13 going on 21, insouciant, as distant and intimidating as a mountain range. Who knew what we were to them? We didn’t. But looking at them, you sensed that they knew stuff we didn’t know.

There was no way to express your feelings because you didn’t know exactly what it was you felt yourself. But there were things you knew. You wanted them to notice you. You wanted them to like you. You wanted to touch them. You wanted to be touched by them. You wanted all of it, whatever it was . . . all of what was foreign, the beauty and softness and stuff that made them girls, that made you feel like the most awkward confused beast on the planet because they were so distant, and when it came to girls, so much was not permitted.

And then came a day when a door was thrown open and everything became possible: Friday night dancing class. Your mom signed you up without telling you, thank God, because you would have yelled and protested figured some way to get out of it. Instead, you found yourself in the car being driven over to the rec center and directed to a basement room around the back with worn out wooden floors and fluorescent lights and square steel posts randomly interrupting the room, with girls on one side and boys on the other and middle-aged woman with big hair wearing a flowered full skirt and petticoats standing in the middle like the Patton of ballroom dancing, barking orders in a voice that was one third cigarettes, one third gin, and one third drill sergeant.

She would drop the needle on a 45 rpm record and walk down the row pulling girls and boys into the center of the room by pairs, moving them around like marionettes. Put this hand here, and take her hand like this, and you honey, don’t stand there like a piece of wood, rest your hand on his back, yes, that’s right, now listen to the music and one two three four . . . one two three four . . . step two three four . . . that’s it!

Suddenly, you were touching a girl! You were holding her in your arms! You could feel the heat of her body! You were listening to the music, and there it was! Her hip against yours! The swirl of her skirt against your leg! The feel of her waist under your hand! Before you knew it, you were moving your hand looser on her waist to take her with you to the left, and tightening your grip to bring her back to the right . . .

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You were dancing. With a girl. Mysteries were being answered one after another. Oh, my God. She liked it. She wanted to dance with you. She wanted your hand around her waist. She wanted the same heat from you that you felt from her. There it was. She was smiling and so were you, and magically you didn’t even feel like the fool you were certain you seemed to be.

You looked forward to Friday nights like a steak dinner. You started asking your mother to press your khakis, and you saved up money for that blue checked shirt you saw in the Sears catalog, and you polished your Weejuns, and your favorite girl at dancing class was wearing a new dress, and she had talked her mother into letting her put something on her eyes, and they were bigger, and darker, and deeper and she was so gorgeous you felt like you were falling into her like a clear, warm stream.

Halfway through the year, they announced a sock hop on an upcoming Saturday night, and there was going to be a dance contest. You wanted to enter the contest, and moreover, you wanted to win, but you didn’t know the first thing about how to make that happen. And then one day in the hallway after lunch, she walked away from the clutch of girls and asked if you wanted to be her partner for the dance contest, and when you stammered yes, she said, great! Let’s practice after school at my house.

It turned out to be not just her house, but her bedroom. Duh. That’s where her record player was. Her parents were cool because it was for the dance contest, and there you were, in a girl’s bedroom with the rug pulled back and something like “Do You Want to Dance” by Bobby Freeman or “Do you love me” by the Contours playing, and you were working on twirls and crossovers and kickbacks that broke you out in a sweat, both of you, and it was . . . thrilling! There was no other word for it. Just the two of you, in her room, with your feet moving and her body pressed against you, then away, then against you, then this double-bump of your hips, and both of you twirling away from each other, and without even thinking about it, she was back in your arms, and you felt like you knew what it was to love a girl. You didn’t exactly know it was love, but damn, it was close enough.

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All the stuff that was unknowable and forbidden and far away was right there beneath your fingertips, in the shift of her hips, the turn of her waist, the press of her breast against the side of your chest just under your left arm, now your right, Jesus!

It turned out nobody else was practicing in other girls’ bedrooms except you and your girl, and you won the dance contest, and winning was cool, but getting to dance every single Friday night with her was much, much cooler. In the spring, close to the end of the school year, a couple of girls got together and had a party at one of their houses, and they decorated the basement with streamers and there were Cokes and a record player and all of the hot 45s that were on the radio, and you got to dance for hours, and when it got late, somebody turned off the lights during “Earth Angel,” and you kissed her, and you felt her lips against hers, and you thought the earth had stopped on its axis.

Her father got reassigned that summer, of course, and the next year the Friday night dancing class was canceled because the drill sergeant teacher lady moved away with her husband, but there was Teen Town on Friday nights, with a jukebox and a Coke machine, and there were two more sock hops and you found a girl you could dance with and talked her mother into letting you practice in her room, and the girl was different but the magic was the same. That year, the Harry James Band came through town, and your parents, and her parents, picked the two of you up around 10 pm and took you to the Officer’s Club, and Harry James played a great fast jitterbug piece, and you danced it with her, and just as you were really picking up steam, the moms arranged for the lights to go down, and they hit the two of you with one of the spots from the bandstand, and all of the adults stopped dancing, and you ripped it up, tore up the dancefloor as Harry James blew his trumpet and filled that ballroom with bleats and honks of joy, and you were both gone right through the rafters with Harry’s horn.

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The girls became women and the boys became men but the words remained young. Do you want to dance? It’s still a thrill.  Dancing changed my life forever.

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