I recently found these pictures I took a couple of years ago at the 20th Century Club on Lansdowne Avenue, near Scottdale Road.
I photographed the auditorium unobtrusively from the back while a meeting of some sort was going on. I wanted the photo because that is where many of us had our first and only dance instruction.
As I recollect, it was for two years, either in seventh and eighth grade, or eighth and ninth. I have no idea how much it cost, or how it was publicized. I just know my mother signed me up with no discussion, no backing out, and one Saturday night, there I was, in my Sunday best and pompadoured hair, smelling of Wildroot. It helped that I went with Gary Shillingford, son of close friends of my parents and who later went to Upper Darby High. (He eventually became good friends with the Mussers and was even in their wedding party.) We were one day apart in age and had grown up almost as brothers. Probably half of my school class was there, too.
Mr. Keenon was the instructor, tall, with the bearing of a professional dance instructor, tuxcedoed, and with a castanet in each hand to keep us on rhythm. For our first dance, he paired us up with something I believe is called a John-Paul, where an inner circle of girls move one way, and an outer circle of boys moves the other. When the music stops, the one in front of you is your partner.
That first partner for me, the first girl I ever danced with, the first girl whose hand I had ever held in guidance rather than restraint, was Marian Bell, one of the most gorgeous girls I have ever seen. Even today, looking back in our yearbook, I see she had a movie-star beauty. But that night, it was wasted on me. I just saw her as this strange other species that I was there to learn about, like my sister, but also somehow not like my sister. I do remember that she was very gracious as we learned our right foot from our left, something I had no need to know until that night, and where to put our hands in a non-aggressive situation.
After that, we got our own partners by the protocol spelled out in detail by Mr. Keenon. At his signal, the boys, sitting on the left side of the auditorium, walked—not run, never run—to the girl of our choice sitting on the other side, stopped in front of her and bowed, not in the Japanese style with the arms at the side, but in the English style with one hand on our stomach and the other on our back, while saying, politely, “May I have this dance?” to which she was to reply, “You may,” as she rose from her chair with eyes lowered. She could not refuse—that would be a lesson to be learned later in life. And it actually worked somewhat like that, except speeded up as in an old Benny Hill episode.
The basic step was slide-close-slide, first to the left, then to the right. It was a safe step, always moving into open space. We must have learned other steps in all those Saturday nights, but that’s all I remembered, even then. A year or two later at the school sock-hops I would fall into the same slide-close-slide pattern and immediately marked myself as a dork who never progressed past that childish step, although by now I have perfected it to an art form of pure, Zen-like simplicity. Someday, I predict, public television will show a competition with slide-close-slide right up there with the tango and bossa nova.
As the music stopped, we escorted our partner back to her chair and never, never abandoned her on the dance floor, even if she was bigger than us and was surrounded by her friends.
There are some minor differences in our memories. I remember it as in seventh and eighth grades. Nancy Leith remembers it as ninth grade. Gary Shillingford remembers Mr. Keenon’s wife always helping. I have no recollection of her and assumed he was gay. Tom Peraino spells his name as “Keenan.”
So, if any of you have other memories of that class, let me know. Tell me what you remember, and, as for Gigi’s Maurice Chevalier singing, “Ah, yes, I remember it well!” it will all come back to me.
And, if there is music playing over the loudspeaker on the Ocean City boardwalk on the afternoon of June 11, someone bring castanets and Nancy and I will slide-close-slide for the passers-by. (If she accepts my request, but, of course, she cannot refuse.)