Ballroom Dance ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I needed a class for physical education credit. I had always considered myself more the “brainy” than the physical type and loathed the very concept of physical education, the effort, grunting, and humiliation that were a part of it. Of the classes that were available to me, swimming was out of the question. You had to dive from the high dive to pass the course and I’d rather face a firing squad. Archery, I had heard, was no fun at all after you shot your first arrow into the air and, if that wasn’t bad enough, threatening to shoot one of your classmates in the face was grounds for dismissal. Weight lifting class had its charms, I was sure, but it wasn’t for me.
When I heard about ballroom dancing, I knew it was probably as good as I could get. It was held indoors for one thing, but the most attractive thing about it for me was that you could wear your “street clothes.” You didn’t have to change your clothes in a roomful of strangers into “gym clothes” that you would never wear in a million years if you had a choice and then, when the class was over, take a communal shower with the same group of strangers before you could go on to your next class. (This is what hell really is, I’m sure!)
I signed up and hoped they weren’t already filled up. Finally, here was a class that might be a lot of fun where I could actually learn something that might be useful in later life. (If anybody ever needed a person who knew how to do the tango, that person was going to be me.) I found that I was looking forward to the class, a sensation I hardly recognized in myself.
When I arrived for the first class, I was thrilled to discover we had a real “dance studio” in the physical education building. It was an enormous, low-ceilinged room with a gleaming wooden floor like the basketball court. One entire wall was one long mirror with a bar for holding on to. You could dance while seeing what you looked like to other people. (I’m not sure that’s a good thing.)
It was a large class of about eighty people, all looking for an easy physical education credit the same as I was, I assumed. And there was to be no same-sex dancing because we were about evenly divided up (by design) between male and female. None of these girls would be able to dance with other girls because they didn’t like the boys, as they had done in high school. (If you prefer to dance with members of your own gender while people of the opposite gender are standing by, it doesn’t look good and people begin to talk.)
Our teacher’s name was Miss Bobbie Alma. She possessed the warmth and charm of a concentration camp commandant. She was middle-aged, skinny and angular, with no curves anywhere. She wore her hair in a tight roll at the back of her head called a French roll. Her ears stuck out farther than any woman’s ears I had ever seen before. (You didn’t dare laugh.) In her boxy gray skirt with matching jacket and black oxford shoes, she was as graceless as a stevedore. (An older “boy” in the class, who had been in the military, would confide to me later in the semester how he wanted to get Miss Alma alone long enough to remind her she was a woman.)
“All right, now, listen up, you people!” she yelled. “I’m only going to tell you this one time! You are here for one reason and one reason only! That reason is to learn the art of ballroom dancing! This is not a place for cutups or jokesters! If you are not prepared to take this class seriously, then please leave now! Does everybody understand? Are there any questions?”
“What will be on the final?” a tall girl with a receding chin and frizzy hair asked. (I had found that in every class, no matter what it was, somebody always asked about the final on the first day of class. Wasn’t there going to be plenty of time—the entire semester—to worry about that?)
“You will have two tests in the course of the semester that will comprise most of your grade!” Miss Alma said. “You will have a mid-term exam and a final exam! This is one class where you will never wield a pencil! Your tests will be danced! I will be the sole judge of whether or not you have applied yourselves and have learned the steps the way you are supposed to learn them! Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl said meekly, although she wouldn’t have needed to say anything because the remarks were not addressed to her personally but to the class at large.
“And let me warn you about something!” Miss Alma continued. “This is one class where absenteeism will not be tolerated! You must make every effort to be present at every class! If you miss a class, you will not be able to catch up! If you miss a class, you must meet with me in my office and tell me why you missed! If you miss two classes without a very good reason, I advise you to voluntarily drop the class! If you miss three classes, whatever the reason, you will automatically be dropped from the roll! Do I make myself clear? Are there any questions?”
When nobody said anything, Miss Alma gave her famous rallying cry: “Men on that side, women on this side!” (She said these same words every class.)
Rather clumsily, we gathered according to gender on either side of the room, with an empty column of about fifteen feet separating the male group from the female group. Miss Alma selected an unlucky “volunteer” from among the “men” and proceeded to show us some waltz steps. After about ten minutes of this practical demonstration, she instructed us to “select a partner” and “listen closely to the music.”
It was not a time to select a partner for suitability or desirability. We had about ten seconds. I tapped the nearest girl on the shoulder (anybody would have been all right except Miss Frizz who had asked about the final). The girl turned around, gave me an appraising look, and fell into my arms. I’m sure she felt as silly as I did and as everybody else did.
In this way, we learned the waltz, the foxtrot, the cha-cha, and (my favorite) the tango. After we had done the dances for a while, we became more confident and less self-conscious. I’m sure I was never anything less than solemn and mechanical, kind of like a dancing robot (no joy, no feeling), but I learned the dance steps and performed them with a stolid precision.
I didn’t miss any of the ballroom dance classes. I was afraid to. I was nervous at first about having to dance in front of a lot of other people (I had never danced before), but after a while the nervousness went away. I never deluded myself that I was a good dancer. I was an adequate dancer, which was all that was needed.
I managed to go the entire semester without angering Miss Alma. When I had to come into direct contact with her, I called her bluff and didn’t let her know I was afraid of her, which, I found out, is the only way to deal with her type. I never crossed her, never did anything to attract her attention in a bad way, and tried very hard to do exactly as she said. (If I had put that much effort into all my classes, I would have been a better student.) I somehow wanted ballroom dance to work for me because it was unlike anything I had ever done before. I ended up, not with an “A,” but with the next best thing.
Of course, when the class was over and I no longer needed to know the dance steps, I forgot them. I received the physical education credit I needed for the year, which was all I ever wanted in the first place. I was on my way. To what, I didn’t know. Certainly not a career as a professional dancer.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp