Off With the Dance!

I can’t dance, never could, and no one will ever be able to drum it into me. I have known this from the day my parents first stowed my patent leathers in a little cloth bag and dragged me off to Miss Lockwood’s dancing class.

Luckily I am growing older, and not too slowly either. People are less and less inclined to expect me to dance. But the dance studios, relentless in their quest for pupils, have shown a lot of old gaffers how to get their paws on young females by teaching the dotards to totter through a few simple steps. Graying hair is no certificate of immunity.

Needless to say, I never ask anyone to dance. But my deficiency seems to attract dance lovers the way cat haters attract cats. I feel worst when some energetic character with her aggressions surfacing — some seasoned party who wants to prove how young she is — issues the ultimatum, because I know she is going to hate me.

“Come on, honey, let’s dance,” she cries, swooping down, it seems to me, like a hawk on a field mouse.

The ladies think I am lying, shirking my social obligations, deliberately spoiling the fun, when I protest that I can’t dance. “Well, come on anyway,” they insist (the ones who have never “danced” with me before), “because of course you can, a natural athlete like you.”

“No, honestly, honestly I can’t.”

But the woman, the newly met woman who is simply dying for a dance, won’t be put off. She thinks I am shy. “Oh, come on. If you can’t dance, I’ll teach you.”

Wobbling to my feet, I shuffle forward like a suspect in a police lineup. My would-be partner meets me halfway, and more than halfway. We close. One, two, three — pump, and we’re off.

The preliminary mechanics of the art have been beaten into me: left, right, left — glide. I glide, I glow. In these first four movements I can hold my own with any woman, if she ignores the music. I cannot keep time to anything more subtle than a bass-drum solo. For me all music is background music; it never intrudes on my inner voices. I am tone deaf and rhythm dumb.

But that bighearted woman will not believe it yet. And if she is any dancer at all, she will hang back with me, confident that I shall soon synchronize my hoofbeats with the orchestra.

“Why, that’s fine,” she coos, patting me encouragingly, “that’s just fine. Who said you couldn’t dance?”

And then, expecting me to join her, she goes her way — the orchestra’s way — and I go mine, so that with one big foot or the other I come down hard on her toes.

“Oh. I’m sorry!” she sings out gamely, masking a cry of pain. “That was my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t.” I mutter between clenched teeth — the dialogue in this recurrent nightmare varies but little. “It was my fault.”

Stiltedly amiable, we pause to argue, she swaying with the music clockwise, you might say, I counterclockwise. Then, after mutual assurances of trust, admiration, and affection, off we go again: one, two, three — crunch !

This time she does not say she is sorry but screams “Ouch!” and rears back like a rattlesnake.

And so, bobbing, weaving, and crunching, my partner and I circle the dance floor. I am still hoping to locate the rhythm and get aboard it. This preoccupation keeps me from paying much attention to the other couples present, so we collide with them frequently.

It is a plucky woman who can finish one dance with me without taking refuge in some phony pretext. The pitiful little escape stratagems fall into three main categories:

1. The personal emergency fib (“My, it’s hot in here. I’ve got to get some air!”), 2. The mutual benefit pitch (“Are you as starved as I am? Let’s grab some food.”), 3. Intense concern for the other fellow (“You need another drink. I’ll get it for you.”).

I have had to swallow all the palpably fraudulent excuses, choking them down with wrath rather than humility. Because, after a few moments on the dance floor, I begin not to like dancing — oh, no — but to entertain the shy, happy notion that I am not so awful after all. This time I am going to break through the rhythm barrier.

Deep down I realize, of course, that only her nimbleness has saved her, that pillar-of-smoke quality that so many women dancers achieve. With me she hasn’t been dancing; she has been swiveling, side-stepping, and backpedaling.

Nevertheless, my partner’s wanting out is always a blow to me. Damn it. I fume inwardly, I told you what to expect. But you insisted. Now you want to quit, leave me flat.

“You got a cigarette on you, honey?” the last one asked me, knowing that I don’t smoke. “I’ve just got to have a cigarette.” And off she skittered to the sanctuary of the ladies’ room. Two minutes before, she had yanked me out of my corner with an imperious, “You can’t dance? Okay. Sonny, here comes your first lesson.”

She failed where the top people in the field have failed, Some of the most agile and talented young professional teachers maneuvered me through no less than twenty sessions, and I still could not dance — although for a while they had me thinking I could. They did that for me.

That was because the professionals are such wonderful dancers themselves. I could step up to any young lady on the dance floor — any young lady on the teaching payroll — and with her cunning arms and glib tongue she would pilot me harmlessly around the room, using only hand pressures, digs of the elbow, and scarcely audible commands. I finished the course bursting with enthusiasm and confident of whipping my weight in debutantes.

My first test came a few evenings later, when I had the foolhardiness to take a girl to a night club. The place was packed. And if I could only have let myself go, the crowd would have danced us around like wash in an automatic washer.

But in my arrogance I wanted to strike out on my own. The girl was agreeable, and the basement floor was strong: one, two, three — and suddenly I realized that the girl in my arms was not a dancing teacher. By a nasty coincidence, she was not even normally supple. Her emotional reactions were normal enough, however, because she soon begged off, whining, “Don’t you think it’s too crowded to dance?” And I was right back where I started.

DAVID GRAHAM is a former Philadelphian who now divides his time between Freeport, Maine, and Mexico.