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  • October 15th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

“I can’t dance, don’t ask me!” Famously sang Fred Astaire in 1935, the year after I was born. Dance he did, of course, and more gracefully and admirably than anyone before or since. He did dance in 10 musical movies with his longtime partner Ginger Rogers who, it was said, did everything he did, only backward and on high heels.
I can only marvel when Astaire danced up the wall and across the ceiling in one of the many movies he made with Rogers. In contrast, I have trouble negotiating simple dance steps on level floor. My history with dance is so personally depressing as to call for intensive therapy, but I think that having reached octogenarian status, my time to emulate, even faintly, Fred Astaire has come and gone.
Klutz like stumbling on the dance floor, is doubly depressing because Marty, my wife, is a mid-Missouri Ginger Rogers, and always has been. I have no doubt that she boogied in her crib and that her first steps were as flashy as those of the vintage Cyd Charisse. 
She is a veteran of an ice cream parlor right out of Happy Days, called Louie’s, which in her high school days was the gathering place for teenagers in Macon Missouri, her hometown. The jukebox rocked and so did the kids. Ask her today her favorite memories from high school and she will instantly reply, “Louie’s, where we went to dance.”
By contrast, in Dalton, Missouri, where I lived, or in Keytesville, where I went to high school, dancing for all boys save a few precocious and scorned showoffs, was something you watched Fred Astaire do in a movie, while waiting for John Wayne to show up in the second half of a double feature and shoot someone. 
I do recall one time in high school, possibly in a physical education class, where we attempted to learn how to square dance, stumbling around as fiddles played on a scratchy phonograph. The girls had no problem with the intricate steps of square dancing but us guys looked more like hogs loose on a skating rink.  Girls frequently danced together, while we wall flower boys sat on the bleachers steps and talked about baseball.
It occurred to me, probably because my mother told me, that if I wanted to be the most popular boy in school, I would have to learn to dance. Becoming most popular was probably about as likely as my becoming president, although given the one we have now, maybe I could’ve made it. Although, if being elected to the highest office in the land depended on my ability to dance, I couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher.
So, my mother attempted to teach me a simple two-step, which I think she called a foxtrot, although I did it more like a foxhound with sore feet. There are few things more embarrassing than dancing with your mother. We fox trotted around one of the many rooms in the Dalton Hotel, where we lived in semi-squalor, probably to a big band recording from the 1940s.
My mother, who had danced in Chicago nightclubs with my father, during the Roaring Twenties when they were dating and before I came along to complicate their lives, was incapable of teaching me the fast dance steps of 1950s teenagers. Even by the 1940s, she had passed through impetuous teenage dancing. So I learned a sedate two-step (two to the left and one to the right), a mechanical march that was about as rhythmic as if the Creature From Another Planet (a favorite 1950s sci-fi movie) had broken into a frantic shake and bake before destroying a major American city.
Now at least I was armed (or legged) to participate in what we called buckle polishing dancing, but anything faster than Glenn Miller, playing “Moonlight Serenade” was beyond me. Even when my cherished and deeply beloved wife of 61 years, Marty, offers to show me the steps that made her the Ginger Rogers of Louie’s Sweet Shop, I turn to jelly and step on my lower lip in a surly pout and quit, like a frightened dog being dragged to the veterinarian.
A couple of incidents in my formative years go a long way toward explaining my reluctance, inability or whatever it is to trip the light fantastic–which for me is so fantastic as to be beyond the realm of imagination. Let me explain:
For one thing, dance opportunities at my high school, Keytesville, were limited to school dances a couple of times a year. There was no Louie’s in Keytesville or anywhere close by where teenagers could gather and juke to the jukebox. Marty tells me that Louie’s was a gathering spot, not just for Macon teens, but for kids from neighboring towns as well. “After a football game,” she says, “we’d get kids from whatever team Macon was playing that night and we’d all dance.”
There was no football at Keytesville high school, not to mention no equivalent of a Louie’s, and none of the prom nonsense that was the highlight of the social scene at Macon high school. I had exactly one date to a dance in high school and came down with a case of impetigo on my face that made me look like a character from a horror movie. There was a grotesque scab running from just below my nose to below my chin. I looked like a pestilent survivor of a chemical warfare attack. Not only did I not dance, but my date was taken home by a senior who happened to have a car, which I didn’t, and who did not have impetigo.  That horrifying incident obviously did not increase my ambition to acquire terpsichorean facility.
I can date my aversion to fast dancing to one dreadful moment in the summer of 1955, at ROTC summer camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill historically was where Indians would drive buffalo over a cliff to their death and if I had been a buffalo I think I would’ve been happy to be driven over a cliff– anything to get away from Fort Sill. On weekends we callow would-be soldiers could escape to nearby towns where we could buy technically illegal beer (Oklahoma at the time was dry). Some warriors went to Wichita Falls, Texas, known as Whiskey Falls, a wet oasis just over the border, but some of us chose to go to Anadarko, where there were alleged to be real live girls in the roadhouses.
        There was a girl’s college in Anadarko and little knots of coeds would gather at a local dance hall and whisper girl secrets to each other and occasionally when approached by an especially daring male child would take to the dance floor and, miracle of miracles, engage in buckle polishing.  But all too many of the rock ‘n roll records of the 1950s rocked  ‘n rolled, requiring the  dreaded fast dance, which pinned me to my seat as if I were stuck there with super glue
It was in one of these beer joints, with Fats Domino rocking on the jukebox, that I summoned up my courage and asked a girl to dance with me. I had absolutely no concept of dancing outside the two-step box, but figured that natural rhythm would carry the day. I thought I was doing a credible imitation of somebody who knew what he was doing, when the girl suddenly stopped in the middle of “Ain’t That a Shame” and snarled, “what the hell are you doing?”
      “I don’t know,” I mumbled and slunk back to our booth, humbled, shamed and irrevocably traumatized forevermore.  Ever since that moment so long ago, I have been crippled by the deep and unhealing wound of that humiliating encounter.  I can stand alone in front of a thumping recording of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by the vintage Jerry Lee Lewis and manufacture a creative modern dance, on the beat, and as imaginative as something by Sammy Davis Junior in his prime— but there, in my solitude, is no girl looking at me as if I were a repulsive insect, sneering, “what the hell are you doing?”
I grew up, first on radio and later on television, listening to the inane jingle, “Arthur Murray taught me dance’n/in a hurry.” Murray packed it in long ago, but if his spirit were confronted with me at one of his dance studios he’d whirl in his grave like a centrifuge.  There is a local group where we live that offers what they call swing dance lessons but the thought of exposing my ineptitude to strangers makes me quiver. I can just see the instructor, after fruitless hours trying to teach me twirling and whirling to fast music, growling “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
So as I approach the age where, if I did know how to fast dance, I’d have to use a walker, I am doomed to be among the wallflowers.  I think I hear the Four Freshmen singing “Memories Are Made of This” on an oldies station.  Buckle polishing music.
Anyone care to dance?

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