Throughout my adolescence, I lived for the dances in the school gymnasium on Saturday nights. These weekly hops were my social life as far as girls and possible romance went. The odd thing about it is that I didn’t dance. Oh, I slow-danced—awkwardly, but well enough to get by—but I didn’t fast-dance. I was a wallflower, even though I played varsity football and generally wore my letter sweater to these affairs.
There were always enough of us non-dancers to stand around in a little circle all night, and talk and laugh and look over each other’s shoulders at the girls. Now and then, I would spot an opening, stroll over to a covey of girls, hands in my pockets, probably whistling, and I would tap one on the shoulder and ask if she wanted to dance. Generally she accepted, maybe in deference to my varsity letter, or out of courtesy to my feelings—though by the cool way she held me, I knew she was wishing I were someone else.
Once I was dancing, my personality turned instantly flat. I might have been the life of the party with the other wallflowers, but now I couldn’t think of what to say, except to ask how she was doing in geometry or if she liked the decorations or if she’d gone to the game last night. Neither did I know how tightly or loosely to hold her, or if she would consider it rude if my hand on her back rested on her bra strap. My lead was frightened and unimaginative, three little steps that went around a circle with no variation. If I did try something different, I was sure to trip over myself or step on her foot. It was easy for me to imagine, before the dance was over, that she was looking over my shoulder at her friends and rolling her eyes. Mercifully, the songs only lasted two or three minutes.
Meanwhile, I observed how the girls looked at and held the boys they really wanted to dance with. I could see that they liked best to slow-dance with the boys who fast-danced. If you fast-danced, you didn’t have to be that great-looking. And how much more relaxing it was to move from fast-dancing to slow-dancing, to be already on the floor when the slow dance came on, having fun, moving around, shaking yourself, swinging. There was a rhythm there, fast-dancing to slow-dancing, but I couldn’t get into it.
This painful inadequacy dragged me down all through high school and college. Sometimes I tried to learn the new dances as they came out. I was a regular student of “American Bandstand,” but by the time I had gotten the crawl or the chicken worked out in front of the mirror, everyone else had already moved on to the swim or the dog. Over time it became clear to me that I would never master dancing. Practicing steps in front of a mirror didn’t work, because the whole body had to be involved—not just the feet stepping here, then there, then back to here. There were your arms to consider, and your butt and hips and torso and shoulders; the whole thing would have to come from the inside somewhere in response to the music. Everything would have to move together without your thinking about it. By the time I graduated from college and got married, I’d long before given up.
Ten years later, after my marriage broke up, I was in primal therapy, digging down into my buried emotions and repressed body, learning to cry and laugh again, expressing anger at how much life I’d missed by being afraid. Roberta, my therapist, said I was doing really well in the therapy—so well, in fact, that she saw a potential therapist in me down the road. One night there was a party, and Roberta and the other therapists were there, as well as a lot of the clients. After food, the rugs were rolled back, music was cranked up on the stereo, and the whole party began to dance. Everyone danced except me and a couple of others; we stood on the outside with forced smiles on our faces, mortified by this exposure but unable to do anything about it.
In our next session, Roberta asked me why I didn’t join in the dancing.
“I don’t dance,” I said.
“What do you mean, you don’t dance?” she asked.
“I don’t fast-dance. I never learned how.”
“Why didn’t you just get out there and shake your butt, then?”
“I was afraid I’d look stupid.”
“And do you think you didn’t look stupid standing around with that pasted smile on your face? This therapy is about taking risks, Jim—not only here in this room, but out there in real life.”
I knew she was right, so after I licked my wounds for a few days, I found another guy and two women who were also afraid to dance, and we agreed to go to a club with a dance floor and just do it: face our fear head-on. It might be easier if we made fools of ourselves together, we agreed.
When we arrived, we took a table near the dance floor, ordered a drink, and waited for a song with a lively beat, hoping that some others might come out first to give us a place to hide. It was an amusing situation ¬four adults, all with the same childish fear, sitting around looking at each other, feeling a little sick inside.
I knew waiting would only make it harder for me. I asked Charlotte if she was ready. “Oh God, not yet,” she said. I asked Chrissy. “Let’s wait till some other people get out there,” she said. “Let’s do it now,” I urged. I could see in her face the same fear I was feeling inside. “OK,” she said.
Next thing I knew we were both standing out there in the middle of the floor, stiff as boards, looking at each other, feeling absolutely nothing, numb with fear and embarrassment. I guess you just start by moving something, I thought. So I moved something, I can’t remember what—a hip, a leg, an arm. And then something else sort of moved in reaction, and then suddenly, as if God cared, the music broke inside me, and I was dancing. “Look, Chrissy,” I said. She was also dancing. And in a minute, Steve and Charlotte came out on the floor and we all were dancing.
Ever since that night, I’ve been a dancing fool. I dance alone. I dance with strangers. I dance with men. I dance where there’s no dance floor. I dance, sometimes, where there’s no music. Once, in a bluegrass bar, I overheard the bartender say, in reference to me: “He’s the best dancer in Alleghany County.” I felt so proud of myself, knowing what I knew.