Dance Lessons

Philip Nanton – January 2023

It was a few weeks into the school holidays when the invitation to the dance party arrived. It was to be held just before the holidays ended. The venue was my cousin’s home and the party was to celebrate his older sister’s birthday. At the first opportunity I asked my cousin if he could dance. He said ‘no’ but his sister would teach him. I was a stringy colonial islander around twelve years old at the time. I did not have an older sister. I lived in the country. In those far off days an invitation to a house party where you danced with girls, holding them in your arms for the three minutes of a popular song was the highest of high unspoken ambitions. But to do that you had to know how to dance. I mean how to hold your partner, not too close, not too far away from you either. How to move in time with the beat of the music, how to pretend to be relaxed and not think about your feet, how to execute a turn without falling over those of your partner. So much could go wrong. So much to learn. So little time.

Why did I care? I cared because in my little island it was what adults did. It was what older teenagers did. It was supposed to be enjoyable. It involved a lot of dressing up which was exciting and ultimately there would be nothing else to do that evening except stay at home and read again dog-eared Batman and Superman comics that I had borrowed.

The party was weeks away and there was time enough to learn, to practice, to become proficient. My Dad had a dance book ‘Teach Yourself Ballroom Dancing’. That might help. It explained that movement is the language and the body is the medium. It showed diagrams of shoes sometimes turned one way, then out to the side with arrows going one way then the next. With no older sister to help me I was on my own. There was just the radio, the book, the broom for a partner and me. I was a shy, gangly boy. I practiced my dance steps in the quiet of my parents bedroom because the family radio was located there. I moved round the room barefoot wearing shorts and tee shirt. I had to stop intermittently when the radio announcer  interrupted the music for the weather forecasts or newscasts, or when the beat of the music was impossible to follow.

As the day of the party came nearer I practiced and practiced with the household broom. But a broom is not a girl. It has no feet to trip over, it is extremely thin and does not make conversation. Conversation is important. It shows that you are not anxious. That you have skills, you can move your feet without looking down at them and you can talk at the same time. As the date of the party grew even nearer I became quite good with the broom. I could plod across the room with it in my arms. I could make remarks to the broom about what it was wearing and what others in the imaginary dance party were up to.

I haven’t as yet mentioned Geena. The girl with whom I especially wanted to dance. Nearly as tall as me, with dark straight hair, she was white creole, popular in our class. She was sure to be going to the dance. So it was not any old dance I was going to. It was not only my first dance party but she would be there and that made it special. Though we had said no more than a few words to each other in school I got it in my head that this would be my chance to shine with her.

Eventually the big day arrived. There were decisions to be made., long trousers or short? Sandals or proper shoes that covered your feet? A pretty shirt or something plain? It did not matter. The excitement was all. In the early evening my Dad dropped me off at the house where the party was being held. The entrance had a short curved drive with small pebbles that made a crunching sound as the car approached the house. It was already brightly lit with young people – but mostly older than I was – hanging out on the front veranda. They looked me over as I walked up to the entrance. I held a small present in my hand and gave it to someone as soon as I could.

In the large front room music was playing and a few dancers were twirling round the room or moving from side to side. I stuck to one wall watching the dancers’ feet. Some moved their feet very quickly, some almost at half the pace of the music. Then the music stopped and my cousin ’s mother, who was very much in charge, announced: ‘Take your partners for the next dance”. I began to move towards a girl near to me in the hope that dancing with her might release some of the tension I was feeling. It was after I set off that the music started. I did not recognise the music. The beat was different from what had come over the radio when I was practicing at home. I kept on walking. Then I circled back to the original spot where I had been standing. Where was Geena?  I was not sure. What if she had not come. All that practice would have been for nothing. Many others were also stuck to the wall, so my Aunt  shouted encouragement for everyone to get on the floor. She started to call the names of boys  and girls to encourage them.  A few obliged. I retreated to the veranda where the music was quieter. There I heard one boy boasting about something or other. I pretended to join the listening group surrounding him. The idea of dancing with the girl of my dreams was becoming more and more a distant prospect. 

But it seemed that too many of the guests had retreated to the veranda. The music stopped suddenly. My Aunt came out and half cajoled, half ordered everyone back into the large living room. Once we were all inside she announced that we all had to find a partner. She brought out a broom from the corner of the room and announced ‘we are now having a broom dance.’ One boy was given it to dance with and he could give it to another boy and then he would get to dance with the girl who was abandoned for the broom. This was more like it. Things were looking up. Broom, opportunity, Geena, girl of my dreams. The girl whom I was paired off with breathed heavily on my hand. Was this some sort of enticement? I was too distracted. I remember more the anticipation and excitement waiting for the broom to be given to me. Eventually I received the broom. I sashayed around the room gliding across the floor with a knee bend here and there. I smiled at couples as I passed them and moved first to one corner then the next in the spacious room.  Now that I got the hang of it and with mounting excitement I spied one of the boys dancing with Geena. This was what all the practicing was for. What I had thought about for weeks. I handed him the broom. Geena looked at me. I looked at her. I held her right hand in my left and put my right hand behind her on her waist. The music played. I took a deep breath. I moved to the left, she moved to the right.  We stopped and looked at each other.  I moved to the right and she to the left. Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. She looked at me again and said:’ What’s wrong with you? Can’t you dance?’