Buckhead Tales: Dance

I can’t remember the last time I danced, but I sure do remember the first time. In 1962 I was in 7th grade at Sarah Rawson Smith Elementary in Buckhead. That year there was a courageous attempt by the principal, Mrs. Cannon, to get the boys and girls to actually talk to each other. The rumor had spread among the boys that the girls had “cooties,” whatever that was. I’m not sure what the girls thought the boys had, probably “cooties.” Mrs. Cannon finally had enough and decided to undertake aggressive action to tear down the gender wall. Under the guise of a series of friday night square dances, the great social experiment was held in the school auditorium. In preparation for the first of these momentous occasions I liberally anointed my hair with a gallon or two of Vitalis. My mom then cemented my pompadour in place with a freezing fog of her hair spray. Sometimes she had to use quite a bit to bring my cowlick under control. Dad then drove me over to the school where I desperately searched for my buddies; I did not want to enter the battle zone alone.

Up on the stage every week would be 4 or 5 semi-pro square dancers. In preparation for their first number they would be strutting and preening all over the stage and you could tell they were most proud of their appearance. Boy, were they ever dolled up. Now some of you may never have witnessed this throw-back to an earlier time. Allow me to provide proper education. The ladies would be wearing starched petticoats that levitated horizontally a good three feet on all sides. Gravity had no effect whatsoever on their clothing. Their male partners would be adorned in some strange clothing that could only be described as formal western wear with mother of pearl buttons and oversized collars. Giant metal heel and toe plates were bolted onto their shoes. It looked like they were wearing horse shoes and when they started clogging around it sounded like a plane was crashing into the building. One member of the group was known as the “caller” and it was his job to shout out dance instructions in a sing-songy manner. It was all “swing your partner” and “do-si-do” mixed with strange chants, incantations, and mantras. I was terrified the first time I witnessed the spectacle with all the swirling, stomping, and shouting. My senses quickly became overloaded with the vibrations that seemed to be assaulting me from every possible direction.

At some point our teachers, who had become the chaperones for this ugly event, would try and get the boys to choose a dance partner. Marvin Jackson, Jack Pritchard, Mark Berglund, Keith Jacobs, and I would press ourselves against the walls in a futile attempt to hide. Some of us would even pretend to be asleep. Eventually a teacher would corral me, and I would be led across the wide dance floor like a cow being led to slaughter. As I approached the opposite wall I could tell the girls were bunching up and trying to hide behind each other in an attempt find safety in numbers. I summoned all my courage and managed to blurt out, “Would you care to dance” to a classmate Cathy Stanfield. Thankfully I did not faint and even imagined I was able to produce a certain Cary Grant swagger as we took our place on the dance floor.

It was Zero Hour. My first dance and I’m pretty sure I was trembling as a river of sweat poured off me and drenched my clothes. Suddenly the music began, and the stomping commenced.

Without knowing what was happening I suddenly found myself being swung and do-si-doed all over the place. I was shocked to discover I was actually having fun. I managed a clap or two at the appropriate time and before I knew it the dance was over, but not before Cathy and I concluded with a most elegant “promenade left.” I can’t remember if I was polite enough to thank her for the dance before I sprinted back to the safety of the boy’s side. For me, the ice was broken, and I now counted myself among the dancers of the world. Each week that spring of 1962 I looked forward to the friday night square dances. The couldn’t keep me off the floor as I shook a leg and cut the rug with the queens of 7th grade; Mary Crockett, Linda Mason, Carol Norvell, Lois Stovall, Pam Milner, Billie Ann Mankin, Susan Mathis and any other girl I could corner.

The next step up in my dance life appeared in the form of the teen dance parties at the Bagley Park Recreation Center. That’s where we really cut loose. What could be better than a fast dance to the classic Jan and Dean tune “Surf City” only to have that followed by a slow dance by the Righteous Brothers and “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”? My God, those were the days. It just can’t get any better. Soon I learned the swishing motion of the Twist and then the more complex and nuanced Peppermint Twist. Next it was The Pony, The Swim, The Loco-motion, and yes, even Mashed Potatoes. I learned all the steps but drew the line at the bizarre movements of The Freddie. Now somewhere along the line– I guess it was at Dykes High School over by Chastain Park– I began to believe that dancing was not cool. I don’t know how that idea came to me, but high school is usually all about image management and I guess dancing didn’t fit the image I was trying to create. My loss.

It has been a long long time since I found myself on a dance floor. Maybe once or twice at a birthday party or a wedding years ago I ambled out on the floor and took a whirl. Not sure what happened, maybe in those early years I did a lifetime of dancing and the cup had simply run dry. Maybe I need someone to shout out “promenade your partner” so my body will start to shake and shimmy and I’ll stand up and take to the dance floor once again. Hell, I might even give The Freddie a try.

They say the angels are always dancing and cavorting up there among the clouds. No telling what happens once you pass those pearly gates. I sure hope to find out one fine day. I guess it might be something like those early square dances. Just grab a partner and cut a rug. Seems like a pretty fine way to spend eternity.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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