The year was 1965. I was 11. Mom called it cotillion. I called it torture.
“Every young man should know how to dance,” Mom said.
“Why?” I asked.
She never answered. But I knew she had been talking with our neighbor, Mrs. Miller. Tom, her son, had gone to cotillion to learn to dance.
“What if you get asked to a coming-out party,” Tom told me. He was 15 and learning to drive.
“Coming out of what?” I asked.
“Go ask your brother,” he said.
We had moved to Southern California from Pennsylvania the previous year. I was learning how Corona del Mar, a small beach town, was different. As soon as we had arrived, my older brother, Larry, had disappeared into the worlds of high school, The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. He rarely left his room – unless it was for school, food, or to hit me. Whether he was there or not, his door was shut. I only knew he was home because I heard him playing his records.
“Turn it down, ” I yelled. I had heard the song a hundred times. When the music kept blaring, I put my mouth up to his door and shouted, “Wish they all could be California dorks.”
The door flew open.
“You’re the dork. The Beach Boys are bitchin,” he said. Then he punched me in the shoulder. “Stay outta my room!” he barked, and slammed the door shut.
So, every Wednesday night I put on my clean layer of permanent press – white button-down shirt and black cuffless pants with black socks and black shoes. That’s twice as much as the t-shirt, swim truncks, and bare feet I usually wore.
“Don’t forget to comb your hair,” Mom called from the kitchen.
I’d steal “a little dab’ll do ya” from my brother’s cabinet.
“Who’s using my Brylcreem!” he’d bellow, if he noticed.
“Share with your brother,” Mom would encourage.
“Ok, Mom,” he’d say, giving me a punch in the arm.
Tonight was even worse than usual. It was the last night of class. I had to squeeze my neck and button the top button of my shirt to wear a tie.
“Mom, that’s a FAKE,” I said, when she showed it to me. “They’ll pull it off! I’m dead meat! Why can’t I wear a REAL tie?”
“Talk to your father,” she said, but it was too late.
“You look so handsome,” Mom said when I came out to the car. Stiff from all the clothes, I felt like the tin woodsman from The Wizard of Oz.
“A man, a man made out of tin,” I said, as I eased myself into the front seat.
“Nothing,” I mumbled.
We drove a couple blocks, then waited to cross MacArthur Boulevard. I felt trapped. The clip-on tie was poking my neck.
“I can’t swallow,” I said. “I can hardly breath!”
“You’ll be all right,” Mom said.
We turned left onto MacArthur, then right at the A&W Root Beer onto PCH, or Pacific Coast Highway as the tourists called it.
“Can we take the ferry?” I asked.
We passed the turn-off for Balboa Island. I imagined I was taking the ferry – waiting in line until our car was one of the three cars that fit on the tiny flat boat; getting out of the car and watching as we approached the lights of the Ferris wheel and the Fun Zone on the other side. I could spend hours at the Penny Arcade with its rows of pinball machines – the bells ringing, lights blinking, the score chunk, chunk, chunking, hoping for that sharp knock, which meant a replay. Did the pinballs ever cost a penny? Not any more! Now they were a nickel. It should be called the Nickel Arcade.
Looking back out the window, we were driving down the Peninsula. I watched as we passed block after block of two-story wood houses crowded together on tiny lots, never far from a pizza parlor. We stopped at an intersection and I saw a sign on a door, “No Shirt, No Shoes,
“They wouldn’t sell much pizza if ya had to wear all those clothes,” I said.
“What, dear?” Mom asked.
Before I had a chance to explain, I saw a man inside the parlor toss some flattened pizza dough into the air.
“Wow! I wish I could do that!” I said.
As we pulled away, I strained against my collar to see if he caught the spinning saucer of dough as it fell back to earth.
In a few more blocks, Mom pulled the car up to the Balboa Pavillion, a large building with a domed tower made entirely out of wood. It looked like it was built in the dark ages.
“Would you like me to come in?” Mom asked.
She asked every week, and every week I said no.
“This is the last class. I’d love to see you dance.” She reached over to comb my hair with her fingers. I pulled away before she could mess it up.
“No,” I said, quickly getting out of the car. I shut the door and cut off her “goodbye.” As I walked towards the entrance, I put my hand behind my back and gave her a little wave.
I joined the line of boys and looked over at the girls. They looked different this week. Their hair rose from their heads in strange shapes and Mom hairdos. From the neck down, they were covered in frilly white. What kept the dresses sticking out like that at the bottom? Then I noticed they were carrying white gloves.
“What are the gloves for?” I asked the boy in front of me.
“I don’t know. Maybe so they don’t get dirty when they touch us.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
The girls glided towards the door. I felt clumsy as I clomped along like Frankenstein in my stiff dress shoes. When I got to the door, I slipped in, careful not to touch any dress.
The girls went left and bunched together. I joined the boys on the right; single file, facing the girls. Some boys leaned back against the wall, hands in their pockets, and searched for something on their shoes. Some bounced their butts off the wall, rocking on their feet, testing their balance. Others poked and punched their neighbors. I saw a boy grab the tie of another boy and yank it off.
“Fake tie, fake tie,” the boy teased.
I pulled my hands out of my pockets, ready to protect my tie from disgrace.
Mrs. Vicks, our instructor, stood in the middle of the room.
“Good evening,” she said. “Welcome to your last class…”
She was interrupted by applause and cheering, mainly from the boys, but I noticed some girls clapping, too. Mrs. Vicks glanced around and we got quiet.
“Welcome to your last class of cotillion,” she went on. “Tonight we will review all the dance steps you have learned; the waltz, box step, foxtrot, cha-cha, and polka. We will finish with our very own dance contest!”
She said these last two words with such enthusiasm that I was excited even before I understood what she said – dance contest! I loved a contest. And I was the best boy dancer in the class. I could tell the time signature and downbeat of the music. Still, I was worried. The hardest part wasn’t the dancing, it was asking a girl to dance. Why did I have to ask the girl? It seemed like the girls wanted to dance more than I did. So why didn’t THEY ask ME?
At the first class, I was so afraid of asking a girl to dance that I waited too long and ended up being the last kid without a partner. I had to dance with Mrs. Vicks! I was never last again. By the third week, the girls made it easier. Because I was such a good dancer, the girls would stay nearby. I only had to look at one and she would come over to dance.
“Find a partner,” Mrs. Vicks announced. Three girls floated towards me like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty. I looked at Margaret. The other two girls changed course, homing in on secondary targets.
“Hi,” Margaret said, smiling at me.
“Hi,” I answered, staring at the hair twirled on top of her head. I remembered it wasn’t polite to stare, and looked down at my shoes. I wiggled my toes and watched the light reflect off the shiny leather.
I was proud of my shoes. They were called “wing-tips”. It was my job at home to keep them polished. There was nothing more satisfying than shining my shoes: pulling out the laces, the smell of wax on an old toothbrush, polishing with a coarse brush, then buffing to a high sheen with a finehaired brush. My arm would swing to the lopsided rhythm of the brush – “chu-chum, chu-chum, chu-chum” – as I moved back and forth across the toe. A smile grew on my face.
“Ladies, put on your gloves,” Mrs. Vicks said.
I watched as Margaret wiggled her fingers to fill the tiny white gloves.
“Starting positions,” Mrs. Vicks said.
I winced. No matter how many times I had danced, I still didn’t like to touch a girl. Margaret helped by taking my left hand. She put her other hand on my shoulder. I put my right hand just above her hip, but moved my hand several times because her sequins poked me.
“Music!” Mrs. Vicks said. She put the needle on the record. We heard a “tick” then the “scritch-scritch” sounds of a well-worn record.
The boys looked over at me and waited. They knew that I was good at figuring out what to dance. They waited for me to start. The girls, even if they knew what to dance, had to wait for the boy to start. Mrs. Vicks called it “following your partner,” and I liked it. Margaret waited for me.
I listened and picked up the beat of a waltz. I lifted our hands and at the downbeat Margaret and I began to dance. Other couples followed, and the floor filled with twirling white dresses and black pants. When the dance ended, I gave Margaret a slight bow and smiled. I felt very sophisticated. I was surprised when her eyes avoided mine and her face got red. Before I could ask her if she was all right, she left and Laurie stepped in front of me.
“Change partners,” Mrs. Vicks called out.
I danced several more times, each time changing partners. One of the girls was real tall. My eyes only came up to her chest. I wasn’t sure where to look. Another girl had a dress that stuck out so far I couldn’t put my hand on her waist.
“Last dance, everyone. Last dance. This is the dance contest!” Mrs. Vicks announced.
The contest! And I didn’t have my partner! I scanned the room, but couldn’t find Margaret. Boys were choosing partners. What if I didn’t find her? What if I had to dance with Mrs. Vicks! Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Margaret!” I said, “Am I glad I found you! You want to dance?”
Before she could answer, I went on, “I mean… you know… I just thought we could… win.”
I waited. I started to get scared. Then she said, “Okay.”
“Starting positions,” Mrs. Vicks called out.
We got ready. Instead of starting the music, Mrs. Vicks pulled a large box full of balloons onto the dance floor.
“Each couple will have a balloon. You must keep this balloon from landing on the floor,” she said.
Mrs. Vicks walked over to a couple and put a balloon between them at chest height. She coaxed the boy to move forward, until the balloon was held in place between his chest and hers.
“If you touch the balloon with your hands, you will be disqualified,” Mrs. Vicks said. ”The winner is the last couple with a balloon.”
The room filled with chatter as Mrs. Vicks put a balloon between each couple. When she came to us, she held the balloon against Margaret’s chest.
“Closer. Closer,” Mrs. Vicks said, pushing me forward. “Scoot your feet in. Your right foot goes between her feet.”
I slid my right foot forward. My shoe disappeared beneath the folds of Margaret’s dress. I bumped against her shoe. She moved to the side and inched forward. When we got close enough that the balloon stayed in place, Mrs. Vicks put an arm behind each of us and gave one last squeeze then moved on to the next couple.
“That oughta hold it,” I said to Margaret, just inches from her face. She blushed and looked away.
I watched as couples struggled. Some had already dropped their balloons and were trying to get back into position.
“They should be disqualified,” I said.
“We haven’t even started dancing, yet,” Margaret said.
“Dancing?” I pulled back, almost losing the balloon. “We have to DANCE like this?”
Margaret opened her mouth, but was interrupted by Mrs. Vicks.
“Remember, if the balloon falls, you’re out. If you touch the balloon with your hands, you’re out. The last couple dancing is our winner! Let the dance begin!”
Mrs. Vicks started the music. No one moved. Then carefully, so as not to lose their balloons, the boys craned their heads towards me – a sea of worried looks, as if I was leading them into battle.
“It’s a waltz,” I whispered. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Margaret said.
I lifted our hands slightly, and followed with a downward pull that signalled our first step of a couple’s waltz. I was so afraid of losing the balloon that I stepped on her foot.
“Sorry,” I said.
Margaret smiled as if nothing had happened. The balloon didn’t budge. After a few steps, I started to relax. I felt us moving together, in time to the music, my movement mirrored by Margaret. When we came to the end of the room, I gently turned her in the direction we needed to go. We made the turn without losing our balloon. I saw Mrs. Vicks following a trail of dropped balloons, eliminating couples with tap on the shoulder.
The music changed to 4/4 time. Margaret and I stepped into the square pattern of a box step. I was enjoying dancing with my partner. She was good at following, and she covered my mistakes. I felt the balloon against my chest, sometimes pressing harder, other times softer. I pulled Margaret in a little tighter, to keep the pressure on. Our heads side-by-side, I felt the heat off her cheek.
“And we have our winners!”
I opened my eyes. When did I close them? We were surrounded by boys and girls clapping and stomping on balloons. We were the last couple! I felt my cheeks get hot and I knew I was turning red. The boys hooted and whistled. I took a step back and our balloon drifted to the floor, bounced, then settled at my feet. I looked up at Margaret. She looked at me.
“You may pick your prizes!” Mrs. Vicks interrupted.
“Prizes?” I said.
Mrs. Vicks nodded towards the back of the hall. I walked quickly to the prize table.
As I looked over the loot, Margaret came up behind me.
“Some neat stuff,” she said.
I felt bad as I realized I had left her behind to get my prize.
“You’re a good dancer,” I offered.
“You, too,” she whispered, swaying towards me. I stepped back.
“You pick first!” I said. It seemed the right thing to do.
“Thanks,” she said.
She took a long time, but finally picked a diary with a lock and key.
“Great!” I said, happy she hadn’t chosen anything I wanted.
I picked a single, a 45 rpm record by the Rolling Stones, “Get offa my cloud.”
I looked up at Margaret. She was looking right back. I swallowed hard, then turned and walked back to the boys, who congratulated me with slaps on my back. Later, when I looked around for Margaret, I didn’t see her.
“Let’s take the ferry,” Mom said on the drive home, after I’d explained how I’d won the record. “Maybe Margaret can come over some day and you can show me how you danced,” Mom said.
“No way!” I said.
As we floated across the bay, I stared out the car window. Holding tight to my record, I remembered my last dance, and how it felt to keep that balloon against my chest.