8423340643_122fe39bf3_zPhoto by Flickr user *Nom & Malc (Creative Commons License)

For some unknown reason I woke up this morning thinking about Dancing School. The place hasn’t crossed my mind in 40 years — I have no idea what dream or scent or combination of invisible factors brought the memory back today. I imagine memory as a juke box, and sometimes when you push the buttons it’s not the right 45 that drops into place, but the one next to it. In my head, anyway, the records are filed in random order. So I was probably preparing to recall oatmeal, anticipating breakfast, but got Dancing School instead.

I’m not talking about a ballet school for little girls, or the modern dance classes I took on Union Street. Dancing School, capital D, capital S, was where kids of my age — 13 — and class — upper middle — and religion — not the predominantly Jewish kids of my school, but the scattering of Protestants — learned to foxtrot and waltz in San Francisco.

Classes were held at the swanky California Club downtown. Girls had to wear dresses and white gloves, boys suits and ties. If I was 13 this was 1968, a strange time in history to be practicing the waltz, since the rest of the city was listening to Grace Slick in Golden Gate Park and learning to inhale. Nevertheless, I waited outside our house on Divisadero on Tuesday nights after supper for the carpool, fervently hoping the snaps on my garter belt didn’t spontaneously unhook themselves from my stockings and cause the kind of acute embarrassment I spent most of puberty dreading. Panty hose had not yet been invented. This is something you don’t hear much about: the terror of girls for the strange layers of undergarments they have to learn to manage. God forbid you got your period on a Dancing School day and had to wrangle both garter belt and menstrual pad belt and then not trip over your partner’s feet doing the Cha-cha-cha. We were too young for tampons, which were rumored among 8th graders to make you not a virgin any more, and were therefore shunned.

The biggest revelation of Dancing School wasn’t the Blue Danube, it was that boys could sweat through their hands. Our gloves left palms and fingers dry in a kind of clammy way when we stripped them off in somebody’s mother’s car on the way home. The boys had no protection and regularly left wet hand prints on our dresses at waist level. If you liked the boy this could be taken in stride, but usually we didn’t like the ones who sweated overtly — 8th grade is all about keeping your cool — and groaned in disgust when they chose us as partners. Girls are like baby sharks — they’ll tear apart whoever’s already bleeding.

I’m no longer 13 or upper middle class, and aside from the odd wedding, don’t do much waltzing. But recently someone pulled me into his arms and twirled me around a dance floor, refreshing my memory of those three steps into corners of an imaginary box on the ground, the proprietary embrace, the spinning and turning. I’ve gotten better at following over the years, and much less self-conscious. Neither of our hands began to sweat. And it’s interesting what kind of music you can end up waltzing to.

Even — if you’re not too stoned — the Jefferson Airplane.


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  • Lisa January 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    Dancing classes of this sort didn’t exist in our town but your description of garter belts, pads and white gloves brings back memories of wearing fishnets (black, white and even pink) with my garter belt when I was just 12 or 13. No one even suggested that might be ‘kinky’ … fishnets were just cool and, as you say, pantyhose had yet to arrive.

  • Shirley January 23, 2016 at 7:59 am

    Sounds as if you had a Patrick Swayze/”Dirty Dancing” moment. I love anything that involves a good waltz–old movies with Fred Astaire and a more contemporary one with Richard Gere. British dancing pro Len Goodman is another great waltz expert.