By Steve Maanum
Long before television’s “Dancing with the Stars,” the girls in our grade agreed that, no matter how long it took or how embarrassing it was to us, they were going to teach us to dance. They grew up watching American Bandstand. Not only did they watch it; they got together in each other’s living rooms and danced right along with Dick Clark’s regulars.
I was 14 when the summer between eighth and ninth grade sent the world, as I had known it, into a tailspin. The year was 1964. The Beatles had invaded our shores, and Martha had come home to Benson. She had been a classmate in our early elementary years until her dad’s company relocated them to South Africa. They had lived there for the past five years and in the fall they would be moving to Venezuela. Having her home for the summer gave everyone an excuse to have a basement dance party. The first half of the summer they were called ‘Welcome Home’ parties and once we hit the middle of July they were renamed, ‘Going Away’ parties. These were not drug or alcohol parties. These were the kind of record hops you would see on reruns of the Brady Bunch or Ozzie and Harriet.
Let me back up a minute. Many boys in my class had no difficulty talking to girls and spending time with girls, so the prospect of dancing with girls was in their comfort zone. I, on the other hand, felt a little uncomfortable and awkward around my female classmates. The following example might clarify that statement.
One summer day, when I was nine, I was running around the neighborhood trying to catch butterflies in a landing net that was ordinarily used for fishing. That might reveal something about my level of intelligence. Obviously, the holes were way too big to confine any butterfly, so when I saw a girl from my fourth grade class whom I had a crush on, I caught her in the net instead – that also might reveal something about my level of intelligence and if I would have been clairvoyant, I may have been able to see what would happen next. She didn’t appreciate having a smelly fishing net slapped over her head; so, like a caged animal, she lashed out and clawed my left arm. I was slow at taking the hint and accepted it as a sign of affection. I even carved our initials into a piece of driftwood.
My shyness and awkwardness around girls stayed with me for several more years, so it wasn’t too surprising that I would be hesitant about attending the summer dance parties in junior high.
Ron was the first to convince his parents to give up their otherwise quiet basement for a class gathering. Planning involved questions like, what decorations to put up, what food to provide, and who would bring what records? Some of the boys were already interested in girls, but Scott and I were a little on the slow side of puberty and not quite ready to buy into this “dancing” notion yet. We were oblivious to the realization that girls would eventually play an important role in our lives, so for now getting close enough to dance with them would just have to wait until we saw a need.
When the invitations went out and everyone started talking about Friday night’s party, Scott and I stayed in the background. We had told each other there would be no way we were going to a party that involved dancing. We made a pact – we even spit on our hands and shook on it. No matter what, we would stick by our convictions. We didn’t know how to dance and had no desire in learning.
Friday night came and it was pretty quiet around town. Everyone we knew was crowded into Ron’s basement. Scott and I were not about to change our minds or abandon our convictions, but that didn’t mean we weren’t curious. We rode our bikes over to Ron’s house and quietly crawled up to the basement window. What a sight. The boys were clamped to chairs on one side of the room and the girls were lined up on the other. There was a table at the far end of the basement that was filled with food – hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, punch, and assorted other goodies. That was the one thing that looked inviting. The first song on the stereo was “Moon River” by Andy Williams. No one danced. The second song was Everybody Loves Somebody by Dean Martin, and the girls made their move. Martha was one of them, and she didn’t bother asking boys if they wanted to dance. She just grabbed a hand and lead or dragged her dance partners, one by one, to the dance floor. By the time Ringo’s Theme began playing, the dance floor was crowded. That’s when someone looked up and saw us at the window. That basement couldn’t have cleared any faster if someone would have yelled, “FIRE!” Their unified goal was to catch us and make us part of the festivities. I don’t remember if I was faster than Scott or if I just had a head start, but no one caught me. Scott, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. They dragged him to the basement stairs and literally gave him a push. At the bottom of the stairs he stumbled to his feet and even before he could gather his composure, Martha grabbed his arm and, like a lamb being lead to slaughter, he followed obediently to the dance floor.
I could have joined everyone else, but because I was now the ‘lone crusader,’ I couldn’t. My convictions and I pedaled home in the dark.
The next day I was eager to talk to him. When I asked how his evening went, he rubbed his shoulder and said, “Not as bad as I thought it would be. The food was great.”
“Did you have to dance a lot?”
“After I got away from Martha, I never danced again.” He had found that if he stayed by the food table, he was fine. Whenever a girl came and asked him to dance, he politely responded, “I can’t right now, I’m eating. Thanks anyway.” He just never left the food table the rest of the night.
Over the next few days, Scott worked hard at convincing me to go to Brad’s party the next Friday night. It would take quite a bit to change my mind. I kept saying that a man must stick by his convictions even when he’s all alone. By Wednesday everyone was excited about Friday night. “You just have to come, Scott pleaded. Brad’s mom is making her famous barbecues.”
“Scott, how many times do I have to tell you that a man must stick by his convi . . . barbecues? I love those barbecues.”
I had no intention of dancing but, just to be on the safe side, Thursday evening I slipped the
broom out of the closet, closed my bedroom door, and put the record player on softly. I held the broom and practiced dancing. I moved like Fred Astaire when there wasn’t another pair of feet to worry about. Dancing with a girl would be quite different and even with this practice, I was certain I wouldn’t be sweeping anyone off her feet.
Friday evening finally arrived. Brad only lived a couple of blocks away, so I walked over to Scott’s house and then we continued together. What a difference a week can make. There was no sneaking around in the dark, no peeking in windows, and nobody rolling down the basement stairs to make a spectacular entrance. It was funny how Brad’s mom’s barbecues hastened maturity.
My plan was simple – have fun, eat, talk to friends, eat, watch others dance, and eat some more. My convictions and I would camp out at the food table all night if we had to. All I knew
was that there was no way, absolutely no way, I could be talked into dancing.
Everyone had arrived, the music was playing, some were already dancing, and all was going smoothly until Linda walked up and asked me to dance. We had been classmates since
kindergarten. She knew how shy I was and maybe that’s why, when I politely declined, she didn’t insist. She just went over and danced with Tom.
Becky was the next to ask. She was a little more persistent, so I used the fake baseball leg
injury excuse with her. I think she saw right through it, but still let me off the hook. Everything was going as planned. The food was great and I was talking to friends and having so much fun I didn’t even see Martha sneak up behind me. She grabbed my arm and steered me toward the dance floor. Woe, she wasn’t waiting for any lame excuses. I looked her in the eyes (big mistake) and said, “Thanks for asking but . . . I don’t know how to dance and I’ll probably step on your toes.”
“I’m not worried,” she replied.
“No, you don’t understand. I really don’t know how to dance, and I will definitely step on your toes.”
“I said I’m not worried, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
Maybe it was the music, maybe it was destiny, or maybe it was those eyes – those dark brown eyes, but all of a sudden my convictions vanished. Barbecues didn’t matter; nothing mattered except dancing with Martha at that moment. We danced to Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song,” we danced to the Beach Boys, Elvis, and of course, the Beatles. In fact, I think we danced every dance for the rest of the night and she was right – she wasn’t worried about me stepping on her toes, which I managed to do several times. Her outgoing personality and persistence had removed some of my shyness and awkwardness, but I can’t say she made me a good dancer.
At the end of that summer, Martha and her family moved to South America and I went on to
step on the toes of other girls at other dances.
My journey toward maturity may not be over yet, but I have come a long way since trying to catch a 4th grade classmate in that disgusting fishing net. More than a decade went by before I met the girl of my dreams during my senior year of college. We were married in Itasca State Park back in 1973.
A few years later my wife and I were in Benson visiting my parents. I went upstairs to my old bedroom and began rummaging through some boxes in the closet. I think I was searching for treasures of my youth – my Duncan yo-yo, my baseball cards, and my Davey Crockett coon-skin cap. That’s when I came across the old piece of driftwood with the initials carved in it. There were my initials (they hadn’t changed) and there were the initials of the elementary classmate I had a crush on back in 1959. As I looked at them I smiled; maybe a little for the memory and embarrassment of the fishing net incident, but more so because that other set of initials matched the initials of the college girl that became my wife fourteen years later. I’m sure it was just a coincidence, but maybe . . . just maybe I was a little clairvoyant way back when I was nine.