When I was a teenager, in that strange homeschool group where we kept ourselves pure from the big bad world, we were all put into swing-dance lessons, for chastity’s sake.
Teenagers were presumed to be thinking about sex all the time; it was of great importance that we be given other things to do, so we wouldn’t have any until we were adults and safely married. We weren’t allowed to go on dates, because dating would lead to sex, but we were allowed to mingle with members of the opposite sex at youth group meetings and intensely awkward supervised parties. I understood there was something called “courtship” which we would eventually be expected to undergo instead of dating, and which seemed like dating but did not involve sex, but I didn’t want to engage in courtship. All the boys I knew were irritating and immature; they homeschooled or went to the local all-boys prep school, talked about nothing but The Lord of the Rings, and treated girls like aliens. I didn’t want to talk about The Lord of the Rings with those boys, on a date or during courtship. I wanted to read The Lord of the Rings, and everything else I could get my hands on. I wanted to paint abstracts with my acryllics, do cryptic crossword puzzles and go for walks in the woods.
I certainly didn’t want to dance, when the idea was proposed. But I was a teenage girl, and teenage girls have to be given things to do or they’ll be unchaste, so I was enrolled in swing dancing lessons. Most of the people I know were enrolled. Some younger teens were kept home, because their parents said that dancing was ” part of the courtship ritual” and therefore unchaste for people under the age of sixteen, but most of the teenagers I knew met me at the dance studio on Sunday nights.
The instructor was a wizened, elderly man who had danced on Broadway in his prime. He randomly assigned partners at the beginning of every lesson, and had us switch partners several times during the class, so even ugly and awkward I got to dance with several boys each time.
We learned the waltz, to the lilting tunes of a very weird country ballad set in 3/4 time and played on a tape deck. We learned the standard one-two-one-two-step-two footwork for basic swing, set to another weird country ballad in 4/4 time. We learned the cha-cha-cha, to a third piece of country music. We learned the Lindy Hop. We learned the fox trot.
Repressed young boys in polo shirts who thought that dancing was part of the courtship ritual were allowed to hold hands with girls and lightly touch their clothed waists, some for the first time in their lives. Modestly clad girls got our first lesson in submitting to man, doing a little spin whenever our partners gave our waists or shoulders a push. Boys who played lacrosse and football because their parents thought it would keep them from becoming gay were suddenly expected to move with petite grace; they lurched around the room, all jagged knees and elbows. Girls who had been taught it was immodest to swing their hips stood ramrod straight, moving only their arms and legs. It was the most bizarre, awkward, ridiculous thing I’d witnessed in my short life.
There are few moments in my whole dark childhood I would like to have again, but I would love to take another round of those chastity swing dance classes. I found that dancing, as a social activity, was almost as much fun as being alone. After all, the worst part of forced teenage meet-and-greets was trying to figure out what to do– whom to make small talk with, what to talk about, what to do with my hands while I was talking. But when I was dancing, nobody expected me to talk. I had an elderly Broadway dancer telling me exactly what to do with my hands, my feet, and every muscle in my body. I didn’t have to wonder if I was doing the wrong thing– he would tell me immediately if I was doing the wrong thing, and what to do instead. It was wrong to stare at my feet. It was right to flip my hair with one hand when my partner spun me around. It was wrong to take steps that were too big; it was right to point my toe instead of flexing it with each step. It was all decided for me– all I had to do was follow the steps.
And I enjoyed following the steps. It made me feel competent, graceful– maybe even beautiful, if I didn’t catch a glimpse of myself in the studio mirror. I felt like an elf from The Lord of the Rings. Better yet, I was a human, a human and not a clumsy freak. I was a human having a good time, even though I wasn’t pretty and even though there were annoying boys in the room.
Our parents organized a swing ball at the local church– the only high school dance I ever attended. My mother bought me a bright red dress, with a nice chaste wrap for my shoulders; she teased my hair and gave me lipstick. When I got to the party, I eventually shrugged off my wrap because it was impossible to dance with it on, but somehow nobody scolded me for my scandalous bare shoulders. I danced– mostly with chaperones, since there was no instructor to organize pairs and the teenage boys paired off with the pretty girls. But one of the quieter boys from class did ask me to dance with him at one point. He lurched me around the floor, awkward, ungraceful, not really in time with the odd country-waltz music. He tapped my shoulder and made me spin around.
Toward the end of the dance, he whispered, “You look nice, Mary.”
I must have flushed as red as my dress.
I still don’t know what any of that had to do with chastity, but it gave me something to do.
(image via Pixabay)