I remember when I was a teenager in the 70’s. It was 1978 and I was a self conscious 14
year old. Who wasn’t at that age? My mother tried to get me to open up more.
“Just be you,” my Mom would say. Apparently I had all these wonderful attributes that would explode like a supernova if I would just be me. I would maneuver the congested hallways of Canon City Junior High School, possessed of Sinatra like qualities of calm self assurance and dry wit, winking at the ladies and cracking wise with the guys. Women would love me. Men would want to be like me. If only I would just be myself.
I wish it was that easy. I had no idea what the hell was going on the in the world, much less how I fit into it. This person my mom wanted me to be was someone I didn’t know yet. I was smack dab in the middle of a maelstrom of pop culture, peer pressure and hormones: things would fly by and I would grab them, attempting to piece together some kind of identity for myself, only to discard them and try other things later. I was a work in progress.
So what was Mom’s great idea to get me out of my shell and turn me into a suave and debonair man about town? Disco dance classes. Yes, you heard that right—disco. If there was ever a dance craze that catered to self indulgence and pretension, disco was it. Getting out on that dance floor, resplendent in all that double lapelled polyester glory, was the ticket for turning me into a happy, confident kid. That was the theory.
I wasn’t going to suffer alone. Mom had arranged for my brother, Garth, and his friend Marvin, to attend the classes with me. The fact that Marvin and Garth spent most of their waking hours trying to make each other laugh did not bode well for our success. Mom might have thought the structured environment of a class would somehow reign in their natural inclination to act up. It did, for little while.
Mom dropped us off at the dance studio. The three of us sat on metal chairs against the wall, along with 6 other people. The woman who let us in spoke to us.
“Hello, class, I’m Jan,” she said. “Some of you know me, some of you don’t. This is a beginner’s class, so tonight we’re just going to learn a few basic steps.”
I glanced at the guys. So far, so good, I thought. They were looking straight ahead, paying attention. Jan continued.
“But first,” said Jan, “Jeff and Maude here are going to do a little routine for us, to sort of introduce you all to what disco is all about.”
The pair stood, Maude in her long skirt guaranteed to flare at every spin, Jeff in his white zip up boots with bell bottom pants, paired with a white shirt and stylish corduroy vest. This could get ugly real quick. I looked at the guys—still behaving. Jan put a record on – “The Hustle.” The dancing began.
Really, there was nothing humorous about it. Jeff and Maude were good. They twirled, they spun, and they knew all the moves. It was kind of awe inspiring, actually. Unfortunately, throughout the routine they wore these smug expressions that said, I got skills, baby. It was the kind of look you’d expect a heart surgeon to wear as he stitched up a leaky valve or an astronaut as he landed a spacecraft on the moon.
I saw Garth look sideways at Marv.
“Don’t you do it,” I said to Garth, whispering.
“What?” said Garth, all indignant—the picture of innocence.
“You know what,” I said.
I looked back to catch Jan looking at the three of us, eyebrows furrowed. I turned my attention back to the dancers, stone faced, thinking, okay, we got this. Garth and I were veterans at this sort of thing, having spent many a Sunday sitting in the pew next to Grandma. Grandma brooked no funny business at church, and the consequences of giggling were immediate and dire. We knew how to hold it in.
Mercifully, the dance ended. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jocularity had been kept at bay, Garth and Marvin had kept it together. It was all downhill from here, I thought. There was nothing good old Jan could throw at us now that would crack our thin veneer of respectful attention.
“You two,” said Jan, pointing at Garth and Marvin. “Come up here, please.”
Huh? What was this? This was not good at all.
“You young men are going to help me demonstrate a basic step,” said Jan. Garth and Marv looked at each other, eyebrows raised—a bad sign. Jan then demonstrated something she called “a funky walk.” She sashayed a few feet, then did some kind of a hip shake thing, then turned and did it coming back.
“See,” Jan said. “Simple.”
I was watching Jan do her thing, envisioning Garth and Marv doing it. Just the thought of it was almost too much to bear—I snorted, and then threw an exaggerated cough on the end of it to cover it up. Garth and Marv looked at me, biting their lips, and then looked at the ground.
“Sorry,” I said in response to Jan’s scowl. “Allergies.”
Jan put another record on—“Brick House,” by the Commodores. She pointed at Marvin. “You first,” she said. “I’ll give you the sign, and you give it a shot.”
Events at that point kind of took on that slow motion inevitability of a car accident. Bad things were going to happen and there was nothing we could do about it. I looked at Garth and Marvin. They looked at each other. The song played on. Marvin looked sideways at Jan. Jan stood, head cocked, listening for just the right moment. It came.
“Three funky walks!” Jan yelled.
Marvin went into action. He took a few halting steps, all rubber legged, then did this thing where his knees went one way and his ass went another. Then he did some kind of Charleston move with his knees, except without the hand thing, and then he did a pirouette, with jazz hands, and did it all again coming the other way. It looked nothing like what Jan just did.
The dam burst. Garth exploded, literally falling on the dance floor, laughing uncontrollably. I howled in my chair, holding my stomach as if in pain. Marvin just stood there looking perplexed, as if he was wondering what he could have possibly done wrong—which of course made everything worse.
The record needle scraped painfully across the vinyl with a sound like a rusty zipper—Jan had had enough. “Get out!” she hissed.
Our disco dancing career was over before it started. Mom never said anything about it—I can only hope she got her money back. As for myself, I didn’t leave my one and only disco dance class suddenly knowing how to be me. But for one shining moment, I laughed my ass off, caring not a whit about the consequences or for what anybody thought. It's in those unplanned moments of explosive mirth that the mask drops off and we are truly ourselves.
It didn't make me suave or cool, but at least Mom got what she wanted, if only for a moment.