I’m fairly certain that the stiff limbs on my family tree are responsible for carving out multiple generations of wooden dancers. As a child of the Sixties, my exposure to dancing mostly was limited to the remote voyeurism of television.
Hot on the Beatle-booted heels of the British Invasion, pop music TV shows with hyperkinetic names like Hullabaloo and Shindig! were shaking up old school American Bandstand with frug-laced choreography featuring hopped-up house dancers. Soul Train would eventually chug over the competition and show how it was done in a single funky line.
Growing up in Chicago, there were several locally televised dance show oddities that had a quirky, low-budget vibe of their own. Kiddie-A-Go-Go and Red Hot & Blue featured preteens displaying various junior level skill sets ranging from lukewarm moves to white bread hilarity.
I vicariously got my dance on by watching them all.
Like a merry-go-round on speed, Kiddie-A-Go-Go was a mashup of bubble gum music, shtick involving puppets and dancing by a non-diverse stock of kids that ranged from lethargic 4th grade boys to wired tween girls channeling their inner uncaged go-go dancers. In between bits, the hosts would hawk everything from dairy products to packaged luncheon meats.
On the flip side, Red Hot & Blue was pure Friday night R&B on Chicago’s first UHF-TV station. The kids were crammed onto a threadbare set and let loose with group dance routines as DJ Big Bill Hill set up the music. No kiddie products promoted here. It was local merchants peddling everything from nightclubs to furniture stores.
I was 13 when I first attempted any form of public dancing. This unnatural occurrence took place when a neighborhood pal invited me to tag along to a Catholic school mixer.
At the time, he was training to be a devout hoodlum by stealing communion hosts – the apparent perks of being an altar boy. We hung out in his back yard that summer and popped them in our mouths like Pringles. As an unschooled Protestant, I was informed that binge snacking on sacramental bread was not an offense punishable by eternal damnation since, in spite of being pilfered, the hosts were unblessed.
“It’s OK,” he assured, offering up a fresh stash. “It’s only a venial sin.”
The same parish had a liberal open dance policy that was inclusive of rhythm-impaired WASPs like me. This charitable provision ultimately enabled me to commit a less forgivable sin – attempting to replicate dance moves I’d seen on TV.
The conservative dress code required at this event put me into a spin. My emerging pop culture-influenced fashion sense was garbled. In my fantasies I wanted to exude the cool of either The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or a brooding British thug who attended a turbulent East End London classroom reformed by Sidney Poitier. Instead, I settled on the confused look delivered by a Sears blazer, paisley clip-on tie and perma-press continental “beltless” slacks. To ensure my hair maintained all-night hold, I generously applied “Groom & Clean.”
The overall look made me appear less the lead singer of The Kinks and more a project manager at Price Waterhouse.
The kids with whom we were supposed to mix displayed an air of daunting sophisticated groovery. From my safe vantage point lurking under the basketball hoop of the gymnasium dance floor, I was immobilized in awe.
Dance? I could barely breathe. Neither could my constricting synthetic pants.
My intimidation was justified. Based on intense buzz, the girls dominating the dance floor were no amateurs. Rumors were swirling that the week before they had appeared live on Kiddie A-Go-Go as part of “8th Grade Day” – a special weekly installment that shoved aside the usual foot-shuffling teenyboppers to spotlight Chicago’s most advanced fishnets-wearing swingers.
At the time, I was barely five foot four. It would be three interminable years before puberty would add to my height, deepen my voice and moderately qualify me for a light shave. I was short, musicality- challenged and intimidated by anyone who had danced on TV. Even on a show that pimped luncheon meats.
Although imprisoned in plaid skirts and knee socks, these girls could unleash the power of Nancy Sinatra with a single twist of the torso.
The night dragged on as I stood passively on the sidelines through a hit list of missed opportunities. Songs like “Happy Together.” “96 Tears.” “Incense and Peppermints.” Still, I didn’t move. Who needed to dance to Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”? I was living it.
Finally, I mustered the nerve to approach a girl who had the moves of a reference librarian. Luckily, the limited playlist prevented the discomfort of wrapping our arms around each other and swaying mechanically to the strains of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Instead, it would be a caffeinated fast dance that would allow me to showcase the limited repertoire of mindbending performance dazzle I learned while couched in front of the TV.
In the mid-Sixties, Cannibal & the Headhunters covered a tune called “Land of 1000 Dances.” I knew only three. All performed without moving from the waist down. My suspiciously similar versions of The Jerk, The Twist and The One-Trick Pony all involved standing rigid and thrusting out my left and right arms at precise 10-second intervals. For confused onlookers, it had the impact of watching a deranged mannequin that had just been administered an epidural.
I also managed to improvise a robotic variation of The Hitch Hike I’d seen coolly demonstrated by Marvin Gaye and some highly enthused TV back-up dancers. This involved casually extending right thumb over right shoulder, left thumb over left shoulder, followed by erratic claps and hand spinning. My attempt lost much of its intended soul when interpreted to the theme from the Batman TV show.
Badly simulating hitchhiking in a Catholic gymnasium was a crime that could have landed me in the church basement where I risked being interrogated for suspicion of dancing while under the influence of contraband communion hosts.
As it turned out, my boots weren’t made for walking. And not exactly frugging. But it didn’t much matter. No one really noticed. In the awkward dance of adolescence, we were all too focused on our own perceived ineptitude. The beat went on in spite of ourselves.
Stumbling through this rite of passage, all the TV choreography drilled into my psyche didn’t translate to my feet. It couldn’t until I stepped out of my head. And for a moment, a flash, during a pure jolt of out-of-body abandon when I allowed myself to feel the music, it felt good to move.
So you think you can dance? A reasonable question. If directed toward me, my gut response: a probable no. But to the beat of a jukebox Motown tune washed down with a shot of something overproofed and served in a dirty glass tucked in the darkened corner of a dive bar, I might be willing to fake it.
The best wedding reception I ever attended was held at a VFW hall with a high-octane garage band. It was a freakishly warm winter evening, the amps were cranked and the crowd on the dance floor could not be contained. The dancing spilled outside as guests became infused with the music and unseasonable burst of balmy air. No one noticed my moves.
That night I could dance. Even I couldn’t stop myself.
Tom Wolferman is a Chicago freelance writer who aspires to be footloose. He has shared stories at live lit venues including Essay Fiesta, Story Sessions, That’s All She Wrote and Story Club. His work recently appeared in Thread, an online literary magazine.