I was 19, living at home in Tallahassee the summer before I entered college—listening to a radio station that played pop hits. “Whoever calls in first with the answer to this question wins a special prize,” announced the DJ: “What character in French literature has a long nose?” I rushed to the phone—and was right! My prize: three free dance lessons at the local Arthur Murray Studio.
I was welcomed at the studio the next day by a pretty, perky instructor named Ginny, who suggested we take a few spins on the dance floor so she could gauge my skill level. I happily obliged, slinging together an assortment of improvisations on the two-step and trying to cover as much territory as possible. Ginny stopped. Had I stepped on her toe, pulled her too close? “Mr. Strozier. You are good! Hold on a second.”
While she was gone, I chatted with another instructor, Bev. “Dancing seems to come naturally to you,’ she said, “It’s amazing.” Ginny returned. “I want you to meet the head of the studio. Follow me.”
I was ushered into a spacious office decorated with framed photos of famous dancers—and introduced to a bosomy, smartly-dressed woman in her forties named Miss Duck. She came around the desk and sat next to me. “Mr. Strozier, it’s a real pleasure to meet you. We think you have the potential to go all the way—to excel as a dancer and eventually to become an instructor in the Arthur Murray family.”
To achieve full mastery of the key dances—the foxtrot, waltz, quick step, tango, mambo, etc.—Miss Duck recommended I enroll in their three-tier training program, which, as I recall, would have cost as much as a semester of college. “It would be a shame if you squandered your talent,“ she said.
Back home, I subjected myself to a self-evaluation: How good was I, really? Some of the dances popular then did not exactly require a high level of expertise, such as the Bunny Hop and the Hokey Pokey, “You put your right arm in/ You put your right arm out/You put your right arm in/And you shake it all about.”
On the plus side, though, I knew how to cha cha cha. And then there was Debbi Gibson—she and I regularly won jitterbug contests. Debbi, a sexpot, always wore tight sweaters and was said to pet, and I was known to want to pet—it seemed like the perfect fit…except Debbi didn’t see it that way. Whenever there was a jitterbug contest, however, she’d come running up, grab my hand, lead me to the middle of the floor, and start shaking her shapely tookus like there was no tomorrow. That I was executing some fairly nimble moves myself was not exactly remarked on by those present, including her.
Another strength of mine: I was good at the polka. And, tellingly, at a recent Hag, Stag, or Drag Dance, Nora Plunkett had, at my request, taught me the waltz, whereupon—in a blinding intuitive flash—I realized that the waltz and the polka are basically the same step. Maybe an ability to understand dancing at a deeper level was wired into my DNA–who knew?
I should wrap things up here because, alas, I don’t have a dramatic “turning point” story to tell—despite my remarkable promise, I did not become a dance instructor. By way of partial explanation, I refer you to a list I once made of “The 10 Entertainment-Related Things I Hate Most”. The first three entries were:
1. Maurice Chevalier singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
2. Comic actors in operas.
3. When they do the tango in movies.
I wince easily, is the point. I’ve always liked to dance, though, and, interestingly, my first week living in New York I went to the famed—and intimidatingly cavernous—dance hall, Roseland Ballroom (opened 1917, closed 2014), where scenes from many a movie had been shot. The theme for the night was “Festival du Cuba,” and after two beers I worked up the courage to ask a woman to cha cha cha. Her face was in the shadows, but she had a trim body, nice legs, and gold hair that spiraled upward into a sparkly bun. It wasn’t until we got out on the dance floor that I realized she was old enough to be my grandmother. No matter, God bless her, this was all part of living in New York.Over the years, I didn’t have many occasions to cut a rug—with one exception. I have a close friend in Manhattan who’s a federal judge, and she often officiates at weddings. At her request, I usually tagged along so she’d have someone to kick up her heels with at the wedding dinner. If unescorted, she’d sometimes go a whole evening without dancing, not surprising given the unlikelihood of a guest approaching and saying something like: “Would you like to jitterbug, Your Honor?”
Moving right along, five years ago the yellow, brick road took me to Tampa, where I’ve happily settled into a retirement community. How eerie, I think, to have come full circle and be living only 275 miles from Tallahassee. Maybe fate is trying to tell me something. There are several Arthur Murray studios in Tampa, and…
Well, think I’ll save my serious dancing days for later. Once I make it through the pearly gates, I’ll explore the pink clouds until I locate Miss Duck, and then—as the cornets and harps let loose—she and I and the Cherubim and Seraphim can happily twist the night away.
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.
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