When I was 10 years old, I was informed by my teacher, Sister Mary of the Holy Water Fountain (not her real name), that I had been selected to attend a very special program. It was going to be after school in a couple of days in the gym/cafe/theatre, a building separate from the old stone parish school. I quickly discovered that other guys had also been selected for this mysterious program. We were a ragtag cohort of altar boys and hall monitors and candy collection kids. None of the axe murderers or psycho juvenile delinquents in our grade had been selected. A sense of wonder and apprehension grew among us. No one had a clue what was coming.
Our parents dropped us off that fateful afternoon and left, promising to return in an hour. We suspected that they had been told the purpose of the program and sworn to secrecy. Nobody with a lick of common sense ever wanted to cross swords with Sister Mary of the Holy Water Fountain.
We were stunned when we entered the gym/cafe/theatre and discovered that, in addition to our teacher, there were a dozen or so girls from our grade already there. There was also a distinguished older woman standing next to a record player. Sister Mary introduced her as Mrs. Foxtrot (not her real name), and told us to close our o-shaped mouths because it was impolite and we could swallow flies, and to have a seat opposite the girls on a straight line of chairs. We looked at each other and realized that we had been had. It was too late to bolt for the door. We each had earned responsibilities within the grade, and not cooperating now would mean loosing them. Plus Sister Mary was blocking the door.
No wonder the axe murderers weren't invited. Nuns knew a whole lot about compliance and crowd control. Sister Mary eyeballed each and every one of us until we had all taken a seat, and then glared at the girls, daring them to smirk. None did. Then she nodded to Mrs. Foxtrot.
Mrs. Foxtrot told us that she and her husband had been professional ballroom dancers. They had competed all over the country, won gold medals and tall statues, and loved every minute of it. But the Lord had need of someone with her husband's talent, and he was introducing the saints to the Tango and the ChaChaCha now. And that made her think of introducing the nice young girls and boys in her parish to the basics of ballroom dancing. She paused and looked at Sister Mary who blinked once to assure her that all was well.
"Today," Mrs. Foxtrot said with genuine pride and excitment, "I am going to teach you the Box Step."
Tony Scalzoni (not his real name) groaned. Tony preferred to box ears on the football field, not to learn the Box Step. Sister Mary scorched him with a fireball-sized glare that made him wince. "Sorry, Sis'tr," he mouthed.
Sister Mary extinguished the heat from her eyes and then blinked once again at Mrs. Foxtrot, whose smile had not diminished.
"The Box Step is the basis for many American ballroom dances, including the Waltz and the Rumba," Mrs. Foxtrot said. "It is easy to do. All you have to do is make the shape of a box with your feet with your partner."
Partner? We suddenly realized that the girls opposite us had tensed. Something had shifted in the room. There was a sense of mild electricity in the air, like you feel when you walk across a carpet in the winter. Only it wasn't winter and we weren't walking and there wasn't any carpet.
Mrs. Foxtrot showed us how the boy steps out with his left foot, bringing the right foot up with little weight, because it shifts to the right. She showed us how and when the shifts in weight happened to complete the square box. Then she showed the opposite moves to the girls. Most of the boys weren't listening. The word partner had confuzzled their thought processes. Some had lost feeling in their feet. Some had a strange ringing in their ears. Me? I had noticed that Mrs. Foxtrot had been scanning the row of guys while she was demonstrating, and her gaze had been lingering on me. Maybe it was because my eyes weren't watering as much as the guys around me. Or maybe it was the white starched shirt and creased pants that my mother had made me wear.
"I'll need a partner to demonstrate this easy and fun step," Mrs. Foxtrot said, and before I knew it, she had glided over to my chair, taken my hand, raised me out of my chair, and said, "And I accept this handsome young man's offer to dance with me."
A 45 rpm record began to play on the record player. I don't remember what the song was. I do remember standing with Mrs. Foxtrot in the center of the gym/cafe/theatre and suddenly everyone else on earth disappearing. I remember being aware of silk and sound, and of another human being joining with me in rhythm and movement. She was leading me gently through the steps for the first several seconds, and then I felt her let go, trusting me to navigate the floor and the space around us and between us. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
From that time forward, I sought every canteen, hop, high school mixer and dance that I could find. I went for years to St Eugene's in Clifton Heights where a young DJ named Kal Rudman hosted such South Philly talent as Bobby Rydel and Frank Avalon. I went to Chez Vous, a roller skating rink in Upper Darby, that was transformed by DJ Jerry Blavat into the loudest, coolest dance for 50 miles. And, in college, I went to Holy Cross dance in Springfield where I met my wife one Sunday night on the dance floor.
I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Foxtrot and Sister Mary of the Holy Water Fountain. They opened up a world of music and shared emotion and physical contact with human beings that has made my heart hurt sometimes, and soar just as often.
Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey