I guess I was twelve or thirteen years old when girls I knew first started having dance parties at their houses – you know, everyone dancing to the music of the record player.
This was scarier than the birthday parties where the worst thing that could happen was playing spin-the-bottle and having to go into the closet with Guppy-Lips Weegenhalter. Not that anyone would actually ever kiss her, but afterwards your reputation was forever ruined.
“Gary kissed Guppy-Lips!”
“Shut up – I did not!”
But at a dance party you were expected to do anything you were ever going to do right out there in the middle of the dance floor for everyone to see.
I had never learned to dance — not a step — but I remember my mother trying to teach me. I remember putting my arm around her and taking her hand in mine.
“The other way,” she corrected me. “You put your right hand around the girl’s waist – your left hand in her right hand.” Neither way seemed natural to me.
Then my mother got fancy. She had me hold her wrist as she bent her hand backwards and extended her fingers skyward – kind of high toned like sipping tea with your pinky finger in the air. Maybe you’ve seen women dancing like that in the old movies of the 1920’s.
I can still hear my mother chanting cadence: “One, two, three – one, two, three…” as together we went backward and forward, again and again until the music finally ended. I could never get the hang of leading – and I certainly couldn’t follow. I just wasn’t born to dance.
Then came the night of the dance party at Mary Ellen Sanchez’s house. I took a bath and got dressed and combed my hair twenty times. Before I left for the party I looked into my mirror at the strange boy standing there in my uncle’s old sports jacket, the cuffs of which my mother had to pin up at the last minute. I had fought with the necktie ten times for its knot and its length, but still it was a tad too long. It was an unfortunate little necktie, thirty years collecting dust and waiting all that time to come back into vogue. My mother was as nervous as I was. “Only ask a girl to dance when you think the song is about half over,” she conceded. “That way you won’t be up there dancing so long.”
So, there I go off to Mary Ellen Sanchez’s party hoping no one would see me walking down the street.
“Dat you, Gary Spina, all shiny-ed-up and goin’ t’ a party? Well, Lordy-be, don’t you look like they’s gonna lay you out fer viewin’!” I walked on faster gritting my teeth, and I made a solemn vow that when I got to Mary Ellen’s party, I was not going to ask anyone to dance.
But at the party it wasn’t the vow that kept me sitting by myself. I was too shy to even think about asking anyone to dance. I sat against the wall and tried to make it so I wasn’t staring at Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen Sanchez was maybe the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. It wasn’t that she was out of my league – she was a whole nuther sport entirely.
When Mary Ellen finally came over to talk to me, I just figured she was being polite on account of it was her party and she was the hostess. But then the conversation took a horrible turn.
“You’re not dancing,” Mary Ellen said. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
“I can’t dance.”
“You mean you don’t know how?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“Come on, I’ll teach you,” and she took me by the hand out to the middle of the floor. It was a “pity dance” for sure, but the music played soft and low, and she held my one hand and told me to put my other hand low on the small of her back, which was kind of nice. She seemed to follow effortlessly, but if I didn’t keep pace with the music she would whisper into my ear for me to go faster or slower.
It was wonderful. She smelled great and I liked her hair in my face and she was soft and warm to hold and before I knew it she was teaching me a cute little half step back followed by a surprising half step forward and a smooth change of direction, and the whole time she stayed with me flawlessly. Dancing with Mary Ellen Sanchez was not like dancing with my mother.
We stayed out there dancing for a second song and this time she moved in close against me and put her head on my shoulder as we danced. Even with her close against me, the two of us moving as one, we executed that exciting little half step back and half step forward.
I haven’t seen Mary Ellen Sanchez in over fifty years, but I think of her still every time I’m dragged out to the dance floor. I still use that little half step movement. It still “wows” the ladies, though admittedly, it takes a lot to wow the ladies I dance with now-a-days. Except sometimes when I have a few drinks and I do my impression of John Wayne and his walk. That always gets them.
I often wonder where Mary Ellen Sanchez is today. I’d love to have one more dance with her. I’d love to show her my John Wayne walk.