He was fifteen when his mother started making him to go to the Youth Group dance lessons. He’d just had his first major growth spurt, shooting up four inches in a matter of months, and he was awkward and clumsy in his new body. His legs hurt all the time, his feet and hands seemed too big at the end of long limbs, and he was far too skinny for his mother’s comfort. Her hope had been that taking dancing lessons would help him grow accustomed to the way he had to move, that it would build up an appetite and he would eat more, and most importantly - that it would get him interested in girls, in dances, in interacting with the other kids his age.
The girls wore long skirts or dresses and the boys wore slacks and collared shirts to the lessons, with their hair brushed back and neat black shoes. The instructors, Tiffany and Alex, were a young married couple, good Christians to the end. They only played soft, mindless songs that were a mockery of rock and roll: “Lift Your Hands and Worship,” “Now and Tomorrow,” “Know the Truth,” with lyrics that urged teenagers to love Jesus Christ, to steer away from sin, to focus on eternity.
The first time they all met, Tiffany smiled her bright smile out at them and informed them that anyone could dance, with a bit of training, but it was most important to relax and have fun. She and Alex had put on the music and kicked into a simple box step, but she was so graceful and he was so confident that it looked like art, their legs flowing into one another, their hands clasped out in front of them. It was beautiful without being sexual, it was chaste and gentle. It made the teenagers want to learn.
They’d paired the kids up, putting him against a tall, slim blond girl who seemed amused by the awkward way he held her tiny hands in his huge ones, by the way he settled far away from her. There was a smudge of lipstick on her lips, a glitter in her eye, that made him suspect that perhaps she wasn’t the clean cut darling her parents wanted her to be. She nestled in too close against him, and when they moved their feet in an attempt to mimic the graceful movements of the instructors, her knee had brushed against his, her grip had shifted on his hands. It had thrown him off, leaving him flustered and clumsy. He hadn’t mastered the step, that first day.
The second class, people chose their own partners, friends pairing with friends, leaving those few who were there alone, who didn’t know anyone, to dance with each other. He’d ended up with a choppy redhead with a spattering of freckles across her nose. She was more focused on her feet than an on him, and this time he was able to settle into the rhythm of the dance; he even managed to pull her along with him, to help her guide her feet so that they moved together. They were still teenagers, they didn’t have the same effortless grace that Alex and Tiffany had, but they were able to look up from the floor and smile briefly at each other. They’d gotten better at it than anyone else there.
After that, they always danced together, easily learning the rumba and the cha-cha, the foxtrot, the tango. They conquered the steps and then moved on to embellish them; he wasn’t afraid to put his hand lightly against her hip, she looped her arm about his neck. They watched Tiffany and Alex, and from watching learned how to twirl, to dip, to flow together in that effortless, asexual manner. They were a natural fit, and together they were better than any other pair in the class, where apart they had struggled and stumbled, clumsy and awkward.
During one class, they traded names in quiet whispers and he discovered that she went to a private school not a ten minute’s walk from his house. He asked for her telephone number and she’d given it up willingly, blushing and looking flustered, watching him intensely as he folded it into quarters and tucked it into the back pocket of sharp black pants that hung awkwardly on his hips. He didn’t wonder at the excitement flashing in her eyes; she’d never mentioned that she didn’t have many friends, but he’d always assumed. She was too much like him, too quiet and too timid, too uncomfortable with other people.
Together they decided that this class was too slow. They leafed through the fliers on the church bulletin, found one proclaiming “Free Dance Night!!!!!!!!” every Thursday at a local hall, and decided that it was unquestionably something they should do. They met up at her school and trotted down, actually talking for the first time. He told her about his growth spurts, about the forest behind his house, about his attempts to write; he learned that she loved math and science, that she sang, that she actually didn’t mind spiders.
The hall dance night was much more fun than the Youth Group. There were a couple other people their age, quite a few that were their parents age, and half a dozen old men and women who could barely walk, let alone dance. Real rock and roll, swing, popular music were played. There were two parts: the first was a lesson, in which they learned or practiced a step, switching partners and returning to each other. This way they learned to dance with others, not to rely on the familiar way of things – but they were still always best together. After that there were three hours of free dance, practice or fun. They could dance together, or with strangers; she would often ask him to sit one out while she humored some old gentleman who was just delighted to be so near to a pretty young thing.
And she was pretty. He’d never noticed before, he’d never thought about girls – especially not her – that way. She’d been chubby and dumpy, her hair a mess and her clothing sloppy, when he’d met her. Now, after almost four months of dancing, she’d slimmed down and filled out. She had new clothing, she took better care of herself and she smiled more. There had been similar changes in him, but he hadn’t noticed the way he’d settled into long limbs, had stopped hunching and started standing up tall, had lost that gawkiness and become smoother, more graceful. They were good for each other.
Swing dancing and the waltz were added to their repertoire. They learned to do lifts and dozens of complicated steps, they would often stay all four hours of their free dance nights, long after everyone had left, to practice moves that were dangerous or took up a lot of space. It was never about competing, for them, or showing off. They danced because it was fun, and because they were good at it, and because they enjoyed being together.
They never met outside of lessons. They considered it in passing, several times, but never followed through. He never called her up to go see a movie, he never invited her to his school events [he didn’t want her to see how he changed at school, shrinking back in on himself and ducking his head, careful not to meet eyes with anyone], he never asked her to come over to his house for dinner. She never mentioned it.
Freshman year slipped into summer. There were more dance nights, more events, and they went to every one they could afford. Afternoon dance lessons, Thursdays, Sundays, so-called “Parties on the beach!” Every time they were together it felt right, people watched they way they moved and swung each other around, they way they fit together. The old men would sigh and refer to them as a sweet couple, to their undying amusement. There was never anything physical about it, it was merely friendship – although sometimes he’d catch her looking at him out of the corner of her eye, an odd little smile on her lips, and it would terrify him, make his heart leap up into his throat. He didn’t want things to change.
But of course they did. Sophomore year started up, and each week she seemed prettier, more pulled together, more in control of herself and less in need of him. She began to distance herself; perhaps it was because of her workload, or perhaps it was because she finally fit in at her school, people were finally beginning to accept her. Whatever the reason, their dancing became less and less frequent. It started as a missed class here, a missed party there, quiet little excuses that he didn’t really believe. By midterm, they were going less than every other week, and when they were together, they didn’t fit quite as well. They didn’t enjoy it as much, it wasn’t as freeing. They weren’t as close.
She faded out to the occasional phone call, when nothing else was happening. She’d have a free night, she’d ask him if he wanted to go out dancing. And then she stopped calling altogether. He could have tried her, he could have invited her out, to do anything – but it was over, he gave up on it. It was easier to let it slip away into a pleasant memory than to try to resurrect it, struggling his way through uncomfortable nights and pretending to enjoy it.
He hasn’t talked to her since. He thinks about her, sometimes, on dull Thursday nights when he sits at home and watches television. He wonders what it was about him that was so horrible, so dull and drab, that she wanted to get away from him and never see him again. Sometimes he’s tempted to dig out a phone book and search for her name, to go on the computer and see if she comes up as some famous dancer, or some smalltime instructor in a tiny Christian town, or if she’s a well-known mathematician or physicist, but he never does.
But sometimes he’ll snatch a flyer from the church bulletin, he’ll slip in amongst the little old ladies and old men stinking of cigars, a crowd spattered with occasional bright-eyed teenagers, and he’ll prove that he still knows how to dance.