It feels strange, in these very dark times, to be thinking and writing about something as fun and frivolous as dance crazes. Every day the news brings some new horror visited upon us by the Trumpians, and it’s pretty hard to be happy. Yet somehow I feel that the delightful movie La La Land may have given me permission to dance and be just a little bit joyful, even when things are looking so bleak. Ironically, at the Oscars last Sunday night La La Land appeared to have been voted the best picture of 2016, only to have the award snatched away from it by Moonlight. It’s tempting to compare La La Land to Hillary Clinton, whose apparent victory was also snatched away, except that Moonlight is clearly no Donald Trump, it’s a “remarkable and brilliantly crafted” movie (which nobody I know has seen).
Is it okay to be frivolous in these dark times?
So with that preface, here is my story about dance crazes.
Before I went to my first school dance, in seventh grade, my older sisters spent a lot of time teaching me how to jitterbug. It was 1962. That was the dance that everyone was doing, they said, and it was important to master it. So I learned the basic step, along with inside and outside turns, and even the cuddle step. But when I got to the dance, I discovered that nobody was jitterbugging any more. It was the Twist, baby! Soon followed by the Mashed Potato, the Frug, the Watusi, and others too numerous to remember. In all of these, each person danced alone. You might be facing your partner, and you might even be doing approximately the same moves, but it didn’t matter if you weren’t. It was great because a girl didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask her to dance, she could just go out and start dancing by herself, or with another girl, and if she was lucky a cute boy would come along and start dancing near her. Every now and then there would be a slow dance. For those, you needed a boy to ask you to dance, but nobody actually knew any dance steps. The girl and boy would just put their arms around each other and make slight movements of their feet to approximate dancing. The school chaperones kept a pretty close eye on that though.
In college, the dances were much the same as in high school, except they may have had alcohol, and no noticeable chaperones. However, other than a few mixers freshman year when I was still trying to figure out how to meet boys, I don’t remember actually going to any of the dances. Instead I went to parties in various suites in Lowell, Kirkland, or Quincy House, with loud music playing and joints being passed around. People would get up and dance as the spirit moved them, but again it was very individual, nobody needed a partner, and no particular steps were required.
Then came disco.
In early 1978, I was living in a house in Davis, with a roommate who was a grad student at UC Davis in something science-y. I had graduated from law school the previous May, passed the Bar, and had a temporary part-time job at a law firm while going to myriad job interviews with state and federal agencies. The hottest movie out was Saturday Night Fever, and the hottest music was the soundtrack album by the Bee Gees. It seemed everyone was talking about disco. My roommate and I decided to enroll in a disco dance class. We were excited to learn some of those elaborate dances and then go wow everyone at one of the local hot spots.
We attended the class, which lasted six or eight weeks. We practiced at home, with the Bee Gees blasting on the stereo. We had our moves down and we were ready. We needed to get the right clothes though. We studied the movie stills. If we had been guys it would have been easy, three-piece suit, preferably white, with an open-necked shirt and platform shoes. Some gold chains. For us, it seemed like a swirly skirt or dress and high heels (ouch!) or maybe our ’60s go-go boots would still work. I found a flowery skirt and matching scarf, while my roommate went with a pair of elephant bells. We both had big sleeves, like batwings. Lots of flashy jewelry too. (Oh, if only I had a picture!) On Saturday night we got all decked out and went to one of the Davis night spots — I think there were only two back then. We wowed everyone with our disco moves, but sadly there were very few other people there who knew the steps. It was not like 2001 Odyssey, the club in the movie where everyone danced in unison. We went out a few more times, but our enthusiasm soon waned. It just wasn’t as good without John Travolta, or someone like him.
For the next thirty years I didn’t do much dancing, until it was time for the bar/bat mitzvah circuit with my youngest daughter, Molly, in 2009. When my two older kids were on the circuit, the parents weren’t invited to the parties, so I don’t know if there was much dancing or not. But Molly’s class really rocked, and the parents all actually liked each other, so we were all invited to all the parties. The DJs had the latest music, of course, as well as old favorites like “YMCA” and “You’re the One that I Want” from Grease. The DJ would do a great job of getting everyone up for the line dances, teaching us how to do the Cha Cha Slide, the Cupid Hustle, Cotton Eye Joe, and others. Hey, wait a minute, everybody filling up the dance floor doing the same steps together? Why, it’s almost like disco, back again for the next generation!