Olde English country dances! Dancing with girls! Would the horrors never cease? Still, who hasn’t fantasized about being in the middle of an International Incident?
For kids whose basic dance training was either the Twist or square dancing, the idea of shuttling us all on buses and exposing us to dances which had probably gone out of style even before the time of Charles Dickens makes as much sense to me now as it did in 1965. I wrote this originally for Grapevine in 1990.
Dance of Rebellion
In the spring of 1965, in a small English village, I had my first taste of civil disobedience. I was eleven years old.
The United States Air Force had stationed my father to RAF Croughton, a communications base just outside Banbury. Though we American children were educated on base by American teachers, we found ourselves part of an unusual social experiment. In the interests of international friendship, and to further the cause of World Peace, we were transported by bus every Friday afternoon that spring to a small English school to drink tea, eat biscuits, watch educational films and . . . dance.
Now, I love to dance . . . even though I am seriously bad at it. I don't think that anybody on this planet loves to dance more than I do, but (to dredge up that tired old cliche) that was then, and this is now. Dancing with a partner as an adult makes your skin tingle, and your blood flow faster. In essence, it makes you a healthier person.
Being forced to dance with a strange girl when you are a tender young boy (pre-puberty), all you can think of are cooties, and how to avoid them.
I blame it all on our teacher, Mrs. Hathaway, a gargantuan, red-haired woman. She insisted that being exposed to traditional English dancing would enrich our lives. I have since discovered that “traditional” activities generally only occur when the tourist buses pull up.
“Hallo! Hallo!” the school's Headmaster shouted to us as our bus pulled in that first day. “Welcome to Saint Marquis de Sade (or words to that effect) School!”
Outside, in the school yard, we all had to stand in a circle and introduce ourselves, and then, without further ado, it was time to dance. “Pick your partners,” our teachers urged us, and we stood, petrified. Finally, we were paired off, English to American, on down the line. And the lesson began.
Any thoughts we'd entertained that the dances might resemble the Twist were quickly banished. It was The Pickwick Papers, only in modern dress. You know, ancient history. The girls loved it. Us guys, on the other hand, were soon muttering under our breaths, and staring sullenly at the floor, moving our bodies listlessly, with little, if any, semblance of rhythm.
"Smile," Mrs. Hathaway hissed. "Have fun!"
After what seemed like forever, we retired to the school and had tea and biscuits, which was really the only part we looked forward to. They probably figured all that caffeine and sugar would make us dancing demons. After the tea break, we watched a travelogue about America, produced by Chevrolet. After the short film, we returned to the open schoolyard and shuffled our feet some more.
Only this time, the girls got to pick their partners. Now it was very definitely getting out of hand.
And so it went, Friday after Friday for the next several weeks, with no escape in sight. We (the boys, that is) began to dread the weekly trek to Saint Vitus’ Dancing Academy. The girls, however, were still enthralled.
I especially hated the weekly ordeal. I was uncoordinated as a child, and the dancing seemed designed to humiliate the socially inept. Besides, the same girl kept asking me to dance. Too young to appreciate the gesture, I had to be almost literally dragged to the dance floor.
Deliverance came in the form of Ricky Beavers, someone I recall little about except that his father was an officer, and he thought that entitled him to special treatment (which he never got) at Boy Scout meetings.
“Listen,” he whispered to all of us guys who were huddled by the doorway, before the final dance one day. “When they call to pick your partners, everybody kneel down and pretend to tie your shoes.”
“Why?” We all asked.
“Just do it,” he said. “You all hate this stupid dancing, right?” Shoulders squared, we walked on out to the school yard.
First, the girls got to pick their dancing partners, and I found myself paired with my usual partner. As usual, I stumbled through the steps. I wouldn’t mind at all if these ordeals came to an end.
Finally, the last dance of the afternoon. “Gentlemen, the Headmaster announced, “Choose your partners!”
There was a short, uncomfortable hesitation, while we contemplated the possible consequences of our action, and then, first one, then another, then two more, and finally the entire male section of Mrs. Hathaway’s fifth grade class knelt down and began fiddling with their shoelaces. We, military brats trained from birth in obedience and conformity, had disobeyed a direct order.
“Boys,” Mrs. Hathaway said in a warning tone, but we continued to stare grimly down at our shoes. All around, children and adults shuffled their feet in nervous anticipation.
“Get on the bus!” She finally roared, and we quickly complied. All the way back to the base, she was in a white hot fury, castigating us bitterly every mile of the way.
But after we got back, and were on our respective school buses home, we forgot all about it. When my father arrived home later that day, I greeted him at the door.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said.
“Don't you ‘hi, Daddy’ me,"he said in a dark tone. It seemed the matter did not end with our arrival back at school. Mrs. Hathaway had run to Mr. Evans, our principal, and he in turn had called each offender 's father at work.
Some received beatings for their roles. I counted myself lucky that I did not. No television for a week seemed just as severe. How do you settle on appropriate punishment for taking part in an international incident?
Of course, we were never invited back for tea and dancing.
It was a small gesture, compared to the very real acts of civil disobedience taking place in America in the 1960s - acts which required a great deal more courage than we displayed, and whose consequences could be far more dangerous. And yet . . . military brats (fifth graders at that!) disobeying a direct order. Imagine that.
All in all, I'm glad we did it. And as much as I love dancing today, the memory of the great Shoelace Reel, the silent, unmoving Dance of Rebellion, is the finest of all the dances I have ever taken part in.
Grapevine - August 24, 1990