I love the way some children will dress up for a school dance, as though they were going to a ball or a costume party. Little boys may wear their Sunday best, little girls may wear sparkly red shoes with their favorite pink sweatpants or shiny silver dresses, either gender may wear their Halloween costumes. Last night after work, my husband Jim called another school dance, this one at West Boulevard elementary school. You never know what to expect from these dances, but they are always entertaining.
The first time I went to a school dance with Jim was for a “Fall Festival,” where what seemed like 200 children, many of whom were dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls, were running around the gymnasium while parents sat in folding chairs around the edge and teachers tried to impose some order. There were long tables of snacks set up at the back of the gym opposite the stage, so throughout the evening, the children would break formation and run back to grab a cookie, or they would announce (just as the dance was starting) that they needed to go to the bathroom and leave their partner standing there. From the looks of things, it appeared that more than a few parents had dropped their children off at the school and then gone elsewhere.
At one point during the evening, Jim was patiently lining children up again and teaching the next dance, although it was hard to tell if anyone was listening, because of all the extra noise and activity in the gym. After a few minutes, he turned to the band and announced that the dancers were ready to go. The look on their faces was priceless, as they mirrored what I had been thinking: “You have got to be kidding!” But Jim repeated that they were ready for some music, and sure enough, once the music started, the children reformed their lines and started moving in time to the music, skipping and bouncing and clapping to the beat, and having a very good time of it.
We have attended many children’s and family dances since then, including the “Snow Ball” at the public library, a dance for the Girl Scouts during summer camp, another camp dance for special needs children, graduation dances for home schools, wedding dances, birthday dances, church dances, and lots of dances for elementary schools. Over the years, Jim has developed quite a large repertoire of dances and has also learned to trust that the children are paying more attention than we might think. Still, every dance presents its own challenges.
At the “Snow Ball” last winter, for example, the average age of the children was about three years, and all were in costume: lots of fairy princesses, a few super heroes, and one fire fighter. Jim immediately threw out all of his dances that depended on knowing your right from your left or separating from your partner. He has also had to adjust his definition of “couple” over the years, to allow for “couples” consisting of a father holding the two-year old and a mother carrying the baby in a sling while holding the four-year-old by the hand. Since that first “Fall Festival,” now when Jim makes arrangements for school dances, he always requests that the organizers encourage parents to dance with their children and save the snacks for later.
It takes a special band to play for these dances, and Nine Mile is one of our favorites (our friends John White on fiddle, David Cavins on guitar, Amber Gaddy on accordian, and Jim Ruth on banjo). Jim often starts by calling a big circle dance to teach the basic moves (do-si-do, right-hand turn, left-hand turn, forward and back, and so on), but when we arrived at the school last night, we found out that the dance had been advertised as a “line dance.” Not knowing exactly what the children or teachers expected but knowing we weren’t going to be doing the “boot scoot” anytime during the evening, Jim decided to save the circle dance for later and start with a longways set. However, it seemed to take longer than usual to line everyone up, at least in part because the gymnasium (which was carpeted) had prominent lines marked out for various sports, and the children kept lining up on those; this made for some very nice straight lines but put the children too far from their partners for dancing. The children caught on quickly, however, and formed two sets of double lines, with each dancer standing across from a partner.
With each new dance, Jim first taught the moves without music, then walked the dancers through a time or two, and then asked the band to start playing. At first the children were tentative, but after they realized that they could do everything he was asking of them and that it was all just for fun, they began to enjoy themselves. The longways sets were all variations of a few basic moves—do-si-do your partner, top couple dance down the middle and come back up, top dancers separate and lead your lines to the bottom, form an arch, lines come up through the arch and back to the top, then start over—new top couple do-si-do your partner, dance down to the bottom, and so on. Toward the end of the evening, Jim called a circle dance and then led them in a figure called “wind the ball” that always makes dancers laugh, as he dropped hands with his neighbor, warned everyone else “don’t let go, whatever you do,” and then led the long line into an inward spiral and then back out. It can be dizzying when you pass the other dancers on your way back out of the spiral.
After the dance ended and the band was putting away their instruments, I walked around the gym and tried to remember what my own school gymnasium looked like, but all I could remember was a fallout shelter sign in the stairwell and Lassie one time visiting our school.
The walls at West Boulevard are made of large concrete blocks, with the top half painted sky blue and the bottom half painted tan. One wall is filled with windows that opened out to a rainy sky. The stage is obviously used for storage as well as for assemblies. In addition to the state and national flags, a podium, microphones, and sound system, there were racks of chairs, a towering pile of mats, ladders, dust mops, folding tables, cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid containers, plastic garbage cans filled with soccer balls, a notebook of physical activities, and another notebook labeled “Walking School Bus.”
The walls were filled with signs and posters: letters of the alphabet with words about sports or exercise (A for archery, B for basketball, C for catcher, D for dance); the school pledge (“I am safe, I try hard, I achieve, I am respectful, I am responsible—I am a STARR”); a chart with stickers next to children’s names; a poster shaped like a big yellow star with children’s names written in various colors of magic marker; a poster of the Food Pyramid; a white board with a reminder to “wash, wash, wash your hands.”
There were also many, many instructions about the proper way to line up, complete with rules about “lining up on your P.E. Number” and photos of good lines, which showed children and teachers facing forward, keeping their hands to themselves and their feet still, standing quietly ready to leave the gym, and it suddenly made perfect sense why they had at first had trouble with Jim’s instructions to “line up for a dance.” The lines for dancing were totally different from the lines they had been practicing at school. When I saw the “P.E. Numbers” marked with masking tape on one of the lines near the exit, I was even more impressed at the children’s flexibility in learning something so far removed from their experiences and the skillful way they navigated between all these conflicting rules imposed by parents, teachers, and guests.
Someday in the future, when these children grow up, I hope they will look back on this evening, when old and young, black and brown and white, came together on a rainy Friday night, and had fun listening to traditional American fiddle tunes and dancing the way people have been dancing for hundreds of years. Perhaps at some point, some of them will pick up an instrument or seek out an old-time square dance or contra dance, ensuring that the traditions don’t die out.