Single White Nerd: Dancin’ Fool
The Single White Nerd has not always been single. Like, for example, on New Year’s Eve 2001. Boogedy boogedy boogedy (that’s the sound of a swirly flashback thingy happening) . . . Swing music syncopates around us as my girlfriend and I sip champagne in our booth. We look into each other’s eyes. Sort of. She keeps glancing at the dance floor where people spin, dip, and flail their limbs with infinite grace. I know what’s coming and try to distract her:
“Want to see a magic trick?”
She smiles. “Come on, let’s dance.”
The moment she says the word, I feel a familiar tightening in my chest. My heart starts to pound. I try to keep smiling, to breathe through it. It’s all to no avail. Within moments, I’m in the middle of a full fledged panic attack.
“Go ahead,” I say through gritted teeth, “I’ll be right there. Just have to tie my shoe.” I’m wearing slip-ons. I hope she doesn’t notice.
She kisses my cheek. “Hurry up, no telling what could happen out there.” With that, she’s gone. Moments later, she’s partnered up on the dance floor, smiling and spinning, her jet black hair fanning out like some kind of a groovy, swingin’ halo.
I chug my champagne. “Screw it,” I think, “let’s do this!” I move to slide out of my chair and feel bile coursing up from my stomach. I’m about to puke.
I’m 12 years old. Standing in a large gymnasium with about one hundred other 12 to 14 year olds. It smells like sweat. We’re all decked out in our finery. Or clothes that approximate finery. I wear a blue blazer and white shirt, striped tie clipped to my collar and new dress shoes chaffing against my heel. Apart from being slightly shorter than most of the other guys, I’m basically indistinguishable from the 50 or so other pubescents tugging at their uncomfortably snug collars.
There are girls there, too. Lots of girls. They all wear dresses or smart blouse and skirt combos. And each of them wears a pair of white gloves. They don’t look much more comfortable than the guys, but are much more fun to look at. “Gee,” I say to a girl standing near me in what I hope is a charming tone, “this is fun.”
“I can’t believe my fucking parents are making me do this. So fucking lame. Look at these gloves.” She holds up her hands. They’re sheathed in black velvet gloves.
“I think the sheet said to wear white gloves. Not that I care,” I say, shrugging elaborately to show how much I don’t care.
“Fuck that,” she spits back at me. “My gloves are black.”
Not much to say to that. I nod in understanding and solidarity. Maybe this rebel in black gloves will want to be my girlfriend.
A click-clacking sound interrupts our conversation. Click clack click clack. The sounds comes from the feet of a tall man with silver hair who is striding to the center of the room. Click clack click clack. He wears a crisp, pressed tuxedo. His hair shines in the fluorescent light. I didn’t realize that anything could shine in fluorescent light. He must use a special product. Click clack click clack. Click click clack. He’s just done a little hop step and come to a halt in the precise middle of the gym.
He spins on his heel, scanning us with piercing gray eyes. “I,” he begins, “am Mr. Lawyer.” His voice crackles like dry leaves underfoot. “Over the next twelve weeks we will mold you. Out there,” he gestures with disdain to the doors of the gym, “You may be boys and girls. But in here, for these hours, you are gentlemen and ladies. You will behave as such.”
He pauses to let his words—are they a warning?–land.
“Now,” he continues, “We begin.” He claps his hands twice. “Gentlemen line up on the right. Ladies on the left. You will partner up with one another. Gentlemen, you will offer the lady your right arm. Ladies, you will accept, lightly placing your left arm through his. You will introduce yourselves. Then, gentlemen, you will escort your partner to the head of the receiving line where you will introduce her to the host. I am the host. You will introduce her to me. You will shake my hand. Firmly. With eye contact. Remember. Firm. Eye contact. Yes? Questions? No. Good. Begin!”
We shuffle to the sides. I feel my palms starting to sweat. I’m near the middle of the group. Before I know it, I’m facing my partner for the evening. It’s not my black gloved friend, but a tiny girl with curly blond hair. She wears a blue dress. Her gloves, I note, are white lace. “I’m Rebecca,” she says.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Gonzalo.” Why did I say that? Her eyebrows shoot up. “Not really. I’m Michael. I just figured, you know, it’s kind of fancy. So. . .Gonzalo. Fancy.”
“That’s funny.” Her tone indicates that it is not. Nonetheless, she slips her arm through mine and we join the introduction assembly line. It all chugs along smoothly until we are standing three couples away from the moment of truth.
A boy, even shorter than me, steps up to Mr. Lawyer and offers his hand. “Hi,” he squeaks, “I’m David and this–”
That’s as far as he gets. Striking like a viper, Mr. Lawyer releases the boy’s palm and slaps the back of his hand. “Do you call that a handshake?”
“No. You offered me a fish. And the eye contact, sir. Remember the eye contact. Again.”
David offers his hand again. “I-i-i’m D-d-d-d-david. And this is–” He stops. Oh God. I try to send a psychic message to him: Just make up a name. Make up a name. Make up–
The message does not get through. David stammers to a stop.
“Oh my,” says Mr. Lawyer, his eye narrowing, “You are going to be my little project. Yes. Yes. Next!”
By the time Rebecca and I get to the front of the line, I’m terrified and angry. How dare this tuxedo-clad creep pick on David? Or anyone else. I mean, he’s teaching a dance class in a gym on a Friday night. Who is he? What right does he have?! I’ll show him.
Looking him straight in the eye, I offer my hand. “Sir,” I say. “My name is Gonzalo and this is Mortella.” Mr. Lawyer holds my gaze for a moment. Go ahead, I challenge him mentally, call me out. Gonzalo will take you down. Then I hear a small voice coming from my right side. “Rebecca. My name is Rebecca.”
I feel the color leave my face. Mr. Lawyer’s eyes shift over, taking my partner in, then back to me. Quizically.
“Ha,” I say as if I don’t have a care in the world, “I thought you said Mortella. Easy mistake, my dove. Well, we must away. Ta ta.” What the hell did I just say?
As Rebecca and I join the other couples on the dance floor, she digs her fingers into my arm. “You’re weird. Don’t embarrass me.” It’s like a real date.
For the next hour, Mr. Lawyer drills us on the basics of foxtrot and swing. “One two, rockstep. Spin two rock back. Yes.” From time to time, he taps a young man or lady on the shoulder and corrects their form. None of us are very good. The occasional yelp of a girl breaks through the ballroom dance music every so often as a clumsy gentleman steps on her foot. By the time Mr. Lawyer announces break time, we all breathe a synchronous sigh of relief.
“Break time” in Mr. Lawyer’s world, like everything else, has a precise structure. First, we form groups of ten. Then the ladies remove their gloves and give them to the gentlemen. After over an hour of anxious dancing, these gloves are soaked with adolescent sweat. They’re gross. Sopping gloves in pocket, the gentlemen peel off to get folding chairs for themselves and their partner. We all proceed to sit in a circle, eat fig newtons, and drink punch.
And so after pocketing Rebecca/Mortella’s gloves, I strut off to get us chairs. Over the past hour, I feel that she and I have formed a bond. I’ve overcome my initial nerves and have managed to have a normal conversation with her. I’m also fairly sure that she was impressed, or at least not appalled, by my dancing skills.
As I return with the chairs, I overhear Rebecca talking to one of the other girls. “–Mortella. Who does that? He’s such a geek. And it’s like dancing with a broomstick. A broomstick that steps on feet. Ugh. Wanna tra–” She notices me and smiles. “Oh, there you are, Gonzalo.”
“It’s Michael.” I pretend not to have overheard her and smile. Casually. Without a care in the world. I want to dump the punch over her head. To shred her stupid lace gloves that still sit, crumpled and crusty, in my pocket. To grind her feet into dust under my heel. Instead, I sip punch and feel vaguely awkward.
Over the next few months, I grow to hate dancing. I’m never partnered with Rebecca again, but with each succeeding week, I become more reserved and self-conscious. My handshake gets stronger, my eye contact more unwavering. At the same time, my shoulders rise up towards my ear. When I try to dance, it feels like someone has inserted a steel-reinforced curtain rod up my ass. More than once, I get the dreaded Mr. Lawyer tap on on the shoulder. “Relax, sir, relax. Dancing is fun!”
Dancing is not fun. Dancing is torture. Dancing brings out the socially awkward, verbally diarrheaic worst in me. Dancing gives girls the chance to make fun of me. Sometimes my glasses fall off when I dance. Then I can’t see. That sucks. Dancing sucks. I hate dancing.
But my girlfriend loves dancing. And I love my girlfriend. Choking down the bile and pushing the tux-clad Mr. Lawyer click-clacking off to the side, I stride onto the dance floor. I take my lady in my arms and sweep her into a swing dance. My lips move as I count out the long-repressed moves. “One-two-rockstep, one-two-rockstep.” It’s terrible. My rhythm is off. Rivulets of sweat carve their way down my face. I keep waiting for Mr. Lawyer’s tap on the shoulder. A derisive giggle from some white-glove clad almost-lady. But neither one comes. Because, really, I’m no longer 12. Instead, I muddle gracelessly through the song, flinging my limbs about, fighting off the echoes of the past.
The song ends. We go back to our booth. My girlfriend kisses my cheek. “You just got big boyfriend points.” I smile. For a moment, just a moment, I love dancing.
featured image credit (not Michael Kass, btw): Professor Bop