“No respectable child should ever wear black,” so sputtered Mrs. Sylvia Sherman, who stood in the middle of the school gymnasium, scolding my mother for having taken such a bold and brazen leap into fashion faux pas impropriety. What Mrs. Sherman didn’t know was that the woman she has just verbally assaulted was to become her greatest nemesis.
My mother had indeed dressed me, her only twelve-year-old child, in a black velvet dress with a white lace collar, while Sylvia’s daughter, Amelia, wore a pink wool dress embroidered with a spray of pastel flowers, her mousy-brown hair held in place with a pink bow. Pink patent leather shoes and a pair of white lace-trimmed socks completed the look. Amelia stood out like a scrumptious petit four among an assortment of other “pastries,” each similarly attired, as we, the seventh graders, assembled for Miss Victoria Ryan’s Thursday evening Ballroom Dance Class. These series of classes were to groom us for our first social interaction with the opposite sex—the girls on one side of the room, the boys on the other—who stood around with their heads bowed, feeling conspicuously uncomfortable and perspiring profusely.
Naturally, my mother would have chosen black, the prescribed protocol befitting her daughter. Though I felt like an anomaly among my classmates, I was assured that I looked “elegantly different” at a time when twelve-year-old girls cringed at anything that remotely reeked of “different” let alone “elegant”—the kiss of death.
Upon being subjected to Sylvia Sherman’s brusque remark, I watched my mother inch closer, and in a low yet authoritative voice, eyes glued, she emitted a 1950s equivalent of a “FU” which translated: “go take a powder.” It was a remark so steeped in ominous disgust that Mrs. Sherman actually gasped. I later learned the term meant “scram,” which was exactly what she did, while grabbing little Amelia’s hand, and skulking off like an injured animal that had just gotten its paw caught in a trap. I further discovered the phrase meant “take a laxative,” which I concluded was my mother’s main intent.
Following those colorful bons mots, Miss Ryan gathered her little “Fred Astaires” and “Ginger Rogers” into two straight lines, and asked the boys to choose partners, a moment that will live on as one the most humiliating I ever had to endure.
My escort for the first dance - a fox trot - was a shy and nervous boy, Winston Olivier, who sat behind me in math class, and who knew the answers to any mathematical equation posed to him. This evening, however, Winston wore a navy-blue suit, and a striped bow tie. His jet-black hair was plastered down with so much Brylcreem, I was afraid if I actually touched it, it might break.
But once Winston hit the dance floor, he suddenly morphed from awkward and anxious into some version of a leading man, whisking me off on a series of dance maneuvers that rivaled all the other “dancers” in the room. The small flock of parents who sat in the bleachers applauded their charges as each of us tried getting into fox trot rhythm. Although twelve-year-olds were not considered naturally rhythmic creatures, Winston and I dispelled that rumor by fox-trotting with moves so adept and creative, while the petit fours and their clumsy escorts looked on, practically tripping over themselves.
Miss Ryan, whose full lips bulged with bright crimson lipstick, and whose long black hair was rolled into a tight chignon, clapped loudly, her pointy fiery-red manicured stilettos tapped against each other, her high heels clicking, and her hips undulating to every beat.
The rest of the evening, which lasted from seven to nine o’clock, included an assortment of dance steps: the waltz, merengue, and the rhumba, ending with Miss Ryan’s favorite: the Argentine tango.
Winston, who by now had relinquished any lingering inhibitions, and had decided to keep me as his steady dance partner, maneuvered his highly polished oxfords in time to the music wafting over from Miss Ryan’s’ victrola. He was transformed from a bashful boy into an Argentine gaucho, while a hint of my stiff white horsehair crinoline peeked out from beneath my little black dress. Where Winston learned to be so agile eluded me, but being originally from Argentina, he must have acquired a DNA profile that exuded tango proficiency.
By now, the school contingent was cheering us on as Winston and I took center stage, the increasingly “soggy pastries” and their partners forming a small circle around us. Then it happened: Winston’s leg, now entwined in mine, evoked in me my first whiff of sexual awareness. I was suddenly caught up in a heady haze of sensuality that sent vague stirrings throughout my body. Winston was no longer the annoying boy who threw spitballs at me in class, but was now a romantic gaucho, who aroused in me a barrage of fantasies I had not known before.
During this brief libidinous lapse, Sylvia Sherman tossed furtive looks at my mother, who rendered Sylvia practically invisible, as Sylvia slunk down into the bleachers until she practically disappeared.
Winston’s mother, Mrs. Juanita Olivier, equally caught up in the moment, placed her hand over her heart, her eyelashes batting fast, while she nodded to my mother, as though she was about to succumb to a fainting spell from the sheer stimulation of it all.
My mother smiled back approvingly, keeping her usual composure, secretly relishing in this grand pubescent dalliance.
Winston and I were now an item. I continued to twirl around the floor, my black dress spinning out of control as if it had taken on a life of its own. The applause resounded as we finished our tango with Winston clicking and dipping me so far back that my hair brushed the floor. His dark, olive-colored eyes were wide and inviting. I felt as if I had fallen into a deep pool of oil, and in the space of two hours, I had grown far past my twelve years. I was a woman-in-the-making, a seductress, an irresistible nymphet.
The tango abruptly ended, and the lights illuminated, jolting us back to the reality of the moment, revealing a smattering of pre-adolescent flaws of freckles, acne and rows of buck teeth imprisoned behind bars of silver braces. Suddenly, the excitement was gone. We were back to being our ordinary selves. And I was twelve once more.
The seventh-grade dancers reassembled with their friends, the girls giggling, the boys throwing make-believe punches at one another, seemingly relieved that the evening’s torture we had so valiantly endured, had finally come to a close so we could go back to being our obnoxious selves.
The following day, back in math class, Winston hit me hard in the head with a spitball, signifying that the “love affair” was officially over. We were back to pretending to hate one another.
That mood lasted until the following Thursday evening when we reunited at Miss Victoria Ryan’s Ballroom Dance Class. Except this time, Amelia Sherman and her mother were nowhere to be seen. Had they been so confronted by the last experience that Amelia decided to drop out, never to aspire to her mother’s dream of becoming a Ginger Rogers incarnate?
But just as Miss Ryan turned on the victrola, there they were: Sylvia and Amelia Sherman entering the gymnasium. Only this evening, Amelia was dressed in a black taffeta dress that crinkled when she walked, a black grosgrain ribbon in her hair. Her pink patent leathers had given way to black Mary Janes, and her white socks disappeared into her ankles—a different persona that made her seem ridiculously out of place. Amelia Sherman was definitely not black dress material.
Mrs. Sherman, herself in a black ensemble, took her place on the bleachers. She settled her black purse down next to her, and kept on a pair of black-framed sunglasses, so positioned as to avoid my mother’s gaze.
Once again, the suave Winston Olivier was my partner for the evening, as we prepared for the first dance, this time, the mambo. I imagine if a Cuban cigar was handy, Winston would be puffing away. And my dress - willowy black chiffon - would soon be brushing against him in all the right places; my sexual awakenings would once again be rekindled.
Winston took my hand as he held the mambo pose, and we were off on another night of decadent dance movements, not a spit ball in sight.
As I looked wistfully into Winston’s eyes, his Brylcreem pompadour rising high above him, he whispered, “you’re stepping on my shoes.” But once I regained my composure, we were back to being the “dynamic duo” who managed to carry off another night at Miss Victoria Ryan’s Ballroom Dance Class. Romance was in the air as the mambo played on, while Winston led with his usual debonair “Fred Astaire” aplomb. All that was missing was a red rose between my teeth.