That Breathless Charm

His  periwinkle  shoes  have  a  texture that  suggests  the  skin  of  a  reptile. His  feet  are  long,  and  it’s  a  lot  of periwinkle  to  take  in  all  at  once, even with the considerable distraction of the powder-blue suit that hangs from his lanky  frame.   Loose  is how he  looks—confident, and ready to begin.

Introductions  have  been  made,  the dancers are positioned more or less evenly on the stage, and Miss Victoria is just now quieting  the  standing-room-only  crowd. The  music  begins  and  she  waits  a  few beats. “Five, six, seven, eight,” she breathes into  the  microphone,  and  twenty-eight feet burst into a foxtrot.  The auditorium erupts with cheers, applause and  shrieks. Cameras flash from every corner .   

Up on  the  stage,  I have  the advantage  of  seeing  every  dancer  at  close range, watching footwork fancy and not-so,  and  feeling  the  full  range  of  emotions—joy  through  angst—written  on the  faces  of  fourteen  underage  foxtrotters.    I want  to know who  to  thank  for the  brilliant  musical  selection,  Frank Sinatra’s  rendition  of  The Way You  Look Tonight, which is literally and metaphorically soaring over the heads of the ten and eleven-year-old dancers, as I swipe at tears and try to give all seven couples my full attention.  

Some girls are a foot taller than their partners, requiring  the boys  to  tilt  their heads at awkward angles to maintain eye contact and avoid staring  into  the budding breasts of classmates.  While some dancers blush, others can’t stop grinning. While some glide, others shuffle.  Some audibly  count  steps,  while others hum along to the music.  The boy  in blue  is one smooth dancer; the periwinkle shoes saunter through the slow steps and sprint through the fast ones.

Chicken wings up,  toes  facing  toes, look  like  you’re  having  fun.    For  ten weeks,  twenty  sessions  in  all,  they’ve heard  this  mantra  again  and  again. They’ve practiced  their  socks off  learning meringue,  rumba,  tango,  swing and foxtrot.   Fifth-grade boys and girls who wouldn’t  have  touched  each  other  in March now comfortably coax each other around the stage, most in nearly perfect time with  the music, hands  firmly gripping shoulder blades or lightly touching bra straps.  

It’s a warm May afternoon at the J.W. Catherine  School  on  the  southwestern edge of Philadelphia.  Many students in this school—like their counterparts from the  six  other  schools  represented  here today—live  at  or  below  the  poverty level.   Still, their parents have managed to dress them neatly, modestly, proudly for  this  special  occasion—the  2009 Dancing  Classrooms  Philly  Semifinal Competition.  

Ballroom  dance  instructors  have taught the children to behave like ladies and gentlemen, at least on stage; back in their seats, they’re far more exuberant as they  cheer  on  classmates  in  the  other dances.  Each team has a color, worn in wide sashes by the young ladies, spelled out on laminated sheets safety-pinned to the  backs  of  jackets  and  shirts  for  the young men.

I  wonder  where  that  boy  found  a dress  shirt  in  exactly  the  shade  (Flyers’ orange) of his partner’s sash.  I’m drawn to a skinny girl who looks like her grandmother  just  fixed her up  for church on Easter:  a simple dress with a hint of lace at the knees, tights and shiny shoes, all topped off with  a  thick,  knit  cape  that can’t quite  camouflage her bony  shoulders.  Every stitch of her clothing is snow white,  interrupted  only  by  a  red  sash. She’s not  the best dancer on  the  stage, but she’s clearly having fun.   

The students have been coached  to put  a  lot  of  hip motion  into  the  Latin dances, and they’ve taken this instruction to heart.  Parents all but swoon over the tango and gasp as their daughters mime sexy  moves  by  pulling  splayed  fingers back across their foreheads.  The rumba (or “roooooomba,” as Miss Victoria says) teams  really  sell  it.   Hips  in  every  size and shape sway, wiggle or jerk, displaying a vast array of abilities.  

The  auditorium  was  warm  even before  the  dancing  began,  and  now someone has flung open the doors at the back and  side of  the  room.   Neighbors poke  their heads  in  to  see what  all  the commotion is, then stay to watch as the swing teams kick up their heels to Hit the Road  Jack while  the  audience  belts  out the  lyrics.    One  dimpled,  dark-haired boy in a crisp tan shirt stands just a few inches  taller  than  my  four-year-old nephew.  He’s giving it all he’s got—and he’s  got  plenty—and  when  the  music stops  I’m  tempted  to  pick  him  up  and hug him.  

But then  I remember  I’m one of the judges, and aside from the need to comport myself as an impartial observer, I’ve only  got  a  few  seconds  to  finalize my scores for this round.

It’s  so  hard  to  assign  numbers  to what’s going on here.  Each couple gets a score  from  6  to  10.    The  6s  and  10s reveal themselves within the first several seconds  of  each  dance,  but my  pencil hovers nervously over every 7, 8 and 9 before I commit to a score.   Seven couples per dance, seven numbers  to circle before the music stops, two sets of each dance,  three  busy  judges.   We  dodge dancers,  circle  numbers,  turn  in  score sheets.  Then  a  new  group  takes  the stage, and we do it all over again.  There’s no time to compare notes or remember the scores we’ve given from one round to the next.  Like everyone else in the auditorium, we’ll learn which two teams will advance  to  the  finals  at  the  end of  the program, when all 210 team scores have been tallied.

My  dance-related  qualifications  for being here  are marginal: my  dad  and  I were finalists in the jitterbug contest at a high-school  father-daughter  dance  in 1976; come to think of it, my three sisters  all were  finalists  in  the  same  event with  the  same  partner  in  subsequent years,  so  Dad  probably  deserves  the credit  there.    Also,  I’m  related  to  the McNiff Twins of Irish step-dancing fame; OK,  they’re  not  really  famous  and “McNiff”  is  just how our  last name was mispronounced one St. Patrick’s Day.    I did, however, watch my youngest sisters and  their peers perform countless  times during  their  grade-school  years,  so  I appreciate  the  hard  work  involved  in making these dances look easy and I recognize  the  joy  streaming  toward  the stage from parents and teachers.  

I’m  lucky  enough  to  be  here  as  a judge because of my  role  at  the Arts & Business  Council  of  Greater Philadelphia.   Dancing  Classrooms Philly  (modeled on  the New York City program featured in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom) is one of a hundred or so arts organizations I’ve had the privilege  to  work  with  since  joining  the Council staff a few years ago.  I believe in the  magic  this  program  offers  to Philadelphia  schools,  which  matters more than dancing skills when it comes to being a judge.

Anyway, even an untrained eye can assess the criteria we’ve been given.  I still want to give every couple a 10.  It helps only slightly to know that each student will go home with a ribbon and that the afternoon will end with one big rainbow of a line dance that includes them all.

“I  will  feel  a  glow  just  thinking  of you…”  The second round of foxtrotting ended  fifteen minutes  ago,  but  I’ve  got Old  Blue  Eyes  and  Young  Blue  Shoes under my skin.   To  the great delight of the home team supporters, the Catherine School has advanced to the finals, along with the Spring Garden School.   

“Lovely…never,  ever  change.”      I’ll never, ever hear that song again without recalling  the eager  faces,  the periwinkle shoes and the way that little girl’s face lit up when I told her I liked her cape on my way out the door.Eileen  Cunniffe  is  a  lifelong  resident  of  the Philadelphia area.   After  a  quarter  century  of  putting words  into  other  people’ s  mouths  and  manuscripts  as  a medical writer/editor and as a  corporate  communications manager, she has at long last begun to write her own, true stories.   Her  nonfiction  has  appeared  in  Wild  River Review, and the Travelers’ Tales anthology A Woman’ s World Again.   Eileen manages two volunteer programs at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.

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