Late autumn at Yale brings more than midterms and cardboard pumpkin cutouts. These upcoming weekends promise screw-your-roommate dances, followed by holiday balls, and soon the be-all and end-all of awkward courtship and uncomfortable footwear, the Winter Ball. Formal dance season is upon us.
Before Yale, I considered myself well-prepared for collegiate formals. High school dances had hardened me against every known type of formal dance angst.
For instance, I am an old hand at less-than-perfect dates. Freshman year of high school, I was supposed to attend Homecoming with a theater toadie named Steven. He was adorable –in a mouth-full-of-metal-and-rubber-bands and legs-like-stairway-banisters sort of way.
Half an hour after Steven and his mom were supposed to pick me up, he showed up on my front porch with two girls in frumpy black dresses. He knew them through Remote Control Car Club, Steven explained, and they didn’t have dates, so he had invited them along. That would be okay with me, right?
He never told me their names. He gave us each a flower, and his mom drove us all to the dance. It turned out one of the girls had brought an inflatable skeleton as a dance partner, so Steven stepped on my feet for most of the evening.
The next year, Doug asked me to Homecoming in front of our entire history class. Doug was a nice, quiet boy who always did really well on standardized tests and had a unibrow. I thought he’d moved away in junior high and had moved back again that fall, but my friend Anne informed me after class that he’d actually spent those 18 months in a mental institution.
I spent most of the dance in the hallway with Doug, trying to convince him to stop banging his head into a locker and muttering expletives. After the dance we went with some friends to play Whirly-Ball — an ill-fated late 90s trend that combined bumper cars and basketball — where someone accidentally whacked me in the chest with a high-speed pass. My sternum still aches when it rains.
But there was one relief — the high school dance floor itself required no physical skill. Aside from those senior year cultural dark ages when “swing dancing” briefly became acceptable, my dance floor experiences remained in the effortless state of nature — Madonna pantomimes and tootsie rolls.
I expected the same when I came to Yale. Maybe I wouldn’t always have great chemistry with my dates, but the dances themselves would remain bass-thumping celebrations of mindless hormones and boy bands.
But Yale formals demand the one thing for which four years of gymnasiums filled with PTA moms and Coolio never prepared me — they want me to dance like a grown-up.
Our college councils have deemed most of our formal dances too adult for catchy, vacuous pop music. My peers seem to believe that resume-building 20-somethings have moved beyond the humpty dance. Somehow, they hire all these classy Latin bands and jazz quartets in good conscience.
I do not want to spend my time on the dance floor doing anything involving ball-changes or 8-counts. My Yale education has brought me in touch with my inner self, and that inner self is a boy-crazy 14-year-old.
Besides, I have given “adult dancing” a shot — in the form of 7th grade park district ballroom dance lessons, courtesy of my mother.
At first, I was excited to be the next Ginger Rogers. Mom bought me a new outfit — a hot magenta silk blouse, matching miniskirt and tights, along with a gold brooch approximately 4 inches in diameter that, when pinned on, made one side of my blouse sag lower than the other. She told me I looked like a little flower. A man-killing little flower, I might add.
The class instructor was a wizened, 5-foot-2-inch old lady who was colorblind and referred to me as “the red girl.” She wasted half of each lesson coming up with creative ways to pair us off, such as alphabetically, according to our pets’ names, and so on. I was tall for my age, so I usually ended up dancing with Victor, a large Ukrainian boy who had been shaving since fourth grade.
I did emerge from the class with a working knowledge of the box step. But the school dances of my youth were too little Great Gatsby and too much Top 40 to provide opportunities for honing my jitterbug. But even though my steps were a little rusty, when last year’s Winter Ball rolled around and the posters advertised a “real band,” I wanted to be a good sport.
So I dragged a guy friend to the free lesson offered by the ballroom dancing team. His hand floated nervously at my hip as a tiny girl paced around us chirping commands like “6-7-8 and quar-ter turn! 6-7-8 and grape-vine right!” My friend and I spent 45 minutes mocking the better-coordinated couples before we sheepishly left.
Thankfully, it turned out my date’s idea of sophisticated dancing involved shuffling in place and pretending to play the drums in the air, so we spent most of Winter Ball eating toasted ravioli and baby carrots at the refreshment table.
Every so often I stole a glance at the dance floor — what should have been a scene of liberated Backstreet flailing was reduced to couples bopping in time and banging into each others’ knees. My date and I got tired of complaining about the music and wandered onto the floor, and we actually did have a little fun stumbling around in our clumsy box step.
I guess I wouldn’t mind learning how to waltz properly. After all, we are at Yale to learn things we never learned in high school. Maybe a little ballroom dancing is a nice change of pace, and maybe it does feel pretty classy.
I’ll grow up, eventually. But right now I’d rather be lip-syncing to Sir-Mix-A-Lot.
Molly Worthen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.