Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche.
My subject this week is Dancing. Hence the bestowal of the capital D. Before you jump to conclusions, let me hasten to add that I am not about to launch on a learned treatise on Bharatanatyam, Kathakali or Kuchipudi. Or even Odissi, come to that. While I have admired the svelte and expressive grace of a Balasaraswati or a Kelucharan Mohapatra on stage during my childhood, I can’t say I naturally took to the art form, though the accompanying music sometimes held me in thrall. In other words, what I know about these classical dance forms can be written on a pinhead with a pneumatic drill, as I once heard my English teacher in school describe the state of being a total ignoramus. The same goes for Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn and their balletic brilliance. Tchaikovsky’s music for the immortal ballet Swan Lake, I could appreciate, but the soaring magnificence of the ballerinas, literally swanning about the stage, often escaped me. My bad, to employ that cringe-worthy, au courant expression. The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars but in ourselves, as Shakespeare might have put it.
However, I am talking about a completely different kind of dancing. The sort where the boy and the girl hold hands outstretched, the girl’s hand on the boy’s shoulder and the boy’s unoccupied hand resting lightly on the girl’s waist. Those were the essential hand positions for the foxtrot, one of the oldest western dance forms known to us. Of course, the feet have to move in a precise way in time with the music. It is significant that the boy keeps moving forward while the girl keeps striding backwards. Marking territory and asserting male dominance? Pull the other one! No girl I know takes a backward step these days. I hasten to add that I have no desire to expand on the nuances of the foxtrot. It is a very traditional pas de deux, and that’s all I am willing and able to trot out on the subject. The reason I brought it up is to share with you a colourful vignette from my boarding school days, one which involved the foxtrot. Elsewhere, I have dwelt at length on the joys and tribulations of boarding school life, but I have not really talked about how our masters and teachers gently made us feel comfortable in mixed company. Under their strict watch, of course.
It came about that our school, which had a boys’ and a girls’ wing, would host once a month, for the senior boys and girls, a ‘social’, also called for reasons unfathomable, ‘games evening.’ The venue was our school hall. The boys, 9th standard and above would troop in and sit on benches on one side of the hall, while the senior girls, far less in number, would sit themselves down on the opposite side. The boys were all turned out in smart, pressed shirts and drainpipes, shoes polished so you could comb your hair in the reflection, hair slicked back and Brylcreemed, Elvis Presley style. The girls, demure in multi-hued frocks and hair carefully coiffed. As only to be expected, plenty of stolen glances accompanied by titters and giggles galore, the odd teeth brace glinting at times. Remember, the average age, if you exclude the teachers present, was around 15. Giggling was the order of the day.
The teachers on duty at these socials were like informal masters of ceremony. They stood on stage and ensured that nothing came in the way of the smooth flow of the evening’s proceedings and that matters did not get out of hand. No funny business. The evening itself usually started off with a song or two by the girls and the boys, just to warm things up (Let’s get together from the film Parent Trap and Side by side being particular favourites). A comic sketch was a must, carefully rehearsed for timing and delivery of the punch line, a recitation of a dreadful poem composed by some bright spark from 9A. Then came the moment everyone was waiting for with bated breath. The Dance. This was a bit tricky. The first dance was termed a ‘tag dance.’ I am getting ahead of myself here. Let me backtrack. When the first dance was announced, the received custom required the boys to go up and ask the girls to dance with them. There were several problems to be faced here. First off, shyness. No one wanted to be the first, so we sat where we were, stock still and doing a fair imitation of our own statues. At which point the teachers would come round, hectoring the boys not to behave like blithering idiots. Ever so hesitantly, some of the boys would start walking towards the girls, legs like jelly.
Now comes problem number two. The boys invariably outnumbered the girls by a factor of 2:1. Therefore, when the boys perked up enough gumption to approach the girls, you had this farcical situation of two or three boys approaching the same girl and it was a question of who got there first. The laggards had then to pretend they were asking the girls who sat on either side of the first-choice girl. The reason for this nonsensical parody was that, out of the 30-odd girls seated, perhaps 10 were identified by the boys as being ‘the lookers.’ Thus, most of the initial surge went after these10 beauties and the poor Cinderellas were left pining with the others. My young heart bled for them. Happily, in the end all the girls were ‘picked up’ and the first tag dance was well under way. The master on duty slips in a 78-rpm vinyl of Elvis Presley crooning Love me tender or It’s now or never, the gait ideal for the foxtrot. The floor is full, the boys start tripping over their partners’ legs, most of us with two left feet and there is much mocking laughter from the boys who are still sitting on the benches waiting their turn.
This is a good moment to explain, on the off-chance there are some who may not know, what a tag dance is. The tag dance, by definition, ensures no one boy is stuck with the same girl for the entire duration of the song, an impossible strain to bear for any newcomer to the dance floor – boy or girl. So, while you are dancing, any other boy is free to come and tap you on the shoulder (the tag), and you have to make way for him to take over and dance with the girl you were tripping the light fantastic with. Incidentally, it’s only the boys who do the tagging, not the girls. This augurs much potential hilarity. For example, Mahesh has just asked Rekha for a dance. While Elvis is barely into the chorus, he (Mahesh that is, not Elvis) is tagged by Mathew. Poor Mahesh then has to withdraw with a ‘Thanks Rekha’ while Rekha responds coyly with a ‘Thanks Naresh’ and Mahesh tries to bleat, ‘Not Naresh, Mahesh,’ but the magic moment passes. Mahesh or Naresh has disappeared into oblivion. Conversation also has to be necessarily staccato and brief. ‘Hi Rekha, I am Mathew. I am in 9B, Sharon’s brother.’ ‘Oh, Sharon’s my best friend. What is your favourite…?’ What was Mathew’s favourite whatever will forever remain a mystery as just then, Mathew is tagged by Vikram. Mathew stalks off, hoping he didn’t suffer from bad breath. And so the long evening wears on. Elvis Presley gives way to Cliff Richard who puts on his Dancing Shoes much to the delight of all the Bachelor Boy(s), who in turn makes way for Connie Francis’ Lipstick on your collar, and no boy or girl is any the wiser about who exactly he or she was dancing with. Some of those songs were of a more upbeat tempo, which did not make it any easier for us to execute the foxtrot. The dancing thus became more and more impressionistic.
When the early 60s morphed into the mid-60s, the music got more raucous. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones hit town, and our teachers were broad-minded enough to allow us to move from the gentle foxtrot to the twist, the rumba and other vigorous dance forms. However, they always ensured that matters did not spin out of control. One other slightly awkward issue had to be tackled by the school authorities. Despite doing everything they could to ensure democracy with boys dancing and mixing with as many girls as possible, they could not avoid a handful of boys getting ‘fixed’ to some girls of their choice. Word quickly got around. ‘Pssst, don’t tag Wally when he is dancing with Maureen. They are fixed.’ This, of course, became a red rag challenge to the other boys with bets freely taking place. ‘Who will be brave enough to tag Wally?’ Krish of 10A puts his hand up and walks bravely across to the dance floor and taps Wally on the shoulder. ‘My dance Wally, if you don’t mind.’ Wally looks daggers at Krish and spits out of the side of his mouth, well out of Maureen’s earshot, ‘Get out of my face Krish, or you’ll be eating a fistful of knuckles after this.’ Krish trudges back, tail between legs. Tells the boys Wally agreed to give him the next dance, but nobody was buying.
It was a strange rite of passage, this ‘getting to know the girls’ on the dance floor, and frankly, some of the crazy dance moves by the boys were not compatible with live brain activity. Then again, who cared? Over the weekend, some of our class mates brought back a clutch of autograph books from their sisters (and their friends) with a list of names to sign and write sweet nothings on. And if your name happened to be on that hallowed list, Kipling captured the emotion best. ‘Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it / And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!’