Wallflowers and stag lines
Central City, Neb.
I have a rather spotted history of dancing. I’ve never been a very good dancer, but on the whole it’s been fun. My first episode was in the District 12 schoolyard, my country school in Howard County. I was maybe ten years old at the time, and had seen jitterbugging in movies. Lillian Wulf and I decided to try it on the gravel drive. I fell and split my right knee open. I still have the scar.
In high school we all went to the school dances and the free Saturday night wedding dances at the Legion Hall. I learned to dance (after a fashion) from practicing with other girls. Not many boys ever asked me to dance, but at the high school parties the teachers were fond of having a Grand March to pair off boys with girls for the first dance. There was a lot of maneuvering in the lines, the boys trying to match up with a popular girl, and the girls trying to get the most eligible jocks. I would at least get a partner for that, unless I was way at the end (the boys always had the shortest line and we’d run out of them).
There was a perpetual stag line of boys too shy to ask a girl to dance. They’d hang together in one spot, laughing and jabbing at one another to make it look like they were having a good time. And plenty of girls sat on chairs around the dance floor, gaily chatting to attract favorable attention. We were the wallflowers who had to dance with girls if we wanted to get into the action at all. It was about the same at the wedding dances. There we could do the flying Dutchman, the schottische and the polka.
When it was prom time we all wore formals and attended even if we didn’t have a date for the evening. It was far different from what takes place now. There were no rented tuxes, no limos, no fancy restaurant dinners. The juniors hosted a banquet for the seniors in the basement of one of the churches in town, with the mothers preparing the dinner. Then we’d go to the school gym for the prom. I thought it looked kind of silly for girls in formals to be dancing with one another, so I just watched from the sidelines.
In 4-H and later the Rural Youth organization, we had square dancing which I loved. All you had to do there was follow the caller’s instructions to do-se-do, promenade, form a star and perform a myriad of other calls. It was great fun and a chance to meet new kids. No problem there with getting a partner. The round and line dances were fun too, things like the hokey-pokey and the bunny hop. Just the other day when I was watching Jeopardy on TV, there was a category of naming dances. One of the clues was simply the music for the bunny hop. Not a single one of the three contestants recognized it! They were all too young.
Once I was in college, the social picture changed dramatically for me. I had plenty of dates, many of them for dances. I kept on with square dancing, because I attended UNL’s Ag College (now east campus) and the rural customs carried over into that. When I was a freshman, free ballroom lessons were offered at the student union, and a large number of students turned out for it. The instructor, with a partner, stood on the stage and demonstrated the steps. We faced her in lines across the floor and followed her steps in solo. When she thought we had learned it well enough, we got partners and tried dancing together. We learned a number of dances including the foxtrot, waltz and, yes, jitterbugging.
My favorite jitterbug partner was my friend Al Hoeting. We had no romantic interest in each other, but we could dance together so well. Everyone went to East Hills, a popular dance hall for the college set. In those days we danced with various partners, not following the horrendous later practice of dancing only with your date. I remember when my parents went to dances it was completely unheard of to spend all their time with just one another. My mother would talk about the conversations she had with various men she danced with. My generation was pretty much the same except for steady couples. I’m not sure when it became necessary to restrict yourself to your date, or for the girls to put their arms around the guy’s neck with both his hands around her waist. It seems to me that the standard dancing position is much more elegant.
I haven’t gone dancing in years and I don’t really miss it now, but it has its place in my memories.