It was probably fifth or sixth grade in my Texas elementary school when they started teaching us square dancing. I believe it was Mrs. Bradley. Not all of us were particularly coordinated, and the idea of holding a girl’s hand was especially gruesome to some of my friends. Skipping was something we all could do. Although the girls had it down pat, several of the guys had trouble with the rhythm.
If you’ve never square danced (I know there are several parts of the country less civilized than Texas), the basic move is a kind of skip with alternating feet. The music is rhythmic with a steady beat. We learned to start at opposite sides of a square in four couples, girls on the right. A caller tells you what move to make. There was a circle move, where the boys and girls alternately went around the outside of the square then returned to their ‘partner’. There was the ‘alleymain’ (Allemande) move, left or right, where everyone faces their corner (the couple next door), takes a left forearm with their corner and circles around until they are facing their partners again. There’s the ‘Do Si Do’ where the couple, who are initially facing each other, circle around each other facing in the same direction. The caller can also call a ‘right and left grand’, ‘promenade’, or ‘sashay’, among others.
You can imagine the general chaos of two or three squares of eleven-year-olds trying to follow any directions. I’ve also done square dancing with adults at our neighborhood block parties and found that similar chaos ensues.
If we survived the elementary school square dancing, most of our moms required us to take dance classes when we reached junior high school. Arthur Murray was the local franchise and we gathered to learn the waltz, foxtrot, swing, cha cha, rumba and two-step. For kids uncertain about the opposite sex, having to hold a dance partner was pretty scary. It didn’t help that our hands were sweaty, our breath could be atrocious, and the ability to follow instruction was often severely limited. Of course, on top of it all was the disparate level of coordination we had at that age.
Somehow, we made it to the ninth-grade dance, usually with parent-arranged partners. Of course, that school dance was pretty tame. The Twist wasn’t allowed of course, and most couples just shuffled or twirled around regardless of the music playing. There were rumors of exotic dances out there, often seen on American Bandstand or some other show, such as the Jerk, the Pony, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, and the Funky Chicken. Not for us at the time, though.
I was very uncoordinated in my teens, but learning dance moves ultimately helped me in a different way. Being a big kid, football appealed to me and I got to play as a lineman, as did my older brother. Football was a pretty popular sport in Texas and we started playing in fourth grade. I think my dad wasn’t too surprised when I chose it over his college sport, swimming. A lot of my early time playing football was positional; you’re here, he’s over there, so you go over and knock him down. I think I was pretty good at that, so I got to keep doing it.
However, I soon learned that I could do it better if I thought through the steps needed to be where I had to be. Some of my coaches were instrumental in teaching me which foot to start off on, how to step sideways or back, then forward, and how to aim myself at a likely moving target. In college my line coach, Buck Nystrom, was prescriptive about an offensive linemen’s moves. We had an assignment and a set of steps to take to accomplish it. But we knew that just like in war, “the plan falls apart when the first shot is fired.” So, if on the snap of the ball you couldn’t do what you were assigned to do, Buck said to, “just go knock someone down”.
I suppose that mental process has infected a lot of things in my everyday life. I tend to think through physical moves ahead of time, almost unconsciously. That mental process also helped me in my engineering degrees and work, ordering my actions and creating a step-by-step approach to reach an end.
And, when all else fails, I can just look for someone to knock down.
So, I guess you could say that I owe it all, or a lot of it, to Mrs. Bradley, square dancing, Arthur Murray, and Buck Nystrom.