“Do You Want to Dance?”

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A class similar to ours

So Dixie and I had practiced every dance we could see on American Bandstand and were getting more confident in our steps. Then we entered seventh grade and that meant Mr. Billings Dance Class. For many years his class, by invitation only, was attended by everyone in my elementary school and the other elementary school in Portland attended by white upper middle class students. Everyone got an invitation. Except Mary Jo. Mary Jo was the daughter of a live in maid in the neighborhood; she was from Haiti; and she was a Negro. (at that time the socially polite word.)There already had been a stink from one mother, another transfer from Georgia to Portland, about letting Mary Jo even attend Riverdale Grade School. But we were a public school, and she lived in the neighborhood, so she had the right to attend. No one discussed Mary Jo’s exclusion from dance class, but we all understood the reason.

To our dismay, there was no correlation between American Bandstand dancing and dancing school with the Billings. It was an introduction to dancing and etiquette. We wore party dresses, black shoes with white socks and white gloves. The boys wore suits and ties. We were assigned partners who varied throughout the 90 minute ordeal. I was short, so the boys were taller than me, but many girls towered over the boys, putting their busts at eye level for their astonished partners.

We learned the box step, the fox trot, the waltz and, if Mr. Billings was feeling very sporty, the cha-cha. The lessons went on interminably every Friday night through seventh and eighth grade. At the blessed end of every night, we had to line up and thank “our sponsors” at the door, making eye contact and shaking their hands.

I would like to say that those lessons helped me in later life. They didn’t.

 

6 thoughts on ““Do You Want to Dance?”

  1. So many of the things that we did back then like Dance, Shop, and Home Economics, kept the innocence of school. When those things were taken out, is when I think the schools changed for the worse. I really enjoyed your description of the times.

  2. Wow. I’m thinking how difficult life must have been for Mary Jo. I went to public schools all my life, in rural communities, and I didn’t see a black child in school until my senior year. She and her brother were not in any of my classes. I was a shy kid who kept my head down and didn’t talk to anyone unless they spoke to me first, so I don’t think I ever spoke to either of them. Your article gives me pause: What was life like for them, the only black family in our small, conservative town?

    As a young adult, I began to learn about and confront my own racism when a roommate handed me her copy of The Autobiography of Malcom X. Next I read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, and boy was that an eye opener. But it wasn’t until I became politically active and started reading books by other women activists that I finally dug deep.

    I feel I owe it to people of color to educate myself and become the best possible ally I can, so most of the books I read are by POC. Fiction or non-fiction, I weep a lot, reading them. I hope Mary Jo grew up strong and found a loving community to support her.

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