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.