Dance Lessons

Posted on September 11, 2021 in John's Current Blog

Phnom Penh; September 12, 2021.Everyone in my hometown danced. There were some shy girls, but if I grabbed their hands at a sock hop, they’d join in. Dancing is infectious, but it’s also tribal. If you grew up in a dancing town – like Orangeburg, South Carolina, or Memphis, Tennessee, or Athens, Georgia, you surely dance. I loved to. I had two older sisters, so I never had to buy 45s because they had stacks of them.

My father teaching me an old mountain jig.

I was 6 when Nancy bought Hound Dog by Elvis Presley. She had pictures of Fabian and Ricky Nelson pinned to her bulletin board, but it was The Diamonds’ Little Darlin’ in 1957 that really got me going. The song was originally recorded by a black group from South Carolina who later became Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and whose Stay from 1961 propelled them to fame and me and my junior high friends to the dance floor.

The summer of 1958 we went to visit some friends of my parents in the Panama Canal Zone, where the Calypso beats were intoxicating. We were already singing Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (the Banana Boat Song) – his Calypso album was the first record to sell over a million copies. Lucho Azcarraga was playing the organ at the Hilton with his band. It was the liveliest, best music I had ever heard – a combination of jazz, Calypso, and his own mix of local folk traditions and early rock. We bought the album and to this day it’s one of my favorites, with crazed percussion and rapid-fire timing.


The first album I bought with my own money was Booker T & the MG’s Green Onions in 1962. I was a dancing fool. The Mashed Potato. The Bristol Stomp. The Swim. The Jerk. The Charleston. The Watusi. The Twist. Orangeburg was a typical little southern town, mostly Black but completely segregated. There were two historically Black colleges in town, but a mixing of the races was discouraged if not all but forbidden. I never knew a Black person my age until our high school was integrated in 1964. But I certainly loved Black music. By 1961, when I was 11, I was enamored of the songs by Carla Thomas, The Marvelettes, Ike and Tina Turner, Gene Chandler, and Chubby Checker – another South Carolinian. My father was a ham radio operator and an electronics wiz. We had the first color tv and the first transistor radios in town because he built them. I’d stay up way past my bedtime listening to the hits on WLS, a powerful radio station in Chicago whose signal somehow made it to my bedroom.

As a white boy, I was expected to hunt and fish, but also to take golf, tennis, horseback riding, and dance lessons. I was a bad shot at both birds and at the basketball goal, but ai was a scrappy guard and ai could steal the ball from even the tallest players. It was all dance to me. Ballroom dancing was taught by Isabel Whaley Sloan, who was born in 1897 and who traveled around the state teaching dance and etiquette to generations of pubescent kids in South Carolina. We would meet once each month in a fellowship hall where chairs lined the walls – the boys on one side, the girls on the other. After two years of lessons, Mrs. Sloan chose someone to be her assistant in each town. It was my first “job” – albeit nonpaying — which I kept throughout high school. It was considered an honor.

I was known as a good dancer. In Augusta, Georgia (home of James Brown!), which was 75 miles away but to this day is a good hour and a half in a car, the local television station broadcast live a Saturday show called Top Ten Dance Party. Kids from all over South Carolina and Georgia were invited to come on. We got a busload of dance partners together and went to Augusta to appear on the show, which was modeled after any number of 60s teen dance party shows airing throughout the country.  I won the contest. I think Patty Still was my winning partner, because I can remember brushing her hair on the bus on the way there. I remember no prizes, but high school friends still mention it occasionally.

I wanted to dance professionally and was envious of my sisters’ lessons in ballet and tap. As I recall, the male instructor told my mother that he didn’t teach little boys because, you know, he might grow up to be…well, you know…. Well, indeed, now I know! I have never been one to have regrets or to second-guess the past, but I do wonder what would have happened if I had become a professional dancer. Would I be long dead from AIDS? Years later, the summer of 1970, before my senior year in college, my father arranged for me to be a public relations intern at his company headquarters in New York City. My mother was not having it. She hated the thought that I might be gay, but she also knew that I probably was and feared what might happen to me as an impressionable 20-year-old in Sin City. Instead, I interned at the State Development Board in the state capital and lived with my sister Sue – herself a fabulous dancer. When the “Dirty Dog” was a becoming a popular dance when we were in high school – she, a senior; me, a freshman – she and I could do it in public without the chaperones prohibiting it because we were brother and sister. I distinctly remember one night at the “Riviera” – a city-owned community center on the banks of the Edisto River. It was also called the “Pavilion.” She had been dancing with Louie Argoe. I don’t remember anything about him except that he was an exceptional shagger. The Shag is the official state dance of South Carolina – a sort of slowed-down, sleazier jitterbug. Imagine my surprise years later when, outside of South Carolina and Georgia, people were appalled to hear me talking about shagging in junior high school! I was in my twenties before I heard the British use of the word.

We danced all the time. Everyone. The shy girls. The football players. The geeks. The rednecks. We chanted the lyrics as we danced, with the same spirit that fueled the cheers for our basketball players: “Louie Louie, oh no, Me gotta go!” “Bend over, let me see you shake your tail feather!”  “’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try, I can’t get no, I can’t get no…” Dancing was as much a part of our rituals as swimming and barbecue and church. The Baptists weren’t supposed to dance but I swear they were always the best shaggers. In the late 50s and early 60s, the Development Board was successful in luring businesses to our mostly rural farming community. Smith-Corona, the typewriter manufacturer, came from California, and then Utica Tools moved its operation from New York to Orangeburg, bringing teenage girls with their miniskirts and record albums that went beyond the R&B and beach music we had been dancing to – the British Invasion. The Pony replaced the Slop; we Shimmied as well as Shagged. Beatlemania edged out nearly all the country music. Patty and Beverly Townsend went to Statesboro, Georgia, to see the Rolling Stones play at Georgia Southern College in 1965.

It’s probably best that Mama didn’t let me go to New York. Though I had grown up in a family of intellectuals, I was never challenged in high school and I was lazy because I never had to make an effort to make good grades. I was 17 and immature when I entered the University of Georgia. I chose it purely for a new experience. While I loved my friends back home, I didn’t want to go to school with the same people I had been to high school with, which would have been the case at any college in South Carolina. At summer orientation before my freshman year, I met a girl from Memphis. We were acting silly in the bookstore and she asked me if I liked to dance. Her high school boyfriend had been the drummer for the BoxTops, whose “The Letter” went on to top the charts that fall. She had grown up with Alex Chilton, who sings lead on the original, and which Joe Cocker covered to great acclaim several years later. Booker T & the MGs played at her high school dances. She and I became fast friends, at least partially because I would marvel at the bass line in a song; moreover, because I could cut a rug.

I went home after my freshman year to work in the bank to earn enough money to buy a car. My friend Mary’s brother had been killed in automobile accident and I spent nearly every free moment at her house, where her mother was distraught. We spent hours practicing our shag routines. Although the basic swing-like dance steps are precise, our own variations were like jazz musicians’ riffs. We were coloring outside the lines, but anyone could see that we were shagging. Not that anyone saw because there was really no place for us to go and Mary’s mother needed us close by for comfort. Though most ballroom dances traditionally stick to the male leading and his partner following, the pattern is not so much about being in charge as it is suggestive. Mary invented some very clever dance steps that she could signal to me with a slight hand movement. I followed her suggestions as often as she did mine. It was definitely give and take, like our friendship.

I returned to school in the fall of ’68 just as popular music was becoming more expressive, more experimental, and more political. The Beatles, the Stones, Aretha, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, the Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Simon and Garfunkel were at the top of their game. Bob Dylan had gone electric, and James Brown was singing, “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Live concerts were becoming huge dance parties. Frank Zappa was pushing musical boundaries. George Clinton was overseeing a sea change at Motown as funk expanded the standard 4/4 beat of the Carolina Shag with new time signatures that made our dancing change as well. Big hits by Sly and the Family Stone and, in 1969, the Jackson Five, would continue to make us dance to the 4/4 beat, but they pushed the beats per minute up to 100. R&B had been 60-80 BPM. Rock was becoming even faster, about 140 BPM. By the time of the Woodstock Festival, we were all basically doing solos on the dance floor or pasture.

In the mid-70s, I returned to graduate school in Athens, where an alternative music scene was evolving. The members of the B52s were friends of mine, and my apartment was occasionally the scene of wild dance parties. We would take turns manning the turntable because all our recordings were on vinyl. We’d play one British rock group followed by an American R&B number: David Bowie, then Aretha. The Stones’ “Satisfaction,” then Devo’s version. We were dancing to New Wave and Punk bands – the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and Blondie, but Marvin Gaye was making new music as well. We danced to all of it. John Beal was my boyfriend at the time. An impossibly handsome young man, he all but abandoned his painting studio his senior year in art school to concentrate on theatrical dance. He moved to New York and danced with Twyla Tharp and John Kelly.

With Mikel and his mother a couple of years before she died.

I moved a lot: to the Caribbean, New York, France, Italy, and back to South Carolina. Amazingly, I fell in love with someone who doesn’t really dance, though I have shagged with his mother. She had a very smooth style. Robert Waldrop, who wrote some songs for the B52s, said she was like “air and cream.” My husband and I have been together for nearly 30 years and occasionally we’ll be at a party and I’ll dance with some of our old friends. But mostly, I dance the way I have since the 70s: by myself. The kitchen is my dance hall. I have arthritis and a fake knee, but it is simply impossible for me NOT to dance to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun.” My best friend Dana says that it’s required to dance to it, even if you’re in the checkout aisle of the grocery store and the Muzak version starts to play. I’ve long ago forgotten most of those formal dances I taught with Mrs. Sloan: the Foxtrot, the Rumba, the Viennese Waltz. When those 4/4 beats are playing – whether the Temptations’ “My Girl” or the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” I shag. I’m not really alone because my friend Mary, who died 3 years ago, and I perfected so many steps of our own, that I dance with those memories.