My Most Awkward Dance Ever (RIP Donna Summer) [casual fri]

Believe it or not, there was a time that I did not have sweet dance moves like this and this.

This is the story about my first slow-dance.

Anyone that grew up in a middle-school setting where the seasons and holidays were marked by school dances knows that to “slow dance” was a rite-of-passage experienced by a precious few. Primarily reserved for nerdy kids that “dated” each other and the “cool kids” that hooked up and “dated” each other, the “slow dance” was a beast that eluded me for most all of my middle school career.

I had spent 6th- and 7th-grades going to most of the dances, but not actually dancing. While reveling in the glory of Third Eye Blind, NSync, Creed, Jewel, Boys II Men and Savage Garden, I’d hang out with my friends, “make fun of” (read: jealously wish I was part of) those that had someone to slow dance with, and join in the chorus of yelling middle-schoolers that would enthusiastically supply the edited-out curse word in “Pretty Fly for a White Guy“.

I was the quintessential “that guy” in those situations: an awkward wallflower, terrified of girls and wearing bad Christian t-shirts, who would (no joke) stand next to and carry on conversations with my slow-dancing friends–while they were slow dancing (once, a teacher had to tell me to give the dancing couple some space).

Yes, like I said, I was that guy.

But all the while, I really wanted to slow dance with someone. My blood pressure would rise at the beginning of any slow song as my palms became sweaty and I began wondering if anyone would ask me, or offer me an opportunity to ask them.

I didn’t have anything close to a “girlfriend” until junior year of high school, so that seemingly-sweet nectar of having my hands on a girl’s hips, getting within 5 3/4 inches of her, staring into her eyes, and swaying side-to-side, was a prospect that seemed, at the time, the highest of possible human experiences, rivaling even my most intimate moments with God himself.

I had never really been physically close to a girl, and the “slow dance” offered the closest possibility my pre-pubescent hormonal-self had to get near a girl in a socially-accepted context. I really ached for it.

Sixth-grade came and went. No slow dance. Seventh-grade came and went. Still none.

Eighth grade rolled around and I was told I needed to begin rounding out my extra-curricular activities to prepare for college. And so, I joined the SCA (the Student Council Association). I can’t for the life of me remember what position it was. I honestly think I was just a “representative” (an unelected “office” anyone at all could hold if they wanted).

One of the “privileges” of being part of the SCA was that you could help with their fundraising efforts by selling candy at the dances. I dutifully served my shifts at the table in the back of the cafeteria during the dances and thought I had some  level of “cool” for providing the candy bars to fuel the dance –like some nerd who supplies alcohol to the under-age “cool kids” and experiences something like “acceptance” for a few precious moments.

Spring of 2000. I would be moving on to high school in the next month or so. It was towards the end of the last school dance of the year, with parents beginning to line the hallways to pick up their kids. I was in the back, candy-pushing for the SCA, when the DJ said to grab a partner because this was the final dance of the evening. The last dance of my middle school career. And I was alone, accompanied only by my social studies teacher running the concessions table with me.

The crowd parted and a girl approached the table. I still vividly remember this girl: her name, her personality, her looks, and the fact that I had known for a while now that she liked me. A lot.

I also remember that whatever “that guy” I was, she was the female version of that multiplied by 1,000–the last girl I would ever be interested in. However “nerdy” I was, she was far more awkward and tactless, and it was the school consensus that she was entirely out of touch with the social and cultural realities and dynamics around her. In other words, she was as “unpopular” as one could be in middle school. I was attracted to her at no level, and had been trying to avoid her so as not to give a different impression.

“Hey Paul, will you dance with me?”

My heart started racing and my fight-or-flight response began kicking in. I had never touched a girl in the way she was asking me to touch her. I did not want to touch her like that. I did not want my only slow dance to be with her. Luckily, I had an out.

“Sorry, I have to be at this table to sell the candy and soda.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see my dear, sweet social studies teacher smiling enthusiastically over me.

“No, Paul. Go ahead and dance. I can take care of this.”

Curses no middle schooler should know ran through me as I emerged from behind the table. I followed this girl to the dance floor, and we ended up (of course) out on the fringes, away from the main group of dancers just enough so that everyone could (and did) focus in on us–especially my giggling and pointing friends.

We assumed the position: her hands on my shoulders, mine on her hips. No. Her waist. No. Her hips. No. Her torso. (What the hell am I doing?) I settled on her waist. We began swaying as the song echoed between us.

We said nothing. She stared fixedly on me as my eyes were finding anything else to look at but hers. She asked a question about the choir class we were in. I answered. We resumed silence. It felt so long.

Side note: as many of my stories eventually touch on, I was raised as a somewhat culturally-isolated Southern Baptist, especially musically. Contemporary Christian Music was all I knew. I can spend all day reminiscing about Amy Grant, Avalon, Sandi Patty, David Meece, and DC Talk. But, at this point in my life, “normal” music was entirely lost on me. Dances were some of my only chances to hear it.

And so, if I hadn’t had been so isolated, maybe I would have recognized the song that was playing. Maybe I wouldn’t have begun this dance. Maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised when the strangely out-of-place bass beat began thumping. Maybe I would have known that my only slow-dance of middle-school–my first dance ever, and my first moments of being physically close to a girl–would only last about 70 seconds.

Because that’s when the slow part of Donna Summer’s song “Last Dance” ends and it turns into an up-beat disco song.

At that moment, this girl and I realized that we were not actually dancing to a slow song. We dropped our arms, stared blankly at each other for a moment, shook hands (yes, seriously), and then walked away.

I was reminded of this moment earlier this week when, in honor of Donna Summer’s recent death, NPR’s Fresh Air re-broadcast an interview they had done with her in 2008. They talked specifically about “Last Dance” and how it had begun as an attempt to make her do a slow song. It didn’t work, so they ended up changing it to fit her usual hit disco formula.

I’m glad she did.

Donna, thank you for the music. I wish I had known it better.


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