When I was about eight years old, my mother strongly suggested that my sister Terry and I take dancing lessons. A woman in our parish, Miss Sylvia, gave weekly classes in tap and toe. Toe dancing held no interest for me. It looked painful and those pointy pink satin shoes couldn’t be worn for anything other than flitting about in a tutu. Tap shoes, however, could beat out rhythms on wooden floors and also on cement sidewalks. Tap dancing was definitely the one I wanted. Terry shrugged and said she’d take whichever I chose.
And so it was decided that my sister and I would sign up. The beginners tap dance class was held on Mondays after school. Before we left for school the following Monday, our mother gave us each a quarter to pay for the lesson.
The classes were held in a hall in an old building a half-mile from our school. I desperately wanted those shiny tap shoes and didn’t complain on the walk there. It would be a different story on the walk back.
The hall had wooden walls, wooden floors and wooden fold-down seats against three of the walls. Miss Sylvia sat behind an old wooden desk. She was a homely woman, older than my mother. I loved to play card games like Crazy Eights and Go Fish. However, my favorite was Old Maid. The object of the game was to discard your hand before you—gasp!—became the old maid. The one no man wanted to marry. Miss Sylvia resembled the picture on the box of the Old Maids. She was a real, live Old Maid, I thought. How sad. It wasn’t Miss Sylvia’s fault she was too ugly to get a man. How unfair that her lonely fate had been determined by her looks. Did she have to teach dancing because she hadn’t a husband to support her? I studied her as I waited behind Terry to sign up, and wondered if she would look prettier if she smiled. Maybe, I thought, my heart full of love for the unlovable, I could become her best student. Maybe I could become a famous tap dancer like Shirley Temple, and Miss Sylvia would beam with pride. And some man would see her smiling and marry her.
I felt like Lady Bountiful as I handed over my sweaty quarter. My grim teacher slipped it into a worn leather coin purse with the others. She wrote down my name, pointed to the flip-down wooden chairs lining the wall, and said, “Sit over there with the other girls.”
That’s when I noticed there were no boys in the room. Terry and I took the next seats in the row. We dozen or so girls swung our thin legs back and forth, back and forth as we waited. I noticed with much envy, that one girl already wore glistening black tap shoes. The rest, however, wore scuffed brown Oxfords like Terry and me.
When Miss Sylvia finally registered the last girl, she thumped over, faced us and said, “Everyone stand and form a single line.”
We did. She began the lesson by dragging one foot back and forth on the wooden floor. “This is called the shuffle,” she said. “Everyone do this with your right foot.” We imitated her for some tedious minutes, until she held up a palm and announced, “Now, shuffle your left foot.”
When we’d conquered that, she instructed, “Now…shuffle on your right foot once; hop on your left; then stamp back down on your right foot.” She gave a quick demonstration and watched with a deep frown as we graceless girls fumbled our way though.
“Remember,” she said marching down the line like a general reviewing his troops, “it’s ‘shuffle, hop, stamp.” She thumped her hand rhythmically against her skinny thigh and kept repeating, “Shuffle, hop, stamp…shuffle, hop, stamp.”
When she thought we’d conquered that step, she said, “Now do the same thing beginning on the left foot,”—and that’s where she lost me. I couldn’t keep up. I was hopping when I should’ve been shuffling, and stamping when I should’ve been hopping. I was a mess. Terry and the other girls mastered the maneuver but I could never get in the groove. Finally, flamed with embarrassment, I fled the hall and waited for Terry outside.
I doubt Miss Sylvia even knew I was gone. When my sister appeared, I lifted my chin defiantly and told Terry she’d have to go by herself next Monday.
“Oh,” my sister said matter-of-factly. “I hated it. I’m not going back either.”
My mother sighed when we told her we were through with dancing. Then she brightened and said, “I think a sewing class would be more useful anyway. There’s one for beginners starting next week.”