Was your experience with dance lessons as uncomfortable as mine? Mine were held at The Jewish Community Center when I was fourteen. All of us sufferers were eighth-graders. I assume our class was only for Jewish kids because back then many of our parents would be alarmed if we even dated, let alone married, someone outside our faith. I guess they figured that we might as well learn how to dance exclusively with partners whom we might one day “waltz down” the aisle with in marriage.
Fourteen was a bad age to hold members of the opposite sex in your arms. We were all just learning about deodorant (Ban Roll-On back then) and scents (English Leather for the guys and Fabergé Tigress or Chalimar, I think, for the girls). I “dis-stink-ly” recall my nose telling me that we all overdid it with applying this new, mysterious stuff. We were a nervous, pungent group. A dancing lesson was many things, but Fun it was not.
I remember coming home after the first one and complaining to Mom and Dad that we were going to have to learn how to waltz. Who cared about that horse-and-buggy-era dance when The Twist, the Watusi, and the Mashed Potatoes were the cool ones of the time.
Well, my dad let me know in no uncertain terms that not only was the waltz the greatest dance ever invented, but with his Hungarian blood flowing through my veins I had better master it. He warned me that otherwise I'd just sit at the dance in a corner being a "waltzflower."
You probably know that it was Johann Strauss and his son Johann Strauss II who were the greatest waltz composers of all, and since Dad was born in Hungary in 1911 (when it was the Hapsburg Austrian-Hungarian Empire) , he bragged about these geniuses being his “countrymen.” The Blue Danube Waltz was the single most romantic piece of music in the history of the world, according to my dad.
So out came our portable record player, out came his precious 33rpm record of that waltz, and then out onto our dance floor (actually our cork-floored den) stepped my mother and father.
“Watch carefully, son!” my father enthused as he 1-2-3-1-2-3’ed my mom around the floor.
I know I’m prejudiced, but growing up I thought my parents were such a handsome couple. Mom was a Russian beauty, and Dad had this European allure in his handsome face and trim physique. Calling a Hungarian a “Hunky” was certainly not a compliment, but Mom would call him her “Hunky Hunk” which he just loved.
After they finished gliding to the music, Mom took me in her arms as Dad played the Strauss waltz again. He stood next to me as the Arthur Murray of our family, guiding me in the ins-and-outs and backs-and-forths of this classic dance. I had remembered my sister as a little girl dancing with Dad at wedding receptions and bar mitzvah parties by standing on his shoes, but this was my first real dance with Mom. And since I was already a lot taller than her petite 5’2 frame, we almost looked like a legitimate dance couple, if Mom had happened to have a thing for much, much younger men.
Of course, I still was more interested in learning The Twist (by simultaneously crushing out imaginary cigarette butts with my feet while drying my lower back with an imaginary towel), but Dad did give me a new respect for such an old dance as the waltz. And dancing with Mom was actually cool. I asked her what it was like for her. She said that since I was composed equally of her and Dad it was like dancing with her two favorite men and herself. What a lovely and imaginative thing to say.
When our waltzing stopped, I asked Dad a question that he’d been asked many times before: was the Danube really blue? Dad, of course, had seen the Danube River so many times in his Hungarian youth.
“Well, Elliot,” he said, “I’ve seen it red at sunset and black at night and green in the springtime and almost white with direct sunlight sparkling on it, but I assure you that it is never, ever BLUE. So wasn’t Strauss clever with his title?” he asked.
“Huh?” I responded quizzically (at fourteen I hadn’t learned yet that “Excuse me?” is the preferred expression).
“I’m sure that my dear friend Johann (my dad was SUCH a name-dropper) titled his most eternal tune for a color that the actual Danube can never be. Is there anything more romantic or enduring than a river that can never be seen by the eye? It stays pure in our imagination, forever blue and unchanged.”
And that late fall afternoon in 1962—dancing with my mom and being dotingly instructed by my dad, and all three of us seeming to me now so impossibly young—is ever unchanged in my imagination and yet ever refreshed by a river of my parents’ eternal love for me running through it.