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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 1999 /18 Teves 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Shall we dance?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) THE AGONY THAT THIS NEWEST CRAZE on college campuses must be causing the tenured radicals can only be guessed at. It mocks their elaborately constructed fictional world in which men must be contrite for their past sins and women Amazon-like in their imitation of those very sins. But according to The New York Times, ballroom dancing has taken American college students by storm.

The antithesis of everything slovenly, ill-mannered, loose and loud, the polar opposite of the world we've inherited from the 1960s, ballroom dancing is making a comeback. The nation may be too tolerant by far of President Clinton's conduct, but if the waltz and the swing are back, the country cannot be too far gone.

From Yale to San Diego State, and from the University of Wisconsin to Arizona State, colleges cannot create classes quickly enough to meet demand. The Times reports that at Pennsylvania State, there were eight classes offered in ballroom dancing last year in which 240 students participated, but this year, the number will be 48, and 1,440 students will trip the light fantastic.

The Times story is accompanied by a photo. You see the crossed feet of a young woman. On one foot, her Nike sneaker, on the other, she is strapping on a satin high-heeled dancing shoe, the kind Ginger Rogers floated on. One can't analyze culture entirely through footwear, but the difference is so glaring, it can't escape notice, either. The sneaker is the emblem of the 1980s and 1990s. It says informality, androgyny and practicality. The dancing slipper says romance, femininity, grace and mystery.

Ballroom dancing is elegant and formal. It begins with posture, includes subtle etiquette and assumes a great deal about the male/female partnership. The gentleman is expected to lead (quick, some smelling salts for the women's studies teachers) but with a touch that is gentle and predictable.

He is expected to survey the dance floor over his partner's shoulder and smoothly maneuver them away from the other couples. The smallest pressure on the small of her back is the signal to glide off serenely in a new direction.

The very pose of a couple waltzing is one that breathes romance. Bodies and faces are close, as is coordination. And since most of the movement is done by the feet, eyes are free to meet.

Contrast this with the wild, self-centered and chaotic movement that has impersonated dancing since Chubby Checker. At every dance party I attended between the ages 13 and 30, the dancing consisted of girls gyrating suggestively to the music while their "partners" did the same 10 or 15 feet away. Often as not, the girls had at least some sense of rhythm, while the boys would do the "white man's overbite."

This sloppy scene was interrupted every now and again by a slow dance, which consisted of male/female pairs gently rocking from one foot to the other while engaged in other activities that should best remain private.

When Winston Churchill called dancing "the vertical expression of a horizontal urge" he couldn't have imagined how close it would come in our time.

Perhaps some people enjoyed this solipsistic exercise, but it seemed to make most self-conscious and awkward. The men knew they weren't as skilled at wiggling as the women, and the women often confirmed this by pairing off with one another.

But the faces of those who have just completed the fox trot or the cha-cha are glowing. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from a man and woman working as a team, he stepping forward and she back, then the reverse, traversing the dance floor together. The dance becomes a joint accomplishment, a challenging game, rather than a human version of sexual display among the birds and beasts.

Everything about ballroom dancing is at war with the sexual mores of turn-of-the-century America. It suggests romance and courtly love where "hooking up" has become the norm. It imposes separate roles for men and women where for years the differences have been blurred. And it requires discipline and practice where we have previously stressed mere self-indulgent expression.

Bill Clinton notwithstanding, the news from the cultural front lines is not all bad.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.