Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Dance

When asked by the PTA to chaperone and take some pictures at my son’s Middle School graduation dance, I hesitate at first. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted either of my parents at my 8th grade dance. I ask my son, but he just shrugs. “It’s okay,” he says. I like to think it’s because he knows me well enough to know that I won’t talk to him unless he talks to me first, or spy on him and his friends perhaps engaging in their first ever slow dances with girls. Instead, I stroll as unobtrusively as possible around the edge of the darkened gymnasium, illuminated with colored strobe lights and improbably decorated in a Mardi Gras theme. I snap pictures occasionally, but mostly enjoy the anonymity of being an adult, and therefore invisible. The Hip Hop music is loud and thumping and the kids start out in clusters segregated by gender. The groups of girls are the first to start dancing together. I observe lots of wild hair tossing and gyrating hips, and the entire range of costuming. Some girls are wearing low-slung tight jeans and tank tops. Others are adorned with gowns and hairstyles more appropriate to ascending to the stage to collect an Academy Award. All are in high heels. The boys are slower to get going. There is much standing around, laughing a little too loudly, their hands in the pockets of their baggy pants. Some wear suit jackets, some ties, hair gel, and new sneakers. The feeling of imminent excitement is palpable.

At my own 8th grade dance I don’t have a date. I have come with Jillian and Katie. I am wearing strawberry lip-gloss and a peasant dress, and I have daringly pulled the elasticized neckline down into an off-the-shoulder look. The lights are turned low in the gym, and there is a disco ball throwing dots of colored light around the room. We all dance together to the Doobie Brothers - “China Grove.” I love to dance, but I don’t want to get sweaty, so I sit the next dance out on one of the metal folding chairs by the wall. It is a hot, humid New York June night. When they put on "Stairway to Heaven" a boy named Will ambles over and asks me to dance. I feel panicked at first because I don't particularly like Will and it’s a slow dance, but I say yes. He is wearing a beige suit and his hair is almost as long as mine. I stare down at his high top sneakers and hope I don't trip on them. I nod without looking at his face and allow him to put his arms around me. I am amazed at how good this feels. It feels even better when he nuzzles my bare neck as we dance. I don't tell anyone this.

I try not to look at the couple making out against a back wall. After the first hour, pretty much everyone is dancing and sweaty, including my son - whom I am trying to ignore. I am glad that he’s having fun though. It matters. Occasionally, kids who know me as “Henry’s mom” come over and mug for the camera, arms around each other. One nerdy boy in a full suit and tie borrows a cell phone from a teacher to call his mom to pick him up. He is not having fun. I feel genuinely sad for him as he waits by the door, shifting from foot to the other. Even for the more social kids adolescence is a rollercoaster ride - emotions running high that you can barely put a name to yet, a heady giddiness at playing at being grown-up. Even looking at the precocious kids – the ones for whom sex and drugs are probably already a reality – I see how innocent they still are. They just haven’t put on the life miles yet. This is all a test drive, a plunge into newness and confusion.

Drama. Ed has kissed Jillian out in the hallway but she doesn’t really like him and is trying to escape. She corners me in the pink-tiled girls' bathroom and says let's go outside. I know that Miles has a six-pack of tallboys out in the schoolyard behind some bushes. There is also a lot of smoking going on out there. The teachers don’t seem to notice, or they are pretending not to. I take a sip from one of Miles’ beers but I don’t really have a taste for it yet. It is tinny and sour. The cigarette is good though. It makes me feel zippy and talkative, like my dad’s coffee does. On the walk home with my friends, I take off my new white platform sandals and go barefoot on the sidewalk. My mom would kill me if she knew, but the new shoes are killing my feet and it feels so good to walk flat-footed on pavement still strangely warm from the heat of the day, although the sun has been gone for hours. One of my friends is crying because she never got a dance with one particular boy, and he will be going to a different school next year. It was her last chance.

Drama. At the end of the dance, groups of girls are weepy, hugging each other.
I am not privy to the details of their world, to the secrets whispered in shadows, the clustered goodbyes. I am still invisible, keeping to the periphery. One boy is talking quietly to a longhaired girl who is standing silent, arms folded. He suddenly throws up his hands and walks away down toward the nearby beach. Another boy starts after him, calling out, "Hey, man...." The rest I cannot hear or see, as they disappear into the dark. Voices rise and fall on the breeze outside the gym. The music has stopped and the DJ is packing up. My son and his friends have a prearranged ride home with another parent. He comes up to me then, asking me if I had a good time. I say "Yes, of course I did. Did you?" to which he replies "Heck, yeah." Then he is gone. I climb into my own car with images in my camera which cannot possibly capture this evening of the dance – only the tiniest glimpse.