Neither of my parents pursued any activity that today would qualify as “exercise.” Theirs was many generations before Jane Fonda’s “feel the burn!” workout videos, before isometrics and aerobics, before latex and Under Armour, before they even knew that regular exercise was good for them. My parents didn’t even know how to swim, except in a pinch Dad could dog-paddle.
But, boy, could they dance.
One of my favorite black and white photos from a family scrapbook was of my parents dressed up to attend a dance at the Washington Athletic Club in their courtship days. Mom, twenty-seven, was wearing a black floor-length gown that was clingy enough to show some curves, and her auburn hair was done in deep finger waves, a flirty hairstyle that was popular back then. Dad was wearing a black tuxedo. Imagine that. Dad, who ended up favoring one-piece polyester baby blue jumpsuits from Penney’s, at thirty, and courting Babe, was dressed-to-kill in a gorgeous black tuxedo. That photo captured a man and a woman who were clearly a hot couple. They looked so fresh and young, so glamorous and romantic, so pre-children. Since Babe had also told me that Dad sometimes took a room at the Washington Athletic Club, over the years I pestered her to tell me if she stayed there with him before they married. “You can tell me, Mom. It’ll just be between us.” She never said. What she did say, which was so unsatisfying, was “I think that’s private.”
Every Saturday my Mom and Dad, before they were my Mom and Dad, went to a dancehall, often the Trianon Ballroom in downtown Seattle. Babe said it was beautiful with polished hardwood floors, and it was so packed that you could hardly get in.
“We never went anywhere that didn’t have an orchestra. It was first-class all the way. You would’ve liked that place,” she said to me.
When I googled the Trianon, which is located in what is now a hipster area north of Seattle called Belltown, I learned that the dance floor had accommodated five thousand dancers. Babe said that everyone in their crowd were dancers, smooth dancers, and they danced to beautiful music, not the “junk” people listen to today.
If, as the saying goes, dancing is sex standing up, then my parents and their friends must have had a really good time gliding around those beautiful ballrooms.
Her crowd did the fox trot, swing, two-step, but nothing jumpy like the jitterbug or boogie-woogie. Babe said that sometimes the dancehall would have a Charleston Contest. “But we weren’t Charleston people,” she said.
The arrival of my brother, Jimmy, and me coincided with the passing of the big band era and the closing of the dance halls, but our parents kept dancing at home. Babe and Dad were a popular couple, and by then they had the largest house in their group, not large by current standards, but large enough by post-war 1950s middle-class standards, so the parties were always at our place. Dad had turned a daylight basement into a rec room with a highly-waxed green linoleum dance floor. That danceable space was where my brother and I skidded around in our stockinged feet, and where I cradled my new baby sister, Wendy, as I danced her to sleep. That’s also where the adults — young couples with young children, hard-working and hard-partying — danced and drank and smoked cigarettes and partied into the wee hours. That was my instructional template for being a grown up: gather a bunch of friends, some aunts and uncles, co-workers, and neighbors, roll up the rugs, and drink and dance.
“Your Dad and I definitely never sat and just drank alcohol,” said Babe.
“Well, so what did you do if you didn’t just sit and drink?” I asked, reverting to my best professional interview style.
“We danced!” she said, as if I were an idiot for even asking “Never sit if you can dance.”
When Herb Alpert and his trumpet blasted onto the scene with the Tijuana Brass and The Lonely Bull, Babe wore a bias-cut flared taffeta skirt, which she’d sewn herself, that swayed when she danced. By then Dad had installed a handy beer keg in the kitchen, and the adults stayed up even later.
Babe and Dad’s party drugs of choice — d & d — were drinking and dancing. Dave Barry, in writing recently about his parents drinking and partying, said “My parents and their friends probably would have lived longer if their lifestyle choices had been healthier.” Babe lived a very long and full life — until she was almost 98 — and she and her friends worked hard, partied hard, and had a lot of fun. What’s healthier than that, Dave?
I pretty much caught Babe’s sassy sense of rhythm and enthusiasm for dancing: In elementary school I raced home to dance with Dick Clark’sAmerican Bandstand on our black and white TV.
By my freshmen year at the University of Texas at the legendary Texas-OU weekend, one of the biggest rivalries in college football, I was having crazy-fun at a fraternity party. There I was, the first in my family to attend college, and I was down on all fours on a beer-soaked dance floor, “gatoring” to the Grateful Dead’s Gloria! I’m not sure that’s what Babe had in mind when she advised, Never sit if you can dance.
Being Babe’s daughter, I guess it should be no surprise that in stressful transitions I turned to dancing. After my husband died, I signed up for swing lessons at the Dr. Dance Studio in Santa Monica. But the lessons were too decorously choreographed, too contained, too formal, too much like following doctor’s orders — foot-ball-change — and in high heels. I craved something — else!
That’s when I stumbled onto Fumbling Toward Ecstasy on Sunday morning — a time slot I was having trouble filling. Fumbling turned out to be improvisational, trance-like, group dancing. In a large warehouse that was transformed into a dance space, I entered another world — a feverish world where hundreds of people gathered to dance for the dance of it. After seventeen years of a good marriage that was now gone, I, as a new widow, clung to Fumbling to escape being isolated in my too-silent house with only one small dog (sorry Charmlee) for company. It was always high quality entertainment — a woman in a pink leotard was an awe-inspiring professional dancer, a Chinese man in an orange ankle-length pleated skirt glided by as smoothly as an ice-skater, and a belly-dancer was swathed in layers of purple edged with tinkling bells and bangles.
My nephew asked, “Is that like a Sunday morning rave? A mosh-pit for adults?” Maybe, I said.
Sometimes the music was cranked up so loud I was transported back to the craziness of frat parties at UT. But those were called Friday night keg parties, not Sunday morning trance dancing. I was so taken with Fumblingthat I even brought Babe. By then she was in her late 80s, and I got her a chair so she could watch from the sidelines, or join in if she wanted to. Afterward she said she didn’t understand why people didn’t dance with partners, or why some men danced with each other, occasionally wearing long skirts. She wasn’t judgmental, just puzzled.
Flash forward. I no longer spent my Sunday mornings dancing like a dervish, and Babe was no longer dancing. In her ninth decade, she was walker-bound, and she was not reconciled to her fate. One day we were going through the old photos, and we came across that dreamy one of her and dad before they went dancing. “I’d give anything if I could dance,” she said. “My feet aren’t suitable now.”
Although Babe had managed to avoid all major health problems, she suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder where she lost feeling on the soles of her feet, an ironic malady to beset someone who had loved to dance. The peripheral neuropathy destroyed her balance and created the urgent need for her to cling to her walker. Since the walker was red, we called it her Ferrari.
“People should dance more and sit less,” she said.
I told her that her gorgeous Trianon Ballroom had been converted into an office building.
“That’s kind of awkward,” she said.
I wondered if any of the office workers at the Trianon on Third Avenue in Seattle knew they were working in what had once been one of the largest dance halls west of Chicago, the kind where giant mirrored balls rotated on the ceiling and couples fell in love.
I did not tell Babe that all signs of her popular dance club were long gone, and that the historic Trianon dancehall now housed a gym.
When my husband, Ed, and I married a few years back, I asked Babe to walk me down the aisle. Dad had died years earlier, so Babe, my only living parent, was the natural choice.
“You’d better ask someone else,” she said, turning me down. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Of course you can,” I said, trusting her lifetime of resiliency and spunk.
The “aisle” was a dirt path on a rugged mountaintop at a nature preserve located in the Santa Monica Mountains. The afternoon of the wedding, some of Ed’s six grandchildren flew kites from the windy mountaintop. The beautiful, ninety-two year-old, mother-of-the-bride was dressed elegantly in a hot pink Chinese coat with a mandarin collar. Her “Ferrari” was decorated with so many colorful flowers it looked like a moving bouquet.
After the flower girls scattered petals down the aisle and the ring bearers made their way to the canopy where Ed was waiting, the string quartet struck up Penny Lane. A gasp passed through the crowd as our friends realized that Babe was walking me down the aisle. Everyone stood and cheered and clapped. And Babe — Never sit if you can dance — danced at my wedding.