Square dancing could not have been less relevant as a life skill. This was middle class suburban New Jersey. We didn’t have hoedowns or promenades or cotillions or debutante balls or Paula Deen’s butter-laden diabetes slavery parties. We had shopping malls. None of us wore cowboy boots or ten-gallon hats. We wore t-shirts with Bugs and Taz on them, obviously listening to “Motownphilly” and about to do the OG running man.
And yet, here we were, prepubescent cultural tourists, do-si-do-ing around the painted lines on the gym floor, curtsying and bowing to our partner, then to our corner.
On the cinder block walls of the gym, there was a big sheet of paper with a thermometer painted on it, little dashed marks on the side to mark our progress through the square dancing unit. Eight dances. We had to learn and suffer through eight goddamn dances. Some days, it felt like torture.
“If you listen… if you just listen… we can move on to the basketball unit,” our gym teacher told us, in that half-scolding, half-encouraging tone that I’ve learned is actually called parenting. It was intended as a lesson in goal-setting, delayed gratification, and yelling at your stupid or forgetful or distracted asshole classmates who ruined everything. I don’t remember ADHD being a thing in 1993. And if it was anything at all, it certainly didn’t pass as an excuse.
“Come ON, GEE-NA! ” we’d yell with our hands in the air, sticking our necks forward and shaking our heads in utter disbelief. If this girl would stop being such a damn individualist and just up-to-the-middle-and-come-right-back like the rest of us, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend the next three weeks holding Scott B’s clammy hands.
No disrespect to Scott. He was a tremendous partner—attentive, precise, and always on-beat. But we were 10 years old. And holding hands with a boy in public was mortifying. Correction, still is mortifying.
What was with this square dancing unit? What were they trying to prove? The quaint and provincial lifestyle of the Bible Belt? The patronizing, classist snobbery of the Northeast? That we should thank our parents for settling down in a town within FM broadcast range of Hot 97, where hip-hop lives?
I was stumped. And this was only the first dance.
At the risk of sounding very “back in my day,” the music and calls came from a rinky-dink record player in the middle of the gym floor, attached to those thick extension cords in construction site orange so you don’t trip over them. From that record player, the voice of a Southern auctioneer (who evidently just had dental work done) scratched out barely audible calls of what to do next.
Lest you think that’s still too simple for a bunch of haughty little brats, imagine trying to discern these commands on a speedy, fiddled 2/4 count:
Circle up two and buckle up four,
Away you go and around the floor
You duck for the oyster,
Duck, duck, duck!
You dig for the clam,
Dig, boy, dig!
Now knock a hole in the old tin can
And everybody swing!
Look, I read my share of Encyclopedia Brown books, but even his precocious, cunning wit couldn’t have solved this mystery. We were either too young or concentrating too hard on the choreography to notice the unwitting sexual innuendo in this bewildering little ditty. Duck for oysters? Dig for clams? What did this incomprehensible Appalachian yeller want us to do? And for Pete’s sake, what in the hell is an Allemande?
I didn’t know. I just wanted out of this hell.
Most of my growing up happened after the thawing of the Cold War, but the symbolism of oppression during this square dancing unit wasn’t lost on me. The gym walls of hardened plaster and cinders. The place I once loved, now a soulless, dank wasteland. And in the corner, that thermometer poster, as much a sign of hope and promise as of pain and torment, filling slowly with red marker.
But every single day, that thermometer showed progress. It was almost time.
Warmer and warmer.
And then one day, we finished that eighth, nearly impossible square dance. Knowing it was time, our gym teacher grabbed the corner of the paper and tore it down. It sounded like thunder, echoing to the high ceilings, and we cheered in triumph, helping him crumble it into a ball and throw it into the trash can in his office.
We lined up for layup drills, giddy and smiling and grateful. The gym felt like home again. Square dancing was over. After weeks of joyless, oppressive containment, we were finally free.