The boys filtered into the gym and shuffled toward the baseline under the basketball hoop.
Some giggled. Others slapped each other on the backs.
The more popular boys raised their fists to their sides and thrust their hips. I stood at the end of the line and prayed to god I wouldnâ€™t get picked last â€¦ again.
Or, even better, I wouldnâ€™t be noticed at all under the faint glow of the ancient ceiling lights.
The girls entered through a door across the court and stood on the center line.
A few waved or smiled at their boyfriends. Most, however, kept their heads low and aimed their eyes at the ground, wondering like me, perhaps, how waltzing qualified as physical education.
Mr. Giovanetti, who doubled as the basketball coach at Green Valley Middle School and sounded mysteriously like James Cagney, paced between the lines. He shoveled a basketball from hand to hand.
It was not the most comforting sight in the world to see our teacher as nervous as we were â€“ especially one who sounded like a 1920s gangland holdout. He was on his home turf â€“ the basketball court, the place he should have been most comfortable. But, like us, his brow glistened with sweat.
â€œOkay, you kids, youâ€™re going to square off, see, and youâ€™re going to pick someone for your team, your dancing team,â€ he said, bouncing the ball occasionally.
It could have been worse, I suppose. He could have pointed a gun at us. Instead, he pointed his finger at the line of girls.
â€œOkay, you there at the front of the line, youâ€™re going to pick a boy and line up in the middle here, see?â€
The girl strode confidently across the court and dragged her boyfriend between the two lines. He offered high fives to his friends before departing. I counted the number of classmates in each line and felt doom creep over my body.
Being picked last for sports is one thing. Thatâ€™s based on ability, talent and popularity â€“ things that, theoretically, could be improved. Being picked last for dancing is different. Thatâ€™s about sex appeal and something older, something mature. Something that could not be practiced. You either had it or you didnâ€™t. Like Mr. Giovanetti, I didnâ€™t.
One by one, the girls picked boys from the opposing line and waltzed toward the middle of the gym. Popular girls picked the popular boys. Rocker girls picked the rocker guys. Stoner girls forgot what they were supposed to do and had to be reminded. Finally, it came down to the paraplegics and me.
â€œJust put your arms around her shoulders there, see?â€ Mr. Giovanetti told me when I was picked by Dolores Eberling, who had lost a leg in a hunting accident and used a wheelchair for the first semester of seventh grade.
I rolled her to the middle of the floor. We stood eying each other for a moment when the music began.
â€œUm, I think youâ€™re supposed to lead?â€ she said, raising her arms and rolling her eyes at the same time.
I used to feel compassion for her, poor thing. But with that simple act, I wondered whether her adventure in the woods that summer was really an accident.
I buckled my body the way I do when hugging an aunt or my grandma, with my chest thrust forward and my ass jutting back. I pressed my right hand behind her.
â€œOkay, ready? 1-2-3, 1-2-3.â€
I was just about to spin her around, somehow, when she interrupted.
â€œYouâ€™re not supposed to count out loud,â€ Dolores snapped, â€œAnd besides, youâ€™re counting wrong. Youâ€™re supposed to step on four and youâ€™re not even saying four.â€
â€œYouâ€™re going to tell me about stepping?â€
Remarkably, I didnâ€™t feel bad when she wheeled herself to the side of the gym and collapsed into a ball of tears. Nevertheless, my punishment arrived soon enough. She was the last girl. It was just me and Mr. Giovanetti.
â€œOkay, sport, letâ€™s show these guys how to do it, see,â€ he said, leading me to the front of the class.
He had discovered a new confidence, probably because he had grown accustomed to working with boys. I was not a dance partner. I was practice for the big game. Only, instead of teaching me to defend against the lay up, he taught me how not to step on his toes.
â€œOkay, everyone,â€ Mr. Giovanetti announced, â€œWatch as we perform â€¦ the waltz.â€
I donâ€™t know exactly when I was more embarrassed â€“ when he bowed before me or clenched my hand. Either way, I wanted to lift the wooden floor boards and crawl beneath them. Or, preferably, join Dolores on her next hunting excursion.
As the other students peed themselves with joy, having witnessed the complete and total demoralization of their hapless peer, Mr. Giovanetti placed his hand behind my back. He leaned his mouth toward my ear and his eyes seemed to smile.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, see? All you have to do is count and everything will be fine.â€
The sound of Etta Jamesâ€™ â€œAt lastâ€ intermixed with the chortles of my classmates, as Mr. Giovanetti pulled me slowly through the steps, spun me around the gym and whispered awkwardly into my ear, â€œ1-2-3, 1-2-3.â€
Two weeks before our wedding, Dana signed us up for dance lessons with an instructor named Sunshine.
A Napoleon-sized man with clear brown eyes and black, curly hair, Sunshine possessed the elegance of a teacher accustomed to saying, â€œNo, like this â€¦â€ before flitting off in a textbook example of a pirouette.
To him, it was second nature. To me, it was a spin with a fancy name.
Sunshine wore a black shirt and bright yellow pants with toggles at the cuffs. His shoes were clad in some type of exotic skin, though I never asked which kind. I knew I would step on them sooner or later and didnâ€™t want to feel guilty.
â€œHello, darlingss. Thiss way pleasse,â€ he said in a friendly slither that doted on every â€œs.â€
Our windowless practice room was lined with mirrors and had wooden beams bracketed to the walls, which I imagined more limber people would use to stretch their hamstrings. I used them to avoid falling over.
â€œOkay,â€ Sunshine said, as he closed the only door. â€œShow me your possition.â€
â€œDancing or missionary?â€ I said, trying to break the ice.
Sunshine didnâ€™t miss a beat. He draped an arm around my shoulder and winked. â€œOh weâ€™ll get to that later,â€ he said. I may have gulped, Iâ€™m not sure, but I quickly formed an â€œLâ€ with my right arm and embraced Dana.
â€œNo, no,â€ Sunshine said, grabbing my arm. He pushed Dana aside and forced my hand behind his back, just below his shoulder. â€œLike thiss.â€
He lowered my left hand and we glided around the room, his yellow pants tossing reflections against the mirrors.
I was supposed to lead, being the man and all, but Sunshine somehow carried this newfound coupling, as Dana chuckled in the corner.
â€œIf youâ€™re going to lead, youâ€™re going to lead â€“ you canâ€™t pusssyfoot around it,â€ he said, twirling us both. His hand pressed into my pudgy back flesh but not uncomfortably. Just enough to direct me and let me know he was in charge.
We continued around the room until I crushed whatever breed of animal was wrapped around his toe.
â€œHeâ€™ss not very confidant iss he?â€ Sunshine asked Dana, who tried to be diplomatic.
â€œWell,â€ she started, â€œNo, heâ€™s not.â€
I never wanted to take dancing lessons. We should just accept the fact weâ€™re not good dancers, I told Dana. We were doomed to a lifetime of my hands clasped just above her butt and my head drooped on her shoulder with all the grace of a middle schooler.
â€œI swear to god,â€ Dana said, â€œIf you get an erection during our first dance, Iâ€™m going to file for a divorce.â€
It was at the wedding of our friends when the idea of dancing lessons popped into Danaâ€™s mind. During the reception, she marveled at the newly weds. How they sailed around the room with the spotlight following them the whole way.
â€œHow graceful,â€ she said, â€œThatâ€™s how I always pictured my wedding: elegant, relaxed, and just for a moment weâ€™d be the only people in the room.â€
I stared at our friends on the dance floor and would have placed a large wager that the groom was moving his lips.
â€œThat?â€ I said, â€œThatâ€™s not real. Itâ€™s not like they dance with each other all the time and became decent in the process. They had that little routine choreographed just for this occasion.â€
â€œWell I donâ€™t know why you have to get snippy about it,â€ Dana said. â€œI just want it to be perfect is all.â€
So, a week later, I found myself in the clutches of Sunshine, shielding my eyes from his yellow pants and trying desperately to avoid the reptiles that had latched onto his feet. He didnâ€™t want to map out the entire routine, he said. He just wanted to show us how to dance. The rest would be up to us.
It began simply enough â€“ the holds, the steps, even a nice dip. But Sunshine wanted more.
â€œAt the beginning, I want you to walk sslowly together toward the middle, where youâ€™ll both kind of sspin around a little and then sstart the waltzz.â€
â€œSpin?â€ I asked.
â€œA pirouette. Like thiss.â€
Sunshine strolled to the middle of the room, turned and spun slowly around until he wound up in a handsome bow with his left hand outstretched toward Dana, inviting her either to dance or leave me forever. I assumed he just wanted to dance.
Dana clapped. â€œYes, that will be perfect; weâ€™ll do that!â€
My mistake came later, at home, when I mocked Sunshine horribly.
â€œCan you believe that guy?â€ I asked, prancing toward the center of the living room. â€œThereâ€™s no way Iâ€™m going to spin around and get all fancy. Itâ€™s a dance!â€
Dana wasnâ€™t up for practicing that night, even though Sunshine pleaded with us to memorize the steps and holds at home before our next â€“ and last â€“ lesson. Though he never said it outright, the implication was clear. We needed help. More than he could offer an hour at a time. But Dana begged off practice.
â€œIâ€™m going to bed,â€ she said simply.
The next morning, on the way to our last lesson, Dana remained silent. Then, in the small dance room, as we waited for Sunshine to arrive, she let it all out, crying and wiping the tears at the same time so no one would notice. Like all engaged couples â€“ especially as the wedding date approaches â€“ she didnâ€™t want anyone to know weâ€™re human, too.
â€œThis may not be important to you, but itâ€™s important to me,â€ she sobbed. â€œAnd that should be enough.â€
Sunshine entered the room. â€œHello darlingss,â€ he sang. â€œAre we ready?â€
But he stopped short of cuing the music and just stared at us.
Tears welled up in Danaâ€™s eyes.
â€œSunshine, can you give us a moment?â€ she asked.
It was then, seeing new tears, that I grabbed Sunshineâ€™s hand. Grabbing hers was not enough.
After my morning with Mr. Giovanetti, I never envisioned myself learning to dance. I certainly never envisioned myself learning to pirouette. But, alas, this is what weddings are for. You do things you never imagined, simply because the person you fell in love with always had.
My arm reached around Sunshine and landed below his shoulder â€“ with just enough force to let him know I was in charge. I waited for music that never came. Then, hearing none, I led him around the small room anyway, whispering softly yet confidently the words,â€œ1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.â€