If you were a student at St Francis Xavier's, there were several things you accepted as a matter of course. Mrs Founder would find out if you kept your Food and Nutrition apron in your locker overnight. The excessive amounts of chlorine in the Swan Haven swimming pool would turn your eyes red and your school swimsuit semi-transparent after only one semester. And in third term the boring inconvenience of Singing would be replaced by the terrifying inconvenience of Dancing.
Exactly why the school Administration saw fit to teach the student body dancing remains a mystery. It may have been a tradition dating back to the founding of the school, although if this was the case it must have been rather odd from the outset, as St Francis Xavier's was originally all boys. Possibly it was one of the continuing doomed attempts to imbue the school with an appearance of upper crust style and class way beyond it's pitiful financial status. If you asked one of the staff why we were subjected to such an indignity they'd usually trot out a tired old explanation about the importance of appropriate social interaction in moulding us into upstanding young Christian men and women, but you could tell by their expression that they didn't really believe it. All things considered it was probably done because it had always been done, which was the usual explanation for all sorts of anachronisms and bureaucratic inanities at St Francis's.
Dancing was held in the cavernous school gym. When the cacodaemonical siren announcing the end of period one sounded the entire year reluctantly slouched and rambled it's way past the canteen and through the small wood-lined chamber known as "The Foyer" into the gym interior. Here the first absurdity of the whole process began as we removed our shoes.
For reasons best know to the long vanished architects, the Leeroy Mulder memorial gym was floored with long, thin rectangular tiles arranged in a rough basketwork pattern. Their standard colour was a grotty off-yellow, with black, red, and green stripes marking out the basketball, netball and badminton courts. No amount of sweeping could clean out the dirt and grit from the gaps between them and sitting on them in shorts for more than about ten minutes at a stretch would produce a nasty rash on the lower legs.
They must have been chosen for their low cost rather than their effectiveness as a floor covering, because the slightest scuff of their grotty surface with a black soled shoe would soil them with a long, black skidmark. The staff were terrified of these skidmarks, apparently because their removal required vast quantities of industrial solvents and scrubbing, and hence the wearing of black soled shoes (such as those that were part of the standard school uniform) was outlawed in the gym. We had to remove them as soon as possible on entering.
The discarded shoes were placed up against the walls, out of the way of the soon to be dancing feet. Since they were all pretty much alike it could be tricky to locate yours when the whole thing was over, so if you were smart you placed them beneath a landmark, such as a pillar or a climbing frame or an oddly shaped brick. Unfortunately there were only a few such landmarks, and close on 180 pairs of shoes to be stored, so they ran out fairly quickly. Even getting in early wasn't much help, as many students were quite prepared to kick someone else's shoes aside to get a prime position for theirs. Theft of shoes was not generally a problem however, as in the warming weather of third term everyone's footwear stank abominably. In fact the collective reek of all these discarded soles was such that the entire gym stank of stale feet for the whole of third term.
Once the shoes had been discarded we assembled in irregular groups on the floor in front of the stage. Staff prowled around to make sure there was no trouble as the members of the famed Fisherton's Dancing Academy set up their equipment and sorted out their program for today's lesson.
The general staff being considered incompetent to teach us in the art of archaic and outmoded dance, a long-standing contract had been arranged with this august institution. Every year they would send a team of crack dancing instruction professionals across the city, who on arrival were consistently disappointed by the lacklustre attitudes and skills of the student body. You'd think that after many years of service they would have got used to it, but ridiculous optimists that they were, they never learnt.
The team was led by a tall, thin, white haired individual, who (because of his general manner and standard choice in clothing) the Geek Underclass rather uncharitably referred to as "Poofy P. Pinkinshirt". He was usually aided by three or four frumpy assistants, generally women, although on occasion a thin, neat man would turn up. Whenever he did he was treated with extreme suspicion by just about every male student in the place.
Once Poofy had arranged his tapes and plugged his decrepit player into the PA system via a tangle of wires that Medusa or her sisters would have been proud to wear as a wig, he'd clap his hands and move to centre stage. He'd greet us with far too much enthusiasm, then wave meaningfully at his team who had assembled on the gym floor. They'd signal to the staff, and together the two groups would start moving through the students, yelling "Stand up!" and "Choose a Partner!" at the top of their lungs, not unlike the nazi guards shouting "Raus! Raus!" in world war two POW Camp movies.
As Geeks we would have rather danced barefoot across hot coals than have to face the terrifying prospect of talking to a girl (with or without shoes). So instead of grabbing a partner (which could well have resulted in a slap in the face) we'd wander determinedly through the crowd doing our best to look as though we were looking for someone in particular. This wasn't very hard, most of the Socials and Middle Classers were looking for someone in particular, it was only the Geeks and Losers who didn't want to participate. So blending in was easy, at first. However as people paired up and moved out to the edge of the gym to form the gigantic irregular ellipsoid dancing formation favoured at St Francis's the abstainers became more and more obvious. As the number of true partner-seekers dwindled the staff started swooping in, grabbing obvious offenders and making vague threats of punishment if we didn't choose right now. We'd nod, suitably cowed, and dash back into the diminishing crowd to begin wandering around aimlessly again. This process was usually repeated three or four times before potential partners dried up completely.
Fate for once being kind to the King of the Geeks, there were more guys than girls in my year. Thus if we were able to hold out long enough about ten of us would be left standing, shrugging happily in the middle, unable despite out "best efforts" to pair up. This convenient demographic glitch was tempered by the fact that it was always the same ten or so guys every week, and by about week three of the term the staff were thrown into a blind rage by the sight of us, partnerless once again. In some kind of attempt at humiliation we were always marched to the middle of the gym, and forced to sit in the circle at the centre of the basketball court while the rest of the year danced around us. As humiliation goes it wasn't very effective, because we didn't mind a bit, although we would have appreciated some chairs.
Not to say that all was peachy in the circle of the dance-class damned. Not everyone left behind was a Geek, there were usually a few of the weaker Rebels, those towards the Loser end of the scale who were unable to find a partner for the simple reason that none of the girls would lower their standards enough to even touch them. They entertained themselves in the usual Rebel fashion, tormenting us with verbal taunts and minor physical abuse.
Also not content to let us just sit quietly, the staff, still furious at our repeated refusal to take part, would circle around making snide comments and threats. A favourite was that since we hadn't chosen partners we'd be forced to dance with each other. As a few of the abstainers were probably gay, this wasn't a particularly dire threat to them, in fact they would probably have preferred it. As for the rest of us, loud mutterings about violations of the Legalisation of Sodomy Act 1982 were enough to stave off this fate.
However as the music of each dance started to wind up an unavoidable sense of gloom and dread would creep over the group, stifling conversation with a cold sweat and a growing tightness of the chest. For it was at the end of each dance that a member of staff would burst into the circle (not unlike Grendel into the hall of King Hrothgar) and haul two or three of us away, not to be eaten but even worse out to the circle of dancers. Here randomly selected guys would be dragged away from their horrified partners and the Geek victim dumped in their place to deal with the situation as best they could. For those left behind the relief at not being thus seized was palpable, but tempered with the knowledge that every time you were passed over it made it more likely you would be chosen next.
In addition, the survivors of the staffs' hit and run raids had to contend with the normal guys who's partners had been hijacked. They too had to sit in the central circle and all things considered were not happy with the Geek Underclass. Already fed up with our attitudes the staff were more than willing to turn a blind eye to the inevitable taunts, threats and punches handed out in retaliation for their predicament. And as the lesson wore on the ratio of Geeks to angry normals decreased until it was almost a relief to be dragged up to dance.
There were three dances taught at St Francis's. They were the Progressive Barn Dance, the Pride of Erin (often referred to as "The Shame of Erin"), and the Modern (ie: circa 1840) Waltz. At least once a lesson we'd also have to do something like the Hucklebuck, Nutbush or Birdie Dance, introduced no doubt in an attempt to make the whole thing "fun". As Geeks we hated these dances more than the other three all put together as you didn't need a partner for them and hence couldn't justifiably sit them out. The pounding chords of "Nutbush City Limits" still set my stomach churning ten years later. Mind you, it could have been worse, bootscooting was taking the country by storm and it was probably only the inherent conservatism of Fisherton's Dance Academy that saved us from a Country and Western inspired fate worse than death.
The teaching of the three main dances always followed the same procedure. Poofy would announce the dance to be taught, hit play on his decrepit tape recorder sending off-key music blaring over the gym PA system and then he'd start to chant.
Each dance had an associated chant. These supposedly encoded the dance steps, the theory being that if we heard them often enough we'd learn how to do the dance. Poofy would lead the chanting with great enthusiasm from the stage, his assistants would wander around the periphery, also chanting although they would occasionally break off to give personal tuition to anyone who seemed to be having problems, and the staff, no doubt hypnotised after years of supervising dancing, would join in, adding a sub-base drone.
The joint effect of all this chanting was to create a multichannel mantra that did indeed stick in the student's heads. The practical effect however did little to turn us into good dancers - good chanters yes, we could have repeated the chants in our sleep (many of us probably did) - but not good dancers.
Time and desperate repression have erased the chant for the Pride of Erin from my memory (apart from the first line 'Step tap, step tap, one two three turn!') but the Progressive Barn Dance still rings through my head whenever I hear Kenny Rogers...
ONE! two three kick!
BACK! two three kick!
Side together side!
Side together side!
One two three, one two three
One two three, one two three
One two three, one two three
One two three, one two three
The cry of "Change partners", which was also present in the Pride of Erin, was the signal for the girls to disengage from their current partner, dance a few steps forward and make a ridiculous spin which deposited them in the arms of the next guy along. This is obviously why the dance was labelled "progressive", in all other areas it was very much a huge step backwards.
The chant for the waltz was much less interesting than the Barn Dance. It consisted of a repeated call of "one two three, one two three" to aid those students too stupid or tone deaf to appreciate an obvious beat when they heard one.
In addition to an associated chant, each song had an associated piece of music. The same music would be played for each dance, week after week, year after year. So rigidly did Poofy stick to his music allocations in fact that he could have saved himself a whole load of shouting by recording the chants over the top of the tunes. Then he could have just pressed "play" and gone home. Obviously this idea never occurred to him, or he enjoyed chanting so much that he could never willingly give it up.
The Progressive Barn Dance was always accompanied by some strange, wheezing, squeeze-box music with what sounded like a group of Somerset farmers drunk on scrumpy singing over the top. "Ere we are agin! On tha promenarrd! Arr! Arr! Arr! ARR!!! And jolly good company!" They'd sing. Most of the rest of the lyrics were so heavily accented as to be completely incomprehensible.
The Pride of Erin was invariably ushered in with a cassette of "Irish Eyes" that sounded like it had gone through the washer and dryer in someone's pocket. Every second or third note was off key, the tempo sped up and slowed down seemingly at random, and every single note dopplered off at the end as if it was being carried past in a speeding ambulance. Keeping time, or indeed a straight face while listening to this cacophony was difficult to say the least.
The music for the Modern Waltz was fairly normal in comparison to the Somerset Scrumpy Party and the Bloodshot Irish Eyes, although it did sound as if were being played on an electronic keyboard in a wine bar circa 1982.
It might be thought that partner assignment was the most traumatic aspect of dancing and in part this was true. The general, grinding low level anxiety of actually dancing with a girl was more or less preferable to the sharp stabbing anxiety of having to ask one to dance, or the slow alternating waves of dread and nausea experienced waiting in the central circle, but the ordeal wasn't over yet. Most of the girls were content to go through the motions with a blank expression on their faces, putting up with Geek partners in the same way they'd put up with a minor ailment, such as a cold or a stubbed toe, however there were two kinds of girls you learned to regard with horror. Terrorists and Social Workers.
The Terrorists were girls who did not want to be dancing with Geeks, or probably at all. A Terrorist would spin into your arms at Poofy's cry of "Change Partners!" with a scowl on her face, a scowl which would swiftly change to a snarl when she saw exactly what she was meant to be dancing with. Attempts to take her hand for the waltzing bit (for reasons lost in the depths of antiquity every dance had a waltzing bit) would be met with an indifferent fist, and an aura of menace that escalated with every inch would ensure that your arm stayed at least a foot away from her waist at all times. Passing staff and Frumpy Assistants would sometimes notice this, and rush over with a big grin calling out "C'mon! Hold her properly, she won't bite!". Looking into her burning eyes you could tell that, yes, she was quite prepared to bite, and do even worse things if necessary. When she spun away at Poofy's next "Change Partners!" cry you breathed a sigh of relief similar to that of a hiker who accidentally got between a Grizzly and her cub, but somehow managed to back away in time.
The Social Workers were almost as bad. They were girls with a mission, a mission to integrate Geeks into the normal school community, regardless of whether they wanted to be integrated or not. They were generally members of the Middle Class, or lower Social Overclass, and as soon as they spun into your arms would attempt to strike up a conversation. The typical unco-ordination, both physical and verbal, of the Geek made this an attempt fraught with hazards. Between the stress of trying to maintain a conversation with a member of the opposite sex and the concentration required to carry out the ridiculously complicated dance moves, something had to give. You'd end up either tripping over your feet or tying your tongue in knots. Assuming that talking like a complete mental defective was slightly more attractive than trampling a girl's feet I usually opted to concentrate on my dance moves.
Matters were made even worse when she'd exclaim "C'mon! Hold me properly!" and cinch you in, not only cutting off your all-too-vital view of the floor and forcing you to rely on intuition to navigate your feet, but bringing you almost into contact with parts of her anatomy that as a socially excluded Geek you did your best never to think about lest you go insane with frustration. She'd then ask a completely innocuous question like "So, how are things?". The best most Geeks could manage under these circumstances was a strangled gulp.
The progressive dances were bad enough, but sooner or later Poofy would decide it was time for the Modern Waltz. The last progressive dance before the Waltz was like a horrible game of musical chairs because as soon as the music stopped you were stuck with your current partner. It wasn't as bad as it could have been because you'd never end up with a Terrorist. As soon as the music started to slow they'd start spinning right past you to the next guy at partner changing time. But there was still the chance that you might get stuck with a Social Worker.