Sandra Benedetto: Box Step

As soon as she heard the up tempo piano chords, before Jim Croce even said a word about the baddest part of town, April looked at the gym ceiling and sighed. What a surprise. She rubbed the tights on her left calf with the toe of her patent leather shoe while she watched Dance Lady demonstrate the Foxtrot. They’d listened to this song multiple times last week, and every time she heard it April wondered why the Dance Lady was so enthusiastic about Leroy Brown if he was such a bad, bad man. But then she figured you’d have to be a pretty enthusiastic person to teach fifty 12-year-olds how to dance. Especially at her age, which April guessed was around 70.

Dance Lady cut off the song in the middle of the chorus and April couldn’t stop herself from finishing it in her head, . . . and meaner than a junkyard dog. As bothered as she was by hearing the same song over and over, this was the worst part — pairing up to dance. The boys were lined up across from the girls on the other side of the gym, just like they did in P.E. when they played Steal the Bacon. She dreaded that, too. She would stand there thinking Please don’t call my number, please don’t call my number until the teacher inevitably called her number. She wanted to be the first to grab the bowling pin in center court only because she didn’t want to look like a loser; if there was a purpose to the game other than singling out winners and losers, she wasn’t sure what it was.

The first dance was boys’ choice. The girls held their line on the west side of the gym while the boys made their way across no man’s land looking uncomfortably spiffy in their dress clothes. Some moved confidently with a target in mind, others stood around looking shell-shocked. April pretended to be interested in the mats on the walls and the pennants overhead. She didn’t want Jason to ask her because he was the most popular boy there and she knew she’d blush, which would be embarrassing. But if her ego had anything to say about it, Why wouldn’t he ask me, anyway?

Out of the corner of her eye April saw Dance Lady pulling stray students together, and even though it was comforting to know she wouldn’t be left standing alone, she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. She braved a look towards the middle of the gym and was happy to see Nathan walking towards her. They had some friends in common and were in the same social stratum, so nobody could make fun of them for dancing with each other. She gave him what she hoped was an encouraging smile but not so friendly that he’d think she was desperate. He looked at the wall behind her as he asked her to dance but he was smiling, and when he did finally look her in the eye there was a sense of solidarity. Yeah, they silently agreed, these Friday night dance classes sucked.

April knew that, like her, most of the other kids were there because their parents had forced them to be. Her mom thought it would be fun and something she should know how to do. She didn’t get how awkward and not fun it was. You didn’t need to know the Foxtrot to have fun at a school dance. She was pretty sure you could get away with swaying from side to side to a Richard Marx song. But here she was, three weeks into a six-week unbreakable commitment. Another agonizing 40 minutes to go tonight.

The speakers scratched to life and there was Leroy, up to his old tricks. April put her left hand on Nathan’s shoulder and her right hand in his. She felt his arm go tentatively around her waist. His sport coat felt itchy on her forearm. Their palms were a little clammy when they came together, but not to the point of being gross. They were so close to each other that she could see his pores and feel his breath on her face when he talked. It smelled kind of sweet, not offensive. She didn’t think her breath smelled bad, either, but then again people with stinky breath never seemed to be aware of it. Nathan guided her stiffly in the box step formation as Dance Lady called out steps. Boys! Forward forward side together!

Sometimes Dance Lady would cut in to show a boy how to lead more decisively or rhythmically. Before you knew what was happening, she would sweep in on her high heels and with a surprising amount of force carry you through the steps. April focused on Dance Lady’s long painted fingernails when she was in her grip. Then she’d be gone, leaving you in a perfume cloud and an awkward state of dance interruptus. Tonight Dance Lady was on the other side of the gym, so there was nothing to distract April from being patently aware that she was here, in her school gym, dancing to this old song with a boy named Nathan.

The way the dancing couples broke apart when the music stopped, it was like they’d been one second away from spontaneous combustion due to prolonged physical contact. Dance Lady made some constructive comments about posture and air danced with her imaginary ballroom squire to illustrate her point. April knew that the next song would be girls’ choice and wondered whether to ask Nathan or if that would make it seem like she like liked him. She decided to anyway. After all, he had asked her first. Dance Lady did her best to galvanize the girls by repeating “grab a guy, don’t be shy”.

Luckily, April didn’t even have to ask Nathan because he saw her walking towards him and guessed her intent. She thought he looked relieved, which was nice. They fit back together, arms in position, hands loosely touching. While they waited for the music to play, Nathan jokingly stood up really straight, the way Dance Lady did. April was too entertained to be annoyed when Jim Croce started singing. Well the south side of Chicago . . .

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