When my oldest niece, S. was young, the two of us danced together whenever we had the opportunity – overnights at her grandma’s, weddings, and always after Thanksgiving dinners at her father’s house. As soon as her sister was born and able to walk, K. joined us as we made our own conga line and danced down hallways and from room to room, the three of us joyfully flinging arms and legs here and there, our only teachers having been MTV videos and Barney.
Then S. turned into a teenager, and before long, she was no longer content with our own stylistic gyrations. She wanted to learn how to swing dance and shimmy to the salsa. At age 16, she was old enough to take adult dance classes at the local recreation center. There, the swing classes required partners, and I agreed to be hers. The idea of the two of us taking lessons made us giggle — but not for long.
When I turned in our registration, I learned that we could not sign up together. When I asked why, the clerk said, “Because you’re the same sex.” She also suggested others might be offended by my niece and I dancing hand-in-hand.
I was stunned but only momentarily because civil rights issues fire my blood more quickly than any Latin dance. As my FB friends know, I’m quick to jump on a soapbox. I pointed out that our country was nearing the dawn of a new millennium: that the center was a public facility funded by tax dollars: and that laws prevented such discrimination!
Still, the woman insisted it was the policy. Understanding she was the messenger, I asked her to pass on my comments, which she did.
A week later I heard my concern had been sent to the city attorney’s office. I was thrilled, sure that soon my niece and I would learn how to dance to the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy without knocking into each other, and, in doing so, she would benefit from a real life civics lesson. My heart swelled. I, her old auntie, would have a hand in creating an activist for equal rights.
Two weeks later, the clerk called to give us the okay. She didn’t sound too happy, and I wondered if she had no niece or daughter of her own.
Maybe I should have thanked her and hung up, but I REALLY couldn’t. This was about more than S. and me. “So,” I said, “what if two guys come in tomorrow to sign up? Will you let them in the class?” There was a moment of silence not unlike the kind at a funeral service, the way it lingered before she said, “We don’t have any choice.”
The rest of the day I kept watch on the clock, waiting for S. to arrive home from school. At 4:40 p.m., I called her.
“Great news!” I said. “ We’re in.”
“What happened?” I detected excitement in her voice. My own little Bella Abzug.
“They had to let us in. They can’t discriminate.”
“Oh,” S. said, now sounding a bit dejected.
“Well,” she paused, “I thought you were going to say they’d found us some cute guys.”
But this story, like so many of mine, doesn’t end so quickly.
Our teacher, a skinny platinum blonde with hurricane hair, segregated us from the group and sent us to a corner. When the other dancers changed partners, we were not included. But at some point they all cut eyes our way, watching S., fired up by her love of dance, push and pull and spin me as I hung on for my life.
Afterwards, an old friend and his wife asked why we were not allowed to participate with the rest of the class, a group that seemed too somber to enjoy dancing. Before I could answer, S. said, “The teacher thinks we have cooties.”
In the following weeks, others we knew only by sight asked, too.
Then, on the last night my friend told the instructor that everyone wanted to dance with S. and me.
“Is that true?” she asked, her mood soured by the request. They all nodded.
She started the music, and when she turned to us, no one stood with his or her partner. The Spanish couple had broken apart. So had the African American one. Two women had paired up and didn’t seem the least bit put off by holding hands. S. danced with most of the group, including a man whose age totaled that of three 16-year-old boys, and I danced with my friend, his wife and others.
And, that night, we all laughed and danced, no longer minding if our moves were smooth or steps in time. All inhibitions were surrendered as we became grown-up teenagers who just wanted to share the joys of dance with a 16-year-old girl.