A Fifty Year Waltz, and Counting

It was only a Junior Congregation Dance at Beth El Emeth Synagogue. But in Memphis, Tennessee on a Saturday night in 1946, what choices did a 16 year old have except for the picture show. And if you liked popcorn with your movie, an evening at the Rialto Palace could set you back 25 cents. The Synagogue Dance was free.

But Betty Grable and Ty Power awaited us at the Rialto Palace. The Junior Congregation Dance, on the other hand, featured Rhea Mendel and Marsha Klodkin with a supporting cast of the Sunday school graduating class. I'd seen that show. Then I reminded myself that alongside the dance floor, there'd be a short oilcloth covered table with plates of sticky do-nuts and sugar cookies. The equivalent of free popcorn. Whatta bargain. So, I went to the dance in the synagogue basement.

Good idea. Because, besides Mendel and Klodkin and the crowd of extras who had overindulged for years on sugar cookies, there was a new star in the constellation of cuties that moved and grooved on the synagogue circuit. And as the poet says, she was a dove with dove's eyes.

Around, between, and behind the Sunday School graduating class, I watched her cautiously. I was so stunned by this newcomer that every platitude known to smitten suitors leaped into my consciousness all at once, headed by "Where have YOU been!!" This was the evening star peeping between the clouds of the Sunday School graduating class.

But nothing about our first meeting would have inspired Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele. It was more of a Louisa May Alcott moment. There was the usual third grade dialogue, which was beneath us since we were almost in high school and should have done better.

"Hi."

"Hello."

"Wanta dance?"

"I guess."

Not exactly zingy. But my radar screen lit up and my heart shrieked, TARGET! TARGET! TARGET! Easy does it, I thought. Be the patient tortoise who won the gold: not the herky jerky hare.

I remember trying to impress her with my maturity and adult conventionality by remarking that the dance floor was slippery; because only an hour ago the basement floor, which we called the social hall floor, had been the dining room floor. And it still retained smidgens of pastrami droppings. "Gotta be careful, you could slip and turn your ankle," I remarked. (Forty years later I made her the same speech about getting out of the tub - only this time I worried about her hip.)

Six or seven couples glided across that treacherous oily floor. The juke box watched and churned out hymns to romantic love, not lust. Inside, we bubbled like an agitated fifth of champagne. But the culture alchemized lust into something mildly civilized: like the Hoover Dam tames that rampaging river into a force that lights our lamps.

So we danced carefully, under the baleful eyes of armies of chaperons. Only two dance forms were available to us: the hi-speed frenetic jitterbug, definitely not for lovers or talkers: and the walk-to- the-music-around-the dance-floor. Great for lovers because it allowed hand-holding and back touching. It was also OK to let your eyes flame with passion - if you knew how to do it without looking goofy. The walk-to-the-music was my choice since it also allowed me to show off my conversational skills about slippery dance floors and other hot topics that fascinated the young ladies of the synagogue circuit.

The two-armed torso clutch was only practiced in dimly lit dives. Definitely out. After all this was the synagogue basement.

Looking back fifty years to that dance in the basement of the Beth El Emeth Synagogue, I marvel. I was wise beyond my years. Somehow I knew this was a marathon not a hundred yard dash. We've danced demurely now for more than half a century. May it continue