Teen-ager's Sockhops
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Tuning it up for the hop

 

THE SEVENTH GRADE

 

On the first day of school of my seventh grade year, Bonham Junior High School was not quite finished.  So my new classmates and I attended Bowie Junior High, which was on the west side of town.  The regular Bowie students attended classes in the morning, and the Bonham students attended in the afternoon until Bonham was finished about a month later.  That year saw the advent of our introduction to the Sock-hop in the gyms of those schools throughout our years...........

 

Some of my junior-high memories remind me of the following poem.

 

HOMAGE: DOO-WOP

By Joseph Stroud

 

There’s so little sweetness in the music I hear now,

no croons, no doo-wop or slow ones where you could

hug up with someone and hold them against your body,

feel their heart against yours, touch their cheek

with your cheek–and it was ok, it was allowed,

even the mothers standing around at the birthday party,

the rug rolled back in the living room, didn’t mind

if you held their daughters as you swayed to the music,

eyes squeezed shut, holding each other, and holding on

to the song, until you almost stopped moving,

just shuffled there, embracing, as the Mangles

and Penguins crooned, and the mothers looked on

not with disapproval or scorn, looked on with their eyes

dreaming, as if looking from a thousand miles away, as if

from over the mountain and across the sea, a look

on their faces I didn’t understand, not knowing then

those other songs I would someday enter, not knowing

how I would shimmer and writhe, jig like a puppet

doing the shimmy-shimmy-kokobop, or glide from turn

to counter turn within the waltz, not knowing

how I would hold the other through the night

and across the years, holding on for love and dear life,

for solace and kindness, learning the dance as we go,

learning from those first, awkward, shuffling steps,

that sweetness and doo-wop back at the beginning.

 

 

In the ‘50s there was a dancing school in Odessa called Montillo’s School of Dance.  It was located somewhere in the eleven hundred block of Texas Avenue.  I have no idea how or why my mother found out about it, but suddenly all four of her kids were enrolled, and we were far from alone.  Ironically, a significant number of other mothers had the same idea, because the classes were full and numerous to accommodate the demand.

 

I was a new guy in town with little or no history to connect me to so many students.  There were more boys on the two seventh grade football teams at Bonham than there were students in all six grades of the little elementary school I had just left, so my eyes were wide everywhere I went, and I was alert to remember the names of so many people.

 

Playing football was a big help in getting me integrated, but there were many groups, and I was still the outsider to many of them because they all shared a past with one another, or so it seemed.  So it was with wide-eyed skepticism and trepidation that I consented to my Mother’s overly enthusiastic news that we would all be learning how to dance.  My interest in the girls was beginning to go beyond choosing many of them to be on my side in a volleyball game because they were so well coordinated compared to so many of us still fairly clumsy boys. And those girls were changing, too. 

 

Their young bodies were noticeably different from just a year before, and the looks they would give me and the content of their conversations had become different, and things were serious in a totally different vein.  There was more shyness about what was said, but there was more of an interest in saying it.  It was all a validation test.

 

Would I get validated with my response, would she feel validated with what I said back to her? Would she go away thinking I was cool?  Would she want to talk the next time we saw each other, or would she go try the same game with another guy?  God, it was rough, this acceptance thing.

 

And so it was with just a few more heart beats per minute that I first saw the labyrinthine interior of Montillo’s Dance Studio, where separate rooms were provided for the different age groups; after all, a high school student would not want to be seen in the same room as a seventh grader.  Dignity is dignity. 

 

There were familiar faces in my group, thank heavens, and people whose names I had learned. They too looked straight ahead at the instructor as she started to tell us about the program.  I knew that I would soon have the hand of one of the girls in my hand.  My other hand would be on her back, and I would be scared to death, trying not to be too clumsy and shuffle into her feet or step on her toes, or say something dumb, and so it was with rapt attention and sweaty palms and pounding heart that I imitated the first steps of the foxtrot.

 

The music was that of my parent’s generation, and I cannot recall exactly what it was, but the beat fit perfectly to the steps Mrs. Montillo taught us.  At first we did the steps solo in order to memorize them exactly, and I welcomed that with great relief.  Hey, the step wasn’t that hard.  Next, we did a turn using the same step.  Easy.  Finally we did the whole thing backwards, and suddenly we could all do the foxtrot, and we found ourselves doing the steps to the music and navigating at the same time.  It was a miracle.

 

Next came the moment everyone knew was coming. “Everyone choose a partner,” Mrs. Montillo said, and we all tried our hardest to appear cool and calm, but our palms were sweaty and the distances were great between the bodies, and it was work trying to synchronize our steps. Our eyes were focused far away and over shoulders with fierce concentration, trying hard not to fail at this too noticeably.

 

At last the music would stop and the instructor would choose another 45 record to put on the hi-fi.  We all turned and paired up with new partners, trying not to appear choosy, or fearful.  Quickly the ritual started again, and after a few repetitions the hour was over, and we were told to come back another day.  Over the weeks we progressed through the jitterbug, the cha-cha-cha, and the waltz, forming new relationships as motion went from wooden and stiff to confident and flowing.   It was exhilarating to talk and dance and stare into the eyes of the opposite sex and try to get inside their heads and learn what made them tick.

 

It was the beginning of the real world of chemistry, a science not taught in the classroom, but the chemistry that would shape and direct our lives forever.  It would break or swell our hearts, heal our wounds, wither hope or promise heaven.  There would never be an exam or a paper to write on this subject but it would be the most important experiment of all, and it was all learned without a word spoken about it. 

 

The dance lessons ended, but they were just the beginning.  They prepared us for the dances at schools, youth centers, private parties, on the streets, on tennis courts, patios, even shuffling barefooted in the sand hills, and they would continue in our heads, if not on other floors, for the rest of our lives.  And in those experiences we would learn intuitively, if not actually, the secret of longed-for music, and the music of our past.

 

It reminds us of when we were in puppy love, or wanting to be, and it reminds us of our favorite times growing up and that explains the mothers’ far-away look, over the mountain and across the sea.  They saw their daughters hand in hand with the young men, heart to heart, swooning together, and the mothers remembered.  They wanted for their daughters what they had felt in their own lives.

 

Mothers are sneaky like that.

 

The real world test came fast and with great expectations, pregnant with possibilities and memory-making opportunities.  Junior high sock hops were held on Friday nights in the school gymnasium.  Most of the dancers stayed at one end of the gym, practicing their social skills under dimmed lights, as far away from the chaperones as possible.

 

 At the other end of the gym, by the door, where the lights were the brightest and where shoes were deposited so as not to scratch the floor, the chaperones, the mothers, and some teachers watched to see that their plan came together as they had hoped.  That plan was to offer to their children and their friends the best of what they had experienced during their own youth, during the war with all of its scary shadowing thoughts

 

What was different for their kids was that there was now no war, no depression; instead there was a wildly surging economy, and all that difficulty was behind them now.  For many, things were going well financially, and out there on those hardwood floors, under the basketball backboards, were their sons and daughters, heart to heart with dancing partners, learning about chemistry, swaying to the new music called rock and roll, mixed with the music of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, or Nat King Cole. 

 

There was no doubt a nervousness within those mothers when the emerging music of their children’s generation came over the speakers.  It was much more sexually suggestive than that of their generation, and they no doubt wondered what it all meant for their lives.  But it was innocent enough for the supervised environment of the sock hop, so they too swayed and tapped their feet at their end of the gym, remembering with full hearts their own growing up years.  At this late stage of my life I must confess that my memories of those years have faded a great deal and only very vivid instances, strong impressions, remain.  The bop comes to mind.

 

It seemed to rise out of nowhere, but in fact it was born in the black culture of those times.  I have always wondered why it faded as fast as it came, because anyone could do it.  It evolved out of the beat of the emerging style of rock and roll, a natural move, easy to do but hard to describe.

 

One night when I attended one of my first seventh-grade sock hops, trying out my luck and skills with the young sweet things whose names and faces totally escape me today, something really unforgettable happened.

 


 

I’ll call him Charlie.  He was a year older than I was, and he had the physique every young boy prayed for before falling asleep at night.  He was a muscular young man, and he had hair all of us envied, thick and blonde and perfectly groomed, combed back at the sides into perfect ducktails.  The top of the golden hair was short, almost but not quite a flat top, with a part on each side.  The hair on top was combed slightly toward the front of his head with a little wave and indention until it got to the perfect little comma that came down to a point in the middle of his forehead.

 

His Levis were perfectly starched, and down the front was a seam, put there with great care. His white T-shirt was new and accented his athletic body.  On his feet were shiny black penny loafers, and like the rest of us he wore the ubiquitous white socks.  He was a perfect physical specimen, a loner and a quiet guy, never saying much or interacting with others.  He had a sister younger than I was, good looking like he was, and hard to know like he was.  He had a way with the girls, and he was a great dancer.  The music was sultry and suggestive and probably furrowed the brows of our parents when it played, because the behavior on the dance floor seemed to change a bit as it took hold of its own generation, the new teens.

 

Charlie was dancing with someone his own age, a girl who appeared more mature than some, confident and brave and unafraid, and they were doing the bop to an instrumental piece.  But their moves began to change to a self-improvised dance that had Charlie and his companion feeding off each other’s moves until both of them were doing something resembling a face to face limbo, slowly leaning back and gradually going to the floor, leaning way back at the waist, way far, maintaining their balance with their feet far out in front of them the way only a limber athlete could do, but this improvised dance had all the earmarks of a teenage mating ritual, and it came out of nowhere, caused by the music and two in-synch people.

 

 Half-way through the dance the entire population of teenagers on the floor surrounded this spectacle in a tight circle, backed by skeptical moms looking on, all amazed and transfixed and wondering what was going on.  Slowly, with the music, the two dancers started the reverse trip up, back to their original positions, and went right back into the bop as the music came to an end.     

 

Wordless and amazed, the rest of us slowly and sheepishly retreated to our own territories on the dance floor with our innocent partners, quiet in our thoughts and feeling very outdone with our dancing efforts.  We danced until our time was up that evening, enjoying ourselves and feeling very lucky to be where we were, doing what we did, and feeling those teenage feelings, and thinking teenage thoughts.  Embedded in our memories were ol’ Charlie and his partner and they were amazing, a harbinger of things to come.

 

For me, the social life in those days for those of my age group and those a bit older comprised the epitome of the ‘50s.  After school began, there were many Friday-night sock hops in the gym at Bonham Junior High School, and I went to dances at the other two junior high schools across town where I knew students. It was a blast, and I have to thank my mom for having the the insight to encourage her kids to take those ballroom dancing lessons.  There were country club dances, formal activities with white dinner jackets, exciting football games on cool autumn Friday nights, pep rallies and an ever-increasing circle of friends and acquaintances.  Those years were hard to beat.

 

 

Rockin' and Rollin' At The Sock Hop Ball
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