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.
By Joseph Stroud
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,
shut, holding each other, and holding on
to the song,
until you almost stopped moving,
there, embracing, as the Mangles
crooned, and the mothers looked on
not with disapproval
or scorn, looked on with their eyes
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
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,
those first, awkward, shuffling steps,
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.
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