Our first response was to laugh; as one does when nervously anticipating the unknown…
Gym class at Dakota Collegiate was for lifting weights or climbing ropes, perhaps learning the finer points of basketball and dodgeball. “Boys Only” of course — we had little to do with the girls on the other side of the curtain that divided the gym in two. This class was to be different, and for me — life changing. No Mr. Dale Bradshaw for this gym class; on this particular day we were going to have Ms June Syko teach the boys… how to dance. Or more specifically, waltz.
This news precipitated brief panic among the 20-odd young bucks assembled. At first we eyed each other nervously, worried we might be paired off and forced to dance with each other. That would never happen. I’m not sure we heard anything Ms Syko said in her introductory remarks; we were unaccustomed to being paid attention to by anyone so… dare I say it… beautiful.
And she was, there’s no denying it. An athletic California blonde as far as we were concerned. Could have been a beach volleyball champion, or maybe a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader with a smile as bright and youthful as Olivia Newton-John. Or a Baywatch lifeguard. Or all of the above… it didn’t really matter. We all imagined her in our own post-pubescent testosterone-charged way…
Our imagining all ground to a halt when she barked “You!” and pointed through the gangly cast of characters in tight shorts and sweats to the one person in the class who had not heard a single word of her preamble. Pushed forward from the back row by my classmates with sniggering “Attaboy Peters” comments, I had no idea what she wanted me to do. I edged forward — there was no going back.
More preamble. “The box-step is named after the pattern it makes on the floor, which is just that, a square box. It can be applied to several dances, including the rumba, or even the fox trot”. There was no nodding of agreement or understanding by anyone; we knew squat about such things. Say “Fox Trot” to a teenaged boy in 1977 and not much sank in beyond the word “Fox”; like saying “Squirrel!” to a dog…
“Now take my right hand with your left.”
THAT got their attention. All eyes were on me, as I instinctively raised my right hand, which I started to move awkwardly across to her waiting hand. A quick shift of her eyes and I auto-corrected. “Not quite so tight!” she continued. “Keep your fingers together, but not stiff. And cup your hand slightly. Now put your right hand around my waist”. I obliged from about a foot away.
You could have heard a pin drop. I was, for that brief moment, suspended in time.
The moment that followed, however, would be a memory that would live vividly in my mind for more than 40 years. It is a film clip without a soundtrack — save the collective gasp of the boys…
“TIGHTER! Like THIS!” And just like that I was chest-to-chest and nose-to-nose with June Syko.
Beyond that moment I really don’t remember much. We learned to box step in a stilted and graceless manner, stomping the square pattern with almost military precision. We learned to polka the same way — thankfully without ever having to partner up with one of the guys.
Of course the purpose and highlight of the exercise was “The Dance”, where we were assigned partners from the girls’ class. I really did enjoy that class, even though dancing is admittedly not something that comes naturally to me.
But it wasn’t the highlight of 1977 for me. Not by a long shot.