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May I Have This Dance?

Cotillion instructor and student, Virginia, 1950's

In my hometown of Catonsville, Maryland it was called Friday Assembly. In yours, it might have been Cotillion, a more favored term in the South. But the design and purpose were the same, taking middle school aged children and teaching them proper manners, etiquette, and ball room dancing.

This is not to be confused with the whole debutante thing where young ladies aged 16 or so get their “debut” or formal announcement that they are joining society. It is euphemistically referred to as the “coming out party”. Where I came from the only society that I ever heard about belonged to John Birch and "coming out" involved the closet and big celebrations were not included. But hey, just another little difference between the North and the South.

Cotillion comes from a term meaning group dance, first introduced in 18th-century France and England. It is the forebearer of the square dance. “Swing your partner” and “do-si-dos" were added to the genre by country fiddle players in plaid shirts. The Girl Scout Cookie version and marijuana strain of Do-si-Dos were even later iterations, but I am getting off topic.

In Catonsville, being invited to participate in Friday Assembly was a big deal. As a middle-school-aged boy, this fact was completely lost on me as were most other things in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. You could ask me anything about Silly Putty, stick ball, carbide cannons, or the best place to buy a Revell plastic model of a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and I could give you the answer. But anything about dancing or girls and you might as well have asked the question in Chinese.

I clearly remember when my invitation came in the mail, not because I had a clue what it meant, but because of my mom’s reaction. The envelope contained a formal invitation, embossed on bevel-edged cardstock. I’m not sure of the sponsoring organization, but since the venue was the Catonsville Women’s Club on St. Timothy’s Lane, I’ll guess that they were the folks handling the arrangements.

Founded in 1932, the club folded in 2013 after an 80-year run. It seems that its best players were suffering from an abundance of birthdays.

I remember the invitation in some detail, only because I found it years later in my mom’s belongings. She never threw it away. It was important to her. She and my dad were more likely to be invited to crab feasts and bull roasts than anything associated with the word “Club” so the fact that I was invited to Friday Assembly was a family milestone.

First, a proper suit.

Dad didn’t wear a suit to work and only had two that I recall he wore to church, funerals, or political stuff. I didn’t need one for any of those three occasions and judging from photographic evidence, had gotten by with a blue blazer and several ridiculous looking bow ties.

So off I went with mom to T.I. Schwartz, whose “warehouse” store at South Pulaski and Eager Streets was a venerable Baltimore wholesaler of menswear. Baltimore was a center of men’s fashion back in the day with Warners, Payne & Merrill and Lohmeyer occupying the high ground. Hamburgers was middle of the road and the wholesalers were where folks like my dad shopped.

I would later become a loyal patron of Jos. A. Bank at 105 Hopkins Plaza, but my first suit was a Schwartz custom. Yes, custom. That's how they did it in those days. There were no racks of suits when you came into the warehouse. Just a short Jewish man with a cloth tape measure draped around his neck, bolts of fabric, cutting tables, and lots of people hunched over sewing machines.

My first suit was a real beauty. Picture brown worsted wool with a window-pane check. Side note, worsted wool is a weave originated in Worstead, a village in the English county of Norfolk. An influx of Flemish weavers in the Middle Ages put the town on the map and to this day, this high quality, smooth wool is named for the hamlet.

I clearly remember picking the suit up with mom when it was finished. It came in a T. I. Schwartz branded suit bag, and I felt very cool walking back to the car.

On the first Friday night I had no idea what to expect. Nervous? Oh yeah, I was nervous. To say that I was out of my comfort zone would be the understatement of the year.

The parents (in my case just my mom) came in with their kids on the first night and I remember a gaggle of grown-ups in the lobby checking everyone in. Once checked in and name tagged, Mom left, and I ventured into the ballroom.

Standing in the middle of the room was, I swear, Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Maybe it was just her dress and blonde hair, but I thought wow, I did not see this coming. Actually, turns out it was Alma Loth Wolf, our etiquette and dance instructor. She didn’t have a magic wand or a crown, but everything else was pure Glinda. Puffy dress, sparkly shoes, lots of makeup…not from my neighborhood for damned sure.

She seemed ancient, but turns out she was only about 50 on that Friday night in September, 1961. I recently looked back on her resume and old Alma was kind of a big deal.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, she attended Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and studied ballet at the American Ballet School in New York City. She taught at the College of Notre Dame for more than 30 years and had dance studios in Baltimore and Catonsville. If you wanted to learn ballet or social dancing, she was the person to see.

As Alma separated the girls from the boys and directed us guys to sit on the gray folding chairs to her right, I noticed piano music coming from the stage at the end of the large room. There, at the controls of a full Steinway Grand was a balding fellow in a tuxedo who we were told was “Mista’ Brown”. If you’re gonna dance, you need tunes and that is where Old Brownie came in. He was about Alma’s age, so in my simple middle-school mind, I remember thinking that they were probably married. They weren’t.

The girls were sitting on one side of the room and the boys on the other so that we could make the longest walk possible to ask a young lady “may I have this dance?” This question was pronounced after arriving in front of the prospective partner, coming to a complete stop, squaring your shoulders, making eye contact, and (wait for it) bowing slightly from the waist. At Friday Assembly, the young lady’s answer was always “yes” (real world social rejection would arrive soon enough). You were then instructed to extend your right hand, take her left hand and guide her to the dance floor.

I wasn’t old enough to go to Teen Center dances yet, but I innately knew that asking a young lady to dance in this Victorian style would guarantee that Champ Dawson and his pals would be waiting for you outside to pummel the daylights out of you. But, on the theory that you have to crawl before you can socially walk, we endured this introduction to the 19th Century with good humor. After all, it was an honor to be there I was told.

The curriculum included the Fox Trot, the Waltz, the Cha-Cha, and if you were exceptionally well-behaved, the Twist (sweeping the nation at the time). Chubby Checker’s hit was our crazy countercultural moment…in other words, no culture. But it was the only dance you could actually do outside Friday Assembly.

All the Friday’s kind of blend together in my memory. At halftime a couple of moms would serve up cookies, cupcakes, and punch. There were door prizes, (always a “silva dolla” dramatically announced by Mrs. Loth in her Virginia drawl) and end of the year dance contests. If I do say so myself, I carried my share of trophies out of there. Always an enthusiastic if not great athlete, I had found something that I was good at…the Fox Trot. Real resume material that.

Even in the blur, there is one night that I will never forget.

Dad was driving me to the Woman’s Club in our sporty but unreliable Chrysler Windsor. Green and white two-tone with white side walls and enormous fins, it was low mileage and many of those miles had been added by our mechanic Gus Wertzer in test drives after costly repairs. Gus was a good mechanic and we had kept his kids in nice shoes and his wife in pretty dresses for at least a decade.

Now I say that Gus was a good mechanic, but everything he fixed would eventually break again. That was the case this cold Friday night in early December when on Frederick Road right in front of the Catonsville Post Office the engine made a funny noise and Dad drifted the chariot to the curb. He got out to assess the situation, popped the hood, and shined a flashlight into the engine room.

I was all set to pack it in and chalk it up to fate when a Baltimore County Police cruiser pulled in front of our car and parked. The Officer got out and in small town Catonsville where my grandfather had been Magistrate Judge, he of course knew my dad.

“Al, what’s up?” was his rather open-ended question.

Dad allowed as much as he had no idea what the problem was but surely was not going to solve it in time to get me to Friday Assembly.

“I’m going to walk over to the pay phone at the library and call AAA, but in the meantime, could you give John a ride to the Women’s Club on St. Timothy Lane?”

“Sure” was the response and into the backseat of the police car I went.

Now, I’m not certain whether it was just a polite kid thing to get into the back of the car, or maybe there was police stuff on the front seat, or I had pictured my arrival at the Club. As it turned out it was perfect.

Even on a cold night, the guys didn’t rush into the Women’s Club. Unlike the girls who couldn’t wait to get inside, neatly hang up their coats and start talking, the boys would linger under the columned portico until the last minute. Maybe the place would burn down or something and we wouldn’t have to go in.

So I had an audience when the Baltimore County Police car pulled up in front to drop me off. Police cars in the early 1960’s just like police cars today have no inside door handles in the back. It's inconvenient to have a detainee hop out at a traffic light on the way to the pokey. So, the officer has to get out and use the exterior door handle for you to exit.

All those male adolescent eyes were trained on the back door of the cruiser when the patrolman opened it up and I emerged.

Remembering my Friday Assembly manners, I thanked him for the ride and strolled toward the door of the Club. In a scene reminiscent of The Blues Brothers Movie when Jake (John Belushi) emerges from jail into the waiting arms of his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), my buds couldn’t even think of a question to ask. Their mouths were still agape as I walked by, opened the door, and stepped inside.

Their assumptions were way better than reality and I basked in the after wash of the rumor mill for a long, pleasant evening.

Best night ever.


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