Watching Kenny Logan getting emptied on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ tonight (right decision, by the way) brought back memories of being taught to dance at school. The last few weeks of PE in the Winter Term were spent learning the dances for the Christmas Party. The girls would start a couple of weeks before us and we could hear them through the gym partition prancing around to Scottish country dance music while we were still being harangued up the ropes or harried along the beams.
When the day for joint practice came, we would all be a bit nervous. We only ever mixed with the girls on the way to and from school and in class; we had separate entrances, separate playgrounds and went to lunch in separate halves of the Dining Hall. In order to further minimise the chance of any nonsense, they split us up so that you never danced with girls of your own age. This meant that you spent your first couple of years gazing up with wild surmise at the distant peaks of some intimidating Sixth Year female. In your last two years, you were bent over double, hoping that you did not tread on your First Year partner.
So, back would roll the partition and there would be the girls at the far end of the Hall in their gym tunics. We would try to look nonchalant as we took our places on the benches opposite them, but it was a bit difficult – the authorities let us keep our shirts and jerseys on but they still made us wear our gym shorts and it was not easy to appear suave and sophisticated dressed like that.
The two Principal PE teachers would show us the steps. This always brought a certain frisson to the occasion. She was a magnificent specimen built along Tug Boat Annie lines with a voice that could reduce even a prefect to an incontinent wreck at fifty yards. He, whilst undeniably your classic muscle-bound psychopath of a gym teacher, was only about 5′ 2″. It didn’t help that they really hated each other. Watching them dance brought a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘keeping at arm’s length’ and was like watching two wrestlers trying to get a hold on each other or a Black Widow spider sizing up her mate before devouring him.
We were then herded across the floor to pick a girl. Nobody hung back because the last man over would have to dance with Tug Boat Annie. Choosing your partner was a bit of a lottery. Remember that the girls had started before us, so half of them only knew the men’s moves and holds. This was not a problem for the older boys, but the First and Second Year sometimes found it difficult to take on an opponent of superior height and reach who insisted on leading. I can still remember being smashed against the wall bars by the Captain of the netball team who would not let me twirl her during a particularly tense ‘Gay Gordons’.
Eventually, we acquired the basics of the required dances moving from the ‘Circassian Circle’ through the ‘St Bernard’s Waltz’, ‘Canadian Barn Dance’, ‘Eightsome Reel’ and others to the dizzy heights of ‘The Lancers’. Along the way, we took in stuff like the waltz, cha cha and foxtrot etc, but the teaching was a bit perfunctory. For example, we ended up only being able to dance the quickstep in a straight line. Every time we got to a corner, we would all stop, rotate through 90 degrees, readjust our grip and wait for the beat. One other problem was that we had a very limited range of records – to this day, I break into a cold sweat whenever I hear ‘Wheels Cha Cha’.
But the day dawned when I thought it was all going to be worth it. It was announced that the ‘White Heather Club Hogmanay Special’ was going to be shown live from the City Hall and that our school had been chosen to provide two sets for ‘Strip the Willow’. I was picked, not necessarily for my twinkling feet. The nonsense minimising rule had been invoked so it was Fifth Year girls and Third Year boys and I was one of the tallest in my year. We practiced long and hard. The day before the event, I developed a huge boil on my right elbow and could not twirl my partner to save myself. My mum took me to the doctor for medication and that was how we found out that I was highly allergic to penicillin.
I spent that Hogmanay lying on the sofa watching my substitute on live television between bouts of vomiting. Mind you, it did make up for it a wee bit when he turned round at the end of the dance and ran straight into the camera. You could still see the bruising a week later.