I remember the moment — or phone call to be precise — that I ceased to be a bachelor. Not in any real way of course, the woman on the phone was old enough to be my grandmother. But in a sort of symbolic way. From that point forward I ceased to be a bachelor in the way I dressed, the way I cooked, the way I thought about myself.
“Hello,” I answered, speaking into the new touchscreen phone I’d purchased upon my return to the States.
“Hello, this is Eve Finkton,” the pregnant pause that followed her introduction lasted a moment longer than was comfortable, “from the dance last night,” she continued.
I wracked my brain, trying to match the thin, trembling voice to one of the dozens of women I had danced with the night before.
They were filed under a dozen different things, a weird quirk of my professional life that had drifted into my personal one. Or maybe it was the other way around.
The filing cabinet had a series of seemingly random files, all named after various dance attributes. Swivels. Footwork. Movement. Cute. Ok, cute isn’t a dance file, but I needed somewhere to file the girls that were cute and couldn’t dance even a little.
Or so I imagine the files in my head.
In a little bit of a panic I was skimming through “swivels” and desperately hoping to see a post-it that indicated I’d given out my (new) cell phone number.
“I know this is a little unusual, but…”
It was the word unusual, combined with the discard of the swivels file and picking up of a new file that helped me piece it all together.
Elderly women. A file that was important for a number of reasons. The first is that they are less intimidating to dance with, and are often quite good dancers. The second? That girls my age love it when someone is dancing with someone their grandmother’s age.
The tinny, even elderly voice suddenly clicked. A woman flashed before my eyes — with lightly dyed orange hair. She had clearly been enjoying her dancing. She was an excellent follow, despite having slowed a step or two from her dancing prime.
“Oh, Miss Finkton — So sorry, it took me a minute to place you.”
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry one bit. I didn’t expect you to remember me at all.”
“Take the A-train,” I reassured, “it was a lovely dance.”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
My brow crinkled reflexively as she continued, “I really enjoyed dancing with you last night, and you seem like a wonderful young man.”
For one exceedingly strange moment I considered the possibility that this 77 year-old woman was about to ask me on a date. And in a way, she was.
“This may seem like a strange proposal…”
‘Proposal’ rang out a little odd.
“…but I’d like you to consider coming out and dancing with me this Saturday.”
The offer hang in the air for a record before she continued.
“It would be a business proposition. I would pay you for your time of course. Ever since my husband died I’ve had to go to these dances alone. It’s quite stressful, and I never get in quite as many dances as I’d like.”
“So,” I responded, “I’d be…an escort.”
That certainly didn’t come out right.
“And a dance partner,” she continued with a chuckle, “I’d want you to dress up – bow-ties, suspenders, wing tips. I’d pay for all the clothing, and generously for your time…”
That Thursday, armed with a series of pictures I’d printed out doing a google images search for 40s dancer.
Later on, the identity started expanding, but the world of bow-ties and suspenders was just opening up to me. At the time, swing dancing, and anything that happened while swing dancing, was on the periphery.
The core of life was the doctorate, a behemoth that “only” needed to be written. A strange life to say the least — a handful of coffee houses parading as offices, no deadlines but also no escape of the writing/thinking. It was that last bit that had led to the swing dancing – you see, research has the ability to follow me around; it’s hard to stop thinking about it. But when I dance, I can’t think.
Or can’t think about work at least – it’s all triple-steps and counting and trying to figure to figure out who to dance with.
Much to my surprise, Miss Finkton was a fantastic date. Quick-witted, relaxed, fun to dance with. Of course it helped that we were at Glen Echo – where I’d grown up dancing and she knew everyone. There are few things better in life than showing up to Glen Echo in suspenders; you know, look good, feel good and all that.
The scene had definitely diverged from what I remembered growing up. I’d been of the “Gap” generation of dancers, a whole generation of young people, inspired by a Gap commercial to bring back swing. I was on the young side — in middle school and high school when the craze shot through DC — but back then it always seemed like the floor was dominated by young, energetic dancers in their early to mid twenties. Now? It had a sort of odd, dignified sense that I couldn’t quite get a handle on.
Funnily enough, despite the age difference, the dance felt remarkably like a first date. I was a little nervous, a little overdressed, and trying to make a good first impression. Mrs. Finkton was witty and relaxed, seemingly aware and sympathetic of how uncomfortable I could feel in my own skin. If she had been 50 years younger I would have taken it as a good sign — it’s much easier to get a second date with a woman who pities me than one who likes me.
Of course, being an escort changed the calculations slightly, but I wanted the second date just as bad. Partially because any excuse to go swing dancing is a good excuse. And partially because the money was good, and like any grad student, a little money is my pocket is well appreciated. An maybe, even at this early time, somewhere deep inside of me, I knew that I liked this bow-tie-wearing version of myself. Because bow-ties are cool.
The dancing was, well, just dancing. Something I’d loved since I’d started. The tension between lead and follow juxtaposed with the jigsaw puzzle of the music. Hitting the breaks, the ending pose.
Just like always, it was the time in between dances that was most stressful. Normally, that was because I had to get up the courage to ask girls to dance. This time it was a different set of concerns; what did I do when someone asked Mrs. Finkton to dance? What if someone asked me to dance?
Mrs. Finkton seemed completely unfazed by these complexities, but perhaps this is one of the unknown benefits of employing your dance partner.
As the night went on, I began to wonder why exactly it was that I was employed — always a dangerous question. A seemingly endless stream of men– mostly almost aristocratic looking elderly gentlemen — asked Miss Finkton to dance.
Finally, during a slower song that inspired more of a Blues feel than any of the Lindy Hop I was accustomed to, I asked her:
She smiled, “Yes.”
“I believe you employed me under false pretenses.”
She frowned. “How exactly is that?”
I flashed a somewhat mischievous grin.
“You told me that you wanted me to come to the dance because you didn’t get asked to dance enough. Judging from the queue on your dance card this evening, I’ll soon be out of a job.”
“Those old political sods? That’s not dancing, that’s gossiping to good background music.”
She looked as if she was going to continue, but the song was coming to a close. I spun her gently into a position that my first instructor — Mr Applebaum — had called “the cuddle” and leaned slightly to my left. The gentle ending was both classy and well-timed — one of my favorites. I allowed myself a smile and an internal pat on the back before turning back to Mrs. Finkton to allow her to finish her thought.
She didn’t get the chance. Instead, a tall woman in her early fifties — with blond hair showing the faintest signs of going white, and piercingly blue eyes — interrupted us.
“Would you like to dance?” she asked me.
I twisted awkwardly to look at Mrs. Finkton. My eyes were clearly asking for permission, because Mrs. Finkton laughed and waved her hand at me. I turned back to my tall interloper and introduced myself.
“Howard Mack,” I said firmly. The look in her eyes was one of amusement, no doubt a result of a young man in his mid-twenties asking a woman of upward of 70 for permission to dance with another woman.
“Chris,” she replied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The music started and I flinched. Even as my right arm slid behind her shoulder blade, I was snapping out the beat with my left hand. Too fast. Way too fast.
Chris noticed. “Do you Bal at all?” She asked innocently.
I flinched again. Balboa had evolved as a response to crowded dance floors and fast music — a dignified but extremely close dance that depended on leading based on which foot you put your weight on — and having a close enough body connection to communicate those leads to a partner. I’d taken a 6 week introduction to Bal — but getting through a whole dance?
“Only a little, I’m afraid,” I answered.
“Me too,” she responded, shifting hand and body positions.
It took me less than a bar to figure out she was lying. Her balboa was superb, from the firm frame to the exquisitely freelanced footwork. Meanwhile, I was slogging through my ‘step,step, hold, step’ and my ‘step, step, step, hold’ basic movements with a persistence I hadn’t shown since I’d taken the class almost for years ago. Occasionally I’d throw in a “throw out” and once I even switched into 32 bars of some very fast lindy. But for the most part it was basic bal.
As the song came to a close I debated my final move. My thoughts were interrupted by the bands’ final flourish, coming just a few bars before I expected. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d spun Chris into a dip. She executed it flawlessly, and just like that, the dance was over.
“Thank you Howard.”
I walked back off the dance floor to Mrs. Finkton. Her eyes were gleaming. “You looked fantastic out there.”
I grinned sheepishly, “I need to brush up on my bal.”
“Nonsense,” she answered. Then she looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “You do know who that is don’t you?”
My eyebrows crinkled, and I got that almost forgotten feeling in my stomach — of being called on in class and knowing I should know the answer.
“Chris Throne — she’s running for Congress.”
Then it rushed in. Republican primary. New to politics. Great early reviews. Hopeless district.
It wasn’t until I got home that I found the note she had left in my back pocket.