Dancing King

Last Dance: The Disco Year 1979

Most of my Middle Eastern colleagues, whose confidence had been sapped by the gospel of doubt broadcast in Edward Said’s Orientalism, no longer believed they had the skill or the right to explain what Islam is all about. But I thought I did —what did a Christian Palestinian expert on Comparative Literature know about it anyway?— and I did just that at 11 o’clock, Mondays and Wednesdays, fall and spring, in the university’s Cantor Center on 8th St. in New York City. There I unfolded my veridical tale, called, of course, “What Is Islam?”, in a large auditorium on the ground floor. Were it not so dark, I knew I could have read upon the faces of the 200 undergraduates gathered there the telltale look that said, “Yes, indeed. This is really what Islam is all about!”

The dark hall where I displayed the truth about Islam had not always been the Cantor Center. Twenty years before I stood upon the stage, Powerpoint remote in hand, it had been a movie house called the Art Theater, and it was I who sat there in the glow of the silver screen and whispered, “Yes! Yes!”

The pleasure of the solitary afternoon movie was something I discovered about fifteen minutes into my teaching career. High school teachers attempt to roll their Sisyphean charges up the steep slope of learning from 9 to 4, or maybe 5, and then go home, throw themselves onto their beds and weep silently into the pillow. College was somewhat different. An undergraduate course at 11 and a graduate seminar at 6 left a long empty stretch of afternoon in Greenwich Village. Some of my colleagues went to the Chinese restaurant on University Place and drank; others went to the library and attempted research. I went to the movies. The Waverley, the Greenwich, the Art, the 8th Street Playhouse, all within a five or ten minute walk from my office. I sat solitary in the balcony and smoked and watched the Nouvelle Vague come lapping onto American shores; smiled at Guinness hi-jinx and suffered through dreary Midlands slices-of-life; squirmed with the poor Japanese woman trapped in the dunes and waited for Toshiro Mifune to grunt and unsheathe his lethal sword one more time. I learned to love, and to spell, Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni and, sicuro, Mastroianni. On my first trip to Rome I headed not to the Coliseum but straight to the Via Veneto.

Movie-going seemed like a harmless pastime, and I had come by it honestly. As an eight or nine year old, in an age before there were baby-sitters, I was taken to the movies. Well, not exactly. Since I was not readily disposed of, I became my mother’s date when she went to the movies, which she often did of a Depression afternoon. So I sat through a good deal of the ‘30s movie fare. Some of it scared me out of my juvenile wits, “Werewolf of London,” for one, and, can you believe it, “Babes in Toyland” which ended in some sort of goony chase through underground caves that gave me chills for years. And, more consequentially, one or two of those screen gems must have planted a Kay Francis thing somewhere near the bottom of my pre-pubescent psyche, a long-fused explosive, which, like an undiscovered London V2 rocket, still goes off occasionally and wounds an unsuspecting bystander.

Thus launched, I charted my own trajectory, first in the rascal-ridden “Children’s’ Section” of the local grindhouse, a field of mayhem patrolled by a white-clad “matron” who attempted to maintain order with a flashlight. Then, on my own, in the icy interiors of Loew’s American and the RKO Castle Hill, I fought WW II on weekends with Dane Clark (“Brooklyn”), Richard Jaeckel (“The Kid”) and Richard Loo, Hollywood’s inevitable “Jap” (“How you like those apples, Yank?”), who later effortlessly transformed himself into a North Korean). Eventually my weekends were devoted to other, less worldly pursuits, and thereafter movies were an occasional thing until I became an academic in New York City with a lot of very empty afternoons at his disposal. So I passed them from time to time in dark Village movie houses, the grandiose Greenwich to the grim Bleecker Street Cinema, slouched down in the plushy seats, eyes fixed on the shadows moving across the great screen.

And one afternoon early in 1978, in a nearly deserted 8th Street movie house called the Art, a New York City elevated subway train moved across the screen and over it, in large white letters, was the name of Robert Stigwood. It was the opening shot of “Saturday Night Fever” and it was immediately followed by a very loud explosion that I only later identified as a test firing of My Midlife Crisis.

It could have been worse, I suppose, much worse. I could have driven a new Lamborghini into a tree or been arrested in Djibouti or made off to Jackson Hole with the Provost’s teen-age daughter. No, my Midlife Crisis was rather mild, a stretch of dress-up and act-out that left in its wake nothing more serious, I hope, than astonishment for some, or perhaps even entertainment, and a polyester shirt. And, as often happens, the diagnosis emerged only after the condition had abated.

My professional schedule was, as I said, not a terribly taxing one. I rose when I wished, took a few gulps of coffee and cast a few intermittent glances at the sports pages of the New York Times. I then repaired to the bathroom where I washed and shaved. And listened to the radio. Since I didn’t own a car and lived exactly one block from my classroom, I was not terribly interested in WINS’ morning litany of traffic and weather problems, many of them on Long Island, a place where I never went. Nor did I want to hear about the overnight disasters to life and property that constituted the local news in those dark urban days. So I fiddled with the dial with my wet hands and looked for clear reception and music. And I found it, with a jolt, at the hither end of the FM dial. I stopped fiddling and listened.

Not my usual fare, this WKTU thing that called itself, sorry, “Hot 92.3.” In the early ‘60s I had returned to New York City to teach and almost immediately I discovered WNCN, a classical music station spawned in some Platonic utopia and presided over every night by one Bill Watson who had what was clearly the second best job in the universe —I already had a lock on the first, a tenured professor in New York City— which seemed to amount to sitting in a studio in his pajamas, playing Mozart’s Horn Concertos and just shooting the breeze. But the Evil One, up to his usual tricks, erased both WNCN and Mr. Watson from the airwaves and I was left to wander the dial, up into the ethnic FM high plains, down into the Rock and Roll AM lowlands, where, amidst the tares I chanced upon Paul Robinson and WKTU.

The Holy Ghost had descended quite Pentacostally upon 92.3 on the FM dial at precisely 6 PM on July 28, 1978 when the station located there converted from whatever nonsense they were playing to the new, inspired nonsense of disco —does not the Blessed Virgin herself prefer to appear to illiterates and children?– and the station’s ratings immediately shot through the Arbitron ceiling. Billboard was not one of the learned journals I subscribed to, I knew nothing of Arbitron ratings, and on that morning I was listening with only half an ear. But then, when a voice began to pound out something called “I Love the Nightlife,” it was not my ear that responded but some much deeper coil of nerve endings that began to vibrate in my arms and legs and, though I was not fully aware of it at the time, in some very jiggly place in my head.

I was not, then, entirely unprepared for the rhythms behind Robert Stigwood’s name or the beat to which John Travolta strode into the frame.. It sent great bolts of electricity across the darkness of the half-deserted Art Theater and into the head and, as it turned out, the feet, of the startled gentleman in the tweed jacket slouched down in Row N.

I went back and saw “Saturday Night Fever” five or six more times, dragging with me whomever I could find to validate my experience that this movie was something extraordinary, maybe even life-changing. For the most part they politely agreed –I was after all a Department Chair—but even in my stunned condition I could recognize that the electricity was all mine. Later, when the madness passed, I wondered why. Why had I been so affected by this movie? The critics praised it, the public loved it, but I was stunned by it. Why?

I though perhaps it was because of some not so subtle identification of the younger me with the character played by Travolta: Anthony Manero, a young man possessed of an extraordinary talent, but trapped in a lower middle-class Catholic family, with a failed clerical brother no less, and yet with a fugitive vision of something better Across the River. Maybe. But if that Italian Bay Ridge dance king was a version of Irish Pelham Bay altar boy me, I had long since escaped the family dinner table and taken up a very comfortable residence Across the River.

No. As the sequel revealed, it wasn’t my identification with Travolta/Manero, it was the music, the later despised Bee Gees anthems, that set my earthbound feet moving and my pulse popping in the Art. It took me a while to identify the tune, the same one that was now booming 24/7 from my radio: it was “Invitation to the Dance.”

I’m not sure where or how I discovered Juan, my lithe and smiling Latino dance master. In the pages of the Village Voice is a reasonable guess since in the ‘70s I was a faithful reader of that local wildflower that had, like the other journalistic bad boy of the day, the Women’s Wear Daily, burst into sudden and fantastic bloom. Both papers were chroniclers of what then passed as “the Scene,” a New York condition that surrounded but did not, alas, include me. I stood on the outside of that glittering world and looked at it only through the windows of the Village Voice where I might have caught a passing glance of Juan doing the Hustle inside a third floor studio on 17th Street.

It wasn’t a vision; it was an ad I saw in the Voice: “Dance Lessons: Latin, Ballroom, Hustle. Private and Group. Experienced Teacher. Call or Come In.” I called and then I came in and joined a Hustle class of nine: three couples, a woman named Lisa, a guy named Thomas and me, former altar boy and presently Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, History and Religion. The couples danced, or not, together, Thomas and I took turns with Lisa or with Juan himself. It was easy going, or at least Juan made it seem so: a couple of little box-steps and then a flood of pounding rhythms that the music seemed to inject into my nervous system, which relayed them to my 50 year old body. And then, that antique instrument that had never possessed anything that might be called grace, converted them, quite to my astonishment, into a series of twists, turns and twirls through which I led my partner.

It was really Juan, of course, who had grace in abundance and a Latin elegance that was not distributed to Bronx Irish-Catholic males in the Depression era. He moved easily, lightly, whether leading, when he was illustrating a step or move with one of the women, or when he was following, when dancing with Thomas or me. “Keep the back straight,” he implored or, my favorite, “Noble! Noble!” Somewhere deep within Juan Corteja were the bloodlines of a bullfighter. “Hai! Torrero!” Juan was, in any event, the best dance partner I’ve ever had, as I’m sure he was to many another when he shook us amateurs out of his hair and went out to the clubs of an evening and really danced.

My dance education lasted six weeks and by its end the long mirrors on the studio wall announced that I could actually perform that arcane ritual called the Hustle, which Lisa, never one for overstatement, endorsed with a ringing “Not bad.” By way of a commencement Juan took us all to a club where he abruptly threw us into the pool to see if we could swim in real water.

If it was real water, it was at the very shallow end of the pool. We arrived at 9 PM, all atremble and huddled together in terror of exposure, at a place in Chelsea called “The Cat” or, as I later heard Juan laughingly refer to it on the phone, “The Kitten.” The hall was half-deserted at that unstylish hour and the few dancers looked like they might be finishing up from a previous evening. But it was a real dance floor, with real disco being played by a live DJ, “Might Mo” — “Mo for Motation,” he later explained to us. And yes, the final guarantee of authenticity, a glittering disco ball cast its slivers of silver on the nervous amateurs below.

It was a historical moment for me: there I was dancing in public, and in a real disco club, albeit in the low minors. But there was a larger cultural importance to that evening. It may have been the first and last time that anyone went out discoing in polo shirts and chinos. Juan was of course perfectly attired: polyester flowered shirt, flared pants taut across the pelvis, a golden chain around his neck and high-heeled clogs upon his nimble feet. But he danced, I noticed, with strangers and at a good distance from his erstwhile charges. The few onlookers stared at us from the surrounding darkness. We thought it was because of our inept dancing. It was, but a large quantum of their amazement was also directed at the clothes on our backs.

At about eleven o’clock, an hour or so before the real dancers arrived, we called it quits, filled with self-congratulation and showering compliments on Juan for turning dross, if not into gold, at least into a semi-precious metal. My own reflection was, first, I can do this. It was followed by the obsessive’s inevitable corollary: if I was going to do this thing –the dimensions of “this thing” left suggestively unmeasured– I should do it right, or at least as right as my fifty-odd summers of inhibition and repression allowed.

Perhaps that was it, the lack of inhibition. Maybe what I admired up on that screen was Tony Manero’s ability to let it all hang out, to display, even to flaunt his skills without fear or hesitation on that lit candy-colored stage in Brooklyn. And dance was his canvas and paints, his marble and chisel, his yellow Levenger pad.

I should have known.

One of my favorite set pieces from Classical Civ, and one that may have engaged me more than my students, was Herodotus’ tale of Hippocleides, an Athenian who was engaged to the daughter of Cleisthenes, the powerful ruler of Sicyon. A brilliant future thus lay before him, but at the betrothal banquet, Hippocleides, seized by I know not what Terpsichorean madness, leaped up onto the table, stood on this head and performed a lively Lacedaemonian gavotte, tunic all awry, legs beating the air in time with some unheard savage rhythm. Dirty dancing had been born.

Cleisthenes was not amused, either by the air-gavotte or by Hippocleides’ kiltless bottom.

“Stop, Hippocleides. Stop!” his friends cried. “You’re dancing away your marriage.”

“I couldn’t care less,” was all Hippocleides said, and he danced on.

Wonderful!

It took me nearly twenty years to get even one foot up on the table.
I had my stage –every professor has one— and though a classroom is not exactly the Hollywood Bowl, and though what was performed there is a rather subdued comedy of manners, I enjoyed my twice a week one hour and fifteen minute strut across it. “Let me tell you about the remarkable decipherment of Linear B. We begin with Sir Arthur Evans…” I never anticipated anything other or larger, not at least until that subway train rolled across the screen at the Art to the strains of “Stayin’ Alive” and the professor in the audience, like the besotted German academic in “The Blue Angel,” toppled out of his seat and into the lap, not of Marlene Dietrich, but of Anthony Manero.

The session at “The Cat” would not do. It was a walk-through, a kind of closet drama. I wanted the real thing, in costume and makeup, so to speak, on my own and without a safety net. The closest I could get to the real thing was Roseland Ballroom, a great dance palace on West 52nd Street. Dancing went on there day and night, each genre with its allotted time slot. The Latins set the place on fire from 8 PM to 12, and then, at the stroke of midnight, they rumbaed out one door and the disco divas and their partners hustled in another as the ceiling lights dimmed, the strobes went on and the great crystal ball above began its slow refractive revolutions that would not end until three in the morning.

I was there –after a nap. I wasn’t used to beginning my day at midnight– and in costume: a new fitted polyester shirt, tight beige bellbottoms, a gold chain from the Cairo suq and a pack of Marlboros. But the Olde Bronx never quite dies: I took a pass on the boots with Cuban heels. I wasn’t going to take a chance with the unattached disco pros at Roseland and so I brought my own partners, an Administrative Assistant from the Physics Department and the Deputy Director of International Admissions, two adventuresome ladies whose disco experience was as exiguous as my own. “Don’t worry,” I said, giving voice to one of the great lies of the twentieth century, “Just follow my lead.”

They did and, contrary to all expectation, it worked. I twisted, they twirled. I spun them out; miraculously they spun back. My feet, which up to that point had trouble maneuvering through a slow foxtrot, traced intricate patterns on the polished Roseland floor. And my body, which had previously shown no interest in such things, I discovered was actually listening to the music. I danced and danced, first with one partner, then the other. It wasn’t the All-Star Tony Manero and it wasn’t the Hall of Famer Hippocleides; it was only Triple A, but at least I was playing in the same game.

I went back to Roseland again and again, cajoling whatever damsel I could find –so that’s why God invented graduate students!— to accompany me and be danced into the hardwood by a middle-aged man in the polyester shirt. It was, for me at least, an exhilarating experience, and, God, it was fun. While it lasted. I never grew weary; my partners never jumped ship. Foreign colleagues whom I took along with me on occasion thought it was a delicious American experience, much superior to spoon dancing, curling or sitting through an interminable evening raga. Then someone blew the whistle on disco: it was all too gay or too black or too something. What it was is it wasn’t rock and roll, and those air-guitar fascistas pulled Hippocleides, still kicking, down off the table. Suddenly people stopped listening to disco; people stopped playing it; and of course people stopped dancing to it, except perhaps deep underground in niche clubs.

I had no interest in following it there. Whatever it was that Hippocleides uncovered in the early ‘60s and John Travolta had managed to touch in the late ‘70s had been exorcised.

I think. The polyester shirt is still hanging in the closet.

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