When you’re unpopular in junior high, pop music can be as cruel as the people who seem to make it their mission to go out of their way to make your life a living hell. I guess I should clarify that because music itself can’t be cruel–for the most part, anyway–but it, combined with the hormonal awkwardness that can only come from being an early adolescent can make you do pretty stupid things, like think you can dance.
The usual popular culture portrayal of a junior high dance is the image of an extremely awkward evening in a humid gym where girls spend most of their time as far away as possible from much shorter boys, who are too busy trying to gross one another out to notice those girls. In those movies or television shows, two people eventually dance and it winds up being a rather chaste, sweet moment.
However, the dances I went to at Sayville Junior High between 1989 and 1991 were nothing like the ones we used to see on TV. I may be exaggerating here, but I remember those dances feeling epic, as if each was one night in my young life when I was in the right place at the right time. The student council and junior high staff certainly seemed to make it that way, at least by using the building’s architecture to its fullest advantage. Our dances were never held in the junior high gymnasium; rather, the student council utilized the large commons area that rant the length of the building from the main entrance to the gym hallway. The commons area floor was carpeted and the second floor was completely open save for a catwalk and a couple of balconies that looked over the rug. Most importantly, the commons area had an extra-sized stairway that pivoted on a platform, which is where the deejay would set up. When you break it down from the perspective of twenty years later, it’s a junior high dance, but to an awkward kid who didn’t get out much, turning off the lights in the commons area on a Friday night made the place a dance club.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a dancer. If you pressed me, I could probably move back and forth to the beat of whatever music was playing but I really didn’t know my way around a dance floor. That wasn’t a problem in the seventh grade because I spent most of my time in the cafeteria, working the soda table with my friend Rich. People would give us 50 cents and we would slide a cold C&C Cola to them. We got a few breaks and were allowed to roam the dance floor, but the two of us were fiercely dedicated soda jockeys, so much so that when a girl whose name I think was Becky asked me to dance one time, I declined because I was going to be back on my soda-serving shift.
My social ineptitude wouldn’t improve much from twelve to thirteen. I’d blame it on the terrible accident that I was in two days after my thirteenth birthday because it’s not easy to go through an entire year of junior high with two fake front teeth (that you could remove) and a scar under your nose that looked like a giant pimple, but I’d been walking the halls with comic books and once wore a Star Trek pin to school. Scar or no scar, I wasn’t a superstar.
But I wanted to be, or at least I wanted a girlfriend, which meant that at some point I was going to have to talk to a girl and maybe even ask her out. This wasn’t happening, though, because I spent most of the year (and pretty much half of high school as well) with a mind-numbing crush on a girl who was completely out of my league and while I am sure she’d engage me in conversation if I tried, I suffered from the typical thirteen-year-old boy issue of acting stupid whenever I was around her.
There was something different about dances, though.
I think that in my mind, a junior high dance was the only place where I saw a level playing field. Why I thought that was beyond me–maybe I noticed how the hormones brought us all back to the social primordial ooze, or maybe I was just glad nobody was making fun of me or shoving me into anything. And to my credit, I did see enough to mount a case for having a shot with someone. In my travels on and off the dance floor, I saw people making out in ways that went beyond what aired on Saved By the Bell.
People didn’t act like themselves, either. That girl I really liked? Usually she barely said a word to anyone at school, let alone me, but at a junior high dance, she raved like a Muppet on amphetamines. I even asked her to dance once, but was turned down, probably because I didn’t do much on the dance floor except stand around and bob.
Whether it conscious or unconscious, I made a decision to learn how to dance before the end-of-the-year eighth grade dance. This was the biggest dance of the year because it was our last in junior high, an occasion to mark our abrupt graduation to the new 9-12 high school. We were denied the prestige of being the building’s “biggest” group or having a “graduation” and most of all having a ninth grade banquet, where we would dress up and do the junior high dance thing. But at least we got a dance and our student council did the best we could do to make it worth something: some guys who had a band played during the first half hour, and throughout the night there was a slide show of people in our class as well as a live video feed projected onto paper hanging from the balcony. In 1991, this was the most awesome thing ever.
In order to make it that way for me, I employed a strategy used in at least a few television shows and movies I’d seen where people were faced with learning to dance at the last minute: watch TV. Unfortunately, I didn’t have MTV, American Bandstand had been canceled in 1987, and by the time Soul Train came on WPIX on Saturday afternoons my mother had already chased me off the couch and out of the house. Thankfully, marketing people knew that teenagers liked to see MTV type of stuff in commercials and they also knew that they liked to talk on the phone. I am not sure if Vanilla Ice was really as popular as they though he was, but it didn’t matter because one day I saw a commercial for his 1-900 number and got inspired.
1-900 numbers really aren’t used these days, except maybe for phone sex–and does anyone even call 1-900 phone sex numbers anymore? But in the 1980s and early 1990s you could call a 1-900 number to talk to Santa, vote for the Viewer’s Choice VMA, win a date with Al B. Sure, and answer trivia about Vanilla Ice. The commercial promised to give cash and a tour jacket and a chance to meet Vanilla Ice through some trivia contest but I didn’t care about that stuff and was never going to spend money answering trivia about a rap star. But in those thirty seconds, I saw clips of him dancing and I thought maybe imitating him was a good idea.
People my age seemed to like Vanilla Ice. Well, girls did anyway, and nobody seemed to have an objection to dancing to “Ice Ice Baby” at the Halloween Dance or the St. Patrick’s Day dance, so I thought that maybe I would look cool copying at least one of his moves. The one that appealed to me most was pretty close to what I think was called The Running Man. The only Running Man I knew at the time was a mediocre Schwarzenegger movie, but the dance looked easy enough: you ran in place and pumped your arms a little.
It’s very rare that you get to see yourself doing something embarrassing while it’s happening, but that’s because there usually isn’t a live video feed wherever you go. I caught myself on the video screen a few times that night and my Running Man looked nothing like Vanilla Ice’s. Instead, I was stutter-stepping while pumping my arms straight out and in as I were trying to row to a distant island. I can still see my bright blue Badge Boys pocket T flapping a little as I flail on the dance floor, hoping that out-of-my-league girl would notice how cool I looked.
She never did, of course, and I spent the duration of the night’s last slow song, Bon Jovi’s, “Never Say Goodbye,” wandering aimlessly near the stairs and waiting for our traditional last dance–Otis Day and the Knights singing “Shout!” I think that I, being a student council member, got on the mic and thanked everyone for coming and making the dance awesome. Maybe it was the soda, maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe it was Vanilla Ice but I really thought that people liked me and that I was cool.
My journal from that time sort of says so. I wasn’t as verbose as I am now, but I began the entry for that night by saying: “Tonight was the 8th grade dance. Although I didn’t dance with [girl’s name], I still had a great time.” I also, for some reason, thought a girl in my tech class liked me, but I closed like I did every entry during those years: by declaring how much I liked that girl.
It took me nearly four more years to kiss a girl; it took a few more to be on a dance floor and not look like I was having a seizure. But I really can’t regret at least making the effort to climb out of social obscurity at that age, even if I would have no idea what to do if I actually succeeded.