“Sell, sell, sell,” I exhort the new teachers. “Put that pen in their hands! Get their signature on that line. Homo homini lupus!” quoting Dante, Cervantes, and Marcel Proust; giving pep talks, making charts, forcing them to compete with each other in a desperate frenzy; insisting that they spend every minute of their spare time collecting little bills and receipts for the IRS; or using their pocket calculator to figure capital gains breaks, health benefits, or retirement plans; or, if religious, quibbling with God; or, if not religious, polishing their teeth, curling their lashes, applying lacquer to their toenails, and preparing for wonderful, glossy dates with handsome closet cases who lift weights.
“This is the twentieth century,” I encourage them earnestly. “We must fill our time with these activities so we won’t ever need to think. If all else fails, stuff a Twinkie down your throat and go to a disco.”
And I mean it. They don’t suffer the same guilt I suffer; but in a way, what they must endure is far worse. Yet I wonder. Where can it end?
Perhaps I spend too many hours at the Studio. Between lessons we all mill around in libidinous frenzy, the women teachers and the men teachers and the students and myself, experiencing the same pulse of life that thrilled the poet Blake when he wrote the Songs of Innocence, or the painter Grünewald when he created his justly famous Isenheim Altarpiece. Everyone is in a mad rush, changing costume to a drumbeat in the back room, straining and complaining under the narcotic of ritual dancing, a skittery swampfire of thousand-year lost causes.
Patsy Cox takes down her strapless and switches bras right there in the thick of battle, proclaiming, “Now I gotta boogaloo with Mr. Glumfa of the big feet and bad breath who steers for the dark corners. Faen! Helvete! Satan,” and other medieval curse words I’ve taught her.
The male teachers all chatter at once: “Thinks she can dance and it’s torture, talk about bondage my dear, but she’s got megabucks and is generous. She likes me and I love hating myself,” At which the bell rings and we all jump out and begin gyrating like the demons in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
Maybe I’m just jaded. I don’t know. The haunting seems to be getting worse. A bleed-through from other times? I don’t know. Still, the dance biz is so agonizing it satisfies at least part of my craving for punishment.
At the first lesson you give your pupil a test to determine his dancing quotient, or D.Q. as we call it in the trade. This can be an enormously satisfying little exercise. You bounce him around to the music and you say,
“Well, Mr. Zilch, you certainly have a lot of potential. I’m going to give you a D-minus for what you actually know about dancing, which isn’t much, but an A for your natural talent. Now tell me, do you think those are fair grades, darling?”
What can he say? He gobbles it up like popcorn. The point is, Mr. Zilch doesn’t have a friend in the world, not really, or why else would he be here?
We sell graded courses in the form of brass, silver, and gold certificates, depending upon how many dances the student wants to learn. We have clever parties to build up competition between our branch studios. It costs a fortune to run a studio. You can’t sit around trading baseball cards; you’ve got to compete; you’ve got to hustle in order to get ahead and stay ahead, and drown the funny things that are going through your mind.
The big dances are exciting. We hire a band and fix the hall up with streamers, confetti, gleaming punch bowls, sometimes even horns and hats. Everyone is showing off and suddenly the loudspeaker roars: “STOP THE MUSIC! STOP THE MUSIC!”
Then a hush falls. Nothing is heard but a few electronic crackles in the speaker itself. Then a deeply serious and important male voice (Johnny File’s, usually) proclaims, “Lays and gentlemen, your attention please! Mr. B.J. Washout, whom most of you are lucky enough to know in person, has just signed up for a lifetime course of dance lessons. Come up and say a few words, Mr. Washout!”
The spotlights search frantically, locate B.J. Washout, and follow his silver head bobbing its way to the podium on a long drumroll.
Suddenly it’s Born-Again time. A fervid silence falls. Mr. Washout, torn with emotion, staggers to the microphone, clutches it in his sweating hands, takes out his handkerchief and blows his nose, absolutely overcome, and finally gets the words out. “Yes! Yes! Miss Krantz has just signed me up for a lifetime course of dance lessons.”
Cheers, applause, horns are tooted, streamers thrown. Mr. Washout raises his arms for silence (we must not forget that this is the high point of his entire life) and continues: “I spent my retirement savings, every last penny—”
Tremendous cheers. A honk, as Mr. Washout blows his nose onto the monogrammed hanky which he then carefully stuffs into his pocket and goes on,
“I’m so happy! So happy.” (A long sigh from the audience, followed by scattered applause.) “I wish every one of you could sign up for a lifetime course. I wish the whole world could come to Max Arkoff and be as happy as I am!”
They help him off the stage. They leave him sobbing in a corner with his radiant teacher, who has just made a nice amount of money, depending on her contract.
It is the dance of life!, the mighty hunters cornering a woolly mammoth at cliff’s edge. It is Cro-Magnon doing his brilliant wipeout job on poor dumb Neanderthal! But it takes my mind off a rush of giddiness, when for a moment I seem to be back in my beautiful Sibiu with its deer park and its vineyards, and golden sunsets, the air scented with apples and wood smoke…
Something is happening to me.
I hear Johnny’s voice. “STOP THE MUSIC! STOP THE MUSIC! Lays and jelman, the senior Mrs. Nussbaum who is 82 years young” (applause, whistles, cheers) “has just signed up for 40 full years of dance lessons! Let this be an example of optimism to everyone here, because she sold her iron lung to do it!”
And Mrs. Nussbaum totters up gasping for air, gesticulates violently, and goes into convulsions, but the audience thinks this is some new dance step, and they applaud wildly.
(read more I, Vampire at reviews.)