Dancing—and Other Things—With(out) the Stars

The thing about me that disappoints my wife the most—at least, that she will admit to—is that I don’t/can’t/won’t dance. Her next husband, she swears, will be a dancer.

I never have been able to dance. When I was in junior high (late 1950s) a couple of my female cousins tried to teach me how. I watched “American Bandstand”—mostly because of Justine Carrelli—but I just never had the sense of rhythm, or the ability to let myself go, that enabled me to dance. Oh, sure, I could slow dance—by which I mean put my arms around a girl, the way that lucky s. o. b. Bob Clayton got to put his arms around Justine, and shuffle around in a vaguely circular pattern—but when the music got faster, I headed for the row of chairs around the edge of the gym. I felt a little better one day when I heard Dick Clark admit that he couldn’t dance.

I grew up in a religious environment (Southern Baptist) in which dancing was seen as a “gateway drug” to sex. One dancing experience that is burned into my memory could give some credence to that belief. In tenth grade I went to a sock hop with a girl who was much more interested in me than I was in her. It was one of those “Sadie Hawkins” dances. (For those under 60, that’s a reference to a character from the old “Li’l Abner” comic strip, a woman who was always trying to land a husband.) My mother drilled it into me that, if a girl asked me to go to something like that, I had to go unless I had a legitimate excuse. Not being interested in the girl wasn’t a legitimate enough excuse.

As we slow-danced that evening, this girl practically gave me a lap dance. Being a 15-year-old boy, I had the reaction that a 15-year-old male would have. When she called me later that weekend (I never called her), she cooed, in her best Marilyn Monroe imitation, “I know what you wanted Friday night. Any time is all right with me.” It was probably a good thing that my family moved to another state after that school year.

To get back on point (but not en pointe), as much as I can’t dance, I do enjoy watching people who can dance well. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers top the list. Thanks to the internet, I can watch their dance numbers without having to sit through the banal story-lines of their movies. Astaire moved with a fluid grace that no one could teach. Rogers was equally adept, his perfect complement. I know people say she did everything he did, except backwards and in heels. That’s not entirely true. She didn’t have to dip him or lift him, for one thing. But she was a superb dancer and none of Astaire’s other partners ever came up to her standard. My favorite performance of theirs is “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat. It is breath-taking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLIMZ-gKyF0

I also enjoy the “Night and Day” routine from The Gay Divorcee, especially at the end when Fred lets Ginger down gently on a divan and, as she gazes up at him, misty-eyed, offers her a cigarette. He might as well ask, “Was it good for you too?” Maybe the Southern Baptists were right.

One of my guilty pleasures the last few years has been “Dancing With the Stars.” My wife introduced me to it, I think in hopes that it might inspire me. After all, these non-professionals can learn complicated dances in only a week. Why not give it a try?

Well, a lot of them aren’t really non-professionals. Jennifer Gray? Does the phrase “Dirty Dancing” ring a bell? Kellie Pickler? Former high-school cheerleader who does a lot of dancing in her musical performances. Zendaya? That lovely young lady has been dancing since she was about three. She starred on a TV show on which she, you know, danced. And these people have professional teachers and can spend hours a day rehearsing.

Still, I’ve enjoyed watching the show. Until this fall, that is. Part of the fun of it has been watching people I’ve seen perform in other contexts become proficient dancers. Who would have suspected that comedian Bill Engvall could be such a terpsichorean? And football player Jacoby Jones was amazing. But, when I saw the list of “stars” this fall, I thought, “By what definition are these people stars?”

Admittedly, I’m not up on pop culture, but Tommy Chong and Lea Thompson were the only ones I’d ever heard of. Chong—well, I’m not sure “star” is the right word. Thompson (Back to the Future, “Caroline in the City”) has a legitimate claim, even though she has played only supporting roles in recent years. But she studied ballet and was dancing professionally by the time she was 14. She appeared in 45 ballets before shifting her focus from dancing to acting. Can you spell “ringer”?

A few minutes of Googling the other names introduced me to people who’ve been on TV shows or in movies that I’ve never seen or heard of and would never watch (e. g., “Duck Dynasty”). I guess DWTS is looking for a different demographic. From what I’ve read about it lately, it’s struggling for survival. For me this fall, with no participants that I care about, it has as little interest as the baseball post-season.

Baseball brings me to another aspect of the definition of “star.” This year, not for the first time, the teams competing in the World Series are also-rans. Neither the Giants nor the Royals were good enough to win a division title in their respective leagues. There was a time when the Series was played between the best team from each league (i. e., the Yankees and somebody else). The Royals and Giants were the fourth best teams in their leagues. So what does “champion” mean now? The better of two fourth-place teams?

And who is a “star” these days? I found myself asking that question a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I went on a short color tour to northern Michigan. She got tickets to see Loudon Wainwright III at Interlochen while we were there. Something about the name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He has, it turns out, appeared in supporting roles on a number of TV shows (including “M*A*S*H*”) and in movies and has written music for quite a few others. His only record to reach the charts was the novelty song “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road),” which got to #16 in 1973: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaN7xuAIjXI. He referred to the small audience that evening as “my demographic,” which, judging from the number of bald guys with ponytails, seemed to be code for “ageing hippies.”

In introducing himself, Wainwright mentioned that his father had written columns for Life magazine for a number of years. Of course: “The View from Here.” I read those columns in high school and college. Wainwright has memorized some of them and quotes them in his act. Some of his songs grow out of them. He’s talented and his performance was mildly entertaining, but I do hope he can someday resolve his daddy issues and his issues with his own son. (Name a kid Rufus and write a song about him breastfeeding called “Rufus is a Tit Man” and you’re just setting the stage for years of dysfunction and psychotherapy.)

Wainwright was once called “the new Bob Dylan” but never lived up to the hype. He wrote a song about his failure to make the A-list: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWmtMp9oaEU. I can imagine him commiserating with Bobby Murcer, who, also in the early 1970s, was supposed to be “the next Mickey Mantle.” Murcer had a long and respectable career, but he was never Mickey Mantle, any more than Wainwright became Bob Dylan.

I actually have a great deal of empathy for such folks, those who labor in the shadows of people they wish (or are expected) to emulate or surpass but who never make the move up to that A-list, to become actual stars.

You see, I’m one of those people.

In the field of Roman mystery novels, looming over a legion of wannabes, stand the “Big Three”—Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, and John Maddox Roberts. A couple of reviewers have been kind enough (I like to think “perceptive enough”) to say that my Pliny novels should make it the “Big Four,” but that phrase hasn’t caught on. Saylor and Roberts have given my books enthusiastic blurbs. (Not so Davis. At a conference a few years ago her editor informed me that she does not even read, let alone blurb, other people’s Roman mysteries.)

Like Wainwright with “Dead Skunk,” I had a moment of glory when Library Journal named my second Pliny novel, The Blood of Caesar, one of the 5 Best Mysteries of 2008 and, in a starred review, called it a “masterpiece of the historical mystery genre.” But, like Wainwright, I don’t seem to be able to stay at that level. Library Journal hasn’t even reviewed my last couple of books, although Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus gave them decent notices.

So here I sit, somewhere well below the A-list of stars in the constellation of Roman mystery writers, or writers of anything, as unknown to most people as the current crop of “stars” on DWTS are to me. Bobby Murcer, sadly, died in 2008, at the tender age of 62. But maybe I could join Loudon Wainwright III on the next season of “Dancing With(out) the Stars,” if there is a next season.


2 Responses

  1. Delightful article! I wondered how it would make it’s way to Roman mysteries, and was charmed by the way that it did. I Especially enjoyed the American Bandstand references…..maybe I’ll youtube a couple of those, now that I’m in the mood.

  2. Loved Albert Bell’s take on DWTS! Not only the self-deprecating humor, but the truth in what he is saying. I’ve also lost interest in the show for the same reasons. Though most of what he said hit a nerve, I’m happy to have missed “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” Must be the same mentality that gave us “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

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