It has been opined that there would be fewer overweight young people if the Jitter Bug dance were still popular. It was very popular in my teen years. An added incentive for me to take it up was an older sister, but not that much older that she found her younger brother completely intolerable. So it was that, during the summers of my fifteenth and sixteenth years, overweight was not a problem. It was quite the opposite.
Before the summer season, school dances were frequent and, without today’s greater concern over alcohol and drugs, and with teachers willing and able to supervise, they were never missed. We even, in our high school of about two hundred and fifty students, had a student band. It was not a school band, organized and ritualized, but four or five young people making OUR music. When Ben Prince leaned way back with his trumpet pointed to the heavens, we were all sure he would be another Harry James and certainly not a dentist.
That was a time when there was a summer dance circuit was within a radius of 30 miles. Thirty miles then was quite a journey, the roads were not all paved and those that were paved were narrow and crooked with low rates of speed, but they did not discourage us. The closest dance, within a mile of home, was the fancy “Turners” dance palace in New Minas. The most popular were the two beach dance halls, at Kingsport and Evangeline Beaches, plain warehouse like structures, cooled by the ocean breezes, were within 10 miles. Some nights there was no breeze since both of them were on the Minas Basin, whose forty-five foot tides left hundreds of yards of mud between the dance pavilion and water. Thankfully for those of us without a driver’s license, there was usually someone who had a car or had trusting parents. It was also fortunate that those who made up the dance fraternity did not consider age to be a factor to consider. So, not yet being sixteen did not restrict my dancing opportunities. Dancing was available every night but Sunday and Tuesday. I took full advantage of them.
At the summer dances, they being a less costly local group, Ross MacKenzie’s band was not without unscripted sour notes. It was a family affair, made up of Ross, his mother, an Uncle and two or three others, who might or might not have been family members. They were no match for Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey or Guy Lombardo, but they could play our style of dance music, in their own crude sort of way. The jitter bug numbers were great exercise, the tap dancing feet, the twirls, the over and under, the hip roll, they all required skill and stamina. In later years when jitterbug’s days had waned, my sister and I might end up at a function as the only dancers on the floor, while others watched. And then there was the best jitterbug dancer in the area. She was the most, or most after my sister, popular girl at any dance, a knockout, drop dead, gorgeous blond. When we were at the same dance, she would say yes, once, maybe twice, when I built up the nerve to ask “w-w-o-o-l-d y-y-o-o-u-u l-l-l-I-k-e-e to d-d-d-a-n-c-e-“. I never could build up the courage to ask her to go anywhere but onto the dance floor.
The jitterbug was the main course. The fox trot and waltz was the dessert. Those slow dreamy numbers, with the lights turned down, the smell of freshly shampooed hair, two bodies nestled close, the feet moving together as one, was as close to heaven as one could get. And Oh, the music, Moon River, Deep Purple and so many other soft and soothing numbers still bring pleasure. There was no amplification of the instruments at the dances then. During the slow numbers one could hear the whispering in their ear and whisper sweet nothings, or other things, back. How I sympathize with today’s young people with their loud music, without coherent lyrics, just pounding and screaming that must restrict social intercourse. And the dancing, not with someone, but apart, seeing but not feeling, moving separately. “Doing their own thing”.
When the drivers license finally was in my pocket, privileges and responsibilities also came. The driver expected to have the privilege of first choice of girls. He also had the responsibility of getting to the dance. One very rainy night three local boys and three visiting girls banned together for the dance at Evangeline Beach. I had the 10 year old Chrysler with its proclivity to break down. This time, on the thick clay mud road to the beach, it was the battery case that broke. The battery was going bump, bump, bump on the road. I in my new tan slacks, shirt and sport coat was expected to get my passengers to the dance. Ingenuity was called for. The blanket, meant for stargazing on beach at the dancing break, would instead reduce the mud bath as I crawled under the car. My new belt was not essential to hold up my new slacks, and would instead be used as a strap to hold the battery in place. Before showing off my dancing prowess for the visiting girl, it took an hour to remove enough mud to join the dancers. By that time someone else was monopolizing the visiting girl and the mud boy had lost any chance for another girl.
Then in later teens, now working away from home, there was still dancing, weekends only now. The coal-mining town, Springhill Nova Scotia, was not far from the new home, Amherst NS, and they had good Saturday night dances. We three young men agreed, probably falsely, that the Springhill girls would like we sophisticated Amherst boys, so we went. After a short survey of the scene, it appeared that we might go without scoring. But there was one girl that did not seem to be attached but had not been dancing. She seemed reluctant, but did, finally, agree to dance. But oh so stiff, it seemed that the joints of her body were fused. Since it was customary to dance with a partner for the three dances of a set, the second and third numbers kept me dancing with the standoffish partner. With the set being a foxtrot we were close enough to exchange small talk, but not sweet talk. And the frost started to melt. The next set was a jitterbug and she was quite good. By the end of the dance we were well enough acquainted for me to hazard an offer to walk her home. The driver, and other musketeer, both without having found a partner, agreed to wait until 1 o’clock, but not a minute longer, or I would be walking the 10 miles back to Amherst.
Being a mining town, everything was built near the mine, so both the dance hall and the miners row housing were close by. It was a short but pleasant walk. The young lady’s home was one of the standard miners homes of the day. A big kitchen with a coal-burning kitchen stove kept burning to keep the room warm. In addition to the table and chairs, there was, as was the norm, also a cot where the miner could grab a nap after a hard shift underground. It also provided a comfortable place for smooching. We were good friends by the time father rolled in from the Miners Hall, at least two, maybe three, sheets to the wind. Sensing that he might want the cot for himself, or in case he did not want us there, we vacated it as he entered. He was very friendly, if also a bit loud, and to make conversation asked if I had seen his hamsters. Admitting that I had not yet been introduced, led him to offer an immediate introduction. We retired to the parlor, next to the kitchen but cooler, as he extolled the friendliness, cuteness and good temper of his hamsters. He opened their cage, explaining how they would be happy to see him, and would show it by running up and down his arms. They did indeed run up his arms and stopped at his shoulders. One of them, presumably annoyed for having been awakened from a nights sleep and taken from his cage, bit the lobe off the miner’s ear. For the next few minutes there was one of the finest displays of profanity I had ever heard, as well as blood dripping on his shirt and hamsters flying across the room. I could not contain my laughter, and feeling that it might not endear me to the miner, rushed to the back door, kissed the new friend goodnight, and rode home with a lifelong favorite story.