Saturday, October 10, 2009

Their Fred Astaire Moment

The very first time you're exposed to something wonderful in this life, be it the person you fall in love with, or your very first taste of ice cream as a child, I have a name for it. I call it a "Fred Astaire moment."

Back when I was fourteen or so, living through the hormonal and social hell that is eighth grade, I felt alienated from pretty much everyone I knew. My parents could not relate to me, and my middle school classmates had turned on me. It wasn't that they hated me. It was just that they didn't "get" me ... and I didn't "get" them.

I'd always had friends in kindergarten and elementary school, and coasted along with a comfortable social life through sixth grade or so. But in seventh, the girls I used to like, and who used to like me, became a lot more interested in boys... to the exclusion of all else. And the boys in my class I may have been friendly with once upon a time pretty much ignored my existence and paid attention to the girls who were boy-crazy.

Maybe my pubescent hormones hadn't fully kicked in yet, or maybe I was never one for gossip or speculation about the crushes and the rites of teenage physical exploration about which my classmates had suddenly become obsessed. I know I had no interest in shutting out some people because they weren't "cool." But by eight grade, that is what happened to me.
 Kids whom I'd known since second grade and who'd always invited me to their birthday parties and sat next to me in class started to ignore me. And when I didn't act coy around boys and talk of my latest crush -- because really, I didn't have any yet -- the gap between me and my classmates only got bigger.

It didn't help that I enjoyed doing my English and History homework, loved reading and writing essays about Shakespeare or world politics, and was often a teacher favorite in the classroom. I was soon branded a nerd, and though no one ever said it to my face, the social isolation that I experienced made it clear to me what my reputation was.

As if it wasn't unfair enough that most of my classmates were in the midst of full-blown boy obsession and I wasn't, I still suffered from the mood swings and hormonal symptoms of adolescence. I had braces, glasses, and now pimples, and I felt very much alone.

My mom knew how unhappy I was. But she was a nosy mom and the last thing I wanted to do was share my feelings with her because of that. Like any teen, I jealously guarded my privacy. She tried to get me to talk to a child psychologist, and when I caught her on the phone with this shrink, I hung up the phone on both of them.

Then one day, when I found myself having a crying jag and just couldn't seem to stop, mom dragged me out of the house. She walked me over to the Regency theater, a movie revival house a few blocks from our apartment, and sat me down in the midst of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. It was a black and white musical from 1936, and I had never seen anything like it.

A few minutes after I arrived, I couldn't resist looking up at the screen and watching, through my tears, a tap dance number so breathlessly exhilarating, exuberantly musical and irresistibly swinging, that in a moment, I utterly forgot myself. I was lost in an experience of grace, of sheer joy and disbelief and wonder and delight that a human being could do what the man I was seeing -- and his dance partner -- did on screen.

In that moment when I was lost, I was saved.

My adolescence turned around right then and there.

No, I didn't stop being a nerd. On the contrary. I become a teenaged Fred Astaire aficionado at the height of the disco era. I also finally understood what it meant to have a crush, even though, in reality, the object of my affection was then in his seventies (this being the late 1970s). It was the young Astaire I fell for, the guy up on screen, not the real one. And while it would be awhile before my movie star crush that could never be was replaced by real crushes on real boys my own age, the feelings began there.

I also developed a compelling interest outside of school that led me to haunt the stacks of Lincoln Center's library for the Performing Arts, to read all about the golden age of Hollywood; about movie musicals; the songwriters and composers who wrote the "standards" of the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s; the Broadway shows of those same years; the New Yorkers, many of them Jews like my family, who emigrated to Hollywood and what they did there, writing comedies and musicals and great songs ... and a fascination with American film so strong that I would wind up moving to Los Angeles and storming my way into the movie business not so many years later.

But the main thing I want to convey about that moment isn't that it influenced my life course. It's that it made me experience something wonderful, unique, exhilarating and the delightful, that I'd never experienced before, in a way so powerful it lit me up inside.

Tonight my kids had such a moment.

My daughter is taking a pre-ballet class on Saturday mornings, not because I got her to do so -- I really couldn't care if she dances or not -- but because she feels like it, and finds it fun. Last week she saw some girls at the school in tap shoes, having a tap lesson, and she wondered what that kind of dancing was all about. So I promised her that I'd show her some tap dancing at home.

Today, I remembered the promise, and so after dinner, before the bath, when both kids were ready, I put on the very same dance that had lifted my soul years before, a jovial little number called "Pick Yourself Up." (Gotta love having DVDs with scene selection; you can watch in on Youtube too.)

I sat back and watched my kids watch Fred Astaire for the very first time.

Curiosity on their four-and-a-half-year-old faces soon gave way to smiles, laughter, and light in their eyes. When Fred pulled his first tap dance move, I gestured to the screen and said, "That is tap dancing." Suddenly, it was like a light switch went off inside my kids. Within seconds, they wereup out of their seats, and nothing could stop them from what they simply had to do next: they were trying to tap dance -- in their socks -- all over the living room floor.

Their joy -- and the need to participate in full body with what they were witnessing -- was as potent as the exuberance I'd felt as a lonely teenager suddenly lifted out of herself in a darkened movie theater on west 67th street.

It's not my hope to don't condemn my children to years of old movie musical nerd-dom. It's an odd interest, I'll admit it, and I've taken some social heat for it over the years.

But I am damn happy they had a Fred Astaire moment. And I'm taking a moment now to marvel at how a small joy like watching tap-dancing shadows filmed decades before I was even born can make my kids get up an dance.

I reveled in this moment, especially because it's one I never have imagined all those years ago in a movie theater on west 67th street.


Karen said...

Wow! You are simply amazing. Thanks for sharing.

Alex said...

What a great story! (Good thing you didn't wait another ten years to show them, you might have missed the sock-footed tap dancing!)


Anonymous said...

I LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing. SueK

Karen said...

Thank you for spreading joy on what has been a very gloomy day!

William V. Madison said...

I've been waiting to see how you'd teach Astaire to your kids. This is even better than I'd hoped -- although somehow I didn't expect that YouTube would factor into the equation!

And you know, I never went to the Regency without thinking of you.

Uncle Bill