Dancing lessons… I had forgotten all about those. But yes, my first boarding school took dancing very seriously and insisted that we learn the rudiments of the waltz, the quick-step and the samba – the samba was very popular just then. I hated the whole business: I could see an idle fascination in the way the steps fitted to the music, and the geometry of the waltz quite interested me, but I didn’t see the point of actually doing it. Especially doing it with other boys. It being an all-male school we had to solemnly take little boys in shorts in our arms and pretend they were partners at the big ball, and every time I meet a woman who has terrible memories of leading, as a man, in dancing lessons, they seem surprised to learn that I have suffered the opposite indignity. The only thing worse than having to take a “female” partner in your arms was being embraced by your “male” partner.
(I had forgotten all about the swapping that goes on at school. They also took boxing very seriously, and our instructor, a tough Glaswegian named Cruickshank, took it even more seriously than the school. One day he told us to get into pairs, and I paired off with my best friend. Then he told us to start boxing, one defending, the other attacking. My best friend was a good deal tougher than me, so I asked him to defend while I ineffectually attacked. Fine. Then the instructor yelled: ’Swap round!’ and for three minutes my best friend beat the living daylights out of me, while I vainly tried to defend myself. He ceased to be my best or any kind of friend at that moment.)
Sometimes they imported girls from a nearby school for dancing, and they pretended to be female partners instead. They were better, but not a lot, as half of them were used to dancing the male role and stepped on your toes a lot. And there was always something rather incongruous about pre-pubertal children dancing together. It was as artificial as going on holiday together or writing letters to each other. I must have confessed something of the sort to my father, because he became worried and ordained private dancing letters for me and my brother during the holidays. Dear reader, did you have a father who was worried about your attainments? I did, and I’m glad I did in a way, because it got me into playing the piano, and golf, and one or two other things I quite enjoyed, but private dancing lessons? My brother and I stood in this dance studio in North Wales and waited our turn to be whirled round by Mrs Instructress, all alone the three of us, like a scene from some film on Channel 4 with French subtitles. The only respite came when she went to change the music. I hated it, and I never got any better.
My father, who had been a superb dancer, and still was compared to his children, was upset by this, as he saw dancing as an important social asset. In later life, many an elderly lady has said to me with dreamy eyes, ‘My God, how your father could dance – it was magic in his arms’. He could still do a passable Charleston at the age of 60, when I couldn’t do a passable anything. I think he even began to suspect after a while that it wasn’t dancing I didn’t like: it was girls. This was absolute nonsense. I thought girls were wonderful, so wonderful that I didn’t even dare speak to them, largely brought on by my having been sent away to boarding school by the very same father of whom I speak. I spent most of my teens trying to listen to, and play, jazz, which was my ruling passion and probably still is.
Give my father his due, he introduced me some time later to someone who ran the local dance band which played at the Wrexham Memorial Hall on a Saturday night. They played for dancing, but they also played a lot of jazz, and as a junior second trombonist I was in seventh heaven. I was playing in a band, playing jazz, and not having to dance. I had finally stumbled on the great truth: there are some people who like to play and some who like to dance, and the two categories never overlap, or rarely enough to matter. I have made a point of asking musicians down the years whether they like dancing and scarcely found a dozen who did.
Nobody in the Wrexham band danced. They stared down from the stage at the sheeplike dancers on the floor and it was with contempt that they stared – or perhaps indifference, because contempt suggests a lively interest. A musician’s attitude to music was: if it is bad, who would want to dance to it? If it was good, listen to it. The trumpeter, Reg, used to amuse himself by watching out for dancing couples who clung too close together or embrace hotly, and when they passed in front of the bandstand he would make loud kissing noises through his instrument. Guiltily they would spring apart and look round. Mock-strictly, he would shake his finger at them. Ah, it was great in that band for a young lad, having a wee drop at half time and hearing my first musician’s dirty stories.
One day I was asked to dance by the saxophonist’s wife, who was extremely attractive and vivacious. Halfway through our second dance she suddenly ignored my splayed feet and nervous actions, and plunged me into the hottest kiss I had ever undergone, if indeed I had ever undergone one before. I was bowled over. Suddenly dancing took on a new light. But I was also horrified and tore myself away, saying ‘What if Malcolm sees you?’
‘Malcolm?’ she said, looking back at the stand. ‘When he plays music, he never sees anything but the music.’
And I was plunged into my steamy kiss again. Playing in the band was never quite the same thereafter, as I sensed there was a bigger world outside playing music and talking musicians’ talk. The fact that it might involve dancing from time to time seemed to be a chance I would have to take, and an ordeal I would have to suffer…
Written for The Great Ormond Street Wishing Well Appeal, January 1989