It was the custom in our community to expose the general populace, and especially the under-aged, to a variety of ?cultural experiences'. This was accomplished in a number of ways. The Community Concert series brought to the Town Hall auditorium presented a selection of performances by choirs, orchestras and famous soloists. The public library sponsored Rabbi Zaitchick's Chess Club and Mrs. Lawson's Bridge Club, where one could both learn the games and practice them. We had a local symphony orchestra who played for the public twice each year. The Rotary Club brought groups of foreign exchange students into our midst. The Knights of Columbus put on an annual minstrel show, until such things became politically incorrect. The Garden Club taught both horticulture and flower-arranging.
But perhaps deemed the most necessary of the cultural experiences offered were the ballroom-dancing classes held each week during October, November and December; a joint project of the local high school and the Masonic Lodge. The classes were open to Juniors and Seniors, and nearly everyone was forced by their parents to participate. These 3-hour classes were conducted by Madame Emmeline VonRunstead. Students paid five dollars each, per lesson and a similar sum was contributed by the Masons. This was serious money in those days ? apparently the price convinced parents of the worth and necessity of these lessons, for failure to attend was a capital offense in most households.
Madame VonRusntead stood all of five feet in her open-toe dancing-pumps, but once in command of the dance floor she seemed to tower above her gaggle of shy and clumsy teenagers. She maintained her total command, for such is how she taught ballroom dancing ? not by example, not by instructive leadership, but by assuming and instituting command ? through the aegis of two pairs of castanets.
Like some grandmother lobster, she swirled and pirouetted among the dancers, clattering her claws and bellowing corrections, derision or encouragement accompanied by these weapons. She was a virtuoso of the castanets, able to wring from them an entire range of emotions: pleasure, anger, encouragement and total disgust. In fact, by the fifth lesson, only the stupidest among us required her to speak aloud. The castanet-code had become the language of instruction. Like a general commanding his troops through bugle calls of various types, Madame VonRunstead created order out of chaos by a complex series of clicks, clacks, clocks and clatters.
We had live music to dance to, provided by Madame's servant, Miss LeDuc, who provided our music with the aid of an upright piano. A dishwater blonde of indeterminate age, Miss LeDuc never spoke to the students, never spoke with Madame, never displayed the least emotion, save through her fingers.
In 1964, World War II was but 19 years recent in history, and that Madame shared the surname of the former Nazi Chief of Staff was well-known to those of us with a penchant for historical detail. The fact that Madame spoke in a thick German accent merely added to the suspicion that she had taught these same dances to young lieutenants of the Prussian Offizierkorps prior to the Great War of 1914-1918.
How and why Miss LeDuc came to be Madame's servant and had apparently missed out on the liberation of Paris remained a mystery. And a true minion she was, not only serving as pianist, but as Madame's prop-manager, dresser, maid de salon, etc. It was Miss LeDuc who appeared first, laying out music, arranging chairs, preparing the castanets, and assisting Madame to remove and hang her fur coat upon a special stand which she also carried. Miss LeDuc's coat was of sensible gray wool. The fact that Miss LeDuc also served as chauffeur, assisting Madame into or out of the enormous pre-war Packard automobile in which they arrived and departed ? Madame naturally riding in the back seat, her valuable legs protected by a woolen car-blanket ? left no doubt as to LeDuc's status as a true non-equal to her mistress.
Payment was made by inserting a single crisp five-dollar bill into an envelope, Lincoln-up. The envelope was sealed. On the reverse-flap the student's name was printed in block letters. The front of the envelope bore the simple word "Madame" in one's best script. Envelopes were left on a large silver tray to the right of the piano before class began. No parent had ever dared to enclose a worn bill or ? unthinkable! ? a check, nor any combination of money whose total reached five dollars. Legend had it that a long-forgotten student had actually enclosed coins, which were handed back unopened the next week. Miss LeDuc emptied the envelope-tray into a red velvet bag. Madame took no interest in the procedure. Artistes did not concern themselves with money.
We learned to Tango in the Paris style, to Waltz in the Viennese style, Fox-Trot in the Hollywood-movie style, and to perform these in a manner popular in the 1930s. The two exceptions were the cha-cha, which Madame referred to as the "cha-cha-cha"; her one concession to the post-war period, and a very respectable although intricate Polka, which Madame admitted would be "useful at weddings" (Did she suppose we were all Eastern Europeans?).
In all other ways, we were retro-fitted into dance salon practice and procedure of the days immediately prior to September of 1939. Both sexes wore white cotton gloves. Young gentlemen wore suits or jackets and neckties, young ladies wore dresses, not skirts, and nylon stockings, not knee socks. Gentlemen bowed to their partners before and after each dance, clicking heels as we leaned into a perfect 20? angle. Ladies gave a ? curtsey only at the conclusion of each dance.
Madame looked upon jitterbug as akin to the jungle dances of cannibal peoples, and as for rock and roll: it was ignored completely as non-musical, ungraceful and decadent. So our lessons progressed throughout the dark months of winter in the pursuit of mastering a social and artistic skill which no longer served a contemporary purpose. Madame did go so far as to inform us that if we felt it necessary to "gyrate unashamedly to electric guitars", we could watch the television program ?American Bandstand' and learn from them; it was of no concern to her.
Madame carried, or actually Miss LeDuc carried, a portmanteau which contained a variety of props, memorabilia and other treasures which were unpacked and distributed or displayed exactly the same way each week. There was a shawl, three framed photographs, two fans, and an album of vintage postal cards ? all of which were considered necessary, either for our instruction or for Madame's inspiration.
The obedient LeDuc was possessed of a talisman of her own as well: a huge and gaudy brooch which she ceremoniously attached to a changing regimen of silken neck scarves which she wore at her piano. Both brooch and neck scarves arrived in Miss LeDuc's briefcase, along with her sheet music.
The remainder of Madame's necessities consisted of a signed sepia photograph of the late Lizzi Waldm?ller, whose career upon the musical stage and in German wartime films was abruptly terminated during an American air raid on Vienna in 1945, a photograph of the old Adlon Hotel in Berlin that had been bombed into oblivion during the last days of the War, a plaster effigy of the Brandenburg Gate, a silver hand bell in the shape of a goblet engraved "Souvenir of Montevideo", a photo of Madame standing beside the long-deceased primo of the Argentine Tangos, singer Carlos Gardel, who had died a suicide in the late 1930s, and an engraved glass bud vase bearing the inscription: "Maison Chanel 1938", into which was placed a single artificial yellow rose.
The hand bell was rung only to signify the beginning and the ending of the period of instruction. Latecomers were excluded, for the janitor had instructions to seal the gymnasium where we were taught at the sound of the opening bell. There was no escape, save for girls suffering an unforeseen biological emergency, who could flee into the Girls' Locker Room while everyone pretended not to notice.
Juniors were taught on Friday evenings, Seniors on Saturdays. One could not expect the uninitiated to tread clumsily upon the toes of the skilled. On the last Friday before the Christmas holidays, both classes met in the high school cafeteria where students from the New England Conservatory of Music provided a live orchestra. Parents were invited, and during the second half of the evening encouraged to dance with their children: the proof being in the pudding of $60 well-spent.
Madame wore the most extraordinary outfits on lesson nights: Long silk evening gowns in an assortment of colors, all of which with sufficient d?colletage to show off her ample bosom, a variety of either extraordinarily expensive or immensely common gaudy jewelry, elbow length gloves with a huge cocktail ring worn outside, and upon occasion, a tiara of black feathers. LeDuc always wore the same fawn cashmere dress.
For the final evening, Madame appeared in black silk, with enough sequins and rhinestones to blind a roomful of jewelers, while LeDuc was permitted a long gray velvet gown with a matching bolero jacket.
Throughout the twelve weeks of dancing-class, Madame made certain to pair us in various ways: tall with short, good with inept, fat with slender, and sometimes, with Madame herself. She took pains to explain that only in this way could we hope to achieve the necessary skill. She would separate us with her fan, like Dr. Mengele with his infamous riding-crop: you here, you there, you live, you die. But for demonstrations she always fell back upon a favorite she could trust to carry out a new step or dip or twirl with reasonable success.
My Senior year, I filled this position, but whether it was for my dancing or the fact Madame had discovered that I had learned passable German in private lessons (remember, the War was yet fresh in the public mind and it had been dropped in 1917 and never again offered in our school system).
In any event my selection served me well for I was ever after able to dance well with short women.
The classes came to an end eventually, and the night of the demonstration had arrived. Madame selected me for her partner to demonstrate each of the dances which we had struggled to master, so for fifteen minutes I was a creature of fame.
When we paused for the polite applause, Madame squeezed my bicep and said, You, you will dance with LeDuc tonight. Of course you will dance with your Mama, but you are LeDuc's partner for the evening."
LeDuc danced? Freed this night from her piano she was to dance...and with me? I must have looked surprised, for Madame tightened her grasp and winked happily as she said, "Ja. With LeDuc you tanz dis evening." She chuckled as she added, "You are her reward." But she used the German phrase ?Trinkgelt', which usually means a tip or gratuity. How very odd, I thought at the time.
Mystified but obedient, when general dancing commenced, I clicked heels and bowed exactly 20? before LeDuc, and off we whirled to a Strauss waltz. Now for this night we had been instructed by Madame that we were limited to two dances with the same partner only ? including parents. After the second dance, another waltz but in the American-style without the twirls, LeDuc maintained her position, rather protectively I thought, but a glance at Madame informed me that LeDuc and I were to be a pair for the evening.
LeDuc, I recalled, had danced last year, too, but I had taken no special notice with whom or for how long. As we began a fox-trot, she surprised me by asking if I spoke French. In that language I confessed that I did, and she never again addressed me in English for the balance of the evening.
She also bit me gently on the right earlobe, and save for Madame's excellent lessons, I would have stumbled badly.
I was eighteen that December and not used to having my fantasies about older women come to life. She breathed deeply into that ear and to such good effect that I was obliged to hold her much more closely than I should have to avoid revealing the effect this had upon me, which of course escalated the situation. To make it worse, LeDuc chuckled knowingly into the ear.
Within a quarter-hour, however, some measure of control was possible, and we relaxed into each other's arms and talked while we danced. LeDuc was not bad-looking I noticed for the first time: Exquisite profile, beautiful smile and a stunning derri?re. She could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty, and smelled of Shalimar, a perfume that I have ever-after admired. In her heels we were nearly of a height, so we danced well and her occasional kisses on my neck were always hidden from all but the orchestra.
And we talked French as she told but a little about herself: born in 1923 in Paris. Young lover killed in the War, along with her immediate family. Served with the R?sistence. Captured. Liberated. Came to America in 1945............. it went on. She asked nothing about me personally, but it became clear that she was not dancing with me, not really. She was back in 1939 dancing with her "pauvre Henri", dead in France since the first week of the War.
This immediately cooled my ardor ? nothing like being a stand-in for the real thing to lower a young man's hormone levels. But I found myself beginning to like her, this strange quiet woman.
We danced through the entire first stage, when I excused myself to dance twice with my mother. LeDuc discreetly faded towards the punchbowl where Madame was holding court before a group of complimentary parents. I did my filial duty and was much surprised to discover that my mother could even waltz let alone tango.
An evening of revelations for this young man. Still not sure where LeDuc and I were headed, I arranged to get myself home, and Mother left early, satisfied and proud.
LeDuc and I took up where we had left off, but easy with each other now, a comfortable couple, and we danced the evening through until the last dance medley found us at the door to the parking-lot, opened to cool the cafeteria. We stepped through it without haste or guilt or embarrassment. A short walk around the corner and we were alone.
I thought I had French-kissed before, but let me assure you: the original product is far superior to the American imposter. She put my hands on her chest, turning to face in the same direction and leaned back against me contentedly. I kissed her neck, her hair, her ear as I listened to her gasp and sigh. All too soon it was over ? a moment in time ? nothing more, but when we stepped back in for the final waltz, I noticed that a rosy flush whose significance escaped me until a few years later had spread across her cheeks and neck.
The music stopped, the dancing came to an end, the carousel ceased, the world began to turn again and I was swept up in hellos, good-byes and how-are-yous with friends parents before I realized they were gone: LeDuc and Madame. I never saw them again.
Next morning I found in my overcoat pocket a silk scarf smelling of Shalimar.
I graduated, went into the military and when I came out ties, jackets and dancing-lessons were long gone in favor of ripped jeans and folk-music. Madame would have been appalled.
Which leaves me with a final mystery: How had LeDuc known which overcoat was mine, hung up in that serve-yourself coatroom? No classmate remarked upon the fact that LeDuc and I had danced the evening away together ? had it really happened? But yes, the scarf! That scarf remained in my possession all the time I was in the military ? in Europe first, then in Viet Nam. Did it bring me back safe I often wonder still, unlike her "pauvre Henri", her own young captain? I took it to Paris with me on leave, and used it as a pocket-kerchief as I strolled through her city......hers and Henri's.
But I no longer have it, so you must take my word for it, that it happened. Somewhere between marriage, divorce and traveling about and beyond it disappeared of its own. Did it vanish on the day of her death? Does the film end with Henri and LeDuc, a much younger LeDuc than I ever knew standing atop the Eiffel Tower, smiling, waving at me, the scarf around LeDuc's neck? I like to think it does, so here I end it....exactly as the music ends and the screen fades to black.
And of Madame? Her part in the drama? Did LeDuc pick me for herself, or did Madame make that decision also? Was I just one in a long line of annual rewards ? a fringe benefit, a year-end bonus?
Surely not, but then Madame used the term "Trinkgelt". But she said it in an Austrian accent...an old-fashioned Viennese term for a young male lover.
Should I have..could I have...would I have? But the screen is already dark, mes enfants. "Le Fin". Please leave nothing behind as you depart.......... especially silk scarves smelling faintly of Shalimar.
Please ignore the weeping clown in the lobby, ladies and gentlemen; it's all part of the show..........................