When you live in San Diego and you are in the sixth grade your parents send you to Mr. Benjamin. It’s just what you do. Mr. Benjamin is a dance teacher. But really it’s more than that. He teaches you how to be socially sophisticated, to respect others, to be courteous, polite to your elders and to do a mean fox trot, waltz, cha cha, and box step.
My older brothers and sisters went to Mr. Benjamin. But that was in the pre familial shake up of my parents divorce. When I entered sixth grade my mom was a single parent struggling to make ends meet. But sending me to Mr. Benjamin’s was something she felt was important. I don’t know how much it cost, though I am sure it was not cheap, but I do remember my mom coming to that first class to talk with Mr. Benjamin about me attending his class. He knew the family well enough and would hear nothing of my mom not sending me. They went into a back room to talk- not sure what was said (or what my mother did ;)-but I took those dang lessons that whole entire year! All kidding aside he liked my mom and our family and did a very nice thing by allowing us a spot in his classroom.
His classroom was a hall in Point Loma. Every Tuesday night I had to wear a dress of appropriate length, fancy shoes with a modest heel, and cover my legs in nylons. You had to line up: girls on one side, boys on another. Mr. Benjamin would show you a dance then he’d invite you onto the floor. Sometimes he’d pair you off. Sometimes you picked a partner…boys choice one week, girls the next. Oh the horror! I was homely to say the least. And I remember one week my glasses broke and we couldn’t afford to fix them. My mom fixed them with dental floss…we only had mint. Thank the good Lord that the boys from my school would usually take pity on me and pick me on those free choice nights. You walked to your partner, extended a hand, introduced yourself, and asked if they might join you for a dance. The boy would then lead the girl to the floor…always with a firm hand on the small of the back.
Mr. Benjamin would start his record player and the dancing would begin. No looking down or giggling here. He made the rounds and you had to have steady firm eye contact the whole time. And no periods of silence. Conversation was required at all times. At the end of the night your dance partner would escort you to the door. Mr. Benjamin stood there waiting for the formal introductions. Each boy would, with their hand on the girls back, lead you over to him. First you would shake his hand, then the boy would introduce himself, then their ‘date’ with first and last name—if you didn’t get this right to the back of the line you would go.
I remember once during the year he had a parent night…if you were a boy you brought your mom and if you were a girl you brought your dad. I brought no one. I was the only one. This was before divorce was de rigueur. Mr. Benjamin danced with me that night. He got me punch.
Punch but so much more….
Twenty years later I have three daughters, I vaguely remember the fox trot, I am slowly shutting out those mint flossed glasses..but I will never forget Mr. Benjamin. I am raising my daughters with the compassion, ethics, standards and respect that I learned from him. It was more than a dance class. It was a life class. It made me who I am today.
Mr. Benjamin passed away last week. I will never forget everything I learned from him. I will teach my kids, and they will teach their kids, and they will teach their kids….and Mr. Benjamin will live on. This way of thinking...of doing things-it’s a dying breed. It’s what’s wrong with kids today.
We’re starting a movement though with our girls…we’re teaching them to respect their elders, to be polite, to not interrupt, to treat others as they would like to be treated, to be ethically sound, morally responsible … and of course how to cha cha.