‘Physical Education,’ it was called, back in the day. Football; hockey; netball; cross-country running, and in my time, to a lesser extent, rugby. It was an eagerly awaited break from the mind-crushing monotony of Mr Methven’s Physics class. (I’m still bitter he chucked myself and Tony Everett out of his Higher class – can you tell? Presumably that was to ensure his teaching reflected a better pass rate.)
‘Physical Education,’ in the month of December, however, was none of the above. Not because the ground was dangerously frozen – old Boot would have us out playing in the January snow, while I might add, he slurped his coffee in the store room. No. Some sadist considered it would be more character building, and stand us all in good future stead, to teach us the dark art of country dancing.
In the weeks leading up to ‘The Dance,’ boys and girls of each class in their Year, would be told to line up opposite each other in one of the gyms, backs to the wall-bars, and await the dreaded instruction:
“Gentlemen – take your partners for the Saint Bernard’s Waltz.”
This is 1971 for goodness sake. The year of T.Rex, Rod Stewart and Atomic Rooster. And we have to dance to a … what’s it called?
(See these old folk? See what they’re doing? THIS is what we were expected to learn as thirteen / fourteen year olds!)
Usually, two classes were amalgamated and twenty, sweaty-palmed lads would look up and down the line, watching to see who’d make the first move. Of course, there was always that one kid who was officially ‘going out’ with one of the girls stood across the games hall. His move towards the other side would instantly be mirrored by his ‘burd,’ (it’s ok – you could say these things back in the day) and the two would meet in the centre circle of the basketball court.
The pressure is now on.
Decision time. Move quickly before somebody else asks the girl you fancy. Or – actually, do you even ask her at all? What if she says “no thanks.” Or words to that effect. But she might be happy to ‘St Bernard’s Waltz’ with you. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? That would surely mean she likes you, wouldn’t it? Look – she’s whispering and giggling with her friends. Go on. Don’t be such a chicken.
But the fear of rejection is debilitating.
Aaaaargh! Too damn slow! She accepted that offer far too quickly. And she’s smiling. She must fancy ….
Very quickly, your options dwindle and everyone else starts pairing up – reluctantly or otherwise. So you make your move. The approach does not impress, however, as your path deviates when a pal overtakes you for the hand of your intended. Sheepishly, you are forced to ask your now third choice. Fully expecting a sharp rebuke, you ask the question.
Boot and Mrs McLeod (Horsey) who obviously frequent the world of Jane Austen, had dictated the correct manner of asking a young lady to dance is to politely say:
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?” But, partly because you’re a rebel and nobody tells you what to do, though mainly because your nervous brain has gone to mush, you grudgingly mumble the words:
“You wanna dance?”
Realising by now that it’s a straight choice between the short-arse stood in front of her; the weird introvert, or the kid with a plague of plooks and halitosis – the short arse wins. You – ok, I – have a partner.
Boot would then crank up the dansette and drop the needle on track one, side one of Jimmy Shand and His Band, Greatest Hits (Volume 1) and quickly retreat to the arms of Horsey. A short demonstration was followed by carnage and mayhem, the like of which had never been seen on the hockey or football pitches.
Of course, the rumours would fly for the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas Dance as to who fancied who – all based upon the rather random selection process of the practice sessions.
Then came the big night. The night when all the skills learned from Boot and Horsey would be displayed. Or not.
See, back then, there was no plush limousine; no pre-dance celebration meal; no hired photographers. Nope. Instead, groups of lads would rush out their homes an hour or so before the scheduled start time, meet up at the pre-determined ‘secret’ rendezvous point (for us, it was ‘The Woods,’ for others, ‘Hungry Hill’) and unearth the illicit booze that had somehow been procured earlier. The tipple of choice for my group was El Dorado and Lanliq fortified wine and a couple cans of Carlsberg Special Brew or Newcastle Brown Ale.
Timing now became critical, and being so young and inexperienced, it was pretty much down to trial and error … error frequently winning out.
The challenge was to get to the festively adorned Assembly Hall and, standing up straight whilst holding your breath, hand over your ticket to the poor teacher who would much rather have been spending the evening with a good book. Those pupils who still had to perfect the art of timing and sported puke stains down the front of their paisley-patterned kipper ties, were instantly rejected, being sent to the ‘sick room’ to await collection by their affronted parents.
Once in, you could relax. But not too much. It was best to keep moving. Dancing. Any period of inactivity would invariably induce a deep sleep on the spartan chairs that lined the Hall. Game over. Sick room and a phone call to your parents coupled by an instant grounding over Christmas would be the resultant consequence.
So, dance you did. And it wasn’t too bad, as it happened. And even if it was Dutch courage, you did ask the girl you fancied to dance. And maybe she was happy that you did.
Everyone was happy. Even the kid with the plague of plooks and halitosis.
It was Christmas, after all.