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Lessons From Etiquette Class

I was 12, and entering a right of passage. There was no way around it. My mom insisted I would be spending every Wednesday afternoon with 20 of my fellow 6th graders, cooped up in the ballroom of a country club. A mix of restless boys and nervously giggling girls were there to learn manners under the high society mistresses of our town. There was nothing I dreaded more. It was called ‘Dance Court.’

On the first day of Dance Court nicely dressed women wearing too much perfume greeted us at the front door. They looked us up and down to make sure we followed the dress code. We were only allowed to enter once we mastered the proper introduction. That being a firm handshake, and a “How do you do, Mrs. So and So. It’s so nice to meet you.”

I soon realized this wasn’t going to be a typical dance course. I was living out a 1950s training guide for being the perfect hostess. There was a day dedicated to table manners, where we learned when to use a seafood fork. The next lesson was party etiquette. The girls practiced conversation starters and were told not spend too much time on any one subject. The boys had to open doors for their dates, and retrieve the finger sandwiches. Worst of all, girls had to be escorted. Moving around was hard when it required linking your arm awkwardly with a boy’s.

I never really thought about gender before Dance Court. I played Little League baseball but took ballet lessons too–changing out my cleats for pointe shoes seamlessly in the backseat of the stationwagon. I was the kid who was given a gender neutral name, on purpose. My parents decided to name me Taylor even before they knew if I was a boy or a girl.

It was a strange transition for me to go from playing on a baseball team with some of these boys, to holding their fruit punch. The dance lessons were even more awkward. As the instructor moved nearer, the dancers braced for embarrassment. “Move closer. Hand on her waist. Follow his mark.” The room filled sweaty shirts and red faces.

Everything had built up to the night of the final dance. Parents watched from the balcony above as the pre-teens practiced their still-awkward dance moves. As we had been taught, the boys lead the steps, while the girls dance backwards. My partner kept stepping on my patent leather shoes. By the third time, I had had enough. I stomped right back on his foot. He let out a loud gasp. All eyes turned in our direction. I was on my way to the Dance Court blacklist.

At the end of the six weeks, Dance Court finally ended. I returned to the 21st century. I pulled on jeans. Ate pizza with my hands and IM’d friends. But the lessons from Dance Court didn’t completely leave me. I did take a lot out of the lessons, just not the things they wanted. I’ve learned to pay attention to how gender roles are passed on. And it reminds me that I don’t always need to fill all the awkward spaces in a conversation. And I definitely shouldn’t be the one always holding the fruit punch.


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