Is the dancing really to begin again? Miss Manners' heart is aflutter.
By dancing, Miss Manners of course means ladies and gentlemen swooping about in pairs. She has no objection to individuals gyrating themselves into solitary trances if they so desire, but has never quite understood how that could be called social dancing.
Reports now are that proper ballroom dancing is returning. Miss Manners is well aware that there are those for whom it was never away, and does not wish to join the ranks of trend declarers who go around announcing, for example, that "weddings are back" -- as if a generation of sensible people had not gone right ahead getting properly married while a conspicuous handful thought it more suitable to pledge themselves to heaven knows what while standing barefoot at sunrise. (Or whatever. Miss Manners slept late during such events.)
Nevertheless, there have been fewer places where proper dancing can be indulged, and many people have grown up without having learned the skill. This being a country where people will go in for anything provided it is only new enough or old enough, these people are now setting about finding out what they missed.
Miss Manners urges that they pursue this -- not exactly with seriousness, because the activity is supposed to be lighthearted, but without the sneers of parody. The postmodern approach of carelessly putting together little bits and pieces of old things and making them into something of a joke destroys the experience they represented.
So along with learning the ballroom steps, Miss Manners would like to request that neo-dancers practice ballroom manners.
This, in turn, will require learning a new attitude, or rather an old, wicked one.
The old-fashioned combination of dutifulness and permissible naughtiness is hardly imagined by the present age, which is not characterized by subtlety. For people who believe that form kills fun, and that the only enjoyment is to be found in total improvisation, they seem to be having a remarkably tiresome time.
It was the strictures imposed by ballroom manners that created the license for a substructure of intrigue, flirtation, and other pleasures and dangers associated with romantic excitement.
One could not simply attend a dance with a favorite person and spend the evening leaning together and swaying. The program was made up of a series of clearly separated dances, and manners required that each person dance with a large number of partners.
A gentleman always had his duty dances with the hostess, any daughter of the house and the guest of honor, and he was expected to do his share of rescuing wallflowers, especially sisters of friends who could be induced to do the same for his sister.
A lady was obliged to dance with whoever asked her, unless she could plead a previous promise or fatigue, which she was not then allowed to contradict with subsequent action. This rule saved many a young girl who submitted to it the subsequent heartbreak of finding out that a gentleman's attractiveness was not necessarily obvious at the age that he first entered the ballroom, and that the snubbed had long memories. A lady was expected to find a pretext to excuse herself when she believed a gentleman to be stranded with her; that was one of the chief uses of powder rooms.
A key phrase of the ballroom was "May I have this dance?" to which the answer was something like "Why, yes, with pleasure" or "I'm so sorry, I've promised it" or "Oh, dear, I've danced so much, I really must sit down now."
The American custom of "cutting in," allegedly a frontier solution to the shortage of ladies, had its own rules: A gentleman could not cut back in on someone who had cut in on him, and a lady could not make come-on gestures behind the back of her partner, although nothing could stop her from shooting a meaningful look at someone else across the room.
The special dances were the first, the last and the last before supper (because one would then be the supper partner of the person one danced with). Romance was not an excuse for dancing plastered together, but was to be expressed in such invisible gestures as pressing hands and accidental momentary brushings together of faces.
If anyone complains that this sounds stilted and dull, Miss Manners will lodge a countercomplaint of a lack of imagination.
The dance floor was, under those circumstances, wild with romantic tension.
Would the right person ask one to dance, or accept one's offer? Was it plausible that that person was only dancing with a certain other person out of polite pity? Did the pressure of a hand against a waist or shoulder mean anything? Was that redness of cheek a rush of passion from her hair brushing lightly across his cheek, or was that an accident and the high color from the heat of the ballroom?
Miss Manners would remind skeptics that when dancing in couples first began to replace group dancing with lots of room between, nobody thought it was a turn for the quaint.
I usually go to the grocery twice a week. I'll be in line, patiently waiting my turn, when a new checker will open a line and say, "I can help someone over here."
Without fail, the person in back of me runs over and is waited on immediately.
I think that's rude. I'm the next one in line, and I should be the one waited on next. I think the checker should say, "I'll take the next person in line, please."
This is the sort of provocation that leads to basket-bashing in grocery stores, or at least to facial expressions that wilt the lettuce.
Your solution is an excellent one, and Miss Manners commends you and recommends it to checkers and anyone else who deals with lines of people.
She would also consider it proper for a customer who has missed out in the free-for-all run to the new checker to say firmly, but politely, "I believe I was next."
1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.