MAN OF THE HOUSE

Debutantes on parade, a.k.a. the dad-daughter waltz night

In our last installment, we were renting tuxedos and learning to waltz, fun stuff only if you're one of those country club stiffs who's dead from the neck up. Me, I'd rather be stapled to a ping-pong table and attacked by geese than attend a black-tie dinner. I'd rather drown in pudding.

So it is a measure of how little control I have over my own life that I am at a debutante ball in middle March, escorting a pretty young redhead with kitty cat eyes and a dress like a parachute.

"Daddy, you OK?" she asks.

"Never better," I lie.

"Good," she says, hugging my shoulder and giggling the way she does when she's happy and nervous all at once.

If you've never been to a deb ball, here's the deal: They are a tribal activity, much like a mass wedding. They last 11 hours. Grandma comes, and Grandpa too (often at gunpoint). As befitting the 27 Cinderellas who are involved, the festivities take place in a giant hotel that resembles the Magic Kingdom. Everybody behaves like Goofy.

Generally, deb balls are a fixture of the upper class, and that is decidedly not us. The other day, I was trying to figure out which to buy -- a garage door opener, or a DVD player. Both were broken, yet we could afford to replace only one. That's how "upper class" we are. We're more like "fixer upper class."

So it's a mystery how we ended up at this deb ball. The boy and his baby brother are in tuxes. Two mothers -- Gail and Debbie -- are on liquor patrol, making sure the debs aren't drinking. Good choice. If anyone can sniff out contraband hooch, it's Gail and Debbie.

Anyway, they won't let the dads eat dinner till we "present" the girls, which means we have to escort our daughters around the dance floor one by one, as the mistress of ceremonies drones on about the young lady's accomplishments.

"In her sophomore year, Trish won the Nobel Prize for literature. For fun, she writes software for underdeveloped nations. Trish plans to attend Stanford in the fall, where she will study molecular engineering in hopes of one day developing algorithms that help predict earthquakes."

On and on these introductions go. One girl hopes to grow food on Mars. Another girl's hobby is finding folds in the space-time continuum, through which she slips to remedy the world's past injustices.

Big deal. When I was 18, I was already dressing myself and walking to school on my own.

After the introductions -- which go quickly, like lung surgery -- we finally get to the Big Waltz. For the last month, the dads and daughters have all been taking lessons for the Big Waltz, under the direction of the widow of Otto von Bismarck. Fortunately, she is a people person.

"Forward, BACK!" she screamed, while teaching us to waltz. "FORWARD! BAAAAAAAACK!"

Her gentle prodding -- she often carried a whip and a Taser gun -- has worked miracles. Suddenly, on this big night, we are a well-drilled platoon of 27 father-daughter dance pairs.

Forward. Back. Forward. Back. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, Oops-2-3, 1-2-3. . . .

Honestly, waltzing in unison is like algebra, in the sense that some people never get it. One dad dances as if he's been deboned, a rubber-legged scarecrow of a dad.

Yet out on the dance floor, in front of 500 guests, we are such a swirl of taffeta and tuxedos that I don't think anyone could tell if half of us suddenly caught fire.

The relative success of this Big Waltz comes as a huge relief to the mothers, who have been planning this ceremony for six years.

The girls' moms, also known respectfully as "the yummy mummies," have been a little tense of late. One, I think her name was Posh, actually said, "Just bite me" a few days earlier when I asked her why we couldn't keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer for emergencies, like other families we know.

"Traditionally, I am a very traditional person," I explained, at which point she shook her head and ran off to buy boutonnieres or cummerbunds.

In the end, everything turned out OK at the deb ball; in fact, it was a complete blast. The 27 dads developed into a fairly supportive fellowship, sort of like a beleaguered sports team. By the end of the long evening, even the yummy mummies were enjoying themselves out on the dance floor, beautiful Cinderellas themselves.

And the little red-haired girl? She hugged my shoulder and giggled gleefully, making it all -- the waltz lessons, the rental tux, the 14 years of coaching softball -- worth every lousy-wonderful moment.

That's right, the little girl hugged my shoulder. I only have so many of those hugs left, you know.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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