Civilization wins when boys learn to dance


IF WE TERRORIZE the place, we'll get kicked out. Right?"I had just presented Joe and his buddy Paul with the news that they would be spending eight Friday evenings this winter at Betty Huckenpoehler's Annapolis Cotillion, learning etiquette and ballroom dancing.

While my son was throwing himself on the furniture and howling his refusals, Paul began immediately on a plan to get them expelled.

This is how these best friends approach any proposition made by their mothers. Joe digs his heels in; Paul tries to dig them both out.

"Bad news, guys," I said. "Mrs. Huckenpoehler has been doing this for more than 30 years. She has seen your kind comin' and goin'."

"But she never met anybody like Paul and me," Joe said. "We're new and improved."

Knowing this to be true, I had not planned to send these two ruffians to Mrs. Huckenpoehler's cotillion. But she saw me in the grocery store parking lot and demanded that I do so.

"Send those boys to me," said this tiny, white-haired woman, her voice low and gravelly and full of fight. "I love a challenge."

Her challenge grew as neighborhood mothers learned of my plans. Women were calling and begging me to gain an invitation for their sons to Mrs. Huckenpoehler's cotillion. Like me, they were desperate for anything that would civilize their middle-school boys.

Soon the mall was dotted with reluctant boys and their mothers, searching for sport coats with sleeves that did not cover the knuckles. I took Joe under the guise of buying a new pair of tennis shoes, and before he knew it, I was wrestling him into dress clothes. He acted as though I had asked him to model 200 yards of duct tape. He didn't try on the coat and tie, he fought with them.

Until, that is, he caught sight of himself in the dressing room mirror. His shoulders relaxed and he shook the coat into place with that cuff-shooting motion that comes naturally to handsome men. Like the swan that sees its reflection in the pond in spring, Joe realized he was not an ugly duckling.

The night of the first cotillion dance was fraught with anxiety for all concerned. The boys did not know what to expect and were so charged up I feared they would vibrate right out of their dress clothes. We asked them to stand still for a group photo and, as if they had planned to do so, the boys turned to one side in a mock police lineup.

Before leaving, and in keeping with the police action mood the boys had established, each mother searched the pockets of her son. Joe and his buddy Jack were found to have rubber bands and paper wasps. But Paul, Mr. Terrorize-the-Place, was found to have pockets stuffed with candy and a small packet of post-it notes, each lettered with his name and phone number and the admonition, "Call me for a date."

As the boys set off for their first cotillion, each of the mothers felt as though she had pulled the pin on a hand grenade and rolled it onto the dance floor.

But the boys met their match in Mrs. Huckenpoehler, who greeted them wearing a coach's whistle and carrying a microphone. She put more than 100 middle- schoolers through their paces for an hour and a half of what might pass as dancing in a culture not our own.

Afterward, the five boys piled into a station wagon for ice cream. Their faces flushed, shirttails out, ties askew, they complained that dress shoes made their feet hurt.

The boys chatted furiously, voices spilling over one another as everyone talked and nobody listened. The general conclusion was that dancing was OK if you did it with a girl you already knew.

That said, the boys engaged in a burping contest all the way home.

Mrs. Huckenpoehler has her work cut out for her.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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