The Avenger was still going to make you dance, however. No getting around that. But it would be risk-free dancing, or at least risk-free asking, because at cotillion nobody had a choice: “This,” Mr. Benjamin pointed out, “is not a democracy.” To the boys, he said, “When you ask a lady to dance, what are the only six words you can say? ‘May I have this dance, please.’ That’s it. Those words.”
He turned to the girls.
“When a gentleman asks you to dance, ladies, what can you say? Three words. ‘Yes, thank you.’ ” Can you say something else, later on in life, when a gentleman asks you to dance? Yes. But tonight? No. Three words. ‘Yes, thank you.’ ”
Turning again to the boys, “When I tell you to walk across the room and get a partner, is this the most important decision of your life? Is this a marriage proposal? Do you need to think it over for a long time? No,” Mr. Benjamin said and shook his head.
“And when you escort your partner back to the other side of the room, do you give her a push when you’re ten feet from the edge, like, ‘Here you go,’ shove her back into the pile?”
“No! You walk her all the way to her side and say ‘thank you’ and walk back. It’s a few seconds of your life. Walk your partner back to her seat.”
When he had demonstrated exactly how each gentleman would hold each lady (one hand at her back, the other holding hers in the air, full-contact, waltz-style), when he had reviewed possible topics of conversation (the weather, pets, siblings, movies), when he had demonstrated the box step — which looked simple unless you imagined yourself doing it while nervous with a stranger — when he had made clear the whole terrifying prospect of approaching a girl and then touching her in two places while looking into her face and making conversation while somehow moving your feet in patterns they had never before made, Mr. Benjamin said matter-of-factly, “In just a minute, your whole life is going to change.”
The girls stood in their ballet flats and kitten heels, the dresses they had tried on at home before a mirror, the hair they had styled and styled and styled, and looked dubiously, hopefully, daringly across at the boys. Their faces were still the faces of little girls, but they were dressed like the women they wanted to become. Most were slim as daffodils, but a few were womanlike already and embarrassed about that because they would tower over the boyish boys on the other side of the room, and how many boys did that leave who would willingly choose them to dance? What boy did they know who had ever kept his negative thoughts to himself? What girl, for that matter? Fear hovered in certain faces, along with a mask ready to say, “I don’t care.” Black-haired, blond-haired, dark-eyed, blue-eyed, they were lovelier than they knew or would ever believe.
The boys stood like lead counterweights on their side, the overlong cuffs of their pants piled like sedimentary rock on their enormous new leather shoes, the sleeves of their blue or white shirts stranded above their wrists or, more commonly, hanging mid-palm, so they could grow into them, and either way their hands were dangling like bait because Mr. Benjamin kept saying, “Get your hands out of your pockets,” and where else were their hands supposed to go? They balanced unsteadily on their too-large feet, the long-haired ones tossing and tossing their hair, which in the current fashion flowed right down over their eyes, where it curled up ever so slightly as if to say I don’t care to see you. Their faces were still the faces of little boys, with round, hopeful cheeks and chins, not jaws that needed shaving or could even be imagined to need shaving, and yet they were going to have to walk across the room in a second and ask one of those girls to dance. They looked giddy, brave, and almost uniformly horrified.
“Gentleman, get a partner,” Mr. Benjamin said, and what he had predicted came to pass. Feet thundered across the floor, jangling voices said, “May I have this dance, please?” and 12 years of childhood telescoped into a single instant and were gone.
∗ ∗ ∗
Four nights a week, September to March, from the North County to the South Bay, Coronado to Tierrasanta, Mr. Benjamin makes the rounds. Each group gets 12 one-hour lessons, 36 dances, 8 trips to the punch table, and instruction in some 24 etiquette topics, numbers that are multiplied, for Benjamin himself, by 8. It’s a job you could call stand-up deportment comedy, if it weren’t for the rabbi-priest-teacher-coach role he plays in a multicultural society that has lost almost all of its communal rites of passage. He has to get kids to do the cha-cha, a sexy Cuban dance out of date for at least 50 years, and the waltz, out of date for more than 100. To care whether they’re nice to people and whether their table manners, which are discussed but not practiced at the classes, are grotesque. To believe they can look a girl or boy in the eye and make casual, congenial conversation and not feel like a total, abject loser or, conversely, avoid making someone else feel like a total, abject loser. He has to make their parents think they got their money’s worth, and he wants, as he’s doing these things — or maybe in order to do these things — to make sure the kids have a good time listening to pointers on how to behave at a job interview and doing the foxtrot with the girl or boy who cuts them dead in humanities.
“I want,” he says, “the kids to take away a positive memory in a setting where most people feel very uncomfortable.” To say, as he imagines it, “ ‘God, you know, I was dressed up, we were talking about manners, and that sounds really uncomfortable, but I had fun.’ ”