When I signed my son up for dance and deportment lessons, I didn’t tell him.
For one thing, it was called Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion, and I couldn’t shake the image of Mr. Benjamin Bunny, Peter Rabbit’s uncle. The only other dance-and-deportment teacher I could visualize, as the date of the first cotillion approached, was Prince Turveydrop, the desperately poor and harried dance instructor in Dickens’s novel Bleak House, who “sometimes played the fiddle, dancing; sometimes played the piano, standing; sometimes hummed the tune with what little breath he could spare, while he set a pupil right…and never rested for an instant.”
Prince Turveydrop, in other words, is not a youth icon.
Why, you may be asking yourself, did I enroll my son in something I couldn’t picture happening in this century with a cast of humans?
Well, that’s why, actually: the mere fact that Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion had survived for 55 years in America’s beach belt. Who could teach gentility to Southern California 12-year-olds in 2009? How could it be done?
And yet it was done. The flyer said so. This seemed like a hopeful answer to the question I’ve asked with increasing alarm as our oldest child speeds toward adolescence in the age of texting and low-hung pants: Can this civilization be saved?
Plus, the letter said that if I came to watch the first night and didn’t like it, I could have my money back.
∗ ∗ ∗
I expected small numbers on that first September night — 20 or 30 helpless offspring wishing they were dead — but the lines outside the middle-school hall stretched down the sidewalk as if for the premiere of Star Wars XI. The girls wore, as directed in the flyer, dresses and skirts and ballet flats and kitten heels and the most heartbreakingly hopeful looks you ever saw. The boys wore the prescribed white or blue button-down shirts, khaki or navy pants, belts you could actually see because for maybe the first time in their lives someone had required them to tuck in their shirts, and expressions that ranged from acute physical discomfort to nervous bravado.
The boys stood in clumps, but the girls formed a wavering line, like tulips after a light snowfall. The boys and girls did not mix with one another. Girls entered through one door, boys through the other, and separate they remained.
At 7:30, a 6’5” man wearing a well-cut suit and tie strode to the center of the gym. He had a mustache and short steel-colored hair. It was instantly clear that he had not been, at any phase of his life, nicknamed Turveydrop. He looked like a retired pro football player moonlighting for the Secret Service.
“Good evening,” he said to the crowd, his voice amplified by a tiny tie-clip microphone, the kind used by referees in the NFL. “I’m Mr. Benjamin.”
He told the girls to extend and straighten the line on their side, and the boys to do the same on their boundary. Behind the boys, from chairs arranged on the stage, parents were thinking what he imagined they were thinking: I had to drag him here. I had to drag her here. Did I do him wrong? Did I do her wrong?
Two 20-year-old guys in suits, their black hair combed wetly back, their jaws set, stood at the edge of the room like extras in a Scorsese film. They were clearly the deportment roadies, though my 9-year-old son preferred to think of Pete Lococo and Dominic Dianna as Mr. Benjamin’s bodyguards. Pete and Dominic ran the iPod, counted boys and girls so that if the numbers didn’t come out even, Mr. Benjamin could designate the correct number of cut-ins, and proved that dressing up didn’t make you a wuss.
Mr. Benjamin surveyed the line of boys. “I see socks. I see belts. Good work, gentlemen.
“Keep your hands out of your pockets,” he told the boys. They took their hands out of their pockets.
He studied the girls. (If skirts are too short and dresses are too strappy, he has to have a discreet word. Nothing too “hoochie,” as he calls it, is allowed.) “Good work, ladies.”
He said that while the girls might have actually looked forward to dressing up this evening, “We all know why the boys are here. You’re here because your mothers made you come.”
Kids laughed, even the nauseated ones. He joked some more, and they laughed, and the parents laughed, relieved to discover that Mr. Benjamin was not only impressively threatening but funny. There would be jokes!
But jokes alone can’t dispel terror. “If you’re feeling nauseous, if you think you’re going to get sick, if you have a stomachache, if you’ve got sweaty palms, if you think you might pass out, you are a normal person,” he said. “You’re normal.”
No one passed out.
“I will refer to you here as ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Benjamin continued. “And that’s what you’ll be.” The first rule of the night, and of all nights, would be this: “Keep your negative thoughts to yourself.”
There would be other etiquette topics, he said, and he’d bring them up a few at a time between dances — three dances a night would be typical — but this was the first and foremost, absolutely unbreakable one. No matter what you thought about someone’s hairstyle, dance skills, hand temperature, or body type, you were not, under any circumstances, to say a nasty critical word about it, not to your friend or acquaintance or, worst of all, to the warm-handed, sweating, terrified subject of your gaze. There would, furthermore, be no whispered asides that would make a boy or girl even think you were mocking him.
It felt, for a wonderful second or two, that the superhero you needed when you were 12, the Avenger of Lunchroom Humiliations, was now present and would, with his tallness and good posture and death-defying faith in the line between rudeness and civility, save every soul in the room from the social horror that is middle school.
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.’ ”
To do this — to insist upon conformity in a society that values individual freedom more than orthodoxy and still hope for fun — Benjamin talks like a surfer and acts like a drill sergeant.
“I kind of go back to that hippie thing,” Benjamin says, referring to the era in which he himself came of age. His older brother was in Vietnam when Benjamin was in third and fourth grade, so although it was 1967 and he lived at the beach, he absorbed “this whole sense of the military, the sense of the tradition that the military brings, the sense of order that it brings. I like that. ‘This is the standard. These are my expectations. I want you to bring yourself up to that spot, and you will feel better about yourself by doing it. Be better than what you think you can be.’ That whole Army thing, ‘Be all you can be’ — that’s a right-on statement. It’s not just a marketing ploy. It’s the truth. All of a sudden I got on a soapbox there, but I really dig that about Mr. Benjamin’s. It makes people come up to a level that they have not had to before. It’s not that they couldn’t or didn’t want to, but that nobody asked.”
This describes, in a way, the path of Benjamin’s own life.
“In 1978,” Benjamin says, “I moved to Hawaii.”
He was a 19-year-old surfer from Point Loma who’d spent five months working in a restaurant to buy a one-way ticket to Maui. He was headed, specifically, to a famous surf spot called Honolua Bay.
“Some guys went to Kaui,” he says, “but I knew Kaui wasn’t for me, because back then, Kaui was, like, nowhere, nothing. Too remote, you couldn’t make a living. And the one thing that my dad definitely instilled in all three boys was, at a certain age, you’re off the wallet.
“So I go there, and the surf’s incredible, beautiful, idyllic, it was the perfect place for me. I don’t mind heat. Some people are made to live in Telluride, and some people are made to live in Arizona. I am made to live in the tropics. That’s where I always feel my best.”
Benjamin said to himself, This is it. I’m not going back.
He learned to shape surfboards, and he started what he calls a “pretty decent little surfboard company.” For a while, he lived with a girl and her giant dog, Buick, in a van. He was making custom boards and doing some retail, and “it was like a dream, really. You know that joke you see in the movies?”
Here Benjamin does a perfect parody of an envious slacker, saying, “Man, you’re living the dream.”
“That’s what I was doing. I was young. Totally in shape. Single at a certain point. No marriage. No kids. No anchors. Living in Lahaina. You can just see the picture I’m painting. It’s pretty good. Why would you leave that?”
In 1983, five years after Benjamin bought the one-way ticket to Hawaii, his mother, Eleanor, was diagnosed with cancer. He came home to Point Loma, but that was just a temporary thing, he thought. Benjamin’s father, Donald, was by then in his 29th year of running Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion, a business he’d started in 1954 with two Tommy Dorsey albums, a Sears record player, and 35 sixth-graders from Del Mar Village Elementary. Peter Benjamin had been born 4 years later, in 1958, and by the time Peter reached sixth grade, it was a given that he would, like his two older brothers, learn the cha-cha, the foxtrot, and the waltz at Mr. Benjamin’s. He danced with Vicki Willoughby and a red-haired girl named Karen Patterson. He surfed, and he grew his hair down past his shoulders.
Like his brothers, Peter Benjamin worked for his father after sixth grade, making punch, checking boys and girls in at the door, nudging boys who subconsciously tucked their hands into their pockets, and handling the occasional emergency.
One night during a dinner dance, Donald Benjamin pushed the bar on a glass door and his hand broke through the glass plate. “I was in seventh grade,” Benjamin says. “He says to me — this is just like my dad — ‘You take over the class. I have to go to the emergency room.’
“So I’m a seventh-grader among seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, and I have to go up on the stage, put a record on, say, ‘Okay, everybody dance,’ and that kind of stuff, and I was a sort of reserved kid, so I have a very definite memory of that.”
Benjamin’s father must have had a definite memory of it, too. As the summer of 1983 turned into fall, Donald Benjamin got a call from a woman in Valley Center.
“Valley Center was kind of a unique place at that time,” Peter Benjamin says, “the avocado farmer’s Rancho Santa Fe.” The farmers wanted property and rolling hills — “that kind of Tuscan vibe” — but they also wanted social refinement. “We really want Mr. Benjamin’s here,” the woman told Donald Benjamin.
Donald Benjamin said that although he appreciated the opportunity, he was not interested in driving to Valley Center.
“But,” he told the woman, “my son will.”
So 25-year-old Peter Benjamin put on a suit and tie and drove to Valley Center. Except for the night his father cut open his hand, he’d never been in charge of a cotillion class, “but I assume what I did was I paid attention. Even though I didn’t know I was. You know what I’m saying? It’s almost through osmosis, right? Through absorption. I absorbed class administration.”
His first class was 20–25 kids. “Did my father think I’d be Mr. Benjamin’s at that point? Probably not. But he knew that it’s never bad to have a multitude of different skills. My father was always that way. He did a lot of things.”
So Peter stayed in San Diego. He kept teaching. His father got a call from Scripps Ranch, “which back then was nothing. Scripps Ranch was tiny.” Soon Peter was teaching in Valley Center, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta, and Rancho Peñasquitos. Like circuit preachers, the two Mr. Benjamins made their rounds, stating in the same way the same essential rules of civility, using the same dress code in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the new millennium, ushering hundreds and then thousands and tens of thousands of 12-year-olds across the wide chasm that separates them from the opposite sex. Hawaii receded, but Peter Benjamin continued to shape surfboards. It’s never bad to have a multitude of different skills. He went on a blind date with a college girl named Stacey who knew his name from his surfboard logo, married her, and they had a son, who grew to the age where he would stand in a pair of khaki pants and a button-down shirt at the edge of a school gym, facing a line of girls.
“My fear, when Chase was born,” Peter says, “was that he would catch a lot of crap for being Mr. Benjamin’s kid, because my brothers and I did at that time. But what happened was just the opposite.”
By 2008, when Chase Benjamin came of age in Point Loma, a third generation of local cotillion students was also coming of age.
“The grandparent went to Mr. Benjamin’s,” Benjamin says. “The parent went. All of their brothers and sisters went. Their children now go.” The son of Vicki Willoughby, Peter’s dance partner in sixth grade, came to work for him, and when Chase took his place in line, all of his friends were there, too, and the boys from past Little League teams, and though it wasn’t quite as if his father was Peyton Manning, Mr. Benjamin’s had somehow managed to become cool.
∗ ∗ ∗
Donald Benjamin died on October 14, 2009, in the second month of the 56th season of his work. As when, long ago, Donald Benjamin had to leave the dance floor early, Peter Benjamin carried on with cotillion, making sure that shirts were tucked in and dances danced and music played. The funeral guestbook and the Benjamin house filled up with mourners — “God, the people that showed up, it was amazing” — who were deeply fond of and grateful to the man who taught them the bossa nova and a good, firm handshake.
Certain things disappeared from the original class, as they tend to disappear from the world. The dinner dance, for example, became impossible once food allergies became an issue, and Peter Benjamin stopped serving Coke, which had a sort of racy glamour, at the December and March parties because parents would say, “The dark sodas are bad for kids’ bones” and “This is a lot of caffeine at 8:15 at night.”
“So to appease the gods,” Benjamin says, he serves not chocolates or cookies, which might have traces of peanuts in them, but Starburst, “a very universally liked candy” that he hopes will satisfy both the chocolate types and the gummy-fruit-licorice types, and he switched from Coke to Sprite, “which is still a carbonated sugary drink, but if somebody calls me about that, in a nice gentlemanly way I just go, ‘Tough. These are kids and they need to have fun once in a while.’ ”
The cha-cha stays for no reason Benjamin can offer beyond that it used, once upon a time, to be done. “Do the cha-cha with a twirl for your grandparents,” he says. “It will knock them out.”
Likewise the waltz, the hesitation step, and a foxtrot variation Benjamin calls the “open walk” step.
“My dad taught this step,” he tells kids during a winter class, choosing a girl to come out into the center of the room for a demonstration of the dance. “Side-toe, open-toe, walk, walk, whoosh,” he says as he does a walk-through, and at the whoosh everyone laughs.
“Ladies like whooshing,” Benjamin says. “Trust me.”
Side-toe, open-toe, walk, walk, whoosh.
When everyone gets out on the floor to try it, there’s some flinging, some whirling, some teetering, and a lot of scooting. It’s hard to get the right amount of torque into the whoosh. In general, all dances done by sixth-graders at cotillion look like the box step, except for those that look more like a hyphen step. Step to the left, step to the right, talk, talk, breathe. Don’t faint, don’t faint, don’t faint, whoosh.
From the slight elevation of the stage, parents can watch them merge and separate, turn and collide, bits and pieces falling against each other as if at the twist of a kaleidoscope.
They don’t faint, they do breathe, they smile, and in any case Mr. Benjamin doesn’t care how well they dance.
“If you leave this class without knowing how to dance, will I be mad?” he asks. “No. If you leave this class and you can’t look someone in the eye and smile and give a good firm handshake? Yes.”
Each party of each cotillion ends in a perfect echo of 1954, the year of the first party, when Donald Benjamin was young and girls never wore ugg boots. For the last dance of the party, Pete or Dominic cue the Mexican hat dance, but not just any Mexican hat dance. It’s the exact recording Peter Benjamin’s father used, a Spin-o-Rama album called Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra — Featuring Frank Sinatra in 5 Vocals that Donald Benjamin kept for years and years and then Peter Benjamin transferred to cassette, which he later transferred to a CD and later still uploaded to an iPod so it could be set on its prongs in a world that, on cotillion nights, when the girls look across space at the boys and the boys look across space at the girls, feels every bit as innocent and promising as the world that formed it long ago.