"You see a little bit of Astaire in everybody's dancing." - George Balanchine
He reaches over, clicks on the radio dial, and the music of 1450 K-Memory fills the car. The Hit Parades of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s are on the airwaves. I turn and steal a sideways look at the gray-haired driver as he drums his fingers on the steering wheel and hums along to the music. He sees me watching him and he smiles, for the announcer, in his deep baritone, has just said, "And now, listeners, let's take a look at some of the golden oldies of the 1950s. Let's start with The Penguins and 'Earth Angel.'" As my husband croons along to the music from so very long ago, I lean my head back against the seat, look out at the Iowa countryside, and think about time, music, and a boy.
January 26, 1955-Teenage dance night at Clear Lake's Surf Ballroom. Upstairs in my room, in a white frame house on First Avenue, I slipped my 45 recording of "Sh Boom, Sh Boom" by the Crew Cuts onto the turntable. As I brushed my hair, I thought about the night ahead-teenagers dancing to the beat of the Big Band sound, white buck loafers and saddle shoes sliding smoothly across the shiny wooden dance floor, couples jitterbugging to "In the Mood," slow dancing to "You Belong to Me," and singles looking expectantly over the crowd.
Classes were over for another day. Tonight was ours. In houses all over northern Iowa, boys and girls would be thinking about the night ahead. Will he ask me to dance? Will she dance with me?
A honk from the driveway and I ran down the stairs, grabbed my coat, and dashed out the door. My girlfriends were waiting in the car, and we were soon laughing, feeling good and looking our best as we drove down North Shore Drive, the lake beside us a gleaming white palette of moonlit ice. Our car rounded a curve and there it was, the Surf Ballroom, long and low, the marquee jutting out above the sidewalk and announcing to the world that tonight the ballroom belonged to us. It read in large letters, "Teenage Dance Tonight with Don Hoy and his Orchestra."
We paid our 50-cent admission at the booth and stepped inside. "Hi, Mr. Christensen," we echoed one by one as we handed him our tickets. "Hello there, girls. Have a good time dancing tonight!"
We hurried into the women's restroom. Betty, wiping snow off her shoes, looked up at the rest of us and said, "I wonder if Bob will be here tonight."
Joan laughed. "What do you mean? He's always here, isn't he? Ray is the one I'm wondering about. What a dancer!"
"Well, I hope Bob is here and I hope he asks me to dance," Betty muttered to herself.
I took out my Tabu lipstick, touched up my lips, and said, "I just hope we get to dance a lot."
We all took a final look at ourselves in the tall mirrors surrounding the room and stepped out into that other world.
The smooth music of Don Hoy's band enveloped us as we walked into the ballroom, a crowd already forming on the perimeter of the dance floor. Boys and girls sizing up each other, looking over who was there, who wasn't there. The tiered booths encircled the floor and we settled excitedly into one. A few couples were already out on the floor dancing. The night was beginning.
We looked out over the crowd, already seeing familiar faces, but knowing who wouldn't be there. The Korean War had changed our circle of friends. The boys who had enlisted were a world away from the Surf Ballroom on that night, patrolling the 38th parallel, keeping the peace after a war none of us had really understood. Gone were those boys with their dancing feet, their good looks, and cars-the boys that smelled of Old Spice.
But here would come Don, there would sidle up Jim, and one by one we would disappear in a whirl out onto the ballroom floor. The beat of the music called the dancer to the floor and it was filling up fast. The dance floor glowed warmly in the semi-darkness, the ceiling a canopy of clouds that floated over the heads of the dancers.
We all danced that night, with classmates, with boys from small towns around Clear Lake: Joice, Lake Mills, Thornton, Plymouth, and our big city of Mason City, only ten miles away.
We jitterbugged and swirled around the floor, we sipped our Coca-Colas and Pepsis, we laughed and gossiped. And then I saw him.
He walked toward our booth, a tall, dark-haired boy, a crew-cut boy, good-looking and with a huge smile that spread across his face as he approached our crowd.
Betty leaned across the booth and asked me, "Who's that?"
"I don't know. I saw him earlier out on the dance floor. He's a good dancer, that's for sure."
He stood next to our booth, all of us looking up at him. He leaned over, looked at me, and asked, "Could I have the next dance with you?"
He followed me out onto the floor and led me into a smooth jitterbug. I danced with him easily as we kept up with the fast-paced rhythm of the music. "Skirts, I love those skirts," the band played while this boy twirled me out and back, his hand slipping behind my back, grabbing my other hand and suddenly spinning me under his outstretched arm. The song ended and the band immediately rolled right into the Big Band sound of Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction." The pace of the music quickened, our feet flew back and forth, our arms pumped up and down, our hips gyrated back and forth as we responded to the wail of the trumpet and the beat of the drum. The song was almost over when he slipped his arm around my waist and dipped me to the floor in a graceful end to the dance. Smooth, oh, so smooth, was this dancing dark-haired boy from Mason City.
We danced that night at the Surf Ballroom and danced ourselves right into our future. We came back time and time again to dance to the music of the Big Bands: Billy May, Russ Morgan; we jitterbugged with a passion to Woody Herman, his clarinet wailing out the strains of "Woodchoppers' Ball"; we danced to Jules Herman, Wayne King, and thrilled to Ralph Marteri and his trademark "Caravan"; we jitterbugged to "Little Brown Jug" and the liquid tones of the Tex Beneke Band with his Glenn Miller style. One evening, we stood in front of the stage, this tall dancing boy and I, his arm around my waist, and swayed from side to side as we listened to the smooth tones of The Four Aces singing "Three Coins in the Fountain." The Surf Ballroom was the place to be.
On one night of music, though, we did stay home. On a snow-filled winter night, February 2, 1959, our two-year-old daughter looked up at her father and said, "Dance, Daddy." He bent down, took her little hand in his while she carefully placed her small feet on top of his shoes. I looked through our stack of records, picked out "Mister Sandman," and Elizabeth and her daddy danced slowly around our small living room. Our tiny dancer laughed as her arms moved up and down to the rhythm of the music.
Their nightly dance ended, we tucked her and her baby brother into their warm beds, then sat and envisioned the crowd at the Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake. Without a babysitter, we didn't stand in the audience that night and listen to "La Bamba," "Chantilly Lace," and "Peggy Sue." We didn't get to swing to the farewell songs of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
Time passed and the boy-turned-man, now a father of four, worked two jobs to support his family. On rare occasions, we danced at local nightclubs, for the Surf Ballroom was miles away from us by now, a lifetime away. Now it was all about our children and school, Little League, birthday parties, basketball games, track, high school graduations, college graduations, a wedding.
And then, quite suddenly, it was 1990 and the years had passed in a musical beat. With an invitation in my hand, I looked at my husband and said, "Guess where my 35th class reunion is going to be this summer."
He shrugged his shoulders, a wry grin on his face. "Well, Clear Lake, I suppose," he replied.
"The reunion is not only in Clear Lake, it's at the Surf Ballroom!"
On a warm reunion day that summer, the two of us walked again through the double doors of the Surf Ballroom. I looked down the long entryway and there they were-the ballroom floor, the encircling booths, the stage so full of memories-so many bands, so much music. It was as if time had no meaning in that ballroom, for nothing had changed-nothing except the jitterbugging generation of the '50s. No longer northern Iowa teenagers, we came to our reunion as parents, grandparents divorcees, singles-all older, most of us wiser.
Some of our dancing friends were gone forever, their lives ended much too early, forever frozen in memory at age 26, 35, or 40. But so easy to remember them being there at the Surf, to see them sitting in a familiar booth, laughing, dancing, listening to the cool call of the Big Band sound.
The band began to play "String of Pearls" and classmates danced once more to the music of our time. The dancing boy and I moved onto the floor, the ballroom floor where we danced our first dance. We didn't know then that in 2003 we would celebrate 47 years together, that dancing would leave us a little breathless, that our arms and legs would ache in a way they never had before.
That night, though, we felt loose and free and we danced. We jitterbugged like teenagers, we and our memories smoothly melded together on that beautiful ballroom floor. The same palm trees swayed on the stage, the same clouds floated over our heads as the dancing boy and I danced backward in time. We danced back past the births of our grandchildren, past marriages, past the death of parents; our dancing feet took us back past the births of our four children. We danced back, through the '80s, the '70s, the '60s. He spun me underneath his outstretched arm and it was 1955 once again.
The music of the band swelled and filled the ballroom. We circled the floor, danced past the booths, the two of us beneath the sky above, gliding over the gleaming dance floor. And it was back and forth, hand behind the back, a twirl, our hips moving, feet rising and rising again, and then he held me around the waist and dipped me to the floor.
Still so smooth, this dancing boy.
"And it is 1490 K-Memory, folks, and we're going to close out the hour with another golden oldies from the 1950s, 'Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing' by the Four Aces." He looks over at me with a certain smile and says, "It really takes you back, doesn't it?"
Sharon Hanson, 89BA in English, is an award winner in Iowa Alumni Magazine's 2003 nonfiction writing competition. Her name was Sharon Hensen when she met her dancing boy, Ronald Hanson, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Today, she and her husband live in Coralville, Iowa.