Sometimes, when the hour is late and I’m too tired to read but too awake to sleep, and the dishes are done and the dog is walked, and the house is quiet and the downstairs is all mine, I make lists: girls I’ve kissed, cars I’ve owned, movies I’ve sneaked into. Sometimes I type them out on my computer screen, sometimes I just lie down on my sofa, dog’s head in my lap, and close my eyes and click through a slide show. They soothe me, these lists, reel back in some of the years and make me feel a little better about the ones rushing toward me. But there’s one list I start every now and again but can’t bring myself to finish, because I don’t like how it ends, and that’s great dances—not dances like the conga or Lindy hop or Macarena, but great moments of dancing in my own life.
Always on the list: The Junior Informal, eleventh grade, my date’s already ditched me, but Heather O’Reilly (just a friend) slides into the picture and saves the night for me, facing me and rocking hard as the most excellent cover band plays “Love Shack” by the B-52s. Freshman year of college, after a long night of play rehearsal, the cast of Equus heads over at midnight to a dance in progress, where Juliette McGinley and I hit the floor and lock eyes just as Kurt Cobain tears in the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Senior year, a week before graduation, basement of an off-campus house inhabited by members of the girls’ swim team, the floor is beer-sticky and the lights are low and Nazareth’s version of “Love Hurts” comes over the speakers and I pull Sandy Rhee into a slow dance that we’re just drunk enough to commit to.
(Names changed, but not much.)
But then the list thins out, sometime around 1996, just as I graduate. For the years afterward, I can summon a couple boogie-woogie nights—the Class of ’96 tore up the dance floor something respectable at our twentieth reunion, thank you very much—but for the most part all the best dancing of my life is in the past. I had more sweaty, all-in, groove-thang-shaking nights in my teenage years than in the lengthening shadow of time ever since.
The exception? Weddings and bar mitzvahs, of course. Why just last Saturday night my friend Stephanie got married, and my friend Liel made me do some vodka shots, and the most excellent cover band was playing Beyoncé and Bruno Mars and mother-lovin’ Earth Wind and Fire, and there I was, on the dance floor, and it was like I was fourteen again, and eighteen, and twenty-one. And because there’s no Oppenheimer as happy as a dancing Oppenheimer (this being true of my father and brothers and sister, too, but not my mother, the gene being in fact an Oppenheimer gene), I was left to wonder: Why, in American culture, do adults only dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs?
There are other questions I could ask, such as: Do Catholics dance at First Communions? What about Pentecostals who believe it’s sinful to dance but who sway something mighty when they pray—does that count? Why do we not dance at a bris? But for now, let’s just state that adult Jews dance only at weddings and at bar and bat mitzvahs, while Christians and Hindus and everyone else dance at weddings only. (Unless, that is, one is in rave culture. And, speaking for everyone I know, one is not.) And this is because we no longer know partner dances, and even if we knew the Lindy hop or the tango or the waltz, we would have nowhere to go, unless we knew the polka and there was the right kind of festival nearby. And besides, I don’t want to do partner dances. I want to dance to “Love Shack” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Love Hurts” and “September.”
And right now, because I don’t wish second weddings on any of my friends and don’t believe in excellent cover bands for bar or bat mitzvahs, I fear that, except in my kitchen while on pause from making salad, with my iPhone turned up to 11, I will never dance again. And that gets me sad. Which is why, even as it’s now 12:06 in the morning and although still hung over from the wedding two nights ago I can’t fall asleep, I can’t bring myself to make a list of the great dances in my life.