By Princess Ikatekit—
At a school social event, she waited for someone to ask her to dance, and wondered if she was too fat, too tall, too intimidating.
It wreaked hell on the nerves, waiting to be picked. The longer I waited for someone to ask me to dance, the more I became convinced that there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was too fat, too tall, too intimidating. Would I be less intimidating if I took my glasses off, lowered my chin, and removed the creases from my face? For a few minutes I tried this, arranging my face into a pleasant expression, and looking out hopefully. But this did not work. Many of the other girls standing by the wall disappeared, until only three or four of us remained untethered. Eventually, I sat down, returning the glasses to my face, and re-assuming my haughty expression. If no one would pick me, I would act as though dancing was beneath me.
Ironically, this was when a brave boy crossed the floor to ask me to dance. I danced to one song: my steps halting, shy, and barely coordinated; the boy too afraid to close the severe distance I imposed. When the song was over, he walked away quickly, and I returned to my seat.
The atmosphere in the dance hall, when we returned after lunch, was much more relaxed. We had been forced to interact by the placement of tables—several boys and girls to a single table—and so the food and conversation in the dining hall had done what a morning in a darkened hall with heightened expectations had not: it had brought us together. While we made our way from the dining hall to the dance/ main hall, many of the boys chucked off their jackets, and walked arm in arm with girls with whom they were suddenly supremely friendly.
I walked with my lunch date as well, genuinely engaging in a conversation that did not have unexpected stopgaps. In fact, we were still talking—back in the hall, with the music starting up in the background—when another boy came up to us. “Excuse me,” he said to me, “there’s someone who wants to speak to you outside.” “Who?” I asked, immediately curious. And the messenger replied, somewhat mischievously, as though he was sure I would like what I saw, “You’ll see when you get outside.” I excused myself, and made my way outside.
I found Emma waiting for me. We had met a couple of times, at school functions when we were both in O’Level. We had even exchanged letters, official ones, as Presidents of the Additional Maths clubs at our schools. Now, here he was, tall and newly mustached, casually dressed, watching me walk up to him with eyes that took in my outfit with one appreciative sweep, and then settled on my face with a warmth and directness that made me want to blush.
The hug, when it came, was tight, and lasted just a fraction too long for it to be merely friendly. While we talked—about whatever—I remembered, suddenly, all the stories I’d heard about girls who met their husbands at sosh. They found some magic, apparently, while talking and twirling on the dance floor, and they never looked back. There was none of this magic with Emma, but there was the potential of it. His open approval bolstered my confidence. It said to me that I was attractive, even desirable. It made me want to rise up and meet his expectations. When I left him about thirty minutes later to re-enter the hall—he could not enter with me, because he had refused to pay to attend the social—I was transformed.
I joined a group of guys and girls who were dancing in a large circle. Everyone was free-styling at first: some jutting hip movements, some sliding, some kicking and twirling, the occasional head-bobbing, but then suddenly a popular song came on. A South African number with synchronized dance-moves. All at once, we were all exuberant, moving into assorted formations, dipping, twisting, kicking, pumping, laughing, to show our pleasure, swinging from one dance partner to the other. It was fabulous. I had never felt more alive or carefree.
For the next hour or so, I continued to swing from one dance partner to the other. My moves were confident, unrestrained. I may have even flirted with a couple of my dance partners. Gradually, the importance of a social or a “formal” became clear to me (although I am only now able to articulate it): sosh was an opportunity for young guys and girls to begin to perceive their own desirability. There were rules to the social game: certain expectations about how you presented yourself and how you welcomed, or failed to welcome, new friendships. I would remember those rules later: at cocktail parties, work happy hours, and perhaps laughably, business conferences.
The first part of this essay was published last week.
Princess Ikatekit, born and raised in Uganda, is a writer and editor. She lives and works in New York City.
Photo: Tango in Black by Zabara Alexander