Picture perfect…well, sort of
One evening each week, dozens of boys in cuffed jeans and white T-shirts and girls in poodle skirts and ponytails gathered in the El Roble gym to dance the Jitterbug, the Cha-Cha, the Twist and the Drake, set to a soundtrack of 1950s hits.
Contrary to appearances, there was no time machine involved in this blast-to-the-past. Instead, it was just another night in a longstanding dance class taught by retired Claremont High School show team coach Michele Allen. The program, which is offered through the El Roble PFA and which Ms. Allen has led since the late 1980s, allows kids on the brink of their teenage years to have fun and blow off steam while learning to engage with the opposite sex.
Participants get instruction in genres like ballroom dancing and the tango and dress up for themed evenings like Western and Fifties nights. For the latter, Ms. Allen—clad in a polka-dot circle skirt, a red cardigan and matching scarf and well-worn saddle shoes –cut a nonstop rug and kept up an energetic patter while teaching the moves of yesteryear as well as a bit of good old-fashioned etiquette.
“You are kings of the dance floor,” she exhorted the boys at one point. “Remember guys, if you don’t get this, your girls are going to go nuts!”
Later, Ms. Allen neatly broke down the Twist, while demonstrating her own proficiency to the strains of a Chubby Checker number. “You put your right foot forward and your left foot back and the idea is, when your body is going right, your arms are going left.”
The most important rule in the classes is that everybody has a partner. Sometimes the boys ask the girls to dance, and other times it’s “ladies choice.” Often, as the kids dance in a huge circle around the gym’s perimeter, they are instructed to swap partners.
“You’ve got such a Heinz 57 combination of students that you won’t see at school,” Ms. Allen said, gesturing to the current permutation of paired boys and girls.
While 12-year-old Jack Latham was busy learning the Jitterbug, his mother, Lee Kane, took a moment to share her appreciation for Ms. Allen’s perennially popular dance class, which she said is “wonderful.”
“The first night, she told the boys, ‘The girls are like dainty little flowers and you have to take care of them.’ I was kind of like, ‘Ugh,’” Ms. Lee said, pretending to gag herself with her finger. “But actually, the boys tend to go in the opposite direction, so it’s good. And the girls aren’t used to that kind of treatment.”
The dance class provides another incongruous sight, along with the vision of 12- and 13-year-old boys behaving with unaccustomed gentility.
“You get some very interesting height disparities,” Ms. Lee noted.
Alex Hutzell, a 15-year-old CHS student who participated in the dance class when she was in junior high, was on hand Thursday to cheer on her brother and indulge her nostalgia for Fifties Night, which was one of the highlights of her El Roble career.
“I love Ms. Allen—she’s so enthusiastic,” Alex said, straightening the skirt of a yellow prom-style dress more than a little reminiscent of the Happy Days era. “She loves everybody and she dances with all the boys. It’s real fun.”
The dance class provided a helpful icebreaker for her when it came to interacting with boys, and it seems to be proving equally beneficial for her brother.
“You dance with everyone more than once, and it kind of breaks you out of your shell,” Alex said. “My brother’s really shy and this class lets him meet a lot of girls and dance with them.”
Another guest enjoying the ‘50s flashback was Richard Fass, jokingly that among the Dance Committee moms on hand, he was the “token dad.”
He admitted that his 8th-grade daughter, Allegra, was slightly appalled at the prospect of her dad chaperoning her dance class. Nonetheless, Mr. Fass said that seeing her take to the floor in a blue poodle skirt, a blue-dyed streak in her ponytailed hair serving as the only indication that she didn’t hail from the nifty ‘50s, was a real treat.
“I graduated from high school in 1960, so this is my thing,” he said.
It wasn’t just the retro fashions and the music, which included tunes like Gene Vincent’s 1958 hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” that had Mr. Fass traveling down memory lane.
“I remember when all of the girls were taller than us. It’s an awkward 2 years, but they don’t care,” he said. “Also, if you look around, half the kids have braces. It’s the age of braces.”
Along with smooth moves, Fifties Night featured a photo shoot, contests for “Best Greaser” and “Best Ponytail,” plus punch and cookies. How did 8th grader Ryan Hutzell get that slicked-back greaser look?
“I don’t know. It’s my sister’s hair gel,” he said.
One girl, who was wearing her grandmother’s flip-style wig, only had time to give her first name, Kamaria, before returning to twisting.
“I love this dance class. It’s such a cultural experience to learn all the dances,” she said.
Dance Committee member Shannon Heck, who wore her own poodle skirt while helping chaperone her 8th-grade daughter Abby Heck, considers Ms. Allen’s class the ideal way for boys and girls to dance their way toward mutual comfort. `
“School dances are dark and loud and there’s no direction, and Ms. Allen is so spunky,” Ms. Heck said. “Here, they’re not dancing inappropriately. They’re dancing nicely and learning to interact with the opposite sex.”