“. . . the Twist, the Stomp, the Mash Potato too . . .”

Chris Montez1 had it right. “Any old dance that you wanna do.” When I was 13 at Holton-Richmond Junior High2, attending class in wooden desks with dried-up ink wells, I used to go to the school dances that happened third Friday each month. They were called “mixers,” because that’s what the girls and boys were supposed to do. Mix with adults gaping on. Of course not many of us did. The concept of a sock hop, with minimal supervision and an outta sight disk jockey, was yet to be in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Teen Dancer (photographer unknown)

Ronald Costa was my schoolmate in Division 818. He wasn’t a “Ron” or a “Ronnie,” just “Ronald.” He was always friendly and smiley to me, particularly after tests when no one else was. “Hey Pete, what did you get on number two?” Physically, he was large and a bit paunchy, not quite fat but not in any way athletic. Like the kid in this picture, he wasn’t what anyone would call “good-lookin'”.

But he had a gift that we could only dream about, we wisecrackers, teacher mockers, and rough-and-tumble recess warriors.

In the screaming words of Billy Gordon of The Contours3, Ronald could “really shake ’em down.”

Whenever a fast song came on, he would get out on the dance floor and gyrate. He seized control in a matter of seconds. He set the tone and everyone else fell into line and did whatever  he called out. The song playing didn’t even have to be the one about the dance. He just did whatever he’d seen on American Bandstand4 that week. And he could do them all. The Watusi, the Locomotion, the Swim. He frugged by holding his feet together and moving his hips right and left. He shimmied and shook his shoulders back and forth while holding his body nearly still. He even hitchhiked, wagging his thumb as if flagging down a car.

This talent made him immensely popular with the girls, who flocked to him like crows to corn. At one dance I attended, they all lined up to Bristol Stomp5 with him. Had there been dance contests back then, regional dance contests, Ronald would have won them all. No question.

I was immensely jealous. More jealous than I ever been of anyone, even my favorite miler, Roger Bannister6.

It’s not that none of us could dance. I’d attended Dorothy Darling’s Dance Studio for three solid years, and one semester when I was in high school. I learned the waltz and fox trot but that didn’t mean I could dance. Ronald was in another category altogether. When he cut loose, he lost himself. What he had was passion and every bit of it eluded us. For us who tried, it slipped from our grasp. We might as well have been fishing with bare hands. Here is the first lesson I should have learned from Ronald Costa: Get down on your knees and beg! “Teach me how. I’ll be your friend forever.” But I didn’t. I was way too dumb.

Ronald could also slow dance. Close slow dance, the kind my mother called “hugging set to music.” It wasn’t cheek to cheek, but Ronald gave it another name, “head-to-head.” Later that year, I finally landed my own girlfriend, Elizabeth Atkinson. I tried to head-to-head with her but she pushed me away, shaking her cute blonde head or maybe even her finger, I don’t quite remember. She’d have none of it, for she was Catholic.

That’s a second lesson I should’ve learned earlier from this master of teen dance. Make sure the girl you’re twisting with is godless.

The last time I saw Ronald Costa was at the Holten-Richmond Junior High Cotillion Dance that May. He was mostly subdued because hey, it was a slow dance affair. At the end, someone snuck on the album 12 Top Teen Dances7 and  dropped the needle on “Do The New Continental.” Nobody knew that one, except of course Ronald. By the next cut, everybody knew it.

I tried finding him on the Internet recently, but there were just too many. I even Googled “Costa Dance Studio” and got zilch. Then I gave up. I really didn’t want to find him. Who would he be? A man like my father who used his bizarre skill to land the girl of his dreams, only to hang it up until the next wedding came around? I preferred the permanent adolescent, the boy in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance” who had “his summer” before the Great Dane of obligation started gnawing on his dancin’ shoes. Kids like Ronald Costa sometimes blaze through our lives like summer fireworks, all red and green and loud with the “ahhhh’s” of the crowd. In rare cases, the residue they leave behind actually sticks.

4 thoughts on ““. . . the Twist, the Stomp, the Mash Potato too . . .””

  1. Oh Peter,

    You really brought it “back home” in that post! I was a few years behind you, but I swear I can hear “Little Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys. Is that me I see applying Sears Weather Beater Industrial Strength black mascara in the girls’ room mirror and hoping “That Boy” invites me to slow dance.

  2. That’s a great story. In junior high school I actually determined that I would learn to dance. And I did learn a few basic cha-cha and mambo steps. I could even do a lindy, with a couple of twirls. I could not throw my partner between my legs, though. And I don’t think I learned a single named dance other than the twist. I couldn’t Stroll around the floor, not at all. At least I had gotten ahead of the minimal square-dancing I’d learned as part of the “Savoir Faire” initiative in elementary school. (I could allemande left and do-si-do my partner, at least.) I had a brief period of vanity where I actually danced in front of a mirror to see if I was completely graceless or not. But my dancing was at least good enough to gain the attention of Joanne Beech, who, amazingly enough was a cheerleader. I was, at people say, way out of me league. After a few weeks, though, she turned to me and said she could no longer see me because I was Jewish, and it was an order from her priest. I have no idea if this was a convenient truth, a total lie, or another kind of invention.

    It wasn’t until later, when the rowdy “boys” lunch table I sat at was broken up, and we were disbursed individually to girls’ lunch tables, that I learned about other kinds of girls, and that Marilyn Abish, for one, told damned good dirty jokes. I”m sure she’d deny it if I ever were to come across her.

  3. Peter, this is an absolutely wonderful essay.
    It could appear in a top magazine like well I don’t know who does this kind of short personal thing, but anyway I have the feeling you just let it flow out without too much self-consciousness.
    What is good about it is that it takes people back to how they felt and the way things were like in those adolescent days. And you name all the dances, you name the very specific way the guy danced, and how you felt, and you have a little bit of humor about the girl Elizabeth and so on. So your essay is the complete package.
    And it’s smooth, flowing, and basically unflawed.
    Very, very nice! It’s the entry that you’ve written in your blog that I’ve enjoyed the most, and it had an emotional nostalgic impact. Because it’s so personal and authentic.
    “Take me back …wah …wah… [shimmy, shimmy]…”

  4. How fun to hear the names of those old dances I’d completely forgotten, and to recall the awkward mixers that predated high school house parties slow dancing to Johnny Mathis and mostly trying to avoid body contact. And I agree it’s better to remember Ron Costa in his glory. Enjoyed reading this, Peter!

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