by Ron Vitale
I recently attended my first dance--at the age of 42. Yes, you read that right. Trying something new isn't easy and facing a fear from my teenage years is even harder, but I did it and so can you. So how did this all happen? Back in the '80s when I was a teenager, I attended an all-boys Catholic high school. I wasn't a jock or popular and fell in with the geeky crowd. I liked Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons and astronomy. I did have friends, but none of us had girlfriends. Too afraid to ever go to a dance, I imagined what it might be like and decided that it wouldn't be right for me.
Define Your Fear
I have always been an introvert and on the Briggs Myers personality test I am an INFJ. Back when I was a teenager, I lived mostly in my head and without easy access to socialize with girls, going to a dance was the last thing on my mind so I always opted out. We didn't have much money and I had no desire to go. I believed that I was unlikeable and that girls would simply pass me by because I was a geek. Instead of putting myself through humiliation, I avoided difficult situations.
Yet if you asked me then, I would have told you that I chose not to go rather than I was afraid to go. One night when I was about 14 years old, I pulled my tiny telescope out and set it up across the street from the apartment we lived in. We lived in Northeast Philadelphia and there were street lights all around. I had begun experimenting with astrophotography, but I didn't have the right gear or experience. I simply had a red telescope that looked dorky. On a Friday night in the fall, I set it up and started looking at the stars. Instead of going to the dance, I chose to watch the stars. I remember seeing Jupiter and being impressed with what I could see with the telescope I had when I heard a car stop at the closest stop sign. Across from our apartment was a busy street. Inside the car were some guys and girls coming back from the dance. They had stopped to look at me and laugh. I ignored them, but went in soon afterward because I didn't want to be mocked by more kids coming back from the dance.
Believe in Yourself
Years passed and I opted out of every dance. When it came time for me to go to my proms, I chose not to go. For my Junior prom, I wouldn't have had anyone to ask. Going to an all-boys school really made things a challenge and the circles that I hung out in were all boys (or girls who tagged along as girlfriends to the boys I knew). Yet between my Junior and Senior year, things changed. I began to come out of my shell a bit and it was writing that saved me. I developed a crush on one of my teachers. And from that crush, I tapped into my imagination and, as part of a school assignment, I wrote her a novel. Not something that a 16 year old does every day, but it was right for me. I knew that I had this ability to dream up great things, but I was so insecure and unsure of myself that I did not know how to move forward or what steps to take.
I spent a lot of time writing, walking and listening to depressing '80s songs. Yet I had discovered something about myself: I realized that I had some talent and I just needed to develop it. I also learned that I could talk and had great empathy which made me interesting to girls. So after my heart was crushed over the summer of my Junior into Senior year of high school, that's when I started dating. My best friend in high school asked if I'd want to go out on a double date with him and I agreed. We decided to go to the movies and saw The Witches of Eastwick. My date and I could not have been more mismatched, but I believed in myself. She was 4'11" and I was 6'2". She had just graduated high school and I was going into my Senior year. I liked books and was intellectual and she was going to study accounting and didn't read much. Still, you have to start somewhere.
I remember a pivotal moment during the film: We shared the same armrest and I had let her rest her arm on it while I kept my hands in my lap. During the last part of the movie, I glanced over and took a risk. I gently rubbed my two fingers across her wrist--my not-so-subtle way to show her that I liked her. I risked it all. If I did that and she jerked her arm away, I was done. But if she liked it, well, wouldn't that be great? I faced my fear, touched her wrist ever-so-gently and she liked it. After the movie, I learned from my friend that the girls wanted to go make out in a parking lot behind the mall. I had scored. And for my first time at bat, I didn't do too bad.
When my Senior prom rolled around, I still didn't go because I didn't have the money and my girlfriend (same one from the movie) had already graduated high school so she had been to her proms. Time flew by, breakups took place, I dated other girls, more breakups and before I knew it I had missed all the opportunities to go to a dance. I've been to weddings, family parties and even danced at a Paris nightclub (getting the nickname "hyper hips") but I never truly attended a dance until I was 42.
It's Never Too Late
Last month my wife asked me if I wanted to go to my daughter's Father & Daughter dance. I said yes. My daughter, being only 5, was really excited about going. She picked her dress (black & pink) with matching stockings and asked if she could wear lipstick. I wore my suit and tie and we went in style. So much had changed from when I was a teenager. My fears had vanished because I had faced them, but now things were different. I walked into the gym and we saw all the dads and daughters milling about and heard the music blaring. My daughter started acting shy. I gave her time to warm up and we took pictures in the photo booth and then came back to the dance floor. Most dads hung around the edges of the gym watching their daughters dance like crazy. But a few dads were right up front, dancing with their daughter. They weren't good dancers, but they were trying. My daughter hung back and I asked her if she wanted to dance. In her little girl voice, she pulled me down to her level and said, "Daddy, I'm afraid."
I smiled and grabbed her hand and told her that we should try to dance. Yes, it would be scary in the beginning but after a few minutes we would be fine. Plus, I would be with her. And so we moved right up front and I danced, like a uncoordinated fool, with a few other dads. At 42 I had finally arrived at my first dance, but more importantly, my daughter went to hers. We danced the night away, participated in learning how to swing dance (she loved me swinging her under me and up and over) and we even did the Cha-Cha slide. All in all a great night. A great night to face my own childhood fears and help my daughter with hers.Ron Vitale is the author of Lost and Stolen from the Cinderella's Secret Diaries young adult fantasy series who hopes that his daughter will grow up to find her own voice and not allow others to dictate who and what she can be.