Dancing with the Stripes


It’s our first night aboard; Jack and I are assigned to a table of eight in the elegant formal dining room. Our group consists of four couples from different parts of the country, and all of us are celebrating 50th anniversaries. All eight of us are retired and we connect quickly. We share common interests, are well traveled, fit and active for our ages, and look forward to being with one another each night at dinner. The only difference is that Jack and I go dancing in the lounge after dinner while the others go to the casino to gamble.

 

Early in the cruise a dance competition is announced for later in the week. Eight ship’s officers who can dance will partner eight passengers. The ship’s version is called Dancing with the Stripes.

When my new table friends learn that I am a former dancer, a retired dance teacher who chaired dance programs at several universities and has taught ballroom dance for cruise lines in years past, one of the men suggests, “Well, MM, I hope that we get to see you in the dance contest!”

“No way! Absolutely not! I’m much too old to attempt that. I loved my career as a dancer and dance teacher, but am always sad when I see dancers who don’t know when it was time to quit performing. In my salad days, I had standards. I still do. Let’s face it, no one wants to watch an old broad struggling to stay vertical.”

 

The evening of the contest, our group claims a big table near the dance floor and orders a round of drinks. The cruise director draws names from a big bowl. I am surprised to hear “MM from Houston!”

Surprised is an understatement. I am frankly horrified and acutely aware that I’m not dressed for a ballroom evening. That night I dressed casual, wearing black leggings, black flats, and my husband’s yellow dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I tried to dress up the very comfortable sporty ensemble by wearing an orchid lei I bought in Maui and I look like an over-age teenager starring in Gidget Does Hawaii.

My group howls with glee at my incredulous expression. One of the men at our table pulls reluctant “little ol’ me” out of my chair and gently pushes me toward the dance floor.

 

Welcoming me to that arena is my partner, Ricardo. He is a handsome thirty-something ship’s officer, standing tall and erect in his crisp dark uniform with stripes on his cuffs and epaulets. A real doll! I apologize to the young officer from Colombia that I wasn’t what he hoped for; he deserves someone younger and cuter for a partner.

I look up to him and ask, “Have you ever competed in this dance contest before?”

“Oh, yes. I‘ve entered five times but never even made it to the finals.” He really wants to win. I feel for him.

“Okay then, Ricardo! Let’s go for it! I know it’ll be like dancing with your grandmother, but I’m an experienced dancer and will give it my best shot.”

 

The ship’s format is similar to the TV show Dancing with the Stars. There are three expert judges, a band on stage and an audience on three sides of a large ballroom floor. Numbers are pinned on our backs, and the exuberant cruise director takes center stage with much fanfare.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for our fabulous contestants.” The audience applauds on cue. “These couples will now demonstrate their dancing skills by performing eight dances.”

 

I try not to look shocked, but eight dances with a new partner? What? With no practice? Come on! They’ve got to be kidding!

I think, “Hope the ship’s doctor is close at hand.”

The band plays the Tea for Two Cha Cha. Ricardo and I lock eyes and smile. Then we assume the Latin closed dance position and begin. “Okay, MM, elbows and “knockers” up! It‘s show time!”

I am pleasantly surprised at Ricardo’s partnering skills in the Cha Cha. It is one of my favorite dances so I let go and begin to demonstrate that my hips still know how to move, and that I have been around the dance floor more than once. After that, we do the Rumba and Mambo.

While dancing the Mambo, I glance over at one of the other couples. They look like they are involved in some kind of primitive combat using fists and stomps. They don’t have a clue about what a Mambo should be. Their inability gives me additional confidence and new hope.

We make the cut. We are now left on the dance floor with only five other couples.

 

The next dance is the Jitterbug. My husband and I love this dance, and over the years, heads turned when we danced it. It is a great dance to teach, and Ricardo follows my lead as I do the “slow, slow, quick, quick” basic step. My flat shoes turn out to be a good thing. With the basic step mastered, we take off with several exuberant vintage variations as the band gives homage to Glenn Miller’s In the Mood.

Even though I am much older than the other dancers on the floor, I am pleased that I can still turn on some pizazz. Yippee for us! We are doing well so we make the cut again. Just four couples left. Not bad at all.

My husband is beaming and friends at our table are clapping and cheering for Ricardo and me. The crowd seems to enjoy seeing couples grappling with space and rhythm. I think that it is probably the same thrill that some get while watching a demolition derby.

 

“Next, dancers, please show us the Tango!”

The band strikes up a very sensual rendition of Besamé Mucho; we command the dance floor with pretentious flair. The slower tempo enables us to ham it up; we take the tango to a new, over-the-top dramatic level.

The next dance is the Waltz. Oh my! It is not Ricardo’s forté. He just can’t find the beat. Uh-oh! We are in trouble!

My dance teacher mentality takes control. I perform a ventriloquist skill, not moving my lips while I smile and utter, “One, two three, One two three, One two three. Follow me, Ricardo. Stay on the beat!” To his credit, Ricardo has the good sense to follow Mama. We get through it with only few missteps. We are still here. WOW! Only two couples left! My heart is beating so hard I think it is going to explode. Talk about a cardio workout!

 

The competitive tension builds and the lounge fills to capacity with people standing wherever they can find space. It is an actual “Standing Room Only” event.

The cruise director takes center stage and makes a big deal of the next announcement: “And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Celebrity Star Finals of The Dancing with the Stripes contest. Let’s hear it for MM from Houston and Ricardo.” Thunderous applause. My group stands and yells, “You go girl” and “Knock ‘em dead, MM.”

“And now for Cindy from Omaha and Robert.” More applause, but I think not quite as much as ours. Of course that might be due to my competitive spirit and wishful thinking.

“And now, the last two couples will perform two dances for us. First is the Disco.”

 

Dammit. Ricardo wasn’t even alive during the Disco era. The band belts out the song made famous by Gloria Gaynor in the ‘70s, I Will Survive. How appropriate! Oh well, what the hell? MM, just do it!”

I rely on kinetic memory from 40 years ago and really “put out.” Ricardo follows me like a happy puppy. We are doing astonishingly well. Shades of Saturday Night Fever. It almost doesn’t matter that I feel a groin muscle pop while “dipping.” The show must go on.

The Disco is both exhilarating and exhausting. Once finished, I prop myself up against the stage and try not to hyperventilate. I’m sweating bullets and my mascara is starting to drip, but my adrenaline is pumping. Onward!

 

“And now our final dance… Country Western.” I am so relieved. I can dig up all sorts of simple square dance and Country Western dance motifs that won’t be life-threatening.

Nice wish, but my partner now sees himself as a combination of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fred Astaire. While I am happy he is feeling confident, I almost die when he proposes, “Let’s go aerial!”

Aerial? AERIAL? No way! What is he thinking? Ricardo has forgotten that I am a woman of a certain age. This old dancer hasn’t left the ground in over 30 years. Now this partner is going to attempt death-defying skills. Oh my God!

Soon his hands are on my waist, and he lifts me in to the air. I go up, Up, UP! I have to watch that my head doesn’t hit the mirror ball hanging over the dance floor. The climax of Boot Scootin’ Boogie is building to a mighty crescendo, and the audience is on its feet clapping and whistling. I hope the ship has a defibrillator nearby.

When my feet finally hit the floor again, Ricardo begins a spinning turn that goes on for eternity. I hold on to him for dear life and am so glad when I hear the music end. We are both still alive and breathing.

Ricardo is so proud that I swear he has added three inches to his six-foot stature. He keeps on hugging me. “Oh MM, your face is beet red!  Are you okay? Here, take my coat.”

He removes his officer’s coat and drapes it around my shoulders, probably something he has learned in First Aid to prevent aging victims from going into shock. What a sweet boy! His mother has raised him right.

The judges confer, and the audience yells “THREE.” Our number. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the winners of the Dancing with the Stripes Competition are MM and Ricardo!”

 

The ship’s captain comes forth to present THE BIG PRIZE. With all the noise, I can’t quite understand what the captain is saying as I accept my prize. When I look at it, my jaw drops! Such a monumental disappointment! A lousy Celebrity Cruise Lines T-shirt!  Unbelievable! I am experiencing painful damage to my aging musculature and almost expire, and all for a crummy cotton T-shirt?

Ricardo notices my dismay at the prize. He gives me a squeeze and whispers, ”Don’t worry, MM. You and your husband will be my guests for a fancy Champagne dinner tomorrow night.”

I truly love Champagne! Ricardo’s generous gift suddenly makes the whole evening worth the effort. I reach up and give the dear boy a motherly kiss on the cheek, and look to the heavens. There is a God! I survived to drink Champagne!

 

As Jack and I leave the ballroom, my tablemates, other passengers, and the crew treat me like I am a celebrity; still, I need to attend to my throbbing groin muscle without further adieu. “Can you find me a bag of ice?” I ask one of the waiters He runs to the kitchen and returns with a twenty-pound bag.

I laugh and thank him. “Oh my. That should do it.”

My supportive husband carries the huge bag of ice and helps me limp back to our cabin. I barely make it to the bed, where I collapse without bothering to undress. He tucks me in with the entire big sack of ice wrapped in a towel.

Jack bends down, gives me a pleasant kiss, and says, “You are an amazing woman.”

 


Author’s Comment:  Dance in all its forms has been important my entire life. Even as a toddler, I loved to dance with my father and would accompany my parents to dances. My unexpected participation in the Dancing with the Stripes contest provided me with a humorous story that friends encouraged me to share. As a wife, I view my husband’s simple statement at the end of the evening to be the best prize of all. As a writer, I consider his comment to be an epilogue to my winning an exhausting dance contest with a dashing young ship’s officer.

Mary Martha Lappe was born in Texas. She chaired dance departments at three universities, and was one of the founders of Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts. She was named the National Distinguished Teacher of the Arts, the Outstanding High School Teacher in Texas and the Coca-Cola National Distinguished Teacher of the Arts. On three occasions, she was named Presidential Distinguished Teacher and was honored at the White House by three U. S. presidents.

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20 thoughts on “Dancing with the Stripes

  1. Richard Cook

    Gads, I feel honored that I have personally danced with such a distinguished and recognized dancer and teacher. I know you wowed em at the contest MM, and aside from being such an accomplished dancer you are a terrific writer. Your account of the dance contest was humorous and very interesting. It’s been such a pleasure to have known you for such a long time because you are such fun to be around. What an exciting life you and Jack have had. Congratulations!
    Richard

  2. michael warren

    we met MM and Jack at a party last night, and were charmed for hours. I am by no means a qualified critic, but can only
    hope she writes more about her amazing life. This ole’ Texas gal can work it! That will not offend her- we told each other “nose” jokes over wine.
    PS
    Jack’s a great guy, too, but admitted he left the paperwork to his wife. A fantastic duo!

  3. Francesca Redwine

    Loved reading this! Witty, well-written, and I loved the ending. What a cool husband Mrs. Lappe has, and how lucky he is to have such a cheery, smart partner — who’s obviously a terrific dancer too! I’ve been on several cruises but never saw anything as fun as this must’ve been for everyone. Looking forward to seeing more from this humorous writer.

  4. ruth housman

    I truly stopped listening and dancing to the music of U2 when I saw this piece and began reading. BRAVO! I would have loved to have seen you and Ricardo on that dance floor. I bet that champagne was bubbly and good!

  5. janis wheeler

    absolutely a fun read! Had me engrossed until the end when I was laughing so hard I had to wipe my eyes! Great storyteller! Great story!

  6. Donna Trott Zurborg

    How fun!! Your description captured every step, turn, and lift. Loved your description. I must say after knowing you almost 60 years, I was not a bit surprised. Keep on dancing, traveling, and loving life. You might consider keeping Jack around, too. Hope to see you again soon.

  7. Joan Murrin

    What a fun and inspiring story! The wit and energy of the author are present in every sentence. MM, I hope you keep on dancing AND WRITING!

  8. Rosann Cox

    I have had the privilege of enjoying many of your adventures in person, but your description of your award winning performance with Ricardo is so typical of your response to a challenge. Little did Ricardo know that he was about to become famous at the hands (and feet) of one of the funniest and most determined women (what’s a little groin pain) in existence! Please keep these wonderful stories coming–the world needs you to remind us to take time to laugh. Jack is right–you ARE amazing!

  9. Kathryn Priest

    “Dancing with the Stripes” is not only more fun than a Carol Burnett sketch, the language and descriptions are so vivid, you feel as if you were on the dance floor yourself and getting the workout of your life. MM is obviously not only an indefatigable dancer, but also a most talented writer.

  10. Karin Shipman

    I would like to congratulate Mary Martha Lappe who wrote “Dancing with the Stripes.” Her voice is so clear— I can just hear her talking and laughing; she has such a great personality—having fun; a real go-getter—eight dances!!! All of this shows through her choice of words and fast paced narrative. Just a wonderful piece! Good writer!!

  11. Mary Jane Orsburn

    I love the image of you in casual dress and your partner in uniform setting the dance floor on fire! What a pair! Reading your story was just like being there, and I enjoyed every moment.

  12. Joanne DeVivo

    What a fun article. The author’s visual description was so well written. Hope she has many more personal, very funny, stories to thrill us with in future articles.

  13. Kathy Yandell

    Wore me out! I’ve danced a dance or two in my life, but cannot imagine an all-nighter! Congrats on winning and keeping up with your dashing partner (or did he keep up with you). Great story and I got some good chuckles out of it. Keep dancing, keep writing and keep that husband.

  14. Sally Roden

    A delightful story. A very creative and engaging storyteller. I felt the competition and suspense grow with the dances so I could imagine what was needed on the dance floor to “one up” and win. From the authors choice of words, I could feel the lift, the spin, and see the sweat and hear the gasp for breath. A very humorous story for us “old” folks. Good job, Mary Martha, keep dancing and I hope to read more from you.

  15. Mary McGarr

    Nicely suspenseful! Felt like I was there watching too. Couldn’t wait to see if you won the contest.

    Your way with words is captivating.

    Glad you have such a supportive husband.

  16. Bob Singleton

    Thank you Mary Martha for your wonderful retelling of your cruise dance experience. I felt like I was at your side, hearing your voice, as you told your story to us fellow teachers. Joe and I had just returned from a five night cruise ourselves and could imagine you dancing on the floor of one of the ship’s lounges. Next time you and Jack go on a cruise, please let us know, because cruising with you two would certainly be a once in a lifetime delight!

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