One, Two, Cha-Cha-Cha
Learning the dance of life
By Mamie Potter
Mr. and Mrs. Guyes were the tallest parents in the neighborhood. Mrs. Guyes had dark eyes and blond hair sprayed and teased to frame her high cheekbones. Mr. Guyes’ hair was thick and black. They were always tanned. They owned an upscale clothing store where they greeted us by name. Their children — a boy and girl — were quiet and well-behaved, thin and tall like their parents. They were the only Jewish people I knew.
The Guyes’ house — what would now be showcased as a Mid-Century Modern — was merely an anomaly among the ’50s’ split-levels and three-bedroom ranches on our street. It was one-story, long and sleek, where our houses were solid and functional with basements or bomb shelters. The siding was mahogany-colored in a neighborhood of “Mint Green” and “Sunshine Yellow” houses. The interior was filled with white leather couches that stayed white, and glass tables with no fingerprints.
Our yard had a swing set and places where the red North Carolina clay and four-leaf clover thrived. The Guyes’ backyard was full of azaleas, flowers that seemed to grow year-round and endless green grass.
That summer I was twelve and a half. Has there ever been a more self-conscious creature than a 12-year-old girl? All my limbs felt too long, my elbows and knees bony as a newborn giraffe’s. My face and breasts broke out at the same time, and I obsessed about getting rid of the pimples while I rubbed my breasts because I’d heard it would make them grow.
One night my parents were having drinks on the Guyes’ patio. We never had people over for drinks on the patio — we didn’t have a patio. While the other children played in our yard, I hung around the adults as only adolescent girls do. I snuck looks at my mom, perched precariously on the Guyes’ privacy fence, spilling a little of her martini and laughing in a way I’d never heard her laugh before. I was embarrassed for her — she was being so silly. I wanted her to act like she did at home.
Music came from unseen speakers. Mr. and Mrs. Guyes started dancing. Mr. Guyes would pull her close, then she’d twirl away, waving one elegant hand in the air, her linen sheath setting off her slim brown legs. I’d never seen grown-ups dance except on television. I worried that my mother and father would start dancing too. I sat at the edge of the patio, ready to leave if they did.
Mrs. Guyes said something to her husband. They stopped dancing, and he walked over to where I sat and reached out his hand. “Would you like to learn the cha-cha?” he said.
I was horrified that anyone was paying attention to me, but the idea of dancing with this very tall, very imposing grown-up? Out of the question.
“No, sir, but thank you,” I said, standing, my face on fire, one foot headed toward the safety of my house. But my dad said, “Come on, Mamie, be a sport!” I never, ever wanted to disappoint my dad, so I let Mr. Guyes lead me by the hand. My palms were sweaty, and my face, if possible, redder.
Mr. Guyes took me through the steps. As I cha-chaed my way around the patio, all of my awkwardness disappeared. I even twirled, pivoting on Mr. Guyes’ hand, delighted at my gracefulness. I never wanted the dance to be over.
But the song ended, and everyone clapped. I said a quick goodbye and ran home.
For months afterward, I practiced the cha-cha in our basement, finding the beat in almost every song.
Mr. Guyes died late last year, and the memory came back to me: the white concrete patio that led to the cool interior of the house, my mom laughing on the fence, and my 12-year-old body moving gracefully through the hot summer night air. OH
Mamie Potter, a Greensboro native, returns often to visit relatives, cruise her old haunts, and sit quietly at Green Hill Cemetery.