A strange man walks up to you, leans over, extends his hand, and asks if you’d like to dance.
Of course you would – that’s why you came. But since you arrived, you’ve been sitting on that hard chair against the wall or standing at the far end of the dance floor like a proverbial wallflower. Alone. Ignored. Forgotten. Sticking out like bright red lipstick on a heavily powdered corpse.
Some women can empathize and occasionally take pity on each other, taking a seat next to the ugly duckling. Befriending the outcast. Not sitting by yourself certainly helps. A few kind words can pull you off the fringe, bring you back to the strands of music. Still others are afraid to be associated with the garden pariah lest some of its repellent rub off on them, too. You know you should be proactive, initiate that conversation yourself, but you feel paralyzed – and the longer you wait, the stronger that paralysis. Heading for the exit signals defeat. Besides, everybody’s watching you. At least it feels that way. You feel beaten by 21st century mores that say it’s okay to oust the old, staid way of doing things and update dance etiquette with new attitudes that espouse equality in all things. For some of us that’s easier said than done. Being a wallflower can be truly stressful.
Despite the fact that wallflowers, the real ones, took their name from the old walls and rocks on which their kind grew, they were really quite sweet-smelling, delicate things, despite their lowly origins. Over time their name gradually became associated with women who, not having partners, remained on the fringes of the dance floor – watchers rather than participants, often through no fault of their own. Some were shy, introverted, unable to “put themselves out there” like those with freer spirits. Later the term was associated with unpopular females, those at times embarrassingly nondescript (think boring wallpaper that goes unnoticed), and later, with those who were more blatantly unwanted.
Poor things, no one ever asks them to dance.
You wonder if anyone will ever ask. And, of course, in the back of your mind is that outdated custom that keeps you from doing the asking yourself – men are supposed to do the asking. You feel sorry for yourself and know others are feeling sorry for you, too – and that, in some ways, make things worse. One dance segues into the next; you get edgy, squirm in your seat. Cross your legs, uncross them. Face one direction, then another. Fiddle with your shoe. Seek someone to exchange a few words with, anything to hide the discomfort you hope isn’t as obvious as it feels. You remain unclaimed. The last one picked for the team in a junior high gym class all over again.
You try not to stick out like the undesirable weed in a patch of Wordsworth’s dancing daffodils.
The question itself isn’t always asked, anyway. Sometimes the offer to dance comes nonverbally with an extended hand or an expectant look encompassing raised eyebrows that signal: Want to? Placing your hand in his, you rise from your place on that rock wall, relief washing over you.
Fortunately, things are better than they used to be, when, if you weren’t “coupled up,” you didn’t even get to go the dance.
Got a date? No. Oh, too bad.
Now girls are free to ask guys out or go with their girlfriends in a group. When Kearsti graduated from high school, she went to the prom with a bunch of her girlfriends – some of their guy friends did the same. It reminded me of a scene from West Side Story – the girls dancing together and the guys dancing in a pack opposite them. It’s certainly cheaper going “dutch,” where each person pays his or her own way. They used to call it “going stag” when guys went sans a date – I wonder what it’s called now, if anything. If there’s a word for girls doing the same thing, I’ve never heard it. “Unchaperoned” is so stilted and passé. So old-sounding.
These days it’s much easier for women to go alone and dance with whomever they choose, emphasis on “choose” – easier but still fraught with tension if you don’t know the person you’re asking to whirl you across the floor. This is not so, at least not as much so, for younger women, but those raised in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s often continue to have problems with the asking part. A woman I’ll call Jane told me that for her, it gets easier as the faces become familiar. But it does remain difficult for some of us to discard the mantle of “trashy,” “forward,” or “loose” that was forced upon girls who dared to call boy on the phone or ask him to dance in the not-so-way-back-when. Jane said the way around that was to ask a friend of the object of her desire to tell him to call her. Problem solved – if he called.
For those of us still shackled to those decades of repression, role reversal of this kind can still be daunting. Men undoubtedly have an easier time of it because the feeling that it’s always been the male’s role to do the asking continues to fill in the top line on a lot of dance cards, men’s and women’s alike. Yes, men get dance cards, too, these days – even if they are bandied about only in words.
And the men I spoke to tend to agree. The feeling that it’s their job to ask still lingers, and in general, they’re okay with that, though some still feel they “have to” do the asking because it’s expected – that “it’s their lot.” Though it’s a pretty old-school mode of thinking, it’s hard to move away from entirely, even now. Most men do, however, consider being asked now and then a nice change. And we’re talking here about men belonging to the same generation as the women I mentioned, those raised in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Though no one likes rejection, men, at least on the surface, don’t seem to internalize it the way women do. Either that, or they’re inured to it.
We wallflowers have come a long way, now more part of the “in” crowd than ever before. Even so, being left alone on those chairs along the wall still leaves a few of us feeling like a wart on a frog or the bruise on an apple that no one wants – wallflowers who are just as fragile and delicate as ever.
That will change over entirely as our generation dances off into the sunset because those behind us don’t feel compelled, as we did, to color within the lines. Their artwork knows no bounds – I have three granddaughters who are proof of that. They’ve been coloring outside the lines since they were born.
I wish my generation could have done the same.