The Disco Dancing Competition of 1977

Most people, if offered the chance to time travel, might choose to witness firsthand a climactic moment in history, a formative event from their own life, or maybe even the instant when Harry Burnett Reese created the formula for his now-famous Peanut Butter Cups (April 17, 1928, if you’re curious). However, I truly believe that, given this opportunity to be anywhere at any point in time, my wife would dismiss all of those seemingly more exciting options for a chance to go back to 1978, to the Moorestown Mall in Moorestown, New Jersey so she should observe an episode that has until now only lived in her imagination - my participation in a “Disco Dancing Competition” sponsored by a local dance music station.

I had three moves, all cribbed from part of an episode of Three’s Company, as well as the performers on Solid Gold, a popular but cheesy television show at of the era that showcased this kind of music.

I was new to living in south Jersey that year, so I was already fumbling around to get some kind of foothold in the area. A way to make a name for myself. The child I chose to admire was a classmate of mine named Fred Gerth. Fred was an unremarkable child visually, except for his tongue, which bore a deep crevice down the center - deeper than most humans, because (as I heard him explain many times)

it would completely split twice a year. I accepted this without question, even though I know now that would have made him a likely candidate for a Snake-Man job at the local carnival. To me, Fred was the epitome of cool. And Fred loved disco dancing - the kid could really move, and he entertained the class many times with his sweet, funky moves.

I’ve always been into rock, and even at age seven I aspired to be the world’s biggest Kiss fan. Yet, I felt a magnetic pull toward anything that would set me apart, and for this brief period of time, it was disco. I’m still feeling the shame.

So when I heard a local radio station was having a big disco dancing competition in the Moorestown Mall, I begged my mother to take me. She complied, possibly for the laugh potential. I practiced my core moves for weeks, picked out a tight black outfit (not quite parachute pants, but close), and psyched myself up for the big day.

My mother shuttled me to the mall that Saturday afternoon, and we found the roped-off competition zone in the center of the mall - the most heavily traveled area. The music was already playing and my competition was already grooving on the floor. The crew from the radio station presided over the scene and kept the excitement level high, there were “spotters” on the floor looking for talent, and a crowd was gathered on all sides. I felt the energy – I was the energy, baby!

Unfortunately, my then-hero young Mr. Gerth was not there. I felt strange being there without someone else I knew to talk to (or dance with, at least), but I’d built the event up so much in my mind that I couldn’t back down. After I’d been given my competitor’s sticker (it fit nicely across my back), I asked my mother to leave me so I could work the floor. She did so, though she was probably lurking just a few stores away, hoping to watch her son do the family proud.

That never occurred, though, because when it came to dancing, I sucked big ones. I had a tough time just getting onto the floor - going from standing to dancing was probably a little less difficult for me than if I had to jump out of a plane while skydiving over an active volcano. I watched the other participants for several minutes, and I had a few false starts before one of the station’s crew slapped me on the back, gently pushing me onto the floor while saying, “Go on, get in there and show us what you’ve got!” With a tentative lunge, I stepped beyond the velvet ropes and... I was dancing.

Or sort-of-dancing. I had three moves, all cribbed from part of an episode of Three’s Company, as well as the performers on Solid Gold, a popular but cheesy television show at of the era that showcased this kind of music. And so, my dance move toolbox consisted of:

#1 - The Arm-Pointing Move. Right arm from lower left to upper right, then back again for several reps. Then I’d flip it around with the other hand. I also tried to move my head to look in the direction I was pointing, but sometimes I forgot. Either way, it must have looked very, very dumb. Way to avoid the clich├ęs, Stevie.

#2 - One Hand On The Hip, The Other Open-Palm-Waving from Back to Front While Shaking It. This was meant to show dominance over the others on the dance floor. It worked against me that they were all in their teens or early twenties, but I’m sure they found the sight of a second-grader waving them off like a traffic cop with the shakes extremely intimidating.

#3 - Both Hands Above The Head, Slowly Arcing Down to My Sides. I only saved this one for the big moments in songs, like when the electric violins would crescendo. It was the most grandiose and I didn’t want to wear it out, you see. I also closed my eyes and made dramatic facial expressions with this move, as an attempt to emphasize what I was feeling. What I was feeling was pride, though it really should have been an overriding shame.

In between the “big three” moves, I was just trying to keep time to the beat, which was a challenge enough for me. A dancer I was not.

And that was a big problem, because this was a competition in name only. There were some token winners and prizes, but most people turned out just to enjoy themselves, maybe learn a few new moves, possibly even get some dates. Not me - I wanted to win. I kept up the charade for over four hours - I think my mother went home and came back later to pick me up. Before I left, I did win something... a bumper sticker. Hey, when you’re in second grade, that kind of crap actually seems valuable. Overall, I was satisfied with the outcome of the day. I felt accomplished, in a way that only those completely fooling themselves can feel.

When I got to school on Monday, I had to get to the bottom of why Fred, my inspiration for going disco, had not been in attendance. Our conversation:

me: “So why weren’t you at the dance thing at the mall on Saturday?”

Fred: “Was that Saturday? I forgot”

Me: “Oh.”

I felt sad – maybe if Fred had been at the competition, I’d have enjoyed it more.

Then he began dancing and everything was good again.