At school, we had virtually no contact with boys. We were warned off loitering too long at the station, blazers and pullovers were donned outside school gates to conceal the breasts, and male parts in our musicals were played in drag with fake beards and moustaches.
You may think I’m reminiscing about a glorious pre-war childhood, but this was the late-‘80s.
The teachers addressed this imbalance with a middle-class institution called Dancing Class. After what seemed like a lifetime of segregation, you can imagine the fizz of excitement this announcement created (revealed through pursed lips by the headmistress) that thrilled throughout our hormonally overcharged bodies.
At age 14 we were deemed ready to Mingle Properly As Young Ladies with Members of the Opposite Gender. As long as we dressed chastely – with skirts and stockings compulsory – we were permitted to learn the Waltz, the Pride of Erin, the Foxtrot and other modern steps deemed necessary for entry into contemporary society.
Under the piercing gaze of Macca (our headmistress in billowing academic gown), who was seated dead centre on the stage like a giant piece of mourning jewellery at an auction, we filed across one side of the assembly hall in a hail of giggles. Much deliberation had gone into our attire: hairspray and gel pinched from elder sisters, free lipstick pulled off the cover of Dolly and vast quantities of Impulse and 4711 sprayed around. On the other side of the hall, boys in school uniform were already arrayed in thickets. They raised their heads like hyenas when we walked in.
To reiterate: boys on one side, girls on the other.
The class was run by a short, pencil-moustached bully called Mr Huelsman, a man of infinite talents in the humiliation of teenagers. His assistant (whose name escapes me – let’s call her Dagmar) operated the record player, and smilingly obliged the dapper wee chap in his many flamboyant demonstrations.
Now for the worst part – Mr Huelsman welcomed us all as Young Gentlemen and Young Ladies, and told us to line up so the boys could see us all properly. Then the boys were to traverse the great ocean of the hall to ask a lady partner for her hand. A ripple went around the hall. The boys feigned disinterest, snorted, then started to drift over. We girls stood like ‘roos in the headlights, pinned to the wall.
One by one, each Young Lady was snapped up and taken to the middle of the hall to await the lesson. The dwindling remainder stuck together, smiling at each other nervously, each certain that there would be at least one Young Gentleman left for us. But no, everyone had paired off, and a small cluster of girls was left. We were briskly driven together by Mr Huelsman, and Dagmar fired up the music: our dance lessons began.
Every week for a whole term I was submitted to the same scrutiny, and every single week I enjoyed the first dance with another of my nerdish female herd: the flat-chested, the lank of hair, the high of pants and the mono of brow. And every week was slow, agonising torment – the build-up each Friday at school, the gazing hopelessly in the mirror beforehand and the vague wishes for something different.
And (as if it wasn’t hideous enough), our midget oppressor had devised another fiendish scheme to further degrade our already fluttering self-esteem. When a Young Gentleman and Lady were dancing “too far apart”, Mr Huelsman would utter some Teutonic cry, and Dagmar would race for the record player. The giant circle of dancers would stop to ogle the blushing couple. Mr Huelsman, to illustrate his point, would seize a record from the stack and make the couple dance while holding it together with their bodies. While everyone watched.
My mother had paid for the term, and would not hear of my spending the remainder sitting it out. I prayed for a disruption in the timetable; for a statewide blackout; for a car to mount the kerb at my bus stop and break both my legs; for Mr Huelsman to be called back to train the Deutsches Jungvolk from where he so clearly came. None of these things happened.
It was as though a giant, invisible line was drawn through our year: all the popular, pretty girls on one side, the dags, freaks and assorted misfits on the other. Despite the homogenising effect of the school uniform in daylight hours, our appearance, as judged by someone of the Opposite Gender now set us apart; our doom was sealed.
Some girls developed crushes, they had their first boyfriend or exchanged their first smoke with the Young Gentlemen of Dancing Class. They had a taste of another world, of something beyond oboe lessons, family outings or maths revision. The remainder trudged back to reality every week; our day in the sun was yet to come, although we didn’t know it yet.
To tell a teenager in 1989 in an all-girls school that there’s more to life than Dancing Class, that there’s more to the world than the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and more to masculinity than a small group of oiks in school uniform is like telling them that George Michael is not the rampaging heterosexualist he appears in Smash Hits. At the time, absurd, improbable! Slightly offensive! Now? How could we have even questioned it?
I have squashed the memory down low, until recently. In a fit of optimism I went speed dating on Valentine’s Day. The above reminiscence ensued.
Part 2, speed dating, in a jiff.