By Robert H. Wills

I was heading toward the exit when she came running after me. “Bob,” she cried, “you’re not leaving are you? The last dance is coming! You promised!”

I laughed. “I know, that’s why I was leaving. I thought you had forgotten, and I was making my escape.”

It was late on her wedding night, and she had been the belle of the ball, dancing with the young and old, handsome and bold. There was swing, waltz, and free styling. I would have thought that she be exhausted by now because she probably had danced every song throughout the evening.

In many cases there were several partners in a single dance. They call it a dollar dance because, I learned a few days before,  it is the custom these days for the bride to raise money for the future expenses by collecting money for the privilege of dancing with her on her wedding night.

Why would brides do that? I could hardly believe it. What were modern day brides thinking, selling their bodies to raise funds for their honeymoons? For reasons known only to the modern brides, they didn’t look at it this way.

Back in The Day

Certainly when Cherie and I were married back in 1949, brides and mothers would have looked askance at the mere thought of receiving money for honeymoon expenses. In those days the bride and groom, or the groom alone, calculated the cost of the honeymoon, and if the money wasn’t available, the honeymoon was postponed until a later date. In some cases, for decades. This situation still carried the onus of the depression day honeymoon.

Now it was a new world. My son, Bob, and I were attending the wedding of Timothy Schillinger, and Jackie Niesen, a family friend in Mapleton, IL. The guests were met; the vows spoken and not yet broken, and the dancing had been going for hours.

I had stayed away from the edge of the dance floor where a DJ had produced rhythms in a machine with flashing lights and enormous volume. Sometimes I found a tune that had a low volume, but it still stirred the joints of even the elderly.

The Rituals Go On

Things got raucous however when there was a ceremony on the dance floor of having Timothy remove the blue garter from the upper reaches of Jackie’s leg with his teeth––I wonder what the brides’ mother was thinking––and again when she pitched her bouquet into a throng of single ladies. The noise climbed still louder when the aim of the toss fell short. The hoots and hollers multiplied again when a group of male college friends gathered around to dance with Tim, thus earning Tim even more money than Jackie.

All of this tomfoolery was foreign to me and most of it occurred without my awareness. While I had boldly withdrawn money to cover the cost of dancing, I I also smugly felt that I would be happiest taking it home with me if it meant not having a public display of my hoofing prowess.

Neither Graceful Nor Elegant

It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have enjoyed dancing with Jackie, but I simply was more comfortable away from the attention, and there seemed to be entertainment enough without getting my awkward steps onto the floor. My wife, Cherie, had always beseeched me to take time off from my busy life as a newspaper man to take dance lessons. We had been high school dancers, but both of us had been uncertain––neither graceful nor elegant on the dance floor.

What little style we had deteriorated rapidly through the years. At the time of my retirement in 1993, I assured Cherie that we would take dance lessons. Yet our lives were too busy to make the promise a reality. So here I was at the wedding where I had promised the beautiful bride that I would dance with her and I had no intention to carry out the promise.

Cashing Up

The morning we left upper Michigan to drive south to the wedding, I stopped at the M&I Bank in Minocqua WI to pick up money for the trip. Knowing nothing about the modern day Dollar Dance, I didn’t know how much I would need so I deliberately cashed a $20 bill into $1 bills that I would be able to slip to the bride, mistakenly thinking that the more often I paid, the longer I could dance. My belief was that you paid more money for more time on the dance floor with the bride. And at the age of 87, I needed time. But I was wrong.

No Escape

So I was prepared when Jackie caught up with me in the corridor as the evening was ending. I still didn’t know what the payment of the money was all about. But I let Jackie take my hand and pull me through the crowd to the dance floor for what I thought was going to be the last dance.

I protested all the way, but Jackie seemed quite assured that she carried the fairy dust that turned any clod into a graceful dancer on the night she was married. So after a few words to the DJ, a slow melody whispered through the speakers and I reached for Jackie’s arms, saying “I don’t know how to hold you, because when I danced with my wife, I would take her in my arms.”

With a slight edge in her voice, she replied “Don’t take me in your arms, just hold my hands. Do what I do, and walk across the floor.”

I was reluctant. Part of my problem was what Jackie was wearing; to me, it wasn’t much. Her dancing dress was a beautiful short, white strapless with printed red roses across the bottom hem. She was a beautiful bride.

It All Comes Back

To my surprise, as we moved, I noticed I was reviving an old waltz step I had learned many moons before, and had danced multiple times with Cherie. “Jackie” I said, “how much is this dance going to cost me?” I tried to get warmth in my voice as I asked.

With a hint irritation, she replied “It’s not going to cost you anything, Bob.”

“But I understood that the bride uses the dances to raise money to offset the cost of the wedding,” I responded.

“That’s for the Dollar Dance,” she explained. “It’s just one dance in the evening, and it was long ago already. And by the way, the girls also pay to dance with Tim. It isn’t just for boys to dance with me. We both raise money to pay for our expenses.”

Putting aside the question of what I was going to do with my $20, I slipped into silence, again thinking of the past. Jackie did not interrupt.

To stir some excitement, I gazed into Jackie’s eyes, which I could not see, and said,

“How am I doing?”

“You’re doing wonderfully,” she said. And, in my scenario, we “glided” around the floor and I was lost in reverie. Having gained assurance, I glanced to my left and saw Nick and Kathy Niesen, parents of the bride. They had also been dancing at arm’s length when suddenly Nick drew Kathy into his arms, pressing her close to him. Figuring that Jackie could not see this move, I suggested once again that I should take her in my arms.

“Nick just did it, why can’t we?” I asked Jackie.

Keeping her bearings, Jackie laughed and replied, “He has a right to take mom into his arms, and you don’t have that right with me.”

When The Music Stops

That jerked me into reality for a few moments, yet the band played on and I slipped back into my trance. Jackie was the Illini Faerie Queen and I, the Urchin King of western swing.

Suddenly, with what I would like to believe was reluctance in her voice, Jackie announced, “Bob, the waltz stopped long ago, it is a swing step now and we are still doing the waltz.”

I stepped out of my fairyland and escorted her to the edge of the dance floor.

Tim was approaching with his camera.

I turned to Jackie and asked brashly:

“Who’s this guy?”

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