Dancing with the “D” Word

I left school when I was 14 to be taught from home – my mother was into educational experiments.   The experience was a rich one for me and I came to think of the social convention of grouping children together by age rather odd.  Why age?  Why not personality or commonality of interest?   This early kink in my life path probably helped me to become a writer.

Now in my middle age, I find myself spending time with groups of human beings who have been herded together under another label – the “D” word.   I am working on a project that has Dementia in its title.

Outward signs collected under this label include short term memory loss, confusion and (quite logically, it seems to me, given the first two) anxiety.  
It also represents a Scientific Diagnosis, measured by statistically significant mental tests and digitally rendered colour photographs of a human being’s mysterious brain.

I have been spending the afternoon with a group of ladies.    Their ages range from the early 70s to the early 90s.   They all live in the same postcode or thereabouts, but they don’t share any other connection. They are brought together by bus at a place that offers lunch and company and activities on a particular day of the week.

We met around a folding table in the corner of a cavernous church hall.  We told each other our names and agreed that we often forgot such things.  (I certainly do.)   I wrote the names down to remind me, and repeated them, looking into the owner’s eyes.   Since I was supposed to be bringing something to our meeting I brought a conversation topic – dancing.

I had spent some time looking for short poems or passages about dance.    It wasn’t a very satisfactory search.  There was Byron –

“On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.”

Archaic and rather inaccessible; would my new acquaintances really be interested in discussing dance in the time of Jane Austen (or there abouts)?

Then there was Lear’s owl and the pussy cat who: 

“…hand in hand, on the edge of the sand.
They danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”

Agnes said she remembered that.   But there wasn’t much more to be said.

I really wanted to share Joyce Grenfell – she always makes me and my father laugh

But we didn’t have access to the internet. Besides, the loftiness of the church hall would have swallowed up the sound and made it unintelligible to hearing aids.

So I brought a few pictures – dancing dresses for instance.

Mary said she used to dance in one like that – with a floaty skirt that spun as you twirled.  Not long – to the floor – of course, but below the knee.  The war was on and you didn’t have the fabric.  You remade old dresses and sometimes used parachutes.

Ellen wanted to become a Wren, because she fancied the uniform but her heart wasn’t strong enough and she failed the physical.   Instead she got a job as a secretary at one of Newcastle’s famous old firms.   Her mother used to make her dresses.   ‘I was ginger…’she explained.   I could see the girl with the striking red hair. ‘I Iiked the pastel colours; lemon and pale green.  We went dancing at the Old Assembly Rooms – works do’s and the like.

It seems that Ellen was quite posh, going to the Assembly Rooms with their visiting bands.   ‘Henry Hall, he used to play there.’

The younger people danced at the Oxford Galleries,’ her neighbour said.

But not everyone.  Nora, sitting beside me, rolled her eyes –

Us, we just danced at Fenham Hut.’

They told me about dancing the Bradford Barn Dance and the “Buzz off” (the Geordie version of the “Excuse me”).   And then we went through the song books I’d brought. 

We reminisced over old tunes – humming the melody and trying to remember the lines after the first verse: Red Sails in the Sunset, Hometown, and I’ll Be Seeing You in all the Old Familiar places.

I had a good time and they told me they’d enjoyed it.   I went home to search the internet for recordings of War Time Favourites so I can learn the missing verses for next week.

Rebecca Jenkins

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