2006-03-02 / Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand

When you’re the dud of the dance
By Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
When you’re the dud of the dance

When I was a young teen, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t just a music form; it defined the birth of an era. What some called “the devil’s music” gave the postW.W. II generation an identity, a new philosophy that changed the American perception of life forever. Being a teenager during the early days of this developing culture was fabulous. Those of us who were lucky enough to play a part in this powerful saga savored every moment, and looked forward to every day as if it were the beginning of life itself.

If a young man wanted to be popular in those times, two abilities were almost guarantees to success — be an athlete or a musician. If you were either of those, even with average looks, you stood a good chance of doing well with the ladies. I was lucky enough to hold my own in both arenas. I wasn’t a star quarterback or home-run king or anything like that, but I always made the team and had enough playing time to earn a letter or two. However, I did excel in the other area. I was a good musician. I played the piano.

At first, I took lessons because my mother encouraged learning music as part of well-rounded cultural development. I practiced to appease her. That is, until the first time I heard rock ‘n’ roll played on a piano. From that moment on, my life was not the same. What Mozart didn’t inspire, Jerry Lee Lewis did, along with Fats Domino and Little Richard. I learned every lick those founders of the rock ‘n’ roll era ever recorded. I practiced so much that my mother wouldn’t allow me to touch the keyboard unless I finished my homework. The hard work paid off. I was soon a paid musician, playing in a band.

We played for dances at every high school in the area. We even played for proms. Before long, I had a girlfriend and life couldn’t have been better. I can say that with confidence because playing in a band relieved me of one essential element that a teenager, male or female, living at the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, was required to master. Even athletes and musicians needed this talent. That necessary ability was the dance. If you couldn’t dance to the music, you were an enigma, in other words — socially dead.

However, I escaped because I played in a band. How could I dance and play at the same time? Of course — I couldn’t. Consequently, I never learned, and for the most part, nobody knew. My girlfriend, Judy, would come to every dance and hang out with the other musician’s girlfriends while we were playing. When Judy asked me if we could go to a dance where I didn’t have to play, I’d tell her that the last thing I wanted to do on a night off was attend a dance. Although she accepted this explanation, I could tell, she wasn’t happy about it. This went on for almost an entire school year. Then one day, she put her foot down.

“The other guys in the band take their girlfriends to dances. Why can’t you take me?” she asked. I was dumbfounded. I consulted the other band members. They concurred. They took their girlfriends to dances on our nights off. I caved in and agreed to go to a dance at her school.

When we arrived, she couldn’t wait to introduce me to her classmates. After all, she had a boyfriend who played in a band. It just so happened that I knew the musicians playing for this dance. We exchanged pleasantries and they asked me to sit in.

“Oh no you don’t,” Judy said emphatically. “This is my night, and you are not going to touch that piano.” I was doomed. The band struck up “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. She tried pulling me onto the dance floor. I half-confessed. “I don’t know how to dance fast,” I said. She looked slightly panicked.

“You don’t?” she asked.

“When do I get a chance? I’m always playing in the band,” I replied.

“We’ll just wait for a slow song then,” she said meekly.

When a slow dance started, I tried to do what everybody else did. However, there was one major difference. My feet didn’t move. They stuck to the floor as if I were wearing two huge blocks of ice for shoes. Judy was mortified.

“Why don’t you move?” she asked.

“I d-don’t know,” I stammered. “I just can’t.” She ran to the ladies room in tears, leaving me alone in the middle of the high school gym. She broke up with me a few nights later. I was heartbroken.

At that age, hearts are resilient. One night while playing at yet another function, I noticed a pretty girl sitting at a table who turned down every invitation to dance. During a break, I introduced myself and asked her why.

“I don’t know how,” she replied. I was delighted. I told her I didn’t know how, either. We went out a few times. A match made in heaven, so you’d think.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. The only thing we had in common was — we didn’t know how to dance. It’s just part of that system I can’t understand.

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