"They's scandalous things goes on in this here camp," she said darkly. "Ever' Sat'dy night they's dancin', an' not only squar' dancin', neither. They's some does clutch-an'-hug dancin'! I seen 'em."—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
If you have been to a high-school prom, you have probably witnessed some "clutch-an'-hug dancin'." I don't judge it to be scandalous, but it is certainly artless. The clutch-and-huggers resemble a twosome, entangled in a straitjacket, which has quit struggling and is drifting on the swells of a hormonal tide. That said, I well remember a time when "clutch-an'-hug dancin'" was the goal of every Saturday night party. The formula didn't vary much from weekend to weekend: A basement paneled in knotty pine; a table of Cokes, chips and onion dip; Johnny Mathis on the record player; lowering lights; the intoxicating scent of Old Spice and Avon.
The clutch-an'-hug had a different objective than the foxtrot and waltz we were taught in sixth grade willy-nilly. I presume our teachers intended the ballroom-dancing lessons to introduce social grace to the awkward and reluctant. I don't remember any explanation. I do remember sitting self-consciously on the periphery of the Rosslyn Heights Elementary School auditorium—boys on one side, girls on the other. The dancing took place in the linoleum no-man's land in between. There, I gamely joined my classmates to do-si-do my way through the "Bye Bye Blackbird" square dance. It offered cover, safety in numbers, which the waltz didn't. That one-on-one encounter was daunting. You had to touch a girl in two places and synchronize your feet with hers. Then—elbows locked, eyes down—you had to count silently, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and avoid stepping on her left foot. The ordeal made me sweat.
My ballroom-dance technique evolved alongside my interest in girls. I think the Gold & Green Ball (G&GB) bridged my innocent foxtrotting days with those of the carnal clutch-an'-hug. The annual G&GB was a mainstay of LDS culture back in the day. At the G&GB, you could watch teenagers doing a chaste cheek-to-cheek as younger dancers, their partners at arm's length, navigated the dance floor, all while concentrating on the old 1-2-3. My friends who attended Catholic schools report similar transitional experiences. The difference was the nuns' insistence that there be sufficient space between dance partners for the Holy Spirit to occupy. No clutches, no hugs allowed, because chest-to-breast proximity left no room for anything but unholy imagination. So said the vigilant nuns.
The nuns would have disapproved of an admonition I eventually got from Mona, the ballroom-dance teacher. "Lead with your thighs!" she told me. More on that presently.
Some religions forbid boy-girl dancing. The Quakers, Southern Baptists and Muslims come to mind. By comparison, Mormons are party animals. Joseph Smith was a pretty good dancer by all accounts, and Brigham Young told the pioneers, "I want you to sing and dance and forget your troubles." My forebears complied. They danced around campfires during the long walk across the plains in 1856. Nevertheless, just as Steinbeck showed in The Grapes of Wrath, self-anointed watchdogs of propriety are as ever-present as Gayle Ruzicka. I was not too surprised to learn that Brigham Young's 1871 Retrenchment Association (the forerunner of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association) in Cache Valley adopted a code of conduct which proscribed loud laughter, immodesty, association with non-Mormons, and "round dancing" (aka the waltz). The prohibitions didn't take root, however. In 1893, the LDS Church built the largest dance floor in the world at Saltair and urged everyone to use it.
The 1960s were tough on those whose dance-floor ability was limited to variants of the "clutch-an'-hug." The Twist was the first challenge. I watched Chubby Checker twisting on American Bandstand. It looked pretty easy—just cut the girl loose and swivel till you sweat—but it wasn't. Neither were any of the dance fads that followed each other like incivilities on Fox TV. I was soon sidelined by ineptitude. Eventually, at a BYU Stomp (of all places!), I developed a Watusi-Frug hybrid dance which served me adequately for a few years. On rare occasions, when my hips had been unlimbered by alcohol, I reminded myself of John Travolta.
By the time I met Mona, I was a middle-ager who shuffled his wife around the dance floor when the DJ "slowed things down" by playing "Unchained Melody" or "Lady in Red"— songs as dear to unreconstructed hug-dancers as "Let It Go" is to tweens. Six couples paid Mona for lessons. She owned a studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors where we met on Saturday nights. I fancied myself a swing dancer. My wife, whose career on Broadway was nipped in the bud by a mother too poor to pay for ballet lessons, had her own ambitions. We were soon in conflict. Mona began where I had left off in the sixth grade—the foxtrot and the waltz. The venerable 1-2-3 had been updated to "step, step, step-close-step." Even before Mona introduced the tango, merengue and samba, my feminist wife was objecting to the fact that the male always led—with his thighs no less! "He can't lead," she complained to Mona. I knew she was wrong, because I had been monitoring my performance in the mirrors. Mona was a traditionalist—men lead, women follow. On that discordant note, Mona's dancing lessons ended.
I was in Texas last year and tried the Two-Step in an Austin honky-tonk. I didn't see any clutch-an'-huggers, but I did note I was the only one without a cowboy hat and boots. Somewhat self-consciously, then, I loosed the thighs, summoned the old foxtrot step, and—I'm not kidding you!—I turned a few heads.