May I Have This Dance?

by Brad Wilcox

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    “All right, all you boys, there are lots of girls who would love to dance, so let’s get busy.” Our tour adviser looked directly at Jason and me and then turned on the record player again. A tropical breeze shuffled through leaves in a planter behind us on the hotel patio.

    I had only just finished eighth grade and didn’t even know how to dance by myself, let alone ask a girl to do it with me.

    “I guess we should go dance, Brad.” Jason was rolling up the embroidered sleeves of his “I’m-a-tourist-in-Mexico” shirt he had bought that afternoon.

    “No, not me.”

    “But Mr. Jarman said there are girls who want to dance, and anyway this is the last night of the tour and we’ll probably never see them again.” A sudden gust blew Jason’s hair across his eyes. Casually he pushed it back again.

    This educational tour through Mexico had been sponsored by our school district, and up to now it had been a great experience. Why did they have to spoil it with a dance?

    “Come on.” Jason stood me up. “You ask Joan, and I’ll ask Christie.” He buttoned his top shirt button, moved across the patio, and offered his hand. “Hey, Christie, would you like to dance?”

    I stood back and watched in hopes of learning instantly the intricacies of social interaction.

    Christie flipped her hair, “Gee, ah thanks, Jason, but not right now.”

    “What about you, Joan?” he asked.

    From my safe position behind the lines, I noticed Jason’s crooked-tooth smile. I saw my friend for the first time as those girls might be seeing him, and I guess overall he did look kind of unusual.

    “I’d really like to dance, Jason, but I don’t like this song.”

    He tugged at his gaudy new shirt. “Well, maybe later?”

    The two embarrassed girls looked quickly at each other. “Oh, ah … we’re not feeling too well.”

    After a moment he came back to me. “Listen, Brad, who should we ask next?”

    I still couldn’t believe what Joan had said. “Not feeling well! She felt good enough to dance with Monroe a few minutes ago,” I complained to Jason.

    “But he’s a senior in high school. We’re only eighth graders.”

    “Ninth grade now,” I reminded. I followed him to the tile fountain in the center of the patio, where Stephanie LeBette stood. With her hand on her hip and her nose in the air, she might as well have been a water-spouting statue.

    I realized what Jason was about to do even before he said, “Hey, Stephanie, how about a dance?”

    “Jason, don’t …” I turned away with elaborate casualness. Stephanie broke her pose to smile disdainfully and glide haughtily away.

    “Well, how about it? You want to dance?” Jason called after her.

    “No gracias, señor.” She didn’t even bother to look back.

    I pushed a ripple into the fountain pool. “I don’t get it, Jas. I thought girls liked to dance.”

    “They do,” he assured. “Look, why don’t you ask Stephanie?”

    “No way, not her. I don’t want to get turned down, too.”

    With his square fingers Jason jarred the water again, contorting our shadowed reflections.

    “Brad, if Stephanie doesn’t want to dance, it’s her problem not yours.”

    “But if she said no, why keep asking her?”

    “Why not?”

    The director turned up the music again. Jason stepped closer to me to be heard. “Why should you let her decide how you are going to act?” He pushed his fingers through his hair again. “I’m going over there and ask some new girls. Want to come?”

    I shook my head and sat on the tile rim. It felt cold in the evening. Jason walked away, stepping awkwardly to the beat.

    As I think back on the incident, I realize that Jason is one of the few people I’ve ever known who acts toward people. Most of us react to them. He knew what he wanted and how he should behave. If Stephanie had refused me like that, I’d have either crawled off and buried myself in a Mexican pyramid, or said, “You’re not so neat yourself, you goat,” and maybe bitten her ankle or something.

    I remember that evening as though I were a character in a cartoon, sitting by that cold fountain thinking but with nothing written in my thought bubble. If I were to fill it in now, I guess I’d write, “No one is more miserable than the dummy who always reacts.”

    At that long-ago dance my center of confidence was outside myself, being kicked around that patio like an old can. If Christie had said, “You’re cold,” I’d have sneezed. If Monroe had said, “You’re hot,” I’d have sweated. My feelings toward the whole situation were totally dependent upon a few people who could decide if I were to be embarrassed or proud, rude or gracious, introverted or extroverted. Unlike Jason, whose emotional security was rooted within himself, I had relinquished control of my own personality.

    I’m thankful for that skinny, unkempt tourist friend and for the important principle he personified—to act and not to react—for in all the dances I’ve attended since that bomb-out in Mexico, not once have I bitten Stephanie LeBette’s ankle.

    If I think some particular thing could make me a better person, and if I realize that the capacity to do it is right inside, then what can hold me back? After I begin thinking positively, what can stop me from determining to take the next step and commit myself?

    In the middle of my sophomore year, my high school drama department announced auditions for the annual Shakespearean play. “This is great!” I thought. I pictured myself in colorful Elizabethan costume, playing a rousing Shakespearean role. It was something I had wanted to do all year. So between American History and lunch I ran into the office and picked up a dittoed sheet of dialogue.

    “What early tongue so sweet saluteth me? Young son, it argues a distempered head so soon to bid good morrow to thy bed.”

    “That sure doesn’t sound like English to me,” I thought, reading through the rest of the tryout material. I couldn’t make sense of what was going on or of how I was supposed to say one word. I’d seen Shakespearean plays before and even movies. The lines had always sounded easy and natural.

    “What’s wrong with you?” I asked myself. The audition line I had joined after school was getting shorter. I stood in the C-wing stairwell and reread the pages: “What early tongue …” I was growing frantic.

    Matt Ricks filed into the line behind me. “Hey, Brad, it’s good to see you trying out.”

    I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. Matt was the best actor in the school, and I was in awe.

    “Oh boy,” I thought. “Now I’ll really look like a fool when he tries out after me. Well, I don’t have to look like a fool. I’m not going to walk out on that stage and make a total idiot of myself.” I turned away from the audition line and walked quickly to my hall locker. Luckily Matt was surrounded by his usual harem of admirers and didn’t notice me leave.

    I argued with myself: “Don’t be dumb. We’ve gone through all this before. Of course you might not make this play, but then, you might! You have to try.” I climbed the main hall stairs to upper B-wing. “You can’t read Shakespearean English now, but you can learn.”

    Then, somehow, all the ifs and theys got to me. “Even if I learned it, what would they say if I botched it?” I crumpled the dialogue sheet and shoved it in my back pocket. It was easy to imagine the hateful names they might call me; it was easy to feel the hurt when they would laugh at me or whisper cruel things if I failed. I envisioned myself onstage—“What early tongue so sweet saluteth me”—dodging all the pencils, spitwads, shoes, rocks, and desks that they would throw.

    “I’m not trying out,” I decided firmly. By now I’d missed my bus and knew I would have to walk all the way home. I snatched up my books, kicked the locker door closed, and drooped back down the B-wing stairs. Why should I worry about what they would think? But I did.

    When I ate only one taco for dinner instead of my usual three, dad realized something was on my mind.

    “I’m not holding myself back,” I told him. “I want to try out and do what I know is best for me, but they won’t let me. They’re intimidating me right out of my best intentions.”

    “Who are they?” dad asked.

    “Well, you know, they.”

    “Who?” he asked again.

    “The kids at school,” I answered exasperatedly.


    “You know,” I fumbled. “Friends, peer group, the kids trying out who are better than me.” Inside I was frantic. Not a single name came to my mind except Matt Ricks, and he was the only one I was sure wouldn’t laugh.

    Then, with the infallible wisdom of most fathers, dad explained that as people mature it becomes less and less important what other people think or say. It took him until 7:00 to finally convince me that “mature people are self-confident enough to live in a way that will please their Heavenly Father. They do what is best, what they know is right, regardless of what they say. Some people never reach that point of maturity, while others reach it quite early in life.”

    He reminded me of when our family would go to the park to play baseball. The older family members would leave Chris, my younger brother, and me to play at the small baseball diamond while they went around the wire fence to the grown-ups’ baseball field. “Do you remember how you two would play until you were bored, and then both of you would climb to the top of the dugout to watch the grown-ups play ball? That fence always seemed a tangible measure of age and ability. Now it can be a symbolic measure of maturity as you judge in which ballpark you’d like to play. You need to commit to your goals, never caring about what they may say. It is up to you to reach the fence as early in life as you can.”

    Before bed that night I rescued the wrinkled tryout sheet and read it over again. “What early tongue so sweet saluteth me? Young son, it argues a distempered head.” Finally the words were beginning to make sense. I sat right in the middle of my bedroom floor laughing out loud. “Dad’s right.” I thought of where I was and imagined where I could be if I hadn’t talked myself out of so many opportunities, or let others do so, without even trying. Maybe I might not have made the team, or won the office, but maybe I might have. When I was younger I didn’t have the personal courage to try, so I shall never know. But that night dad taught me that one of the nicer things about trying is that you can never lose something you don’t have. You only take a chance on winning.

    Dad told me, “Trying is like climbing a hill. If you stand with your feet firmly planted at the bottom and declare that there is no way you can climb that hill, you could stand there forever. If you dare to try, you have nowhere to go but up.”

    Of course, it does matter what other people think and say since we all live together on this earth. Heavenly Father tells me I must consider others, that I am my brother’s keeper. Actually, other people are the incentives for most good things I do. Other people and their feelings toward me are often my reward. My happy balance will come as I learn to keep the opinions and actions of others in perspective. I must remember not to let others dictate my actions. In turn, I must not be the one whose remarks or actions could dominate someone else’s life. We must all play in the grown-up park by acting and not reacting.

    “All right,” I told myself on the bedroom rug, “if they aren’t holding me back, then what other excuse do I have? The audition is up to me.” Despite the late hour, I practiced the passage again. As the Shakespearean sentences began to flow, my confidence returned. I berated myself for being so stupid as to have given other people that strong a vote in my election. Yes, they have a voice, and there will always be those who encourage and those who discourage, but I have free agency. I cast the deciding ballot, and I vote for what is best for me.

    As I practiced, somehow Shakespeare, the man, became a reality to me. What if he had been afraid to try to write a play because of what people might think? What if he had never produced his plays because he feared being laughed at, or called names, or run out of town? I felt foolish. How infinitely poorer our world would be without William Shakespeare, or for that matter, without Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, and Thomas Jefferson. What if Joseph Smith had not prayed in the grove? Or then, what if he had never told anyone else about his marvelous vision of the Father and the Son because of what they might (and did) think?

    I would never want the Lord to say of me, “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them.

    “And it shall come to pass, if they are not more faithful unto me, it shall be taken away, even that which they have” (D&C 60:2–3).

    “Tomorrow,” I vowed as I climbed into my waiting bed, “tomorrow I will really act—in more ways than one.”

    Editor’s Note: “May I Have This Dance?” will appear as chapter seven in The Super Baruba Success Book for Under-Achievers, Over-Expectors, and Other Ordinary People to be published by Bookcraft on August 1, 1979 (copyright © 1979 by Bookcraft, Inc.). It is the first book written by Brad Wilcox, a 1978 graduate of Provo High School in Provo, Utah. In addition to his forthcoming book, Brad has achieved several other literary accomplishments: he was named first place winner in the 1978 Guideposts magazine national Youth Writing Contest for which he received a $4,000 college scholarship; won first place in the 1978 League of Utah Writers article contest; was an Honorable Mention winner in the 1978 New Era poetry writing contest; and wrote “My Toothless Teacher,” which was published in the May 1978 issue of the New Era. In addition, Brad was selected as one of two national youth representatives on the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America and was selected as Western Region winner in the Reader’s Digest-BSA National Public Speaking contest. Last fall he spent several months touring with the Carol Lynn Pearson and Lex de Azevedo musical “My Turn on Earth” and recently received a call to serve in the Chile Viña Del Mar Mission.

    Illustrated by Preston Heiselt