From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul


The CD player blared the voice of Luther Vandross singing “Dance with My Father,” as my husband attempted to teach our fourteen-year-old daughter how to slow-dance, in preparation for her first formal school event. He gently gripped her waist with one hand, while holding her hand in the other. They stepped from side-to-side and back and forth to the rhythm of the music.

At first, she stumbled and wanted to lead rather than follow his guiding footsteps. “Oops, Pops—I’m bad!” she remarked each time the heel of her shoe clumsily mashed his toes. Smiling, he said, “It’s okay, Boo. If these big feet could walk through the jungles of Vietnam, they can withstand the test of a dance with you.” Then, one more time they commenced to step and slide.

I grinned and watched them, recalling a time when my father taught me how to slow-dance.

I remembered that at the dinner table one evening, I told my parents about the high school sock-hop to be held the following week. Bashfully, I said “I want to go, but I don’t know how to slow-dance with a boy.” My two younger sisters, one in elementary school and the other still in preschool, just stared at me blankly while my parents sympathetically smiled.

After the meal had ended, my dad beckoned me to follow him into the living room. While I sat on the sofa, he opened the door of the stereo console underneath the record player. He glanced through the record covers of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and Etta James—until finally selecting Nat King Cole’s 1956 “After Midnight” album.

He carefully removed the vintage vinyl record from its cover as if he were handling a priceless china plate. Then, holding the wide shiny black disc between the palms of both hands, he delicately placed it upon the turntable and set the needle on the first band. As the record spun around, the music began to play, and my mother entered the room with my sisters trailing behind her. She had an illuminating beam of pride and affection on her face. Dad turned to me and said “Now, watch this, Puddin’.” He then politely took Mom’s hand, and they began to dance in a jazzy sequence of two-steps in the vacant area between the stereo and the coffee table.

Dad gazed into Mom’s dark-brown eyes while she gazed back into his with complete adoration. I was embarrassed to look at them because they were so absorbed in each other as they paced to the musical vibrations of sentimental merriment.

I thought to myself, Who are these people? I have never seen them hold hands before, much less dance together.

Before Dad and Mom had stepped halfway through “Just You, Just Me,” they lost some of their audience. My two sisters left for other parts of the house to whirl hula hoops and play with their jacks rather than witnessing our parents’ odd movements to strange melodies.

When Dad and Mom noticed I was still in the room, they suddenly emerged from the trance they had fallen into and stopped dancing.

Wow! How do I follow that high-stepping act? I thought.

Mom quietly smiled at Dad, then left the room to check on my siblings.

Clearing his throat, my father said, “Does that give you an idea of how to slow-dance?

“Yeah, Dad. That was boss!”

“Your mother and I could really cut the rug in our day.”

What a crack-up, I thought. Cut the what? Quickly, I blurted out, “Daddy, could we dance to something groovy?”

“I thought you wanted to learn to slow-dance,” he replied.

“I do, but that music is too lame. Nobody I know will be groovin’ to Nat King Cole!”

“I see. Well, what do you suggest we dance to? There’s Ella, Etta, Duke. . . .” Then, he began to search through the stereo cabinet again.

Before he could pull out another of his all-time favorites, I said, “How about dancing to some of my 45 records?”

Momentarily hesitating, he said, “Okay, bring them out here and we’ll see what we can do.”

Clearly, that was all he needed to say for me to hurry off to my room and retrieve the records. I brought back my entire collection of Motown 45s that were single recordings by Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, The Miracles and Marvin Gaye.

As Dad sifted through my sounds from Hitsville, U.S.A., he said, “Which do you think we should play first?”

“Well, they’re all out of sight, but maybe . . . I know, let’s start with this one.”

I tossed Aretha Franklin’s record “Ain’t No Way” onto the player and turned the knob to “45.” I grabbed my father’s hand and said, “Let’s dance, Dad.”

As Aretha belted out the words to the song, Dad showed me how to do the circular two-step. This time I could sense he was embarrassed.

“Is this the kind of music you listen to?” he said.

“Yeah, Daddy. This is what all the kids listen to nowadays. Doesn’t it just blow you away?”

There was no response from my father. He just stared into each corner of the room, at every turn of our dance.

Inevitably, the soulful cry of lyrics set to notes attracted the rest of the family into the room once more. This time, my sisters were trying to imitate the movements our father demonstrated as he slow-danced with me.

Dad shouted to Mom over the music, “This is what they dance to these days. Can you believe it?”

Now, as I watch my husband and daughter sway to Luther Vandross’s song “Dance with My Father,” I treasure this father-daughter ritual.

The beat goes on.

Stephani Marlow James

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