Ladies Who Linger In The Ladies
It was a Saturday night in July and I was on my summer holidays. I was 16: expectant, edgy, exhilarated. My parents had just agreed to let me attend my first dance – life was about to begin at last.
An older cousin was my chaperone. She’d been shaking a leg for years and was blasé about the whole wonderful, terrifying experience.
We caught a bus to the venue, where I was anticipating glamour. Instead we were set down outside a colossal barn in the middle of a field in the middle of more fields. As I joined the crowds converging on the entrance, the ‘what ifs’ mounted. What if nobody danced with me? What if the doorman turned me away? What if I was wearing the wrong clothes?
That final ‘what if’ was clairvoyant: my petrol blue long-sleeved top proved too heavy for the heat of a dance hall. As soon as I inserted myself into the heaving mass of bodies, I became conscious of my mistake. But it couldn’t be undone – underneath I wore little more than a hopeful heart.
I tried a bottle of 7Up to control my hot flushes, but almost immediately cause and effect sent me running to the bathroom.
Any time I’d been to a public convenience before, it was strictly a hit and quit exercise. This time I dawdled, eyes on stalks, because a dancehall Ladies is like no other place on earth.
Women retreat there to hitch up, suck in, smooth down. They go to regroup, but loiter to speculate, gather intelligence and strategise.
They bring their best friends with them, their drinks, their makeup purses, their resentments, their desires.
Suddenly I understood that, thrilling though the dance floor was, the Ladies was a place of drama too. Life stories were spread out there.
I found a corner and watched them unfurl.
The talk was all about men. Men they fancied, men they used to fancy, men who fancied them but they could dream on, men who fancied themselves too much for any woman to fancy.
Show band music jangled from the outside world every time the door opened, but it acted as no siren call to a hardcore knot of occupants. They’d made themselves at home, sitting on the floor on wodges of paper towel.
Glamorous and confident and worldly-wise, they looked. But even to a dance hall novice it was extraordinary behaviour. Gradually, it dawned on me that they were deliberately hiding themselves away.
There was a lot of head-tossing along the lines of: “He hasn’t so much as glanced in my direction. Who does he think he is?”
“Don’t let me weaken if he comes over. If I look as if I’ll go home with him – slap me.”
When a waiter pitched up to take drinks orders, I realised there was nothing unique about this ‘Ladies Who Linger In The Ladies’ club. These girls, or others like them, camped out here every week. Sometimes for half an hour, sometimes for half the dance.
The waiter fidgeted, one foot in and one foot out of their hideaway. He didn’t know them personally but he knew the type. And he was prudent enough to give them a wide berth.
Made bold by his youth and their numerical supremacy, they teased the boy, inviting him in, wondering did he have a girlfriend at all, and had he ever been kissed.
His blushes were fiery as he nodded towards the Mná sign. If they’d just pass him out the money he’d be on his way.
Every so often, a girl would tease a comb through her hair, as though preparing for another sortie onto the dance floor. But then she’d sit back down on her paper towel mat, light a cigarette, and launch a blistering attack on some man who’d done her wrong by … never doing anything at all with her.
My cousin landed in to fetch me as Amhrán na bhFiann played at a sprightly lick. “So this is where you tucked yourself away,” she said. “You missed all the craic.”
Maybe I had, maybe I hadn’t. I suppose it would be considered a failure not to jiggle beneath the glitter ball at your first dance. But to me, it was an education.
That scented cave pulsating with anxieties had taught me something about this grown-up world I was desperate to join. Not everybody fits in, not everybody is comfortable with its rituals. That’s why, at the Ballroom of Romance, The Ladies is a place of sanctuary.
But it’s a prison too. You can procrastinate – and there’ll always be people to share your hesitations, help you justify them.
Or you can touch up your lipstick, take courage from your hopeful heart and flush yourself back into the fray.
Note: This was read live at the West Cork Literary Festival in July 2011