It was the hullabaloo era of the Beatles, The Monkees, the Yardbirds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Animals, the Kinks. The era of screaming girls, crazed over these mop-head pop-rock musicians.
I had all their albums, bought with my weekly allowance. My parents despised this type of music—Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Rachmaninoff lined their record shelf. Saturdays my parents routinely went shopping, and I cleaned the house to earn the allowance that bought my vinyl record collection. I’d crank up the music to the highest volume, bust out the vacuum, and Watusi my way through my chores—twisting and shouting my way across the floor, sucking up dust balls and dog hair.
The music infected us all, even at 11 years old in the sixth grade. For some reason, the principal at our school let us play all the rock-and-roll we wanted during lunchtime. I remember almost nothing about this phase in school except how awful the food was that they dished out—especially the greasy, fried fish sticks on Fridays. And I don’t remember any of the kids. Preposterously shy, introverted, and dyslexic, I always sat by myself. But there is one day I’ll never forget. It may have been inevitable, given my love of dance.
It was a Friday in early April. A bunch of the popular girls—the future-cheerleader-types with shiny hair, polished nails, and cute outfits, all sure of themselves and cliquey—had grabbed brooms and mops from the utility closet and stormed the stage, where they scrambled onto the six-foot-long folding tables, stood with hips jutting out, strumming their air guitars, and shook their long tresses. Spring fever had infected us all. It was the first time I’d wanted to participate in any school activities as, despite my love of dance, I was not cheerleader material.
I looked around, getting the itch to move to the music, but feeling self-conscious and awkward.
The physical education teacher was the only adult monitoring the cafeteria and was also the instigator who turned on the sound system and played the records. As hip as we were and not much more mature, she had all the hits and sang and danced on the sidelines.
As the music grabbed my soul, I scuttled to the side of the five-foot stage and climbed up. I was not interested in being a band member playing an imaginary guitar. Instead, I stood on an over-stuffed horsehair chair I’d found behind the curtain and pushed it to the side of the table. I was going to be the go-go girl. The dancer. Just like in my living room with the vacuum, but now I had an audience.
I twisted to The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” did the Shotgun to the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” pranced my way through Chubby Checker’s “The Pony,” and gave it all to The Miracles’ song, “Come on Do the Jerk.” And my favorite, the Swim, which combined the lower body doing the Frug or the Twist, while my arms mimicked swimming and diving. For the grand finale, I’d hold my nose—just like the dancers on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand—and pretend to be sinking under water. I didn’t even need a song to do this dance!
I was warming up. Getting in the groove. Beaming a big smile out to my audience. Happy to be alive and dancing with abandon.
The chair’s iron springs were remarkably bouncy and the perfect platform for an enthusiastic version of the Frug to Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,” which, at the time, was the fastest-selling #1 hit in history.
The Frug involved pumping your arms in front of you up and down with your hands in fists. I added the bounce. The fast-paced song was perfect for the Frug. Made for the Frug. My arms were alternating the up-and-down flailing as I sang along:
I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She’s been married seven times before.
And every one was an ‘Enery
She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery.
‘Enery the Eighth, I am!
The other students eating their lunches loved the show—yelling and clapping; cheering and jeering. The girls on the stage twanged and sang boisterously, though out of tune, flipping their long hair back and forth. We were a hit. I was the go-go girl and they were rock stars.
The PE-teacher-turned-deejay, still dressed in her white volleyball shorts, swayed and crooned along to the music with the same wild look in her eye as we had. The kitchen staff, wearing hairnets and long, stained aprons, scooped potato salad and served Jell-O cubes and cottage cheese, ignoring us. They weren’t in charge of discipline. They just wanted to do their job and go home to their own batch of crazy kids.
Every pre-teen in the cafeteria chanted the chorus:
I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
The chair was becoming more like a trampoline. I jumped higher and higher, pumping my arms and imagining I was on the stage with Herman’s Hermits in front of a coliseum of thousands of wild fans, all Frugging along with me. I was flying in slow motion with my eyes closed. Blissed out. Finding my destiny—of being a gravity-free go-go dancer. My raison d‘être revealed at age 11 during lunchtime in Sunnyvale, California. Enlightenment strikes in the darndest places!
Behind my eyelids, colored lights exploded into fantastical fireworks. Then it all went dark.
The next thing I remember is slowly opening my eyes. A blurry vision greeted me: dozens of kids forming a tight circle around me as I lay crumpled on the floor. They were pointing at me, laughing, and asked, “Did you do that on purpose?”
I fainted again. This time, searing pain woke me up. Several kids lifted me off the ground, trying to get me to stand. As they held me up they shook with mirth. “You were flying through the air doing the Frug. It was sooooo funny!”
They guffawed, doubled over, and jiggled my arm, not holding it still. The music had stopped, and I wondered where the PE teacher had gone—I pictured her running hysterically in her pleated white shorts to get a nonexistent stretcher. I was going in and out of consciousness, the lyrics to “Henry the Eighth” echoing in my mind.
As the fog in my brain cleared, I started to put the pieces together, both from my own memory and what the other sixth-graders were telling me: I had launched myself from the chair, off the stage, high into the air, and out into the audience, landing on the hardwood floor that served as our basketball court when it wasn’t a cafeteria.
I was Icarus falling from the sky in white-hot ashes of agony. Icarus had nothing on me. This was physical agony and embarrassment in heaps.
The kids walked me to the principal’s office and he called my mother, who stormed into the office ten minutes later looking peeved, and she took me straight to the emergency room. My right hand hung limp, the wrist bones snapped cleanly in half.
The doctor said I was lucky because it would not need to be set. “What were you doing?” he asked as he applied the plaster cast.
Nauseous and sheet-white, I said, “I was dancing the Frug on a chair.”
“Pardon me?” he asked. “What is a Frug?”
My mother rolled her eyes as I explained, “The dance I was doing to ‘I’m Henry the Eighth, I am.’” Duh! This guy is sooo square.
He nodded and said, “My daughter plays that music all the time. I hate that song.”
“So do I,” I said, wanting to cry.
That night my dad suggested I do a reenactment of how I broke my arm. He wasn’t familiar with the Frug but as I sang the song that had inspired me to sail through the air, Dad, a history professor at Stanford—and also named Henry—commented: “‘I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,’ pronounced ‘Enery’ with a Cockney accent, is a 1910 British music hall song revived by Herman’s Hermits.”
My dad knows this stuff? Weird!
“The well-known chorus,” my dad explained, “is about King Henry’s wife being married seven times before. I’m not sure which wife he was referring to, as he cut most of their heads off when they were young.”
When I returned to school a few days later, everyone wanted to sign my cast and draw pictures on it of me flying through the air. This time when they held my arm and shook with merriment, it didn’t hurt—but it was mortifying. My act was being touted as more of a circus stunt than a mod dance, and the principal had cracked down on performances during lunch, forbidding the PE teacher to play pop songs. She was as bummed as we were.
I think that was my favorite (or possibly only) memory from grade school. Oh, except when my drawing of three naked men running in the Olympics—as depicted on an ancient Grecian vase I admired at the de Young Museum—won the county art contest, also when I was in sixth grade. I was a peculiar child.
Decades later, an excruciating bout of carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand and arm sent me to the doctor. His eyes widened as he viewed the X-ray and said, “Carpal tunnel syndrome, or CTS, occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist.” He scratched his head and added, “I’ve only heard about this and never seen a case of it before. This condition is very rare!”
“What condition?” I knew he wasn’t talking about CTS, which is common among writers, musicians, and athletes.
He was reverently holding and studying my right arm with great interest. “You must have broken your wrist as a child and the impact was so hard it killed the osteoblasts—or growth cells—in your ulna. That’s why your hand is crooked at a right angle. One wrist bone is an inch shorter than the other. Can I take a picture of it to show my colleagues?”
“Sure.” Nothing like being that patient whose unusual condition impresses even experienced doctors.
I confirmed I had broken my wrist in sixth grade.
“Doing an airborne version of the Frug to Herman’s Hermits.”
He grinned and said, “I always preferred doing the Jerk to The Monkees’ TV theme song.”
“I love that dance!” I said.
He looked at me and shook his head. “Just don’t do it on the couch!”
This story will be included in my next book Dance Life. Copyright Lisa Alpine 2017