"Five, six, seven, eight..." The counting of my impatient dance teacher, Michael Casajus, is still ringing in my ears. "Girls and boys, I will have none of this rock'n'roll mayonnaise," he shouted as he restarted the Glenn Miller track, hoping desperately for some improvement in our dance steps.
The trouble was that Casajus is a professional dancer, hired by the City of Paris to knock the dancing shoes of 1,000 Parisians into shape for the celebrations tomorrow of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the French capital. His pupils, myself included, mostly saw the class at the Gymnase Saint-Merri, opposite the Pompidou Centre, as an opportunity for some free fun courtesy of the French taxpayer.
Some were taking the lindy-hop class more seriously, like Marie-France Pérignon, a 54-year-old civil servant who had signed up with four colleagues from the defence ministry. Dressed in 1940s clothes, they will play a key role in the celebrations as they dance through Paris along two routes taken by the French and American liberation troops on 25 August 1944. The parade will end with a show at the Place de la Bastille, followed by dancing to 1940s standards performed by a 20-piece American Big Band from Lille.
"We have started a little dance group at the defence ministry, but we have recently lost our salsa teacher," said Mme Pérignon, who quite enjoyed the irony of having been assigned to the "American Column" that will leave Place d'Italie at 1pm and dance its way to the Bastille. "I was widowed a few months ago, and have only just started going out again. The dance classes have been great," she explained. "Most of the people taking part are beginners, but they have one thing in common - enjoying having a good time."
The preparations for the Liberation commemorations - which include poetry in the Métro and photographic poster displays in the streets - have successfully brought together Parisians of all ages. The volunteer dancers - who were mainly recruited through adverts in newspapers - are expected to dress in period clothes that they have been encouraged to make - or alter for the occasion - at a sewing workshop in the 4th-arrondissement town hall. There have also been sessions in 1940s hairstyling, and even one called "dying your legs with tea".
Bertrand Schaaf, a professional stage manager, said that working with amateurs had presented unforeseen problems - like the recruits' propensity for not taking things very seriously - but that the preparations had brought thousands of Parisians together. "The sewing workshops are run by theatre- costume professionals, helped by pensioners, including retired seamstresses, who have been brought in to advise the dancers on the period look."
One of the problems has been finding enough men. "Women signed up in far larger numbers. We have tried to make it a 50-50 split between the sexes, but we are also aware that, in 1944, Paris was short of men, which meant that, in those days, women would have danced together," said Schaaf. In common with Casajus, he is a member of the Zazou musical company of the director Jérôme Savary.
Casajus, aged 25, and other Zazou chorus dancers will stage a 45-minute show called Liberté-Liberty at the start of tomorrow's Bastille ball. He said that the Zazou musical, which has just returned from a tour in Hungary, is a love story set during the Occupation. "The Zazous were a group of young Parisians who were part of an underground movement that dressed outlandishly in order to defy the strict rules and oppressive atmosphere imposed by the Germans," explained Casajus in a break from the endless "five, six, seven, eight" resounding around the gymnasium.
"They wore zoot suits, had long hair and were very close-shaven. They listened to the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ray Ventura and Charles Trenet. Rain or shine, they carried neatly folded umbrellas, which was their mark of respect to Britain. In cellars in St-Germain, they defied the danger of deportation to labour camps by staging all-night dance parties," said Casajus.
Exasperated at his class's tendency to ignore the beat, Casajus finally turned up the big-band music and announced: "Boy and girls: as long as you both hit the one-two backstep at the same time, we should be able to do something with you." Privately, he admitted: "They've been great. They have really entered into the spirit." Then added, in a dark mutter, "I just hope we get good weather".
For whom the martini is drunk
As allied soldiers were riding triumphantly through the streets of Paris on 25 August 1944, collecting kisses and hugs from Parisiennes, the 46-year-old Ernest Hemingway had only one concern: getting a drink.
Freshly arrived from Spain, armed with a machine-gun and accompanied by a group of Resistance fighters, he hitched a lift on a jeep to the Place Vendôme in Paris, the address of the Ritz Hotel, which he had discovered in the 1920s with F Scott Fitzgerald.
Finding the hotel occupied by senior German officers, Hemingway decided to liberate it. The writer, who, at the time, was correspondent for Collier's Magazine, is said to have taken prisoners and located an excellent stock of brandy in the cellar. On the upper floors of the hotel, he found no one, only clean laundry, which he peppered with bullets. Then he settled down in the bar, ordered a round of martinis, and got blind drunk.
Tomorrow, at the Ritz bar, I will be joining a group of foreign and war correspondents to pay tribute to our late fellow-journalist.Reuse content