Save the next jive for me

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My friend Jill rang the other day and proposed an expedition to the theatre that evening.

"Love to but can't," I responded firmly. "Deadline 9am tomorrow."

Cynically, she ignored this. "It's Ain't Misbehavin'," she continued. "A Fats Waller musical."

As I wailed, she added unscrupulously: "You don't have to decide now. See how the work goes. They'll hold the ticket."

I slogged with ferocious concentration all day and then - pausing only to set the alarm for an extra early start next morning - rushed out to the Tricyle Theatre. Jill grinned at me smugly. "She's a pushover," she announced to our companions. "I knew shewouldn't be able to resist Fats."

More than any of my other friends, Jill shares my passion for mid-20th-century dance music. Grabbing any available men, she and I frolic around her living-room to "Cheek to Cheek"; we sing-along in rock'n'roll cafes; and we have even been known, with an intrepid male friend, to jive in the aisle during a performance by the Chippendales.

We were constricted at Ain't Misbehavin'. The only down-side of this entrancing show is the lack of room for the audience to dance. Unable, as Mr Waller himself recommended, properly to shake our chassis, we had to confine ourselves to jigging around in our seats as the cast magnificently cut the rug on stage. On the way home, the driver responded to the foot-tapping and humming of "The joint is jumping" from the back of his cab by putting on for me a tape of delights from Louis Armstrong and some of the boys. I arrived home skipping and in a daydream about being a Thirties Broadway hoofer.

Ballet was all the rage among the romantic element at my convent school, but I thought it soppy and depressing. My notion of dance is something cheerful, social and apparently spontaneous. And my notion of romance is summed up by a Twiggy reminiscence ofhaving dinner in Hollywood with a group containing the octogenarian Fred Astaire. Afterwards, outside the restaurant, Fred suddenly did a quick soft-shoe-shuffle and then slid down the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) on his knees, crying: "Hollywood, I lov eyou."

Twiggy swore that at this climactic moment an open bus full of stargazing tourists went by; she wondered ever afterwards how they could believe their eyes.

My passion developed despite considerable obstacles to acquiring a knowledge of either dance or dance music. If asked to name a popular singer, my parents would have said Gigli. My mother insisted that Frank Sinatra had no voice; my father simply didn't know who he was. And since the wireless broke down for about four years when I was 10, even outside influences were lacking.

But there was the odd movie. And in County Cork, where I used to spend my summer holidays, there were street-wise girls who sang the hits of the day. There was even a weekly dance in the village hall that I passionately longed to attend. Unfortunately, there was a large, fat, irascible impediment in the shape of the parish priest, who banned under-16s from going. As fast as my contemporaries and I sidled in the back door he threw us out the front, so I never experienced, other than vicariously, what lif e was like in the Ballroom of Romance.

In retrospect, I'm grateful to the priest. Dancing with Guinness-flushed locals might have turned me off the whole idea for life.

I went to university too late to have to learn to dance properly; we jived and did the twist at undergraduate balls, or shuffled around to slow music. So subsequently, in England, I found it was agony trying to dance with anyone older than me, for I didn't know a waltz from a foxtrot, and they would keep trying to teach me.

Middle age, as in so many areas, has brought great liberation, for almost none of my contemporaries nor any of my juniors can dance properly. We all, as Mr Waller would advocate, spread our rhythm around happily and individualistically. The only time much order enters into the proceedings is when two jivers meet. One can never guess who will be a jiver and who won't. A few years ago at a ball I had had a most satisfactory session with an Irish friend; and, panting and hubristic, I mocked an extremely respectable acquaintance from the Foreign Office by offering him the next rock'n'roll slot. Not only did he accept, but the bounder turned out to be the most accomplished jiver I had ever encountered and I was shamed by my amateurism.

But it's not just the dance; it's the words. The greatest joy is when the music drives you wild while the lyrics make you laugh. Fats Waller offered the greatest combination of laughter and music. And though I have several times danced at the feet of George Melly's renditions of such marvellous Fats numbers as "Your Feet's Too Big", Ain't Misbehavin' produced gems we had never heard before, like the wicked "When the Nylons Bloom Again". The only snatches I can remember are `I'm all cool, he's fat and greasy' and - from a magnificently politically incorrect number for a female vocalist - "Find out what they want and how they want it and let them have it just that way".

I doubt if the parish priest would have cared for the show.