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Dancing with Dad

The father daughter dance you’ll never forget. How Mary Dell Harrington’s father started a family tradition. Read more from Mary Dell on her blog about the empty nest, Grown and Flown

Mary Dell writes: Tonight I feel like Cinderella, left behind to clean while her step-sisters attend the ball. My husband and our sixteen year old daughter just departed for the annual Father-Daughter dinner dance – a special date they have kept for nine years in a row. My companions? Certainly not twirling, dress-making mice! I remain at home with our Labradors, a glass of wine, and memories of the night, once upon a time, when I went dancing with Dad.

dad and young daughters, daddy, dad holding baby daughter

This was not a case of a little girl standing on daddy’s toes. This was grown-up ballroom dancing, something I had done very little of in my adult life.  What was remarkable about our date was that Dad was an amazing dancer and, in fact, his abilities gave him near legendary status among my parents’ circle of friends.

It all started fifty years ago when my parents joined their pals at a downtown club for a season of dancing lessons. Every Friday night for several months, Mom would dress in a different cocktail outfit with a waistline that seemed almost as skinny as my dad’s dark tie; they appeared so glamorous.  Waving, they sped off in the red and white Chevy station wagon leaving my older sister and me, in pajamas, at home with an aged babysitter.

I’ve seen black and white photos of my parents and their friends at dance class.  It looks very Mad Men with cocktails and cigarettes, lots of hairspray and lots of laughter on the young faces of friends seated at low tables around the dance floor.  Mr. Dean, the instructor, took them through their paces – foxtrot, waltz, jitterbug, and the Latin steps of cha-cha, rumba – with shrimp cocktails and steaks served afterwards. Though it lasted for only one season, my memory of that time takes up more space than those weeks warrant.

So, my dad, my hard-working, small-town Texan father, became a charming and skilled dancer. “All the ladies want to dance with Daddy,” my mother remarked quite often; she seemed more amused than miffed that her friends wanted to cut in. He led his partners in each dance with the precision he honed as an engineer.

Eight years ago my husband and daughter invited Dad to the Father-Daughter dance and he accepted – meaning I got to go, too! We settled into a table for four.  There was a live band and at least a hundred little girls hopped and twirled with the fathers who improvised their own dance routines. Only a handful of older daughters, like me, attended.

We ordered a bottle of wine and one Shirley Temple.  Even before the salads arrived we were up and, during the next four hours, only sat as each course was brought to the table. Dad danced with me, he danced with his granddaughter and, once, while I was chatting with my husband, I saw him dancing with the twenty-something blond sitting nearby. Though seventy-nine, his abilities to lead his partners were clearly undiminished. He was a stand out.

Sadly, what might have been an annual tradition was not to be.  Though we had tickets and reservations for the four of us to attend the following June, Dad died, suddenly, in mid-May.

I was fortunate to have had a wonderful father for 80 years.  I think of him on the night of the dinner-dance and I miss him, always.

While my husband may not have the dancing skills that his father-in-law possessed, he is dedicated to his family like my father was to us. So, at the stroke of midnight, when he and our daughter return home, I notice him rubbing his back and see that she is carrying the too-high heels. They must have danced every dance – something which would have made my father very proud.

Read more from Grown and Flown on their blog

Grown and Flown

Grown and Flown: Parenting from the Empty Nest reflects on the arc of parenting with an emphasis on 15-25 year olds. Lisa Endlich Heffernan is an author and wrote a NYT Business Bestseller following a Wall Street career. After working in media, Mary Dell Harrington became a school and hospital volunteer. Counting all five of their kids, they have 93 years of parenting experience. They’ve been working moms and stay-at-home moms and have shepherded their children in and out of elementary, middle and high school. With their youngest now seniors in high school, they have the empty nest in sight.

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Grown and Flown

Tuesday 10th of June 2014

Margaret, thanks so much for the kind words and for sharing the dancing story of the men in your life, too.

Margaret Rutherford

Sunday 8th of June 2014

What a beautiful story Mary Dell. I can see your Dad whirling you around as you tell it. My Dad loved to dance as well and my husband does not, something I have to grieve a little. (He makes up for it!). Thank you. I will remember this on Father's Day this year and smile.

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