Winter 2007, Volume 23.2
Dancing with the Dentist at the Blue Gardenia Ballroom
This is Michael Fedo’s second appearance in Weber Studies. His stories have also appeared in North American Review, American Way, North Dakota Quarterly, American West Airlines Magazine, and elsewhere. He has also published seven books, most notably The Lynchings in Duluth, The Man From Lake Wobegon, and the novel, Indians in the Arborvitae. His stories have been two-time finalists for Maggies, and he has received a Pushcart nomination. Read another story by Michael Fedo previously published in Weber Studies: Vol. 21.3.
Mother’s people were charter members of the Ancient of Days Fellowship Church in Argyle, Minnesota, which discouraged lapses in moral turpitude—social dancing ranking high on their list. As Rev. Eggerstad often articulated in his sermons, dancing was a double-edged sword that incited carnality, and since dances were mostly held in establishments that sold liquor, an otherwise upright Ancient of Dayer might also be tempted to imbibe. The implication was clear; stay away from denizens of dance.
That dictum more or less stood until the arrival of David Flaunders, DDS to our community. Dr. Flaunders required prospective patients to dance with him at outings he hosted at the Blue Gardenia Ballroom on County Road MM.
But near the end of last week’s long-distance phone conversation with Mother, she announced that the Blue Gardenia was being razed to make room for a fitness emporium. "It’s just as well," Mother said. "It was becoming an eyesore, and had been vacant for years. Not that I’ll miss it. Nobody in our family was a dancer."
Certainly not my mother. She never would have entered the Blue Gardenia except that she suffered from temporal mandibular joint dysfunction that brought on terrible earaches. She was in desperate need of dental attention.
We wouldn’t have even considered Dr. Flaunders, but our town’s other dentist, Harmon Dwight, at 80, saw fewer and fewer caries. He eschewed x-rays, said they were dangerous and overrated. He’d tell you everything looked fine, when in fact you had a thumb-sized cavity devouring a bicuspid and adjacent molar.
When Mother experienced intense discomfort, her physician told her to see the dentist. Old Doc Dwight told her she needed to relax. A hot bath before retiring each evening was just the ticket. That he didn’t charge for his advice was no consolation; Mother was in agony. Since other Ancient of Dayers had already breached the church’s position on dance for toothache relief, Mother made an appointment with Dr. Flaunders, and while she was at it, also arranged a check-up for 12 year-old me.
We learned through the grapevine that the new dentist had cut quite a rug during his undergraduate days, and had choreographed musical theater in college and community playhouses. He never lost his enthusiasm for dance, and his dental brochures induced prospective patients to "Trip the light fantastic, and experience joie de vivre."
Dr. Flaunders also scheduled mother’s oldest brother, Emil, who had recently dropped his upper plate against the ceramic tiles on his bathroom floor and didn’t trust Doc Dwight to repair it. Uncle Emil had misgivings about dancing though, and expected he would dance just once with Mother. "One little sashay around the floor, Sis, and I’m outta there," he announced, then complained about not having any decent clothes for the affair.
For the Friday dance, Uncle Emil showed up in a hoary suit of blue serge that he’d purchased with his mustering out pay following the end of the Korean War. He wore a plaid cotton shirt beneath the double-breasted coat and a maroon string tie with a large silver steer’s head clasp, like those favored by members of country swing bands that occasionally came to town for summer dances at the Galahad Park pavilion.
Mother wore a black party dress, and had me pull a sweater over my white shirt so she wouldn’t have to iron it. I clipped on a necktie, and off we went.
I should say something about the absence of my father. Dad was temporarily working in some Arabian oil field. It didn’t turn out to be temporary in the end because he and Mother separated the next year but didn’t divorce for religious reasons. So my father never danced with Dr. Flaunders, nor, I believe, did he know that we did. It wouldn’t have mattered since Dad never went through a new members orientation class at Ancient of Days, and thus hadn’t enrolled in the congregation.
The Blue Gardenia was aptly named; a large blue neon light shaped like a gardenia grew out of the neon banner beneath it that proclaimed:
BLUE GARDENIA BALLROOM
HAPPY HOUR NITELY FROM 5-6
DANCING THURSDAY THRU SATURDAY
The inside was wallpapered in a smoky pink festooned with individual blue gardenia blossoms.
"The owners either don’t know anything about gardenias, which are white, or they’re trying to make a point," Mother remarked. "But I can’t possibly imagine what point they’re making with these blue gardenias."
Dr. Flaunders paid a discounted admission for his guests on dance night, and allowed them to put one beverage of choice on his tab. Anything beyond that, he said, we were on our own.
We were ushered to a long table in front of the bandstand, where our host stood and greeted each of us, shaking hands and thanking us for joining him, while Darcy, his receptionist, checked off names as patients arrived.
The dentist was a towering lumberjack of a man with a light brown beard. It made him a distinct figure around town, because he was the only hirsute member of the professional class.
After everyone was seated Dr. Flaunders said that he became much more at ease with the drill or when he performed root canals on patients with whom he had danced. "So often when I look into faces of folks in the office, I see anxiety and fear, and you all must know it is never my intention to cause you either. But here at the Blue Gardenia, I observe smiles on your faces—well, most of them, anyway." Scowling fiercely, Uncle Emil clenched his jaws
"I believe that when we take care of our bodies, including teeth and gums, we lead more fulfilling lives. I’ve seldom seen a dancer who doesn’t have a ready smile. Folks who don’t dance are less apt to smile, and smiling and dentistry go hand-in-glove." He paused, and beaming, extended outstretched hands, as if preparing to pronounce a benediction.
But The Five Hot Jaspers (a four-brother and sister family combo) began playing a tune someone at the table recognized as "Blue Gardenia."
"An old Nat ‘King’ Cole record," a portly, bald man said, as Dr. Flaunders escorted Mrs. Kavanagh, a middle-aged woman with blond, coiffed hair, to the dance floor. Uncle Emil harrumphed and drummed his thick fingers on the table.
While the dentist and Mrs. Kavanagh danced, Rosalind Impollito-Maxtead, a gray-haired woman wearing a colorful African headscarf and silk caftan, spoke.
"In my field there are artists and there are artistes," she said. Mrs. Impollito-Maxtead was our local arts impresario, had directed plays at the high school, and often talked about performing in light opera when she lived in Grand Forks. More recently, she hosted soirees at her apartment for local artists and musicians, but not dancers. "There just isn’t room, you see," she would say. She was what Mother called "a grandiloquent lady," who often gestured for emphasis with a mother-of-pearl cigarette holder in her hand. "Similarly, there are dentists, and dentistes," she continued. "Our Dr. Flaunders is the very essence of dentiste. So artful with the tools of his trade, and he’s a terpsichorean par excellence. Until you’ve waltzed with David Flaunders, you haven’t waltzed at all." She smiled broadly and cleared her throat. "I have requested the Five Hot Jaspers play a mazurka before intermission. One seldom encounters a mazurka these days, but my, how I’d love to dance one with this dentist." She applauded as the dance ended and Dr. Flaunders returned Mrs. Kavanagh to the table.
"You know, Mrs. Kavanagh here is the first Kavanagh with a K I’ve ever met," Dr. Flaunders said. "Back home in Ontonagon there was a family of Cavanaghs with a C. Wonderful dancers they were too, from the mister and missus, right down to little Nancy, their youngest."
Dr. Flaunders looked up and down table and selected Mother for the next dance, leading her onto the floor during the second measure of "You and the Night and the Music." Mother blushed during the dance, and was probably explaining that she had never been much of a dancer. I’m pretty sure the doc was telling her she was doing just fine, and they’d soon set her up with a hard plastic tooth guard that would solve her TMJ problem.
After he returned with Mother, the band started the "She’s Too Fat Polka," and the dentist grabbed another young boy and me. As he whirled and bounced us, he said he was glad we were there because it would be awkward dancing with a woman during that number. "She might take it personally," he said, adding he did have a few lady patients he described as "little old chubba-lubbas," which made us laugh.
Uncle Emil sat stolidly through the initial dances staring at his soft-drink glass, and turning it round and round with his right hand. He was still staring when Dr. Flaunders tapped his shoulder. "You’re next, Mr. McMaster," he said.
Uncle Emil crimsoned. "Well, who am I supposed to dance with?"
Dr. Flaunders pulled him to his feet. "With me," he said. "Who else?" And suddenly they were out on the floor. My poor uncle, his veins bulging beneath his collar, looked helplessly back at Mother. But he was caught by the muscular dentist who quickly dipped him practically to the floor, then drew him up and twirled him. "Bravo, Mr. McMaster," the dentist said, bowing and clapping his hands. "Bravo," he repeated, then guided my uncle through the remainder of the fox trot, holding him at arms’ length, dipping him twice more as Toni Jasper sang an old Fred Astaire number, "I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket."
Red-faced, perspiring, Uncle Emil pulled away from the dentist, who held his arm as they approached the table. Uncle Emil sat, breathing heavily, his temples pulsating. "I never shoulda come," he rasped to Mother after Dr. Flaunders escorted another patient onto the floor for a tango. My uncle loosened the top button on his shirt.
"Would you just look at those two?" Mother said, watching the dentist and his new partner. "Aren’t they something?"
They were. Unlike the rest of us, who more or less clomped about, they glided gracefully over the floor. Toni Jasper could hardly keep her eyes off them, and when the tango ended, she stood and applauded. Dr. Flaunders blew her a kiss and invited her to dance the next number with him. It turned out to be a Charleston. "I better be next," said Mrs. Impollito-Maxtead. "While I don’t mind a dance that’s upbeat and sprightly, the Charleston has never been my cup of tea."
"Dancing with a dentist, for crying out loud," groused Uncle Emil, squirming in his chair. "I’m going home." He stood and retreated.
The next day he called and told Mother he was finished with dentists. He’d have the plate repaired, but after that if an emergency arose he’d either go back with Doc Dwight, or drive all the way to Thief River Falls to see someone else.
A new owner took over the Blue Gardenia five years later. He was from out of town, a fellow who, it was reported, came into a sizeable settlement by suing a company that made Chinese fortune cookies. Folks said he supposedly claimed a cookie’s fortune that promised him wealth didn’t come true. Though it did, of course, following the settlement.
He bought the Blue Gardenia at a bargain price and right away initiated changes. The club was renamed The Joint, and the traditional dance ensembles so beloved by our dentist were replaced with rock bands with names like Faces of Bread, Peroxide Oatmeal, and Dark Brown Frog Breath to liven up the place and attract a younger crowd. As rumors surfaced about the presence of illicit drugs on the premises, Dr. Flaunders and his patients grew increasingly uncomfortable. Not surprisingly the name change tended to support the notion of narcotics traffic, and eventually the owner grew weary of dealing with routine visits by our zealous sheriff’s department. Attempts to sell the place were unsuccessful, and the owner walked away from his bank loan after about a year.
Meanwhile Dr. Flaunders shaved his beard and tried sustaining his dancing sessions with patients by holding forth at the Moss Mill Supper Club in Newfolden, 15 miles distant. But he soon deemed this establishment somewhat déclassé: his entourage missed the discounts and preferential treatment accorded by the old Blue Gardenia.
One day a form letter arrived from Dr. Flaunders’ office announcing he was selling his practice and moving to Albuquerque. The letterhead on his missive had a cartoon drawing of a dentist tap dancing while whirling a patient’s chair and holding a drill before her mouth. At the top of the page was printed in bold capitals: DANCE AND THE WORLD DANCES WITH YOU. FLOSS AND YOU FLOSS ALONE. Mother and I both wondered what the slogan might mean. Dr. Flaunders wrote that he was grateful for our patronage and had especially enjoyed meeting so many of us through dance. He expressed hope that after his departure we’d still find time for both dancing and flossing.
It was ironic then, the day after my telephone chat with Mother, that I opened a package sent by an old high school classmate, a dentist now living in Albuquerque. Inside was a book titled "Embracing the Dance: a Primer for Dentists," by David Flaunders, DDS. Part memoir, and part philosophy, the book encourages dentists everywhere to start dancing, especially with patients as an approach to building rapport. A blurb on the back cover stated that he was "The dancing dentist," host of "Fox Trot Follies," on Albuquerque’s Ballroom Cable Channel, and that he initiated the symbiotic relationship between dentistry and dancing at the Blue Gardenia Ballroom in Argyle, Minnesota.