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Dancing Day 1920



Elizabeth Hunter, known to all as Bessie, sat with a group of friends on the stone stairs of the London Ontario Normal School awaiting the results of their final exams. Bessie had decided to cut her long, lush, black hair into a new bob and was twisting a curl with the finger of her right hand. The others appeared nervous, but not her, she was too busy thinking of the party planned for that night.


“Your mother is going to have a fit,” one of the girls said, reaching out and giving Bessie’s hair a playful tug. Bessie laughed.


“I don’t care, this is the 20th century. It’s my hair, and I’ll do with it as I please.”


The group of young women, ages eighteen to twenty, had spent the last year in the city, living in a boarding house, preparing to be teachers. It wasn’t enough to simply pass, they had to do well in all manner of subjects, from history to English, science, philosophy, and arithmetic. Still thinking of the party, Bessie heard the doors of the Normal School burst open, her classmates tumbling out. “They’re up! They’re posted!” A girl in a mauve cloche hat called out, “Bessie, you aced them! Every last one. Come and see.”


As her classmates rushed to check their exam marks, Bessie remained, standing in front of the large glass doors, considering her reflection. At five foot five with jet black hair, a nicely proportioned body, and bright green eyes that could pierce ice, her thoughts weren’t vain, but practical, and more useful than any philosophy would ever bring to the life of a woman from her generation: The greater the beauty, the higher the prize at the altar.


Having checked her exam marks, Bessie looked down the empty hall, the feel of freedom beginning to tickle the tip of her fingers, and she thought again of the party.


The gymnasium tables overflowed with garlands of multicolored flowers, the room feeling as if it had been choked with blue and white bunting. The band was playing “Pretty Baby.” Sipping her glass of punch, Bessie watched her classmates dancing, their celebration, a momentary sanctuary from the uncertainty of their pending futures. The song ended and the band started playing, “Everyone’s Crazy on the Foxtrot." Behind her, through the loud, pulsing music, she heard a man clear his throat. She turned and looked.


“Will you give me the pleasure of dancing with me?”


Bessie smiled. The young man, tall and handsome, was bowing so deeply she thought he might be able to kiss his knees. Tilting her head in agreement, and knowing it would be considered an act of incivility to refuse, she took the stranger's hand and followed him to the dance floor. “And your name would be?” she asked. 




What an odd name, she thought. He doesn't look foreign. His eyes are so bright blue. “I’m Elizabeth,” she replied, thinking that sounded grander than Bessie.


“I know,” Hannibal replied. “One of my friends taught you history and claims you’re the best student he’s ever had.”


Bessie smiled as she followed Hannibal foxtrotting around the room. She knew she’d done well in school, but to be called the best was another boon from this already record-setting day of personal accomplishments.


The song shifted to Al Jolson’s, “A Dangerous Girl.” 


“Would you like another dance?” Hannibal asked, hoping for a yes.


“Certainly, I would,” Bessie replied.


“And just warn me, please … are you a dangerous girl?”


“I think I could be,” Bessie said, smiling, prompting Hannibal to seize her by the waist and twirl her.


They danced more, oblivious to all, Bessie with her dress catching the warm air, enjoying the ease of Hannibal’s movements. She caught a glimpse of the chaperones, their eyes wanting to ensnare. So Victorian, their judgement, she thought, so passé, and where is the fun in that? This nineteen-year-old girl, however, on the road to becoming a professional woman, had chosen to let go, for all to see.

A Charleston began, and Hannibal asked Bessie again. She accepted, and off they went, knees and elbows all akimbo. He flipped her over his back and pulled her between his legs. For a slim man, she thought, he was quite strong.


When the song ended, they stood catching their breath, and to Bessie’s surprise, everyone started clapping, understanding something was unfolding in front of them. Bessie, unable to restrain a smile, knew she should sit down, but it seemed a shame to end such a perfect night by doing what was expected of her. Feeling empowered and unencumbered by the rules, she kept dancing, feeling as if the two of them had been together for years, ignorant of the stir in the room they were causing.

Exhausted, the couple exited the dance floor and headed outside for a stroll.


“I had such a lovely time,” Bessie said, as they walked down Elmwood Avenue.


“I did, too—and oh, my real name, I have to tell you, is not Hannibal, it’s Edward. I just finished a PhD with a specialty in the classics. Which explains the strange name,” he added with a smile. Bessie listened as Edward explained he was there to discuss history with an old friend who taught at the Normal School. Edward’s focus was on ancient battle techniques, and in particular, Hannibal’s, the great Carthaginian general that had fought during the Second Punic War. Hence, the nickname. “Hannibal refused to admit defeat,” Edward continued, “and he rode elephants over the Alps to take the fight to the Roman Republic, even though most of the animals died falling off mountains. He persisted, and he prevailed.”


“My goal is to educate children,” Bessie said, making a mental note to research Hannibal more closely. It sounded like a good lesson in perseverance.


“Mine is to become a history professor,” Edward said, daring to take Bessie’s hand.  She hesitated for a moment, knowing it was improper for her to accept his touch, but left her hand resting in his palm, soaking in the feel of his skin—its warmth and its softness. These are not farmer’s hands, she thought, these are the hands of an educated man.


Swinging their arms in tandem, they continued walking beneath the elms and maples, before entering a small leafy park where a wrought iron bench near a fountain was waiting for them.


“Where are you studying?” Bessie asked.




“I’ve never been.”


“You should come and visit,” he replied. “Care to sit?” 


“I really should get home, I needed to be in by eleven, and it’s past midnight.”


“Just for a minute, then?”


Bessie’s smile said yes––again.


Taking in the quiet of the night, and the feel of Edward’s arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him, she couldn’t stop thinking how happy she was.


“I think you’re the loveliest woman I’ve ever seen,” Edward said, tilting Bessie’s chin up toward his. She knew she should turn away, but instead, she opened her lips meeting his own, letting Edward’s hands delicately travel over her body. When he kissed her neck, she kissed his back, allured by the faint smell of perspiration seeping from his skin, and the taste of him.


As they kissed there came a swishing of the grounds by footsteps, the brushing of dresses and sashes curious to know more, whispering under the light of a lamppost. “Elizabeth Hunter!” the principal shouted. “Come here right now!”


Bessie jumped to her feet and turned to see her classmates standing behind the principal, the chaperone, and her landlady, a look of deep disbelief etched on their faces, mouths aghast, pointing fingers, heads shaking in condemnation.


Edward spoke, and yet, Bessie did not hear his words, frozen in the realization she’d become disgraced.

One of her classmates yelled, “Hussy!”


In a trance, Bessie started to walk to her boarding house, wanting to escape them. Wanting to escape him.


“Do you realize what you’ve done?” the principal called to her.


Yes, she thought, she’d destroyed everything she’d worked so hard for, spitting in the faces of her family, the rules of God, and the United Church she believed in so fervently. 


In her room, tears rolling down her face, she undressed slowly, slipping into her nightgown. To disappear into sleep was the only thing she wanted.


Assaulting her mind were images of Edward trying to defend her. She had told him to go away and had screamed for him to never cross her sight again, whoever he was, Edward or Hannibal.


Why didn't I resist? Hadn’t I promised myself to remain pure until marriage?


The night's events continued to roll around in her head, compressing her heart as much as her body.

Under the covers, she thought of her humiliation. The revelations. The losses. “I made a mockery of chastity and polluted myself with sin,” she whispered in the dark, “and it will never happen again.”

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