So I got there on the dot of eight. Kidlington (as every Inspector Morse fan knows) has a tiny centre. I was picturing a candle-lit village hall. The handful of people would smile and nod when I went in. They have kindly and helpful expressions. Inspector Lewis would hand me a pint of Guinness – 'This'll settle yer nerves, son.'
But Exeter Hall is the size of an aircraft hangar, and far more brightly lit. Scattered around the hall were about twenty stony-faced people. The most stony-faced sat at a table next to a cash box. I sidled up. 'I've just come to try it out,' I said. 'No need to pay, then,' she didn't reply, friendlily. 'That's eight pounds,' she did reply, stony-facedly. 'Plus two to join.' I didn't want to 'join' – I didn't know if I'd like it. 'What if I don't like it?' I said. She didn't have time for this. 'Well you'll be a member ... for life.' I took the clipboard and form she handed me, and tried to work out the logic of this as I headed for an empty table. There were more people now. I felt they were all looking at me. I could tell that they knew. I started to become aware of my movements. How do you walk naturally? I tried to picture my legs like ribbons so that they wouldn't look wooden. Mm ... no, that didn't feel right – my foot went too far forward in the air. Now people were looking at me. I reached the table and busied myself with the form. Name ... job ... OK. Pets ... blood group ... mother's maiden name ... done. That's good – it didn't ask anything about dancing. That would have been irrelevant and intrusive.
The place was filling up now. A man was sitting at my table. 'Been before?' I said, willing him to nervously say 'No.' 'For about three years,' he said expressionlessly, and looked down at his phone. I wished I was him. I made my way back to the desk in short bursts, using knots of old ladies as cover. The stony-faced woman had my life-membership card ready. I wondered what the magnetic strip was for – what could I swipe with it? Did it literally open doors?
Things were starting to happen quickly now. A man and a woman had hopped up on the stage. Crowds of people (where were they coming from?) were pouring onto the dance floor. I joined them. 'Men on one side, women on the other,' said a booming voice from the stage. Before I could move, I found myself facing a smiling middle-aged lady, about my mother's age. (I now realize that I am not 27, as I always imagine myself. No doubt, she saw herself facing a middle-aged man, about her father's age.)
'Hi, I'm Meg,' she said. 'Hi, I'm Meg,' I replied, extremely nervous now. 'Man's left hand to lady's left hand, back a step, forward a step, and spin her anti-clockwise,' boomed the stage. Before I could work out what this even meant, Meg was off, pushing me back, pulling me forward and spinning herself anti-clockwise. We stopped. 'You were supposed to do that,' she said. 'Ladies all change! Six ... seven ... eight!' Someone else was there! We were off. This time I did it, and she – no time to exchange names from now on – looked relaxed about it. 'Ladies all change ... next step!' ordered the bully. I concentrated as though my dignity depended on it. Two partners later, I'd almost grasped the man-spin. No time to be pleased with myself – the third and last step was being demonstrated. This one looked impossible. Spin, step back, open and close your lady, spin, step back. After five minutes with rotating expert partners, I wasn't far off. 'Freestyle!' commanded the voice, and the lights went down. People were asking each other to dance. I spotted someone who was almost as hopeless as me, and asked her if she wanted to dance. We struggled our way painfully through fragments of the routine, but our combined hopelessness was just too high.
The music stopped. Keen to master this now, I scanned the room and spotted someone who was good. 'Dance?' She nodded and said, 'I'm Gwen, by the way.' She was tiny – about up to my top rib if she jumped. We did the three moves a few times. 'I can't believe it's your first time,' she said, 'I thought it must be at least your second.' Wow. She had mistaken me for a second timer! My head swelled. I suddenly saw myself as a modern-jive god. 'At least your second' – the words were echoing round my head. I put a little more panache into a spin. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gwen's head snap back. I had myself in a neck hold. I had spun Gwen the wrong way, hard. 'It's OK, we were all beginners once,' said Gwen, rubbing her neck. 'I'll just sit down for a few minutes,' she said, as I apologized. I sat down too.
It was the beginners' recap now anyway. A depressing affair in a bare, brightly-lit room, where they break down the moves so much that they don't seem like dancing any more. I'd crushed my own high spirits with my assault on Gwen, and I was just going through the motions as we ... erm ... went through the motions. After half an hour, my knowledge had gone backwards, and it was time for the closing freestyle.
My confidence was shot. Someone asked me if I wanted to dance. I wanted to say no, but instead said 'Yes' with a cracking voice and twisted smile. The music started – country rock. The moves were flashing through my mind randomly, interspersed with images of Gwen's head snapping back. I could see my partner was confused by my random movements. My dancing self-esteem had gone. I was deliberately dancing with stiff legs. 'Look who you asked to dance,' I challenged my partner mentally, 'Mr Wooden Legs.' I did a random spin, with my arse deliberately sticking out. The song went on and on – Don't you break my heart, my achy breaky heart ... My movements became more frantic and disconnected. Images whirled in my head ... the man on the stage... Miley Cyrus's giant tongue flapping ... President Kennedy's head snapping back... the Kikuyu circumciser guffawing ...
At last it stopped. 'Thanks,' I said to my partner, who was standing open-mouthed. I turned sharply, for the first time all night, and headed for the car. As I wiped the sweat, or perhaps tears, from my face and started the engine, I could hear some Britney Spears starting up.
The next morning, when I realised it hadn't all been a dream, I surprised myself. Modern jive, I thought – I wouldn't mind trying that again.