Long before “Dancing with the Stars,” there was “Dancing with the Mop.” When I grew up back in the ’50s and ’60s, in the Cohen household, without reality TV we made our own entertainment. No one in my small family was particularly talented, but that didn’t stop us from trying out our moves at family get-togethers.
Whenever the extended family — my two great-uncles, Lou and Mickey — came to dinner, dancing started when the meal ended. Uncle Mickey was my favorite, and usually I would waltz with him while my mother circled round the living room floor with her rather stiff but obedient dance partner, a mop.
At weddings and Bar Mitzvahs my mother danced with my father, but for family floor shows, the mop was her preferred partner. In fact, I saw her two-step with that mop more than I ever saw her wash the floor with it.
We’d play our favorite show tunes from Sweet Charity, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fiddler on the Roof, mouth the words to “Sunrise Sunset” and laugh as much as we would dance. My favorite was doing the Russian kazatzkas to the “Wedding Dance” from Fiddler. I’d squat and kick till I transported myself back to mother Russia where my mom Sally, once called Sarushka, was born.
As a young child, I also relished spying on my parents’ dance lessons with the visiting teacher who came to our house once a week. I’d sneak out of bed, lie on my belly, hang head first at the top of the stairs and watch my mom and dad fox trot, waltz, cha cha and even tango. Their smooth moves expressed a harmonious quality otherwise absent from their often discordant coupling.
Another dance obsession of my youth was watching my Uncle Mickey, a confirmed bachelor, in action at the Breakers Hotel in Atlantic City where we vacationed each summer. By the sea, the Breakers offered a taste of the Borscht Belt. Each evening, at the hotel nightclub, Jewish comedians told their jokes in English until they reached the dirty punch line; then the joke switched to Yiddish. I missed the end of every single joke. After the show came the best part: watching Mickey romance the ladies. Bald, with piercing blue eyes, he resembled the novelist and ladies’ man Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Mickey’s exuberance, demonstrated by the sloppy wet kisses he planted on our cheeks and the bear hugs he always greeted us with, empowered him to command the dance floor with women of all different heights and shapes. Each night we anxiously waited to see who Mickey would lead around the floor, a tall sexy redhead who towered over him or a beautiful petite blonde just his size.
Once he had a Scottish Jewish girlfriend. (Who knew there were Jews in Scotland?) Her brogue contrasted with Mickey’s thick Jewish accent. His accent was so dense that, years later, when I played a tape of Mickey talking about our family’s past in a Russian shtetl for my daughter Rebecca, she couldn’t understand a word.
Summer after summer, Mickey amused us; so when he visited, we did our best to amuse him. At family dinners, after “Dancing with the Mop,” the second act was the musical performance, our prescient version of “America’s Got Talent” — “The Cohen’s Don’t.” The guests developed that “oh no, not again” glazed look, but that didn’t stop us.
First, my big sister, Renee, pulled her large, heavy accordion out of its imposing blue leather-trimmed case and set up her music stand. Then my mother put on her cat’s-eye glasses and took out her freshly sharpened pencil to tap out the beat as my sister played competent versions of classic accordion tunes from “Can Can” to “O Sole Mia.”
The entertainment went downhill when I took out my flute. My rendition of “Claire de Lune” could have been renamed “Clear the Room.” Eventually I couldn’t stand listening to my own music and quit by age 12.
When I was older I gave the flute to my niece Amy. She played it for years in high school and college band, but in the end she too abandoned it. Eventually, when infirmity forced my parents to sell their house, they left the accordion behind. The records remain stored in my attic. In 1974 a wrecker’s ball knocked down the Breaker’s Hotel.
Now, though I still love to dance, the only floor show where Mickey and my mother perform is in heaven, and the mop at my house is reserved for cleaning the floor.