IT IS Sunday night at the Hamilton American Legion Hall, and another Parents Without Partners dance party is underway.
The sounds of top 40, past and present, blast through the large speakers and into the crepuscular room.
The disc jockey plays the records non-stop, shutting off his turntable only to announce coming events or to draw numbers for the door prizes: bottles of Lambrusco, packs of wine cooler. Some take to the dance floor, others mingle along the walls and at the surrounding tables; still others sit by themselves, sipping their drinks, staring blankly at the couples on the floor, alone with their thoughts.
"Amigos" work the room, introducing themselves to new members and introducing members to each other. They look confident, assured. They dress nicely. They wear name tags and smile a lot. It seems they never miss a round of the "electric slide," a communal shuffle replete with hand clapping and foot stomping. One of them, a curvaceous black-haired woman in her early 30s, asks a new member to dance, adding, "But don't think you have to if you don't want to." He politely declines.
The disc jockey announces the musical partners dance, and the amigos encourage all to rise. "Pull out anybody who's not dancing," says one. Members exchange partners every minute or so, long enough to squeeze in their name, the number of children they have and a bon mot or two. "This is the closest it gets here to multiple sex," one gentleman quips to his partner. They both laugh and move on.
Is this any way to spend a Sunday night in the throes of mid-life? Twenty or 25 years ago, would they have thought they'd be here tonight? They had new marriages. Children. Mortgages. Plans for the future.
"I feel like I'm at a mixer at the teen center," a slender woman in her 40s says. She looks amused and slightly embarrassed. Indeed, there is a sense of retrogression here. It's a throwback. They've seen each other before -- the minglers and wallflowers, the shy and socially adept, those who always get asked to dance, those who seldom do.
What they share now is what they shared long ago at those teen centers: the desire to couple, to find a partner in life. It could happen here. "It beats the bar scene," is a common refrain. The cold aloofness and the tension of the singles bar are conspicuous by their absence. Beneath the silliness is an unmistakable warmth, almost a communal bonding.
These singles are more than just single -- they're parents. That's what makes the difference You can feel it in the approach. You don't ask, "What's your sign?" You ask, "How old are your kids?" "Who has custody?" It works every time. Children are parents' most important product, just as progress was General Electric's. Here, children are the common denominator.
Beyond that, though, it' business as usual: trying to attract the opposite sex. Looking attractive, externally or internally, is no mean feat for the emotionally ravaged, which many here are. Still, they do their best. They smile and flirt and make eye contact. They wear what flatters or what's supposed to flatter. Some preen and strut; others sit back in subdued confidence, scanning the crowd for prospects. Some enchanted evening . . .
Will tonight be the night? Come the third or fourth hour, the verdict is in. The fortunate pair off, exchange phone numbers, dance slow and close, chat in the hall where there's less noise.
This could be the start of something big: a relationship; perhaps, for those who want it, another marriage. If not, no problem. There will be another month of Sundays.
Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.