The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 14: BEST FOOT FORWARDClick here for previous chapters: Ch.13 Ch.12 Ch.11 Ch.10
Ch.9 Ch.8 Ch.7 Ch.6 Ch. 5 Ch. 4 Ch. 3 Ch. 2 Ch. 1
October 1, 2010
The other day Grace asked me to look over what she had written for her maid of honor toast, which she’ll deliver at the wedding reception. As with all else in this wedding, she has to deal with not one bride but three—and sisters, to boot—so she is feeling something like triple the pressure to do well.
No surprise, given Grace’s sweet nature and writing talent, the sentiments she conveyed were touching and eloquently expressed. She’ll be fine. But reading this reminded me that I had yet to think about my own toast for the reception. So later that day, as I was driving the Wisconsin countryside on my way to a business meeting in Milwaukee, I started thinking about that little speech and what I would want to say in it. And much to my surprise I found myself starting to tear up.
Here we go….
Everything that can be planned has been planned, so as we get down to the wire we are mostly left to hoping—especially for good weather. Fortunately, autumn is right on schedule in northeast Wisconsin, and the leaves are taking on their color as if they have been reading the wedding playbook. So our only remaining wish is that it won’t be raining on October 9. If it’s not too cool, even better, but mostly we’re hoping it doesn’t rain. We’ve asked the Norbertine fathers to go straight to the top—to St. Norbert himself—to call in any favors they may have.
The only other remaining piece of business is the fancy footwork.
You’ll recall that many journal entries ago I talked about pursuing dance lessons so that I might have a proper father-daughter dance with the girls. Now, you may have chalked up my delay to the usual procrastination, and to some extent I won’t deny that. But in truth, the main reason I waited so long to start the lessons is so I couldn’t get rusty before I got to show my moves in the first place.
Over the summer a friend of mine, Michael Frohna, asked how the wedding planning was going. I said things were going along fine, but that I still hadn’t moved toward finding someone to teach me how to navigate a ballroom.
Michael lit up, said he and his wife were taking lessons with a wonderful dance instructor who specialized in individualized attention. Her name was Janet Gollnick, and Michael got to know her when Janet oversaw the choreography for Michael and other prominent locals who participated in a Dancing With the Stars-type charity event here last year. “You and Deb should definitely give her a call,” he said. “She’s wonderful.” He gave me her contact information.
I thanked him, took the information home—and set it down on my bureau for a few months. But in time that circled “October 9” on the calendar began to taunt me, so I retrieved Michael’s information and sent Janet an e-mail:
“On October 9 my wife Deb and I will see three of our daughters (we have four in total) get married at Old St. Joe. Deb and I are interested in getting some rudimentary dance lessons so I can do a respectable father-daughter dance. Beyond that, because we have three brides, we have an idea for a first dance that will involve all the girls and their new grooms. I can explain the idea but it will need some choreography, as you might imagine. Anyway, I thought I’d get in touch to see if this is something that might appeal to you.”
I hit “send”—and immediately began second-guessing myself. Would I look like an idiot? Would there be enough time to not look like an idiot? Would it even be fair to the girls to try something like this when they have so much else to worry about? Would the Austrian legation lodge an official protest over what we were doing to their national patrimony?
But the next afternoon Janet sent her reply: “Yes, I would love to help with the first-dance choreography and training for the brides and grooms, and would love to teach you and your wife. What a wonderful opportunity for me—it has never been my privilege to work with three daughters as they become brides…. I look forward to your call and to the teaching. Janet.”
So there it was; well-advised or not, we were on our way. As wise old Ecclesiastes said, it’s time to dance.
Mid-evening at the DanceSport studio in downtown Green Bay. The hardwood dance floor is commodious yet intimate, like a nice-sized living room stripped of furniture. It feels all the more intimate as it’s just Janet and Helen watching me waltz Deb around the floor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ less accomplished aunt and uncle.
Well, just Janet and Helen and the camera guy from WLUK-Channel 11.
As the wedding has come closer, the local media have rediscovered the story. We have talked to various Green Bay stations and just did a long interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette for a feature story that is scheduled to appear shortly before the wedding.
But a program on Channel 11, Good Day, Wisconsin, pitched us with a unique angle. They wanted to focus on all the various local vendors we are using, for a veritable series of reports on the wedding. So they have talked to Chef Lindsey the cake-baker, photographer Jerry Turba, the hair stylist, the florist, and so on. And because they’d heard we were taking dancing lessons, they wanted to know whether they could come out and film us. Janet didn’t mind, and, perversely, we didn’t either. What’s the point of embarrassing yourself if there’s no one to see it?
So as we went through our paces, the young cameraman quietly filmed away. Once or twice I noticed him lowering the camera to floor level, presumably to capture that dazzling footwork. Right on cue my feet improvised an ugly two-step that I guarantee you is not found in any instruction book, completely throwing Deb and stopping us dead. Hmmm..… maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
A charming and graceful woman, Janet is also an experienced teacher. She is unfailingly encouraging but at the same time not especially indulgent of one’s newbie-ness. She believes in plunging you into dance more or less the way your equally loving dad might have steered you straight onto a busy freeway to teach you how to drive.
Within our first minutes together, Janet had showed Deb and me the basic box step of the waltz, and before long we were getting comfortable enough with it to begin moving about the floor in a gentle, if tentative, rotation. It felt a bit awkward at times, as we could see in one another’s moving lips the earnest counting of steps. But as the footwork became a little more second-nature, I relaxed and let my feet go into more of a gliding motion, not as jerky. Deb did too. Catching occasional glances of my wife and I in the mirror, it actually didn’t look too bad. We were dancing!
A waltz, of course, is defined by a three-count beat. One two three, one two three… When we think of the dance, we also typically imagine the timeless Viennese music of the Strausses. But all sorts of songs in effect are waltzes. Stephen Sondheim’s poignant Send in the Clowns is a waltz (indeed, the show that number comes from, A Little Night Music, is composed entirely of waltzes). The traditional tune Greensleeves is a waltz, and so is Heartland’s recent country hit (and wedding staple), I Loved Her First.
Janet got us on the subject of music, because it was important to quickly settle on what our selection would be. We kicked around a few possibilities, but one evening Janet played us a sprightly instrumental version of Moon River. It had been brought to her attention by one of her dance assistants, a tall young man named Rane, who thought it might work for this. Henry Mancini's enduring tune is wonderful, of course, and the tempo of this version hit us as just right for dancing a comfortable waltz. And since it was quite short, we could repeat it for each daughterly turn. So this would become our soundtrack as we went through our paces.
With the music selected, Janet quickly began to choreograph a simple but elegant routine for me to dance in succession with each daughter. I will now describe it here, and if you waltz, this will seem very clear and straightforward to you. If you don’t, well, just take my word for it, it’s deceptively elegant, even when danced by a rank amateur.
Deb will lead one bride to the center of the dance floor, where I’ll be waiting for her. After we acknowledge one another, I’ll take my daughter into my arms with the start of the music. We will first execute eight simple box steps, rotating all the way, after which the daughter will do a graceful spin beneath my arm. We will then transition to a “spiral” progression for another run six beats, after which she will do another underarm turn, finishing with a light flourish to the audience. At that point, Deb will be escorting out the next daughter, and so on. The dance will end with me waltzing with Grace and the three couples dancing with one another.
Janet kept drilling us. Sometimes she danced with me, sometimes with Deb, and sometimes with both of us. And of course, Deb and I danced together quite a bit, validating the feeling I’d had for some time that we would enjoy learning to properly dance. Janet even showed us how the waltz can easily morph into a foxtrot or rumba. I’m already planning how, once the wedding is over, my wife and I might actually get out for an old-fashioned dinner-dance date!
After our first few lessons Helen joined in as well. She had just returned from a visit to Maryland, where she was bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding and got the chance to bring her sisters up to speed on the wedding plans. Helen, our natural-born athlete, took to the steps easily. She danced in heels the same elevation as her wedding shoes, so she could get accustomed to the feeling. That made her exactly the same height as me, which I found a little unsettling.
It had taken a couple lessons, but I was finally getting somewhat familiar with the routine. Still, I kept running into trouble during the first of the turns. I realized that at that point I was not lined up the way I had begun the dance, and in trying to “correct” for that I was starting to think about what my feet were doing—and thinking is fatal in a novice dancer. I was almost literally tripping over myself.
With much patience Janet finally got me over that hurdle, at least when I was dancing with her. Going over the routine with Helen, however, I was still having trouble with the turn. But with Janet’s sharp eye, we finally figured that out, too. In doing her turn, Helen was making a tight little pirouette, in place. But she was supposed to make more of a full turn, almost like she was taking a mini-stroll. When she executed the step that way, it created enough time for us to come back together the way Janet’s play was drawn up.
I did another run-through with her, which went much better. Then I did one final practice run with Janet. We finished with a turnout flourish to our imaginary audience, then bowed to one another.
“That’s beautiful, really lovely,” Janet said. “Let’s print that one.”
I smiled, imagining myself for just a moment in white tie and tails. Maybe we’ll pull this off yet.
Amid all this last-minute activity, I celebrated a birthday. I won’t say which one, but if you are of a certain age yourself you’ll know it as the same figure the feds made us loathe in the ‘70s when, during the energy crisis, it became the national speed limit.
Now, I don’t get too excited about birthdays, especially my own, but it didn’t take me long to notice that Wisconsinites take great pleasure in them. In fact, it’s our custom at St. Norbert College that every employee, on his or her birthday, gets a congratulatory e-mail from the president. The e-mail links them to a comic video that features me firing up an acetylene torch. (And yes, it was as much fun to film as it sounds.)
At any rate, this particular Friday afternoon I was in my office, minding my own business. I may even have been snacking on some Whoppers, the chocolate-covered malted milk balls that I have a bit of a weakness for.
About 2 o’clock, faculty and staff began poking into my office, in two’s and three’s, to wish me a happy birthday. That was not a little suspicious in and of itself. But the truly odd thing was, they all came bearing gifts—and the gifts were all the same. Cartons and boxes and bags…of Whoppers.
The folks from Mission and Heritage brought in a Whopper cake. The little kids from the day-care center brought in tiny packets of Whoppers. Brian Pirman, a professor of graphic design, brought in a giant Whopper box he had made up, showing my face artfully plugged into the Whoppers logo where the O is supposed to be.
Turns out that a few days earlier those fun-loving sisters in my office, Amy and Jamie, had arranged to send the entire campus an e-mail letting folks know my birthday was coming up, that they were all invited to come by for a piece of cake—and by the way, that it might be nice if they brought me a present of Whoppers.
For the purposes of that one note, incidentally, I was removed from the campus e-mail system. As I didn’t even know we could do that, this was a handy piece of information.
Anyway, the whole event put an altogether contemporary spin on the ancient Norbertine concept of communio. And now I have about a hundred boxes of Whoppers stowed in the office-supply closet.
Fortunately, as there’s no actual food product in Whoppers, they can never go bad.
NEXT: Wedding bells.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.