He was a small Japanese man with a gold tooth that only really showed when he smiled, and that was seldom. Every night, he wore the same striped, double-breasted suit coat with pants that probably never matched anything, and he was one of the best saxophone players I had ever heard. I never knew his name. He must have been about 50 years old, so I imagine that all during World War II, in country or on a beach somewhere, he kept music alive in his heart.

The sax man’s signature theme, one he started and closed with each night, was “Harlem Nocturne,” a slow, smoky piece for the saxophone that goes back to 1939, before we hated each other.

It was Tokyo in 1952, and he and his little band played at the officers club on the Ginza, where if you were enlisted and had an officer friend, you could go and have a drink or two on a rainy night, and listen to him and his band, and dance. Officers danced with their wives and local girls, as if it were 1939 and nothing had ever happened.

There was a girl who sat next to the stage and would, if asked, dance with you. I waited for “Harlem Nocturne,” and I asked her, “Wanna dance?” She didn’t speak a word of English, and I had not yet learned Japanese, but there we were, holding each other and dancing. No subtitles necessary.

I remembered “Harlem Nocturne.” It’s a slow, delicious ballad that evokes smoky bars, foggy streets and the taste of sweet drinks. I remembered dancing to it in high school under colored light bulbs and in a cloud of White Shoulders perfume, in Rosemary DeBranco’s basement rec room.

There was a time when people would say, “Let’s go dancing,” the way we say, “Let’s eat,” or “ Let’s go to the movies.” Not any more. People still dance, but in this century, it’s more like a frantic tribal outburst or a voodoo ritual, played out under colored lights in sweaty clubs where even lovers never touch each other.

They’ve forgotten about the touching part. This is what Francis Albert Sinatra meant when he said, “Dancing is just making love with your clothes on, making love to music.” He’s right.

You can dance inches or feet apart. You can swirl and jab, punch at the sky and work up a sweat and it’s dancing. But it’s not making love to music. Only the old “slow dancing” can do that. That’s the kind where you hold hands and cling to one another, where you can smell what she washed her hair with, feel his breath on your ear, and if it’s the first dance, your hands and hers get moist.

That’s what Frank meant; and the Sisters of St. Joseph knew that, too, when they came up to you at the dances and held a ruler between you and your girl. Twelve inches apart was the rule. They knew, because somewhere way back in a parlor in Indiana or Ohio when the whole world smelled of flowers, before the veil, before the vows, someone had a Victrola and they danced. They knew.

It seems that the YouTubers and Facebookers have forgotten about the touching part. I learned this again when I walked into the local Starbucks and a friend of mine, a pretty blonde in her 30s, was with her friends, and she was twirling slowly about to the music. I walked up to her, took her hands and started to dance. She froze. “What are we doing?” she laughed. “Dancing,” I said. It turned out that she had never danced in the “old fashioned way,” as in two people holding each other, touching one another.

You can still see fathers and mothers of the bride doing it the old-fashioned way at weddings, holding each other, inhaling each other’s memories, while the band reluctantly plays “slow music.” For all I know, Rosemary and the sax man with the gold tooth are long gone. You don’t hear “Harlem Nocturne” anymore, but I’ll bet somewhere, in some bar or party, someone will play it, and some guy will go up to the girl sitting alone in the corner and ask, “Wanna dance?”

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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