As I mentioned the other day, I grew up hearing that on the ninth day, my true love gave me "nine ladies waiting". This was the lyric that Fred Waring' Pennsylvanians sang, and as my grandfather was the lead baritone for that wonderful vocal ensemble, it never occurred to me to wonder if it was the right lyric. But that "waiting" bothered me. What were the ladies waiting for? Why did they have to wait? Having just experienced the yearly agonizing wait for Christmas, and then the four endless days between Christmas and my birthday, and still no pony in sight, which meant another year of waiting until maybe, just maybe, if I was good enough, if my grades were high, if I was polite, if if if, there might be a pony… after all that, I felt a kinship and solidarity with the Waiting Nine.
The men in the song, the lords of the very next verse, were allowed to be leaping: into the dance, into the future, to the top of the porch, to the top of the wall, and right on over the ding-dang walls. In my growing-up years, boys were allowed to be athletic, girls were not. But more important, boys were allowed to show that they were smart. That would have been OK, but most of the time… they weren't. No offense, gents, God knows I love you (and you know it, too), but back then, on any given day in primary, middle or high school, my girl friends and I could have made mince of you. Because teachers tended to call on you more often, we were usually denied that triumph. When you were rude, you were full of high spirits. When we were rude, we were uppity. Dire fates were predicted for smart, sassy girls, and indeed, one of those fates came early and fast: if you were smarter than a boy you liked, and showed it, especially in front of other people, he would never like you back. So you put a bridle on your mind, a bit in your mouth, and, holding a tight rein, learned to trot so slow and hide so well that for many women it is the work of a lifetime to come back out of that self-imposed hobbling.
I would like to think that times have changed, but as I see the early hyper-sexualization of little girls, I think things are the same. And worse. Even without having children of my own, I find I am sometimes awake long into the night worrying about the girls. The various ways in which our culture is failing our children (boys, too) break my heart.
Back to the song. When I learned that there were alternate lyrics for the ninth verse, that the nine ladies were not waiting, but dancing – dancing! – I was thrilled. Perhaps Waring preferred the "waiting" because he was a little bit of a sexist, perhaps becasue it is a more singable lyric, and that can be enough for the singing of a song. But not for the living of a life. Dancing our lives is what we could have been doing all along, and what we must ensure our girls have the right and the power to do.