I dreamed about Rita Hayworth last night.
In the dream, I ran into her at a party in New York City. "Hi, Rita," I said.
"You recognized me," she said. "Did you do anything for Canada Day yesterday?"
"I didn't, either. I live in a small town in Illinois. It doesn't matter."
"I suppose I could have ordered a pizza with Canadian bacon on it," I said. She laughed, and the dream abruptly shifted, as dreams do, to something entirely different and not nearly as pleasant.
I told my wife about it after we were both awake. She wasn't impressed. "Rita Hayworth was before our time," she pointed out.
"That doesn't matter in dreams. In the dream, we were both about 60."
"If you'd dreamed about Ginger Rogers, it might have at least made sense."
"I once danced with Ginger Rogers," I said. "At least, I think it was Ginger Rogers."
"She lived around here." I stopped. Melody was getting that look spouses get when you're about to launch into a story they've heard a thousand times or so, and it felt prudent not to burden her with it any further.
You haven't heard it a thousand times or so, however.
Here's the whole tale.
In 1978, Melody and I and our small family became active in the Ashland International Folk Dancers, a group whose name explains exactly what it did. We continued dancing with the AIFD for the next 44 years, until COVID shut it down (temporarily, we still hope) in 2020.
For most of that time, the group met on Friday nights at the Ashland Community Center, a lovely Craftsman-style building from the 1920s with a marvelous dance floor. The Community Center stood across the street from the lower end of Ashland's enormous and gorgeous Lithia Park, which starts there and stretches south for about a mile along the tumbling waters of Ashland Creek. By the time the COVID shutdown came, the AIFD had dwindled to ten or twelve mostly older dancers; but in the 80s and 90s it was big and enthusiastic. On warm summer nights we would open the doors, and the music and some of the dancing would spill over onto the sidewalk outside.
The lower end of Lithia Park also houses the well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the nation's premiere small theaters. There is head-in parking directly across the steet from the Community Center, and play-goers often park there, where they can cross the creek on a convenient footbridge and have a pleasant stroll through the park on their way to an evening of theater. It was not uncommon for some of those play-goers to be attracted by our dancing, and to drop in briefly to watch. Sometimes the bolder ones would join in.
During the 1980s, while this was going on, Ginger Rogers was living full-time at the ranch she had bought as a vacation retreat in 1940, on the Rogue River near the small community of Shady Cove, 40 miles or so from Ashland. She mostly stayed out of the limelight, but she was neither a recluse nor a miser; she donated generously to the arts community in southern Oregon, including especially the Shakespeare Festival, whose plays she occasionally attended.
So, this happened: on one of those warm summer Friday nights, sometime around 1983, three women walked in through the open door of the Community Center while we were dancing. They were all in their 60s or 70s, and they had broad, joyful smiles on their faces. "I didn't know this was going on," one of them said. They sat together in three of the empty chairs lining the room's walls, put there both for our own use between dances and for our occasional visitors.
The next dance on the program happened to be a mixer - a couples' dance with many verses, with a partner change on each verse. One of the regular dancers walked over to the visitors and asked if any of them would like to join us. One of them said yes. She looked very familiar.
We didn't use a caller, but the pattern of this dance was relatively simple and we did a quick walkthrough, and by the time the partner change delivered our visitor to me she had it pretty well down. I talked her through it, but that didn't really seem necessary. She was sure on her feet, and incredibly light in my arms, as if we had been dancing together forever. The pattern ended with a brief waltz and a spin, and I released her to the next man in the circle. Shortly after that, the music ended.
"That was fun," she said. "It's been too long. But we have to go." She corralled her two friends and they left, heading across the street toward the theater.
"Was that who I think it was?" someone asked.
"Could have been," someone else said. "She has a ranch on the Rogue River." It was clear that others had leaped to the same conclusion I had.
We had been touched, briefly, by fame.
So that's how I once danced with Ginger Rogers. Probably.
It was before the Internet, so it was less convenient to find a picture of her then than it would be now; but a few days later I walked down to the Ashland Public Library, where I would later be employed as a reference librarian for eighteen years, and went looking. I found plenty of pictures in books in the stacks, as well as in a few in the reference section, and they all matched my memory of the woman who had joined our dance that night. And she definitely lived nearby and had a reason to be in town. In the few square feet of town where we were dancing.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
So why did I start this account with Rita Hayworth? Well, she and Ginger Rogers were cousins by marriage. And that, and my dream, are the only excuses you are going to get.