They are expected onstage in an hour, when they will translate a year of dedicated rehearsal into their performance debut, the ballet "Une Soiree de Tangos." Never mind that this gaggle of middle-age guys looks better prepared to pass da beer than pas de deux.
"Sometimes we'd go out for a few after our Friday night class, and you should have seen people when we told the bartender we'd just come from ballet practice," says DeWayne Kirksey, 47, a baker by profession. "There'd be 10 heads turning--whoomp!--just like that."
By the time they arrive at the Huntington Beach High School auditorium for Showcase '96, the recent sold-out annual performance of the Huntington Dance Academy, the 14 men are accustomed to second looks and low chuckles.
"We realize we are here for one reason," says Paul Thompson, 48, a photographer, his deadpan expression hinting at an impending punch line, "and that is to be made fun of."
But if the men are out of their element, it is because they are quite into their daughters, who are students at Huntington Dance Academy. When a dearth of male dancers left most of the teenage girls without partners to lift and brace them during essential parts of the ballet, their fathers agreed to stand in.
"This is a rare opportunity for us dads to do something extra with our daughters," says Topper Horack, 51, a teacher at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, "even though we're not the greatest dancers."
Although they may land short of excellence in the regimented genre of onstage ballet, as they wait offstage for their roles in the grand finale, these guys move like natural-born dancers.
Their footwork ranges from an inadvertent mix of false starts, sort-of skips, stunted strides and accidental pirouettes to the simple shift of weight, back and forth, from one leg to the other. There is an amalgamation of backslaps and handshakes, arms that endlessly fold and unfold, intermittent inspections of wristwatches and the shine on their shoes.
It is the choreography of discomfort, not uncommon among fathers at daughters' dance recitals.
Most of the men fidget against the suspenders of their costumes--white shirt, black slacks, no-tie ensembles that conveyed the tone of begrudging formality often found around the bar at wedding receptions.
"We got less than an hour, men," reports Kirksey as he rejoins the group in the foyer after taking a solo stroll outside the auditorium.
As if anybody didn't know what time it was. Many are monitoring the progress of the show on a closed-circuit television.
"The amazing thing is to watch the girls," says Horack, as young mermaids and pirates, pixies and daisies, Lost Boys and Indian maidens from "Neverland" flit across the screen. "It is so touching."
"This has really given me an appreciation of the art form," says Steve Benington, 43, a painting contractor. "I always took dance for granted."
"Watching the girls dance is one thing," says Guy Stoller, stroking his beard, "but trying to go out and catch them in midair is another."
That is essentially the assignment for which the men were recruited.
"They insisted they were just lifting," says Marnell Himes, director of the Huntington Dance Academy. "That's what they called it--'lifting,' not 'dancing.' "
Gary Joyce, the instructor who oversaw the men, played along for a while.
"It wasn't until later that I sprang on them that they were going to dance in a show," says Joyce, 36, formerly of the Munich Ballet.
By that time, the men had become intrigued with the physical challenges of this discipline.
"They were asking how to plie and practicing at the barre. Some were asking for more steps," Himes says. "There were days when some of the girls couldn't make it, and their dads would come to class without them."
Rehearsal was every Friday evening from 6 to at least 7:30. But that wasn't the biggest sacrifice.
"Afterward, we had to listen to our girls evaluate us all week," says Larry Miller, 47, shaking his head. "They'd get so exasperated because we couldn't dance."
"They told me to work on my bow--my bow, apparently, is weak," Kirksey says, half smiling.
"At first each of us went through it alone. We thought we were the only ones," continues Miller, who owns a construction company. "Then we discovered we were all hearing it. That's one of the things that made us friends, instead of guys who just nodded at each other."
Now the men joke about their dedication and camaraderie.
"Once you're in, you can't get out," Benington says. "It's like a brotherhood, a Mafia-type thing."
That perspective adds extra consequence to the traditional show-business good-luck wish, "break a leg," but a couple of the men offer it anyway as they go backstage to warm up.
Then, suddenly, they are on.
The setting for the dance is a grand party, where men and women size up prospective partners from across the room, a script of subtle gestures, small talk and exchanged glances.
When the real dancing begins, the men shuffle smartly across the stage asking for dances--and definitely getting them. The girls do most of the intricate work, spinning deftly in and out of their fathers' arms, weaving dramatic patterns among one another, returning to be lifted triumphantly and lowered gently. The men mostly take their proper places, keep the right count--some mouthing the numbers--and maintain enamored looks while the music swirls hypnotically.
Suddenly, it's over.
As they exit, the men receive exuberant hugs from their daughters and exchange high-fives before returning for the more traditional rewards of a dance performance--the ovation, the bow, the bouquet of flowers.
Each father also receives a special gift, delicately wrapped in tissue paper of soft pastel. It is a bottle of beer.