Other themes that boys in his class had recently had—indoor sports activities, a Red Bulls soccer game, a secret agent treasure hunt—were also summarily rejected. What could he possibly want?
"A dancing party," he said finally. "One with a disco ball."
His mother and I looked at each other. "A dancing party?" we asked. "But Zachary, you're only eight."
"Oh, no, not like a dancing party like that," he said, making air quotation marks. "I mean like 'Cotton Eye Joe' and the 'Virginia Reel' and the 'Cha Cha Slide,' like, dance games."
So a dancing party it was—for 24 of his closest friends (his school encourages inviting everyone to the party). An even split of boys and girls.
All 12 girls danced their heads off. "This is the best party ever!" shouted Grace. The other girls squealed with delight.
Four of the boys, including Zachary, danced right along with them. They were having a blast.
Four other boys walked in, checked out the scene, and immediately walked over to a wall, where they folded their arms across their chest, and leaned back. "I don't dance," said one. "Yuck," said another. They watched, periodically tried to disrupt the dancing, seemed to make fun of the dancers, stuffed themselves with snacks, and had a lousy time.
Four other boys began the afternoon by dancing happily, with not a hint of self-consciousness. But then they saw the leaners, the boys propped up against the wall. One by one they stopped, went over to the wall, and watched.
But they couldn't stay for long. They kept looking at the kids dancing their hilarious line dances, or the freeze dance, and they inched their way back, dancing like fiends, only to stop, notice the passive leaners again, and drift back to the wall.
Back and forth they went all afternoon, alternatingly exhilarated and exasperated, joyously dancing and joylessly watching. My heart ached for them as I watched them pulled between being children and being guys.
Or is it between being people and being guys. People capable of a full range of pleasures —from smashing an opposing skater into the boards and that down-on-the knee fist pump after scoring a goal, to do-si-doing your partner or that truly inane faux-lassoing in "Cotton Eye Joe." Or guys, for whom pleasure now becomes defined as making fun of other people's joy.
Poised between childhood and adult masculinity, they were choosing, and one could see how agonizing it was. They hated being on the sidelines, yet stayed impervious until they could stand it no longer. But once they were back on the dance floor, they were piercingly aware that they were now the objects of ridicule.
I thought of this today when yet another journalist asked me a question I am probably asked once a week, as each newspaper or magazine "discovers" that men are confused about what it means to be a man these days.
This is the price we pay to be men: the suppression of joy, sensuality, and exuberance. It is meager compensation to feel superior to the other chumps who have the audacity to enjoy themselves.
I pray my dancing fool of a son will resist the pull of that wall. His is the dance of childhood.
Michael Kimmel is among the world's leading researchers on men and masculinity and the author of a dozen books, including Manhood in America and Guyland. He is a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and lectures about young men in modern society all over the world.