After spending time going to parties and hanging out with the “hipsters” and the “cool cats,” Malcolm has learned to talk and to dress like them. He’s also learned to drink and smoke and gamble; but the one thing he hasn’t learned is to dance. At some point, though, with the liquor flowing and the music playing, Malcolm starts to get the hang of the lindy-hop. After that, he lets loose and falls in love with dancing, something he claims all black people can naturally do.
When the time comes for another dance for black people at Roseland’s, Malcolm quits his job so that he can join the others on the dance floor. Ella is pleased he quit, and Shorty says he knew Malcolm would outgrow being a shoe shiner. Malcolm heads back to the tailor’s shop to get a new zoot suit, which he chooses very carefully and purchases on credit. Then, with a fresh conk, he heads down to the Ballroom right as everyone starts to arrive. Heads are turning his way as he makes his way through the room.
Malcolm is no longer a fresh arrival from Michigan. Now, he has experience working a “slave,” he’s on to his second zoot suit and conk, and he’s headed to the dance. Malcolm is perceived as an adult in the crowd, and an attractive one.
Once on the dance floor, Malcolm starts grabbing partners from every direction, pulling girls out to dance with him. Everyone can dance well and they are all grinning at each other, having the time of their lives. Malcolm has so much fun that he never misses another lindy-hopping night at Roseland’s while living in Boston.
The dancers on the floor move from one partner to the next and experience joy together. While this may not be a political movement, it is an important example for Malcolm of African Americans coming together in community.
Ella, thrilled that Malcolm no longer shines shoes, finds him a job as a soda fountain clerk in a drugstore in her neighborhood. Malcolm can’t stand the people on this side of town, but he respects Ella and decides to take the job. The locals come into the drugstore, putting on airs and pretending to be rich, when everyone knows they don’t really have money or work professional jobs. After working all day, Malcolm escapes back into town to go lindy-hop and forgets all about the Hill.
Malcolm begins to live a double life, torn between the attractions of the town and his responsibilities to Ella and his new job on the Hill. The “fake” community of wealthy black patrons contrasts to his nightlife, made up of the more honest community of dancers and hustlers in town.
One day, Malcolm “hits the numbers” and wins sixty dollars. He almost decides to quit the drugstore’s soda fountain counter, but he and Shorty end up blowing the money having a great time instead.
Malcolm doesn’t manage to catch a big break, just a small bit of luck to have a good time.
A girl named Laura lives near the drugstore and comes in regularly to have a banana split. After seeing her for weeks and weeks, always reading a book and acting very friendly, Malcolm decides she’s different from the others on the Hill. One day, Malcolm strikes up a conversation with her, and finds out she’s an honors student living with her grandmother. Laura’s grandmother is a very strict, religious woman.
Like his friends in town, Laura seems to be a much more honest and genuine person than the other customers. As both sincere and educated, she symbolizes the best of both worlds, which is exactly the kind of life Malcolm will one day try to live.
Malcolm enjoys talking with Laura, and he admires that she wants to go to college. Her studies remind him of his own love for school, and it makes him sad that he couldn’t continue his education. Nonetheless, their affection for each other continues to grow.
Malcolm the narrator reflects on Malcolm the character looking back on dropping out of school. This “double reflecting” emphasizes the impossibility of his going back to school even in the “future.”
Malcolm keeps Laura away from Shorty, and keeps Shorty away from Laura, thinking that because they come from such different worlds, they wouldn’t understand one another. However, Laura mentions that she loves to dance, and so Malcolm asks her to go see Count Basie with him that weekend. While at first saying no because of her grandmother, Laura lies to her about a school function and agrees to come.
Laura’s lie to her Grandmother is magnified to the level of original sin. For Malcolm, this turning away from her grandmother’s strict religious and social views is Laura’s first step onto a darker path.
The night of the dance, Malcolm brings Laura to Ella’s house so he can change into his blue zoot suit. Ella immediately falls head over heels for Laura, a well-educated and upper-class girl. Malcolm, meanwhile, gets only Ella’s disapproving glare because of his attire.
A stark contrast is formed between Laura, a very presentable girl, and Malcolm, who looks like every other hustler. Ella’s judgment exacerbates this class difference.
Laura is filled with excitement about the lindy-hop. She and Malcolm share a taxi and then go inside the ballroom, where Malcolm greets everyone in the room. Then they start to dance. Halfway through the number, Malcolm notices that Laura is perhaps the most responsive partner he’s ever had. With just the slightest touch, she goes where he leads with a “ballet style.” With light footwork, they zoom around the dance floor.
Malcolm refers to Laura as having a “ballet style” and as being very light. His choice of words emphasizes her class upbringing (only wealthier girls would know ballet) and her relative innocence, as ballet dancers are usually very young and light.
Years later, Malcolm says, his friend Sammy the Pimp tells him that if he looks closely at a woman on the dance floor, “what she truly is” will bubble to the surface on her face. Malcolm wonders whether Sammy, with this supposed ability, could have foreseen the hard turns Laura’s life would take.
Malcolm buys into old sexist norms that portray women as more “natural” beings that reveal their true selves when lost in passion, and what Laura truly “is” is something much darker and more primal than a college girl.
When it comes time for the “Showtime!” competition, the dancers on the floor start to thin out, and Malcolm is approached by a lindy-hopper with a reputation of being high-energy and hard to keep up with. Malcolm and the girl dance around the floor to the great approval of the crowd. Laura, however, says very little afterward, and maintains her distance for the next week.
Although she never says it, Laura is either jealous of the other dancer’s skill or is offended that Malcolm went to dance with her. Either way, Laura keeps to herself as she makes her next decision.
One day Laura comes into the drugstore, wild with excitement and asking Malcolm to take her to see Duke Ellington. Malcolm agrees, and goes to her house to pick her up—but he is met by Laura’s grandmother, who is extremely hostile to him. Laura and her grandmother then have a screaming match about Laura going out, and finally Laura leaves the house in tears with Malcolm.
Like Malcolm, Laura is walking step by step away from life on the Hill and closer towards life in the town. Her tears symbolize the difficulty of that break and the hardships awaiting her.
After the warmup rounds of dancing, Laura tells Malcolm she wants to compete. While he is skeptical about her ability to maintain her energy, she changes into her sneakers and they begin. Her “ballet style” of feather-light steps and his reputation gain them the attention of the very astute crowd. As Laura’s stamina starts to fade, Malcolm carries her to the sidelines to the applause of the crowd and with a salute from Duke Ellington himself.
In an effort to outdo Malcolm’s last partner, Laura rises to the occasion to compete against the other dancers. And while she does wonderfully, she ultimately falls victim to the grueling conditions, a foreshadowing of her eventual fall into drugs and prostitution.
As people in the crowd are congratulating Laura, Malcolm catches the eye of a beautiful, tall, blonde woman named Sophia. As dating white women was then a status symbol in black America, Malcolm is immediately struck by her obvious interest in him, almost instantly forgetting about Laura. After he takes Sophia to the floor for a dance, he agrees to take Laura home and then come back to meet Sophia.
While Laura is still trying to recover from the dance, Malcolm has already moved on to Sophia. While Laura may have been a superior dancer, Sophia has one thing Laura can never have – white skin.
When Malcolm returns, Sophia is waiting for him outside. She drives them in her convertible to a side road outside of Boston, before turning off the engine. For the next few months, Malcolm and Sophia go out several times a week together, making quite a statement throughout Roxbury. Sophia’s beauty, wealth, and whiteness increase Malcolm’s status in Roxbury so that he goes from being a young upstart to a respected man in the neighborhood. He’s now known as “Red.”
Malcolm and Sophia’s relationship focuses around what each of them can gain from the other, not on love. Sophia has an attraction to black men and culture, whereas Malcolm can gain socially and economically from the relationship.
Laura never comes back to the drugstore after this. When Malcolm sees her again, years later, she has abandoned her plans for college and fallen into drinking, drugs, and then prostitution to fund it all. Throughout his life, Malcolm will feel responsible for her fall.
Laura’s tragic fall has been foreshadowed throughout the chapter. Now, Malcolm simply sums up the course of her life, as if this part would inevitably follow, which says a lot about his views on “immorality.”
Ella soon finds out about Sophia and makes her disapproval very clear. Malcolm then moves in with Shorty on Sophia’s dime and finds a new job as a bus boy. Shortly thereafter, World War II reaches America at Pearl Harbor.
Malcolm can no longer live a double life, caught between the Hill and the town—so he chooses to move out of Ella’s home and embrace his new life.