Of bowerbirds and courtship

When it comes to romance, some things never change

I’ve been married for 25 years. To my kids that seems like eons, so naturally they think my courtship of their mother was seriously old-fashioned, in the manner of a Valentine’s Day card, all roses and gallantry. My wife just laughs at the notion.

Hey, I tried taking the courtly route with her. All those lessons at Fresno’s Severance School of Dance my mother made me take when I was 15 years old had sculpted me into an old-fashioned kind of guy when it came to courting women. But the first time I asked Denise to dance—at LaSalles when it was still a fern bar; she was there with her girlfriends, all of them dancing together—she looked at me and said, “I don’t usually dance with men.”

I figured it was a test. So I summoned my inner romantic warrior and said, “Give it a try. You might like it.”

She laughed, said, “OK, I will,” and here we are, still dancing together after all these years.

My courtship didn’t stop there, of course, but then it wasn’t really courtship, at least in the old-fashioned sense of a man’s wooing of a woman until she agrees to marry him. I got the ball rolling, but Denise is a modern woman, and before long it was a mutual courtship, with each of us inviting the other to do things together.

Besides, neither of us was thinking of marriage. But the more I got to know her the more I wanted to be with her. I guess she felt the same way, because it got deeper and deeper, and four years after that first dance we married.

I asked my daughter, Sophie, how courtship works in her life. She’s 23, single, a recent college graduate trying to launch a career. People her age still date, she said, but often relationships begin as friendships, when two people find themselves members of a social group or sharing mutual friends. They “hang out” together and then slowly realize they enjoy each other’s company.

As a result, they often end up in exclusive relationships without going through the rituals of traditional dating.

Online dating, which most people Sophie’s age at least try, is more old-fashioned, she said, at least when the man initiates contact. The problem with online dating, she quickly pointed out, is that most of those first dates are duds. It’s difficult, when your initial contact is via computer, to pick up the subtle signals that create and indicate an attraction. Romantic chemistry can’t be translated into pixels.

If there’s a trend occurring in the courtship realm, at least in modern Western societies like ours, it’s toward greater mutuality. In a world where men and women meet as equals in the workplace and elsewhere, traditional patterns of romance, in which the man is more assertive than the woman, have less currency.

That doesn’t mean men should give up the chase, however, or that women don’t like being pursued. That’s nature’s way, after all. Rare is the animal species in which the males don’t compete with each other for the sexual favors of the females using their unique styles of courtship.

Consider the great Australian bowerbird. The males are virtuoso architects, constructing intricate bowers from twigs that they fastidiously decorate with found objects. But what’s especially amazing is their use of a kind of illusionism to attract females for mating purposes.

As writer Kate Wong describes it recently in Scientific American, the bower is shaped like a canopied “avenue” that opens out onto a “courtyard” assembled from bones, stones, shells and other items, collectively called a gesso.

“When a female pays a visit,” Wong writes, “she stands in the avenue and looks out onto the court, where the male proceeds to pick up and display a variety of brightly colored objects. If she likes what she sees, she will mate with him.”

There’s a lesson for the male human animal in the elaborate drama acted out by the bowerbirds and the courtship displays and battles of other animals: Women expect men to work at attracting them. They like a man who is confident enough to reveal his desire and risk rejection in order to get close to them. They want to be prized, and it’s up to us men to show them they are prized.

It never ends, of course. A man who’s won the heart of a good woman knows that his courtship is ongoing. Courtship keeps the coals burning.

Denise’s response to me when I asked her to dance all those years ago could have ended it right there, I suppose—no marriage, no kids, no big dogs barking in the night (I’m a cat person), no 25th-anniversary trip to the Caribbean. At another time I might have cringed, muttered “Have it your way,” and walked back to my beer.

But she was beautiful and graceful and radiated intelligence. I wanted to find out more about her and, if I was lucky and she liked me, get closer to her (did I say she was beautiful?). So I dangled before her the only brightly colored objects I had at the moment: my desire, my wit and my determination.

It was the best move I ever made.