Backstory


I remember the first time I got a blister from dancing. I’d only been dancing a few months, but I’d heard people talking about dancing so much they got blisters. That, plus the vague memories of foot machismo from my childhood ballet days, gave me a sense of awe at such things. Those must be the real dancers, the ones who were really passionate and cool. Then I organized a mini-swing dance for some friends from out of town, complete with a lesson (taught by other friends who had also just learned) and dj-ing by yours truly. It was in a basement with a patterned linoleum floor over concrete, and I danced in my socks. By the end of the night I had a truly impressive blood blister on my big toe. It didn’t hurt at all, and for the first time, I really felt like a dancer.

I also remember the first time I looked at the strap of my favorite pair of Bleyers, and realized that it had been worn out from much dancing. (Well, and from the buckle slicing it to pieces, but who’s counting?) Then there was the first time I got dumped on my butt (jerky lead doing bad Lindy to a Balboa song + follow with balance issues = disaster), thankfully coming out of it with nothing more than a bruised hip and a dose of humility. Each time it felt like a hurdle successfully cleared, a challenge behind me. I had punched another hole on my swing dancer card, proved once more that I was no poser or amateur, but a real Lindy Hopper.

Last night I was at a dance, part of a regular event the next large town over throws every Saturday after Thanksgiving. I danced quite a bit, and had some truly lovely dances. The problem is, well, my shoulder hurts today. A lot. It’s the muscle of the biceps, and also something in the joint itself that twinges when I hit certain positions, or turn the key in my car ignition. It’s pretty painful. My roommate Liv, no stranger to shoulder injuries, has diagnosed something to do with the rotator cuff, and advised ice and ibuprofen. I’d heard other follows complaining about rough leads, and I’ve danced with guys that left me feeling like I’d been doing push-ups. There’s also been a very few times when Something Unfortunate happened, usually because I wasn’t where I should have been, or didn’t keep my frame. Still, this is the first time it’s been anything like this bad, also the first time that I can’t pinpoint when it happened or who did it to me.

Now, it’s true that along with the lovely dances there were some not so nice ones with newer guys, and some guys who have been around long enough that they should know better (this includes anyone who’s been dancing over a year and still Lindy’s like he’s clogging). I didn’t know a lot of the guys at the dance last night, so I didn’t always realize that I should have begged off until I was already in the middle of the song. I was aware of sometimes having to be very careful with my frame, and that my arms had gotten tired by the end of the night. I didn’t realize how much I was hurt until I woke up this morning and didn’t want to move my arm.

So… who was it? The experienced dancer from Far Away who liked to lead lots of reverse spins using the upper arms? The jerky clogger-Lindy boy? The guy from the scene with lots of turnover who mostly dances with new girls, and leads like it? The brand-new guy who’s so tense in his upper body it’s a little like dancing with a robot (all hard metal and no give)? Or maybe all of them combined. Sigh. I’ll know better next time. Meanwhile, I’ll ice my injury, and chalk one up to experience and the risks you take when you’re a real swing dancer.

I know it’s a cliche beyond cliches to write about what you’re thankful for on Thanksgiving.  Regardless, sometimes you just gotta embrace your own unoriginality.  So, just in case you wanted to know, these are the things that I am grateful for this year:

  1. Liv. A year ago this time we barely knew each other.  Today we’re living together.  A girl couldn’t ask for a better roommate.  We share the same slightly macabre sense of humor, the same fondness for plain speaking, and the same understanding that the world is a strange and wonderful place.  We’ve only lived together for about five months now, but believe me, they’ve been an eventful five months!  She was with me through the ups and downs, the boy-crankiness, the days when all I could think about was dancing, and all the rest.  She is a great blessing to me, and I am deeply grateful to have her in my life.
  2. My new home. When I moved this summer, it had been six years since I had lived in a place that I could really call my own.  First I was traveling non-stop with a national youth ministry retreat team, then I spent a year back at my parents’ house, then three years with another family first as their nanny and then as a roommate with increasingly little ownership of my living space.  It’s the kind of pressure you don’t notice until it’s released.  To live in a place where my presence is welcomed, not merely tolerated, where people want to know how I am and are willing to rejoice with me in my successes – it’s an amazing thing.  I am deeply grateful to live in a house that is truly my home.
  3. Being able to leave unhealthy relationships. At my old living situation, I was stuck in between a controlling mother and her immature but increasingly rebellious teenage daughter.  I considered it part of the price I paid for living in what seemed an ideal location for school.  The money rent was cheap, but the emotional rent was pretty high, particularly when they were fighting.  I can remember too many times hiding up in my room trying not to listen as they screamed at each other.  Last Christmas the mother was diagnosed with liver cancer, which is killing her.  I moved out in June, and haven’t had very much contact with them since.  Recently I went back to visit, and found out, among other things, that the mother and daughter are choosing to spend their last days fighting viciously with each other.  I am grieving for their short-sightedness, but also so glad that I am not there, and not in the middle of this.  This is one mess it’s not my job to clean up, and I am deeply grateful.
  4. Anna helping me dance better. About this time last year Anna put out the call for people willing to learn how to teach.  I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near the skill level necessary, but I also knew that the university swing club I belonged to needed to start training teachers and I was one of the few even remote possibilities.  One of Anna’s requirements for teachers is that they be serious dancers, committed to constantly improving their dancing, and she’s willing to help them get there.  Last December I was videotaped for the first time, and started coming more regularly to the weekly practice sessions.  I started to work seriously on my Lindy basic, and on Charleston.  I learned partner Charleston, reworked my frame, and began learning how to style and improvise within my dancing without throwing off my lead.  It’s been a great joy to feel myself get better, to experience the pleased reactions of those I dance with, and to finally start being able to have the joyful, playful, fun dances I had always dreamed of having.  Today I am three or four times the dancer I was a year ago, and I am deeply grateful.

You know what’s wonderful? When you go to a Lindy Exchange (like, say, PittStop 7) where absolutely no one knows you from Eve. You see a guy dancing, and whatever he’s doing looks good enough that you decide to ask him to dance. So you do, and he says yes, cuz, you know, he’s a nice guy. Only he says it politely, not enthusiastically, and as he starts dancing you can tell he’s not expecting great things from this. But you know better. When the opportunity presents itself you do something unexpected and cool, or maybe he feels the connection and starts to suspect that you’re more of a dancer than he realized. His face sorta… wakes up. He leads something really neat, and you follow it perfectly. Then you throw a little something in or he leads something else, and it goes really well. And that’s how the dance goes. It’s a darn good dance, but the best part, the part that’s utterly wonderful is when the dance is done (ending with some kind of big finish or a dip that you didn’t know you could do), he sticks his hand out, looks eagerly into your face and says, “What was your name again? Where do you dance?”

I had so many dances like that this weekend. Sigh. It makes me all happy just thinking about it.

I had some rather lovely Bal dances too. One of my goals for this Exchange was to kindof see where I was with that. I’ve been working on Balboa more the last nine months or so, and while I know I’ve improved a lot, I didn’t really know what that meant in real terms. I wanted to see if I could hold my own with guys I don’t dance with every week. Friday night I got to talking with one of the event organizers, who pointed out who she thought was the best Bal lead in Pittsburgh, a transplant from Montreal (and you know those Canadian boys…). I watched my chance, and finally snagged him at the Saturday afternoon dance. And you know what? I’m not bad. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m really not bad at all. He, of course, was phenomenal. I’d go to PittStop next year just to dance with him again. Really.

The icing on the cake, however, was getting to see Luke. He and I were on the same traveling youth ministry team some years back. We criss-crossed the country together in a thirteen passenger van along with nine other random Catholic young adults (and, yes, we were very random). In the process we saw each other at our absolute best and absolute worst – and became something like each other’s family. He’s getting his doctorate at Duquesne, and just got engaged to an absolutely wonderful girl. I was delighted when I heard about his engagement cuz, well, it’s Luke, who deserves to be happy in every way, but I didn’t know anything about who he was engaged to. It turns out that she’s really great – smart and funny, the kind of girl who I could probably be good friends with if we were in the same city. It makes me hope that Luke and I end up on the same university faculty one day, not just because it would be so wonderful to work with him, but because then I could really be friends with his wife-to-be.

So I have these friends who are kick-butt swing dancers. A while back, they decided that they were going to put together a routine for this competition called Battle of the Swing Cities up in Detroit. At the time I had no intention of going to Detroit, so I didn’t think about it much. But I was with them when they were planning, listening to music that might work, making costume suggestions. One of the costume ideas made me laugh hysterically for ten minutes (they didn’t use that one). I watched them practice, offered feedback when asked, held video cameras. When it came time for the actual competition, they asked if anyone would like to go to cheer them along, and I said that I would. So we all went to Detroit, they kicked butt (did I mention that they’re, um, kick-butt swing dancers?), and just barely missed winning. It was very exciting. At breakfast at Bob Evans the next morning, they decided that they wanted to take the routine to ALHC. Some of the dancers from the team that took first (who happen to be from another Medium Large City just north of ours) wanted in on the action, so they changed up the routine some and set in to practicing. My main involvement this time was as the occasional place-holder as they worked out the new choreography, and sometimes camera operator. I was pretty busy with other things in my life, so I wished them well, and looked forward to the days when half the good leads wouldn’t spend half the dance over in the corner practicing.

Then came the competition weekend. I checked the forums approximately fifty thousand times, anxiously looking for news of my people off in the wilds of Connecticut, competing their little hearts out. The first I saw was one of the guys posting on his facebook profile that he had placed 3rd in the Jack & Jill. My heart sank. There wasn’t a word about the team competition. If he didn’t say anything about it, then they must have tanked. I checked the forums. Initial news was that the routine had gone really well, people cheered, but they hadn’t won anything. It seemed like a huge letdown after the way they killed themselves with hard work. And the routine had been seriously awesome. For a few hours, things looked pretty sad. Then more news started coming. They actually finished 4th out of 8 competitors. The three teams that beat them included a team made up entirely of the Superstars Of Swing Dancing, and the Air Force swing team, which I’m told has a tendency to dominate wherever they go. All that everyone in the Wider Swing Dancing Community was talking about was our team’s routine. People couldn’t get over how awesome it was, and that there were people who could swing dance in Ohio. Someone posted some quotes from yehoodi (the big, national swing forum). This was not a disappointment! This was local kids Making Good. It was like the stories about the plucky small town kids who come out of nowhere and blow away the disbelieving big city people.

It was amazing and awesome, but still, a little, you know, not real. Then I checked this dance blog and started laughing. He, too, was raving, and had even posted the video of the Detroit competition. Suddenly what we’d all been marveling about was real. People actually know who we are. And, no, this is not my accomplishment, but I couldn’t be more excited about how freaking awesome my friends are. You can be excited too:

My social life tends to be a little schizophrenic.  There’s the swing dancing part, and the Catholic young adult part.  Historically, the Catholic young adult part was the biggest and the deepest, where my good friends were, where I drew my emotional support, the people that I hung out with on the weekends, the people I took care of.  Swing dancing was that odd thing I went off on my own to do.  I wasn’t very close to the other swing dancers, and I was happy with that.  There were already too many people who felt they had a right to my time and attention.  Swing dancing was the place I could go and just be, the place where I could be selfish.  All I wanted was to dance, and so I did.

Then I started getting closer to people at swing.  First Mark and Jenn, then Chiara, then Trey and Anna and others.  I started dancing a lot more, and spending most of my free time (and a lot of time that wasn’t really free) dancing.  Little by little I began to pull away from the Catholic part of my life.  Being Catholic is still one of the foundational facts of my existence and my friendships with my Catholic friends go way deeper, but my social life is now focused on swing.

Last weekend I had a party.  I called it Big Party @ Bernadette’s, and I invited my whole life.  I told everyone that this September marks my 2nd year of swing dancing, plus I’d moved into a new house that I wanted to show off, and I wanted to see all of them.  And they came.  I had maybe 60 or 70 people there, although they came and went, so I think the most we had at one time was maybe 50.  We had beer, and chicken on the grill, and a dance floor in the basement that everyone was having too much fun to use.  It was a great party.  People are still telling me what an awesome time they had.  It was a huge success.

Except my worlds didn’t mix.  My Catholic friends and my swing friends pretty much stayed in their own groups, warily acknowledging each other’s existence at a distance.  I think each group intimidated the other, but for different reasons.  And while my Catholic friends are well aware that my life has a cast of thousands, I think my swing friends didn’t really realize what a large circle of acquaintance I have.  I can’t make people talk to each other, but I guess I’d hoped that there might be a little cross-over.  And… no.  I’m still stuck in the middle.

I have this well-documented fatal weakness for theology professors. It’s true. Stick me in the same room with a reasonably young, reasonably attractive, available, male theology professor on a regular basis over an extended period of time (like, say, in a class), and chances are before we’re done I’ll be crushing on him. The problem is that too often, they seem to crush back

Last Fall I took a class from Carlos, a late-30-something Cuban who looked like a young C.S. Lewis, sang songs to illustrate theological points, and paid me enough particular attention that other students were turning to watch my reactions when he was cute in class. This was all highly encouraging, but my previous experience with Rocco had been scarring enough that I refused to go there until the class was really done.

Then the class was over, and I waited with baited breath for him to make good on all the promises his flirtatious behavior had seemed to make. All through Christmas I waited, and then the agonizing week until New Year’s, when I knew he had to be back in town. It was torture. Finally when school started up again I ran into him, and everything looked promising. He thought I looked great. He wanted to catch up with me sometime, and suggested that we should have lunch. I was on cloud nine. Then we tried to actually schedule this lunch, my busy schedule promptly clashed with his busy schedule, and everything ground to a halt.  That’s where it ended. He ran into one little roadblock and finked out on me. It was a little hard to take. But first Joe came home, and then Trey started borrowing books, and I’ve been a little distracted.

Now school has started again, and somehow I’m seeing a lot of this guy. We both go to noon Mass on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I keep running into him on campus, and he draws me into long conversations, all about the things I love, about my family, about everything. These are the conversations I would have killed to be having back in January. The problem is that it’s no good. Before this would have been a dream come true. Now I’m aware of a slight sense of impatience when he asks me yet another leading question. I like talking about myself too much to refuse to allow myself to be led, but I’m starting to think about pretending that I don’t see him when I’m in a hurry.

Dang it, Carlos, why couldn’t you have been like this last winter?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, my oldest sister Michelle went off to college. On the wall of her room, she taped up a collage of pictures and graphics and headlines clipped from magazines, catalogues, calendars, and Lord knows where else. This made a deep impression on her younger sisters, me included, and we all became incorrigible clippers. We’d go through all sorts of printed material, tearing out pictures of beautiful things and beautiful people, interesting bits of text, articles to read, whatever caught our fancy. While sometimes the clippings have become wall collages or other works of art, they have a tendency to lay unloved in vast unsorted folders, waiting for that magic day when we’ll finally Do Something with them.

Among the long lost belongings I was reunited with in my recent move were two file cabinets stuffed to the gills with, well, Stuff. This included two large file folders labeled simply Unsorted and Unsorted II, filled as full as they would hold with clippings. Going through them has been like opening a time capsule on my five-years-ago self. I can see how food-mad I was (I was, after all, in chef school). There are untold recipes for things like Thai Basil Gelato and Cumin Braised Short Ribs. There are restaurant reviews and chef’s profiles (including a lengthy article on Nigella Lawson, whose book How To Be A Domestic Goddess gave me my e-mail address). There are articles discussing the virtues of stone-ground grits, and whether organic wine is really any good.

Through all the clippings, I can see how much the girl who assembled them was longing for a home. There are endless pictures of living rooms and kitchens, bathrooms and cozy sitting areas, all decorated in cool, peaceful shades, full of comfortable, interesting details that invited you to come in and stay a while. There are pictures of quirky, unusual furniture; how-to articles on ways to make a space really your own. I was living in my grandmother’s house at the time, both my home and manifestly not my home. I longed for a place that would really be mine, a place that could be my safety in a world that was as precarious as my grandmother’s health.

At the same time this girl longed for adventure and far off places. There are so many travel articles for places like Istanbul, Vienna, hidden nooks and crannies of Australia, tropical islands, and the south of France. The girl I was never wanted to live an ordinary life, and Dayton, OH was feeling a size too small.

In the end, I got the unordinary life. My grandmother died, and four months later I was part of a travelling youth ministry team traversing the length and breadth of the continent. All my domestic daydreams got packed up and put away for another time, another place. Since then I still have yet to live in a house that is really mine, although my current living situation is perhaps the closest I’ve ever come. In the meantime, I’m not the same woman I used to be. My dreams have changed along with me. Those clippings are beautiful, but I’m not sure how much of them I want anymore.

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