Clothes


One of the first things a new dancer learns is that Shoes Are Important.  You blithely arrive for your first dance wearing the street shoes you intend to dance in, and watch as dancer after dancer arrives and immediately heads for a chair to change their shoes.  And the shoes they’re changing into, well, they’re odd.  People who seem to have gone to a lot of time and effort to put together very swanky, vintage outfits are pulling out… tennis shoes?  Really?  Or men’s dress shoes with that cute little dress?  Are you serious?  And they are.  Deadly serious.  There is nothing a dancer takes more seriously than shoes.

You start to realize that these are special shoes.  They have brand names like Aris Allens and Bleyers, or they’ve been specially modified at shoe stores.  They have soles made from suede or leather which must never, never, never get wet!  Ever!  Other dancers are happy to talk at length about their preferences in shoes, debating suede soles vs. hard leather vs. soft leather.  You start to think that maybe you ought to get your own pair of these special shoes.  It’s a watershed in a young dancer’s life when they buy their first pair of real dance shoes, or take a pair of shoes to a cobbler to get them resoled with suede.  It signifies a certain amount of commitment.  It says, “I’m serious about this.  Serious enough to buy the shoes.”

Sometime about the time the dancer buys the shoes, or maybe a bit before, the dancer’s clothing starts to change.  This is particularly apparent in girls.  When girls start dancing, they usually dress like a cross between their idea of glamorous 1940s vintage and what they’ve seen of ballroom dancers.  There’s a lot of full skirts, party dresses accessorized to appear more “vintage,” and sometimes low cut/strapless looks with a lot of black and white color schemes.  They want to look pretty!  And cute!  And vintage!  If they keep with it long enough they start to realize that dancing is hard work.  It’s exercise, and it’s not very fun exercising in a strapless dress.  They start dressing down more.  Jeans and workout pants begin to make their appearance.  They might still wear skirts, but they’re shorter, less full.  They do twirl tests, making sure that if the skirt flares, it doesn’t flare too high.  They start wearing more t-shirts, and less cute little vintage-y blouses.  Somewhere down the line they start attending dancing weekends and workshops, and start collecting event t-shirts.  They start to realize that when you exercise, you sweat, and begin to steer their color choices towards those which don’t show sweat stains.  They start to bring extra shirts to change into after they’ve sweated through the shirt they’re wearing.  Utility and comfort begin to be more important than vintage, although cute is still always a priority (it is, after all, social dance).

By this time the dancer has been dancing a few years, they look totally different.  The long skirts and high heels are gone.  Instead they’re wearing the Swing Dancer Uniform: jeans or other comfortable pants or skirt, t-shirt (preferably wearing the logo of a Lindy Exchange) or other breathable top, comfortable shoes with slick soles, no-fuss hair.  They’ve come to dance, and it shows.

Recently I’ve come to realize that beyond the requirements of good dancing clothes, there are also good teaching clothes.  I would say that learning to dance is 30% watching your instructors, 60% trying to do it yourself, and 10% hearing the teachers explain.  This means that students have to be able to actually see what the instructor is doing with his or her body.  For me that means not wearing any skirt longer than knee-length, and, well, added attention to the cute factor.  Wanting to be a better dancer often begins with wanting to look like your instructor.  So I try to look like someone they might want to emulate.  I’m still pretty new to teaching, so I don’t have this part all figured out.  Who knows?  Maybe in a year or two I’ll be writing a post on How To Dress Like A Teacher…

Lately, in the odd moments between writing feminist research papers and studying for Aquinas exams (or, rather, avoiding those things through mad procrastination and science-fiction reading, mostly a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Neal Stephenson), I’ve been musing about why it is that I enjoy ballet so much. It’s not that I’m particularly good at it, my “nice, straight back” aside. I have yet to execute anything like a passable pirouette in class. And there’s no real social interaction as an excuse. After all, you have to admit that half the charm of any social dance is that you get to do it with real, live members of the opposite sex. While in ballet you may dance alongside and, perhaps ideally, in unison with other people, you’re not really dancing with them but next to them. You don’t get to dance with someone else until you’ve gotten higher than I’ll ever go, assuming an obliging member of the opposite sex can be found. Actual men tend to be rather scarce in ballet. So… what is it about ballet that sends me hunting online bargains of cute dance warmups instead slavering over the expensive-but-exquisite goods on the tango shoe websites (ever so nice for Balboa)? What makes me willing to shell out extra money for an adult ballet class, and actually miss part of my university swing club night so I can attend?

So far what I’ve come up with is that ballet is one of the few dance forms where it’s ok for women to look serious. Most dances don’t go well with serious looks. Weekend before last I took a Westie workshop that challenged me in a number of ways, so I was concentrating hard. Towards the end the instructor reproached me a couple of times with, “You’re so serious! Smile!” See, in most dance forms you’re supposed to be happy all the time. “Big smiles, girls!” After all, a bright smile covers a multitude of dancing sins. And if you don’t look like you’re having fun, then, well, you must be doing something wrong. Lindy is very like this. I think of it being a little like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh: “Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!”

If you’re not being happy, then you’re being sexy. Think Blues. Or Tango. Tango is a very serious dance, but it’s in a we’re-barely-restraining-ourselves-from- ripping-each-other’s-clothes-off sort of way. You can be angry with Hip Hop, but otherwise it’s all looking languidly bored or playing up the sex. There’s very few dances where you get to be just plain serious. Or sad. It’s like sadness is the unacceptable emotion. Women can be happy, sexy, or (rarely) angry, but they can’t be serious or sad.

Not in ballet. This is a dance form in which one of the definitive performances is Anna Pavlova performing The Dying Swan. Death, sorrow, revenge – it’s all there along with the lighter, more acceptable emotions. You don’t have to be happy or sexy all the time, although ballet can definitely be both. When I dance ballet I can be myself, concentrating hard on the muscles I’m using, the line I’m reaching for, not worrying whether I’m looking happy or cute. When it comes time to let the emotions through I can mourn my friend’s rapidly approaching death from liver cancer. I can express how much I miss Joe. I can be myself, my whole self, not just the fun parts of me. And that, I think, is why I love ballet.

I don’t like cold. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the charms of being snuggly warm somewhere as the wind whistles past the windows. I know about nestling under layers of blankets as you fall asleep. Hot drinks in large, heat-retending mugs have a friend in me. Wool sweaters and knit tights – I’m all about that. I even have a winter hat I actually like this year. Unfortunately, I am still cold.

Cold seeps into your bones and takes away your energy. Even after you get warm again, there’s still some cold part of you that has yet to thaw. Cold lets you know every single time the hem of your shirt rides up, because the small of your back suddenly gets – guess what – cold. Cold scoffs at the wool sweaters and the corduroy pants. Cold sneers at cashmere gloves, and turns away to hide a mocking smile at flannel lined pajamas and thick house slippers. Cold cannot be defeated so easily, though he thinks it’s cute for you to try.

It’s barely the beginning of December, and already I’m tired of cold.

This is going to be a long winter.

On Saturday I spent the afternoon working in the kitchen, baking bread for the formal dinner I went to last night, among other things. I was wearing one of my bibless chef’s aprons over a long jean skirt and a grey sweater. My hair was pulled back in a clip at the nape of my neck. At one point I slipped on my favorite new ballet flats to take something out to the trash. When I was outside, I looked down at myself and realized that I was dressed like Cinderella, even down to the shoes. Make my hair blond and exchange the clip for a ribbon, and we’d be pretty much there.

To make the similarity even more exact, later that night I exchanged my work clothes for formal dress, including a long, ballgown skirt and many, many rhinestones (of the vintage variety). The party I went to was, unfortunately, not a ball – although there was dancing, and I danced. However, no one gentleman monopolized my time, and while I did happen to leave at midnight, my car continues to bear no resemblance to a pumpkin, and all my shoes are fully accounted for. Though I did lose a button off my skirt. Maybe tomorrow I’ll hear a knock on the door and open it to find a liveried lackey standing outside holding my skirt button ensconced on a large pillow. When I can produce the matching skirt, he’ll forthwith lead me to his employer, who will be the Man of My Dreams. We’ll live happily ever after, of course. That’s what you do in fairy tales.

Unfortunately, for this to really work, said Man of My Dreams had to have also been attending the party last night. While there were some truly excellent guys at that party, I’m pretty darn sure none of them are the Prince Charming I’ve been waiting for. Sigh.  Though Lucy did award me her personal Best Dressed Award, so I think, all in all, it was worth it. Though you don’t have to take her word for it – judge for yourself (I’m the one with the pomegranate):

B with pomegranate

Sunday when I went home for the Family Christmas Planning Meeting Part II, I picked up the envelope from the Ohio Poetry Day Association, containing a Certificate of Merit for winning First Prize in the Welcome Aboard Poetry Competition, as well as a check for $35. It was pretty sweet. I have to fight the urge to frame the check and keep it forever instead of cashing it. Don’t worry. It won’t be a long fight.

Yesterday morning I had to scrape frost off my windshield before I could drive to work. Last night I brought the rosemary and bay plants in off the back porch to what will be their winter homes on the kitchen table. I still have the front porch plants to bring in and find homes for. I’m not such a fan of this cold thing. There are parts of Fall I love: pumpkins, weather cool enough to break out my extensive collection of colorful scarves, wearing fuzzy socks, the trees suddenly turning glorious, and bright blue days with skies so high and clear you can see the moon at noontime. What I don’t like is having to wear a coat, and fingers so stiff with cold I wish I’d worn gloves (scarves I love, but not gloves, and I’m deeply ambivalent about hats. Or at least I would be if I could ever find one that looked good on my odd-shaped head). I really dislike scraping windshields. One time a friend told me about two sweethearts who worked at the same place far up north. Every evening right before the girl was about to be done for the day, the guy would head out to the parking lot, scrape the windshield of her car, and warm in up for her so that she could get straight into a warm car when she went home. I envied that girl so much, not so much for the boyfriend (although I knew the guy in question, and he was a truly excellent young man), but simply because she had someone who would scrape her windshield for her. I was told about this over three years ago, and I’m still sighing about it. A scraped windshield is worth more than roses any day, and you all know how much I love roses.

This afternoon I’m going to an actual college football game. I’ve never been to one of these. I never really wanted to. (“What is this school spirit thing you speak of?”) But my baby brother, Mikey, is crazy for football – a strange and wonderful thing in our artistic, academic family. So we try to encourage him. This afternoon a bunch of us are piling into the family van and heading off to the game. I used to say that I only watched football games for the marching bands. An awful lot of my university’s swing club kids are in the band. I guess now I can see what has been keeping them from going dancing on Wednesday nights. The only question left is what to wear: the traditional jeans and sweatshirt? Or should I go with jean skirt, my new ultra-snuggly knit footless tights, and a sweatshirt? Decisions, decisions…

In other news, I’ve discovered what is turning out to be one of my favorite things ever: Pandora Online Radio. You type in the name of a song or artist you really love, and they create a whole radio station of music like that. You tell them whether or not you like the songs they’ve picked, and it influences the programming. It’s so much fun. I’ve found an incredible amount of good music I would have never known about this way. For example, “Baby Workout” by Jackie Wilson leads to “I Could Never Be President” by Johnnie Taylor, and “Your Replacement Is Here” by Edd Henry, then “Twistin’ With Linda” by The Isley Brothers, etc. Right now I’m listening to what I think of as my lullaby station – soothing classical-ish piano music. I made it by typing in “Brahm’s Lullaby” and finding a version by a classical artist I’d never heard of. Good stuff!

So I had this modesty moment yesterday.  I’ve been thinking about modesty a lot lately (having just finished writing, you know, thirty pages on it and all).  I’ve been coming to the realization that I can’t modestly wear t-shirts with writing across the front.  God just didn’t give me that kind of body.  But this is hard.  I have some t-shirts that have sayings that are funny, and wonderful, and bring joy to my heart, like “You’re mine for the next 3 min. 30 sec.” and “Need to dance.  Please help.  God bless.” and, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” and the one all in Latin that, when translated, says “If you can read this you have too much education.”  I love them so much that it’s hard for me to care that they might be a problem for someone else.  Sigh. 

However, little by little I’ve been being convicted that I need to let go of the shirts.  It’s a respect thing.  I want to respect the men around me, and I want them to respect me too.  It’s hard to respect a girl when all your attention is being drawn to her chest.  So yesterday when I was packing, I went through all my t-shirts, pulled out the ones that have writing on the chest, and set them aside.  I knew it was the right thing to do, but I still didn’t like it much.  But then, something marvelous happened!  When I told Liv what I had done, she sympathised with me, and then said, “Well, what if you turned the shirts around so the writing is on the back?  You could wear them then, right?  You’d have to cut the tags out, of course.”  And I thought, well, why not?!  When I went home I tried the shirts on to make sure they fit the same, and then spent a very joyful five minutes cutting out garment tags.  It was great!  Hurrah!  I can still wear my shirts, and I am so happy.