Connection


I remember when I was first starting as a dancer, hideously insecure, longing with all my heart to be having the kind of dances I could hear in the music. I knew that it was possible to dance that way, so connected to the music and your partner, making the music come alive through the way you moved your body, through the way the two of you moved together on the floor. I watched others, the good dancers, having those dances, losing themselves in the moment, their partner, and the melody. They styled and improvised, and every once in a while threw in a swingout so pure and clean it could make an angel cry. I wanted to dance like that almost more than I wanted to breathe, and I was sure that I would never, never be that good.

When watching, I noticed that one of the ways you could always tell when it had been a really, really good dance was by the hug. The two dancers would end the song with a flourish or a pose or a dip, and hold it for a long moment as the music faded. Then the tension would be released, the partners would come out of their position with a smile or laugh, and give each other a big hug full of spontaneous affection. It was all there in that hug: the joy of the moment shared, the gratitude for the gift the other person has given you and allowed you to give them, the satisfaction of knowing that you have done something well.

I watched these dances with despair in the pit of my stomach. I had hit the point in my dancing when I started to realize how much I didn’t know, how much I wasn’t following. I was so frustrated with myself, my limitations, my body that just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I could hear so much in the music, but I couldn’t seem to get it out on the dance floor. I felt lucky to finish a dance feeling that I had followed everything correctly. Every once in a while I got a “Good job.” or “That was nice.” I treasured those moments and kept working. One day…

Then came the first time I lost myself in the music. It was only five seconds during a rotation at a workshop, but it was… dizzying. When I looked up at my partner I saw the same half-stunned look on his face. That was when I found hope. I kept working hard, practicing, getting critiqued, taking lessons, pushing myself to get better. Then I had a whole dance like that. I can still hear the song: Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford, though when I was dancing it was almost like I didn’t hear the music, or I did, but it was as if it were coming through my lead. At the end my partner held on to me for a long moment, and we looked at each other. “That was…” he said, “that was…” and then he gave up and hugged me.

That was over a year ago now. I’ve had more dances like that since, though I’ve learned never to take them for granted. They’re rare moments of serendipity when you, your partner, and the song all line up in fleeting synchronization. But I’m no longer surprised when they come along. Last Wednesday a good guy dancer from another city showed up at our weekly dance. We had a really fun dance, playing with the music and off one another. There was styling, improvising, and fancy footwork. We laughed and had a good time together. At the end of the song he led me into a big, flourishing pose, which we held as the music faded. Then we both laughed, and he pulled me into a big hug. As I walked off the floor I realized that I’d made it – that for all of the ways I’m still far from the dancer I want to be, I’m now one of the “good dancers” I used to watch with such hopeless envy. And I have the hugs to prove it.

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A few weeks ago I skipped the Study Days right before Exams to go to the NE Girl Jam up in Rochester.  I had an utterly lovely time not only dancing, but completely ignoring my impending finals.  It was great.  I learned a lot, not only in the Class of Five Million Swivels (the girls were doing them in lines across the floor while the guys made jokes about zombie swivels), but in all the classes.  I came away with lots and lots of ways to dress up my Lindy basic, some killer Solo Jazz moves, and a few good reminders about basic Lindy frame technique (information which, ironically, I first learned in a Westie workshop).  Since I came home, however, opportunities to put my new skills into practice haven’t been as abundant as I would wish.  It’s been a little sad.  Here I am wanting to glitter, to shine, to show off all the cool new things I know, and my leads haven’t really been giving me the chance.

Then last night I danced with Pierce.  He’s not a hugely imaginative lead, although he has nice connection and is learning how to hit the breaks.   Also, he lets me have room to play, which I appreciate.  He’s still learning, so he doesn’t have a lot of moves he can lead comfortably.  This means we ended up doing a lot of Lindy basics.  I loved this.  I got to go through pretty much every variation I learned at Girl Jam – the six different kinds of swivels including the backwards swivel, the kicky 6-8 variation, the ronde’s, plus my favorite slides.  It was wonderful, particularly since it was a bouncy, bluesy song just made for swivels.  I even hit a thing in the music dead on with this leg variation on the 7-8.  I was in heaven.  Pierce liked it too, making appreciative noises, and giving me a big hug when we were done.

As I was leaving the floor, Trevor came up, one of the young college kids I’ve been nurturing along.  “Wow, Bernadette!” he said, “You were tearin’ it up!” I laughed, and accepted the compliment.  Then he asked me to dance.  I had hoped that I would be able to throw in some of my fun stuff since he had particularly liked it, but this time it didn’t really happen.  Part of it was that he doesn’t know how to give me the connection I need to make a lot of those moves work, but the other part was that he hardly led a single Lindy basic the entire dance.  He was leading turn after turn, the same four or five turns that make up his basic repertoire.  Plus, like a lot of newer leads, he sometimes didn’t let me stay out for the whole eight count of the move.  I think they get nervous when the girl’s out there away from them, and pull her in early, making the 1 on 7 or 8, or even 6.  So in order to be ready to do whatever he was going to lead, I had to let most of my stuff go.

Later Trevor and I were talking about his dancing.  He has plans to work hard on it this summer in order to wow the rest of the swing club when everyone comes back in August.  He said that he’s especially frustrated because he doesn’t know very many moves.  He feels like it must be boring to dance with him because he doesn’t know very much.  We discussed a few ways he could learn more moves and combinations (taking the Wednesday night lessons, coming to Practice Session on Sunday, seeing something cool on the dance floor and asking the lead who did it to explain it on the sidelines), and then moved on to other topics.

Later I was thinking about what he said.  His complaint is very common with a lot of beginning guys.  They get bored with the same four or five turns, and want to learn more moves.  They want to expand their dance vocabulary, and sometimes develop insecurity complexes about girls getting bored dancing with them.  Part of the answer really is to learn more moves, but part of it is also getting over themselves.  Yes, only knowing a few moves can be boring, but only if the dance is really all about the lead.  The dance in general is very lead-centered, but I think guys get fixated on the idea that they’re the only one who can make the dance fun.  They’re the ones who have to lead cool stuff, they’re the ones who have to listen to the music, they’re the one who has to show off what an awesome dancer they are.  They forget that there’s someone else out there on the dance floor with them, someone who is equally capable of listening to the music, someone who could maybe take those three or four moves and turn them into something spectacular… if they get the chance.  When the lead thinks the dance is all about him, he’s not dancing with his partner, he’s just showing off.  (What makes it worse is when he’s not even showing off for the person he’s dancing with, but for someone else on the sidelines, or for the imaginary audience in his head.)  And that’s when it’s boring.

Today I went to my Parish Credit Union to cash a check. It’s a tiny credit union, tucked away in a corner of the basement of what used to be my parish grade school (now the common grade school for three inner-city Catholic parishes, of which my parish is one). It’s only open three afternoons a week, and is accessed by going through an unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps on the back of the school. There is no sign, no posted hours, no advertising. You only know that it is open because when you try the doorknob it is unlocked. I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was in third grade. The ladies who run it, a gang of almost-geriatric matriarchs who could run the world if they ever cared to try, have known me since my family moved to the area when I was five. When I went in, I didn’t bother to bring my bag or wallet in with me. I presented the check I wanted cashed, the woman behind the counter asked me my account number, had me sign on the dotted line, and handed over the money. Just like that, with inquiries after my family’s health, and telling me how good it is to see me again.

On the way out, I passed another Matriarch of the Parish, Mrs. Richardson. She smiled and asked how I was. I replied politely, and it seemed that was it. Then she stopped and asked me how was Lisa, where was she now? I said that she had made it safely to Nairobi, where hopefully she would be able to make arrangements to come home soon. She smiled and nodded, and said she was praying. We parted, but as I walked away, I was shaken. You see, Mrs. Richardson’s sister is Sr. Dorothy Stang, the Sister of Notre Dame who was martyred in Brazil in 2005. She was gunned down on a forest road by hired killers in the pay of rich landowners who didn’t like her work with poor farmers. Her death stunned her family, and our parish. Mrs. Richardson’s sister went into a dangerous situation and never came back. Now she was asking me about my sister, who is in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, however, my sister will come back.

Most of the time I take for granted the kind of community I live in. Even though I usually attend Mass elsewhere, I’m still part of the parish I grew up in. My family is embedded deep in the web of relationships. Because of the strength of that community, I can walk into the credit union and cash a check without ever having to produce any ID, a situation most people haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every person I encountered knew who I was, knew who my family is, and cared about us. This is partly because we’re an unusual family, but it’s because they’re unusual too. We are a parish that gives birth to martyrs and missionaries and free spirits. We are a parish that cares about God and about each other. We are a parish that trusts and prays for one another.

This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

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.

Betty Grable ClassicI’ve been getting very discouraged about my dancing the last couple of months. While intellectually I know that I’ve improved enormously (I dip now. My Charleston, both solo and partner, looks infinitely better. My Lindy basic is lighter and more controlled than ever before. I’m having dances I could only have dreamed of six months ago.), emotionally all I know is how far I still fall short of where I want to be.

Part of the problem is that as I’ve gotten better, and especially as I’ve begun being groomed to become an instructor for the local scene, I’ve accumulated perhaps too many people who want to help me improve even more. So I have Jack telling me that I’m still anticipating a little on the one and going off the slot, Anna wanting me to correct my knees and make my spins intentional, Mark saying that my hand connection needs work, and Trey telling me that the way I keep my frame is all wrong (it should be more with the muscles in my back and less with my biceps). And then there’s my perennial problems with balance and keeping my feet underneath me. It’s a lot. In the end I feel like everything is wrong, trying to fix it all at once, and feeling like a failure when I don’t see immediate improvement.

This has been heightened by the teacher training process. Chiara had been teaching Swing I for a long time, so when she moved to Indianapolis, everyone was curious who would take her place. It had to be either myself or Alice. I’m a better teacher and I’ve objectively fulfilled more of the requirements, but Alice is a better dancer. It was taking Anna forever to make the announcement, and meanwhile I was continually conscious of having my dancing evaluated and falling short. Even when it was announced that Alice would teach in September and I would teach in October my feelings of failure and discouragement didn’t go away.

The thing that finally really helped was having a heart to heart about my dancing with Anna on Sunday. We agreed that I have too many chefs in my kitchen right now, and it’s spoiling the dish. So I’m telling all my instructors to back off for a little while and let me just dance. I also asked Anna what she sees when she watches me dance. One of the big things that’s holding me back is my lack of confidence, which really comes through in my dancing. Technically I’m pretty good. All the things I’m trying to work on are really little, tweaky things. However, my lack of confidence makes my dancing rather hesitant, which comes through as oddly delicate. It just doesn’t look right on a girl my size. Anna said that something that helped her have confidence when she started dancing was pretending to be someone else while she was on the dance floor. She loved Cyd Charisse, and would try to be her while she danced. She encouraged me to find someone I liked, maybe one of the great ladies from the old movies I love, and be them while I danced.

I went home and thought about this. If I could dance like anyone from the old movies, who would I dance like? Myrna Loy is awesome, but I’ve never thought of her as a dancer. Katherine Hepburn would be much too stiff. Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe are too vulnerable, too much at the mercy of their own beauty. Bette Davis is pretty formidable, but again, I don’t know that she’s much of a dancer. Then I hit on it – Betty Grable, the girl with the Million Dollar Legs, the pin-up darling of WWII, cute and fun and not someone to be messed with. So now the question is: What Would Betty Grable Dance?

Last night I consciously felt something in my dancing for the first time. A while ago I read something posted to a dance forum about ways that a dance can be a “conversation.” Now I know how a dance can be a literal conversation (“So, how was your day?”), and ways that you communicate with one another nonverbally: mirroring styling, improving off of one another, having give and take within the dance. However, this talked about something else, about a way that a follow can ask a lead for something a little different or a little more, or even just for room to play, purely through their connection. I had a vague idea that perhaps I’ve done this, but never consciously. I’m hitting the point in my dancing where I can style and I want to style, but I’m still learning how to do it without disrupting the lead. A lot of it has been learning to listen properly for the openings my lead gives (or doesn’t give). What I read seemed interesting, and kinda stuck in the back of my mind.

I was dancing with Eric, one of the Really Good Guys in our dancing scene. I don’t dance with him very often, but when I do it’s always educational in the best sense of the word. Eric specializes in the very best, smoothest, Rich French Vanilla style of Lindy, and that’s what we were doing. It was great. But the song was kinda funky. It had groove. I wanted to groove with it. Eric also knows the ways of the groove. So I asked him for it. It wasn’t with words, just with the way I danced. I got a little more ooomph in my pulse, dug a little deeper – it’s hard to describe. No words, no extra styling, just connection. And he got it. He laughed, and gave me what I wanted. Again, no words, just connection and suddenly there was groove. And it was good. Very good. So good that today I’m sitting here at my work desk still thinking, “Whoa.”

This is why I love dancing.