Dance Addiction

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…

This is how dancing-obsessed and deliberately non political* I am.  On my wordpress dashboard under the list of fast growing blogs was one called TeaParty07.  I immediately got all excited.  “Boston Tea Party has its own blog?!” I thought, “how cool is that?”  So I clicked and, no.  It is not a blog for Boston Tea Party, the four days of intense swing dancing that is the highlight of my swing dancing year (and online registration opened yesterday!).  It has nothing to do with dancing at all.  It’s some political thing having to do with fundraising for elections or something.  I’m not sure what side it’s for, or who it’s supporting.  The instant I realized it wasn’t dancing related I got out of there.  Sigh.

Lesson learned: sometimes it’s not about dancing.

*I’m deeply grateful for free elections, trial by jury, the bill of rights, etc.  I’ll cheerfully go for jury duty every time.  I’ve worked the polls.  I see it as part of your civic duty, the price you pay for enjoying said rights.  However, I am not interested in hearing about this stuff all the time.  Politics shouldn’t be a soap opera, and I have no interest in following it as if it were.

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.

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.

This past week I watched a new baby dancer from my university’s swing club get hooked on swing dancing. She came to the lesson and dance on Monday for the second week, then to Balboa Night on Tuesday. On Wednesday she ducked out of class early and totally ignored stacks of homework in order to come to Wednesday Night Swing. It reminded me of when I got my first taste of swing and went dancing three times in four days (there was no Tuesday Night Bal back then).

Dancing is addictive. When you find the dance that is really yours, the one that just gets you, you start fiending for it, spending all your available free time dancing, finding the thinnest of excuses for why you should ditch the rest of your life to go dancing. They say you’re really hooked when you buy the special shoes (something my friend has resisted so far). Some have questioned whether you can really be addicted to more than one kind of dancing. I think that often we have one dance form that’s our dancing drug of choice. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t easily have multiple addictions! Like addicts who hit several kinds of 12-step meetings, you’ll find swing dancers showing up at salsa night, belly dancers taking a shot at Lindy, and ballerinas who find they have a natural posture for ballroom.

I consider myself to have two dancing addictions, and am adding a third. Lindy Hop and the other vintage swing dances (East Coast, Charleston, Balboa) are my drug of choice. My life-long love of swing music and vintage style, plus the easy availability of vintage swing dancing in my area (I can go dancing at least four nights a week without having to drive more than fifteen minutes) ensures that this will probably stay my drug of choice for a long time. But I’m also addicted to West Coast Swing, which totally captured my heart last December. I’ve been willing to do crazy things to dance Westie, including spending money I don’t have on workshops I’m going to forget, and driving two hours each way to dance for an afternoon. Lack of ready cash is the only thing that has kept me from doing more, and I’m actively looking for ways to overcome even that obstacle.

Then this semester I signed up for Beginning Ballet. When I was little I took lessons for a few years with a professional ballet company. I loved it, but quickly learned that I did not have the body of a ballet dancer and never would. When band lessons started, I decided to play the trombone instead. Now I’m back to the ballet, and just like when I was a child, I love it. I love the calmness of it, the way you do these amazing things with your chin up and your back straight. I love the grace, and how the most commonplace movements become full of beauty. I love the way my body does things I never knew it could. I even love the way I look in my leotard and tights. (It’s amazing – I put those things on and suddenly I look like a dancer.)

Mostly, though, I love the way that ballet is improving my Lindy. The recurring issues that I’m always, always working on are my balance, especially on spins, and keeping my feet underneath me. Ballet is all about that. Twice a week for a month now I’ve been practicing being controlled and balanced, making smooth weight transfers and keeping my body properly aligned. It’s making a difference. Wednesday night I hit a break when I was dancing with Trey. I was balanced on the ball of one foot with the other foot in the air, and I stuck it for the whole break until Trey let me down again. I couldn’t have done that a month ago. It was freaking awesome.

If I was pushed, could I choose between my dancing addictions? I don’t know. I know that I can’t not dance anymore. I am a Dancer. I need to dance. Could I be content only dancing Lindy? Only Westie? Only ballet? I don’t know. Each one satisfies my heart in a different way. Each one contributes, in its own way, to making me a more well-rounded dancer. Without the ways that Westie and ballet are helping me improve, my Lindy would soon get very frustrating. Without the interaction of the social dances, ballet would get very lonely. Without the fun of Lindy and the training of ballet, Westie could soon become just a dance I’m not good at. Each of my dance addictions contributes to making me a more complete dancer.