Balboa


Today I saw a drowned worm on the sidewalk, the first of the year.  I think that might be an even more powerful harbinger of spring than the warm weather we had for a few days, or the tiny green leafbuds on the tree outside my bedroom window, or even the small, red growths on the rose bush that signify leaves and blooms in the future.  I think this is my favorite time of year, even if the contrary weather is currently making things bleak and gray.  Hints and promises are all over the place, like the small green spikes of flowering bulbs, and the beginnings of new growth on my thyme plants.

Also, all the yarn scraps left over from the pom-poms on Liv’s Hat of Awesomeness (more about that later) which I scattered on my windowsill yesterday have disappeared.  I hope that the birds have taken them for nesting material, not that they’ve simply blown away.  Our backyard is very bird-heavy these days.  It’s been fun identifying them.  We have a nesting pair of cardinals – the lady is so funny looking in her deep red brown feathers with that bright orange beak.  There are also finches, both plain and rosy, (I’m kind of excited about them, because I read that they’re one of the few birds aggressive enough to chase off the ever-present sparrows) and chickadees.  The chickadees were the most difficult to identify.  It took me a while to get a good look at them.  For a while I had convinced myself that the black and white bird that kept showing up on the suet feeder was a kind of woodpecker.  Then I saw a picture of chickadees in the bird feeder catalog and immediately recognized the birds in my backyard.  Now every time I hear them sing it makes me smile.

Something else that makes me smile is my Swing Club kids.  They’ve started coming out to more of the local swing events, which has been delightful.  There’s a lot of them, so I’ve been borrowing my parents’ van to chauffeur them around.  On Saturday I took them out to the monthly dance.  They were a huge hit with the regular swing people.  They’re so young and excited and, well, innocent.  (Mark: “They’re like swing dancers before Original Sin.”)  I enjoy watching them.  They’re not the best dancers by a long shot – there are almost universal frame problems, footwork issues, etc. – but they’re learning and growing at such a pace!  Plus, they’re just so cute!  They’re very sick of that adjective, and I don’t blame them, but it fits so exactly there’s simply no other word to use.  Several of them will be taking the Balboa workshop this month, more than will fit in my car, so I’m borrowing the van every Wednesday to take them.  I can’t wait!

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I took part in my second ever dancing competition yesterday. Bobby & Kate were in town for a day of workshops, and we had a Jack & Jill at the dance in the evening. We had a lot of very good dancers coming in from most places within driving distance, so the competition was stiff. As soon as I saw the completed sign-up sheet I knew that I wasn’t going to make finals. But it was a good experience. I feel like I performed a lot better this time than my first competition. I didn’t lose connection, and I feel good about my dances, particularly considering the four guys I danced with. I had danced with all of them before, but none were guys I’m super comfortable with. Two were very good dancers who intimidate me enormously, the first because I have a lot of difficulty reading him, and the other because he tends to depend on Charleston, which has never been my strong point. I love watching them dance, the first for his great musicality, and the second for the incredible joy that shines through every move he makes, yet I’ve never had a really, really good dance with either one. Actually, the dance I had with the second guy during the competition was probably the best dance we’ve ever had. (I’ve been working very hard on Charleston the last couple of months, and it really showed.) That alone was worth doing the competition.

The third guy was an old friend with very impressive muscles who tends to use them a little too much as he leads. ‘nuf said. He also insisted on busting out some shag in the middle of our competition dance since we first met almost two years ago at a shag class. This was although a) we haven’t danced shag together since, and b) neither one of us is all that good at it. The fourth was a guy I actually dance with pretty regularly, only he’s another very technically skilled dancer who just isn’t much fun. He has the most impressive poker face, which I insecurely tend to read as disapproval. Plus, too often I’ve gotten the feeling he isn’t dancing with me, merely using me as the necessary prop to display his own dancing prowess. Still, it was a lot of fun. I’m planning to enter the Newcomer West Coast Jack & Jill at Boston Tea Party, so I want to get as many competitions under my belt before then as I can.

The other cool thing about the weekend was getting critique. This was both talking to the judges after the competition Saturday and during the Balboa Master’s Class on Sunday when everyone got personally critiqued. You wouldn’t think that would be fun, but it was. Of course, I tend to get crit pretty regularly. Anna, Trey, Linus, Mark, Art – none of them are shy about telling me what I’m doing wrong. Sometimes it can feel a little like one of the Penitential Psalms: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:3) It was good to hear the opinion of someone looking at me with fresh eyes. They notice new things. Also, sometimes they give you compliments. I got told on both occasions that I am “a nice follow.” Also, my Balboa transitions are nice and smooth. I can work more on the shuffle in my basic (I pick up my feet a little too much), and throwing in more variations. (Kate: “Plus, that will help with the boredom.”) I also need to work on trusting my leads and myself. It happens too often that they send me somewhere, and I start to go. Then I second guess myself, don’t quite trust that they really wanted me to do what I think they just asked me to do, and stop my own momentum too soon. Then I’m not quite where the guy wanted me to be, a foot or so shy, or not still spinning. It’s not that I didn’t feel the lead or follow it correctly, but either I didn’t trust my own following skills or that the guy actually wanted me to do what he led. I’m not sure what to do to work on this. I’ll have to ask Anna.

A good weekend. Lots of good things to think about. It feels like getting a little extra jolt of energy to keep the dancing ball rolling. I think this was just what I needed.

Gene KellySo a while back Anna suggested something that might help conquer my self-consciousness on the dance floor. I could pick someone I really admired from stage or screen and try to dance like them, maybe one of the movie stars from the old movies I like so much. I started thinking about this, and decided that I wanted to dance like Betty Grable. I didn’t know much about her, but I had an image of her in my head mostly inspired by her classic WW II pinup photo. It was cute, sassy, and classic. Right away it gave me an idea for styling my Balboa basic. Perfect. I made that photo the desktop image on my computer, and started looking for clips of her dancing that I could mine for inspiration.

I started on youtube, where I quickly found several clips. The dancing in them was… ok, but not really inspirational. Maybe she was better in the movies? I raided my local library, coming home with How To Marry A Millionaire and DuBarry Was A Lady. Millionaire is a great movie, but there was no dancing in it. Plus, Grable’s character was kindof annoying – the kind of cutely perky that would make me want to strangle a girl in real life. So I tried DuBarry. Unfortunately, although the Broadway show of DuBarry Was A Lady made Grable’s career, when they made the movie they cast Lucille Ball in her part. Friends, I hated that movie. It was just stupid all the way through. The only really good thing about it was an incredibly young Gene Kelly. There came this moment after the girl finally said she loved him, when he tap danced pure happiness. No, really, he did. It gave me goosebumps. Twelve seconds of pure magic, the best twelve seconds in the movie. I started browsing Gene Kelly dancing vids on youtube, and came across one from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. There was one point where he dances with some young girls, and it looks like they do a bit of a Charleston routine. I watched that and thought, hey, I can do that! Then I got up from my computer and tried. I sortof could. It was awesome.

That was when I realized that I don’t need another dancing muse, I’ve always had one. My sister has a theory that every woman imprints at a very young age on someone from the screen who becomes her own personal archetype of what a man should be. She thinks that she imprinted on Tony Curtis playing the Great Leslie in The Great Race. I’ve always known that I imprinted on Gene Kelly. Only, I’ve always wanted to dance with him, not necessarily like him. Plus, I don’t think there’s any way I could even begin to imitate his athletic style. I’m just not built that way. Still, I could watch him dance forever and be perfectly happy. He amazes me.

So I’m not sure what I’ll do with this. Maybe some footwork variations working off some of the tap stuff he did so well? Maybe something else I’ll pick up? I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t really want to dance like Betty Grable, I want to dance like Gene Kelly. If he were a woman. I’m not sure what that means in practical terms. I’ll have to let you guys know.

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 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.

I’ve been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. It’s fun to do it now, before the marketing push completely starts up, before the pressure hits, before there’s any urgency to actually do anything about it. It’s all anticipation at this point, no stress or anxiety. No one is blaring Christmas songs in my ears or strictly enforcing the Christmas “cheer.” This is when thinking about Christmas is easy. I like it.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about presents, what I’m going to give which people. (Don’t worry – no spoilers.) This requires some ingenuity because I am more than usually poor this year (I’m your stereotypical Impoverished Student, although I no longer live in an attic garret). The gift I’m most excited about right now is for Uncle Greg. My extended family draws names each year, and I was delighted to get him because he’s one of my favorite uncles. One thing he likes is being introduced to new music, so I decided to make him a set of CDs containing music that I was introduced to or love because it’s music I dance to. I’ll have one CD each for Lindy, Charleston, Balboa, and Westie. The main difficulty is separating out the Charleston and Balboa songs. Although some songs are clearly one or the other, too many could easily go either way, depending on your mood or the types/number of leads available. I’m still working on the playlists for each one, but my rough drafts look something like this:

Lindy
Baby Workout by Jackie Wilson
Movin’ and Groovin’ by Sam Cooke
Smooth Sailing by Ella Fitzgerald
Massachusetts by Gene Krupa
Up A Lazy River by Michael Buble
Jersey Bounce by Ella Fitzgerald
Love Me Or Leave Me by Sammy Davis Jr.
Bop Ting a Ling by Laverne Baker

Charleston
I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate by Madeleine Peyroux
Ballin’ The Jack by Eddie Condon
12th Street Rag by Sidney Bechet
When The Saints Go Marching In by Louis Armstrong

Balboa
Juicy by Better Than Ezra
Honeysuckle Rose by Count Basie
Crazy Baby by Louis Jordan and His Tympani 5
The Sheik of Araby by Sidney Bechet
Buzz, Buzz, Buzz by Jimmie Lunceford

West Coast
Ain’t No Sunshine by Al Green
Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Blue & Stevie Wonder
Be Bop A Lula by Gene Vincent
Buttons by The Pussycat Dolls
Early To Bed by Morphine
Boombastic by Shaggy
Born Under A Bad Sign by Etta James

I think he’ll like it.

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