Charleston


Last week I taught my first ever private lesson.  It was so surreal.  There I was, in my kitchen with Forrest, drilling him on his Lindy footwork and talking about connection.  The lesson went very smoothly.  We fixed some pretty big problems with his footwork, and did some drills.  I taught him how to do six-count Lindy turns and how to do a Sugarpush properly for the first time.  He ate it up, and told me later how much he got out of the lesson.  It was a good lesson, but still… I felt kinda like a fraud.

See, private lessons, that’s something that pros do.  I mean, the really, really good people, the kind you have to go to Lindy Exchanges and workshops to learn from.  The stars and superstars of swing dancing, the ones who can rock your Lindy world with one well-chosen, blindingly insightful comment: they’re the people who give private lessons.  Me?  I’m the girl who teaches Swing I in a small swing scene.  I’m the one who struggles with partner Charleston, who doesn’t have the self-confidence to bust out solo Charleston unless I have a solo-Charleston circle around me, the one who’s always having to work on her frame and her balance and… and on everything.  How could I really be qualified for this?  I mean, teaching with a partner, sure, especially when my partner’s been dancing twice as long as I have, but private lessons?  No way.  I felt like any minute there would be a knock on the door, and there would be the Lindy Police, asking to see my license and registration.

Moreover, these aren’t just private lessons.  I’m hoping that Forrest and Travis (who had his lesson a few days later) will become first my demonstration partner while I teach at the University, and eventually teachers in their own right.  Right now Trey and I are teaching the University Swing Club together (we had over 100 kids the first week), but after we’ve taught them East Coast basics and a tiny bit of Lindy we’re going to split the group in two.  I’ll teach the beginners, and Trey will teach slightly more advanced stuff to the kids who’ve been dancing a little longer.  Trey already has an established demonstration partner, but I don’t, and there isn’t really anyone suitable in the local scene to ask.  All of the better leads are either already paired off with a teaching partner or otherwise not available/not suitable.  So I’m training my own teaching partner.  And yeah, that feels so weird.

I told Anna about this.  She’s the senior dancer in our swing scene and the driving force behind a lot of what we do.  She’s the one who trains new instructors (including me).  She laughed at the idea of the Lindy Police, but told me that it was going to feel like this for a while.  As long as I’m willing to ask for help when I need it, and willing to pass my students on when I’ve taught them all I can, I should be fine.  She offered me the materials she’s worked up to help train teachers, and reminded me that I can always ask her for helped.  After that I felt better, not just from knowing that I had backup, but also simply because she didn’t bust out laughing hysterically at the idea of me giving private lessons.

Maybe this isn’t so far out of my league after all.

This past Saturday I got invited to speak at a Catholic young adult retreat. They were talking about living your vocation, and they asked me to speak on living your vocation as a single person. One of the young women who invited me had heard me when I was one of the emergency speakers for Theology On Tap and was impressed with what she called my, “positive attitude.” I was startled by the invitation. I mean, I know I’m a good speaker. I have interesting things to say and I know how to state them in a way that engages and entertains an audience. I’ve done presentations for my Catholic young adult group many, many times. Still, I’m not officially an expert on anything. Of all the people that she heard at TOT (including my sister Michelle, who not only has spoken there, but MCs every series), she wanted me to come speak on being single? I was delighted to do it, just a little worried about her judgment.

It was a good talk. I talked about how I’ve come to understand my life as a single person as being a gift to the situations and people God puts me in contact with. The small group of young adults seemed to get a lot out of it. I even worked in dancing. At the end of the talk I used a basic Lead/Follow exercise from my first ever swing dancing lesson to help them feel what it’s like to follow God’s lead, and how you have to listen for it. They had a lot of good questions and comments at the end. One of the young women borrowed the reference book I brought with me to copy out a quote I’d used. It was pretty cool.

Then Saturday night I went to the regular monthly dance. About halfway through the dance somehow I ended up teaching an extended solo-Charleston lesson to some new dancers. I’m still not sure how that happened. I think I was showing Stella’s friend and Pierce something, and then this other girl started hovering on the edges trying to imitate what we were doing, and then her friends came over, and they kept asking me to teach them another move. We went through the Charleston basic, turns, fall off the log, Susie-Q’s, scarecrow, kick-overs (both with and without the repeat), boogie backs, Shorty George, boogie forwards (at which point I discovered that my main pupil was a belly dancer, which made her boogie forwards very cool – Her: “It’s like doing that figure 8 thing with your hips!” Me: “Well, that’s not standard, but if you can do it I can guarantee there will be someone watching.”), and maybe some other moves – I don’t remember anymore.

It was fun, though it did eat up a big chunk of the dance. It’s also rather ironic – I’ve worked on my solo Charleston at different points, but I’ve never been super serious about it. The serious one has always been Lucy, who actually looks cool doing the moves (rather than spastic, like, um, me), who can do the crazy moves my body can’t seem to figure out. At Boston I took a solo jazz class taught by Carla Heiney. 75% of it went directly (whoosh!) over my head. Lucy would have eaten it up and asked for more. If you want to learn solo Charleston, I would think she would be the one to ask. But no. They were asking me.

I’m happy to teach whatever I know, but… why do you want to learn from me?

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.

So I was thinking about putting together a few New Year’s Resolutions for myself, which caused me to realize a few things. First, I realized that absolutely nothing that I hoped for last year came true for me. Then I realized that this was because pretty much all my hopes were bound up in Carlos making good on all the promises his flirtatious behavior had seemed to make. I had kindof a half-formed goal of becoming a better dancer, but I hadn’t thought much about what that actually meant. My dancing has improved immensely, but if I were to judge the year’s success by my current relationship status, things would look pretty bleak. Sure, there was the Actual Date with Basil, but at year’s end I’m pretty much where I started. So this year I decided that not a single one of my goals should involve romantic relationships in any shape or form. For a while I toyed with the goal of having gone on another Real Date, but in the end I decided even that was too much. Instead, this year I want to focus on other things, like:

  1. My dancing. I have some basic things I know I want to work on (my balance, spinning, not drifting when I spin, relaxing into the lead, etc.), but those are things I’ll be working on probably my whole dancing career. This year I want to work on my solo Charleston. Specifically, I want to be comfortable enough with it, comfortable enough with my own body, that I can dance a whole song by myself without needing anyone else dancing along side me. One of the very few sad things about PittStop was that no matter how infectiously Charleston-y the song was, I couldn’t get anyone to form a Charleston circle with me for love or money, and I wasn’t confident enough to go it alone. Lucy has traditionally been my steady Charleston-circle partner in crime, but there’s a good chance that she might be leaving town later this year. So I need to work up the chops to go it alone. We’ll see how that goes.
  2. My friends. There are too many people I really care about whom I hardly ever see. This is partly because for the last two years I’ve been consistently choosing to spend my available free time dancing, and too many of my friends don’t dance. Still, I care about them and I don’t want to let them slip through my fingers for lack of a little effort. I’m a person who needs structure, so I’ve been trying to think of ways to structure friend time into my life. So far what I’ve come up with is having friends come over to watch TV with me, now that I actually have a TV night again. I know there’s got to be other ways to work this in. I’d be happy to hear other people’s ideas on this.
  3. My finances. I’m not gonna lie – I’m pretty much a spaz when it comes to money. I do stupid things. I buy stuff I don’t need. I either don’t plan ahead or I don’t follow the plan I have. I’ve bought the financial software, but I don’t use it. I never turn necessary paperwork in on time. I’m just awful at this stuff, and I know it. The accumulated impact of failure after failure becomes so overwhelming sometimes that I become emotionally paralyzed and can’t do anything at all until something snaps me out of it. However, little by little I’ve been improving, planning ahead, taking necessary steps to make sure every thing’s covered. I’m still far from perfect, but I have hopes that finally, this year I’ll get my stuff together.
  4. My writing. I took first prize in a poetry contest in 2007. Now I have two publishing creds under my belt. I’d like to have more. I don’t want to set a goal for acceptances or prizes, but I would like to send out at least two submissions every month. It’s not a lot, but I think it’s an important step for me. In his latest letter Joe sent me information on a poetry competition for a magazine he reads. I think I’ll start there.

And that’s what I have. I think they’re pretty good goals, challenging but achievable. The best part? None of them involve romance!

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.

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.

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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