Anna



I have been dieing to post this for weeks. 😀 This is a rehearsal video of the routine my university’s swing club took to the Swing Smackdown this weekend.  This is the first we’ve had a swing club since the old one died out too long ago to mention. The members are almost all Freshman, and as cute as a barrel full of puppies. Really, there is no end to the cute. Every one of them just started dancing in September, but when they heard about the competition, they decided that they had to get a team together to participate. Most of these kids had never danced anywhere but the room where this video is taken, kids who had never seen a real jam circle, who had no idea what they were up against. But they didn’t care. They wanted to do something cool, make a splash, a debut that people would talk about. I think they succeeded.

Trey and Anna choreographed and coached. I helped where I could, and acted as Team Mom. The kids worked their little butts off. They had official rehearsals two nights a week, and kept calling additional practices on their own time. They amazed and impressed me so many times over the last couple of months I just started expecting to be amazed and impressed. Plus, they were so freakin’ cute! They were so fresh and enthusiastic and happy while they worked. It was wonderful.

The best part of all was watching individual dancers blossom. My favorite was Melanie, the little girl in the grey tank top and cream colored sweats on the left side. When she started dancing last semester, she was the kind of dancer you would watch and sigh, but not from pleasure. She was jerky, awkward, and couldn’t seem to hear the beat. Then she signed up for the competition team. She worked so hard, and so seriously at the beginning, concentrating so intensely it almost made your head hurt to watch. Then came the night they learned the hip hop section, with the pimp walk and the booty drop. Oh, the giggles and blushes! It took some effort to make the girls get over their embarrassment. Finally, some of them started to get into it, and then they really got into it. Little Melanie was one of the ones who was suddenly workin’ it like there was no tomorrow. They performed the section, and we all clapped and cheered. I hollered out, “And the Bernadette Award for Most Improved Booty Drop goes to Little Melanie, back in the corner! You go, girl!” She flushed all over with pleasure, and from then on, there was a joy and a confidence in her dancing that made her one of the top dancers in the routine. When it came time to pick the couples to represent the team in the Spotlight Dances, we picked her.

But it gets better. After it was announced that she and Jordan would represent the team in the Spotlight, I went over to her as people were packing up. “You’re doing great,” I told her, “but there’s one more thing I want you to think about when you dance. When you get out there on the floor, hold your head up. You are a freaking queen. Remember that. There is nothing down on the floor that interests you. You are a queen, and you hold your head up.” She seemed to understand, so I left it at that. At the beginning of the dance Saturday night, she grabbed my hand and pulled me aside. “Bernadette,” she said, “I did it! I don’t look at the floor anymore when I dance! I did it!” She was so starry-eyed and excited and beautiful. I beamed at her. “I’m so proud of you. You’re going to be wonderful.”

I can’t say how thrilled and proud my kids made me this weekend. They didn’t place anywhere in the competition, but then, we didn’t expect them to. The teams they competed against were made up of the teachers of the workshops they took that afternoon. If the final judges results were published, I think they would rank at the bottom. But that wasn’t what they came to do. They came to establish themselves, to make people to stand up and take notice that there were some new kids in town, and that the new kids were pretty cool. They did that, and they were utterly, unintentionally cute while doing so.

My kids, they’re adorable.

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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.

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.

One of my friends recently blogged about what she was doing this time a year ago, and it got me thinking. A year ago this October Joe was still in Afghanistan. I was writing letters to him in class while trying hard not to flirt with Carlos, and just barely starting to notice Trey’s attention. (I didn’t even begin to take him seriously until one night he blew me a kiss to say good-bye, and I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s something going on there…”) I was still living with my former roommate, and though I wasn’t all that happy, the thought of moving out hadn’t entered my head. Liv and I had just started to hang out on a regular basis, and though we got along like a house on fire, we still had no inkling of the best friends symbiosis that would soon assert itself. Anna had put the word out that she was looking for more teachers just the month before, and I had started to learn how to lead (to teach you need to be able to do/explain both lead and follow).

Last October I took my first ever West Coast lesson.

This October Joe is in novitiate in Louisiana, Carlos has established himself as Not My Type, and Trey is the kind of friend you call “dear” and wouldn’t date on a dare. My former roommate is dieing of liver cancer (she’s been in Hospice Care for about a month now), Liv and I would be joined at the hip if her wheelchair wouldn’t get in the way (did I mention we live together now?), this month I’m teaching Swing I, and last weekend I drove two hours each way to attend a four hour West Coast dance.

I’d like to say I’ve learned Deep Life Lessons in the intervening year, that I’ve Grown and Changed as a person. Mostly, though, it’s felt much more like riding a roller coaster with no safety restraint system, holding on for dear life trying not to get thrown off into the bottomless void beneath. Ironically, I learned how to let go of my need for drama just as life was handing me some major Drama to deal with. Every month has had its challenges, none of them little: the liver cancer diagnosis right before Christmas Eve, guy drama, family issues, chemotherapy, moving, planning a wedding (regrettably, not my own), major money problems after my financial aid got screwed up, trying to settle into a new home, more guy drama, sprained ankles, school challenges, road trips… oh, and dancing. A lot of dancing.

I’d like to say it’s been a good year, but I’m not sure if it’s been good or bad. I suppose it’s been good for me. At least I’ve survived so far. That’s something in itself. I’ll count my blessings.

My social life tends to be a little schizophrenic.  There’s the swing dancing part, and the Catholic young adult part.  Historically, the Catholic young adult part was the biggest and the deepest, where my good friends were, where I drew my emotional support, the people that I hung out with on the weekends, the people I took care of.  Swing dancing was that odd thing I went off on my own to do.  I wasn’t very close to the other swing dancers, and I was happy with that.  There were already too many people who felt they had a right to my time and attention.  Swing dancing was the place I could go and just be, the place where I could be selfish.  All I wanted was to dance, and so I did.

Then I started getting closer to people at swing.  First Mark and Jenn, then Chiara, then Trey and Anna and others.  I started dancing a lot more, and spending most of my free time (and a lot of time that wasn’t really free) dancing.  Little by little I began to pull away from the Catholic part of my life.  Being Catholic is still one of the foundational facts of my existence and my friendships with my Catholic friends go way deeper, but my social life is now focused on swing.

Last weekend I had a party.  I called it Big Party @ Bernadette’s, and I invited my whole life.  I told everyone that this September marks my 2nd year of swing dancing, plus I’d moved into a new house that I wanted to show off, and I wanted to see all of them.  And they came.  I had maybe 60 or 70 people there, although they came and went, so I think the most we had at one time was maybe 50.  We had beer, and chicken on the grill, and a dance floor in the basement that everyone was having too much fun to use.  It was a great party.  People are still telling me what an awesome time they had.  It was a huge success.

Except my worlds didn’t mix.  My Catholic friends and my swing friends pretty much stayed in their own groups, warily acknowledging each other’s existence at a distance.  I think each group intimidated the other, but for different reasons.  And while my Catholic friends are well aware that my life has a cast of thousands, I think my swing friends didn’t really realize what a large circle of acquaintance I have.  I can’t make people talk to each other, but I guess I’d hoped that there might be a little cross-over.  And… no.  I’m still stuck in the middle.

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?

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