Guys


It happens every single time. You go to a wedding. It’s a lovely wedding. You might even tear up when the couple exchanges vows. And then you proceed to the reception. It’s a lovely reception. They have Ornamental Thingies on the tables, and an invitingly large dance floor laid out in front of an impressive table full of Mysterious DJ Stuff. The open bar is flowing. Things are looking good.

Then they start playing music.

It’s all the good stuff – sappy old lovelies like L-O-V-E and standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You know these songs. You dance to them every week. They’re great songs, fully of swing and sass, with killer breaks made for hitting. Your feet start to tap, your hips start to swish – it’s all you can do to not grab someone and start dancing right that instant. But you don’t. That would be wrong. The bride and groom haven’t had their first dance yet. The bride and groom haven’t even arrived yet. They’re just barely starting the warming plates to serve dinner. Dancing is a long, long way off. You grit your teeth and get a hold on yourself. You can wait. Really, you can.

At long last, after the bridal party arrives and dinner is served, after the toasts and the speeches, after the couple’s first dance, and the dance with their parents, and the dance just with the bridal party, and the dance just for married couples, and God knows what, finally, finally you can dance. You head for the dance floor, eager to flash some moves. They’re playing pop music now, but it’s marginally swingable, and all those swing songs earlier gave you an itch you just have to scratch. You look around you and discover… there’s no one to dance with. Sure, there’s lots of friends shakin’ their booty on the dance floor, but not one of them would know a swingout from a hole in the wall. If you’re a girl, you realize that you are the best lead in the building. If you’re a guy you realize that not one of these girls has any clue how to follow. Maybe there’s one or two people who kind of dimly remember that one lesson in East Coast swing they took three years ago, but that’s it. You’re dieing for one good Lindy dance (just one!), but your chances of getting that? Well, let’s say you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, particularly since you don’t buy lottery tickets. You begin to be grateful that the DJ isn’t playing swing music anymore, and settle yourself down to an evening of good, old-fashioned, non-partnered dancing.

But it doesn’t end there. Nuh-uh. See, your friends, they love you. They know how much you love swing dancing, how crazy you are about it. They’ve had to sit through enough impassioned ravings about the nuances of rock steps and demonstrations of solo-Charleston moves. They know you won’t be happy unless you swing dance at least a little. So they ask the DJ to play some swing music. And he does. He plays one of three songs: either Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Zoot Suit Riot, the Brian Setzer version of Jump, Jive and Wail, or something by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Whatever he plays, it will be killingly fast, and there will be no one for you to dance with. But all your friends are watching, eagerly waiting to see how you’re enjoying the treat they so sweetly arranged.

So… you make the best of it. You grab that one guy who sort of remembers how to lead a couple of turns in East Coast and make him dance with you. You do your best to follow whatever he’s doing, even when he forgets the rock step or throws them in randomly from time to time, even when he almost yanks your arm off on an outside turn, even when he lets four breaks in a row fly by without even noticing they were there. You don’t even dare hit them yourself or throw in the slightest bit of styling. Anything unexpected totally throws him off. Tossing in a swivel might make him break down completely. You grit your teeth, and after a small eternity the song is done.

You walk off the floor, quivering slightly from the badness of the dance. Your friends cluster around you. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “You’re really good! That was awesome!” Words fail you. You retreat to the bathroom to try to regroup. The reception is far from over. The bar is still flowing. There’s a good hour at least of dancing still to go. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe they won’t play swing music anymore. Maybe…

It’s pretty common for dancers, when they reach a certain skill level, to start learning the opposite part: girls learn how to lead, and guys learn how to follow. It helps you appreciate the whole picture of what’s going on in a dance, understanding what your partner is experiencing. Learning how to follow can help guys be better leaders, communicating more clearly exactly what they want their partner to do. Learning to lead can help a girl be a better follow, showing her what she’s listening for. Learning the opposite part is also important if you want to be able to teach. You need to be able to explain everything that’s going on, even if you’re half of a teaching couple teaching your usual part. Often the two of you might be independently dealing with particular questions, or you might need to keep the class going in its exercise while your partner is off helping that one guy who just doesn’t seem to get it. Consequently you’ll sometimes see two guys dancing together, or two girls. It usually has nothing whatever to do with their sexual preferences. They’re just working on their dancing.

The first time I saw two guys dance together it was at a dance put on by a small college a few hours away. This was the first time I’d ever traveled to a dance, almost nobody knew me, and I wasn’t dancing much. There were a set of twin brothers in the hosting swing club, both good dancers. Towards the end of the dance they danced a song together, showing off all the tricks they knew, and occasionally bickering with one another over who was leading. It was one of the most awesomely hilarious things I’d ever seen. Their dancing was wonderful – athletic and graceful. Because they weren’t being particularly careful with their partner they went for the moves with a gusto that was amazing to watch. The best was watching their faces as they reacted to doing unfamiliar things, and as they argued with one another about who was leading. I loved it, and when they were done, applauded along with other onlookers.

Since then I’ve considered it a treat to see guys dancing together. Beyond the fact that it’s usually only the very good guys who do it (meaning the quality of dancing tends to be very watchable), guys dance differently with other guys than they do with women. They become more athletic, a little more forceful. It’s like the difference between guys playing basketball by themselves, and when a woman joins the game. No matter how much a guy may intend to treat everyone equally, subconsciously they tend to tone things down a little, become a little more gentle when physically interacting with someone they perceive as smaller and potentially more vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a committed feminist – but to be honest, I’m rather grateful for this. There are too many opportunities in social dancing for both partners to get hurt. Guys being a little more gentle means I may still have usable shoulders when I’m fifty-five. Still, it’s always been a joy for me to see guys dancing with the gloves off, so to speak.

Two of the best leads in our scene are Trey and Rudy. Both of them have fairly distinctive styles, Trey being more grounded and groovy, Rudy smooth and gorgeously graceful. They are also the only two guys in our Lindy Hop scene who also dance West Coast. Trey knows how to follow, but he’s not super good at it. Rudy can follow like a dream. Sometimes the two of them dance together, especially working on their West Coast skills. It’s always a fabulous show, and attracts quite an audience. The onlookers often comment on Rudy’s following. I’ve heard more than one girl say she wishes she could follow like Rudy. One night a group of girls got together and decided that they should have t-shirts made that read, “I want to dance pretty like Rudy.” I thought this was an awesome tribute, and told Rudy about it.

To my surprise, he thought it was an insult. I was dense, so he had to explain. “Guys dancing with guys… don’t you think some people think it’s a little gay?” I blinked, and let that sink in. To be honest, that thought had never occurred to me, and I had to think a little to figure out why. I know Trey and Rudy. Both of them are completely, sometimes obnoxiously, heterosexual men. Both are involved in committed relationships with their girlfriends. To me they’re so thoroughly heterosexual that even if I saw them dressed in drag trolling for tricks in a city park I would probably sooner assume that they were pulling some kind of prank (or possibly in dire financial distress) than that they were gay. I told Rudy this, and the conversation ended.

Still, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got, not at Rudy, but at our society that considers any non-violent contact between men as suspect. When girls dance with girls, it’s hot. But when guys dance with guys people doubt their manliness? That’s just wrong. There are lots of cultures where men dance with each other. Think of Russian folk dancing, with the guys doing what wikipedia calls “traditional squatwork” – that incredible kicking while sitting almost on your heels which requires such awesome balance, not to mention monster thigh muscles. Does anybody call that gay? Heck, no! So why do we have to be all hatin’ on our guys who happen to be fabulous dancers.

Hmmph.

Have you ever hit a point where you knew you had so many things to blog about, but you just didn’t know what to say? It’s not writer’s block, more like writer’s dam. There’s too many things jostling around in my brain getting mixed up with each other and sulkily refusing to come neatly out and be arranged in tidy rows of print. There’s my latest tangle with my sister Michelle, who irritates me more than I can say, probably since we’re so much alike. And then there’s my oldest brother, who’s been insisting that we Work On Our Relationship in this pushy manner that sets my back up. And then there’s Gabe, who has embarked on a cross-country motorcycle trip right when I’m fiending to see him the most.

Well, that’s the annoying stuff, anyway. There’s lots of not-annoying things too, like an upcoming visit from Ilse, part of her own cross-country trip, fun on family vacation that included playing Guitar Hero for the very first time (I only sucked for the first fifteen minutes – much better than I expected!) and a ten year old neighbor boy who decided that I was all things awesome. Then there’s my garden (always a source of joy and delight), plus all the crocheting I’ve been doing. And I can always blog about dancing, although I haven’t been out nearly as much as I’d like lately (see above: family vacation).

Yet for all these lovely ideas, nothing is standing out, coming together, or even beginning to approach coherency. Instead they’re staying stubbornly snarled in my subconscious, like an itch I can’t scratch, an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sooner or later they’ll come out – they always do. It just isn’t going to be terribly comfortable to be me until they do.

Whoever said writing was easy lied.

I was planning this very happy-go-lucky sort of blog post, all about the gardening I did this weekend, and my new summer job working one and a half days a week for the admin of another division in addition to my regular job. (They have windows! Windows, I tell you!) I was maybe even going to mention the continued, almost-sickening cuteness of Justin and Lori as they venture deeper into mutual gooey-eyed-ness. If I’d been feeling particularly open, I would have shared about Rocco’s latest (and hopefully final) intrusion on my life. It would have been a good post. And then yesterday I got the message that Zeke is dead.

Zeke’s family went to the same small parish as mine, and attended the same Catholic schools. They live a few houses down from my sisters, a block away from my parents. However, he was seven years younger than me, so I didn’t actually meet him until he showed up one night at the Wednesday night swing dance. This was when I was just starting to learn how to teach, so the Powers That Be decided that I should get some teaching practice by teaching the Free Beginner Lesson to him, his cousin, and their friend. They picked it up quickly, and it was a lot of fun, assisted by the fact that all three were pretty darn cute. Except Zeke kept staring at me, and it was starting to creep me out. Then at the end of the lesson he said, “You’re a [Family Name], aren’t you!” I looked at him warily, very weirded out, and admitted that I was. He laughed. “I’m a [Other Family Name]!” And then I laughed too and relaxed completely, because that explained everything.

We were friends. He could make me laugh like no one else, especially when we were dancing. He would make these faces – it was like you could see every panicked thought that went through his mind as he led. It was awesome. One time I laughed so hard I came perilously close to peeing my pants. He took my odd-ness in stride, which made me want to be even a little more odd just to provoke him. It made me sad when he eased away from dancing, and then moved to another city an hour away, but I was sure I would see him again sooner or later. We still talked from time to time, and I reminded him that he had promised me a ride on his motorcycle one day. He always told me not to worry, that I would get my motorcycle ride.

And, well, no I won’t. He was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in Florida, a hit and run accident. Although he was wearing all his protective gear, the injuries to his head were so severe that he was pronounced brain dead. His whole family had flown down to Florida to be with him. They’re making arrangements to donate his organs. They think that he might save eight people’s lives.

It’s selfish of me, but I’d rather have Zeke back.

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.

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