Music


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…

My roommate Liv is having a very, very bad day today. Like most bad days, this one actually started last night. We had a plan to meet some friends downtown for dinner, and then go to see the East Village Opera Company, a group that performs opera songs to hard rock accompaniments. As we were eating, I could tell that Liv’s legs were already hurting. She kept rubbing them, hoping that by engaging the motor-control nerves the brain would be distracted from the signals the pain nerves were sending. I saw her doing it and expressed concern, but she was doing her best The Smile On My Face Means We’re All Fine Here, Just Fine, How Are You? impression, so I left it alone.

Then we went to the concert. I was enjoying it some, partly because I love opera so I’m familiar with the music, but it wasn’t thrilling me. The way they transposed the orchestra parts for electrical guitar, etc. was cool, and they had some very nice effects. But their vocalists just weren’t up to the challenge. It was a man and a woman, fine vocalists, but much more rock singers than opera singers. And friends, opera demands some serious chops. They didn’t have them. They couldn’t stand up to the music, and they especially couldn’t stand up to their own accompaniment. They were good, almost great, but the “almost” was heartbreaking. The saddest was when they did Nessun Dorma, and turned what should be a freaking powerhouse show-stopper of a song into something merely nice. Plus, the lighting was a little annoying, all rock-concert strobey. That works great in an arena, but we were in the smaller formal theatre where they usually have ballet performances. It was a little much.

At one point I leaned over to tell Liv something about the aria. As soon as she turned to face me I knew she was not doing well, but was trying to hide it. It turns out that strobe lights, loud music, and a low, throbbing bass are a bad, bad combination with anti-convulsant medication (which Liv takes as part of her medical treatment). I wrote her a note on the program asking if she was ok and if she needed to go home. She wrote back that she did, but that if I would give her my house key (she had left her keys at home since I was with her), she would grab a bus. When Liv starts talking about buses, she was ready to leave yesterday. Thankfully the handicapped seating was at the very back of the theatre so we were able to quietly slip away. It was good that we left when we did. Liv threw up once on the way to the car (discreetly down a sewer grating), once while we were driving home (opening the door while we were at a light), and once into the yew bushes beside the porch when we finally got there. It was pretty bad.

This morning Liv was looking some better, although still far from recovered. She was leaning against the counter talking to me while I was eating breakfast and got dizzy. I suggested that perhaps she shouldn’t go in to school today, but after thinking about it a little she decided that she would anyway.

When we left the house, Liv was loaded down as usual. Imagine a small woman in a wheelchair with a very large, blue backpack jammed with anything you might possibly need for several hours studying slung on the back. Slung underneath the backpack is a gym bag, packed tight with bathing suit, towel, etc. All was well until she went to roll over the curb on her way to my car. This is usually not a problem. We have an unusually low curb, and Liv is very good at going over them. This time… no.

I heard a whump! and looked up to see Liv sprawled on her butt in the gutter, her bags magically separated from the chair supporting her back, and the chair rolling towards the center of the street. One of Liv’s shoes had come off from the impact. It seems the chair had gone off balance and started to tip over when she went over the curb. Her big bags hit first and came off. The chair slid out from under Liv and, freed from the weight, popped back upright and continued on its merry way. It was so startling and unexpected, and the picture she made was so comical. It was like something out of a movie or a cartoon – even down to the shoe coming off. Plus, it had been raining all morning, so the gutter she got dumped in was full of water.

I retrieved the chair, Liv got herself back into it, and we continued on to school. Liv did her best to dry off on the way, but was only partially successful before I dropped her off at the library with a hug. I haven’t talked to her since, so I don’t know if the badness has continued. I do hope it hasn’t. This is quite enough for one day!

Last night I got back from the Boston Tea Party, the highlight of my dancing year. And, friends, I have danced with John Lindo. If you recall, that was on my list of Things To Do Before I Die. It’s been there since I discovered West Coast Swing a year and four months(ish) ago. The clips of John dancing with Blake Hobby and Deborah Szekely were instrumental in making me fall in love with West Coast. Last year at Boston Tea Party I asked him to dance, but it didn’t work out. I’d been waiting a whole year for another chance. It was worth it.

See, every time I’d ever seen him dance, whether on a video or in person, not only was he a fabulous dancer, but the girl he was dancing with looked like she was having the time of her life. She looked like she felt beautiful and sexy and honored by the gift of his full attention. I wanted that, particularly at a time when I left the floor after the majority of my dances feeling like a complete failure. Those days are mostly gone, but I still wanted whatever it was that I saw in those women’s faces. Now I know why they look that way. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so taken care of in a dance before, and so appreciated. Every tiniest styling I did got reactions of approval. I’ve rarely laughed so much just from pure delight. It was wonderful.

I also danced with Peter Strom, which was wonderful in a different way. I had seen him dancing in the Superstar competitions last year, and though his dancing was pretty darn sweet, it didn’t occur to me that I might want to dance with him. Then this year I discovered the Crossover Room, where they play music suitable for both Lindy and Westie – mostly the groovy, Motown music I adore. He was one of the main DJs there, and sometimes came out from behind the table to dance with people. His dancing looked like so much fun – groovy and bluesy in the very best sort of way. Early on Saturday night, while the crowd was still thin, I diffidently approached the table and asked if he would be willing to dance with me. He said yes, that we could take the next one, that he would pick a good song. I smiled and retired to the sidelines to breathe. And then the next song came on and we danced. I’m not sure how to describe it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a lead being so completely in control of the dance before. I loved it.

It’s always a little risky asking one of the Superstars to dance. You could have the dance of a lifetime or you could … not. For example, on Friday night I asked one of the other Superstar West Coast instructors (who shall remain nameless) to dance. I had been watching him for a little while, and it seemed like he was having fun. The instant I touched his shoulder and asked him if he would like to dance, however, all the life drained out of his face. He nodded politely, but the expression on his face said, “Oh, great. This clueless unworthy peon is making me dance with her. I hope I can get through it without catching her cooties.” I immediately knew I had made a mistake, but hoped that maybe he would be pleasantly surprised.

So we started dancing, and from the first beat of the song, he was entirely disconnected. He stood there and led one basic, baby move after the other, with no hint of styling or musicality, just going through the motions while he waited for the song to be over. There was no opportunity for me to show him what I could do, and he wasn’t paying attention enough to have noticed if I did. It sucked. Plus the dance floor was really, really crowded. Since he wasn’t actually watching me I didn’t feel like he cared whether I collided with anyone else or not. There were several close calls, making me more and more nervous as the dance went on. By the end of the dance, I was so tense that when he finally did lead something a little complicated, I missed the lead entirely. I did not miss, however, the expression of disgust on his face. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never dance with him again. I don’t think I’ll ever take one of his classes again either.

Still, for the chance at another dance like the ones I had with John or Peter? Yeah, I’ll risk it.

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 have decided that, regardless of the difficulties involved, I will have a merry Christmas. In order to encourage this, I have compiled a small list of things that I particularly enjoy about this time of year. I thought I’d share it as a small blogging Christmas present from me to you. May it help you be happy too!

Bernadette’s List Of Christmas Cheer

  1. Fresh pine. The first year my sister was in college while she was studying for finals she happened to watch an episode of Martha Stewart Living that showed making fresh pine garlands. As soon as she got home she went on a scavenging expedition all over the neighborhood surreptitiously gathering evergreen branches. She spread them out on sheets laid on the living room floor and turned the heaps of branches into wreaths and swags and sprays for the windows. They were beautiful, and they made the whole house smell so good. Today at the grocery store I picked up a fresh pine spray and took a deep breath. It smelled like Christmas.
  2. Roses. The first Christmas that I lived with my grandmother roses happened to be dirt cheap. I love roses more than almost anything, so I bought dozens and dozens, filling the house with them. They were in big vases on the dining room table, in little vases in the bathrooms, in pitchers in the bedrooms, with single blooms in bud vases tucked wherever there was space. I loved it so much that I made it my personal Bernadette Christmas tradition to have roses ever since. Things have been so disorienting that I almost forgot this year. Then today I walked into Meijer’s to do some last minute grocery shopping. The flower stand was by the door, full of roses as usual, and I remembered. It’s Christmas. I need roses. So I got some. I could only afford one dozen, but they look beautiful in the large vase to put by the nativity set and a little one for my bedroom. If I have roses, then it must be really Christmas.
  3. Pomegranates. Every year I watch and wait for the pomegranates to arrive. They’re one of the few foods you can’t easily get year round. Now the season is a couple of months beginning in November, but back in the day you were lucky to find them during just a few weeks in December. They were expensive, so my parents would buy just one for all of us to share. We carefully peeled back the red, leathery skin, revealing the seeds like jewels nestled inside. We broke the sections apart and portioned them out between us, careful to make each share exactly equal. I would eat the seeds one by one, feeling the burst of sweet tart juice on my tongue. They’re still one of my favorite fruits. Besides tasting good, they’re so beautiful. It’s like eating garnets. Plus they’re romantic. In the Song of Songs (the sexy part of the Bible), when the groom is praising the bride’s beauty, he tells her, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread; your mouth is lovely. Your cheek is like a half-pomegranate behind your veil.” (Song of Songs 4:3) It’s a wonderful thing.
  4. The Messiah by Handel. When I was growing up this was one of the things my mom would put on while she was working in the afternoons. Most people only know the Halleluia Chorus, but we were used to listening to it all the way through. I know it so well it’s almost seeped into my subconscious. The strings in Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul In Hell, the trumpet aria in The Trumpet Shall Sound, the fierce choral parts in But Thanks Be To God. I think I could sing along to it before I could understand the words. The parts I love the best are actually all from the section about Christ’s death and resurrection, but somehow it’s still associated with this time of year. I was listening to it as I drove around today. It felt like home.
  5. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I love that song. When I was growing up, during Advent before dinner every night we would turn out all the lights, light the Advent wreathe, and sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We’re a musical family, so often it would be multiple verses in four (or five or six) part harmony. I know there were nights that I couldn’t stand it, nights when I really, really didn’t want to hold my sibling’s hand and sing. When I look back, however, all I can seem to remember is my family gathered warmly together in the glow of the candlelight and the song rising from our hearts to God’s.

That’s what I have so far. Merry Christmas!!!!

Last night Lyle was at dancing for the first time in a while. He was all excited because, he told me, he had been “recognized.” He was dancing with his girlfriend, a lovely young woman with very curly dark hair and glasses, at one of the ballroom classes he’s been taking lately. Someone came up to them and asked if they were one of the couples who had been dancing at an outdoor event in Tipp City this summer. The funny thing was, Lyle had been dancing at that event, but the girl he had been dancing with was me. Beyond the curly hair and the glasses, his girlfriend and I really don’t look very much alike. So apparently Lyle is a more memorable dancer than his partners!

I have a new phone, a Sony Juke. It also plays music. I keep wanting to call it an mp3 player, but it doesn’t play mp3s, it plays windows media files. I love it, partly because it’s loud. I haven’t had music in my car since the radio caught on fire (yeah, you read that right – I’ll have to tell that story sometime) a while ago. Although there’s something to be said for having one place in the world where I’m not continually being bombarded with media, I really missed my music. The car had been one of the main places where I listened to it. Until I could get the money to have the wiring redone (and my car is so ghetto I’m not sure that it’s worth the investment), my car remained a music-free zone. However, this lovely little music player is loud enough that I can turn the sound up all the way, stick it on the seat next to me, and hear my tunes just fine. It’s a wonderful thing.

I would write more, but I’m trying to get out the door to go to PittStop 7, the Lindy Exchange in Pittsburgh. I haven’t gone to many all weekend dancing events like this, so I’m very excited. Plus, I’ll get to see Luke, one of my favorite guys in the world. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back!

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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