Praise


I remember when I was first starting as a dancer, hideously insecure, longing with all my heart to be having the kind of dances I could hear in the music. I knew that it was possible to dance that way, so connected to the music and your partner, making the music come alive through the way you moved your body, through the way the two of you moved together on the floor. I watched others, the good dancers, having those dances, losing themselves in the moment, their partner, and the melody. They styled and improvised, and every once in a while threw in a swingout so pure and clean it could make an angel cry. I wanted to dance like that almost more than I wanted to breathe, and I was sure that I would never, never be that good.

When watching, I noticed that one of the ways you could always tell when it had been a really, really good dance was by the hug. The two dancers would end the song with a flourish or a pose or a dip, and hold it for a long moment as the music faded. Then the tension would be released, the partners would come out of their position with a smile or laugh, and give each other a big hug full of spontaneous affection. It was all there in that hug: the joy of the moment shared, the gratitude for the gift the other person has given you and allowed you to give them, the satisfaction of knowing that you have done something well.

I watched these dances with despair in the pit of my stomach. I had hit the point in my dancing when I started to realize how much I didn’t know, how much I wasn’t following. I was so frustrated with myself, my limitations, my body that just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I could hear so much in the music, but I couldn’t seem to get it out on the dance floor. I felt lucky to finish a dance feeling that I had followed everything correctly. Every once in a while I got a “Good job.” or “That was nice.” I treasured those moments and kept working. One day…

Then came the first time I lost myself in the music. It was only five seconds during a rotation at a workshop, but it was… dizzying. When I looked up at my partner I saw the same half-stunned look on his face. That was when I found hope. I kept working hard, practicing, getting critiqued, taking lessons, pushing myself to get better. Then I had a whole dance like that. I can still hear the song: Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford, though when I was dancing it was almost like I didn’t hear the music, or I did, but it was as if it were coming through my lead. At the end my partner held on to me for a long moment, and we looked at each other. “That was…” he said, “that was…” and then he gave up and hugged me.

That was over a year ago now. I’ve had more dances like that since, though I’ve learned never to take them for granted. They’re rare moments of serendipity when you, your partner, and the song all line up in fleeting synchronization. But I’m no longer surprised when they come along. Last Wednesday a good guy dancer from another city showed up at our weekly dance. We had a really fun dance, playing with the music and off one another. There was styling, improvising, and fancy footwork. We laughed and had a good time together. At the end of the song he led me into a big, flourishing pose, which we held as the music faded. Then we both laughed, and he pulled me into a big hug. As I walked off the floor I realized that I’d made it – that for all of the ways I’m still far from the dancer I want to be, I’m now one of the “good dancers” I used to watch with such hopeless envy. And I have the hugs to prove it.


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.

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 last night I had this, “Damn, I’m good!” moment (I was going to write “Dang” but then I decided that the moment was fully worth the swear word). This is what happened: This semester I’m taking a class on Thomas Aquinas (the Big Bad Boy of Catholic theology), and on Tuesday I gave a presentation on part of the Summa (Aquinas’s master work). It went rather well, and I was excited about it. Last night while I was dancing with Pierce he asked me how my week had been. I told him about my presentation. He asked more. I told him more. By the time we were done I had explained all of Part I, Question 105, Article 4 of the Summa Theologica (“Whether God can move the created will?”), complete with Objections, Respondeo, and Answers to the Objections. All of this while doing Lindy and neither missing a step nor failing to follow a single move. Also wrapping it up before the song was done. And I’m pretty sure Pierce understood it.

I can’t believe I did that.

Damn, I’m good!

Of course, having done something like this, I then had to find someone who could fully appreciate my Mighty Deed. This would require a fellow theologian who can dance. There are none that I know of, but I couldn’t wait until I saw Justin tonight so I could tell him all about it.

Also last night, for the first time my dancing was praised by another dancer. I don’t mean that I haven’t gotten compliments before. There’s always the cute little old people who come out for the live swing bands in the summer and just love watching the swing dancers, or beginners who don’t know what good dancing looks like yet. It has been fun watching the number of leads who want to dance with me increase, and I’ve gotten admiring looks or words of praise for individual cool moves. Dancers whose opinions I trust have told me that I’ve improved a lot in different areas. Still, I’ve never felt like my dancing was of a quality that another dancer would get pleasure from watching me. Last night I danced some Westie with Trey, and later Lyle couldn’t get over how amazing the two of us had been. He was in awe at our musicality, the moves we had done, and the way we had mirrored one another: “There was this move right at the beginning that was like a sugar push, but not! And then you both kicked your foot out to the side at exactly the same moment! It was so awesome! I just love watching you two!” It was a little humbling, especially since I didn’t remember doing some of the moves that so impressed him. I’m sure I did them, but, well, for me it had been just another dance with a better than average lead.

Maybe I’m better at this than I think I am.