5-6-7-Dance

eastwood-martin

This weekend, I was left to my own devices as The Fiancée was in the midst of accounting hell that is (what I’m told) “quarter closing”. Apparently, on a regular basis there is a need to have some sort of numerical conclave in which people from all over the company gather their charts and figures, cast their dark magic balance sheet spells, and make the numbers dance and tell stories. No one can leave until the corporate overlords are placated and shift their Eye of Sauron-like focus on another fearful portion of the company. From what I understand the reality is something about looking at spreadsheets, sending emails, and sitting in on conference calls, but I like my version much better.

While I had to work on Saturday as well, I had the benefit of having enough energy to go country line dancing both Friday and Saturday evening. This is something that The Fiancée introduced me to about eighteen months ago when we first started dating and I’ve taken a liking to it. It’s social, it’s active, and it’s in sharp relief to my work day (in front of the computer) and my play time (in front of the computer). I had wanted to learn to dance (East Coast swing, in particular) as it was the rage at the time in the late 1990’s but the fates conspired against me. So, I’m a late starter but I finally got there.

I was sitting at one of the high top tables, carefully chosen for easy access to the dance floor as well as a view of the establishment, when it occurred to me that I am now a regular at the main place we go dancing. I haven’t been a regular at any place or event in a long while, perhaps over ten years ago during my LARPing years. I’ve gotten to know the people and the staff as well as the dances and the social conventions that is the dance floor. (Line dancers in the main area on the inside, couples dancing counter-clockwise around the outside, and wait for the count to start.) Right now I still draw relationship context to them from The Fiancée (formerly “Oh, you’re her boyfriend!”, now they say “Oh, you’re her fiancé!”) but I hope in another two years people will start their name guesses with a vowel.

In becoming a regular, I can now claim the power of judgment over non-regulars. While I am still low on the regular seniority scale (a constant reminder by the people who just glide across the floor with ease), it still outranks the tourists who come out for the night of cultural gaping and inexpensive mass manufactured American beer. Over the course of the last eighteen months, all those valuable pattern recognition skills that help me as a librarian have been utilized to develop a sense as what is the norm and what is not. Given my highly tuned powers of arbitrary observation, it has been refined to the point where I can tell who fits in and who doesn’t.

When it comes to outsiders, then tend to fall into a couple of groups. Bachelorette parties and girls night outs are my favorites but for much more sadistic reasons. Any combination of booze, tall stiletto heels, and tiny dresses is a recipe for embarrassment waiting to happen. As soon as they take to the fringes of the dance floor to try to follow along, the wait for disaster begins. It’s only a matter a time before the balance games is lost or a “wardrobe malfunction” occurs. Without a doubt it’s schadenfreude, but it does provide a nice diversion to the evening.

The ‘trying too hard’ group is next in which people put on everything they think is western. Hats, anything with fringe hanging off of it, all manner of boots, leather everything, you name it. I’ve even seen people wearing spurs. Spurs. Why in God’s name you would put on spurs and then drive to a bar in New Jersey to go dancing is beyond me. The gentleman from last Saturday who inspired the graphic above did not have spurs (I guess they don’t make them for Timberland knockoffs), but he was dressed in all the shades of mottled brown that exist and topped off with a dinky brown beat-up cowboy hat with the stampede strap cinched underneath his chin. He looked like the guy in charge of pony rides at a little kid’s birthday party.

Mercifully enough, I never went through the awkward garb phase since (1) I had enough sense to not try for every country western cliché garb I could think of and (2) I had The Fiancée to glare guide me along with my wardrobe choices. I started out in shorts, Chucks, and t-shirts and graduated to jeans, boots, and button-down shirts. I don’t wear a cowboy hat since any arms moves over the head are that much tougher and it can get pretty hot under there. Eventually, I’m sure my wardrobe will slowly convert to serve this dancing lifestyle.

From my own experience, I can tell what these groups are expecting: twangy songs about girlfriends leaving, dogs dying, and pick-up trucks; people stiffly moving in square dance-like moves; and perhaps a glimpse of someone whittling in the corner or playing a jug. I know what they are expecting because it was what I was thinking when I first went (well, basically that line about twangy songs). I can remember sitting there watching The Fiancée dancing to some contemporary country songs. Then, suddenly, there was a Backstreet Boys song. And there was a specific dance choreographed to that song. As the nights have gone on, they play songs by artists like V.I.C, Cee Lo Green, LMFAO, and Maroon 5. There is still a good amount of country music, but it’s the insertion of other genres that makes it fascinating to me as a cultural mashup. It’s fun to watch their faces when those tunes come on for it gives me an idea about what my face looked like when I first experienced it.

Invariably, the unspoken peace between the tourists and the regulars will be usurped by the entry of the former onto the dance floor. I’d liken it to cubs crossing over into the territory of an established lion pride. They were safe at the bar, the booths, the high-top tables, and even the edges of the dance area. But by entering the dance floor area, the aforementioned rules come into play and are enforced both nicely and, for lack of a better phrase, not-so-nicely. It’s not guys like myself that they should be worried about (even though I’ve come pretty close to running people over and deservedly so) but the ladies who are the true enforcers on the field. While tolerance is given for those trying and not disrupting the floor, patience is measured and finite. One time I saw a woman deliver a hip check to a drunken stumbling bride that would make the Broad Street Bullies look at each other and say, “Damn.” You can try to keep up (indeed, people will help out), but if you keep getting in the way, you’re toast.

As they say, the beat goes on, last week’s tourists are out the door, and next week will be the same regular faces with the possibility of new outsiders to entertain us. It feels good to be a regular at something again, even as I wonder how long I can keep it up once family life makes an appearance. For now, I’ll enjoy the time I have been afforded and try to soak it up as much as possible. But I’ll admit it’s hard to wait for the next dance night.

One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

I am not a natural dancer. My girlfriend reminds me of this fact, accompanying it with one of those pats on the arm meant to cushion the blow of receiving unwelcome news. It’s not a surprise anymore after a year of learning country line dancing, both single and couples dances. I still have some trouble finding the beat and, even if I do find it, staying on it is another matter. I’ve gotten a better sense of the beat over the year and can correct myself to match up, but it’s an ongoing process.

Over the weekend while we were visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was invited to come to her parent’s dance club. The club has an hour lesson followed by about two hours of open dancing. Ballroom dancing, I should add, as it is another kind of dancing that I am not wholly unfamiliar with. I’ve had a single lesson for West Coast Swing, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten outside the rigid formulas of country dancing. While you can add your own variations (“styling”, as I’m told it’s called) to country dancing, there is always a known basic formula for moving around the dance floor. With ballroom dancing, you get to decide what happens next.

This is a relatively new and somewhat foreign concept for me.

On Saturday night, we learned the basic steps of the waltz. It was during the lesson that I experienced an incredible amount of frustration. While I understood and was able to replicate the steps in practice when they were broken down into one or two sets of movements, connecting these different steps together in a continuous flow was proving to be difficult. I felt incredible frustration at an inability to connect my thoughts on what my body should be doing to my actual body movements. I knew that I had to step and move a certain way and my body didn’t seem to be receiving that same message. The steps started to jumble up together like a giant knot and I was trying to pull it apart on the fly paired with a partner.

To put it in perspective, it was the type of frustration that makes you want to run away crying and screaming in rage; sticking it through feels like every part of your brain is calling out for you to quit now. I’m proud that I stuck it through the rest of the night, but it was emotionally and psychologically draining. It left me feeling very vulnerable and in the clutches of a black mood as we drove away back to our hotel room at the end of the evening.

In thinking about this experience on the long drive back to New Jersey, I started to wonder if I had seen that kind of frustration that I experienced in some of the people who have come to my classes over the years at the library. My thoughts lead me to consider the basic computing class that I teach. It’s an excellent example as to how some concepts that are so basic to some can be so distant to others. I thought about the number of times someone expressed being nervous about typing on the keyboard, clicking on things on the screen, or even moving a program window. Had these people felt their own version of the knot, where the concepts suddenly turned into a jumble? How many people stuck it out in the classroom when all they wanted to do was leave and never turn on a computer again? How were they able to deal with their frustration?

Was I able to get them through those moments?

After the lesson and stumbling through a waltz during the open dance, I was relating this knot allegory to my girlfriend’s mother. It felt good to be able express this frustration, but the advice she gave me in return helped immensely. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember her exact wording and I felt like it really hit the heart of the matter.

Another couple was having trouble with a lesson that had both basic and advanced steps and it was really putting a crimp on their evening. The instructor told them that when the dance came up again to go out and just do the basic steps over and over again. Don’t worry or think about the advanced stuff, just focus on the basics. In working on holding their frame and technique, it would help them get create muscle memory and become comfortable with a series of moves they could build on and always return to.

On the basis of this advice, I have to commend my girlfriend for being very patient with me for an evening full of basic step waltzes. (I had enough technique to be able to rotate a little, so it wasn’t that routine.) But this kind of experience is a nice reminder about the difference between people who come to things naturally and those who have to work on it to excel at it. And, more importantly for me, that I need to be more alert and sensitive to those people who might be frustrated in that same way to provide them with the help and encouragement they need to unravel their own knots. Any knowledge can be broken down into “one, two, three”, but translating it into skill is a wholly different matter. The next best thing to being a natural is being someone dedicated to mastering it.

In the meantime, I had better start practicing or else we’ll be doing basic steps forever. I don’t know if she has the patience for that.