Monday, August 17, 2009


One, two, three-and, one, two, three-and, one… Right, left, rock-step, right, left, rock-step, right… Some things, especially repetitive things requiring concentration, get stuck in my head. When I learned chess, I started to count knight-moves on every grid I saw, including the patchwork quilt on my bed. Now I’m thinking the rhythm and steps of swing dancing, actually trying to get the pattern so ingrained in my mind that it becomes subconscious, so that there is hope of doing any but the most basic steps.

I learned swing dancing from a patient and delighted friend yesterday, but I’m still not very good. Not learning something after one lesson is difficult for me. My usual motto is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s: “If I had ever learnt, I should be a true proficient.” Experience has taught me that I learn quickly, and can often self-teach (and if there’s a field in which I don’t excel, I “avoid those weaknesses which expose a good understanding to ridicule.”). But though I have seen others taught to swing, and even snuck some Youtube tutorial video viewings in, I failed to teach myself and so applied to my friend, who was equally amazed that I did not just catch on.

My sense of rhythm is horribly out of practice. I think I used to do rather well, and be good at following music. Lately, I can’t even clap to songs lest I land on the off-beat. And in swing, apparently rhythm is essential. First you have to be able to start on the beat, then keep your feet moving – no room for tripping or forgetting a step! – all to the big band beat. Basic swing is probably a mere step above waltzing. The box-step of a waltz, on even beats, is quite simple, leaving only the question of direction and (for a woman) following lead. All the same, my unpracticed feet are quite lost.

I’d say I went through all the stages and asked almost every question a person could – except I do k now my right from my left. When we say “right step”, for example, no one expects you to step right; steps aren’t so much, then, about any horizontal motion as about vertical, and the noise made by tapping or stomping. All this when I thought dancing had to do with smooth, graceful, whole-body lines. It looks much more fun that way.

For my entire childhood my favorite movies were the old musicals, not so much ballroom classical Fred Astaire as soft-shoe numbers by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. I’d run about the room imitating the dancers, after carefully studying their feet for the moves. (I should have known feet were the most important and sometimes the only part of dancing.) Never mind matching the music the same way they did; I’d follow the melody my own way. Sometimes I would even choreograph my own dances, scribbling out on notebook paper the steps with arrows and abbreviations, full of imaginative innovations all my own. So I’ve thought about dancing, what goes into it. I’m as close to being self-taught as possible.

It was interesting, then, to be both self-teacher and thoroughly taught by another. I did a bit of self-diagnosing yesterday, identifying areas of confusion and weakness and difficulty to which my obliging teacher applied herself. There was quite a bit of watching my feet, watching hers, and of pressing my hands to my cheeks in embarrassed failure. I don’t know that I stepped on any toes, but I caused my friend to step on mine! When swing dancing, it is important to let knees and even elbows bend. Otherwise, as my instructor was so flattering to point out, one moves like a slow penguin.

Just when I was doing well without music, we tried it to a tune from Chocolat – the best swing my friend had, but a little fast for a beginner. We each learned: she about teaching, and me about remembering which foot comes next. It took several tries, but I got the hang of the beat, and improved in covering up my mistakes. Even if I forgot to step with my left foot – which often happened since it never goes anywhere – I remembered where my right one went next, and generally kept up with the music. If you can’t fake it when you forget a step, you’re doomed to start over. There’s no getting back into synchronization without a restart. Only once did we keep going when I lost the beat, and I ended up coming down half a step between hers. Oops!

I remember watching figure skating on ice when I was little, and as spectacular as were the triple axel jumps and amazing spins, the performances that moved me, ones I still remember, were beautifully artistic. No rigid technicality there, the great skaters were so skilled in the difficult moves that they could add grace, training their arms to bend in just the right curve, and the jump to explode into the air just as the music would crescendo. In competition, this beautiful side of the sport was balanced, in scoring, against the impressive. As a dreaming girl I had imagined slipping on a pair of skates and gliding serenely across the ice – a dream that crashed with my derriere the first time I actually attempted to balance on that thin metal blade.

Swing dancing is something like that – so much more romantic in imagination. Also like ice-skating, there is a lot to be said for being sufficiently confident in the art that one can breathe and move and remember that it is an art, and not a mathematical equation. “We’ve got to work on the stiffness,” my friend said with a small smile. And she had warned me earlier in our lessons that eventually I’d have to look at my partner’s face instead of their feet – which I suppose is much more the point of dancing. The stiffness is still an issue, but maybe I’ll come up with new words to say to the count, words like: point, bend, curtsy, elbows, bend, swing-tap, right, left, rock-step, right… I made sufficient progress in the hallway of my friend’s house that she didn’t press me.

So my eager and confident teacher decided to drag me into the next level of swing dancing. Not only must I know the direction of the steps, be able to keep myself up on sore legs unused to such exercise, keep the rhythm, and match the music – I had to learn a special step or two. Arms pull out, drawing the dancers closer, but askew, begging the step to come across. I’m so technical. From which step do we move into a special move? Which foot comes forward in a cross step, and wait! – to which side does it go? Does it then go back, or straight into the other side of the X formation? With much additional thought and practice, including some stepping back and thinking it through with my own feet, deciding I rather needed to tie the left foot to the floor, I correctly danced that step a couple times, too. But I wouldn’t risk being surprised into a move just yet. I need to know the schedule, or I’ll be kicking partners, a prospect I find rather embarrassing.

And partners – real ones, not instructors – are really the most frightening things about the whole business. Aside from the emotional impact of physical contact and eye-gazing, he’s going to have to be forgiving. The men are also supposed to lead, and they won’t necessarily tell me a schedule of how many steps before a fancy one, or which fancy one. Am I too afraid to follow, or too desperate to follow, preferring to be carried?

Wow. All these childhood experiences are coming back to illustrate. When I was five or six, I was taking swimming lessons. Being rather independent, I decided holding my breath was much easier than turning my ear to the side to breathe. Over short distances my little lungs could handle it until I stood in the shallow end or grabbed the side of the pool. But during lessons, we in the class were required to swim out into the deep end, around an instructor, and back to the wall. And the path was too long for me to hold my breath. I got to the teacher standing in the “deep end” and clung desperately to his shoulders, hoping not to drown and gasping for air. Happily, now I am much better at breathing as I go, but I remember that helplessly immobile feeling of just needing to survive. Forget form, forget everything, and just hold on to something or someone you can trust!

On the few occasions when my friend tried to teach me something new, I flew into that same mode, gripping her hand and falling back into walking or just standing, unable to keep with the dance, trying only to survive until craziness stopped happening and the routine step settled back in. I’ve already mentioned this is a doomed tactic. But there are ways to survive, a lot like the regular turn of the head to catch a breath while I swim.

Earlier this year life was like a brand new, confusing, and even painful dance move. I was cast into it with plenty of warning, and even with direction, but felt my emotions and mind wavering on the edge of peace and self-control. In a world whirling around me, each word and decision critical, I walked exercises in sanity by doing things routine, or even by naming everything that caught my eye. “Door. Fence. Bird. Sidewalk. Shoe.” You may think that in itself is crazy, but I was reminding myself of reality, that some things were stable and unchanging.

In swing dancing, there is a stable reality to which I can cling. That original pattern of steps never changes. I may place my right foot in a different direction, be swung up and over heads and spun across the floor, but while all of it is happening, I can think to the beat: right, left, rock-step, right. And even if I have to wait a bit to get my footing, I can hold onto the dance and come in as soon as possible. Or at least my friend can. She demonstrated. That’s survival in swing dancing.

I’ve got the concept wrapped into my brain. Now it’s just a matter of rote practice. “Count with me. Don’t try to move your feet. Just get the feel of the count.”

To God be all glory.

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