It’s day one of my introductory swing dancing class, level 1. There are 5 levels at this studio, though the fourth alternates between two curricula and the fifth changes each time based on participant interest and instructorial whim, so it would be more accurate to say there are 5 + ∞. The operative question tonight is “why’d you decide to start dancing?” My initial answer—a Thoreauesque ramble about living deliberately, casting off social anxieties, intentionally seeking community, and just generally being the change I want to see in my life—gets little in the way of understanding nods and/or smiles, so I decide to tweak it until I’ve found the correct one.
The room I’m in seems somehow more cuboid than your average room. The floor is hardwood, the boards the thin/long kind where maybe you’d more accurately call them slats instead of boards. The wall to the right of the door is mirrored from about a foot off the ground to a couple feet above my head. This still puts the mirrors about ten feet shy of the ceiling, which I now realize is, or must be, I hope, far higher than the evening’s festivities could possibly require. This is the aesthetic issue: this room is taller than it should be, and in a slightly industrial way that undercuts any potential grandeur. The wall opposite the mirrors has, at about waist height, those bars you’ve seen ballerinas hold in movies. Seen now up close, these are thin, old, and flimsy, meaning those ballerinas must either be very good at balancing or else just really light.
There are maybe fourteen of us in all, and we tend to huddle close to whomever we already know. My own Loyal Companion, Rachael, has already finished level 3, and is here with me in level 1 presumably as some sort of karmic investment. Before class starts we practice a few of the moves she’s shown me. She back-leads1 almost everything, and has to make lemonade out of some pretty nasty dance-lemons I’m tossing her way, but thankfully no one except the instructors knows enough to realize.
Our instructors are a husband and wife duo, a maddeningly lovely woman named Christabel and her preposterously named husband, Kevin Savage.2 Christabel is average height, with reddish hair, milky skin, and the overall put-togetherness of a person who emerged from the womb with a cute dress already on. I have yet to see her visibly in a bad mood, and the consistency of her cheery voice is haunting: I’ve since woken up in cold sweats with her voice in my head on an endless loop, “quick quick slow, slow, quick quick slow, slow…” Kevin is about as far from savage as one can get. He is, when I meet him, ever so slightly chubby, with dark hair that is just beginning to thin, and a facial structure reminiscent of David Mitchell except sans Mitchell’s eyes. He wears t-shirts and cargo shorts and sweats into them. His hands are soft to the point that girls talk about how soft his hands are when he’s not around. His interests include Star Trek, tabletop gaming, and, starting halfway through the summer, Pokémon GO. This is all as much as to say that Kevin Savage has genetic and personality traits that would make it very easy for him to relax into the role of schlub. Instead, Kevin stands as probably humanity’s best argument yet against biological determinism. He is in practice friendly, gregarious, thoroughly unconcerned with the haters,3 helpful, funny, and a quiet miracle on the dance floor. Making eye contact with him is recommended, but not without caveats: it’s not often someone is so nakedly happy you’re here. This feeling can be unnerving. Conversationally, the Savages remind me of kids I might have quietly sniggered at in high school, the kids who would try valiantly to enter group jokes, but always deliver their line too late, too early, too loud, too quiet, too forcefully, or too timidly, or somehow all these at once. I realize yet again that I was an asshole in high school.
The class itself is a blur of new names, brow-wrinkling metaphors, and rapid-fire social critique. The lead’s left arm and the follow’s right are, in their connection and their droop and their looseness, like a chain. The lead’s right arm is a catapult. The follow is like a log on water. The metaphors often seem to have either a primitive or a childish vibe about them. But the metaphors can flow the other way, too. From Kevin: “it’s more important to be in sync with each other than with the beat,” or “it’s o.k. to need count-ins at first but ultimately the rhythm has to come from inside you,” or most of all, from a man who a mere half-hour prior bore all external markers of a well-adjusted and all around content middle-class existence, “I think—I know what’s right and I know what I want to do I just can’t get myself to— to—” and then a sigh, with arms thrown up.
My hip-shot social critique is this: either prospective swing dancers are special or swing dancing is. Imagine any other scenario with fourteen scared-shitless animals trapped together in an enclosed space, goaded into constant proximity. Things get bloody—fast. But add in a few mirrors, rhythmic expectations, and a dash of elaborate and subtle social stigmas—re: e.g. the precise amount of confidence with which one should contact another human body, or the high-wire act of being proud of and excited about swing, but not so much as to give the impression that one takes seriously that which is, when one gets down to it, a kind of silly throwback to a possibly imagined midcentury pastime that, if it did exist as we now like to think, probably didn’t take itself seriously at the time, either4—and suddenly these fourteen, each absolutely shit-free on account of their immense anxiety, all seem to trip over themselves (yes, sometimes literally) to cede any and all dominance, ego, credibility, or alpha status. These fourteen seem like they’ve noted the typical animal response to danger—a puffed chest, brightly poisonous colouration, threatening vocalizations—and made a conscious decision to do exactly the opposite: each is trying to exist as little as possible, to take up at most maybe one quarter of their typical volume. Surprisingly enough this effort is seeing results. I realize I am doing the same.
Specifics: we learn the six-count basic step in both open and closed position, the tuck turn, and the inside turn. The basic is your foundation: it’s what you do when you aren’t doing moves, and its footwork is (or can be) used in loads of different moves.5 To do a basic, start with a rock-step—a quick step backward followed by a quick step forward, each lasting one count. Then take two slow, side-to-side steps of two counts each. Repeat. Which foot you use on each of these steps depends on whether you’re leading or following: the lead rock-steps back with his left foot; the follow rock-steps back with her right.6 The slow steps are left, right for the lead, and right, left for the follow. Quickquick slow, slow, quickquick slow, slow. This rhythm, which is just one of many, can be done in closed position, with the lead’s right hand on the follow’s back, the follow’s left hand on the lead’s upper right arm, and the opposite hands hooked gently together and allowed to dangle loosely. Or it can be done in open position, with the dancers farther apart, the lead’s left hand hooked to the follow’s right.
As for moves, the tuck-turn is the metaphorical catapult above. The precise movements are a little too complicated for words, but suffice it to say that, from closed position, the lead brings the follow out to his right (pulling the catapult back), then tucks her back in front of him, then turns her clockwise under his left arm, ending in open position.7 The inside turn starts and ends in open position. The lead moves back on his rock-step, bringing the follow forward. Then the lead raises his left arm, and the follow walks under it, turning counter-clockwise.8
These couple moves allow for a sort of loop—from closed position, through open position, and back to closed—that can get you through a full song, provided you aren’t easily bored. As Kevin and Christabel point out, this already puts you well ahead of the general population. But the problem that comes now is this: you have gained some knowledge of how to dance, but you’ve gained a much larger bunch of knowledge about a) the sheer size and fuzziness of the category “swing dancing” (be prepared to be asked whether you dance West Coast, Balboa [often abbreviated to “Bal”], Shag [separable into Collegiate, St. Louis, and probably much more], Lindy Hop [usually just called Lindy], Boogie, Charleston, and possibly Blues, plus there’s all the ballroom dances that swing dancers often take on as a side project),9 and b) the approximate layout of moves, rhythms, and techniques along the swing dancing difficulty spectrum, which you now realize you’re at the very bottom of. The difficulty, then, is how to get over the second major hurdle to a successful dance career: I now know with firsthand experience not only that I’m bad at dancing, but also how bad I am at dancing (very). This realization can spawn neuroses. Yes, of course, you now realize, it’s perfectly understandable to not be able to dance on your first night: you’ve never done it before. But if let’s say you want to continue dancing, there will eventually come a time when you no longer get a free pass, or credit just for showing up, a time when any reasonable person would expect, given your experience, that you can dance. The primary neurotic thought train, then, is threefold: how long do I have until expectations of me are generated? What will those expectations be (i.e. how good do I have to get)? And is my rate of improvement quick enough that I could ever even hope to get there in time?
But also, I now know with some accuracy what good dancing looks like, and what it allows its participants to experience. And having danced with a few follows somehow even worse than I am, I know that a novice partner can, with no exaggeration, physically disorient you to the point of questioning the neurological connection between your brain and your limbs. Do I really feel comfortable making people go through that for me? Even if I go the mental route of saying they’re happy to help and want to see me improve, which may well be true, how comfortable am I being these people’s fixer-upper? I have no good answers to these questions, so I retreat back to an easier one.
The correct answer is as follows. First an instant but fleeting smirk at the question, followed by a facial second-guess, and one or two mouth movements w/ inhalation like you’re getting ready for a sentence you then give up on. Then a smiling sigh, as if you’ve given up all pretence, a knowing grin, and a sheepish admission: “a girl.” This is all, of course, hardly dishonest.
Red Hot Swing hosts a social dance every Friday and Monday. I’m told that the Friday dance is more geared toward beginners, so I opt for that.10 The dance is hosted in the same room as my lesson, but this might not be obvious on first glance. The mirrors are covered over with black cloth, the overhead lighting is dimmed, and coloured spotlights line the hall. Most confusingly, the room appears suddenly larger and somehow less cuboid than before. It has chairs, tables, and a DJ booth set up along two of the walls, but still more floorspace than before. While walking toward the chairs I get as far as to say “is it…?” before Rachael walks by and says, laughing, “yeah, they…,” motioning to the walls, left, right, and left. I realize I’ve stopped in my confusion. It turns out that what on Wednesday I thought was a wall, opposite the doors, was and is in fact a false wall, now retracted so as to almost double the room’s size. The ceiling height suddenly makes aesthetic sense.
The schedule for the Friday dance is almost identical from week to week. 8:30–9:30ish: intro lesson. 9:30–11:00: dance. 11:00–11:05ish: jam. Immediately after the jam, sometimes: the Shim Sham.11 Music goes until 12:30 A.M., at which point I assume they kick everyone out though I’ve never stuck around to check.12 The lesson is pretty much the same as what we got on Wednesday—basic, tuck turn, inside turn—which makes me a relative expert, but I tell everyone it’s my first time anyways.13 More metaphors enter, courtesy of K. Savage: “so what’ll probably happen is you’ll be going along, and you’ll notice your partner is doing something wrong, and you’ll want to point that out. But you know what? That’s not your job. Your job is to do the best you can with your own self. And you know what? Your shit needs work too, even if you don’t know it yet. Best to just assume you’re the one that needs to work on things.” And “the cool thing is, everybody does things a little differently. So what you should do is pay attention to your partner. Watch what they’re doing. Copy them. Riff on it. See how it feels. And suddenly you’re both doing this weird thing that’s totally unique but you’re in sync so it works and it looks super cool.” These metaphors are what literary theorists might call just plain bad art, so I try not to pay them too much mind.
The most common concern I’ve heard from potential first-timers is that they don’t want to dance with strangers. They may have a romantic partner, or else maybe just a friend who’ll be there, and wouldn’t it be nicer if they could just dance with their person? This is more than understandable, and not entirely incorrect, either. If you want to maximize your dance ability with a particular partner, practicing with them probably won’t hurt. But what’s interesting to realize is that in many ways this won’t make you a better dancer per se: every dancer is different, and by focussing on one, you’re really only learning to dance with them. There’s an old adage in computer networking from the late great Jon Postel: be conservative in what you send, and liberal in what you accept. The point being that if you want to be a responsible member of a computer network, you should a) not do anything that will cause other members to have a meltdown, and b) not have a meltdown if other members send you something you don’t expect. There are comp sci criticisms of this approach—namely that accepting improper actions from others encourages bad practice in the network as a whole—but the core principle can be applied to dance rather well, and perhaps better than to computer networks. The ideal dancer, lead or follow, sends clear and direct signals about what s/he is doing, and generally avoids (at least as a default) any sort of unusual behaviour. At the same time, the ideal dancer will accept whatever response s/he gets, making it all work as best s/he can. This all sounds maybe a bit abstract, but it becomes rapidly concrete after about three seconds of dancing with someone. Talented follows typically feel somehow both heavier and easier to move, literally more substantial than their novice compatriots.14 Good leads simultaneously make it obvious what they’re doing and also make it unnecessary to know what they’re doing—just let them lead you and it’ll all work out. Dancing exclusively or predominantly with one partner robs you of both these abilities: you learn only to accept and work with one set of quirks (which on account of your tunnel vision you may not even recognize as quirks at all), and you don’t see the general effect that your quirks have on others because your partner can simply accommodate for them. Essentially, you learn of only a single Cartesian point, and lack any understanding of how that point fits into the much larger, infinitely fractal function of dance. The only way to get to this broader understanding is to dance with many different partners and run the averages. All this to say that if you come to a Friday night intro lesson (as you should), you will be expected to stand in a circle and rotate partners continuously. Trust that this is for your own good.
I opt for a pretty simple introduction strategy. I say “Hi, I’m Mark,” right off the bat. Then, when my new partner says her name I repeat it back with an upward intonation. If I’ve heard correctly, I then say “Hi [name], good to meet you.” I figure the repetition involved gives me a good shot at remembering at least a few names, and at the end of the night I put pen to paper and find that, wonder of wonders, I’ve remembered Elisa, Meadow, Tegan, Robin, Paige, Abbi, Alina, and Manon. The chances that I’ve gotten the correct spellings on these are vanishingly small, but they all seem like at least a solid guess. For some reason, though, despite dancing with several of them, I can’t remember the names of any of the people who were actually in my Wednesday class.
The lesson finishes up with a general orientation re: fire exits, bathrooms, the concession/coat check, and a reminder that if anyone is interested in further dance instruction, Red Hot swing has five15 levels of classes on offer, so dancers of any skill level can improve. These little factlets aren’t unimportant, but I suspect their placement in the schedule is less than accidental: it’s just before this admin-type stuff that Kevin asks all us first-timers to come to one side of the room, thus sending countless cc’s of adrenaline through every novice capillary in-house. Kevin gives our poor victimized vascular systems about five minutes of boring details to sort of recalibrate before leading the newbies through a how-to on social dance etiquette and the intricacies of asking for a dance. Which is: there really are no intricacies.
Let’s say I want to ask this young lady to dance. What’s your name? Allison? Hi Allison. Say I wanted to ask Allison to dance. Here’s what I do, I walk up and say—say. Don’t just do the eyes thing. Don’t just walk up and make eye contact like [here Kevin makes a facial expression somewhere between hopeful, pleading, and digestively troubled]. Use your words. I say ‘Hey, would you like to dance?’ If she wants to she says yes, and then we dance; if she doesn’t she says no thanks. I’d like it if she said yes—and the songs are typically about three to five minutes so the commitment level here is pretty low—but you don’t ever have to say yes. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.
It’s easy to miss just how rhetorically effective this paragraph is. Kevin is here coming very close to giving an explicit lecture on consent, yet he manages not only to package it as a dance lesson but also to acknowledge more emotional nuances than I’ve seen in multipage online thinkpieces. This short paragraph comprises the awkwardness and nervousness that anyone with a pulse feels about asking for a dance, the counterproductive effects of nervousness about social standing on social standing, the generosity of giving a (quasi-)romantic supplicant the time of day, this generosity’s lack of impact on every woman’s total and complete right to say no for any reason without social backlash, the genuine and meaningful frustration a supplicant feels when spurned, and the immaturity of many typical responses to this frustration, and it does it all while positioning Kevin as both the butt of the joke (sparing us from our egos’ fragility) and a source of wisdom (sparing us from its strength). It is around this time that I decide: Kevin is quite possibly the coolest man in the city.16
Kevin then invites the newcomers to each find a partner on the opposite, relatively veteran side of the room. “And,” he says, “just to make things interesting, we’re gonna do this on challenge mode: if you know someone on the opposite side of the room, don’t dance with them.” Tremulous giggles wash over the newbs as Kevin cues the band and the night begins. The floor is suddenly all a flurry, with new pairings hastily composed, the occasional newcomer trying to slip out the side door and being scooped up by a few of the old guard who’ve been laying in wait near the exits, and, most of all, fleeting moments of eye contact between newcomers and their veteran friends, which without fail are followed, from the veteran side, with smirks and shaken heads saying “no way,” “I had to do it too,” “you’re not getting off that easy,” &c. On the last point I’m still somewhat bitter, as I tried to find Rachael’s eyes to give her a “welp, here I go” brow-raise, but was still met with the “no way” smirk and shaken head, so that now Rachael is under the deeply mistaken impression that I failed challenge mode. I ended up dancing with a perfectly nice girl whom I don’t remember at all.
An interesting question to consider during all this is: exactly what are people so afraid of, when it comes to dancing? I don’t mean this in the trivial manner with which any man who has declined to dance will be familiar, namely the rhetorical form of the question, with its implied answer of “Nothing” (i.e. if we were to bring prescriptivist language into the conversation we would say you shouldn’t be afraid). I can’t speak to the efficacy of this rhetoric in general. In my case it didn’t work. Even if it had, though, I think this does a disservice to the question itself. Because of course on a strict physics level there is really no likely negative outcome to dance per se, and even if we import all sorts of emotional realities as e.g. your or your partner’s exact level of fun, the worst case scenario for any even half-conscious and moderately considerate lead is simply that his follow won’t enjoy herself so very much for about 3-5 min. until the song ends and she can go dance with someone else. So in terms of most any actual issue in a man’s life—social standing, health, dance skill—there is really nothing at stake and nowhere to go but up. Except consider the autumn of 2008 and its however-many-illions lost. There too, in all practical terms, nothing bad happened. No natural resource ran dry; no factories were destroyed; not even anything as comparatively nebulous as a trade deal or peace treaty collapsed. Or at least, that’s not what started it. What started it was a complex maze of agreements and sub-agreements, most of which pertained to no actual thing but instead to a debt, a promise to repay a debt, a bet on either of those happening (or not), or something even more abstract and monetarily ridiculous than any of these. And eventually, someone added one too many abstract representations of “value” to the ever-expanding and increasingly quixotic card house until the whole thing collapsed. And people lose homes over this. Scale that phenomenon down a bit, to a dance hall. Of course no natural disasters are imminent on account of your shoddy kickstep. But no actual bad thing has to happen for bad consequences to arise.
Take as an e.g. a couple I know, who, try as they might, simply could not sync up on the dance floor. “Sync up” here refers to an obscenely complex mixture of factors as far-flung as each partner’s position on the anticipation vs. seat-of-pants spectrum w/r/t rhythm/move planning; how light a follow is on her feet vs. how comfortable a lead is with imparting a not insubstantial amount of force into her; the lead’s “volume” (read: bigness, obviousness, flash, energy level) vs. the follow’s sensitivity to same; a lead’s selection of moves vs. a follow’s preferences for/against, say, dips, spins, etc.; and the decision on both dancers’ parts not only re: whether and to what degree they should add extra kinaesthetic flair to jazz up their moves but also exactly when this will happen. It is, in a word, complicated. This couple didn’t have any of the issues you might expect a young, naïve, new-to-dance couple to have. Both were committed to the requisite level of effort; neither had or has issues of controlling the other or of subtly undermining confidence; neither is uncoordinated (or at least not terminally so). In fact both were actually decent dancers. Dances with other partners went just fine. They just couldn’t, in their experience, successfully dance with each other. Now, dance (in the non-club scene) being a rampantly social plus somewhat sexually defanged enterprise, this is an issue of little practical significance, as this couple could simply dance with other people. Or, barring that, they could simply not dance at all—whole happy lives have been lived without regular dancing, after all. But of course see practical considerations weren’t really the issue. The issue was the lack of syncitude’s emotional resonance: What if, the dark parts of one’s heart whisper, What if we two are, in some deep metaphysical way, mismatched? A poor fit, despite what may currently happen to manifest in the majority of our relationship as relative happiness and functionality? What if this is a sign of some major but heretofore unheeded fundamental flaw in one, the other, or both or us? What if despite love, effort, and effective symbiosis, we are just not meant for each other? And no amount of practice, effort, mutual consideration, or even outside help can change it? This is of course just your garden variety cynicism, and it’s astonishing to watch Kevin dismantle it with simple, specific, grade-school-vocab advice, but it’s illustrative: a total non-problem can, in the right context, fundamentally separate people.
I have been sitting so long my ass is numb and the tingling has reached my right knee. My car is loaded down with backpacks, food, camping gear, and three extra people. We are heading away from the coast, which in the Lower Mainland of B.C. means we’re also going up. I drive a subcompact. It’s not senile or anything; it just wasn’t made for this. The bottoms of my feet are still a pale pink, and sore. It’s hot. One of my passengers, Julia, is the reason I am here. In my Thoreauesque fever over self-betterment and taking opportunities, she presented me with an opportunity for self-betterment. She saw my weakness, and she pounced. It’s hot. I’m in second gear on a highway.
We’ve gotten through that obscene mess of supposedly distinct municipalities that outsiders like me lump together as the “Lower Mainland” so as not to call it all Vancouver in front of a native and look like a dolt. I honestly don’t know which cities we’ve driven through or around. I get the sense White Rock and Abbotsford are involved but I’m not entirely sure how. If you told me Richmond had a role to play in all this I would not doubt you. We are headed for a place I’ve described to all recent inquisitors as “near Hope,” which was about a 9.0 on the understanding-nod-ometer, even though I wasn’t really sure where Hope was, myself. Somewhere kind of in or towards The Interior (i.e. anywhere in B.C. but not Vancouver Island or the Lower Mainland), but not like the Prince George interior. In the mountains, but not like Banff mountains. Hot, but not the Okanagan. My impression is that from Tsawwassen you just sort of head east while avoiding all the interesting stuff, and you’ll wind up in Hope. We’re shooting for an R.V. park about a half-hour past that, in something called the Sunshine Valley. Here we hope to find Abbotsford’s Suburban Swing’s Summer Swing Retreat, a weekend campout and pool party with several hours of daily dance workshops and nightly social dances.
So far today we’ve missed our ferry and I’m guessing eight of the turnoffs we were shooting for.17 The ferry thing wasn’t too disastrous in itself, as the other car in our caravan missed it too, so this way at least we were all together. The bigger issue should have been foreseeable: stuck together in a boring and semi-confined space for an hour and a half boat ride, what could one reasonably expect of a group of dancers but to bring out a small but obnoxiously loud bluetooth speaker, blast distorted Ella Fitzgerald for anyone on the port-side outer decks to hear, and dance incongruously amidst bemused tourists, unimpressed locals, and the slow-moving gorgeousity of duelling archipelagos—Gulf Islands to port, San Juan to starboard—slipping silently by. If you don’t know me or don’t know me well, my general preference is for people in view of the public to be as generic as possible. I’ve no problem with people being unconventional, but when it’s done publicly one can’t reliably separate the desire to do something unconventional with the desire to be seen doing something unconventional, so I opt to scrap the whole do. It’s neurotic and controlling and scorched-earth, but it is who I am. My approach, then, to the present ostentation, would typically be to read a book or just sit and watch but always to remain thoroughly uninvolved—but remember that I’m trying to remake my life, here. So I kick off my flip flops and join Liz, of car two, for what I try desperately to reframe as pre-practice for tonight’s workshop.
But I have made a grave oversight, for lo: the outer ferry decks are not smooth, but textured, as if someone sprinkled rock salt over them before painting. I lead maybe two simple moves without incident, but then try a rock hard abs, a move that involves of course the obvious, unvaried, and above all unfunny quips about its name, but also a rotation for the lead. And as I exert rotational force on my feet I feel the grit grab and hold and scrape small gouges into my soles. But again: I cannot be cynical. Major life changes aren’t just a matter of intent, after all. They require practice and positive social feedback. So it’s imperative firstly that I try to feel positively about all this, and secondly that these people see me as a positive person so that they’re more likely to encourage my positivity in the future. I channel my pain into a grunty and elongated variant of “whoa,” and force a smile as I hobble over to put my flip flops back on for round two. This too brings challenges, stemming from the unattached heel of the traditional flip flop. So after a few moves I forget myself and perform a rock step that is perhaps not quite up to spec, and the heel of my flip flop catches on the ship’s deck, sort of folds under itself, and pushes my foot off to the side. Which puts my foot into the rock salt grit at a perilous angle and with some force, plus leaves me off-balance for my recovery, which I’m sure you can imagine lacked a certain grace. I say “yeesh,” and again take my flip flops off. For take three I decide maybe I’ll stick to low-energy moves and triple steps, which I figure will minimize the transverse forces applied to my feet. Aside from the accordingly boring dance, this strategy seems to work. My pain seems to be holding about steady. Until, that is, near the end of our dance, when I begin to notice the creeping advance of another pain, heretofore masked by the more obvious pain of dancing on tiny spikes. It is heat—the heat of a dark metal surface left unshaded in the noonday sun. I run the mental numbers. Is this the sort of pain that is warning me of future damage? Or is this the sort of pain that’s letting me know the damage has already been done? My calculus tells me that if I can’t tell for sure it’s not worth the risk. I try for a minute or two to dance without letting my feet touch the ground, but this proves difficult, so I get the attention of Levi, a passenger in my car with much more appropriate footwear, and with a modified tuck turn send Liz careening off in his direction. I retreat to a small shaded patch to examine the damage in the company of Nicole, who tells me she’s pretty sure there isn’t much I can do about burned feet.
A name like Sunshine Valley R.V. Park inspires very little confidence in me. I can’t say why, but it conjures images of run-down trailers, rusty old bikes, and streets covered in dried up pine needles. If it does the same for you, know that you’re not alone, and we’re both wrong. S.V.R.V.P. is one of the few geographic locations actually deserving of the term “nestled.” It is without a doubt nestled in the very northern end of the Cascades, flanked on all sides by mountains tall enough to be imposing, but gradual and fuzzy with pine, not quite so severe as the exposed crags of the Rockies. In morning and late afternoon the mountains cast shadows on each other and make you feel very small indeed. The colours here in late summer are a muted, mottled green below you and to each side, a single grey asphalt strip marking the lowest and most level route through the valley, a pale blue above you with wisps of stratospheric white, and a dusty yellow cast over everything.
The layout of the park is quite simple: there is a large grassy field, with thigh-high wooden fences marking individual spots—one picnic table per—and a single communal faucet complete with a kitchen sink and a few inches of countertop on each side, looking for all the world like the only remnant of a suburban home after some kind of powerful explosion has vaporized the rest of it. At one end of this field and across a small gravel road is the lodge, which houses a general store, bathrooms, office, indoor pool/hot tub, and a single large cafeteria-type room we use for dancing. We pitch our tents at the end of the field farthest from the lodge, on the thinking that this would give us the least chance of being woken up by people getting up early or settling in late.
There is a schedule for the weekend, of a sort, but after a quick comparison between what’s on this schedule and what we actually end up doing, I can confidently declare that it won’t benefit you one bit to know what it says. There are workshops in the midday window and each evening, with breaks for eating, plus a social dance each night. At one point we go for a group walk by a river. But the specifics of exactly when these begin and what they may entail is not to be found on any sheet of paper or online database. These details drift lazily through our collective consciousness, as someone walks to the bathrooms and sees things are getting set up, or someone walks back to camp to get their water bottle and relays the impending start time to the people they pass, or sometimes a representative is appointed to stop by each spot’s picnic table and ask them if they’ve heard what’s happening. It’s all conspicuously low-key, and I can’t help but feel like it requires rather more stress and vigilance on my part, since I never know when I’ll be called upon.
Our instructors for the weekend are Steven Seyer—an athletic and dark-haired and ever-so-slightly ethnically ambiguous guy whom friends compare to John Travolta or a life-size Ken doll on account of his enormous and photokeratitic smile—and Chanzie Roettig, whose features I struggle to describe directly: she is attractive in a fairly standard way, w/ everything in its expected place; her hair is brown and curly, and of course she’s fit; her facial expression flits between a grin so intense it’s just got to be fake, mock surprise, and a faux-withholding/flirtatious smirk; she seems in general rather harsh. Steven wears his hair greased back and his pants high, the latter held in place by a thin leather belt, with a stubby tie ca. 1940 to make the geometry work out. As with Kevin and Christabel, the male teacher dominates the bulk of the lesson.18 Steven’s approach is goofy, with simulated voice cracks and embarrassing jokes, but his teaching persona is that of a good-natured yet flabbergasted jock, whose abject shock at the realization that a group of people who’ve never danced collegiate shag don’t somehow already know how causes him to shriek “stOOooOoOOp!” mid-practice in extended and adolescently variegated horror. It is charming and not at all mean-spirited and I don’t like it.
Collegiate shag is the duo’s main—a hypemongering email sent out a couple weeks before the retreat claimed that Seyer and Roettig had been permanently excluded from several shag competitions not for any misconduct but because they were so unquestionably the best collegiate shag dancers on the face of this planet that no one else could plausibly even compete against them—but they also dance St. Louis shag, boogie-woogie, Lindy, blues, and presumably a whole bunch of others. Our workshops are weighted accordingly, with the bulk of the weekend spent on shag, with little tasters of boogie-woogie and blues, plus of course the all-but-mandatory Lindy workshops.19
A detailed play-by-play of even one workshop would be all but unreadable, so I’ll summarize. The basic method of instruction is the same as at Red Hot Swing: leads and follows form semi-concentric circles, and pairs rotate as the lesson progresses.20 In general, Seyer and Roettig will demo a move, then go through each step slowly, then ask us to try it, then demo it again, then ask us to try it, then ask if we have questions. Quite honestly, the nitty-gritty of their pedagogy is rather dull. About the only distinguishing feature is Seyer’s yelps, which come up (as mentioned above) any time he notices us making mistakes, or else any time Roettig says the word “ribs,” to which, for no reason I could determine, like an inside joke to which no one but he was privy, he replies in a twangy falsetto, “RIIIIIBS!”
A word about collegiate shag, though: regardless of instructor, be prepared to go through approx. 1 shirt/hr. The expected motions are, from a physics perspective, total hogwash. The “basic” in collegiate shag involves adopting a posture halfway between sitting and standing, with knees and toes pointed almost directly sideways, opposite each-other, one hand clasped ballroom-style (at a height I was told I could choose but then immediately reprimanded when I chose anything below shoulder height) and the other hand wrapped around your partner as per usual. From this position, which I should stress is far more physically taxing than either sitting or standing, one is expected to sort of kick one foot out with the other, then hop on one foot, then kick the other foot with the first, then hop on the other foot, then do two more of the kicks, back and forth, sans hop.21 The whole thing appears as if Mr. Seyer has successfully called bullshit on the gravitational constant, and is at least as hard as it looks. On our Saturday night, this goes on for an hour before we switch to boogie-woogie, which is only moderately less energetic than shag and lasts another hour before we start the hour-long blues lesson. And after three hours of this,22 we start the social dance, which is six hours long and goes until 4 A.M. (I’m told). Post-lessons, my entire posse agrees they’d rather go straight to 10 P.M. bed than dance one single step more, so we only stay until 1:30.
My overall review of the weekend experience would be that you should, if at all interested, try a retreat for yourself. The sheer volume of practice you can get out of it is invaluable, and you get the opportunity to learn from instructors (and other attendees) whose skills far exceed your own. But you should know the limitations beforehand. It is not at all unlikely, for example, that much of what you hear you will quickly forget, or else not even understand in the first place. Or that the things you do learn might clash with what you’ve learned back home.23 Or that you will end up sleep-deprived and sore for days or even weeks after.24 Or that you will be quite literally roped into a three-legged race and nearly break your ankle. Or that the park’s septic system will be less than olfactorily impregnable and a gentle nighttime breeze will waft the smell of rotting human waste into your tent as you sleep. Or that the complimentary barbecue will consist mostly of undercooked ground beef which you fail to notice is undercooked until you’ve nearly finished. Or that the mid-thirties heat will do no favours to the subcutaneous bubbles in the balls of your feet. But these will be worth it, because it’s also not beyond the realm of possibility that you’ll reach the 1 A.M. end of a seventeen hour day with the just-right amount of Maker’s Mark in you, the just-right fitted button-up on, and the just-right friend beside, lips and dress in matching crimson, a blur. Or that you will enter a state of physical flow so all-encompassing you can’t remember ever deciding on a move, instead, seemingly, discovering them, but sans any bullshit pretence of “the art working through me”—this is simply good old-fashioned spontaneous fun. Or that this rapture will be followed by late walks in cool air under a sky ablaze with unpolluted stars and the sort of conversation people only have after much fun and little sleep—about dreams and fears and things long hidden, except this time it seems different somehow, more communicative, like it might really be possible to move and be felt, to speak and be understood. Or that after this you’ll sleep the sleep of one whose body needs it, and wake, crusty-eyed and hair askew, to good friends, and birds, and the mountains casting shadows on each other.
The other issue has to do with human expression, and the risks one incurs when communicating. Dance, as you’ve no doubt noticed by this point, lends itself almost too well to metaphor, with romantic relationships being just the most obvious in a long list of potential metaphorical targets. But I’ve found creative writing to have more meaningful parallels. Good writing, like good dancing, relies on variations around some driving central rhythm or tone, so as to toe the line between “surprising” and “consistent.” Writing communities, like dance communities, are remarkably adept at siloing off from their communities at large, often leaving members with few social contacts outside The Scene, plus the distinct impression that The Scene is something larger, socially and/or mathematically, than the tiny minority of overall Society it actually is. Both seem to be near-primal human activities, stemming from inbuilt pattern recognition and language centres in the deep brain. Both are practiced by almost every non-vegetative human given the right circumstances. And yet both require for most people either controlled substances or absolute privacy (or both). The expectation of writing creatively or dancing in a situation that has neither of these excites nearly identical neurotic thought patterns: Wait, what should I do? I have no ideas. They’d think— I can’t just—
The central fear in both cases is one that haunts most of us: what if I have nothing to offer? What if I am simply repeating what I’ve been taught verbatim? What if I am, at my core, terminally fundamental—nothing more than a mildly competent adopter of ideas generated by minds far more inspired and independent than my own? What if they’ve already seen all my moves? Of course, give these same people privacy and they’ll shake and shimmy, or concoct elaborate mental stories of their own workplace betrayals or romantic intrigues without even meaning to.25 The challenge, then, is getting people to consciously notice this. Because outright telling people, as I am quite genuinely telling you now, you have something to say, is either a mere treacly invitation to short-lived “inspiration” or more likely is ignored from the get-go. People need to be coaxed into the experience of saying something, even as a lark, only to have it hit home with someone else in a way that’s somehow both exactly and also more than what was meant.
You free on Friday?
Back-lead: when a supposed follow instead initiates or otherwise dictates moves on his/her own. This is akin to backseat driving, except if the person in the back seat reached right over your shoulder and grabbed the wheel. That is, it’s helpful if you’ve fallen asleep, but can be disorienting otherwise.↩
Please do fact-check me on this. I swear it’s all true.↩
Though in my experience only in a theoretical sense: I’ve yet to find anyone with anything negative to say about him.↩
Add to this issues of race, the precise level of nonchalance and lack of concern that makes one cool vs. simply aloof and disinterested, etc. Probably the main issue is that the primary req. for most any dance move is either confidence or a reasonable facsimile of same. And yet confidence, wrongly applied, is about the only thing that will actually get you ridiculed in the dance scene (I won’t go into details, but just know that there is a Friday night regular whom I’ve only ever heard referred to as Dip Guy). A delicate dance is required, then, of projecting both confidence and the impression that your confidence is merely a projection for the purposes of effective dance.↩
One of the early hurdles in learning to dance turns out to be separating moves from footwork. That is, you can do, for example, a tuck turn with kick steps or triple steps and it remains the same move. Maintaining this separation benefits both your rhythm and your moves, since an issue with one can be diagnosed and fixed without having to mess with the other, plus makes it easier to learn new rhythms and moves later on.↩
I worked for some time to come up with gender-neutral phrasing to describe the lead and follow’s roles. This turned out to be in vain. The fact is the English language is not currently set up to discuss a hypothetical person at length without assigning some gender to… it. The other issue is that the standard division of “men lead; women follow” still holds for the overwhelming majority of dancers I’ve seen. But the thing to keep in mind is this: the possible downsides for deciding to go against this trend are minimal. I’ve lead male follows, which worked spectacularly, and followed female leads, which didn’t (I’m rubbish at following). I’ve seen male and female pairs trade roles in the course of a single dance. I’ve never seen a single person get bent out of shape about this. The point is, so long as you aren’t bothered by issues of your own masculinity/femininity, do whatever sounds the most fun.↩
Kevin has a tendency to verbally scat along with the dance moves. If it’s helpful for the visualization, the tuck turn sounds a little like “And-a rock-step tuck-and-turn and-a whap bap boom.”↩
The terms “clockwise” and “counter-clockwise” are rarely used, however. Turns are sorted instead into “inside” and “outside” turns, which are based not on the absolute direction of spin but on how the partners are oriented relative to each-other. This is one of those not-at-all-obvious things that, like the circle of fifths in music, are referred to as basically self-evident by those in the know.↩
What you might not realize until later is that it’s actually A.O.K. to not know most of these. A lot of dancers only know Lindy and Charleston and maybe a little bit of Bal or Blues, and even those who know more dances tend to just stick with Lindy and Charleston. But of course the irony is you won’t know enough to even be able to answer the question, much less not feel embarrassed about what your answer is, until you’re a fair bit more experienced.↩
An interesting phenomenon you might bump into is that slight differences in e.g. crowd composition, music selection, room size, decor, can cause massive shifts in perception for individual dancers, such that certain people stick loyally with Fridays over Mondays, or vice versa, despite issues of convenience or scheduling. I’ve heard rumours of a Saturday night dance put on by another company, and confirmed its existence, but haven’t yet found anyone who doesn’t have a strong aversion to trying it. The reasons for this Friday crowd v. Saturday crowd schism are still unclear to me.↩
The Shim Sham is a line dance, meaning everyone dances the same steps, solo, in a defined sequence. Line dances are about the only time at a social when there is an actual minimum skill level required, and it’s fascinating to watch the room instantly segregate into the Shim Shammers and non-Shim Shammers.↩
I have since writing this been informed by a die-hard what the 12:30 wrap up looks like: they shut off the music, turn on the lights, and start cleaning up. As a person who has on several occasions sat in my car for several minutes after arriving at my destination so as not to cut off a song I like, this sudden and unceremonious intrusion of harshly accurate perception seems like one of those experiences I can comfortably die without having.↩
This is technically true, as I’ve never been to a social dance before, but I wonder about the ethics of it. My only motivation for presenting myself as a novice is that people might think I’m doing well considering my little experience, which is both a complete misconception and also a pretty minor thing to risk one’s soul for. I have not quite yet managed to forgive myself.↩
The ideal sensation here being physics textbooks’ “mass in a frictionless perfect vacuum,” such that F imparted on the follow just totally and completely equals m times a.↩
Except see above re: the actual number of classes.↩
I later learned that he is bilingual, which more or less clinches it.↩
Our plan A should have required only three, but we ended up on a plan C route that took us almost into Washington. For decency reasons I’ll say no more than that my copilot was trying her very best.↩
I’m still unsure whether this is on account of socially prescribed gender roles or just a reflection of the lead/follow dynamic or what. It’s possible the lead/follow dynamic can’t be meaningfully separated from gender roles at all.↩
Seyer and Roettig fight admirably to maintain the illusion that shag is every bit as useful a dance as anything else, but even they can’t deny reality wholesale: Lindy and Charleston have a near-stranglehold on the swing market, and there is little reason to think this will change any time soon. Swing is a partner dance, after all, so a certain critical mass of knowledgable dancers is required before a style can really become viable in a given scene: knowing how to dance shag isn’t terribly useful unless potential partners do as well. Case in point: in the months since the retreat, I have dance collegiate shag at a Friday social exactly once.↩
Though interestingly, at the A.S.S.S.S.R. we alternate which partner rotates: leads rotate in one workshop, follows in the next. I was all set to champion this as a positive step in gender politics, until I unwittingly stationed myself right in front of the DJ booth in a follows-rotate workshop and so was stuck about three feet from apocalyptically loud midcentury jams for the whole hour.↩
Then, somehow, while kicking and hopping, you are expected to keep your head perfectly still.↩
Two for me, as I skipped the blues class↩
There is a longstanding dispute between those who believe a lead should hold his hand steady above a spinning follow, and those who believe he should “stir the pot,” for example.↩
For reference’s sake: two weeks after the retreat, I hiked the Juan de Fuca trail, a 47km trip, in one day. This almost twelve hour slog—which I feel inclined to point out is a fun-run longer than a marathon and includes switchbacks, tangles of roots across almost every path, and at least a dozen wasp nests near or in one fight-or-flight instance on the trail—had a shorter recovery time than my swing dancing retreat.↩
Call it real-time contemporary historical fiction.↩