Open Up Your Eyes, Life Is Poetry In Motion

Saturday morning I had two coaching sessions scheduled again, much like last week. This week we managed to get to both lessons in the order that they were originally set up, though a bit behind schedule. I got to the Fancy Dance Hall about a half-hour early to stretch out and warm up, like usual. Lord Dormamu was there giving another lesson at the time, so I knew he was already in the building (always a good sign). A few minutes later when he noticed me stretching out my shoulders near the mirrors, he stepped away from his lesson to come over, greet me and ask if I had a lesson with him first or with Sir Steven. I told him that my calendar said it was him, so he nodded and said that he was running about twenty minutes behind. That gave me almost an hour to warm up instead of the half-hour I had planned on.

I felt like we did actually show some progress in our Foxtrot that day, which is always a good feeling. We got to look at the end portion of the short wall in the routine, if you can believe that. One point we spent some time covering was my Natural Closed Impetus with Feather Ending. Lord Dormamu showed me why my Heel Turn in that figure tended to get messed up. Many people over the years have shown me how to do a Heel Turn – going slowly, you take a step backward (or back on an angle), pull your other heel back to line up with your standing foot, turn however much you need to rotate, rise up on the balls of your feet and then step out onto the ball of the opposite foot. Over and over again I’ve practiced doing Heel Turns just like that.

The issue with my Natural Closed Impetus is that the lady is stepping between my feet, so if I take a step back and to the left and then attempt to pull my right heel to meet my left, there’s a foot in the way. So in the middle of a routine there tends to be some fumbling and stumbling while I attempt to make the turn work without stopping when my foot would run into my partner’s foot. I generally manage to recover fully by the time I hit the Feather Finish. Lord Dormamu looked at what I was doing and told me immediately that my step backward and my turn should not be two separate movements. If I step backward and begin to pivot on my left leg, then as I am pulling my right heel back my right foot will naturally arc around where my partner’s foot as I turn. Basically all that practice I did in the past where I would pull my heels together before turning was what was holding me back. Sigh…

This also led us to a discussion about our Feather Endings and how he thought we were rotating as we went through them. Lord Dormamu explained that the most important thing about the Feather Ending is that it is the ending, so before you take those two steps you have to already have your body in the correct position. If you rotate yourself at all to get into the correct position during the two steps of a Feather Ending, you are doing it wrong and will get marked down. Yet another good point that I’ve never really thought about before until he said it out loud. I’m making a note of it here so that I won’t forget about it in the future.

Skipping ahead… later that night I was out to help host a dance party with the rest of my Royal Dance Court crew. To celebrate the beginning of summer, we had managed to get the famous Mr. Rubber-legs to come in and teach a Shag lesson to everyone. We had booked him for one of our dance parties last year and had such an overwhelmingly positive response, so it seemed natural to have him come back again. The endeavor seemed to really pay off. When Mr. Rubber-legs started teaching his class that night, we had about twenty-five people out on the dance floor by my count. There were quite a few more women than men, so I ended up jumping into the line during class to help out. By the time the class finished up, so many more people had shown up that our line of dancers was running out of space. The count I heard later was that we had more than fifty people show up! I guess half of them missed the memo on what time class started…

The lesson that Mr. Rubber-legs gave that night was pretty much the same one he gave during the party last year. We spent a lot of time (waaaaaay more time than I thought was necessary) to cover the Shag basic. I’m talking like half the hour was spent just going over that one figure. Once he felt that everyone could do the basic, he had us look at a starter step for Shag so that everyone knew how to begin a dance. This basically amounted to getting into a closed dance position and doing a Throwout-like movement. After people got those two figures, Mr. Rubber-legs covered two different basic turns that you could use. At the end of class since there were a couple of minutes left over, he showed everyone how they could transition from the normal open dance position to the closed one used in the starter step, allowing people to dance a basic pattern that could be repeated by going to closed position at the end and repeating the starter step. Nothing too fancy.

I had thought that the DJ would play more Shag numbers that night for the people who came to the party specifically to see Mr. Rubber-legs, but there weren’t that many more Swing songs of any variety than I would normally expect to hear. The ratio of men to women as the party got started was actually really good. We must have had a large number of single men show up after the class got started, because there were a lot more women than men when I joined class, but I was hardly needed to entertain ladies during the dance party. So I spent time that night dealing with… other issues.

HotDog was in high form that night. Originally he had decided to come out to the party because he has taken classes from Mr. Rubber-legs in the past, so he considers himself to be a Shag connoisseur. His quest to show off in front of everyone was quickly derailed by the appearance of two attractive young ladies. One was Juniper, whom I was glad to see out and about on the dance floor that night. She had been away for a while because she fractured a bone in her foot, so I was happy to see that it was finally healed enough for her to begin dancing again. I actually took her out for her first dance of the night to say hi to her. The other was a sorority sister of Prez’s daughter, whom Prez had invited to the party because the girl was curious about dancing. This young lady mostly wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch to see if ballroom dancing was a hobby that she was really interested in taking up.

As I’ve mentioned before, HotDog is a horndog when attractive ladies show up. I found out later that HotDog was texting Sparkledancer for days after the party, asking her to tell him Juniper’s name and how he could get in touch with her. He also spent quite a while awkwardly trying to talk to the sorority girl. She managed to fend off his requests to try dancing, and eventually she got up to come hang out at the front counter near where some of us from the Royal Dance Court were running things. When I caught her making a beeline away from HotDog, I took the opportunity to maneuver myself between where he was and where she was, playing human barricade. That was enough to send HotDog off to find a different girl to dance with.

I made a point to apologize to sorority girl for his creepiness, and she just laughed and said that she’s used to guys like him. Since I had heard Prez mention how this girl was interested in possibly taking up ballroom dancing before the party started, I then put on my Dance Ambassador hat and talked with her about dancing for quite a while. I regaled her with stories of the fun and crazy dance-related things I’ve done since I started dancing all those years ago, and I even waved Sparkledancer over so that she could tell the girl all about sparkly dance dress things (a topic I am not all that well versed in). The girl seemed genuinely interested, and I hope that means we could actually see her come back again, but next time as a participant instead of just an observer.

Now for the thing I did this week that was really outside of my normal schedule…

Sunday afternoon I got to have a coaching session with one of those crazy world-renowned International Standard instructors that travel around spreading their wisdom (for a fee, of course). We’ll call this guy… Lord Maple, since it makes me laugh (this gentleman comes to us from a land up north that you may have crossed into during your own travels). A few weeks ago, Lord Junior mentioned to Sparkledancer and I during one of our practice sessions that he would be bringing Lord Maple in for one day to give coaching sessions to a number of his students, and if we were interested in reserving one of the 45-minute slots that day he would be happy to put our names on the list. Sparkledancer told Lord Junior that she had really enjoyed the class that Lord Maple taught last time Lord Junior had brought him in about a year ago, so she was totally going to sign up.

She then turned to me and asked me if I would do the lesson with her, because it would be easier to show Lord Maple her routines if I were there to lead. I told her that if we scheduled this coaching session at the same time we would have normally been meeting up for practice that day, then I would already have the time set aside in my calendar anyway. This would be a nice (albeit more expensive) way to get some outside feedback on how we’ve been doing since we started taking things more seriously at the beginning of the year.

In order to make sure that this coaching session would be worthwhile, I convinced myself to get up earlier than usual on Sunday so that I could stretch out and warm up my body thoroughly before leaving the house. That way I wouldn’t show up to meet Lord Maple in the afternoon and hear him tell me that my problem is that I need to take bigger steps to travel more all because my legs are still half-asleep. I also got Sparkledancer to agree to meet me out at the Electric Dance Hall an hour before the coaching session so that we could dance for a while, helping to further ensure that I was all ready to go. It turned out that taking those precautions was the right call.

Sparkledancer and I had agreed to have Lord Maple look over our Foxtrot with us, since that is what we have been going over with Lord Dormamu recently. After some brief introductions and telling him about our dance experience, Lord Maple asked us to dance our Foxtrot routine together. Then he asked both of us to dance the same thing again with him so that he could get a better feel for what each of us were doing during our steps. When we finished that exercise, he told me that he really liked my forward driving movements during the dance, since they were quite clear and strong, and he could easily follow what I was trying to lead him to do. I may have done a little happy celebration upon hearing that. Then he asked me to dance through it with him again, and this time he would add in all the parts that he thought I was missing when we danced the first time.

When we finished going through the first wall of my routine, Lord Maple stopped and asked me what was different this time through. I told him that he had been emphasizing the shaping a lot more than I had been, partly because I had been told by Lord Dormamu to not worry about anything else other than working on how I drive my Foxtrot from my standing leg and pelvis. He told me that was one way to describe it, and then listed off a bunch of other words that could be used to also describe it depending on who my teacher was and what country they hailed from originally, but basically what he was seeing that I needed to work on all came down to how ‘powerful’ I was when dancing.

Lord Maple told us a story about how he used to want to be described as a powerful dancer when he read articles about himself. He eventually found a female coach to work with, and she asked him what he thought it meant to be powerful. That’s when Lord Maple gestured at me and started to flex his upper body, saying that he used to think power came from looking super muscular and manly, but this female coach stopped him and said that as a dancer, being powerful comes from being the person that shows the most movement from each step that they take. That’s basically what Lord Maple says that I am missing to take my Foxtrot (and other dances, by extension) to the next level.

To show me how I should be doing this, Lord Maple actually started by working with Sparkledancer. He wanted her to make sure that she is moving herself out of the way for each step so that I would have plenty of room to really take my steps. They danced for a bit with him trying to explain the concept to her, and then he thought of an exercise that someone had shown him a long time ago that he thought would help the two of us with the idea. After searching around the studio for a few minutes with Lord Junior’s help, he came back with a scarf that he rolled up and held taut between his hands.

The scarf is used to give you an actual visual representation of the line your hips are making (and by extension, your shoulders and elbows, since they should be on the same line when you are in a proper frame). It was supposed to be a towel, but we were working with what we could find. If you roll up a towel and hold it stretched between your hands on both sides of your pelvis, this shows the straight line your hips make when they are at rest. Then we started to dance. The first step we covered was the Feather. As you do a Feather in Foxtrot, your left foot is the first leg that you step with, so you need to involve your whole left side as you dance through the figure until the next time you get to neutral (which is normally before you go into the next figure). You can emphasize this by rolling the towel with your left hand, as if you were wringing water out.

This was a fairly simple but eye-opening exercise to do. The way we wrung the towel basically changed from hand-to-hand as we moved through the figures in our routine. The Feather used the left hand, the Reverse Turn used the right, the Feather Ending of the Reverse Turn the left, the Three Step the right, etc. etc.. If you use this exercise to help you see the lead with the proper side of your body, it should get the whole body involved as you move. That helps you feel like you are taking steps not just with your legs, but all the way from your upper back. Rise and fall will happen naturally in the figures if the whole body is engaged. It also easily eliminated the issue where it looked like I was dancing in a constant squat, since stepping with my whole body allows me to naturally straighten my legs as I move. Funny how that works, right?

This is another one of those lessons where it really shows that the techniques that instructors harp on in the early days (rise and fall, heel vs. toe steps) shouldn’t have to be forced or remembered. If the underlying mechanics of how you move are correct, those techniques happen automatically.

Wednesday class was cancelled this week because Lord Junior’s wife had some event scheduled that he needed to attend, so the only group class that I went to this week was Monday night’s Latin Technique class. We looked at Jive for the first time in quite a while. Jive was actually not my first choice for the night, since A) my first choice is always Pasodoble, because I think it’s the most fun and B) it had been leg day for me that day, so my legs were already feeling exhausted from my pre-class workout. I always grit my teeth on the nights when my leg workouts happen to correspond with nights I’m going to be dancing, since I know working out my legs will make things harder than normal.

That was certainly true on Monday night. We always start off any class where we look at Jive by going over the basic triple-steps slowly since Lord Junior thinks everyone should continuously work to improve those. At the beginning when we were going slow, my triple-steps in the figures looked and felt pretty good. By the end, since I did a lot of dancing that night to give all the ladies enough chances to practice, my legs felt like jelly and I’m sure my triple-steps had devolved to look more like fast-ish East Coast Swing instead of Jive. No one said anything though, so I must not have looked all that bad…

We only looked at two variations of two different figures that night: Spanish Arms and Rolling Off the Arm. Starting with the Spanish Arms, we covered the normal configuration of the figure, and then the ‘cooler version’ (according to Lord Junior) where we led the lady to do an extra turn as we unwind her. After doing the two different variations independently we then chained them together, doing the basic version followed immediately by the more advanced version. I will admit that there were a few times when I got over-eager and ended up turning the ladies for both.

The Rolling Off the Arm figure was done the same way. There was the basic by-the-book version, and then a more advanced version where we led the lady to do an extra turn as she is rolling off of our right arm. As before, we did the two variations independently, and then chained them together. After everyone was comfortable with all four different figures, we strung them all together – starting with the basic Spanish Arms, the advanced variation, a single Jive basic to compose ourselves and then the basic Rolling Off the Arm followed by the more advanced version. This small pattern is what we ended up putting to music, starting off slowly and finishing at tempo. The last run-through we did with each partner at tempo was really where I felt that my Jive basics were lacking, but I worked hard that night, so I feel like I should at least get partial credit for finishing to the end.

I am hoping that this weekend stays fairly quiet for me. I haven’t had much of a chance to really practice the things that I worked on in any of my coaching sessions last weekend, and I’d like to spend a few hours working through those items. We’ll have to see if anyone makes a convincing argument to me about going to a dance party somewhere!

Clearly I Don’t See Myself Upon That List

I was supposed to head over to the Fancy Dance Hall on Saturday morning to have two different coaching sessions – first an early session with Lord Dormamu, then afterward my normal session with Sir Steven. When I got to the Fancy Dance Hall, I found Sir Steven and the Princess working with a female student on some technical points. As I walked through the studio to find a place to change my shoes, both Sir Steven and the Princess waved to me and asked me what I was doing there so early. I guess Lord Dormamu had overscheduled himself that morning, and had told everyone he would be shifting around a bunch of his lessons (one of which was mine) so Sir Steven and the Princess didn’t expect to see me for a couple of hours yet. Apparently both Sparkledancer and I were the only ones who hadn’t gotten that message, since she showed up a few minutes later and had the same bewildered look on her face when I asked her if she had heard anything.

Luckily, Sir Steven had an open hour during the time when Sparkledancer and I would have otherwise been working with Lord Dormamu, so we decided to have that lesson first, and spent most of our time working on Waltz. One of the other instructors at the Fancy Dance Hall had just come back from a coffee and confection run as Sir Steven, Sparkledancer and I were getting started. He and the Princess took up residence on one of the couches in the back of the dance floor to enjoy the treats he had procured and have some idle conversation to pass the time while waiting for their next appointments.

Since the Fancy Dance Hall was otherwise quiet that morning, I could tell that they were playing peanut gallery in the back, watching everything we were doing as they conversed. Occasionally the Princess would yell out at me because she thought I did something wrong. I’m sure she thought she was helping, but after the second or third time she randomly interjected I started to get paranoid. I wasn’t entirely certain I was actually doing anything wrong – things felt right to me at the time – but I wasn’t going to question the Princess, so I just hung my head in shame and went back to repeat things even if Sir Steven didn’t tell me to. He would just laugh at me and let me finish before having us move on.

There were a few points I need to remember from that lesson. For one, Sir Steven said that our opening steps in the Waltz were starting to curve more than he would like for some reason. He told us to go back and think about how the starting steps in our Foxtrot routine move, since the opening Feather into a Reverse Turn travel in a pretty straight line. We wanted to make sure in the Waltz to also travel in a straight line until we had to rotate in the Natural Turn, which should fix the issue.

Another thing we were told to start focusing more practice time on was lowering and then starting all of our rotations from our standing leg as we push out. As we have gotten better about lowering at the appropriate time in the figures and driving straight forward out of steps, it has started to look more like our rotation is an afterthought, so Sir Steven wanted us to focus on doing our turning as we push out instead. He had Sparkledancer and I practice this by doing some normal rotating Natural and Reverse Turns in circles, both separate and then together. This was something we were told to spend a few minutes on when we were warming up in each of our practice sessions, so that we wouldn’t forget to do it when we danced normally.

After we finished up with Sir Steven and were writing up the paperwork for our lesson, Lord Dormamu emerged from his meeting and was ready to go. He came over to where we were all standing to ask us what we had just finished working on. Sir Steven was kind enough to fill him in on the specifics, and Lord Dormamu decided that since we had spent most of our time with Sir Steven covering the Waltz that he would continue to focus with us on Foxtrot for the time being. Because, you know, we had so much fun the last time we worked on Foxtrot, so he wasn’t ready to move on to anything else yet.

What we did that day was… kind of crazy. Things started off normal enough, with Lord Dormamu asking us to dance for him so that he could see how we’d been coming along in our practice since last time. Overall, he thought we were doing better, but we still didn’t show quite enough drive coming from our pelvic regions for his taste. Yup, that’s how I know things in my life have gotten weird – when I start talking about ‘driving from my pelvic region’ as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to discuss. Phrases like that seem to come up fairly frequently nowadays. Ballroom dancing is such a nutty world, isn’t it?

Sparkledancer was taken to task first on this point. She and Lord Dormamu started dancing together, and just left me behind in the corner for a good ten minutes or so. I tried to keep an eye on what they were doing to see if I could pick up any pointers, but they were moving all over the room and with the other people dancing on the floor I found it hard to keep up with what was going on. I gave up after a while and decided to pass the time instead by making jokes at the Princess and her student, since they were dancing near my corner. I didn’t get much information from Sparkledancer about what they were covering while they wandered off, but she did tell me later that Lord Dormamu told her that her pelvis was “too polite” and he wanted her to fix that by learning to drive it forward harder. I’m not sure that I could ever get away with telling a girl that. It must be nice to be a dance instructor.

Then it was my turn. On a positive note, Lord Dormamu told me that he thinks I have successfully reset the default position for my head, so now I can start looking to the left again. Hooray for small victories! However, lest we get too far into the celebrations, I was also told that I needed to really work on pushing everything from both my right side of my abdomen and from my pelvis as well. This is when I was asked to do something awkward and uncomfortable: Lord Dormamu wanted me to get myself into dance frame and then clasp my hands behind my back. Then I was to dance by driving forward from those two parts of my body as much as possible, which put a wicked curve in my back because I needed to counterbalance myself with my head. When he said I was doing things right, I felt like my chest was pointing up to the ceiling, as if I were going to do a pull-up. While that is a common feeling for me, I’ve never held that position while dancing before.

This was not a comfortable way to dance by any stretch of the imagination. That must mean that I was doing things correctly, right? At first I was just dancing while Lord Dormamu walked in front of me, pressing his hands down on my shoulders. Then I had to do it with Sparkledancer putting her hands on my shoulders, but the two of us were also expected to try to maintain body contact, so I was awkwardly driving my abdomen and pelvis into her while she was working on driving her no-longer-shy pelvis into me. Most of the figures were OK while dancing like this. Some of the figures that rotated got to be a little wild, but I would expect that any time I try dancing with someone without being able to lock our upper bodies in a consistent relative position.

We spent a good half-an-hour dancing like this, with Lord Dormamu having us fix little things on each repetition. For instance, one time through he wanted us to exaggerate our footwork on the Natural Weave. As he said, “judges are old, blind and stupid” so we would have to make every step that we did as visible as possible if we wanted to get good marks (yes that is actually a real quote from Lord Dormamu). At the end of our session, just before wrapping things up, Lord Dormamu hemmed and hawed for a while and told us that, against his better judgement, he was going to have us try to dance the routine in frame once. By the time he stopped us just before we had completed the short wall, he said that he was really surprised by how well we had done – he doesn’t usually expect his students to be able to apply everything so quickly. Hooray! Go team!

As you probably already guessed, we were told that we should add in this exercise during our practice. To clarify, I asked him whether we should be dancing in that hold with just Foxtrot right now, or should we practice all of our routines like that. He said for now we should use it on all the routines, then stopped himself and said we may not need it for Tango, but he wasn’t sure. He had us start our Tango routine for him once, stopped us after a few figures and said that he liked the way that our topline looked already, it was just our legs that needed to be fixed, so we wouldn’t have to try to dance Tango while in that awkward frame. So that means only four more things for the practice list instead of five. Sigh…

Monday night I headed out to Latin Technique class. Before class got started, Lord Junior and Miss Shortdress were sitting around and talking about how much they both loved Samba, so that is what we ended up working on that night. Nothing we did was all that crazy in reality – we started out with three Promenade and Counter Promenade Runs, going into three Natural Pivots that came out into a final Promenade Run. At the end of that we rotated to face our partners by doing one Volta Movement that we held for two beats, just for a change of pace from the frantic movements we had up to that point.

Next up were these fancy, curving alternately outward and inward Lock Steps. We held on to our partner with our right hand in her left, then did a Lock Step that would curve away about an eighth of a turn, then curved back on the next Lock Step so that we could be palm to palm with our partner using our free hand, then repeated that combination. After the second set of Lock Steps, we came together at the end for two Stationary Samba Walks to finish out the musical phrase.

Yesterday in Standard Technique class we looked at Foxtrot. The last class Lord Junior had made a point of talking with all of us about the competition he had been in recently, and how the biggest problem he dealt with was that all of his students wanted to move way too fast. Whether it was because of nerves or adrenaline or just not being able to hear the rhythm of the music, Lord Junior had been constantly holding his students back to keep them on time with him. That’s why in the previous week’s class we had worked on dancing through some basic Waltz figures reeeeeeeeaaaallllly slow. This week he had all of us work on the same thing in Foxtrot.

None of the figures we used were all that complicated. Starting with a prep step we did a Feather, a Reverse Turn with Feather Finish and a Three Step. As we progressed through class, we switched out the Three Step at the end for a Top Spin, just to make things more interesting. But we did things super slow… like 70% tempo was the fastest that we went for most of the class until right at the end when we were allowed to try things at full speed once to see if there was any improvement. Dancing that slowly wasn’t that bad for me, since my part of all the steps used is rather simple. The hardest part was helping the ladies to maintain their balance during the Heel Pull in the Reverse Turn, and keeping my dance partner from speeding up when we were traveling in a straight line. For some reason, most of the ladies in class wanted to accelerate when traveling straight, like in the Feather or Three Step.

Now, for the most troubling part of going to these classes this week was… Miss Shortdress. College is out for the summer, and she has been back with us the last two weeks for Standard Technique and Latin Technique classes. I didn’t think much about it when she first showed up two Wednesdays ago, since I hadn’t seen her in a while and it took me a lot longer than I care to admit to remember her name initially. I made mention of her a couple of times last summer, because people kept making fun of me for her acting like she had a crush on me. Well… I guess the long school year did not cause her to move on from that crush.

Monday night, since there wasn’t a gaggle of ladies to contend against when vying for my attention, Miss Shortdress was pouring it on pretty noticeably. She made a point of skipping ahead in the line of ladies to dance with me more than once during the hour. Before and after class she was hovering nearby and seemed to laugh extra hard at my jokes I was making when talking with people. And at one point when we were dancing together she called me “babe” unexpectedly. I think I faltered on my next step when I heard that. So that’s weird, right? I really don’t understand women…

Then on Wednesday night, there were a lot more women in class with us, so the things she was doing were at more of a distance. I heard from people who were standing near her in the line of ladies that Miss Shortdress was talking about me with one of her classmates. I guess she was once again laughing overly hard at some of the silly and quirky things I was doing, and somehow managed to drop into the conversation a line about how she thought I was ‘so cute.’ She did make a point of telling me directly at one point when we were about to dance together that she really liked how I got into frame… which normally would have been a nice compliment, but with everything else I’d seen and heard in classes this week made me feel uncomfortable.

I don’t know what to do about her. Hopefully this behavior doesn’t get any worse as the summer progresses. I can handle little things like these miniature flirtatious teases, but I don’t know what to do if her ‘amorous advances’ become any more blatant. I mean, I’ve got to be at least a dozen years older than her, so I definitely don’t want to accidentally encourage anything and get a reputation for being a creepy old man (skeevy, I believe, is the word I used for that last week). It also doesn’t seem worthwhile to say anything to her to confront the issue, since she will only be around until summer is over and then she’ll run off to college again and the problem will just disappear without any effort.

I bet if I didn’t dance she wouldn’t even consider me worth her time. Is dancing like my curse?

Anyway… so many things to do this weekend! On Saturday I have lessons with both Lord Dormamu and Sir Steven. Normally we try to have at least two weeks between our lessons with Lord Dormamu so that Sparkledancer and I can practice things, but he will be out of town the weekend of the 24th, so we moved things up. Saturday night I have a dance party to host, with some strange theme that I’m really not sure how to dress for. Sunday there is this high-level International Standard coach who will be hanging out at the Electric Dance Hall, and I signed up to have a lesson with him to get an outside opinion on all the things I’ve been working on with Lord Dormamu recently. At some point in all of that, I really hope I can go get all my hairs cut, since they have grown long enough to bother me. Will I manage to fit everything in?

Tune in next week to find out!

Yes, There Are Two Paths You Can Go By

Last week after a class I attended was over, I got pulled into a conversation with one of the ladies who had been in class with me. The conversation started out awkwardly, with her lauding praise on me for how good of a Lead I was. Luckily the topic soon shifted to her asking me how I had improved so much, because she wanted to work on getting better at her own dancing. I told her about the things that I was currently learning in my coaching sessions, about using the technique-based group classes I attend during the week to help refine what I know, and I also told her that much of my recent improvements were completely due to setting up regular sessions to meet up with Sparkledancer for practice. After hearing my tidbits of wisdom, she sighed and said that she wished she could find an amateur partner like me.
  That last wish of hers is something I’d like to take a moment to comment upon, since I hear it quite often. I’ve met a lot of ladies who dance Pro/Am over the years, and several have asked me if I was interested in switching partners to dance with them instead, or if I knew any single men that they could dance with, or they want to lament to me about how they think it must be so much better to dance Amateur rather than Pro/Am. I have also read lots of postings online about women who want to switch from dancing Pro/Am to dancing Amateur with a male student. I’ve also had ladies tell me all about how they dream of meeting the perfect dance partner to compete with, falling in love, and (as one girl put it once upon a time) Tangoing down the aisle together on their wedding day.

I don’t think that many of these ladies who dream about this sort of dance partnership actually know what they would be getting themselves into. Dancing Amateur competitively, which is something I’ve done for years, has its good and bad points, much like dancing Pro/Am does (which is something I’ve also done, though it’s been a while). So before you sign up somewhere looking for an amateur male to dance with, let me tell you about some things that I have learned and seen over the years I’ve been doing this. I believe that once people have information about the Amateur path in ballroom dancing, they can make an informed decision about whether dancing Amateur instead of Pro/Am is right for them.

Two notes before I begin: A) this is totally from a male perspective (since I’m, you know, a guy) and B) several of these points assume that you and your amateur partner are roughly the same ‘level’ of dancer, since that seems to be what many ladies I know who are looking for an amateur partner are looking for. That said…

  1. In your lessons together, ladies won’t usually get much attention

This is the biggest thing which many of these ladies that tell me all about their desires to compete Amateur don’t seem to realize. If you are dancing with an amateur male who is roughly the same level of dancer as you, much of your lessons/coaching with instructors will end up focusing on improving what he is doing. Oftentimes it will feel like you are just being used as a dance prop in your lessons together. If you think about it, you shouldn’t be too surprised by this. If you are good at Following, and you already are capable of getting into a strong dance frame, all you really need to know is your basic footwork for the figures that are in use.

One of the instructors that I have taken lessons from over the years explained things to me like this: he and his professional partner practiced together all the time early in their careers, but they never seemed to do much better when they would compete. It wasn’t until he went off to get some intense coaching on his leading skills that both he and his partner started to get better marks, even though she didn’t go off and get any extra coaching herself. Because everything she was doing was working off of what he was doing, he was the one holding their partnership back. The better he danced, the better she was able to use his dancing to execute her shapes and steps, so the better they scored together in competitions.

So if you have been dancing Pro/Am for a while and are used to spending an hour or so in each lesson getting picked on for everything you do wrong to make you improve, you have to prepare yourself to not be the primary focus anymore, because how well he does will have the biggest impact on how well you both dance together.

  1. Dancing as an amateur couple allows the Lead to regularly work with male instructors

This is the biggest reason why I like dancing with an amateur partner myself. Alone, I would need to have a female instructor to dance with, and she would be my primary teacher unless I was willing to pay for her time and the male instructors time. Studying under male instructors regularly really helps me to learn all kinds of things from people who have primarily danced and competed doing my part of the figures, so they know all kinds of tricks to help me out. I know this information doesn’t really mean much to ladies looking to find an amateur male partner to dance with, but I personally see this as a positive point.

I work with the greatest Leaders you can imagine, obviously

  1. You will advance at a much slower rate

This one should be obvious, but I feel like I need to point it out anyway: there are now two of you who are learning to be better at the same time, so unless you start taking twice as many lessons together (which would totally negate point number four), you will advance as a dancer at a slower rate than you would if you stick with Pro/Am, since in Pro/Am half of your partnership (the Pro) already knows what he/she should be doing. If they don’t know that, you probably shouldn’t be paying them to teach you…

Also, if you switch from dancing Pro/Am to Amateur, you will probably have to spend some time with your new partner going back to basic/Bronze steps in practice until you get comfortable dancing with each other. If you have spent a lot of time dancing socially over the years, learning to adjust to a new partner won’t be so much trouble for you, so you should be able to get comfortable quicker. However, if you have only ever danced with a single person who was a higher level instructor, or even a small team of instructors, you will find that there is a big difference dancing with an amateur, so there will definitely be an adjustment period before you can perform at your peak together.

  1. Amateur does, generally, cost less, but limits some options available

It’s great only having to pay half the cost for the lessons you take and the competitions and dance events you sign up for. I’m pretty sure all of you who might read this are aware that ballroom dancing can be an expensive endeavor, so having someone else who will shoulder half the financial burden is awesome. Who wouldn’t like that?

However, there are some things that the community makes available to people competing Pro/Am that don’t show up much for people competing Amateur. Do you prefer to go to competitions and dance heats, running each of your routines several times in the course of the day and getting feedback/placements for each one? Don’t expect to get that option often when you compete in Amateur. Sure, some local studio-based competitions will allow amateur couples to sign up for multiple heats in an event, but in bigger competitions run by national organizations the option for amateurs to dance heats is usually nonexistent. Unless you sign up to dance in multiple levels or multiple age categories, expect to go out, dance once (or twice if there are enough competitors for semi-final and final rounds), and be done. And hope to all the gods above past, present and future, that your first round of the day isn’t Viennese Waltz at butt-crack-o’clock in the morning, because you won’t get another shot…

  1. You have to be motivated to practice

This may seem like an obvious point whether you are dancing Amateur or Pro/Am, but one of the points that comes up when people talk to me about how they want to dance with an amateur partner is that it will save them money because then they don’t have to pay a professional to dance with them when they want to practice. This may be true, but then again if you are not scheduling a time with and paying someone to dance with you, there is less pressure on you to stop everything else you are doing and go meet up for practice. I’ve experienced this myself – the siren song of my pillow is strong some days, so I know how hard it is to find the motivation to get out of bed on a Sunday before lunchtime just to go practice dance.

  1. Expecting to have romance with your amateur partner is often a bad idea…

This nugget of wisdom is actually from an off-hand comment I got from a high-level dance coach I worked with. He and I had gotten off on a tangent about some recent single’s event that I had attended, and that led him to talk about his previous professional dance partner. He told me that they had a fairly typical story – while training to be champions, they spent almost all of their free time together. One thing led to another and, as you can imagine, the close physical contact they had been working on to perfect their dance frame became close physical contact they worked on in bed sans clothes. They started dating, and even moved in together to save money while they continued their training.

Things were good for a while until they both started to get more into the professional coaching side of their careers rather than focusing solely on competing. This changed things so that they didn’t spend their entire balance of free time practicing dance together, so they tried to use their extra free time to… you know… date. They began to realize that even though they were incredibly compatible as dancers, they were not incredibly compatible as people when they weren’t dancing. Rather than wait until things got too ugly and they couldn’t stand to be near each other anymore, they decided to see other people and maintain a cordial friendship. Since that time they have both also moved on to new professional partners to dance with as well, since their interests in competing have also diverged.

As much as ladies I talk to want to believe the fairy tale that they can find an amateur partner to dance and compete with and then fall in love, you can’t base a romantic relationship solely on dance and expect it to work for ever and ever. What would happen if one of those ladies came to find out that while she only likes to eat waffles for breakfast on the weekends, he will only eat pancakes? So much incompatibility!

  1. …but friendship and trust are essential to a good dance partnership

There’s a reason why you see so many older couples who have been married for a long time take up dancing after their kids are out of the house and do very well dancing and competing together. They are already friends, and they trust each other (at least, I have to assume that they do, since they got married in the first place). If you have a hard time trusting people, then dancing with a partner who you aren’t paying to tell you what to do becomes very difficult.

Trust is essential. Think about it – training together as two amateurs, especially when you are practicing without an instructor hovering nearby to help, requires you to be comfortable with things like:

  • close body contact
  • getting sweaty and gross around someone during intense practice sessions
  • communicating with your partner when things don’t feel right
  • understanding when to move on to something else before frustration causes anger
  • learning not to fight about dance-related issues
  • asking your partner to help you out if needed
  • if neither partner is sure about a figure or technique, seeking out help from a professional

You don’t want to be that amateur couple that constantly gets caught up in “dance fights” instead of practicing. I’ve never seen any amateur couples over the years go through a “dance fight” that had positive results when it was resolved! Have you?

(I guess the overall theme of points 6 and 7 can be summed up as: taking on an amateur partner and falling in love with them doesn’t seem to work out as well as finding someone you love and then taking up ballroom dancing together. Your mileage may vary, of course.)

  1. You won’t have a professional dancing with you to fall back on

This is a major sticking point that most people don’t even think about until it is brought up. If you are competing as a Pro/Am partnership now, only half of your couple is scored during a competition. The Pro can also give you reminders about things you need to fix in mid-dance if need be, because the Pro knows your part of the figures. Until you start dancing at a high-enough level where you and your amateur partner are learning each-other’s half of your figures, there is really a limited amount of items your partner can remind you of when you dance together, even when not under the pressure of a competition.

  1. Finding a worthwhile amateur male partner is going to be difficult

Male leads are hard to come by, as any female dancer can tell you. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a dance class, a social dance, or a competition, there just don’t seem to be enough of us to fill the demand. That is the biggest problem many ladies I’ve talked to have when they set out looking for a guy to compete in Amateur with. I’ve looked at postings online for people searching for amateur partners in my area – the number of ladies who have posted ads is huge compared to the number of men!

There’s another underlying problem I’ve noticed though, and this one is what gives guys like me a bad reputation, even if we do our best to try to overcome the stigma: I’ve met many unattached males during my years in the dance community – males who only like to go out social dancing, males who are only interested in competing, and those that will do both. Because unattached males are hard to come by, when they come into a dance studio to take lessons, it seems like a lot of ladies fawn over them to try to get them to stick around. This behavior can go to their heads, and I’ve seen many a young man turn into essentially a diva (would that be a divo?). Suddenly he is sure that he is better than everyone else, and needs to go out of his way to prove his dominance.

As an example, I knew one young man who, after a few months of lessons, had gotten such a big ego about his perceived skills that he would go out of his way to point out all the things he thought ladies who had been dancing for years were doing wrong during a social dance. The ladies would just smile and nod at his comments, but would then go and complain about it to each other when he wasn’t in earshot because they didn’t want to scare him away!

Rumors also have it that sometimes these men can also get… skeevy. Expecting… favors, in return for their help as dance partners. You know what I mean. I’ve never met a guy who has admitted to such things, but the rumors are out there that it happens in the ballroom world. Crazy.

Anyway… that’s probably enough on this subject. I have been making these notes in my head since I had that conversation last week, so I thought I should write them down. Hopefully they are helpful to others who are considering making the switch from Pro/Am to Amateur. Having done competitions over the years with both a professional partner and an amateur partner, I can honestly say that one is not necessarily better than the other – they are just different tracks on the same path. Do whichever one is the most fun for you, because ultimately that’s what it should be about!

Did someone order a last-minute ‘corny’ joke?

These are my personal thoughts, and have not been evaluated by the administration to determine fitness for human consumption. Should you take this advice and notice discomfort in the appendix or swelling of the hands and feet, please seek medical attention immediately as these reactions may be life threatening. Always consult an expert before beginning this or any other regimen.

Feel free to ask me any questions!

I Wanna Go Where The Down Boys Go

So what’s new in my dance world this time around? Well, this past weekend it was time for my latest check-in with Lord Dormamu so that he could see how all of the practice time I’d been putting in with Sparkledancer was coming along. We ended up spending our entire session time on Foxtrot this week, since even though he could see improvement in our Foxtrot over where I started, what I was doing wasn’t… enough for him to be happy about.

Let’s start with him wanting me to stay low during the entire dance. I felt like I was super low the whole time, with my knees bent so much that they would run into Sparkledancer if I tried to bend them any further. Apparently that just wasn’t low enough for Lord Dormamu’s taste. Sparkledancer was sent off to stand on the side of the floor for a while and he made me get into frame, and then he came over and put his forearms on my shoulders and pushed me down even lower, and he told me to dance like that while he held my shoulders at that level. Every time I took a step forward, I felt like I was doing the prisyadka (that’s the actual name of that dance figure you always see ‘Russians’ doing on TV, where they are squatting and kicking… I’m sure you can picture what I’m talking about) instead of dancing Foxtrot. Вздох…

I also got called out for not making my movements smooth enough, as if I was dancing three even steps over four beats. This one though, I pretty much accepted. I have had a lot of musical training in my life. It’s a little known fact that I was a professional musician in my younger days, so I might admit to knowing a thing or two about music. That’s part of the reason that I was able to pick up dance pretty quickly when I was in that newcomer phase – my sense of rhythm was really good, so I was able to take steps in time with the music with no problem. But the training I had through the years enforced STRICT rhythm control on me (I was not a drummer, but I always wanted to be), so when Lord Dormamu talked about throwing out the rhythm and making Foxtrot more like Waltz where you take three even steps in each average measure instead of one two-beat step and two one-beat steps, I knew that would be trouble. I’ve worked on it, but when I am focusing on other techniques while dancing, my brain will automatically reset to having my feet follow the rhythm exactly. So that adjustment is going to take me probably several more weeks before it happens more naturally.

On a high note though, I was able to impress, or maybe surprise, Lord Dormamu at one point during our session. We had been looking at part of the Natural Weave in Foxtrot, and he was explaining something about how to best take the first and second step. Thinking out loud, I off-handedly remarked that what he was saying was similar to what I had been told about the first two steps in a Double Natural Spin a couple of weeks ago. He overheard me mumbling and asked me to repeat myself, and when I mentioned the Double Natural Spin louder he nodded and exclaimed ‘Yes!’ loudly, saying that it would be exactly like the first two steps for that. Then as we were walking back toward where Sparkledancer was standing to try things again, he paused and looked at me quizzically and had to ask me who it was that had shown me how to do a Double Natural Spin, since he hadn’t OK’d me to dance anything beyond Bronze yet. Oops…

Having run out of time, Lord Dormamu ran over to collect Sir Steven and go over the things we had just worked on, giving Sir Steven his thoughts on what we should be working on for the next hour. He wanted us to work with Sir Steven primarily on staying down while we were dancing. Sir Steven wanted to add on to this a bit and have us work on staying down, but also work on making sure we didn’t look like we were walking around in a squatting position, which apparently we did for some of the steps that we had taken that Sir Steven had seen while we were working with Lord Dormamu.

One of the most obvious things he noticed was that the person who was moving backwards wasn’t reaching their leg back as far as they could before taking a step. This was the main reason he thought that we looked… ‘squatty’ (for lack of a better term) while we were dancing as he watched. If the legs were bent so much when we got into frame, and they stayed bent when you’re taking a step backward, then it just looks weird if you’re watching. The person traveling forward is also likely taking steps while keeping their legs bent the entire time as well, but since there is someone in front of them hiding their legs half the time it is harder to notice that than it is to notice what the person moving backward is doing.

To work on making sure we were aware of how weird this looked, we switched over to doing some Waltz. Sir Steven wanted to make sure that if we were in frame and we were standing in one place, like at the beginning of the routine or during a Hesitation Change, that our knees were bent. As we were preparing to take a step, the person moving backward needs to reach their leg backward and straighten it as much as possible – not locking the knee, but pretty close to that. The person going forward would obviously wait for their partner to get their leg out of the way first before moving their own, but that leg also needed to be stretched out and straightened completely. Going over this technique over and over again really made sure that the feeling I had of doing the prisyadka never went away that day. It’s a good thing I have really strong legs!

Before we ended things that afternoon, we stopped for a bit to go back and look at our Natural Spin Turn again. The Natural Spin Turn seems like one of those figures that will never look good enough, so it keeps coming back to haunt me over and over. Like the New York figure from various International Latin dances, which seem like they should be so simple, yet never seem to be good enough for whoever is watching me do them. I guess this time around it didn’t look like we were rotating our upper bodies enough before taking the step out of the turn. The first step for me that rotated backward and the second step that drives forward looked good, but Sir Steven said that I was halting the rotation in my upper body at the end of that second step before taking the third step backward toward diagonal center against line of dance (it’s an under-turned Natural Spin Turn).

In my defense, I was spending a lot of mental energy on remembering to keep my legs bent enough to stay down while doing most of the rise and fall through foot rise and stretching out my legs so that it didn’t look like I was walking in a constant squat, so I may have left out some other things in the process… Sigh… I think I’m going to need a brain upgrade to keep all of this stuff straight at some point in the near future.

With those two items out of the way Saturday afternoon, there was only one thing left to do on Saturday before I got to go home and stay home. There was an open dance being held at the Cherished Dance Hall that I attended. Being a holiday weekend, the turnout wasn’t huge, but that just left more space on the dance floor for me to do whatever I wanted, so I couldn’t complain. The staff of the Cherished Dance Hall didn’t even come to the party. In fact, it was President Porpoise who showed up to run the event, being all presidential and porpoise-y like he is. He had found a DJ who had stayed in town for the weekend to come in and play some music, and they just put on songs for a couple of hours for all of us who showed up to dance. It was really nice.

I think this was the first time in quite a few weeks that I just threw out everything I had been working so hard on for the last several months and just danced for fun – quipping jokes to my partners, worrying less about frame and technique, and just trying to make sure the evening was as entertaining as possible for me and whomever was close enough to where I was to hear and see what I was doing. I feel like I managed to accomplish that feat, so it was a fun night for me. I’m not quite sure that many of the older ladies at the dance knew how to react to my jocularity, but that’s OK! Sometimes you just have to have fun for yourself, and hope that your mood is infectious enough to bring everyone else in with you.

Monday night, through the freak rainstorms that kept popping up for short periods, I made it out to Latin Technique class. Only Sparkledancer and Bony were dedicated enough to brave the rain and join me, so we had a small class. We looked at some Rumba that night because everyone was so tired from having the day off, since it was a holiday and all that. Even though there were only four of us and we were just doing Rumba, we kept moving around the room to different parts of the dance floor throughout the night. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but that night we danced in the middle of the floor, over on the side by the front door, later on the far side of the room by the other short wall, near the mirrors… we just couldn’t stay in one place! And it’s not like the figures we looked at traveled all that much either. We were moving around whenever Lord Junior stopped to explain things to us, strangely enough.

Anyway… what we did that night started off in Fan Position. The gentlemen led the lady to close from Fan Position and do an Alemana, whilst the man checks forward and then checks backward, but instead of bringing our feet together after the second check we would take a step slightly off to the left so that the lady ended up on our right side. Both partners would then rotate 90° to the right and the lady would go into an Opening Out while the man did a Cucaracha. We would do three Opening Outs and then lead the lady through a Spiral Turn before taking three steps off to the man’s left side to end in an Aida.

Rather than going through the second half of a basic Aida, in tandem both partners took one step forward, then another step into a Spiral Turn, then a side step to end facing each other again. As we took the last step, the man would reach out with his right hand to take the lady’s right hand. We then led the ladies through two slow Swivels, first by lunging a bit toward the right and rotating our body, then shifting to the left leg and repeating the same movement. At the end we led one quick Swivel on the right side, coming out to take the lady through an Inside Turn and a Pivot, bringing her right hand up and over our head so that it could slide down to our shoulder. We finished the whole pattern that night by doing a fourth Opening Out action on the left side. We were going to try to turn that final figure into some Sliding Doors to be cool, but we ran out of time and Lord Junior decided to leave it there for now.

Finally, on Wednesday night this past week I ended up out at Standard Technique class where I got to work on Quickstep for a while. We had a lot of ladies show up to take part in the class. A LOT. I think we ended up with eight women to three men by the time class really got underway. As I was standing around talking to people before class started, the ratio looked like it would be pretty good, but then more and more women kept showing up! Do you think that since it is now staying light outside so much later in the evening that more people are willing to go out in the evenings? It sure seems that way.

We went over a short pattern in Quickstep that was supposed to get us to spend some time focusing on Contra-Body Movement and Contra-Body Movement Position, but there were a fair number of ladies (and one gentleman) who had trouble just getting the footwork for the figures right, so a lot of Lord Junior’s time was spent on just getting those individuals through the steps instead. I got a workout that night, since we had a few instances where Lord Junior put on music so that we could try out the steps in time, but then he would end up working with the other gentleman, back-leading him through the figures until he was comfortable with them. While they did that, I was left all alone with a line of ladies, going through the parts of the pattern with each one and then running back down to the other end of the floor to pick up the next lady and start over. By the time class was over, I was a bit of a sweaty mess.

We started everything off by facing diagonal wall and doing a prep step into a Natural Turn, setting us up to execute a Natural Spin Turn. Coming out of that we did a figure that I’m pretty sure Lord Junior referred to as a ‘Cross Change’ that was originally taken from Waltz. Essentially, after coming out of the Natural Spin Turn we took one step backwards toward diagonal center, rotated on that foot so that we could take a side step to the left still heading toward diagonal center, and then crossed the right foot behind the left so that we ended facing line of dance. We did another partial Cross Change right after that, taking just the side step to the left and crossing the right foot behind, which rotated us enough so that now we were facing diagonal center if done correctly (and there was no one in the way).

Coming out of the double Cross Change we added on an Open Reverse Turn which should rotate you enough on the first half so that you are now backing line of dance. To end the pattern that night we did a Four Quick Run going into another Natural Turn. The Four Quick Run seemed to give a lot of people trouble that night. A lot of the ladies I danced with kept missing the Lock Step, or doing two Lock Steps in a row instead of two running steps and then a Lock Step. We went through the progression a fair number of times (well, I should say, I went through the progression a fair number of times), and even after repeating things a few times some of the ladies I danced with still had trouble. Because of that, we never ran through things at full tempo. I think the fastest that Lord Junior said he set the music to that night was 85%, so we still had a bit to go. Maybe next time I am out practicing I will see if I can run things at tempo as a challenge.

Can you believe that it’s already June? Crazy! My first weekend in June will be pretty quiet. Sparkledancer is out of town on some work thing so I won’t be able to practice with her this weekend. Sir Steven is busy on Saturday and Sunday putting on some sort of dance show, so I won’t have a lesson with him this weekend. And I only know of one dance party on Friday night that I am sort-of interested in attending, so it sounds like for the first time in who knows how long I will have a free Saturday to do whatever I want! Will I go out for some solo dance practice? Will I try to get my cat to help me do some spring cleaning? Will someone else call me up and ask me to go out to a dance party with them somewhere? Who knows! I have a different idea rolling around in my head that maybe I’ll sit and write about this weekend instead of going anywhere, so we’ll have to see what I come up with next week!