Some Balls Are Held For Charity And Some For Fancy Dress

I went to two different dance parties this weekend. Two very, very, very, very, very… (I think you get my drift) different dance parties.

Last Friday I went to a dance party out at the Electric Dance Hall. I hadn’t originally planned on being there that night, but Bony was asking a bunch of us if we would go since she was going to be there, and I couldn’t say no to her. She asks so little! It turns out that the only reason that she was going was because some lady that Bony is friends with was going to be out of town, so she had asked Bony to go to the dance party to meet her husband and be her husband’s dance partner for the night since she couldn’t be there. Since Bony had recruited friends to join her at the party that night, those ladies all ended up taking turns keeping the older gentleman out on the dance floor. Pretty good deal for him, right?

Me, I guess I was just asked to be there for moral support, or something. After all, that guy probably didn’t want to dance with me, even if I am super fun to dance with. There were plenty of other ladies for me to dance with throughout the night, so I never actually had to sit out for a dance unless I actually wanted to. The party broke up earlier than I expected, with most of the attendees leaving to go home before ten-thirty even though the party was scheduled to go until eleven. When there was no one unpaired ladies left for me to dance with, I took off as well.

Then there was Saturday… I don’t even begin to know how to describe this, so just bear with me for a moment as I start at the beginning.

Saturday afternoon I had gone out to meet up with Sparkledancer for an hour or so to get in some practice time, like we usually do. She got to the studio as I’m stretching out my legs. Once she spotted me she got this hopeful look on her face, and she comes over and asks if I would do her a huge favor. There was going to be a dance party that night, and she wanted to go to it. She had asked her husband to go, but he had told her he wasn’t interested. Even after that, she still wanted to go, but she didn’t want to go by herself, so she wanted to ask if I would be a pal and go with her.

That didn’t seem like such a huge deal, so I said that I could probably clear up my schedule and go out for a few hours that night. I told her to send the details of which studio we would meet at and what time and I would let her know after I had a chance to go home after practice and move things around and I was sure I could make it. Then she looked at me hesitantly and told me that the party wasn’t actually at a studio…

Turns out that this party that she was interested in attending was a Victorian-era Christmas Ball… and they were advertising that they would give you a discount on the cover charge if you made an attempt at dressing in Victorian period attire. Also, the group that was hosting this event was known for teaching people the Waltz… but not the style of Waltz that I necessarily knew. The flyer that she showed me promised that the event would feature the dances from the Victorian era “including but not limited to quadrilles, polkas, waltzes, and those lighthearted games known as ‘Germans.’” (Yes, that is really what it said!)

Suffice to say I just kept looking back and forth between Sparkledancer and the flyer for a bit, totally unsure what to make of the whole thing. It wasn’t exactly the kind of party that I was expecting to go to, and my first thought was that I wasn’t sure that I had anything that would even vaguely resemble period attire that I could wear. So I backtracked a bit and said that I would think about it and let her know later, and we got to practicing.

When I got home that afternoon, I dug through the closet where I have been storing all the crazy outfits that I have collected over the years because of dancing to see if I had anything that would work. I did manage to find an old top hat and a cravat that I had worn for a showcase performance I had done years ago, and I figured that if I coupled that with a plain white dress shirt and a vest that it was probably the best that I could do for anything even close to period attire. But the question I was still asking myself was whether I really wanted to go to an event like this or not. So, I did what I usually do when I can’t make a decision as to whether to do something or not – I consulted the unbiased opinion of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Since I’m writing out this whole story, you can probably guess that he told me I should go.

My man!

This particular dance adventure was… well, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. This ended up being way outside of my comfort zone. I’m not even really sure why. I do a lot of dancing, of all kinds of different styles. I’ve gone to lots of costume parties over the years because of dance. I’ve even gone to a number of strange dance parties that were completely unrelated to ballroom dancing just so that I could dance at them. But this party… for whatever reason I was just not comfortable being there. Even days later as I write this, I still really don’t know why.

That being said, it was a fascinating party to attend from a people watching perspective. Utterly fascinating. Many people not only dressed in period attire, but attempted to speak and act as if they were from the period as well. I would liken it to being at a Renaissance fair, except it was the Victorian era instead of the Renaissance, and a dance party instead of a fair. I’ve only been to Renaissance fairs like twice in my life so I’m not really an expert on what goes on at those, but that is the closest approximation that I can make to try to help you understand what was going on at this event.

The big problem I ran into once I was there was the expectations that I had built in my head before I arrived at the venue. Even after reading that flyer with the crazy description that I quoted earlier, I had built it up in my head to be some sort of old-timey Waltz party. I am not usually keen on going to parties where they do one style of dance all night, but this particular party had other factors going for it that made it seem like it could have been amusing. What I found when I got there was that they didn’t ‘Waltz’ – at least, not in any sense even close to what I think of as Waltz. In fact, I counted only three songs in the first two hours that were even in some form of triple time (¾, ⅜, 6/8 or the like). I don’t really see songs that are not in triple time as being Waltzes, so why did I imagine this to be a Waltz party?

Most of the dances that they did that evening were what I would actually consider line dances. Everyone would form a big line (or two big lines or a big circle) and all do the same steps. There were a few dances that were more like Square Dancing, where the hostess would call out the names of figures and then everyone would do them. And then there were the weird “Germans” games that had been mentioned in the flyer… those were weird.

Let me mention one of those games that thoroughly confused me. Everyone got split up by sex, The men were arranged into a big circle facing inward, holding up our arms and touching our palms together, leaving space between us on either side. The ladies just lined up on one side of the room. As the game started and the music was put on, the lady at the front of the line would come forward and enter the circle of men. One man would then back out of the circle to be ‘it’ for that lady.

The game was described as being like ‘cat and mouse’ – the lady would run around inside the circle and try to duck out and back in between the men. The ‘it’ man would run around the outside of the circle and try to touch her somewhere on her body. If the guy managed to tag the lady, she stopped running and they would do some kind of dance together of the man’s choosing around the outside of the circle. He would drop her off at one of the chairs in the room after completing their circuit and return to the circle. If the guy was having a hard time catching the lady, the circle of men would take a step inward, slowly closing the circle and making it harder for the lady to get between us. Once the lady in the circle was tagged and she started dancing with the ‘it’ man, the next lady in line entered the circle and the process began anew.

This. Went. On. FOREVER. Since the game was only played with one woman at a time and there were A LOT of ladies at the party, giving every lady who wanted to play a chance consumed well over a half-hour of the party. After the first half-dozen ladies, I was totally bored. Whether I got to be the guy who was ‘it’ or not, I was bored. Maybe it was my fault. I guess my attention span has been shattered by going to normal ballroom social dances, and now I can’t focus on the same dance style for longer than one normal song anymore without getting antsy to switch things up.

Another weird thing about that night was how much the hostess liked to use the word ‘frisky’ to describe parts of the dances she was teaching. I’m sure that she was using the word to try to get a chuckle out of the attendees, but there was a side effect to her use of that word that I’m not sure if she intended. Attending the party that night were many younger people – younger than me, which makes them pretty young. Whenever the hostess would describe a part of the dance as being ‘frisky’ these younger people always seemed to take that as meaning they were allowed to be out of control for some reason.

For example, one of the dances that we did was a pretty simple quadrille where one couple would march over in time to stand in front of the couple on their right, then bow to them, then you would take hands with the new person in front of you and spin for an eight count around before marching back to your starting point. On the next eight count you were supposed to pick someone else to spin around with a few times and make it back to your spot, and then your turn was over and the couple to the right would take over and start the pattern all over. Pretty simple, right? I bet that when you picture this in your head, you are picturing a pleasant, slow dance that would have been enjoyable to Victorian-era nobility. That’s how I was picturing it as we were being taught the steps.

Well… the hostess described the spinning portions of the dance as being ‘frisky’, so suddenly the younger men at the party took the dance from a pleasant quadrille to a death-match style contest to see who could spin their lady around the most times before the eight-count was over. That made things dangerous. The floor at this venue wasn’t a nice wooden floor like they would have at a dance studio, so anyone who was wearing shoes that were more costume-appropriate didn’t have a lot of traction. My dance shoes (which I brought with me, because I had pictured the dancing being different that night) were sliding all over the place too. So we had people spinning as fast as they could while sliding all over the floor. It was nuts!

Another example was a line dance that we did where people paired off and formed two lines facing one another. The line of Followers would step toward the Leaders, then back, then go between the Leaders on their right, then the Leaders would flip around to face them. Then came the part that the hostess described as ‘frisky’ where the two Leads and two Follows at the head of the lines would take hands into a big circle and spin around a few times, then the Leads would stand in place side-by-side at the head of the line while the two Followers marched in a circle around their Lead two times. When the Follower finished marching the second circle they were supposed to take the Lead’s hand and sashay down between the lines of Leads and Follows to take their place at the end of the line, and everyone else moved up in line.

Again, it sounds nice and gentle and pleasant, and you can imagine watching people do this in a Victorian-period movie, right? Well, because the hostess used the word ‘frisky’, the circling that the two couples at the head of the line did turned into a race. First they would see how many times they could spin when all four people were holding hands. Then the ladies would run around their Leads to see who could complete their two circles the fastest. Finally, when the lady grabbed the guy’s hand, many of them ended up sprinting (not sashaying, actually sprinting) down to the end of the line as fast as they could. Nuts!

Kids these days, right?

One other interesting note about the party – unexpectedly, there was one girl in attendance that I hadn’t expected to see. She was a younger girl who has joined us out at the Electric Dance Hall for Latin Technique and Standard Technique classes for the last several years. When we finally had a few minutes to talk, she came over to say hi to Sparkledancer and I. She seemed to be at the party all by herself, so Sparkledancer asked her how she had found out about the event (turns out that she had seen the same flyer that Sparkledancer had shown me). What she said was kind of remarkable.

It turns out that this was what she had always dreamed of doing – this kind of Victorian-era reenactment dance party with all of the old-timey dancing. In fact, the whole reason that she had originally started to take ballroom dance lessons was because she had wanted to go to parties like this, but there weren’t any going on that she could find, so ballroom dancing was the next best thing. As the girl was telling Sparkledancer this, she started to get teary eyes and choke up a little, because she was so happy that she had finally found a group that held events like she had dreamed about. She had already talked to the hostess about joining their lessons during the week, and was thinking about ways to improve her costume to make it even more period appropriate. So that was really cool. I’m really happy for her that she finally found what she had been looking for. Hooray!

As for me… I can’t say that I would go back to another of these parties. It was certainly interesting, and entertaining for an evening, but it’s just not my cup of tea. As I said, I get bored doing the same dance style for long periods of time (even if the dance style is line dances), and all the dances they did that night seemed to go on forever and ever. I know that was because they wanted to give everyone a chance to participate, but it just bored me silly. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve never put a lot of energy into learning dance styles like Salsa or Argentine Tango to go to clubs where they dance those styles, because that’s all they will do all night long. I’m really happy for people who love to do that, but I’ll stick with ballroom-style social where they switch up the dance styles after every song.

So the next time someone asks me to go to a Victorian-era Ball, I’m going to have to turn them down. I did it once and got the stories out of it. That’s good enough for me!

Enough about that. Since I’ve already said a lot this week, let me finish up quickly by talking about last night’s Standard Technique class that I went to. I’m not exactly sure what was going on last night, but there were very few people hanging around at the Electric Dance Hall compared to what I usually see on a Wednesday night. For one thing, the West Coast Swing class that goes on every week only had three people in it, when usually there are at least ten or twelve. And then the only other student besides me to show up for Standard Technique was Sparkledancer. Where was everyone else last night?

In a way though, it was nice that it ended up being just the two of us – it was kind of like getting a private lesson from Lord Junior for the much, much, much lower cost of a group class. To keep things interesting for all of us, once we had decided on a dance style to work on that night (Foxtrot), Lord Junior basically pulled out the syllabus guide and started running Sparkledancer and I through the list of Silver-level figures for Foxtrot. After all, the Silver figures are more interesting than the Bronze ones, and at some point in the next few months we are going to be moving up to that level anyway, so he thought we might as well start memorizing all the figures now.

We managed to get through six of the figures during the course of the class. They were (not in this order) the Closed Telemark, the Open Telemark and Feather Ending, the Top Spin, the Hover Feather, the Hover Cross, and the “Open Telemark, Natural Turn, Outside Swivel, Feather Ending” (yes, that is all one figure). All but two of these figures I have done at some point or another in my life – probably in other Standard Technique classes, if I had to guess. I really don’t know where else I would have gone through them besides in this class.

The two figures that I can’t say that I’ve seen before that night were the Hover Cross and the Closed Telemark. Of those two, the Closed Telemark sounded the easiest – it’s just a Telemark where you finish the turn in normal dance position instead of shifting to Promenade Position like you would in an Open Telemark. Once I had tried it out, I could see why I’ve only ever done the Open Telemark before – it’s hard to turn a full 270° while remaining in dance position the whole time. I managed to get through it successfully a couple of times by the end (hooray for me!), but if I end up having to use this figure in the future I will need to put in some more practice to make it look presentable.

The Hover Cross was a different matter altogether. Unlike the Closed Telemark, where I had a basic understanding of what to do since I have done Open Telemarks in the past, I had nothing to compare the Hover Cross to mentally, so I was learning the footwork on the fly. My first few tries failed because I took the wrong steps. My next few tries failed because the sway that I was trying to do looked funny. By the ninth or tenth time I managed to figure out what I was doing to make the figure look passable, but it still felt funny to me. Maybe that was just because I didn’t really know the figure, but who knows? We moved on once I managed to make it through OK to look at something else. I’m sure I will see this figure again at some point in the future.

I’m going to leave it there for the time being. I did have a lesson with Lord Dormamu tonight, but I think if I tried to put all my notes from that lesson into this post it would get to be much too long even for me. So I’ll probably start with those next time!

This coming week has a few highlights to look forward to. There is a workshop I heard about on Saturday morning that sounds like it could be fun, and then I am going to another holiday dance party Saturday night (a normal holiday dance party, not like the one I went to last Saturday). This is probably the last specific holiday dance party I am going to go to this year. There will be other holiday parties I’m sure – since it is that time of year I would guess that all parties are vaguely holiday themed – but if I end up at one of those it will be a last-minute decision, unlike the party I’m going to this weekend which I bought a ticket to weeks ago to ensure I would have a place reserved.

Will I see you there? I hope so! If you find me, come give me a high-five. That is a less common form of greeting, so I’ll know how you found out about the party if you greet me like that. It will be our secret code.

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