Set An Open Course For The Virgin Sea

Another busy weekend for me last weekend. I swear, one of these weekends I will purposefully not do anything dance related, just so that I can write about the dance things that I do during the week without making these posts ridiculously long. I swear I’ve been trying to keep them shorter! It helps me out when I try to go back over my notes if they aren’t super long! But there’s just so much that I want to remember…

Let’s start with Friday night. I was convinced by a number of people who I know to head out to the Fancy Dance Hall last Friday night because they were holding a dance party to raise money for hurricane relief efforts. All the door fees collected that night were being donated, and almost all of the instructors who usually teach at the Fancy Dance Hall were letting people sign up for dances for a $5 donation. Because the staff wanted to let people choose the style of dance when they donated money, the set list for the night had been predetermined, so everyone knew that the first dance was a Foxtrot, the second a Cha-Cha, the third a Salsa, and so on and so forth.

What really convinced me to go out that night was the fact that there was going to be a live band playing the music for the party. I’m a sucker for a ballroom dance party that has live music. If the band is good, and they have played for ballroom dancers before, I think that it is way more fun dancing than you get listening to canned songs. There is also an element of randomness that you get with a live band, since the music is played at whatever tempo the drummer wants that night (for good or for bad). If the band has never played for a ballroom dance party before, this can sometimes lead to difficult tempos for the chosen dance style.

The band that was playing that night… did alright. They didn’t play any original material, just covers of classic rock songs and standards – stuff that everyone knows all the words to sing along with. After the first couple of songs, it was fairly obvious to me that they had never played for a ballroom dance party before, because the tempos that they used for many of the songs were more conducive to dancing in a bar, as opposed to fancy dancing in a ballroom. I’m pretty sure that the dance styles that were selected to go along with each song on their setlist were chosen based on the tempo of the average recorded version of the songs.

That made the night kind of entertaining though. I danced slow Waltzes that were not-quite Viennese tempo, a Jive that seemed slower than an East Coast Swing, and Tangos where I had to be really careful turning my partner to Promenade Position because the tempo was so fast (and I’m fairly strong) that I’m pretty sure I could have sprained her neck. Halfway through the first set, I noticed that when the male instructors were dancing with older ladies, they were purposefully dancing at half-tempo. This made the dances even more interesting, because then you had two tiers of dancing going on at the same time.

Overall, it sounded like the night was a big success. When I had my lesson with Sir Steven the next day, he told me that they had raised a couple thousand dollars that night with just the door fee donations and the instructor dance donations. The band even donated their time for the event, so the fee that they would have been paid was thrown into the pot as well. Hooray!

My coaching session with the Princess that had been scheduled for Saturday morning had to be rescheduled. The Princess called me early on that morning and told me that some important Dance Kingdom business had come up and, since she’s the princess, she had to take care of the situation. I conferenced in Sparkledancer on the phone, and the three of us decided that Tuesday night was the earliest timeslot we all had available for rescheduling. Once I got off the phone, I breathed a sigh of relief, since that actually made my Saturday less crazy

I still had a lesson with Sir Steven early that afternoon planned out. When I met up with Sir Steven and Sparkledancer, the plan for the day was to run rounds, much like we did last time. This was less exciting than it sounds, but it was probably the best thing that we could do to get ready for the competition that is next weekend.

Sir Steven set up the music to just play through a setlist of songs at a minute-and-a-half a piece and let us dance. He grabbed a notepad and wandered around one side of the room watching us as we went through everything, taking notes about things to touch on when we completed the entire set. None of the notes were really anything groundbreaking – he pointed out places where it looked like Sparkledancer or I let our frame slip, and places where I accidentally let my head drift out of position, and spots where he thought that Sparkledancer and I lost body contact. Once we finished going through his notes, we danced through another set, with Sparkledancer and I trying to fix the issues he noted from the previous set.

After the first couple of dances that morning, I noticed that I was breathing overly heavy when we finished the dance and prepared to start the next. I wasn’t sure why that was – I get through all my hour-long kickboxing classes without getting that winded, so dancing for a minute-and-a-half shouldn’t have been bothering me that much. When I started to pay attention, I found out that I was holding my breath for large portions of the routine for some reason! I don’t even know why I was doing that!

So on top of trying to remember all the fine points of dance technique I had been taught, it seems like I also need to remember to breathe throughout the whole dance as well. You’d think that I would know how to breathe properly at my age, but I guess I still have a ways to go yet…

By the end of our coaching session with Sir Steven, I was feeling pretty alright about things. Overall, Sir Steven thinks that our Waltz and Foxtrot are definitely our strongest dance styles, while Tango is still the weakest. It’s not terrible according to him, it just doesn’t look nearly as strong as our Waltz and Foxtrot, or even our Quickstep. He told us that he is definitely going to focus more on Tango once the competition is over. That will be on top of learning our new showcase routine that we will be starting as well. Hooray!

I’m not sure what that means as far as the competition is concerned this weekend, but I can’t say that I’m all that worried. What I really want is scores from my heats this weekend to show marked improvement over the last competition I was in. I know full well that I still have a ways to go, but as long as I can see that I’m moving forward from where I’ve been, I’ll know that I’m making progress.

You may not remember, but about two years ago I went out dancing on a boat one evening. Well guess what? On Saturday night I did it again!

This time around was very different for me than how it went down two years ago. For one thing, this boat trip was something put together by the Royal Dance Court. Two years ago when they held this event, I wasn’t a member of the Royal Dance Court, but now I am, so that meant that I was sort-of working that evening, helping everything run smoothly.

Much like the trip two years ago, there was a basic dance lesson held on the deck before the boat cast off, which was used as a way to get everyone used to how the boat would shift in the water while people were dancing. I did not join this lesson, because I was down below deck helping to lay out the spread of food that we were providing the guests during the party. Based on what I could hear going on over my head, and the way the boat was swaying, I might be able to make guesses as to what figures they were practicing above me.

I did get some time to dance that night, even though I spent much of the evening helping out and trying to make sure that our guests didn’t make too much of a mess during the ride. Much like last time, the DJ stuck to Swing and Latin dance styles primarily, since those were easier to contain to small spaces. There were a few ballroom-style dances that were danced in a big oval going from bow to stern. Those were my favorite, because I thought it was rather funny to rub elbows with people traveling in the opposite direction. I’m easily amused, what can I say?

The most fun part, at least in my opinion, was one of the line dances that the DJ played. I was standing near the back wall of the deck watching the dancers in the middle of the boat while this all happened. Whenever the crowd rotated to face either the bow or the stern and then they all took steps together to the right or to the left, it was enough to cause the boat to lean to whatever side the crowd was marching toward. I did my best to get more people to join the line dance to increase the weight shifting the boat to side to side while the song played. I was having more fun than was probably called for during that song.

It was really late by the time I got home. I stayed after for quite a while to help the crew clean up the boat, and help the DJ take down all the musical equipment and bring it back onto the shore to be loaded into the car. The boat’s captain was super happy that I stayed behind to help even after the rest of the Royal Dance Court members took off. He invited me to come back the next day if I wanted. Apparently the boat was chartered for a wedding reception or something, and he said that if I wanted to come back and help clean up after that was over he would let me join the trip for free.

Maybe I missed my calling in life. Maybe I could live a life of working on the high seas. That would certainly help me get a good tan for dance events, right? My current office job doesn’t give me much time to be out in the sun during the summer days…

One more note: the weirdest thing that I saw that night was a guy riding a jet ski who was making a big, slow circle around our boat, holding up his phone the whole time. I think he was making a video of the dancing that he could partially see from his jet ski. That struck me as super odd. If it was a teenager on a jet ski making a video of the dance party, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second look, but this was some middle-age gentleman. What was up with that guy?

Tuesday night was my rescheduled night to get beat up by the Princess. Let me tell you folks, she may be all fun and games, and super sweet and friendly when you see her at various places around the Dance Kingdom, but if you schedule a time to work with her, she will WORK you. I was sweating so much that night, it kind of offended me. Some of that was because she makes me nervous, but I also worked hard. And I was smacked a lot. Apparently since I am so durable, she thought the easiest way to get me to recognize when my body parts were out of alignment was just to smack them.

Sparkledancer and I had decided prior to our lesson that we were going to ask her to look over Tango with us. Sir Steven has told us over the last couple of weeks that Tango is our weakest dance, so it seemed like the best place to get in some world-class advice on how to make it… not the worst. Unfortunately, there was so much that she wanted us to change to make it better that by the time I walked out of the studio that night, my head was spinning! Let’s see if I can remember all the things she told me were the most important.

First off, she wanted me to change the way I held my frame in Tango. To make her happy, she wanted to have my left arm completely in line with my shoulder all the way down to my wrist, and my left elbow pulled back as far as it would go. My right arm needs to be wrapped further around my partner than in other ballroom dances to create the more romantic Tango hold, but she told me that pointing my arm downward so that my right hand ends up in the middle of my partner’s back makes my right elbow look weird. She recommended that I actually bring my hand up to the level it would normally sit if I were dancing Waltz or Foxtrot, just wrapped further around so that my fingertips end up touching my partner’s spine.

Next up, she wanted me to add more rotation into my body, to pull my left side toward my partner. Adding the changes to my arms to that rotation, I really felt like you would see me bent into this weird ‘Z’ shape if you looked down on me from overhead. I mentioned this to the Princess, but she said that she didn’t care if it felt weird. Making this change stick, more than anything else that she wanted me to change in the routine, would improve the overall visual quality of my Tango immensely.

She even went so far as to tell me that if there was only one thing that I could practice for Tango between now and the competition, this change in my frame would be it. Because I am so much bigger than Sparkledancer (and, let’s face it, most of the other competitors on the dance floor), I am the easiest thing for the judges to see. If I can dance Tango and look strong and maintain this hold for the whole dance, that is what the judges will walk away remembering.

I guess that is the one disadvantage of being so muscular – I can’t really hide behind anyone. Everyone knows where I am on the dance floor.

There were some other minor changes that the Princess recommended that altered the way figures rotated to make them look more dramatic. The Back Corte, for instance – I was told in the past that when I do this figure, I am supposed to step to the side and slightly back with my left foot. The Princess wants me to keep doing that, but to rotate my body considerably before taking the step, so now my foot is heading down the line of dance instead of toward diagonal center when I step back and to the left.

In the Promenade Pivot that we do, she wants my first three steps to travel in a straight line before pivoting, taking a small fourth step with my right foot to help me stop. Before I had been told that my third step I should be starting to curve around Sparkledancer, more like a Natural Turn in Waltz or Foxtrot, but apparently coming around like that on the third step makes the Princess unhappy.

In the right-side lunge that happens in the corner, the Princess told me that being split weight is wrong. Lunges are never split weight. I should have all my weight on my right foot and only be using my extended left leg to balance myself. In addition, she told me that when I step into the lunge, I need to make sure to step toward my partner’s right leg. If I focus on stepping to my right to create the lunge, I throw my partner off, but if I aim at stepping toward her right leg, I should always end up in the right place to create a stable platform for my partner to shape off of. In addition, she wants me to make sure to hold off on rotating my head to look at my partner until the last possible second when I am stepping with my right leg.

How many of these changes will I likely have in muscle memory before the competition? That remains to be seen. These four that I have written down are the most important changes I was told to focus on, in this order. If I can only do one, it has to be the change in my frame. If I can get two, the rotation in the Back Corte is next (we do that figure or variations of that figure a couple of times through the routine), and so on and so forth. So, now I have to find some time to practice more Tango specifically. Here’s hoping that all my other plans for Friday and Saturday night get cancelled!

Well, Sunday is the big day! I will be heading out to the Dance Death Arena once more to compete. I do have some final coaching sessions with both Sir Steven and Lord Dormamu scheduled for Saturday to get in some final notes from the two of them before the competition. Other than that, I will be sure to remember to breathe. That is the most important thing I can do during the whole competition!

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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!

You’re Crazy And I’m Out Of My Mind

Last Saturday afternoon I headed out to meet up with Sir Steven and Sparkledancer for our regularly scheduled lesson. After Sir Steven had Sparkledancer and I run through all of our International Standard routines except Viennese Waltz to warm up, we looked at a couple of specific things that day which were different from the things we had worked on the last couple of weeks.

First up, we went back to Foxtrot to walk around for a bit. In the last several months Sparkledancer and I have done a lot of practice walking back and forth from one side of a dance floor to the other in Foxtrot. This is the major way we’ve both practiced moving backwards and forwards. Oftentimes we’ve done this by traveling down the floor using repeating Three Step and Feather combinations. This time, Sir Steven wanted us to work on walking, but he wanted us to be up on our toes the whole time, to simulate the steps we would take while doing foot rise, like the steps in a Progressive Chasse or a Weave. This was because Sir Steven wanted the steps we would take during both the Basic Weave and Natural Weave in our routine to cover as much distance as the steps we take for other figures. We practiced moving forward and backward while having our heels off the ground, separately then together, adding this as another exercise to do during practice.

Next we switched over to Tango to work on something that ended up being amusing, at least to me. Sir Steven spent some time working with Sparkledancer on changing the position she gets her left arm into when in dance frame for Tango. Sir Steven wanted Sparkledancer to start wrapping her arm more around mine, hooking her thumb underneath my arm and pulling it upward to lock her arm in place. The problem was that she couldn’t hold the position very well – her hand kept slipping upward as she pulled her hand in that direction. Sir Steven tried to get into this position with her to see if he could figure out why this was happening, but she had no problem keeping her arm where it was supposed to be with him. The two of them struggled with things for a while, and eventually they gave up and Sir Steven told her to work on it during practice so that we didn’t spend all our time on one thing.

After our lesson was over and Sparkledancer and I were walking out of the studio toward our cars in the parking lot, Sparkledancer confided in me that she thinks the reason why she was having issues holding her hand in place while in frame with me and not with Sir Steven was because his arms are tiny compared to mine. It is harder for her to wrap her arm around mine and hook her thumb underneath to begin with, and because my arms are not squishy, her hand basically slides upward around my triceps as she pulls upward. On Sir Steven, she can wrap her arm around his arm easily because his arms are smaller. Also, because his arms are not as muscular as mine, as she hooks her thumb beneath his arm and pulls upward she can press into his arm and create a bit of a groove where her thumb can rest to stay in place.

Sigh… it seems like I just have all kinds of dance issues that I don’t think anyone else I’ve ever met has to worry about.

Saturday night I got to go out and do something different for a change – still dance related, but not involving the grind that dance practice has become for me lately. I got to go out and chaperone a local high school prom again. This is something that I volunteered to help Sparkledancer with several years ago, and the people in charge actually accepted me. I guess that since, unlike a lot of other volunteers they get, I have had to have lots of different background checks in my life because of things I’ve done for work in the past, they actually considered me to be fairly trustworthy. I’ve been asked if I would come back and help again every year since then, and I’ve agreed. It’s a nice bit of volunteer work, and usually I get to dance a little bit as the night goes on, so it’s right up my alley.

This year the prom was held at a different venue than they had used the last three years. The place was an actual event center, and the room they had rented out for the night was really big on the inside. The dance floor was smaller than I expected, but because they had decided to have other activities going on in the event hall to entertain the high school students this year, there was lots of space on the dance floor for everyone throughout the night. The kids all tended to cluster in the middle of the floor right in front of the DJ’s booth, leaving big empty spaces on the right and left sides of the floor. I was once again in charge of watching the dance floor for any ‘inappropriate dancing’, so I was standing in the corner on one side where I had lots of room to wiggle around as I watched the cluster of people in the middle. From what I saw, there was really only one incident on the dance floor all night that one of the chaperones had to stop because it looked lewd enough to make someone uncomfortable. I didn’t see it though, so I have no idea what happened.

I will say I wasn’t as big a fan of the DJ this year as I was of the people they brought in the last few years I have helped out at this event. Last year the DJ they had was more technologically advanced, and you could send a message from your phone to request songs (which I did several times that night, to entertain myself). The years before that the DJs played a lot more songs that I was able to dance to, so I moved around a lot while maintaining my vigil on the kids to make sure everyone was behaving. This year… well, the music wasn’t really the kind of music I could dance to. It was mostly music you would hear at a 21+ nightclub meant for drunken bumping and grinding… except that this was a high school prom, so (as far as I could tell) no one was drunk, and the kids were all too young to know how to grind properly. That’s probably why no one felt the need to stop the kids from “grinding” during the evening. The “grinding” they were doing mostly looked sad, not inappropriate.

Close to the end of the night, after many of the kids had left the venue to head off to their after-prom parties, the DJ finally started to play better music. My feet were hurting from standing in one place all night, so I was eager to move around a bit and get my blood flowing properly. Sparkledancer showed up at that point, relieved from whatever station she was chaperoning, and we danced together a bit on the now mostly-empty dance floor. We got to do a couple of Cha-Cha numbers, a Jive, and a Rumba – much to the amazement of the few kids still on the dance floor. They all kind of stopped whatever they were doing to watch us. The last song of the night that the DJ put on as the lights came up and the kids all went off to find their coats was a Foxtrot. It was a bit fast, so we opted to dance American Foxtrot. The few remaining volunteers and the DJ were the ones that stopped to watch us dance a couple of laps after the kids had all left, and as we left the floor after the song was over the DJ thanked us for helping to make the event “classier” than the rest of the evening had been. Yay!

On to more interesting topics… let’s talk about Latin Technique class this week. It was a small class for some reason. Only Ms. Possible, Bony and I had shown up. Lord Junior decided to have us spend some time working on speed and change-of-direction in class that day, and we used Cha-Cha to accomplish that. The change-of-direction part was easy enough, but it was leg day for me when I worked out earlier (never skip leg day!), so my legs were tired and I think my speed probably suffered a bit as a result. I managed to get through things with the music as we increased the tempo throughout the night from about 60% up to normal, but I’m sure the closer we got to full speed the sloppier my legs would have looked if you had been there to watch.

The pattern we used started out with a basic chasse to the right, but after a few rounds we stopped doing that and started out standing on our right leg with the left leg pointed off to the side instead. From either start that we used, we then went into a normal New Yorker to the right, following that up with a Ronde that turned into a Press Line before taking a step to the left. Once the left foot was on the ground, we did an actual Ronde Chasse, rotating our bodies slightly at the end so that the last step was not a side step, but rather a step forward with our bodies turned out slightly to face away from our partner. Here we abruptly changed direction, rotating 180° without moving our feet. The turn wasn’t so bad, but since we did not do a rock step or anything after turning to kill the momentum we had when dancing closer to full tempo, the next movement was harder to go into while maintaining your balance.

After flipping around, the guys had it easy. We were just going to take two steps forward and one to the side. The ladies would do a Three Step Turn while we did that, and we used the side step at the end to line up with them and regain their hand before going into the next figure. I had to be careful with this section. For some reason I kept wanting to do a Three Step Turn as well. The progression worked if I did that, since I was able to link up with the lady at the end without issues, but I really wasn’t supposed to be doing that. Apparently I just like making things harder for myself for no apparent reason. No one seemed to notice when I accidentally turned though, so let’s just keep that as our secret, OK?

To finish things out, we did New Yorker on the left side, and then shifted our weight between our legs and back to left rather than doing a chasse. Then we did two New Yorkers with Cuban Break timing, first to the left then to the right. We did a final New Yorker to the left that was held for a whole measure to give everyone a chance to breathe. After the hold, both partners turned away from each other to basically walk around in a half-circle (counter-clockwise for the Leads, clockwise for the Follows). We took two steps, and then did a Lock Step starting with the left leg, then two more steps and another Lock Step, this time starting with the right leg. If done correctly, both partners should have met back up in the middle a couple of feet down the floor from where you started out.

Finally, let’s talk about what I got to do yesterday night in Standard Technique class. This week, Lord Junior wanted to work on the Outside Spin some more, but since we had already gone through the figure in Waltz last week in class Lord Junior wanted to change things up a bit. He decided that we were going to look at the figure in Foxtrot this week, and he wanted to make sure we added on a Ronde when coming out of the Outside Spin because he had so much fun doing the Ronde figures in Latin Technique class on Monday. After dancing through things himself a few times before starting class to figure out what he should make the timing in the Ronde figure to make it challenging for us, we got to work.

To start things out a little more gently than rushing straight into the Outside Spin, we began by facing diagonal wall and doing a Hover Telemark (which is the same footwork as a Twinkle from American Foxtrot) and went into an Open Natural Turn. That set us up nicely for the Outside Spin, and gave us a bit of momentum to work with to make the pivots and spins easier for everyone. At the end of the Outside Spin the Leads would lunge forward on their right leg, heading toward diagonal center, and rotate their body to lead the Followers through the Ronde that was mentioned earlier. Doing a Ronde like that in International Foxtrot is much more difficult than doing one in American Foxtrot. In American style you can split apart from each other and round out your arms in order to emphasize the turn and make the movement easier. In International style you are supposed to stay in frame the whole time, which includes maintaining body contact. This limits your lead when trying to lead the figure from your core instead, since most people can turn their arms slightly farther than their torso.

The Ronde was meant to be very slow, covering almost a whole three beats in the music. At the end of beat three the Leads finally shifted our weight back to the left leg and on beat four we brought the right foot down behind the left to do a small pivot, lining us up to face against the line of dance. Now we needed to turn around, since the force of our last movement was causing us to travel backwards. Lord Junior decided to keep things easy and add on a simple Open Telemark. The Heel Turn that the ladies were asked to do for this particular Open Telemark was probably the easiest Heel Turn that any of them had ever done. We were given the option of coming out either heading straight down the line of dance (i.e. no turn at all) or heading toward diagonal center (i.e. 1/8th of a turn). Finally, we could finish the whole progression by closing the Promenade through a Feather Ending, but oftentimes the lady would just stop dancing as soon as we took our first step in Promenade Position after the Open Telemark, ending the progression a bit more abruptly.

I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to be doing this weekend. I had finally heard back from Lord Dormamu after class on Wednesday to say that he had set Sparkledancer and I up with coaching from some judge early Saturday afternoon, and that I should also be planning on some workshop for Saturday evening. The problem is that I had already been scheduled to take care of something for work mid-Saturday afternoon that I can’t get out of. Once I told Lord Dormamu that, he said that he would go back and discuss things with people, and let me know what Saturday looks like later. He never mentioned anything about whether or not I should plan on being in the competition he’s organizing on Sunday. I hope he lets me know soon – I had a friend ask me about something for Sunday, so if I’m going to dance I need to rearrange that as well. Sigh… I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what happens!

Practice Makes Perfect Sense To Me

Last Saturday afternoon I met up with Sparkledancer and Sir Steven for our normal standing coaching session. We started things off by running through just three of our International Standard routines for warm-up, the Waltz, Tango and Foxtrot. When we finished those up and Sir Steven started talking about what he wanted to look at that day, one of the things he said that really stood out to me was that he complimented Sparkledancer and me about how much things have improved lately. He said the difference has actually been noticeable, especially in the Waltz. I know that working with Lord Dormamu is probably the catalyst for this, but I don’t think it has actually been the few sessions we had with him that have really helped. After all, we have only managed to meet with him three times to work on things. We were supposed to get together more than that, but have had scheduling conflicts so it hasn’t happened yet.

No, I personally believe much of our improvement has to do with the fact that the first time we met with Lord Dormamu, he gave us ‘homework’ to do, and ever since that day Sparkledancer and I have set up regular practice sessions every week to spend several hours working on stuff ourselves. Before, we used to practice routines mostly by making plans to get together during social dance parties, but now we are actually spending serious time on the floor going through figures that gave us trouble in our lessons, practicing techniques that our instructors have told us to work on, and running our routines on our own rather than always relying on a partner. I’ve had other people tell me in the last month or so that they have noticed a difference, but most of those I just ignored. But when my primary instructor, the guy that pretty much taught me almost everything I know, says he sees a difference? Then I may actually believe that something has changed.

Sooo…. Anyway, this weekend’s lesson was pretty good for me, but not so much for Sparkledancer. She was the one getting corrected on things for much of our time this week. I know her well enough at this point to know that she wasn’t having a good time during a lot of our lesson since she was being corrected so much. After things were all over and we were walking out to the parking lot together, she told me that logically she understood that most of how well a Follower dances is based on how good the Lead is, so if she is getting corrected more, that means that I am doing things a lot better, so overall we are improving. Still, she said, it kind of made her feel like a terrible dancer. I told her I knew exactly how she felt, since most of the time in our lessons it is me being corrected for all kinds of things, and I know how that can erode your dance confidence sometimes.

The major thing that we worked on that afternoon was Foxtrot again. One of the points that Sir Steven actually pointed out to Sparkledancer and brought me in for as well was the heel turns. He said that it looked like she wasn’t actually bringing her feet all the way around when she turned during the heel turn, which was throwing her off for the next couple of steps afterward since she had to work harder to get into the right place. Heel turns ended up being our homework for this week to work on. Sparkledancer has a couple of heel turn figures in our Foxtrot routine, both a Reverse Turn with Feather Finish and a Natural Turn, as well as a Natural Weave which basically starts out as a Natural Turn. I also have a Natural Closed Impetus with Feather Finish, which has me doing a heel turn too. So Sir Steven said that we should spend some time working on heel turns during our practice sessions, both just doing the footwork on our own and then working on the figures together. Nailing those out would really help for our Foxtrot, and because Sparkledancer also does heel pulls in Waltz and Quickstep during the Double Reverse Spins it would help for those as well.

I must report that sadly, my planned lesson last Sunday with Lord Dormamu did not happen. He was also out competing at the big competition this past weekend, and had said that he would be back by Sunday afternoon and would have time to get together with both Sparkledancer and I. That morning he sent both of us text messages to say that he would be leaving the competition venue in a little bit and would be back at the Fancy Dance Hall “soon” and that he would keep us posted about getting together that afternoon. Well, neither of us heard anything else from him that day. So we’re going to have to reschedule things again. Sigh… is working with world champion dancers always this difficult? I must say it’s kind of annoying.

We got to work on some Rumba in Latin Technique class on Monday. Before class started, Lord Junior was asking us what we all wanted to work on, and said we could do anything but Jive or Samba, since he danced hard at the competition this past weekend and he wanted to have a break from those two. To get everyone warmed up, we started off with an exercise we had done before where we all started on one end of the floor standing on our left leg with the right foot pointed back and took two steps forward, did a Spiral Turn on the right leg on the third step, then took another two steps forward and did another Spiral Turn on the left leg, then did two measures of normal Rumba Walks, then started over from the top until we got all the way down the floor. Some people with long legs (like me) didn’t get to repeat the pattern quite as much as others, but luckily we got to flip around when we hit the end of the floor and start everything over.

For the actual work of the class, one person had suggested doing something using the Sliding Door figure, so Lord Junior made up a solo progression that allowed everyone to do a portion of both the Lead and Follow part of the figure, as well as fitting in some further work with Rumba Walks and Spiral Turns. We started off standing with our feet together and did two Cucarachas, first right then left. Next we went into the ladies footwork for the Sliding Door, doing a rock step backward on the right leg that turned into a Hip Twist with a Press Line. Putting the heel down, we did a Cuban Rock to the left, collected our feet and turned around 180°, stepping forward afterward. As we stood on the left leg, we turned another 180° clockwise and went into the Sliding Door again.

The second time through, instead of the Cuban Rock that we did the first time, we went into a syncopated Cucaracha to the left, which we used as a transition piece to shift into doing the Lead’s footwork of the Sliding Door. As we brought our feet together after the syncopated Cucaracha, we checked our left foot forward and did a Ronde-like move that brought our left leg back behind the right, basically into the same position you would for a Cuban Cross. We then did a Spiral Turn in place (which Leads can do during a Sliding Door if they want to be fancy), pushing out of it hard with the left leg to move to the right, sliding slightly along the floor on purpose as we put the right foot down. Once we collected the feet we went into a Rumba Box. Starting with the left foot we went through the footwork as normal (forward, side, back, back, side and forward, if you know the mantra). As we landed on the right foot we did another Spiral Turn, and for the last four beats we did three steps forward, turning a full 360° on the second step, finishing with a one more step going to the right side.

As I’ve mentioned quite a few times now, there was a big competition going on in the northern regions of the Dance Kingdom this past weekend. Because of that, a lot of the dance halls were shut down since all their teachers were competing with students. There was one dance party that was going on Saturday night to help tide over the other dance peasants in the kingdom, but rather than attend this party, I made plans to meet up with Sparkledancer out at the Electric Dance Hall to practice on Saturday night. Since Lord Junior was off competing that weekend, there wasn’t much scheduled to go on there, so I figured it would be a good chance to get the floor mostly to ourselves.

It turns out I was right about that. There were a couple of private lessons scheduled with one instructor, so that guy had the building unlocked for us during the few hours that we were there that evening. In between his lessons, he decided to go off and grab a bite to eat, so we even got to practice for a while with the place completely empty and full control over the music as well, which was even more awesome. I cannot say that we had the same situation when we met up for our regular Tuesday night practice session at the Electric Dance Hall. Tuesday night when we got to the studio, there were four different private lessons going on already, limiting the amount of free space available on the dance floor. It was probably because everyone had been out competing over the weekend, so they were trying to fit in all the private lessons that couldn’t happen while they were out, but I don’t know that for sure.

Things weren’t all bad having limited space on Tuesday night though. Saturday night since we had the place practically to ourselves we ran through everything, going through all of our routines (including Viennese Waltz this time) all around the room, looping everything a couple of times when dancing by ourselves and dancing together. I also spent so much time dancing by myself holding those stupid cups in my hands that my shoulders were screaming at me by the time we called it quits that night. On Tuesday, since we were limited to pretty much just a corner of the dance floor, we specifically focused on Foxtrot and worked on all of the heel turn figures that we had, just like Sir Steven asked us to do. Those were fairly easy to keep contained, with us only using the figure leading into the heel turn, the turning figure itself and the Feather Finish coming out of it, so nothing really traveled all that far. Nearing the end of our hour on Tuesday, all of the lessons that had been going on finished up, so we managed to also run the entirety of our Foxtrot routine a couple of times before leaving.

And the party with all the people hanging out at the Electric Dance Hall didn’t end on Tuesday night, either. When I headed over there on Wednesday night for Standard Technique class, there were even more people hanging around on the floor. There were so many people on the floor that the class I showed up for didn’t actually happen that night. When I got there, Lord Junior was going over some paperwork with a new student, which took him a bit longer than he expected. There were four of us who had shown up for Standard Technique standing over by a couch together, and he apologized profusely to all of us and said we would get started as soon as he finished up all the paperwork.

At the same time that class was supposed to start, a whole bunch of other things started happening on the dance floor, taking up a large portion of the space. Sir Steven had come over from the Fancy Dance Hall and was teaching a private lesson to a couple in one corner (he still teaches over at the Electric Dance Hall at least one night a week). Sir Digler was giving a private lesson to a different couple along the back wall. There was a new female instructor that I have only seen a few times teaching Salsa to a male student closer to the back wall. And finally, taking up a ton of room in the front of the studio, Lord Fabulous and Lord Scarry were teaching what looked like a group class to a gang of women. Other than the Salsa lesson going on, everyone else seemed to be teaching various ballroom styles, so all of the various groups of people kept shifting around on the floor. With so much activity going on, I was having a hard time focusing on anything in particular.

When Lord Junior finished up all his paperwork, he came and joined the four of us standing off to the side watching all the action on the floor. He told all of us that what he had planned on looking at that night was Quickstep, to go through Turning Lock Steps with us. However, since there didn’t seem to be an open lane on the floor where we could safely do those, he said we’d have to scrap that idea and go through something else, and asked if any of us had any contained figures we wanted to look at instead. Sparkledancer made a joke that it was the perfect night to practice some floorcraft, with so many obstacles to work around. The other guy that had shown up for class said that he had just finished up a private lesson, so he would be happy to just go home, and Prez just shrugged and said she didn’t have anything in particular she wanted to look at.

Lord Junior said that if no one had anything, we could just cancel class and let everyone head home or stay and practice if we could find a small opening on the floor. He said that if anyone stuck around to practice, he would come around and work with them for a while, but he wouldn’t charge anything for the time since he felt bad that the floor was overbooked. So, with a small open space in the back of the room by the mirrors, Sparkledancer and I took to the floor to get some more practice time in. Wanting to stay relatively confined, and since we already spent an entire session working on heel turns in Foxtrot the day before, this time we worked on our Tango Open Reverse figure for the entire time.

When Lord Junior came over to check on us after a while, he asked us what we were doing. We explained to him about how we were told that our Open Reverse Turn looked off, and we were given all kinds of suggestions on what could possibly fix it, but none of them made anyone tell us it was actually good, and some of the suggestions conflicted with each other. So we went through the figure a couple of times for him so he could see what we were doing. After watching, he told us that what he tells his other students is that if he brought in four high-level coaches and they each watched you do the same figure, they would all tell you how to “fix” it. 90% of what they tell you would be the same, but the other 10% comes down to the way that coach likes to do things, which is purely up to their own taste.

For us, he said he would go through what the figure should be doing based on what the official books say for pure footwork and technique. To start with, he said that Sparkledancer wasn’t pulling herself to the back and left far enough, and maintaining that poise through the whole figure. He also said he immediately noticed me turning my head toward her in the middle of the figure, which is also a huge no-no. So those were the first two items to fix. After that, what it all seemed to come down to was that I wasn’t coming around Sparkledancer enough on my second step. For Tango, I’m supposed to be selfish and not really care about making sure there is room for my partner. I need to make sure that my first step is heading straight toward diagonal center, and then my second step turns and becomes a side step that basically also travels diagonal center, cutting right in front of my partner. If I don’t come around far enough, she’ll try to go outside of me, which is why sometimes the middle looks funny.

He also said that my next step doesn’t need to go backward on an angle to make room for my partner’s leg to go between mine. By the book, I just take a step going straight back down the line of dance. If I maintain the CBMP rotation in my body, the lady should naturally take a step between my legs, and I don’t need to step backward on an angle to accommodate her. I guess if she doesn’t want to step between my legs when I do that, I’m supposed to just leave her to dance by herself. We practiced things for a while to make sure that we had everything down and committed to muscle memory. At one point, as he was heading out the door after his lesson, Sir Digler stopped to stand there watching us. I thought he had stopped to talk to Lord Junior a bit, but he told us he was actually stopping to watch Sparkledancer and I, and that he could see the improvement in the way we were holding ourselves lately, and we were looking really good.

That’s another instructor mentioning that we’ve improved noticeably in less than a week’s time. Does that mean that we might actually have pushed past the plateau that we were stuck at before? Or is everyone just being nice? I guess only time will tell…