Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I Could Have Danced All Night

When Audrey Hepburn sang that she was really talking about how much she loved Rex Harrison. Not me. I’m singing about how much I love the dancing. I went dancing last night for the first time in ages and really had a marvelous time.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again affair with dancing all my life. From ages 3 to 14 I took ballet lessons, with a little tap, tumbling and jazz thrown in for good measure. Every year brought the big spring dance recital – the itchy tulle costumes, the chance to wear real makeup, the vast number of sequins (this was Texas, remember), the probably-only-polite applause that to my young ears sounded wildly enthusiastic. I remember the year I decided to give up tap dancing. We’d been practicing our routine for months and the day before – the DAY BEFORE – the big recital, some genius decided that the wooden boards of the stage needed a good polish. As the shortest kid in the class I was placed in the middle of the front row. I did my first shuffle-ball-change and ended up flat on my back so quickly that I didn’t have any sensation of falling. I looked up to see a rainbow of stage lights and my friend Denise’s face where just a second before had been the audience. I got up, finished tapping the number, and swore off tap forever. I remain happy with that decision.

But the other dances, oh I loved them. I loved ballet. I even loved barre work – practicing all those endless plies and leg positions, kicks and beats and arms and extensions. The last time I used my fading ballet skills I was 18 and danced the role of ‘Dream Laurie’ in our high school production of Oklahoma! The Singing Laurie was supposed to drink a gypsy love potion, fall asleep on a tree stump at the side of the stage, and the scrim would go up. A gentle fog would roll out to conceal her, and I was supposed to float up and dance around, running across the stage to jump into Dream Curly’s arms. This was all very well – it did, in fact, work out exactly like that, eventually. But the night of the dress rehearsal the girl in charge of the fog machine decided that she was REALLY in CHARGE of FOG. The scrim went up and a wall of white moved out into the theatre, engulfing everyone in it. It totally obscured the stage, the orchestra pit, and of course, the video camera. (The effect was really hilarious to watch on video the next day.) I couldn’t dance or float because I was doubled over coughing. Eventually I heard the part of the music where I was supposed to find Curly so I staggered to the edge of the stage, coughing, waving my arms, feeling with my toes for the edge of the pit, and found him at last. I did a completely ungraceful vertical hop and landed in his arms on cue. Definitely not very dreamy.

It was hard at first but I didn’t mind giving up ballet classes when I started high school. I ended up doing other kinds of dancing because I was part of a… wait for it… yep… show choir. Jazz hands, everyone! (This is going to be a post full of embarrassing confessions, in case you didn’t already know that.) I got to do all sorts of dancing and choreography to great songs like Gloria Estefan’s Conga, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Do You Love Me?, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and a couple of different medleys, one featuring ragtime and one that was all about hillbilly music. That last one was called Raise a Ruckus. And we did, believe me.

The most obvious legacies of my dancing years are that I still love to dance, my jazz hands are ever-ready and very jazzy, and I have pretty good posture. As my friend Clay pointed out to me, however, I am not by nature a graceful person. This was quite a newsflash for me at the time – I had always just assumed that since I could dance I was obviously a graceful person. This is not the case. I can indeed dance gracefully, most of the time. But both on and off the dance floor I am that person who sometimes walks into walls, underestimates the width of standard door frames, flails her arms suddenly and without warning, or trips over invisible speed bumps in office hallways. I’ve learned to reconcile these two opposing sides of my nature, but only in my mind – not in any way that actually lessens the number of klutzy moves I make in any given week.

When I lived in Australia in what now feels like the early Jurassic period but was in fact merely my mid-twenties, I worked in a museum and hung out with friends and did amateur theatre productions (oh yes, I did). One day a group of work colleagues decided we’d go check out a dance class held at a local club. And thus my latest dance crush was born. The class we attended was for lindy hop, a kind of 8-count swing dance that became popular in the 30s and 40s. I love that old music – my grandfather had a great record collection of Bing and Ella and Louis – so I was thrilled to learn a dance that suits it perfectly. I loved the music, the vintage clothes, the style of the dancing, the friendly people I met who also loved to dance, the way people looked when they did it – I loved it all. It was a major crush. For the first time since I’d given up ballet I was dancing 3 and 4 times a week.

For those of you who haven’t taken a dance class since your pink-ballet-slipper days, adult social dance classes tend to follow a similar format. Leaders and followers stand in a circle and practice the steps. After a while the followers rotate around the circle so everyone ends up dancing with everyone else. This is a great way to discover how very differently people dance, even when hearing the exact same set of instructions. It’s also a formula that can lead to embarrassment. I remember one class I took in Melbourne – it was an intermediate level class and that night we were going to practice jumps and lifts. All was going well. It wasn’t a big class, maybe only 10 or 12 of us and we all knew each other. One of the leaders was an elderly Italian-Australian fellow named Giovanni. He danced very elegantly. He was about an inch shorter than I was, but of course, he’d been dancing this stuff since World War II so I always enjoyed dancing with him – he was very good. One of the steps we were practicing that night was a side lift. It was actually more of a jump than a lift – the leader and follower stood side-by-side with their arms around each other’s waists, facing forward. The leader bent his legs and the follower jumped up, folded her knees under, and perched for a beat or two on the leader’s nearest bent leg. It looked like a lift, but really all the leader had to do was catch the lady. The followers did the work by jumping. So. It’s my turn to practice with the elegant Giovanni. I’d just seen him complete this move with the girl ahead of me in the circle – a girl, I might add, who was significantly taller and sturdier than I was – so I knew it should be relatively easy. But I was wrong. Giovanni bent, I jumped, he sort of caught me, and then he crumpled to the floor. I was sprawled on top, feeling like the house that landed on the Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Two little bird legs stuck out from under me. It was deeply mortifying for both of us. We’d simply mistimed the jump and catch parts. Disaster.

Fortunately, though, my love for lindy hop survived (and so did Giovanni). Everywhere I’ve gone since then, I’ve found places to dance and take lessons. When I’ve found myself in a place where lindy wasn’t common, I’ve taught my own classes just so I’d have someone to dance with. I taught in England with a partner who looked like a young John Cleese and was easily a foot taller than I am (and whose penchant for jazz hands was too much, even for me), and I taught solo in East Texas, to a few die-hard swing fans with lots of style. (Chaybee, I’m talking about you!)

The funny thing about this dancing thing is, even though I know how much I love it, some part of my brain sometimes forgets. Oh, I know it with the thinking part of my brain, but the part that gets all breezy and happy when filled up with dancing endorphins – that part tends to forget the exact shade of happy that dancing can make me. So I can go for a year or two without actually dancing and while I miss it, I don’t really remember exactly what’s absent from my life. Last night I went dancing for the first time in almost two years and I HAD A BALL. There were the usual suspects – the guy who doesn’t know how to lead (oh bless him), the commandant who leads too much and often, the old-timer who makes it look effortless, the heavy breathers (sigh), and the middle-of-the-road guys who are halfway to good already.

I could have danced all night.

(PS – Favorite British Friends – you will be pleased to hear that the lovely Foot Relief lotion you sent for Christmas was tremendously helpful in restoring my feet to working order last night! I had danced all the cushy-ness right out of them.)


Big Kitty Fun said...

Hurrah! Where'd you go? You must tell me all the details.

Glad you got back out there.

Geekwif said...

I've always thought of dancing as a guarantee of humiliation galore (my only experience is a semester of dance in 7th grade phy. ed.), but you make it sound like fun!

Whiskeymarie said...

I took 12+ years of jazz, ballet & modern dance in my youth, but you'd never know it. My posture has gone to the dogs, I run into random walls, and I regularly trip over dust balls.

Like a gazelle, I am.