Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, January 31, 2011

Zen in the art of two-step

So, I participated in the first dance competition of my life on Saturday. It was Country/Western two-step and waltz, which strikes me as strange even as I type it. I always wanted to learn to dance, but I had it in my head that I would learn swing, someday, and that I and a willing boyfriend would make a dashing and skillful couple who would turn the heads of everyone else on the floor.

That wasn't what happened.

What happened was that I moved to Denver and then I got involved in the gay community, and then a date took me to a dance lesson at the local gay country bar. And then after a couple weeks I was no longer seeing the woman but I was still going to the dance lessons, which happened not only to be free but to offer a free drink to attendees, so really, it made more sense to go than not to go.

And then I was completing a writing exercise in which the idea was to write out all my goals as fast as possible, without stopping to think too much about them, and I saw "To be very good at two-step" coming out of my pen. Seriously?

And then I heard about the competition. This would be the first ever organized by the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association. It would have a division for first-time dancers. I desperately wanted to do this. It sounded like tremendous fun.

It did not sound like tremendous fun to everyone, which was unfortunate because I needed a partner. Somebody with some skill, and with a lot of commitment, because this was important to me. I fished around, bringing up the competition to anyone I knew was a reasonably good dancer, but everyone was either uninterested, too busy, too chicken, or already had a partner. After a few weeks, I finally got a bite. More than a bite, when a woman I knew was good (I'd previously done a lesson with her) was going on about what a great idea the competition was, and how awesome it would be to do it, if only she could find a partner as committed as she.

That was how I ended up staying out till 2 in the morning on a Wednesday night, practicing to "just one more song" until my throat was raw with the oncoming cold that would wipe me out on my visit to D.C. While I was away I researched two-step patterns on the internet; she danced solo to the radio. When I returned to Denver, practice became mandatory. We went out too often and stayed out too late and, at the end, moved all the furniture in her dining and living room in order to practice on the hardwood floors, ducking beneath the chandeliers whose heavy metal tips hung menacingly at forehead-level.

In the end it wasn't the dance but the rules of dress that proved hardest for me (as excerpted in my previous post):
Country/Western Dress Style.
1. Contestants will compete in western style fashions.
2. Footwear will be western style boots.
3. A western–style hat is required to be worn by at least one (1) partner of each couple in the two–step and waltz.
4. Loss of hat during competition shall result in no scoring until the hat is retrieved.
I had no boots and no hat. And no job. The impracticality of spending my savings on boots and a hat (which can start at $50 each, new) needled me a little, but that was nothing compared to the indignation I felt at being required to dress this way in the first place. I have no fondness for country & western culture, but that wasn't really the issue... it was that C&W culture is, well, very hetero, it encompasses a lot of very strict ideas about the roles of men and women, and, let's face it, a certain amount of misogyny and homophobia. Why should we be so keen on imitating that? It struck me as slightly perverse.

However, it may be an indictment of my character that my desire to win was easily more important than any desire to buck the imposition of heteronormative dress and roles. It took me another couple of weeks, but I found some boots at a thrift store that fit me. They were eight dollars. They aren't even leather, but vinyl, though you can't tell until you're within a couple feet of them. I was unable to find a suitable hat at a thrift store but got one at JC Penney. I had one sort-of-country shirt.

The competition went by so fast. All that practice for four minutes of performance: two minutes of two-step and two of waltz. We didn't do badly, though I know we've danced better; the most difficult thing was the slowness of the pieces chosen. It's a hard thing to dance to a slow song. Two-step wants to scoot along the floor, and it's nearly impossible to force yourself to chain all your steps and moves to a slow rhythm. In the end we got 2nd place in our division. I have been telling all my friends that we got 2nd without mentioning that there were only 3 couples in the division. You won't tell, will you?

Here we are, slowly two-stepping around the floor.

Afterward we got to watch the rest of the performers; besides the first-time category there were beginners, intermediate, and advanced. Here is a video of the advanced couples:

The bar where all this happens is a lovely place, with mirror-mantled cowboy boots in place of a disco ball in the ceiling. For me it has a perpetually unfinished and very friendly feel to it; the former from all the exposed two-by-fours, the latter probably from its being a gay bar. Its very existence rests on a foundation of tolerance. And it is a fine thing to learn how to dance here; most people learn both to lead and to follow, and even when men ask me to dance, they ask if I want to lead. I happen to think real life would work better if it were a little more like this.

Another photo taken by Jess on competition night

There will be another competition in March, and I assume I'll compete again, though I don't know yet. When I dance I think sometimes about aikido, the martial art I studied one summer ages ago. They say in aikido that whatever issues you have in life will, sooner or later, turn up on the mat; that if you have a problem being assertive, or a problem with your temper, or a problem finishing what you start, at some point it will be an obstacle in your training and you'll need to work through it to continue with the practice. This is not going to happen with dance; I suspect I can keep getting out there, and probably improving, indefinitely without having to stare down any demons. Still, I can sense a couple sort of whiningly nipping at my heels.

One is that I LIKE TO DO THINGS THE RIGHT WAY. I always have. Not everyday things like my taxes, um, but difficult things like singing and yoga and dance. It's an irresistible challenge to try to be technically perfect. (I chose aikido because I'd heard it was the most difficult martial art, which is probably as good an illustration of my basic mindset as anything.) Also, I LIKE TO WIN. I work very hard; I love it. Two of my favorite things in life are to learn and to excel.

So it's damn hard for me that the number one thing I hear about my dancing is "You need to loosen up." This always makes me groan inwardly. Tell me there's something wrong with my timing or my technique or my work ethic or anything but that, because I can fix any of those things but I'm pretty clueless about how to loosen up (unless it involves a trip to the bar). I'm laughing as I type this because it's so ridiculous and terrible, but it's basically true.

And that's why I'm debating the next contest. If I'm going to spend another two months practicing and getting all my forms correct and my timing right so that I can go in again and... basically repeat the past, then I might as well not do it. Because it suddenly seems a lot harder to dance just for fun, without worrying whether I'm doing it right, and by default that makes the challenge of no-challenge so compelling as to be irresistible. (I recognize that such a shift in mindset could take me the next 60 years to pull off, but whatever.) Of course, theoretically it's possible to enter a competition and dance just for fun. But can I?


Mom said...

You like to win and excel. Definitely from your mother's side of the family.

We all did it in various sports, mainly basketball. Dance is a sport, also.

You'll be in that advanced group before you know it.



Anonymous said...

You make me proud...gotta save up for some decent boots, tho'