How to Save a Life

As I mentioned before, I started dancing around my junior year of college. I was that kid with lots of energy and flailing arms. I probably did more than my share of arm yanking. I recently heard someone describe toddlers as all will power and no skill. I was definitely a toddler at dancing. I had no money for classes and danced as time permitted, but I was still a casual enthusiast. Then, everything changed.

I finished my undergraduate degree in December of 2000, and spent the next eight months teaching private music lessons, learning how to drive, and getting myself ready for grad school at the University of Pittsburgh. I moved to Pittsburgh in August of 2001, got settled in, and immediately looked for a place to dance. I found instant friends who took me into their little group, maybe because they could see that they weren’t going to get rid of this wild arm yanker, so they might as well train him. I had friends, a new life, school was great. I was on top of my game. 

Then, one Tuesday morning, everything stopped. I was in classes when the first world trade center tower was struck. Fifteen minutes later when the second tower was struck, they sent us home. So I went back to my new apartment. No friends, no family, no support. In many ways, my life collapsed around me that day, and I felt my own isolation. I became depressed. If I didn’t have somewhere to be, I was online, the one thread of connection to my world. I constantly checked the internet for news, a habit that I still have to some degree.

Things got worse from there. The graduate program I was in was a bad fit. I didn’t want to be the type of composer they wanted me to be. I tried to connect with some local churches, but felt like an outsider, too old for the college groups and too young for the adult groups. So I went dancing. By the end of my time in Pittsburgh, I was dancing at least four nights a week.

I don’t think the friends that I made in Pittsburgh will ever truly know the impact that they had on my life. Dancing was the one place where I connected with people, where I felt alive and passionate, and where people were helping me find my feet again. I can easily see a life where I had totally collapsed into a full on breakdown. Instead, I grew as a person, lost some of the brash righteousness of my youth, and grew in my empathy for people. I found a home, a family, and a salve for wounds that I couldn’t name.

Lately in the dance community, I’ve seen a lot of arguments. We have differing view points on what kind of music to dance to, what shoes to wear, the roles of leads and follows. Like any community, we’re never all going to completely agree with each other. And that’s a good thing because the diversity of views and the dialogue that can come from that when approached with kindness and respect makes us stronger. But there’s something bigger about dancing beyond all of these arguments and disagreements. Its the people themselves. They walk through the doors with all that they are, good and bad, with their strengths and their weaknesses. If we welcome them in, we might just save a life. Or they might just save ours.

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7 Comments

Filed under C-Jam, community

7 responses to “How to Save a Life

  1. I’d like to testify too. I started March 2003 in the final semester of my Ph.D. coursework. If I’d known what kind of obsession I was starting I would have thought twice about taking it on just as I was staring final papers, then comprehensive exams, then a dissertation in the face. But I jumped in anyway.

    Lindy helped me shed the 35 pounds I’d put on sitting in libraries and classes. Dancing and dancers were a breath of fresh air into my life keeping me sane during the grueling process of comps and dissertation writing. In the last few years as I’ve discovered yoga, I’ve realized that dancing was my first step on the journey towards integrating mind, body, spirit.

    Though I don’t go out every night like I used to, I’m thankful for every dance and for every lead. Bless you all, you have no idea the healing you’ve brought to my life.

  2. Brooke

    This is both beautifully written and very true.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. You’re so right, Craig. As you know, I’ve been dancing in Baltimore for years. I started dancing regularly when I moved to the city, but what really got me hooked was the effect it had on me emotionally. Over the past year being in a bad employment situation has caused me more and more anxiety, and dancing is one constant in my life that always forces me to let it go.

    Dancing well as a follower is so much about just relaxing and trusting your lead, and in that sense it’s sometimes a struggle for me. But the payoff is huge! When I skip a week of dancing, I feel it in my level of stress at work and at home. And when I do dance, I feel myself building confidence and composure over time. It’s been a big factor in my adjustment to the “real world” post-college, and in my decisions to make some life changes lately.

    Huzzah for dance!

  4. Bob

    I met Craig in those way-early days when I was just learning to dance back in Pittsburgh. I was going through a divorce at the time so I had my own issues and meeting a whole bunch of nice folks who were generally on their best behavior at that time in my life was helpful for me in the same way as he described. I’ve also had the same frustrations, disagreements, misunderstandings, and conflicts as he has since then.

    I passed my tenth anniversary of dancing within the last couple of weeks and of all the things I’ve learned in that time I’ve found that actually learning to dance is one of the least important. More important things to appreciate are:

    -The history of the dance, the music, the technology, and the people. This extends to the influences in place before the invention of swing music and dancing, during the creative and follow-on periods, during the more recent time of rediscovery, and during the era of extension the swing family of dances is in now.
    -That different people bring different amounts of time, energy, experience, and capability to the activity, and none of them are ‘wrong.’
    -That there’s something really fascinating and unique about every person you meet, and that their dance skill and/or appearance has nothing whatsoever to do with who they are and how awesome they might be. Indeed, every person you meet is likely to be better at half a dozen things than you will ever be. They might or might not be things that matter to you, but they are awesome just the same.
    -I guess somewhere in here I should mention the lady I met and married while swing dancing. Everything I learned about being a better person both made it possible and helps me to apprecite her.
    -Swing dancing is like every other activity in that there is a learning curve that you don’t appreciate until you’ve been traversing it for a while. In the beginning this is actually a good thing because lack of knowledge protects you from being as intimidated as you might be if you understood more from the beginning. As you progress you always think you’re on the verge of “getting it.” When you’ve been doing it a long time, even if you don’t ever get super good at it on a technical level, you can still appreciate its neverending depth and complexity. This is actually a comfort rather than a burden.
    -Swing dancing is hard. It may not be hard to laugh, drink beers, and do six-counts all night to Brian Setzer songs, but it is complex enough to allow for endless variety and improvement, and process that never need stop. I’ve seen dancers that are the best in the world look around for ways to get better and to learn more and then, even if they were already winning every competition in sight, go do it. I’ve seen people who have been swing dancing their entire lives understand all of these things, not be judgmental on the progress and status of others, and continue to look for insights and improvements in their own skills and knowledge.
    -Swing dancing involves several independent components including understanding the music, understanding the swing/jazz/Lindy/Bal/whatever genre of movement, the ability to move in the context of a partnered dance, the entirely independent ability to move *yourself* (again in context), floorcraft, and, on top of all that, relating to your partner and other dances on an emotional and intellectual level. There may be times when you can’t practice the things that involve other people but you can still practice certain things on your own.
    -Cut yourself some slack. This thing is hard. Have I said that enough times yet? Appreciate and accept that there is always more to learn. I once danced with a follow who made me feel like the greatest dancer of all time. Don’t get me wrong, per Clint Eastwood’s sarcastic advice in ‘Magnum Force’ I still knew my own limitations, but I wondered why all follows couldn’t be like this one was. Then, of course, I realized that if this particular follow was so much better than almost anyone else I danced with, then the best leads must also be that much better than me. That gave me a LOT of perspctive. I am reminded that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something and in ten years the total time I’ve racked up dancing is maybe 3000 hours, a majority of which has been social dancing time as opposed to specific, directed *work* on something. There are people out there who are actively *working* on dancing (beyond just teaching, travelling, or organizing) close to 1000 hours a year and have been doing so since well before I started.
    -Swing dancing is like life, only it can be a more enjoyable distillation of it if you let it.

    And here’s the greatest thing I have learned, and here I quote Craig. We were talking some years back about showing other people how do do things and I asked him how he would handle someone who just didn’t seem to get it. His reply:

    “With patience and love.”

    If you can top that, let me know.

  5. Lisa

    Craig,
    Thank you so much for sharing. I am always profoundly moved when I read this blog. (And thanks also Bob for your insights….)
    I wish I could wax eloquent about all the dance community has given me in 30+ years– including both of you and your wonderful partners, but I would have to start my own blog . 🙂
    The term “community” in dance community has taken on capital letters, neon lights, and glitter in my mind, to the point that it has become spiritual to me.

  6. Colleen

    Beautiful post, Craig!

  7. Kristen

    Where’s the Like button? Or the “learned something” button? Or the “thank you” button. I appreciate all these reflections.

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