This past summer, Susanne and I spent a week of vacation in Memphis enjoying the sights, sounds, and barbecue. We left with many great memories: Beale St., Stax Records, Sun Studios, Ground Zero Blues Club, the Delta Blues Museum, Muddy Waters house, the plantation where Pinetop Perkins drove a tractor. We ate barbecue five of the eight days we spent there, and soul food on one of the other days. Our lovely dancer friends, Michael Quisao and Annabel Truesdell, took us to a couple of great little local joints, including Di Anne Price’s “court” and a gods-honest Memphis juke-joint. We are both so thankful to them for the time and treasures of Memphis they shared with us.
For me, visiting Memphis was transformative. I feel as though I have a much more visceral understanding of the blues and of rock and roll. I know more deeply the roots of decades of our musical heritage. Living in Baltimore, I am no stranger to poverty. I’m not blindly walled off into little white-picket fenced plots of suburbia. I see it around me, and I see it often. But the poverty I see and experience here is nothing compared to the swaths of empty store fronts nestled in between vast fields along the Mississippi delta. I’ve often heard the blues talked about as a catharsis of the soul, a release of the worries of the day. There on the banks of the Mississippi, I felt but a drop of the depths of oppression, poverty, and struggle that the blues emerged from. Blues isn’t just a catharsis. It is a triumph of the human spirit; to be lifted so high from such lows.
It has been quite awhile since we’ve posted something new, the results of being stretched too thin and getting burned out. Susanne and I both pulled back on our activities to seek more balance in our life. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the urge to write and share more thoughts and discoveries about dancing.
Tonight, I went to a local blues dance, the first one I’ve been to in about a year or so. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. Some good music, a decent crowd, good atmosphere for the night. I had a few good dances, and met some of the new people that I’ve never seen since I’ve been MIA. As I drove home, a sense of peace came over me, and I thought about the following:
This past year, I’ve taken up running as a way to get myself into shape and to help regulate my emotional well-being. In addition, there’s something about the repetitive nature of the activity that causes me to stay focused, to clear my mind, and to deal with all those nagging thoughts that I so often ignore. On my longer runs, time starts to blur into passing bricks and buildings as those pesky thoughts fade and my focus improves. Running exposes me to the vastness of time, and my relative insignificance in all of it.
But dancing is a different kind of magic. A dance is three minutes, maybe five. Concentrated goodness. A short burst of time to express something incredibly fleeting. Each dance is a shared experience of expression that connects me to something more than I am by myself, the threads of the music, of my partner, the other dancers in the room, the history to which these dancers are all connected, and the future we are building together.
While running processes my thoughts, dancing processes my emotions. While running confronts me with my insignificance, dancing connects me with my humanity. And so, with these words, the silence is ended. Its time to put myself back out into the world.
I am a firm believer that pulse is one of the core elements to all social dancing. I can’t claim to have an expert opinion on the matter because I lack knowledge in ballroom/latin/tango. . .basically, anything that isn’t swing. From what I’ve seen though, every dance has its own means of pulse. When we are teaching, Susanne and I emphasize that the pulse is the primary means of communicating rhythm with your partner.
That pulse is most apparent in Charleston, where there’s a pulse downward on every beat. I like starting beginners off with Charleston for just this reason. They can focus on getting pulse into their bodies, and feeling and communicating rhythms. Then, we can build up by adding weight changes moving forward and backward. Continue reading
Guest author, Christina Austin, shares some thoughts from Stompology:
photo by Kevin Quaderer
My greatest flaw as a dancer is probably my tendency to let my social anxiety strangle me.
My fear of screwing up on the dance floor manifests in frequent “thinking face” when I’m being led, even by familiar leads, through new or complex patterns, and in my tendency to choke when I ask a ‘high-status’ leader for a dance. My favorite definition of “choke” is from the book Deep Survival: a reversion to the state of being a beginner, wherein you consciously think about what you’re doing, as opposed to the more advanced state of performance where “muscle memory” largely controls the specifics of movement. To choke is to lose one’s flow. The mechanics of this for me personally usually looks like bad posture and too much tension in my arms and body, which hinders my ability to follow sensitively. In either case, the process is too much thinking and the product is less than sublime dancing.
Which is a shame, because my favorite part of dancing, the high that I am always chasing that keeps me coming back, is found in the moments when I am not in my head but in my body, fully with the music and my partner. There is a thrilling physicality to just letting go and dancing.
The off-the-dance-floor part of this story relates to my other passionate hobby, which is rock climbing. There is a term in rock climbing, “lead head,” [as in leading, not as in the element Pb] which refers to one’s ability to assume and manage risk while putting the rope up. There are genuine dangers associated with this- you can really die or (more commonly) you can really injure yourself badly as a consequence of failure. Nonetheless, the most rewarding climbs are those during which you do not dwell on the dangers or think about falling but simply climb. Some people are never capable of this, and the state of having a good lead head is something most climbers pursue relentlessly and achieve only intermittently.
This spring, I have had an amazing run of weekends during which my lead head has been excellent. I have, for the first time in several years, been able to sidestep my panic response and concentrate on climbing. The key to this has been discrimination between rational fear and irrational fear/panic response. (See Deep Survival or The Rock Warrior’s Way for further reading.) Rational fear is dealt with by taking reasonable precautions and irrational fear is ignored/discarded/not consulted. And discarding irrational fear and moving through it feels amazing.
Lately, I have been thinking about these concepts as it relates to my dancing. Continue reading
Last night, I was teaching intro to blues for the Towson University Ballroom Dance Club, and we touched upon the issue of self-consciousness in dancing. I firmly believe that to be a great dancer, you must leave your shame behind every time you step on the dance floor. You have to take risks with your body, make weird shapes, feel awkward, and be completely willing to make a fool of yourself. As my students will attest, making a fool of myself is something at which I excel.
It’s not that the goal is to make a fool of yourself. The goal is to free yourself from the critical, judgement centers of the brain to free your body to be expressive. The goal is to give yourself the permission to dance with wild abandon, with no reservations and no hesitations. Yes, you might end up looking ridiculous, but the path to looking ridiculous is strangely the same path to looking phenomenal. Continue reading
Before I get on with today’s post, just a quick reminder that tap dancer and recent guest to All the Cats Join In, Andrew Nemr, will be presenting his show, Echoes in Time, tonight at Symphony Space in NYC. Check out the interview with Andrew from last week, and if you’re in NYC, go see the show tonight!
I was shocked the first time a woman told me she was intimidated to dance with me. I thought, Really? Me? But I’m not even that great, and I’m a mellow cat. I’ve since come to realize that anyone who can do a swingout with relative ease can be intimidating to a new dancer. After having the same conversations many times, I’ve developed a couple of standard lines in response to some of the things I hear from follows. Most dancers I know develop some sort of lexicon of catch phrases for all those common conversations. Here are some of mine:
Me: Would you like to dance?
Follow: Umm, I’m not very good.
Me: (In a totally upbeat, non-sarcastic tone of voice) Then I’m glad I asked you to dance, and not if you were very good.
New Follow: (after mucking up) I’m so sorry.
Me: Don’t be, you’re doing great. I have three rules for a good dance. One, we’re both smiling and having a fun. Two, neither of us gets hurt. And three, no one’s ass hits the floor unless its intentional.
I also try to be encouraging to new dancers at the end of a dance without going overboard. I will also let them know they are welcome to find me for a dance anytime, and that if they have any questions or need any help to feel free to ask. There’s a lead in DC, an older gentlemen who’s been dancing since before I was born, who told Susanne after she’d been dancing for a month or so, “Stick with it kiddo. You’re gonna be good.” I don’t know if I have the guts for that level of honesty. Its probably easier hearing that from a kooky older guy, but it impressed me that he was able to pull it off.
I’m wondering what are some of the other regular conversations you have, and what are your stock responses?
When we started dating, we’d both been dancing for years and had our own habits and preferences. Listen in on a little morning conversation as we discuss how we navigate social dances as a couple.
Susanne: Good morning darling.
Craig: Good morning. I’m coming out of my dance related stupor now, and am ready for another Pillow Talk. What’s on the agenda for today?
S: Last night I met a lovely couple and they were asking me how and why I started swing dancing. In the process of telling that story, I related how I met you and how I quickly realized that dating a fellow dancer might be a little bit harder than I had anticipated.
C: Why did you think dating a dancer would be a challenge?
S: Well, I didn’t think it would be a challenge. But it ended up being one–at least for me–because dancing was my little escape from the stresses of life, and when I met you, that meant grad school. It was difficult for me when I lost that space to blow off steam after we started dating.
C: Yeah, there were certainly some challenges for us in navigating dances in that first year or two together.
S: I definitely had an adjustment period where I was grappling to figure out how to rethink my dancing experience with you in it. Also, our relationship has grown so much stronger since the beginning and that makes it much easier.
C: It does. It also helps that we teach together now which means we usually talk about dance stuff once a week or so. But even without that, we worked out some agreements that help. Continue reading