While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.
Because I’m temporarily moving to Philadelphia this is the last lesson I’ll be having for a while (there’s no dancing allowed in Philly, I know, I know, it’s so sad). I was barely conscious for the lesson, which taught me something very important: I don’t always, always, always feel like dancing. The fancy footwork I’d learned last week I couldn’t even bear to attempt as I struggled to remember where to transfer my weight. But, in the end my instructor said I’d danced the best I’d ever done when he was having me lead and improvise. My main weakness, in my opinion, is a tendency to focus on one element to the detriment of the others, including keeping time.
Points on which to focus this week:
1. Left Turning Box: when stepping forward on 1, the foot remains parallel/straight, while the CBM occurs otherwise.
2. Right Turning Box: closing on 6 the R heel MUST touch the floor. On 7, the L leg/foot turns inward as it steps backward; also, it must step backwards leaving enough space between the both legs/feet that one’s partner can step between them easily. This ‘stepping’ between the leader’s legs is, as I understand it, the reason why the Right Turning Box takes place between two Progressives rather than beginning on the L foot somehow.
3. I forget its name, but it’s a turn of the Lady during the Left Box. Simple. This takes place during a figure of two Left Boxes, meaning 12 steps. On 4, the leader steps back with more force than usual, uses his arms to increase the space between the dancers, removes his R arm/hand from his partner, to his side, and begins lifting his L hand higher. It is not necessary to ‘stir the pot’ with one’s hand, so the Gentleman merely concludes the first half of the figure and commences the second as normal, until 10 when he places his arm and hand back in the normal position. As for the Lady’s steps, I don’t know what they are because I was instructed ‘don’t look down or you’ll get confused.’
The Right Turning Box is the first figure that I think is actually beautiful from a perspective of theory and time; I love the way we have two feet whose graceful movement depends upon our shifting the weight back and forth between them, yet we’re dealing with bars of 3/4, a gorgeous crisis, and furthermore treating the Rise and Fall in terms of 6/8. In this figure one opens a door between bars, steps out, and then steps back in–it’s breathtaking, really, and it’s the sort of thing I’ve always loved in music, simultaneously dominating and being carried away by structure.
Today things got a little exciting, and a lot more difficult. An exercise he gave me two weeks ago on arching my foot–as close to ballet as I’ll be getting in ballroom, perhaps?–and my new flexible shoes began to make sense.
1. A simple heel-toe step as described in prior lessons and by Alex Moore is fairly uninteresting, though it gets the job done. The gracefulness and beauty of this improved by changing it to a toe-ball-heel step.
In an example of commencing a Progressive: the heels are both raised, knees bent, and during the lowering action the R heel lowers more quickly so that weight is transferred there immediately, but even during this lowering action the body must already be commencing the next step. The R knee bends to a 46 degree angle, and L foot arches so that the toe is to the floor, sliding forward before the point of contact moves to the ball of the foot and then with a flick of the toe the point of contact is moved to the heel. Key here is not waiting too long to change contact point to ball of foot, as delaying leads to a flat foot and ruins everything. Weight is held on the R foot with the whole foot on the floor for as long as possible before it begins transferring to the L ball. As soon as weight is transferred to L, that knee should be bent immediately to the 46 degree angle to preserve the rise and fall.
The movement of the toe-heel flick, etc. can be practiced while holding on to a bar. The body must continue to move always–always–always–there is not pausing with weight transfer or lowering action.
2. The Right Turning Box: we enter into this as an infix to a Progressive, which makes it into an 18 beat figure. The Progressive is six beats; after the first half of the Progressive, at which point one is now dead center of a two bar phrase and will remain between phrases until the end of the figure, which will lead back to the normal flow.
1-3: progressive, beginning on L
4-9: first half of Right Turning Box
10-15: second half.
16-18: progressive, beginning on R.
After much discussion of theory, and extensive attempts at solo technique, it was time for me to dance with him again. I led poorly. Even leading a right box was difficult because I kept giving slight indications of a turn and well, just generally lacked confidence, kept ‘double lowering’ instead of following the 3Cs, and upon failing to transfer weight during a progressional just stopped, lost my cool, contemptuously muttered ‘fuck.’ We tried again. I was a bit pissed off. And when we finished he said ‘that’s the best you’ve done.’ Then, and today, it has come down to confidence, and especially to not overthinking–to rather being in the dance than figuring it all out on the floor. I suppose, like anything else, that’s what practice is for, reaching a point where it’s unnecessary to think about the components, to focus only on the whole.
My grandmother is horrified that my instructor is male.
‘This might be a silly question…but…do you dance with your teacher?’
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘And…your instructor is a man.’
‘And you dance with him?’ she chuckles.
‘He’s not bowing me over and kissing me. He’s my instructor.’
‘Yes, I know but…why didn’t you choose a woman?’
‘Because I spent a considerable amount of time looking for the most qualified instructor in the area. And furthermore, my first instructor, he moved, he began by telling me that it’s too bad more men don’t come to him for lessons since he himself is twenty-thousand times a better man than a woman. Doesn’t it make sense?’
‘Well, I don’t know. But…echem, if he pats you on the bottom I think you’d better begin looking for a new teacher.’
Concerning the Line of Dance: this is the direction couples follow as they dance. It hadn’t occurred to me that something like this existed since in films it’s never noticeable, but, essentially, the center of the floor should be regarded as having ‘double-yellow’ lines as roads do, and, as in driving in the US and Europe, couples move down the floor on the right side, counter-clockwise. One should move to the end of the room before turning, though people tend to congregate in the center; thus, it’s, if not easiest, then perhaps most enjoyable, to be as far to the perimeter of the floor as possible where one has space to navigate and not be crushed. So far as the Line of Dance goes, the flow is to maintained by a leader with a decent working vocabulary of figures, thus if the couple in front of you is moving down the LoD slowly or not at all, knowing what I know at this point, I’d respond by leading natural boxes or turns that always place me back into the same starting position until space opened up and I could use progressionals to continue down the LoD.
Concerning Sway: the body should be always moving as the figure progresses, there is no point at which one should be still to complete some footwork or rise and fall. This fluid motion assists in creating a proper sway to the music.
Concerning the knees: they must be kept bent lower than one would expect, and also must be as loose as rubber bands.
Concerning Posture: I sleep on my right side out of superstition, and he called me out on it because he noticed a tenseness around my right shoulder and a slight tendency to turn my hips towards the right, which leads my arms to push towards the right and communicates confusing signals.
1. Balls of one foot on a stair, the other foot hanging down. Drop first heel and then bring it up as high as possible.
2. Practice closing by pretending one foot has a high heel and the other a low heel.
3. Back, heels, head against the doorframe or wall and sliding out foot and then closing.
4. Practicing everything while holding a tray with cups of water on it, and I must not spill any.
I never mentioned dance shoes to my instructor before–I figured that if I waited long enough, if he came to believe in me, he’d ask me to go buy some. Today he asked. Hooray! So I went to go buy some, it all seemed pretty straightforward, and they didn’t have any like the ones he described–character shoes and ballroom shoes both had a steel bar through the bottoms so that they wouldn’t be flexible. But jazz shoes, that have split soles, are like little rubber socks. I didn’t want rubber bottoms, and she said leather would be too slippery, but that suede would allow me to slide without slipping, which is what my instructor told me was something I should look for, though he said leather. So I didn’t buy any shoes…though I nearly bought all of them. In any case, I don’t have anywhere good to practice. The kitchen is too small now, so I’ve been doing it in socks in a carpeted room or in shoes outside. It’s all rather silly.
Concerning the Left Box: I don’t know why it’s called that since it goes to the right, though it commences on the left foot.
Concerning the 3-Cs: this is the term to remember the Rise and Fall pattern when waltzing. The term stands for Commence-Continue-Continue. That is, one begins with bent knees, commences the rising action on beat 1, continues it on 2, continues it on 3. On the + of 3 the falling action begins, which would be perceived as a ‘drop’ (an indelicate term, apparently) if the entire falling action took place between the + of 3 and beat 1; rather, the lowering action begins on the +, which is where the knees are being lowered, the weight transferred to one foot, and CBM takes place if necessary. It’s in the next step, on beat 1, that the falling action concludes and rising action begins.
Concerning Rise: Keep in mind that the body will try to compensate for beginning with one’s knees too high by ‘double-lowering’ on beat 2, in anticipation of the rise on beat 3. The proper way to navigate this dilemma is, of course, to begin with one’s knees bent lower, and to Think about it as if one begins low, continues low, and then rises on beat 3. The body will take care of the rest, that is the commencement and continuation on the first two beats, naturally, from what I can tell.
Concerning Fall: In the Left Box, on the + of 3 (where the leader steps backwards on R), the left knee should be bent low enough that it covers the foot. This places one low enough to commence rising on 4. Rise and Fall should additionally be found within the pulse of the music, which will dictate the flow of movement.
Concerning leading a reverse step: This is led by not giving any indication of moving forward but actually moving one’s body backwards.
Concerning Progressives: So called because they assist one in ‘progressing’ down the floor. I’ve learned two reasons why not to go with a dance school chains, the first being that they teach patterns rather than method so that one only knows what to do when dancing with other students of the school. The second reason, then, is that it takes more than patterns to dance well socially since as a leader one must know what the next figure will be at least before closing the previous one–this is because rooms have different shapes and obstacles (such as columns) and a varying number of people who may or may not know what they’re doing.
So I totally bought some shoes. I don’t know if they’re what I was supposed to buy, but the bottoms are suede, and they don’t look like leather socks (which is what jazz shoes seem to me), and they’re special because I’m not allowed to wear them outside or else I’ll ruin them instantly. They’re so much fun, though, I’m very pleased!
I’m doing anything I can to avoid having to write about Fellini’s 8 1/2. So:
I just spent ten minutes balancing on my toes. Also, I had my knees bent and kept my heels as high as I possibly could, which had to be at least taller than a phone book, I’ve been told. I wish I knew where I’d read this, it may be from Plato, about all beings having unique hierarchies upon which each can be placed, the pinnacle being one’s exercising his or her existence to the fullest; and without getting into my own cosmology I’ll just leave things there. I say ‘unique’ because I’m certain that one’s circumstances, even if likely to be excruciatingly similar to a billion others’, are necessarily singular…which doesn’t make you special. A domesticated dog, for example, reaches its pinnacle by running with its tongue hanging out, eating shit (followed by grass), and unabashedly masturbating with the assistance of everything in the room. I suppose, when put this way, a dog doesn’t sound much different than a person; but dogs have recently been shown to have the ‘intelligence’ of a 2.5 year old child, and a much greater ‘social intelligence.’ And what’s the heights of humanity? Childhood is a cruel thing because it robs us of the time we need most. I don’t know the answer. But in my cosmology, of which I promised to spare you, there’s a reason we have bodies, and a reason we have time, and I know why we have illness, and I know why we have death, and I know why we have suffering. So I know why I must dance now. It’s not the only physical thing I’ve immersed myself in, certainly…
What I was trying to get around to saying is that posture is a funny thing, because we’ve evolved to a point where a certain posture is best for us. So, because I hassle my instructor rather than allowing him to move forward in our lessons, hassle him to teach me about every last movement, concept, theory, history, concerning every step, we haven’t made it beyond natural turns in waltz. That’s fine with me, because I still haven’t quite found my balance this week. But this is the first week that I’ve begun to find myself quite connected to the dance–there’s so much to think about, and when I lift my heels and bend my knees, the position I would be in briefly as I close, where I’m supposed to use CBM as I transfer the weight to my right foot, I can feel the muscles down my legs tense, and my abs as well, and about 7 and a half minutes into it I was shaking, but in the mirror my posture was Perfect, and I hadn’t had to consciously align my spine. And I don’t mean to say that evolution began with a waltz, but it is rather wonderful that dancing involves physical health.
Something I’ve found most fascinating is how walking takes place. In those videos of baby giraffes just falling out of their mothers and immediately standing up and wobbling off somewhere, and giraffes, from what I can tell, have little more than popsicle sticks for legs. We have feet, and we have ankles. And we don’t tend to give them as much attention as we should. I mean, beyond pedicures. Because if you end up with diabetes, a hangnail may lead to your whole leg being amputated. Meanwhile, there’s a transfer of weight from the back of one foot slowly to the front, which is supposed be at the ball of the stationary foot when the moving foot has passed the stationary one. Really? Is that how it happens, and then with the one foot touching down at the heel, the other foot is brushing the floor with its toes? That’s what walking is?
Well, lucky you, that melatonin just kicked in.
Definitions of Technical Terms
Alignment. This word has several meanings in dancing. It may refer to the position of the feet in a forward or backward step, when the feet should be perfectly in line, turned neither in nor out, and with the inside edge of each foot touching an imaginary line drawn through the middle of the body. It is also used to refer to the directional line of some part of a figure. Its technical meaning for examination work is described on page 26.
Amalgamation. A combination of two or more figures. See further explanation below.
Balance. The correct distribution of the weight of the body when dancing.
Basic Figure. A figure that is considered to form a part of the basis of a particular dance.
Brush. When the moving foot is being taken from one open position to another open position, the word Brush is used to indicate that this foot must first close up to the foot supporting the weight of the body, but without the weight being changed.
Contrary Body Movement. The action of turning the opposite hip and shoulder towards the direction of the moving leg, and is used to commence all turning movements. . . . In many cases, the term “Body Swing” would probably convey this turning action more clearly, for it should be noted at once that an excess of CBM will produce a dance that is more ugly and unbalanced than one entirely devoid of it.
Figure. A completed set of steps. See further explanation below.
Footwork. Conveys which part of the foot is in contact with the floor on each step. These are the parts conveyed as, for example in the case of a Reverse Turn (Waltz)–Lady: 1. Toe, Heel. 2. Toe. 3. Toe, Heel. 4. Heel, Toe. 5. Toe. 6. Toe, Heel. “…although it is to be regretted that the new method of describing Footwork hardly gives a clear or true picture of the subtle uses of the ball of the foot as well as the toes.”
Natural Turn. A turn to the R.
Partner in Line, Partner Square, Square to Partner. Terms used to indicate that the couple are standing in the normal dance position, i.e. facing each other and with the man’s and lady’s feet approximately opposite each other.
Poise. The position of the body in relation to the feet.
Reverse Turn. A turn to the L.
Rise and Fall.
Step. This usually refers to one movement of the foot, although from a “time value” point of view this is incorrect. In the case of a walk forward or backward, for instance, the time value of the step is not completed until the moving foot is drawn up to the foot supporting the weight, ready to commence another step. Thus, when instructed to rise at the end of a step the dancer should not commence to rise until the moving foot is passing the foot supporting the weight of the body. The following analogy provides an easy method of remembering the meaning of the terms “step,” “figure,” and “amalgamation.” Think of a step as a “syllable,” a figure as a “word,” and an amalgamation as a “sentence.” A complete dance could be compared to a paragraph.
Swivel. A turn on the ball of one foot.
Tempo. This indicates the speed of the music. The approved speeds for standard dances are– Waltz: 31 bars/min. Foxtrot: 30 bars/min. Quickstep: 50 bars/min. Tango: 33 bars/min.
Time: the number of beats in each bar of music.
Variation. A varied and more advanced figure, additional to the basic figure.
“Now, when you close it’s a pet peeve of mine that your shoes…hm…” he crouched in front of me, “your knees don’t touch. Well, I suppose that can’t be helped now, can it. It’s just how you’re built. So…well, don’t lose any sleep over the fact that your knees don’t touch, there’s nothing we can do about it.” All the while I kept trying to make my knees touch, and just now in the kitchen I’ve been standing here seeing how I might make them commit this unnatural, abominable act, which seems to me achievable by a combination of rotating, clenching, god knows, I’m a monster! “And when you begin competing you can just wear baggy pants.” I’m a monster!
Today we focused on waltz. He said that if I didn’t happen to have any waltz to practice with then I should just imagine it–but I happen to have an obscene amount of Anton Karas and other Viennese Favorites sitting around ready to be abused by my steps. I have significant trouble hearing British accents because I tend to associate them with my numerous personal failings, and also with BBC journalists. But I found my instructor quite agreeable and, because from what I can tell he’s built like I am, I’ve even more courage concerning all this, is there an ounce of grace in me?–today was focused almost exclusively on technique, I can’t remember all the words I’m supposed to remember–footwork; another word for lilt, which is what I learned when I was studying a Russian method of classical piano; ___; ___; and in the meantime they count tempo by bars per minute rather than beats, so I quickly convert 29 – 32 bars per minute into 90 bpm, which seems rather slow until I’m lilting around a chair. Best of all, though, is that already I’ve become significantly less anxious about this whole ordeal–whereas at my first lesson I was mournful over not having time to get drunk beforehand (as I did for my first singing lesson), I’m now easily manipulated, observed, touched, critiqued, willing to follow instructions, to imitate, to totally fuck up.
Somebody questioned my gender today, shouting “are you a boy or a girl?” as I left the library. When I asked Caleb about the noise my shoes make he said, “it’s a mark of high quality soles, it shoes that they’re leather and not rubber, and yeah, they’re going to sound like high-heels, and everyone’s going to think you’re gay, but you’ll know that they’re just idiots.” And then I’m wearing women’s pants, a Euro-cut shirt tucked in…but my hair is short and I do have a cute little mustache. And Celine kept whispering for Solene to check if I had fallen asleep yet during Dirty Dancing. I was enthralled, which is why it’s so exhilarating that they were teaching me to dance tonight.
I often wonder why we aren’t capable of handling musicals anymore, and if we’ll ever be able to again, given that contemporary pop doesn’t lend itself easily to the medium of the jazz ages. There’s this aspect of Dirty Dancing that everyone chooses to avoid discussing—being the musical genre qualities. The whole film is not a musical, and even begins by setting itself only a few decades ago, capturing that world I’ve been told about by my grandparents, all the Jews heading up to the mountains in New York and listening to Latin jazz, parties I recognize as so characteristic of those that I’ve attended in Florida during winter months, Vermont during summer months, those at which I’m the youngest by fifty years, unless someone’s granddaughter needs to be yentaed about. This is a film that exists in a firm reality, a place and a time and characters we can believe in, and then…without any warning somebody slips on a 45 of music produced a quarter-century later. We can deal with this, that’s fine, because we can just assume that we as the audience are hearing a contemporary soundtrack that the characters do not hear, that they are dancing to old-fashioned race music or something—except that Patrick Swayze begins mouthing the song’s words…I begin to grow uncomfortable. And to make matters worse, the entire resort staff starts into a West Side Story-style choreography…somehow they were all prepared. And we never ask any questions about why or how these things happen. And then the film concludes without an ending.