Monday, January 14, 2013

Dancing Seeing Stars: The Fall

Our family has been constant followers of both Face Off and Dancing with the Stars, for several seasons, never missing an episode of either. 

For almost my entire life, I have been a huge fan of the details and inside secrets of movie magic, and have made multiple Halloween forays into makeup effects. 

Guess which class we ended up taking?

My Peruvian wife’s genetic disposition to dancing and my curiosity from watching Dancing with the Stars led to the only possible answer. 


Upon hearing I’d enrolled in a ballroom dance class, friends of my mother asked:
“Doesn’t Jeff dance like your husband did?  Standing still while Rosa dances around him…
He must really love her.”

Yes, both are true.

But it is also true that I spent many gatherings and events watching hordes enjoy themselves on the dance floor separated from the obvious fun by an impenetrable Neutral Zone due to my lack of skill.

Once we decided to try the classes, passed through multiple injuries on both our parts, and found a place to go, the learning began.

The lesson for each dance began in the same way:

We would be lined up and the footwork explained with counting and no music. It felt exceedingly awkward and unnatural doing those motions unconnected to anything.  In this way it was much like my fencing class started out.  However, unlike fencing class, once I was put into the proper final position, it did not make perfect sense, and my reflexes did not kick in. Perhaps I would have danced better if someone charged at me with a sword.

The class consisted of mostly couples, with only a two solo women.  My confidence increased a bit when the first question of:
“How much dancing experience do you have?”

Was unanimously answered by every guy in the room with:

Tony, the instructor, was Greek, and his main method of teaching seemed to be:
“Do this.”
Followed by dancing like motions and counting.

Then his Asian assistant/dance partner, Phoebe, would make sure he stopped to explain, all the while stating he was the boss.

Both of them had accents but appeared to be speaking fluent and completely understandable English at the time.

We began with the Tango, a very helpful place to start for several reasons.

1) It was slow.
2) It had easy steps.
3) My wife didn’t know how to do it, allowing us to start at the same place.

We learned the basics of both the pattern of steps, and rudimentary steering.  Steering was very important as without some rotation, the Tango steps go in a straight line, with a little side step at the end. Until he taught us to turn, this guaranteed Tangoing either into the back wall, or the lunch tables piled at the side of the room.

My first major breakthrough was figuring out “rock” meant merely lifting the back foot’s heel off the floor. This highlighted a giant challenge I was going to face. 

It was excessively hard to take a step and not put any weight on that foot after spending the past twenty five years basing my walking style on Robocop.

His initial plan was to do two dances a week.  While later on we learned his time management skills were nowhere near his dancing skills (plus our class tended to want a lot of details about each dance we worked on), the first week we did have time to start Merengue.

This dance was much harder for me, not only because it was faster.

Some background information:
My wife sent me the translation of the lyrics to a very pretty song for us to dance to after Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” at our wedding.   I had no idea, until the DJ started it, that it was a Merengue.

She led, I held on for dear life, and my knees spun like Groucho Marx’s during “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” to keep me on my feet.

Therefore, after eleven years of both of us expecting her to lead, learning proper rhythm and technique was tough beyond my usual reason of being a big goofy white guy.

As we kept dancing it felt wrong, like my weight was always on my left foot.  We asked Tony, and after watching us, and then telling me to lead him, he said it looked fine.

The problem was, apparently, that I was way too focused and tense about trying to not screw up.  This led me to lock up my leg muscles to such an extent that when we stopped, the left one cramped solid from my knee to my ass, and I could barely make it through the parking lot into the car.

I did try practicing the steps we had learned here and there during the week, when no one was looking, of course.  Aside from accidentally hip checking the dishwasher while attempting Tangoing and drying Tupperware simultaneously, it wasn’t that bad.

We started on Rumba, a dance Tony constantly reminded the class was the “dance of love” to indicate we should be looking at each other, instead of our feet.

This was the dance we spent the most time practicing, likely due to a combination of its slow beat, the ability to transfer moves to other dances, and a lack of time management.

We both had the basic steps, or “box” down pretty well.  Phoebe even told us we were the best in the class.  Either she told everyone that, or she was only looking at my wife, because my white boy hips still weren’t doing much of anything.

There was difficulty finding the point to do the half turn. (Which we learned later was called a “New York” for reasons I’m not going to guess at.)

We asked both of them pretty directly which beat the turn was supposed to happen on.  They gave us detailed very helpful instructions, which didn’t actually answer the question, and in fact somewhat contradicted each other.  We ended up learning some nifty steps, but still had no clue where the turn went.

My biggest problems continued to be not walking like Robocop, and trying to battle a decade of habit by occasionally yelling, “Let me lead!”

The brief Merengue and Tango recaps went well, and while I did suffer from minor Rumbitis on the way to the car, I was in much better shape.

The very quick Tango refresher included some excessively needed pointers on how to lead. This was followed by an equally short Rumba selection to clean up and clarify what we learned.

Then came the Salsa.  This was problematic.

Apparently, I performed the Salsa so horrendously, that after trying to give me some one on one pointers, Tony turned off the music, and lined everybody up to start from the basics again.

OK, I may be exaggerating a bit.  I couldn’t see how bad everyone else did because the whole “step without putting weight on that foot” thing still took all of my concentration.  I do, however, know I was completely unable to hear where the beat was in the music. Perhaps my white boy hips are connected to my ears…

That would explain some comments I’ve gotten in my life about where my head must be located.

Also, Salsa was unusual, in that he started with the music on, instead of the basic steps with just him counting. That may have caused it too, as we went even further back to practice walking in hold without looking at our feet.

With the groundwork laid, the unthinkable happened.
It was scary; I thought something might come unhinged.

After all that set up was completed, I was fully psyched for Salsa.  Then Phoebe came in late and wanted to see what we learned in Rumba, switching gears on my poor inexperienced feet yet again.

Tony took her in hold to show the basics again, and then hit us with an enormous cascade of ridiculous:
“You can also do this step!”
Which, alas, I could not do unless my DNA was rewritten at is most basic level.

We applauded and tried to figure out the turn a couple more times, before it was time to go.

Once again, we returned to Rumba, featuring more key pointers on how to lead. I can’t stress how important they were.  People said since I could juggle, I should have the rhythm to learn how to dance. 

The first problem with that idea was: for twenty five years my instinct when I heard catchy music had been to lock my legs in position to let my arms do all the cool stuff.  This probably led to the cramping up.

The other problem was leading.  Leading requires using subtle motions and pressures to get your partner to change their direction and focus.  Using the methods perfected in college juggling club to correct an errant partners passing, namely:


Would not only ruin the mood of the Rumba, but also force me to sleep in the garage for the rest of my natural life.

More conversation problems occurred when we asked both of them where the turn went again.  Tony had shown the class multiple times to do the “New York” in both directions followed by twirling the woman.
Phoebe came to answer initially, telling us to twirl first.  Tony followed her over and they split us up. He showed Rosa a new thing, which was very cool and all, but didn’t match what Phoebe was showing me.

We got back together and tried to combine what they showed us without inflicting any injuries on each other.  We didn’t get very far, because they were already moving on to the Cha Cha Cha.

Turns out the Cha Cha Cha was pretty much the same as the Rumba but FASTER!  More importantly, the one slow step in the Rumba (which was normally where I would manage to regain my balance) was now replaced by three super quick ones for me to mess up.

The variations were a little confusing, but we got the basic back and forth mostly down and even worked in a couple diagonal steps.

The last minute or so was a bit of Merengue, where I had some serious leading problems. At one point, I went left while she went backwards and suddenly there was not only room for the Holy Ghost between us, but a gang of his fishing buddies as well. 

I was thrilled that I finally figured out the New York turn in the Rumba. I was in the middle of writing a protocol at work, when the part of my brain usually reserved for constructing song parodies it didn’t tell me about called the conscious part with the information.  I sent my wife an excited message, and we tried it in the living room that night.  My daughter found the whole thing quite hysterical.

Then Super Freakin Frankenstorm Sandy hit and cancelled class for two weeks. I forgot almost everything. The only dance I performed in that time span was the “Wireless Waltz” as I traipsed through the bushes in the backyard with my smartphone plugged into my laptop trying desperately to find a signal.

Our lack of practice and my wife’s attack of a Kidney Stone meant our preparation for the return was less than stellar. Luckily, the schedule destruction meant that the idea of two new dances a week was well and truly down the toilet.

Instead it was another night of Rumba and Merengue review. We learned Tony didn’t know the schedule or how the days would be made up, only that they would.  This lead to several fun phone calls to the office in the coming weeks.

The lack of practice made Rosa forget a fair amount, which came in handy for me as I could work on being more successful at leading.  They gave us a few more pointers on it, which helped too. Between feet, leading, frame and everything else; it was way too many body parts to think about at once.  The end result is that I may actually have had some unconscious reactions to the music, and my hips involuntarily moved more than ever before.

I may have dislocated something.

No class- Thanksgiving.

I was very thankful for not falling down that week. 

Using my work shoes had been somewhat problematic, leading me to try something different.  Foolishly, remembering that they worked for fencing, I thought Converse sneakers would be an improvement.

Apparently everyone else in the world knew what a terrible idea this was. My orthopedist even sat down next to me at a subsequent visit, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Dancing in sneakers.  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

My Cha Cha Cha was completely gone, finding the beat became the least of my problems as neither foot would move and my knees ached.

Tony then brought up the fact that he was going to get trophies and food to have a little competition/party in the last class.  This caused me to not only be in pain and stuck to the floor, but extra self-conscious as well. Really, I’m lucky I didn’t end up in the hospital.

The little bit of Tango at the end was marginally better, but my steps were still off time. (OK, more off time than usual.)  Tony and Phoebe finished up with a crazy demo at the end while I tried to find my kneecaps.

Will Jeff end up in traction before this diabolical dance diary ends?

Tune in next week, same-dance time, same dance channel… 

Or just click here!  


Bruce Fieggen said...

My wife and little boys love 'So you think you can dance.' I was even dragged along to Atlantic City to watch the tour of that show. A lot better than the TV show because there was only dancing, no commentary or judges especially that annoying harpy Mary Murphy.

Your descriptions of your own dancing skills sound exactly like how I would describe myself, if I had as good a sense of humor as you.

I had tried dance lessons with my wife and two other couples when I was early in the marriage and less crabby. Now I just send her alone where she swears I would be the star of the male class if I came.

My problem is when the music comes on and I have to actually find the beat. In addition to having no rhythm to start with.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for the comment, and the compliment.

I have some fairly strong music genes, but sadly, not for the dances we learned, giving me the same finding the beat problem often.

However, just being willing to try to listen to the instructor, and lead despite my wife's greater experience put me ahead of many other husbands there.

In DWTS, I like the judges' commentary, as there's something wrong with my brain preventing me from enjoying things I lack understanding of.