Mmmmm…. I do love blues dancing. I don’t love how sore I am today (can anyone tell me why the outer edges of my calf muscles would be sore, but not the rest of the calf?), but I think the lovely, lovely dances I had this weekend were worth it. For me, CUBE this year was all about the late-nites, or after hours dances. The Chicago Blues Festival itself was very cool, but I don’t know enough about blues to always know what I’m listening to, and I’ve had to finally admit to myself that I don’t like dancing outside. This is hard because I really want to like dancing outside. You’ve got the air, the sky overhead, the live music, all kinds of good stuff. But then there’s the discomfort of trying to move on a surface that grips your feet, and how much your knees hate you after a while. This starts to take over, and before long I’m so preoccupied with trying to move my feet without dislocating a knee on a spin that it’s hard to hear the music, much less what my lead is asking me to do. It’s almost impossible for me to have a good dance under those circumstances. I won’t say it can’t be done, because I remember a certain dance as the sun went down at a small town festival a few years back, but for the most part, no.
But the late-nites, oh, the late-nites! Those were what I always imagined a late-nite dance to be. (I was bitterly disappointed when I went to the late-nite after our local monthly dance and discovered that it was mostly people standing around drinking and not dancing.) They were dark, steamy (both literally and metaphorically), and packed with great dancers grooving out to fabulous music. Who cares if the room’s too hot – isn’t that the way a blues late-nite ought to be?
Although I had some great dances Friday (and I’d like to thank Loyola for starting my weekend off with a bang), Saturday’s dance was even better. To start with, the location was like something out of a movie. We took the train to a particular station, walked a few blocks through a busy bar district, and ended up at a completely unmarked door sandwiched in between two shop fronts. We pressed the buzzer, and someone let us in. We climb up a seemingly endless narrow staircase. Halfway up there was a card tacked to a door frame that said, “Keep going.” As we reached the head of the stairs, we started seeing pairs of street shoes piled on the edges of the steps, then covering the landing outside the door of the dance studio. We stepped into a barely lit room, where a young lady standing behind a table asked to see the bracelets that marked us as one of the elect, accepted our entrance fee, and told us where to stash our bags. Inside the music was throbbing, and the dance floor packed with couples bobbing and swaying to the beat. If I had been carrying a watermelon it would have been eerily like Dirty Dancing (except on reviewing that clip, the room in Dirty Dancing is way too brightly lit). I kicked off my shoes, perched my bag on the top of the pile, and went off to find my own Johnny Castle. I danced until I could barely move, then took the train home as the sky grew light. That’s what I call a late-nite.
And now we return to our everyday lives. It’s funny, but sometimes being a swing dancer is a little like having a secret other life. Not that swing dancers tend to hide the fact that they dance (in fact, we’ve been accused of having an unseemly evangelical zeal about trying to recruit new dancers), but non-dancers don’t really get what it’s like. I think they imagine that it’s something like the choreographed routines on Dancing With The Stars, or like the ballroom competitions in movies. When you try to explain that what we do is social dancing, no memorized sequences of moves, no rehearsal before hand, just dancing with this person you’ve probably never met before, finding out what you can do in this time with this partner and this music. Sometimes I say that learning to lead and follow is like learning a language, that I can walk onto a dance floor in Chicago, or Boston, or Seoul, and dance with a partner I’ve never seen before because we both speak the same language. Even when it’s not a good dance, the simple fact that you’re able to dance with one another before you even know each others’ names is pretty awesome. And when it’s good, when everything works together, when the music is right, your partner sure and creative, your own dancing matching and complementing his, so that it all melds together into something more than the sum of its parts, and this person, who three minutes ago was a total stranger, is now moving with you as if the two of you have the same mind, that’s when words fail and the smart writer puts the pen down and goes back to dancing.