Some people ask me—often in the tone of aghast wonder reserved for Scientologists and people who live on wheatgrass—just what the appeal of competetive ballroom dance is. Someone even came to practice and asked me as part of a sociological study. All I can say is, judging by the attendance at the practices and competitions, I'm not alone in my madness. Partly it's the combination of exercise and socializing, and of course, dancing on a regular basis makes me happy. I knew that Berkeley would have an active social dance scene, so I didn't have to be sold on the team when I encountered the team table on Sproul. I signed right up.
The first meeting was at LaVal's on Northside, and I chatted with a lot of other people while waiting for the free pizza, feeling insecure. Information was handed out in dribs and drabs at first, as the team members circulated and gave quick answers to questions, then one pretty girl (our rookie coordinator Andrea, a soul of patience unparalled even in laid-back Berkeley) stood up, gave us all the bullet on the first practice and the various forms and requirements, and answered a few more queries from her mostly rapt audience between bites. I left feeling nonplussed. It seemed like pretty routine official stuff to me, so there was no indication about what kind of club it really was.
The first lesson was hugely crowded. 80 people or so crammed into a bright gym/dance studio, with our instructors. One of them looked so much like my old roommate that I kept pulling double takes all night. We learned a few waltz and rumba steps, got to know the people we partnered with, and exchanged hopes and concerns and interest in the superficial manner of people who might become quite close but aren't sure yet. We could barely move on the floor without bumping into someone else, stepping on feet, ducking errant elbows, but like judo, it was deceptively simple with the promise of infinite complexity, and I was hooked.
Lesson after lesson, practice after practice, week after week in the semester. We learned about form, frame, weight, carriage, styling, footwork, timing, body isolation. We learned turns and fans on top of the basics. Fewer and fewer people showed up for class each week. The more dedicated started staying at the Wednesday and Saturday practices longer. Most of them were pairing off, but I hadn't been lucky so far. I'm much taller than most of the boys, and some of them averred that they weren't as sold on it as I seemed to be. I eventually found a partner, and we went on to do very well for the first semester (see my monthly posts for details), but the real influence on me, the motivation for the passion that I believe has been crucial to my success, was John.
Around this time, an e-mail went out to the team from one of the more advanced leaders, requesting a partner for extra practice, rookies okay. I cannot get enough of dancing. Sometimes my partner asks me for a 30-second break. Good Lord. He included a picture of himself posed in a full split so we would know who he was. Good *Lord*. He was the slightly frightening Chinese guy I saw at Wednesday practice. Built like a greyhound, pale as milk, severe and unsmiling, dancing at practice before I arrived and staying after I left, he could have been championship level for all I knew. I learned later that he was trained extremely rigorously in ballet, had danced with several companies before an injury took him off the stage and into the ballroom. Had I known this I probably wouldn't have been able to do much but gabble and trip in his presence. But I had no partner, and I knew I'd never get better without one, so I replied, and we met in the corridor of Wheeler Hall one evening.
I was late, of course, and as clumsy as a drunken sailor. He had brought an iPod with a splicer for the earbuds, so we each had our own set for his music. But I was definitely not ready for practicing with music. We had to do it in silence. I only had a few steps for each dance anyway, but John was patient, stopping when I lost the beat, correcting my footwork when I stepped on his toes, giving tips on turns and form. It was like a 2-hour private lesson, and even though I sucked, it felt good. He was quiet, though, completely professional with no chitchat or pleasantries offered, no sense of who he was beyond the sure feet and perfect frame.
We met several times a week, for two hours or more, and it began to feel like those montages in sports or dance movies where the young novice, pushed by the weathered mentor, improves with each scene over the stirring music. Except the montage was hours and days and weeks and months long. The day I finished the waltz sequence that we had been working on for weeks without a single misstep, I could hear Eye of the Tiger back in some murky sentimental corner of my brain. By that time, John and I had started talking during our breaks, and I could make him laugh and get him to open up a little. And the improvement was really showing. At the end of October, after six weeks of practice almost 4 or 5 times a week (bear in mind, I had few friends at the time, so weekend nights were best taken up with something that didn't reinforce my general loser-ness), my partner and I placed 3rd in our standard events, waltz and quickstep. I hope all the grueling hours of running through basic figures with my two left feet helped John and Julia, his real partner, with their high placements all through the semester. He tells me, though, that he throws the ribbons away and puts the trophies where he can't see them. It isn't the competition that draws him; perhaps the performance is alluring, but for him, dance, to be sappy, is the purest expression of his soul. He's happy no matter what he's doing, be it taking a rookie through her basics, dancing Argentine tango with smelly men, running endless routines in preparation for comps, or throwing some poor girl around the club floor in a hustle. (I've seen him do all but the smelly tango, but he assures me that it's happened, and he's still happy.) He never gets tired, he never gets bored. He also never seems to eat or sleep.
John never lets me rest as much as I think I want to, just as much as I need to. Starting in September, he tried to get me down to a full split by my birthday in March (and failed miserably, but I think he has high hopes for next year). He ignores me when I whine about my stretches, pushing down harder on my back or shoulders to get that extra inch. You won't die!, he exclaims. You won't die! It won't even hurt tomorrow! To my annoyance, he's usually right. He will come up to me while I'm waiting in line for a heat, or even when I'm just standing around at a practice, grasp my shoulders, and pull them up and back so I'll stand up straight. You are your mother's masterpiece!, he tells me. Make sure you always look like it. He taught me West Coast Swing just for fun over winter break, as a vacation from the ten-dance routines for ballroom. We go to salsa dances at Metronome and Allegro, where everyone tells us how good we look and I claim no responsibility for it, admitting freely that it's all him. This past winter, he actually came and picked me up from the airport at 4 in the morning, keeping the promise he made when my flight was supposed to get in at 10 PM, even after I assured him repeatedly that he was off the hook once the plane had been grounded for five hours. Occasionally he fusses over me, trying to set my up with likely guys both on and off the dance floor (he's since stopped, thankfully), and in affectionate frustration I tell him he's as pesky as an older brother.
We don't practice as much these days; he's rising higher in the ranks and has ever more complicated routines and steps to work on, and I ran through a few temporary competition partners before finding a (hopefully) permanent one, so I had to practice a lot with them. These days he seems frailer to me, lighter, because he's not as big and sturdy as my regular partner. Of course I know to compensate for the difference in a partner's physique, but I worry I'll push too hard on him—he only outweighs me by 10 pounds—and he'll stagger or stumble. But, he promises he'll always catch me if he tries a dip or a hold, and I believe him, even when my hair, short as it is, brushes the floor.