Moping. I started partner dancing in May 1992. Not with waltz, or swing, or tango but with contra. Ruby had just given me my walking papers. I was feeling down; my girl had rejected me. I landed at Keith's house again, only this time there was a room for me to move into. Moping in a crowd seemed preferable to moping in my room, so I headed down to Folklife.
Contra. I watched kids playing in the fountain for a while, then headed for the Center House but got drawn to all the buzz happening around Fischer, aboveground in those days. I walked in and saw long lines of dancers doing contra. I knew what it was but that was all. It was interesting to watch all the interlocking human clockwork, so I stood there a while. The set was done and I was turning to leave when a woman grabbed my hand and asked me to dance. I warned her I was an utter noob, but she said ah, it's easy. Watch what other people are doing and I'll help. The contra dancers were kind and patient with my ineptitude, nudging and beckoning me through my first set. I was won over by the eye contact. Every 32 bars another pair of pretty eyes gaze intently into mine. I was mesmerized! I danced contra the whole weekend. I got better. I learned to show up when a new band started to get instruction. I probably got grabbed for a waltz or two, but mercifully don't remember.
Living Traditions. But contra wasn't what I really wanted. I had a plan to get me started with that. Janet and I went ahead with our plan to take swing lessons with Walter and Nancyanna Dill, creators of Living Traditions. Janet disappeared from partner dancing after the one class, but I went ahead with more lessons. For the next few years I gorged myself on their classes. I did all their classes as a lead, as a follow, as a volunteer, and as a switch volunteer: dance either role and switch roles as needed if the lead-follow balance changed.
Bloody awkward. My first few years of partner dancing I danced both roles right from the start. How you begin a life, or a new skill, is key. The beginning sets the tone. It provides the foundation for all that follows. I never thought I was a lead or a follow. I was a dancer. I was both. That gave me an excellent view of the difference between leading and following. Learning to dance with a partner is fucking hard, and it's harder for leads to get started with than it is for follows. Not because leading is harder, because the early stages of leading and following are different. Leads have to think, plan, and initiate; follows have to relax, pay attention, and respond. Learning any physical activity head first, thinking through the steps and ordering your body to do them, is bloody awkward. There's wisdom in the phrase it's easy once you know how. Once my body gets the feel of a dance move, I can relax and just do it. But I have to go through the bloody awkward stage to get to the feel. This is rough in class, rougher at dances. Beginning follows can make progress by dancing with skilled leads. But skilled follows can do little for unskilled leads. I could have followed, but I didn't wanna dance with guys, I wanted to dance with pretty girls (of all ages). Plus the good leads didn't wanna dance with me. I'm the same way: I only want to dance with the best. I'm not a mensch scrambling to keep all the girls happy. I'd rather go home. Anyway, I was a miserable beginner at dances. I would often leave without having had a single dance. I went through it when I started dancing, then went through it all over again with tango. As a beginning dancer I was often on the verge of hot tears of frustration and rejection. In tango I was more just depressed and despairing about it, in proper tango style.
Waltz. The heart beats in three just like a waltz. It sounds better when Regina sings it. Listen:
I started partner dance with swing dancing because I didn't know any better. It seemed popular, there were classes available. But when I found waltz, I connected with dancing differently. I like swing but I love waltz. There's something so sweet about waltzing. It's infused with love. The air in the room is more generous. People connect and fall in love more easily. And waltz showed me the way to tango, what dance can be. If only I liked traditional tango music more, sigh. Then the tangueras would be more willing to dance with me because I'd know the songs better. But I find it impossible to really learn a song I don't particularly like, or in some cases actively dislike.
Making Waltz etcetera. Plenty of dances featured swing, but none featured waltz. So I created one. I included my wife and a guy I didn't know who was also interested in waltz in planning and owning my dance based on the ridiculous notion that shared ownership was somehow virtuous; ha. I was pretty stupid about that kind of thing back then. At first we didn't have a name, it was just a place to go waltz. But then we discovered that dancing just waltzes got tedious. We wanted variety. Let's mix in some other dances. Based on that I came up with a name: Waltz etcetera.
Venues. So far Waltz etcetera has occupied six different spaces:
I was just learning about websites in those days, and I made us one in 1999, the first site to occupy this domain. Our earliest occurrence on the Wayback Machine is from December 2000; it shows my second or third attempt at a logo:
Practice makes better: you can see the current logo here. We were hellbent for traveling dances early on. Most dances we went to didn't maintain a traveling lane, and we were incensed. The introductory paragraph:
A weekly dance focusing on Waltz and other traveling dances.
Monday evenings from 7:30 - 9:30 pm we dance to recorded waltzes and other traveling dances: fox trots, one steps, the occasional polka or schottische, and even the occasional non-traveling swing, Latin, or zydeco number. Our dance hall is the spacious Richmond Masonic Center, on N 185th at Linden, right behind Fred Meyer. We ask $4 per person to pay for the hall. We also teach classes in our favorite dances.
Polka, schottische and zydeco don't figure much in current playlists, but blues does. We had some lean times the first year. One night we had seven dancers show up, five of them leads. But I liked dancing either part, and I encouraged everyone to try the other role. Everyone was good-natured about it and it turned out to be a good night.
Teaching dance. My wife and I had been dancing together for several years. We'd learned cool stuff. We'd worked together long enough to get good at what we knew. Waltz etcetera dancers liked our moves and asked us for classes. Teaching was never part of our plan; we just wanted a dance with lots of waltzes. But we gave it a try, and classes and workshops became an integral part of Waltz etcetera. We started our first class, Intermediate Turning Waltz, in September 1999. That timing set the tone: summer's over, it's back to school, here's your first dance class for this school year. I taught dance, with her and then other partners, from then until I finally got sick and tired of teaching in 2019. Especially sick. Teaching started to feel like having the flu, only instead of fever I had anxiety. Time to quit.
Divergence. My wife lost interest in dancing. She would teach the class with me then leave, not even staying to dance at her own dance. Meanwhile I had a dance jones so bad I kept trying to start ill-fated add-on dances on Fridays, or Thursdays, or Sundays. I did it so I could have another chance to dance during the week because me going out dancing without her was NOT allowed in that marriage and she didn't want to go out dancing period. A sign of where she and I were headed as a couple. That left me and the guy I didn't know sharing DJ duties. At first that was OK. We had the same background and liked the same kind of music. But in 2006 wisdom spoke and my taste in music started evolving. Wisdom has deeper and more diverse tastes than anyone's thinking. My evolving tastes led to divergence. We no longer liked the same stuff. The hokey folksy waltzes that once dominated our playlist began to sound dreadful to me. I started trying to bury them in our dance database hoping he wouldn't find them but he had an eagle eye. I started dreading Monday nights. I couldn't bear his music anymore. I tried selling my share of Waltz etcetera to him. I seriously considered just walking away. Instead I ended up buying him out. That was not a financially astute choice. The whole dance wasn't. We never collected money at the door, we just put out a can and encouraged people to donate. My life has been a long series of financially unwise choices, starting with a major in Comparative Mythology, then abandoning my cushy state job to move to Boulder. I always choose growth over greed in the clutch, but I have not always been immune to greed, alas.
My struggle with social dancing. According to this excellent article by Richard Powers I am a social dancer. But I have a longstanding struggle with social dancing because I had developed unrealistic standards. I discovered that with just the right partner I could co-create a dance that was a true work of art, even though I'm not an artist of dance. I started dancing way too late in life to develop that kind of skill. But with certain partners the magic happens: we work and play and create art. Having that kind of peak experience on the dance floor became my standard. I only wanted to dance with partners that made that possible. So I sat out a lot of dances. But I'd really rather dance. What I've come to realize is the real work of art isn't the dance, it's the night's dancing. A great night's dancing has lots of different kinds of dances with lots of different partners. Each partner has different skills. Taking a step further back, my real art isn't dancing or writing. It's living. The spiritual quest is the work it takes to make my life a work of art.
Ruth. I had a few different teaching partners, but when Ruth and I hooked up she quickly became my partner. Dancing with Ruth had been different from the very start. I encouraged her to speak up in the partnership. I wanted to see and feel what she had to say. I surprised her by changing the embrace so she was the lead. She loved it. She took to it like a duck to water. When we began teaching together, that was a key element: everyone's a lead, everyone's a follow. A lot of students ignored it but a few tried it and got enthusiastic. It became a trademark of how we taught. I wrote websites about what was going on in our dancing. I identified four stages of what I called egalitarian partnering. Stage one was swapping roles for the whole dance. We did that a little but quickly moved on. Stage two was swapping roles on the fly. We loved this one. We would sometimes swap dozens of times in a dance. The third I called cross partnering: leading from the follow's arm position, following from the lead's. The fourth was pure play. Dancing without knowing or caring who did what role or when.
Tango with Ruth. In 2010 Ruth and I decided to take tango lessons. We were attracted to the dance, but both hesitant at first. It's so famously difficult, and I'd seen it seemingly eat dancers alive. They stopped dancing anything else and started looking pale and morose, like vampire victims. But we were young and full of juice, and we had each other's backs. Ruth and I were in a poly relationship; this was to have a profound effect on my life in tango. I've written that I don't do well with poly, most notably in Boulder. I don't do well if someone is trying to impose poly on me, vanilla kid that I am. It's different if it's my idea. Ruth had a family. Her family always had first priority. I wanted it that way. I also wanted her. Like I've never wanted anyone. Being with her broke new ground for me, pushing me to make progress with love. Lots of it. I had never made lots of progress before, just tiny bits here and there. Making lots is exhilarating and agonizing.
Potential. We dove into this murky world and found it just as frustratingly difficult as everyone said it would be. But irresistible. The more I saw and struggled with even the most basic elements of tango, the more I began to see that this is what dance can be, what all the other dances were leading up to. The full potential of partner dance. I had come to tango too late ever to be an artist of tango. As in any art, real artists start young and let the dancing form them. I was almost 60 when I started tango, far too late for that. I can't make up that difference. I dance tango OK, and I eke out my limited dancing with musicality. That makes some tangueras eager to dance with me. My lack of technique and poor acquaintance with the bulk of traditional music repels other tangueras. Over the years I've discovered that the ones I really want to dance with want to dance with me. Ours is a dance of musical connection not scholarly refinement. It's a bit raw. They like that.
Tango face. But I didn't buy into the morose culture of tango, the slavish aping of all things Argentine. Just like I didn't buy into swing culture (eyeroll). Aping the lifestyle, fashions and bad habits historically associated with a dance has nothing to do with dancing, it's just boneheaded mimicry. There was this thing in tango that was particularly revolting. I called it tango face. Dancers, usually guys, would wear a peculiarly pretentious expression as they danced, a mixture of ersatz soulfulness and look-down-your-nose superiority. Just pathetic.
Miscegenation. Ruth and I immediately started mixing bits of tango into all the other dancing we did, like waltz, blues and non-tango Latin dances. A bit of tango enriches other dances. We began incorporating tango principles and vocabulary into all the classes we taught. We taught workshops in stripped-down tango: a simplified framework that gave students a taste of tango. A few went on and tried the real thing; most were happy with the taste we gave them.
Growing apart. Our poly status made things miserable for me. I have a lifelong tendency to dive into a new thing. Ruth and I were taking a class. I added classes on two other nights when she was not available. And that was fine, though I missed my favorite partner. In the 2010s I felt driven to go dancing every night. I was using dance as a crutch. I was drinking heavily. The emptiness of my addicted life caught up with me when I was home alone at night, so I went to milongas alone. I was miserable. When I stopped drinking in 2016 that should've changed but it didn't because I was a dry drunk. All the broken ways I'd related to the world as a drunk continued without the alcohol. But booze was no longer clouding my thinking. Now I could see the poly arrangement wasn't meeting my needs. I wanted to be with Ruth a lot more than she was available. The relationship wasn't fitting sober me like it fit drunk me. The same was true for her. I was no longer the funloving guy she fell in love with. Booze made me more outgoing, flirtatious, voluble. I talked a lot when I was drunk. The relationship wasn't fitting her as well either. Tensions began to grow between us. They intensified during my yearlong pot glut in 2019. We broke up right before the pandemic.