Table of Contents

Partner dancing

Easy intimacy. 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 with my new kitty Tiger Lily. Moping in a crowd seemed preferable to moping in my room, so I headed down to Folklife. I watched kids playing in the fountain for a while, then headed to the Center House but got drawn to the buzz happening around Fisher, aboveground in those days. I walked in and saw long lines of dancers doing contra. I knew what it was but that was about it. I got fascinated by the interlocking human clockwork of this giant dance machine 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 it was easy. It wasn't, for a non-dancer, but the contra dancers were kind and patient with my ineptitude, nudging and beckoning me through. I was won over by all the eye contact. All the pretty eyes gazing intently into mine. That sweet attention was such balm for my broken heart. It was my first tiny taste of the easy intimacy of partner dancing. I danced contra the whole weekend.

Living Traditions. But I knew contra wasn't what I really wanted. I wanted real partner dancing, lead and follow, improvising to the music. Lucky for me I already had a plan to help me get me started with that. Ruby and I went ahead with our plan to take swing dance lessons at Living Traditions. Ruby disappeared from partner dancing after the one class, but I went ahead with more lessons. For the next few years I gorged myself on Living Traditions classes. I did all their classes numerous times, dancing as a lead, as a follow, as a volunteer lead, as a volunteer follow, and finally as a switch volunteer, dancing whichever role was needed, switching roles as late arrivals changed the balance.

Learning both roles right from the get go was the best possible way I could have started partner dancing (thank you Leela). One of the first things it gave me was insight into the differences between learning lead and follow roles. Partner dancing is frustratingly difficult at first, and it's harder for leads to get going with than it is for follows. Not because leading is harder, but because the early stages of leading and following are different. Leads have to think, plan, and initiate; follows have to pay attention, not anticipate, and respond. Both partners have to relax, stop thinking and just dance before dancing gets delicious, but leads have a disadvantage: their role forces them to think at first. Learning any physical activity by 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 I get the feel of a dance move in my body, I can relax and just do it. But I have to get through the bloody awkward part before I get to the feel. That stage is rough in class and way rougher at dances. Beginning follows can make progress by dancing with skilled leads. So younger, prettier follows tend to progress pretty quickly. But a skilled follow can't do much to help an unskilled lead get better even if she wanted to. I was a miserable beginner at dances. Being an introvert didn't help. I knew nothing of the delicate art of turning strangers into friends; I didn't even know it existed. I would leave dances on the verge of tears, not having danced at all. I had to go through the bloody awkward stage when I first started dancing, and then I had to go 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.

My struggle with social dancing. According to this excellent article by Richard Powers I am a social dancer. But I had an ongoing struggle with social dancing because of unrealistic standards I'd developed. Relatively early on in my dance career I discovered that when I danced with just the right partner we could create a dance that was a true work of art. Even though I was not and am not an artist of dance. I started dancing way too late in life to develop that kind of skill. But with just the right partner the magic happens: we work and play together and a work of art is the result. The secret magic of partner dancing is this: two of us together can create something far finer than what either of us could create alone. Once I discovered it, having that kind of peak experience on the dance floor became my unrealistic standard. I only wanted to dance with partners who made that possible. I had become one of the most skilled dancers in my little world of social mixed dancing. So I sat out a lot of dances. But I'd really rather dance. The cure for my ills was to take up tango. I started all over again as a beginner in a dance where I'll never be able to become one of the best dancers in the room, not in this life. At tango I'm happy to dance with a much larger proportion of available partners because of my lowly status as a tanguero. I really like that about tango. In the bigger picture I've come to realize that the real work of art isn't a single stellar dance, it's the night's dancing. A great evening of dancing has lots of different dances with lots of different partners. Each partner has different skills. In the even bigger picture, my real art isn't dancing or writing. It's living the right kind of life. The spiritual quest is the work it takes to make my life a work of art. In the meantime I've become a social dancer.

The end of dance classes. As noted above I was a dance class slut my first few years of partner dancing. I did every class, every weekend workshop all through the nineties and into the new millennium. I eventually ran out of classes and started teaching my own. Living Traditions spoiled me: there were no other dance worlds in Seattle I wanted to join, though I did end up taking Scandinavian dance classes because I was so charmed with pivoting. Tango changed all that. When I started falling in love with tango I knew I was starting all over again as a beginner. But I was bewitched; I couldn't help myself. I took tango classes all through the 2000s. But in the late 2010s my ability to take dance classes just ran out. It broke. I understand it now as a manifestation of my place in the ashramas. I was in stage three heading into stage four. I'd been granted a special dispensation to keep being a student (stage one) all through my fifties, but that came to an end in my sixties. My inability to take classes left me baffled, and a bit heartbroken. Ever since about 2018, if I try to take a class, or even just get some coaching from a more skilled friend, my ability to dance flies out the window and I start having a panic attack. Mild at first, but it quickly escalates to tears and uncontrollable trembling if I persist in my folly. I have reached the stage in my life where the only right way forward is to surrender to Leela and let her flow through me. I can no longer make use of the bloody awkward stage. All I have to bring to tango is very modest vocabulary and technique, and a connection with the music that's limited only by my willingness to stay open and let it flow through me. Because Leela is music. Not to mention everything else.

Artistic equality. My first few years of partner dancing I danced both roles right from the start. How things start sets the tone: I never considered myself exclusively a lead, and I never thought of leading as bossing my partner around. I've always found the best partner dancing is created by two dancers working together as artistic equals. I didn't get the chance to really explore this until I met Ruth, my artistic equal, about fifteen years later. In the meantime I started my own dance.

Compound meter. I got into dancing to blues music when I was with Cindy. That's how we first connected, and it heavenly dancing with her. I say dancing to blues rather than blues dancing because I don't much like what they call blues dancing. I dance to blues using technique and vocabulary I learned in swing and tango. Cindy and I used eight-count swing as a basic framework. Some blues dance teachers call what we did the double pulse or something similar. It's also used for zydeco and Cajun dancing. We mostly danced just as close as we could but also mixed in swing turns and dips. We had a blast. The slow drag blues tunes I love the most are in a compound meter, 12/8 or 6/8. It's the same rhythm I was entranced by at Naropa when I first heard Chet Baker's cover of Born to be blue in the 1980s. In the late 1990s I worked out a simple way to dance to 12/8 music and my wife and I taught classes in it, calling it blues foxtrot. For me there is something magic about triple rhythms, waltz and 12/8. They're my favorite rhythms for any kind of dancing. Here's a lovely 12/8 melody. Listen to the understated lilting triplicity in the Carpenters' cover of Burt Bacharach/Hal David's Close to you. Begging to be danced to.

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, incorporating every bit of skill and musicality we had.

The sweet spot. Ruth and I studied musicality intently, trying to find ways to teach it. We both particularly loved dancing to slow 12/8 blues so we studied blues musicality. I once heard a blues dance teacher say that the essence of blues musicality was the blues is always late. It's easy to feel how right that is. Guys like me who think a lot tend to dance mentally, without passion. We lack the wisdom to wait for the music and let it move us. The better I know a song the more my thinking and memory get in the way. My mind is always racing ahead because that's what minds do. I know my favorite tunes like the back of my hand. But if I dance to my memory I'm not dancing to the music. Dancing from memory I can arrive at my weight shift at the exact same moment as the note. But that's not musical. To dance musically I have to wait until I hear the note so I can respond to the note. That makes me late. My reaction time is a sizable chunk of a second. If I wait to hear the note and respond musically, I'm dancing in the sweet spot. The perfect musical moment that makes my dancing part of the music. If I'm leading, I want to give the sweet spot to my partner, not claim it for myself. She would want to do the same for me. The mental calculations that would require are mind boggling. But if I'm connecting with my partner with grace and generosity no calculating is required. I give her the sweet spot because that's what I want to do. It's an impulse of love, of generosity, from the heart, not the head.

Tango with Ruth. In 2010 Ruth and I decided to take tango lessons together. We were attracted to the dance, but 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 can be agonizing. Making progress is never comfortable.

Potential. We dove into this murky world and found it just as frustratingly difficult as everyone said it would be. But just as irresistible too. 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. To realize my full potential in any art I have to start young so the art can form me as I mature. I was almost sixty when I started tango, far too late for that. That's a difference I can never make up, not in this life. But with Leela's help I can allow the music to flow through me, and that makes some gifted tangueras very happy to dance with me. My musicality offsets my flaws for them.

Tango crossover. Ruth and I immediately started mixing bits of tango into all the other dancing we did, like waltz, blues and non-tango Latin dances. Mixing moves and techniques from one dance into another had always been a key element in my approach to dance, and a bit of tango was a great spice in all other dances we knew. We also began incorporating tango principles and vocabulary into all the classes we taught. We taught workshops in what we called 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.

Sobriety comes between us. In the 2010s I felt driven to go dancing every night because the emptiness of my addicted life caught up with me when I was home alone at night. So I used dance as a crutch and drank heavily. When I stopped drinking in 2016 that should have changed but it didn't because I became 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 perceptions. Now I could feel how my poly arrangement with Ruth wasn't meeting my needs. I wanted to be with Ruth more than she was available. The relationship wasn't fitting sober me like it fit drunk me. The same was true for her, only in the opposite way. I was no longer the funloving guy she fell in love with. Booze made me more outgoing, flirtatious, voluble. 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 in early 2020, right before the pandemic arrived.

Dance sweetheart. I've fallen more and more in love with tango as dancing has emerged from the pandemic blackout. More than ever, tango feels like what dancing can be. After a year and a half of isolation, I've had increasing amounts of easygoing friendly social time and physical intimacy with friends on the dance floor. At first I was so starved for contact any amount was heavenly. After that first flush my old tango anxieties began to recrudesce. At Waltz etcetera I'm one of the best dancers on the floor, a big fish in a very small puddle. At tango I'm just another schlub, interesting because of my musicality but nobody's idea of a dream partner. I end up just a wallflower watching the cool kids dance. It's steadily humbling and at times bitterly humiliating. In my fantasies that would melt away if only I had a sweetheart, a dance partner devoted to me and I to her. I don't know if I'll ever find out.