Table of Contents

Partner dancing

Easy intimacy. I started partner dancing in May 1992. Not with waltz or swing or tango but contra. Ruby had just given me my walking papers. I was feeling down; my girl had booted me out. I landed at Keith's house again. This time there was a room for me to move into, me and my new kitty Tiger Lily. Moping in a crowd seemed preferable to moping in my room, so I headed down to check out Folklife. I watched kids playing in the fountain for a while then headed to the Center House but on the way I 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. It was all the eye contact that won me over. 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. To this day I am no good at learning choreography or abiding by rules in general. Lucky for me I already had a plan to help me get me started with real partner dancing. 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 to class changed the lead-follow balance.

Learning both roles right from the get go was the best possible way I could have started partner dancing. One of the first things it gave me was insight into the differences between learning lead and follow roles. Partner dancing is frustrating 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 very different. Leads have to think, plan, and initiate; follows have to surrender: pay attention, don't 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 their way along at first. Learning any physical activity by thinking through the steps and ordering your body to do them is awkward. Movement based on thinking is disconnected because thinking is slow and cumbersome compared to the fluid, responsive motion needed for dancing. There's wisdom in the phrase it's easy once you know how. Once I get the feel for a dance move in my body, I can relax and just do it. But I have to go through the awkward thinking part before I can get 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 wants 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. In each case I kept at it, kept dancing, kept taking classes, and I slowly got better.

Social dancing vs. dance dates. According to sources too numerous and platitudinous to mention, a responsible partner dancer dances widely, with partners at all skill levels, to help the dance community grow and keep everyone happy. That's how I started out as a beginner, happy to dance with pretty much anyone who would have me. But quite early in my career as a dancer I started attracting the attention of a few highly skilled, deliciously musical partners. They felt something in me they wanted, and they were happy to dance with me despite my inexperience. After just a couple of years of dancing I went from tears of frustration to meeting one of these amazing partners at a dance and dancing with her most or all of the night. I'm not talking about women I fell in love with; this was the mid-nineties, relatively early years of dancing when I was single, after Ruby dumped me but before Liv started reeling me in. These were dance friends, not lovers. A skilled partner brings out the best in me and simply by dancing with me challenges me to go deeper, to rely more on the deep musicality I have in me from all those music lessons. When I danced with one of them we could create a dance that felt amazing, like a work of art. Once I discovered that possibility, having that kind of peak experience dancing became my goal. I only wanted to dance with partners who made that possible. By dancing with those exquisite partners I soon became one of the most skilled dancers at the mixed social dances I went to. If I didn't have a date, there might be no one there I really wanted to dance with at those mixed dances. I'm OK with being generous and dancing with unskilled partners sometimes, but a whole evening? Dancing was beginning to feel less fun. My solution 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 milongas I'm happy to dance with a much larger proportion of the potential partners because of my lowly status as a tanguero. The humiliation I experience being so lowly in tango tempers any hubris regarding my comparatively exalted place in mixed social dancing. In the big picture I've come to realize 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 many different partners with different skills. In the even bigger picture, the art that counts isn't dancing or writing. It's living the right kind of life so I make progress with love. Making my life a work of art is my real reason for being here, and a little humility is an important ingredient in that. But don't think I wouldn't love to have tango dance dates with the right partner or partners. I'm looking forward to meeting her, to meeting them.

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 all-time artistic equal, about fifteen years later. In the meantime I started my own dance.

Seduction. I met Ruth when I was still with Cindy. Ruth had been away from dance for years because she had kids. The kids were now old enough for her to get away and she came to my dance, Waltz etcetera. After a few songs I saw she was free and headed over to ask her to dance. I got there at the same time as another guy. We asked her simultaneously and I lost the toss. That stung. This is my dance. Who does she think she is, turning me down for some schlub who can't count to eight? Meanwhile things were tanking with Cindy. She wanted me to move into her life and her apartment and heal her broken family. She started pressuring me to come hang out there with her and her kids. I gave it a try, I really did. But it started to feel bad. Stale and forced. I didn't want that kind of life. That's what I had with my ex wife, a whole family. I left her to get away from that. By the time Ruth showed up at my dance again I was really ready for something else. This time I didn't miss my chance to dance with her. I tested the waters with her like I would with any new partner, starting very simple and feeling her response. She was right there, a responsive intuitive partner. So I gradually upped the ante, trying out more challenging leads, stuff I'd worked out with Cindy. She never missed a beat. So I pulled out the stops, circling the floor with an experimental turn I'd been working on and she came right along. She was exhilarated. You could say we clicked.

Dancing with Ruth was heavenly. We soon became lovers. I didn't care that she was married. I didn't want to break up her family. Being with Cindy had made me leery of family ties. I fell hard for Ruth. Love like I never knew love could be. We were cheating for a full year before her husband figured it out. It all came out during a family vacation. That gave them plenty of time to talk it over. Her husband was able to see that family life had improved dramatically since Ruth and I got together. We became openly poly. We had a glorious time. Then in 2016 I quit drinking. That changed everything and put me and Ruth on a path to breakup. Without an alcoholic buzz I was able to feel how lonely I was in a part time relationship. Even with booze I had dreaded evenings at home alone. Now that got much worse. When Ruth and I were together I wasn't as much fun to be around. Booze had made me a much more fun guy, the fun guy she fell in love with. Now neither of us was getting our needs met. We broke up, or thought we did, in February 2020 right before the pandemic hit.

Teaching with Ruth. I went through several teaching partners at Waltz etcetera, but when Ruth and I hooked up I started losing interest in teaching with anyone else. Dancing with Ruth was 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 in the dance. I surprised her by changing the embrace so she was the lead. She took to it like a duck to water. This song became an anthem.

When we began teaching together, that was a key element: everyone's a lead, everyone's a follow. It became a hallmark of how we taught. I wrote a website about what was going on in our dancing, identifying four stages of what I called radical equality or egalitarian partnering. Stage one was swapping roles for an entire song. We quickly moved on from that one. 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, changing roles by simply ramping up or ramping down our intention in the dancing, moving back and forth between active and receptive. The fourth was pure play. Dancing without knowing or caring who did what role or when, using every bit of skill and musicality we had.

Tango with Ruth. Not long after we connected Ruth and I decided to take tango lessons together. We'd both been drawn to the dance, but we were hesitant at first. It's so famously difficult; we knew we'd be starting over as beginners in a whole new world of dance, and we knew what it was like to be a beginning dancer. But diving in together was reassuring; we had each other's backs. We dove into this murky world and found it just as frustratingly difficult as everyone said it would be. But also just as delicious as we hoped it would be. The more tango I learned, the more I came 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. Leela made sure I found that out. 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 limited vocabulary and less than stellar technique 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.

Musicality. I'm not an artist of dance. I started partner dancing too late to become a real artist, but my early exposure to music gives me a boost: I dance musically. I took lots of music lessons in my teen years: piano, saxophone, flute, even a little guitar. I never got past basic proficiency with any of them, but I did learn a lot about music. I was young enough that music formed me. It became part of what I am. Musicality is rare among partner dancers, which seems odd. Isn't dancing supposed to embody the music? Partners who are more skilled than I am are happy to dance with me. They say my dancing has more passion than that of their other partners. Many dancers seem to think musicality is just learning fancy moves and memorizing the songs so they can fit their fancy moves to the musical phrases. That's good as far as it goes. But they do it all mentally. They're not swept along by the music, they're calculating. They're just expert technicians, dancing without musical passion. This is especially true in tango. Tango seems to attract leads who are especially dominated by their thinking, the root of all human misery. That's sad for them, but it makes what I have to offer as a partner especially welcome by tangueras longing for something juicier.

The end of dance classes. I was a dance class slut my first decade or so of partner dancing. I did every Living Traditions class and weekend workshop all through the nineties and into the oughts. Living Traditions spoiled me: there were no other dance worlds in Seattle I wanted to join. I eventually ran out of classes I wanted to take, and I stopped taking classes. Tango changed all that. When I started taking tango classes I knew I was starting all over again as a beginner. But I was bewitched; I couldn't help myself. Ruth and I started tango classes together in 2010. Because of her family commitments she could only do one class a week. I took two or three additional classes a week. I was a dance class slut once more. But in the late 2010s my ability to take classes just ran out. Ever since sometime in 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. It puzzled and frustrated me, but I worked it out. I'm at the stage in my dancing where taking more dance classes would be as bad as seeking advice from a spiritual teacher. Surrender to Leela is the only right way forward now, in dance and everything else. I just have to let her flow through me. I'm slowly getting better at doing that, to my partners' delight.

Sobriety comes between us. The emptiness of my drug-dependent life caught up with me in the 2010s. I couldn't bear being home alone at night so I drank heavily and went dancing every night, often at dances where I wasn't a member of the club and was mostly shunned, adding to my misery. 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, or what I felt at the time were my needs. I wanted to be with Ruth more than she was available. Our love affair didn't fit sober me like it fit drunk me. And the same was true for her, 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. We began to feel less connected. That intensified during my yearlong pot glut in 2019. We broke up in early 2020, right before the pandemic arrived. Actually it turns out we hadn't really broken up, we just thought we had.

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. Now I have a sweetheart, my Ariel, and we're devoted to each other. She has started taking tango lessons.

No more breaking up. I've reached the point in my life where I'm all done breaking up. But I suspect I'm not done falling in love. With the example of her life, Ariel has shown me that falling in love does not mean breaking up; the right kind of new love does nothing to diminish or impoverish the right kind of existing love. Ruth and I had already discovered our so-called breakup was a sham. We stopped having sex, but we love each other just as much. The quantity of time we spend together is less, but the quality is still superb. She's still my favorite dance partner. We spent a decade building that partnership, and it's rock solid. Dancing with Ruth and Ariel helps me keep a balance between tango and my beloved mixed dancing, Waltz etcetera in particular. Too much tango makes me sad, makes me feel defeated. Just enough tango enriches all my dancing.

Dance me to love. Not the end of love, the beginning. But what a song. A reminder that song lyrics really can be poetry.

Ever since I started partner dancing in 1992, dancing and love have become entwined. So much so that I have at times had trouble discerning what was what. Every relationship I've been in since then has started out with dancing. Ruby was my last non-dancing love; she's the one who launched me into dance orbit. Every love affair since then began with dancing. I met my ex-wife Liv at a zydeco dance. As my marriage fell into ruin—my fault for ever getting into it—I found solace and great fun in Bryn's arms. Then Jaz once I moved out of my house and started living in Crown Hill. As that brief fling disintegrated I took up with Cindy for two years, until she started putting the pressure on for me to move in and be a father figure to her two young daughters, a role I always knew was not for me. Then I met Ruth who became my dance partner and lover for nine years. And now with Ariel, a connection we both feel will last the rest of our lives. I connected with each of those partners as a dance partner first, and then love bloomed. In the course of more than thirty years of dancing and loving, dancing and loving became inextricably entwined. With Ariel, the twining of dancing and loving has taken a deeper turn, one that's feeling quite uncomfortable right now. Ariel and I have different dance backgrounds, but that has never been a barrier to our dancing together at any point. I fell in love with her around the same time as I was falling in love with tango, finally. Ariel had never tangoed, but my improvisatory dance is so deeply founded on tango now that that's what I did: I made our dancing a simple form of tango. None of the counterintuitive technique, just the essence: moving together in close embrace with simple front, back and side steps, letting the music shape the dance. We talked about her learning tango, and I tried to reach an old friend who's a brilliant teacher and lives near Ariel, but that went nowhere. I didn't follow up after that, partly because I didn't want to push her to learn tango for my sake. That didn't seem healthy. But she did want to learn, and she started taking lessons without letting me know. Right now we're considering what to do next. I'm excited at the prospect of tango with Ariel, and also a little scared.