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 Fischer, 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, sometimes changing roles mid evening 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: they have 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 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 skilled follows can't do much for unskilled leads no matter how good looking they are. Plus I'm picky: I only want to dance with partners at my level or above. I'm not the mensch making the rounds so all the wallflowers get a dance. I'd rather go home if there's no one good to dance with. I was a miserable beginner at dances. Being an introvert didn't help. I would sometimes leave without having danced at all. 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.
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. One of the key factors: my partner needs to have roughly the same level of skill as I do; it doesn't work if there's a big disparity. I had become one of the most skilled dancers in my little world of social noncompetitive ballroom 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. Though I do have plans. 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 night's dancing has lots of different kinds of 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.
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.
Waltz. The heart beats in three, just like a waltz. It sounds so much better when Regina sings it. Listen:
I didn't get that for years, even after I started Waltz etcetera. There's only two, right? Systole and disastole, lub dub. I made the classic beginner's mistake of thinking dance was all movement, no stillness. The third beat is the rest after diastole, d'oh. 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. The triple beat gives it something, a lightness or lilting feeling duple music doesn't share but songs in compound meters do. It's almost as if the music is 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 more tangueras would want to dance with me because I'd know the songs better. But I find it impossible to learn a song I don't much like, or in some cases dislike. But the more I dance tango the more traditional songs I learn to like, and the more tangueras like dancing with me. So I'm on the right track.
Making Waltz etcetera. There were lots of dances that featured swing but none that featured waltz, so I created one. But did I do it myself and keep it simple? No, I had to involve two other people: my wife and some guy I didn't even know who got to be part owner because he was also interested in waltz. There was some justification for involving my wife, but not the other guy. The impulse to include him came from the misbegotten notion that shared ownership was somehow virtuous; the magic word was community. Barf. You'd think I'd've learned better in Boulder but no, I was pretty stupid about that kind of thing back then. Still a goddam hippie at heart. Pathetic. At first we didn't have a name, it was just waltz practice. But then we discovered that dancing just waltzes got tedious. We wanted to mix in some other dances. Based on our evolving playlist 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.
The liberry. My Waltz etcetera music library started out as a handful of CDs that had waltzes we were used to dancing to at Living Traditions dances, mostly folk waltzes that got played between sets at contra dances. Richard Powers regularly visited to teach weekend workshops and he brought interesting waltzes, vintage and contemporary tunes that he and his Stanford students discovered. I soon became obssessed with the music liberry as I called it, in mocking tribute to my southern roots. At first I collected CDs, then I twigged to music downloads, for purchase or via Napster, which started up just a few months after Waltz etcetera did. I progressed through a series of formats, from commercial CDs to homemade CDs of dance tunes to minidiscs (Richard's preferred format) to data CDs holding hundreds of MP3s playable on data-friendly Walkmans to my first DJ laptop. The first of many. Computer DJing was a fairly new thing in the y2k, and as soon as I tried it I knew there was no going back. Even my clunky late 90s laptop made the other formats seem laughably awkward and limited. Computerized DJing opened up the world of tagging. I'm an enthusiast, and this could get very boring very quickly. I'll just say that all my music files are extensively edited. Custom tags to make my music searchable using Winamp's tag search and smart views, and judicious edits to the music itself using Audacity. Oh, and I've spent thousands upon thousands of hours editing my tracks. Years of my productive work life, time well spent. Nuff said.
Teaching dance. My wife and I met at a zydeco dance and we'd been dancing together and taking classes and workshops for several years. We'd learned some cool stuff and worked together long enough to get good at what we knew. Which wasn't really a lot but more than most dancers at Waltz etcetera. They liked our moves and asked us to teach 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. Teaching started to feel like having the flu, only instead of fever I had anxiety. In other words Leela was yelling at me to quit teaching. So I 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 liked the same kind of music at first. 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 folksy waltzes that once dominated our playlist began to sound dreadful to me. I started dreading Monday nights because I couldn't bear his music anymore. It got so bad I was at my wit's end. I tried selling my share of Waltz etcetera to him. I seriously considered giving it to him, just walking away. Instead I ended up buying him out.
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.
Death and rebirth. At the end of February 2020, when the news about Covid-19 was pretty clear but partner dancing was still going on, I closed up shop, shutting Waltz etcetera down on Leap Day. As the early months of the pandemic dragged on, it became clear I was losing my venue at Salmon Bay Eagles. I wouldn't be able to go back there even when it became OK to dance again. Seeing that on top of all the sadness and isolation I was feeling early on in the pandemic led me to write Waltz etcetera's obituary quite prematurely, on July 22. It was a sad moment. But 2019 had been a real struggle, both for me personally and for the dance, with poor attendance getting poorer. I had lost my juju with Waltz etcetera. I didn't see how I could get it back. In 2021, as the possibility for partner dancing gradually emerged, I got a surprise invitation from an old friend to come DJ one of the first openly advertised vax-only dances in the area. After some waffling I agreed to do the gig, and it turned out to be an absolute blast. I got to talking with the friend about Waltz etcetera, and he offered to help me get it started. On July 26 my dance reopened in a new location, and as of this writing is going strong. I didn't realize just how important the dance is to me. It's my job, the thing I have to offer that local dancers are very happy to support. It's my contribution to partner dancing in Seattle. Putting it on gives me a sense of place and belonging.
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.