Moping. I started partner dancing not with waltz, or swing, or tango like I shoulda, but with contra, in May 1992. Janet had just given me the boot. I landed at Keith's house. I was feeling down; my girl had rejected me. Moping in a crowd seemed preferable to moping in my room, so I headed down to Folklife, which someone had just told me about.
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, as Regina Spektor sings so beautifully in Firewood.
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.
Making Waltz etcetera. There were dances that featured swing, but none featured waltz. I created one. I included my wife and Arnold in planning and owning my dance; that was a mistake. I would've been better off alone. But I didn't have a clue in 1998. 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.
Waltz etcetera occupied 5 different spaces during its 21-year lifespan:
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, with this text:
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.
We had some lean times the first year. One night we had 7 dancers show up, 5 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.
Divergence. My wife lost interest in dancing. She taught the class with me then left. That left me and Arnold sharing the DJ table. At first that was fine; we had the same background and liked the same kind of music. But in 2006, after my wisdom spoke, my musical tastes evolved. My wisdom has deeper and more diverse tastes than anyone's thinking. My wisdom is love itself. 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 for that crap. I started dreading Monday nights. I couldn't bear to hear his selections anymore. I tried selling my share of the dance to him. I seriously considered just walking away. Intead I bought him out. Buying him out was not a financially wise decision. For that matter, starting the dance was not financially wise. 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 decisions, starting with majoring in Comparative Mythology, then with abandoning my cushy state job to move to Boulder. I choose growth over greed in the clutch. But I've not always been immune to greed, alas.
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.