Perseverance & Diversion



For a while after my last competition my teacher and I danced around the subject of when to move on to the next level. Atanas said he was happy with my performance in both Smooth and Latin—no astonishing first-place victories, but I made some true gains in skills and confidence. Once or twice in those post-competition weeks he alluded to letting me decide when it was time for me to move beyond beginner Bronze level, but he soon changed his tune. “I think we will stay Bronze. The longer you stay Bronze, the better you will be,” he said finally.


He wants me to have a very firm foundation of dance skills before I move on to more challenging levels and I understand his reasoning. Whenever the subject has come up in discussions with my veteran dance friends, most say they wish they had spent more time at Bronze. Even though they have now reached Gold level they often have to go back to review Bronze, something they feel they wouldn’t have to do if they’d persevered longer in honing the basic skills. So, it’s all good…or is it?

At a lesson a week or so ago I was a little tired and when Atanas stopped me yet again to show me precisely how to move my body through a waltz dévelopé, I couldn’t hide my irritation with the drill. My teacher knows me pretty well by now and has learned not to be concerned when he notices a look of impatience. He said, matter-of-factly, “When you get this you will always know exactly where to place your foot, how to shape your body with the music. When it’s time to go to Silver, you will be very good.”

I nodded, although I secretly wanted to have a temper tantrum right there on the ballroom floor. I wanted to scream, “But I’ll never get to Silver, at this rate.” At that moment the promise of Silver level seemed to me like a dessert being withheld by a parent until I finished a particularly unpalatable plateful of liver and onions. I didn’t throw myself to the floor, of course. I’ve had these impatient thoughts many times over the course of my dance journey and know they come from that baby dancer in me who so often balks at challenges.

Like everyone, I’ve faced some trials in my lifetime, but most of these were relatively short-lived; whatever the unpleasantness, it was soon gone. But now I’m choosing to learn something that continually presents new challenges—in fact, each skill gained only opens up the opportunity to try to attain new skills. The whole experience is not so much a course of study as it is a practice. I’ve pondered this notion of dance-as-practice often in these blog posts, pointing out how I feel as if I am always balancing, literally and figuratively, between what I’ve learned and all that I don’t yet know. At times the present-moment focusing required for this endeavor is enlightening and joyous, but at other times it’s simply headache-producing.

So I’m developing coping mechanisms—little sidelines of interest around my dance experience. Lately I’ve become steeped in re-fashioning pre-owned ballroom gowns and creating crystal jewelry. Now, when I’m not dancing, I’m often at home poring over ballroom gown websites, studying Swarovski crystal options and even, at times, eyeing my closet for little-used formal dresses I might experiment with. I don’t have big expectations for the gowns and jewels I end up creating, but this diversion is helping to turn my sometimes hard-to-swallow dance ‘meal’ into a multi-course sensory feast that encompasses far more than just the rigors of dance.




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For a while now I’ve been writing a novel for young adult readers drawn from the life and times of my ancestors in late 19th century Oklahoma. My sister and I are collaborating on the project and early on she suggested (probably because she is a teacher who is driven to enrich every learning experience) that I write a scene centered around a dance, since that is my personal passion right now. So it happened that I spent some time crafting an account of my great grandparents’ wedding to include a lively country dance!
John Homer & Mary Esther Wedding photoI’ve had fun announcing to friends and co-workers that I’ve been dancing with my long-deceased forebears, but alas, my little scene is just fiction. Quite a bit has been written about my great grandfather, John Homer Seger, and his work with the Cheyenne and Arapahoe peoples of Oklahoma, but I don’t know of any reference to him and his wife dancing. Even if they had enjoyed a spin around the room at their wedding, it’s unlikely that it would have been photographed, since capturing movement was difficult back then. By contrast, in the short time since I’ve taken up competitive dance there are already many photos of me in motion, twirling in my sparkly best on the ballroom floor.

As I come down from the high of our most recent dance competition I find myself scrutinizing every available image, critiquing the smallest details. It’s a humbling endeavor. I’m in disbelief that I could have raised my shoulders or dropped my arm like that, when my teacher Atanas has coached me on the proper technique hundreds of times. Painful as my scrutiny is, I want to believe that my study of these photos will help me avoid errors in the future, eventually turning my novice dancing into something of true beauty and grace. Good or bad, the photos are likely to be around long after I’ve stopped dancing. I have a vision of myself as a crackly-voiced octogenarian, bending the ear of some young person as I point a gnarly finger at the digital images and recount the details of my bejeweled dresses, my dramatic make-up and hair, the effort it took to achieve the Latin straight leg and pointed toe, the leftward woman’s poise required for the Smooth dances. I’m fond of the idea that when I’m dead and little knowledge of my life remains, the photos will still tell stories to future generations.

HOA '15 Actin 2

While the photos of me dancing are lovely bits of memorabilia, they will never tell my whole story. Beneath the pictorial archive of my dance journey there will undoubtedly be a layer of mystery—the reasons why a woman who had never been physically gifted might have chosen such a body-challenging pastime in her middle years. Those who discover my photos may say to themselves, “She must have been a natural show-off,” or “She must have needed excitement in her boring life.” They’ll create their own stories, in other words, from the photo records. But I am beginning to know that each time I step onto the dance floor I tell a story, expending energy and emotion to bring music to life in my own way, in that particular moment.



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I am prone to doubt my dancing abilities at the best of times, but I’m even worse when I have to see a video of my performance after a competition. At one lesson after the most recent St. Louis Star Ball, my poor teacher Atanas had to listen to this very childish rant from me: “I look so bad in closed position. My face looked funny because I was thinking too much. I looked like a zombie. I think my head is too big for Smooth. If I could pull my hair back it would seem smaller, but my ears stick out too much to do that. I look so bad. Maybe Smooth just isn’t my dance.”

Okay, I knew even as I spoke that I sounded silly—that my self-deprecating assessment was out of control. But perhaps that was understandable since my whole life was beginning to feel out of control just then. Family-related demands had been creeping up on me for a few months, occupying an increasingly greater portion of my days, diverting me from the things I wanted to do—those activities that bring me the greatest happiness.

Since I began my ballroom adventure a little over a year ago, I’ve had the luxury of letting dance occupy much of my waking hours, both mentally and physically. My new interest was fascinating to me from the very beginning and I quickly became even more enraptured, not just because I hoped to advance quickly in this sport-like endeavor, but also because something about dance felt essential to my well-being. It began to seem necessary to me in much the same way writing had years before. Just as I now feel something is amiss if I don’t write regularly, so too, have I begun to feel very unhappy without dance.

I’m not the only one who feels bereft without dance. Atanas told me that some years ago, even though he and his partner had twice won Bulgarian national champion titles, he grew weary of the politics of the competitive ballroom world and tried to stop dancing. “I threw away my dance shoes,” he said, “but my Grandmother, she saved them.” Sure enough, in time Atanas missed dancing so terribly that he had to go back to it. My friend Deanna, who has danced for more than a decade, seems to grow more deeply enamored of her ballroom experience with every passing year. And I know so many others who, though they worry about money and time spent on the dance floor, keep coming back for more, no matter what. So what is it that draws us back?

Not long ago I listened to an interview with an eighteen-year-old Russian dancer who was training to compete internationally. In the course of the discussion he reflected that although he had studied ballroom dance since he was five, he was only beginning to grasp that technique—the precise rules of form, movement and timing he had been working so hard to learn—was actually the beginning of freedom in his artistic sport. Mastering the parameters of dance was not restrictive, as he had once supposed it would be, but rather freeing—allowing him to create his own dance story by expressively pushing those limits. It occurred to me that this is what all of us ballroom dancers are seeking:  the boundaries that will set us free.

So, of course I want and need dance more than ever when my life is feeling out-of-control. I go to the ballroom because there are clearly defined rules there and it seems just possible, if I work very hard to learn them, I will find freedom.

Needling the Thread


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Six weeks before the next competition, my teacher is trying to help me improve my Latin and Smooth technique, as well as pushing me through more rounds of our routines to extend my cardio capacity and endurance. While I’m accepting the detailed technique work more readily, the extra physical effort is daunting. My inner critic tells me I have no business competing if I’m utterly exhausted at the end of an hour-long practice session. I berate myself for not having already added more cardio work to my home workouts but, at the same time, I can’t help wondering how much more time and energy I am willing to devote to dance.

We live in a goal-driven world in which it’s natural to set performance expectations, especially with an activity that is sports-like. And it seems that specific goals should be the best way to focus my energy toward skill-development. I’ve often told Atanas that I want do at least a little better with every competition, but whenever I say that he always replies, “Just enjoy your dancing, Elaine. Always there can be different opinions from judges, so you have to just enjoy.” I know, on a gut level, that he is right. If I view competitions purely as contests in which I always have to achieve some higher level—to take away some prize or title in a consumerist kind of way—dance becomes a heavy, burdensome thing.

Just after one of those physically difficult dance sessions, when I was seriously questioning my level of commitment, a friend happened to send me a link to a poignant essay, “How Generous Are You Willing to Be? A Dance Teaching Story.” The essayist, Jesua, tells how a dance teacher helped her understand that even though she risked embarrassment or failure as she worked to overcome physical challenges, dance was an act of generosity—an opportunity to share the enormity of whatever she was, perfect or imperfect, with the world. This generosity of spirit—a willingness to be vulnerable—is preferable in life, too. When we’re able to be magnanimous, our thoughts and actions expansive, our daily existence tends to be happier. How then, to foster a natural inclination toward improvement while remaining open to whatever may come, good or bad?

I’ve been doing some seamstress work on my competition gowns lately and every time I pick up a needle and thread I think of a YouTube demonstration I watched a while ago in which the woman mentioned at the beginning of her instruction that it’s easier to ‘needle a thread’ than to ‘thread a needle.’ Instead of precariously aiming the tiny end of a thread at the slim eye of a needle, she showed how it’s easier to bury the end of the thread between thumb and forefinger and then slip the eye of the needle into that fleshy groove where it will easily find its way onto the waiting thread. I tried it and found, strangely, that this method works almost every time. It strikes me that this is an apt metaphor for maintaining joy in my dance experience—staying open like the waiting eye of the needle.

I have long struggled with this issue of goal-setting. If I were writing a novel of my life, failure-to-achieve would be the ugly antagonist who causes me to give up dreams again and again. Dance, however, has arisen as one of the great passions of my life and I’m unwilling to let it become victim to harsh self-perceptions. I can still take my dance training seriously, but if I remember to hold those details in bare awareness as I open to the music and physicality of this activity I love, I can become that which is moved, rather than the mover—allowing dance to make a goal of me.

Slow Dancing


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In a recent waltz lesson Atanas stopped our practice to show me the precise footwork of a certain movement, demonstrating, very slowly, how each part of the foot should contact the floor with every step. He narrated a sequence of instructions, “heel-lead, toe, ball, ball-flat,” emphasizing the corresponding rise and fall of the body. Though my teacher had given me this kind of micro-breakdown many times before, my brain still resisted—not wanting to give the level of attention necessary to comprehend and store away this minutiae.

He saw the familiar shutdown look on my face. “Is very important, Elaine. Always you will use this footwork. Is important to break it down.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” I sighed and asked him to show me again. Despite the difficulty of prodding my brain to absorb such tiny details, I have learned to accept Atanas’ authority on this. In his experience, the best way to gain knowledge and increase aptitude on the dance floor is through a slowed-down assimilation of information.

My teacher’s attitude toward information accrual is much different outside the world of dance, however. When I pulled out my smart phone that day to calendar-in our next lesson, he began to tease me about my aging 3G android device. I played along as I always do, challenging him to a phone-duel—pitting my old, but thoroughly adequate phone against his recent-edition iPhone. It is one of our many outside-of-dance shticks:  Elaine’s slightly Luddite tendencies versus Atanas’ techy-consumerist inclinations.

In point of fact, I find the latest technologies interesting and usually have some facility with them. In my library public service work I am required to assist patrons in navigating the learning curve with the latest gadgets. These patrons are sometimes impatient because they haven’t been able to cut through all the electronic exploration required to make the ‘thing’ do what they need it to do and are desperate for someone to show them the magic button to press. I understand their desperation. From technology to fast food, the expectation of immediate satisfaction has become deeply entrenched in all of us by now.

While on the surface we’re giddy at the way the world dances at our fingertips, we end up paying a price for such urgency-driven lifestyles. The quicker our demands are met, the more quickly we expect them to be met the next time, creating more stress with each hurried acquisition. The Slow Food Movement started some years ago as one of the first reactions against this trend. The idea was that we should consciously choose to slow down our interactions with food by becoming familiar with its origins, how we prepare it and the rituals surrounding consuming it. In other words, we should make nourishing our bodies a more meditative act, foregoing quick consumption in favor of thoughtful ‘feasting.’

Artists have long been leery of the demand for speedy output to turn a profit. In “The Art of Slow Writing,” Louise DeSalvo notes that the greatest writers rarely attempt to hurry their creative process, taking years, even decades, to shape characters and develop story lines. They spend a lot of time at the most elemental level, playing around with words and ideas until something meaningful begins to emerge.

Although he has chosen, for now, to be a part of the culture of fast-acquisition, Atanas undoubtedly understands the value of the slow process in dance. Much of his daily work, whether with his professional partner or his students, centers upon the most elemental aspects of dance. He doesn’t mind endlessly repeating the basic movements, demonstrating correct technique. In fact, he claims to greatly enjoy the drills. I suppose that to him, after all these years, executing the precise footwork and body action in waltz is a little like honing a knife—meditative, in a way, and thoroughly satisfying. He is lucky to inhabit a world that requires him to work at this most simplistic level—where something as small as the curve of an arm or the angle of a pointed toe is a thing to be noted, with pleasure.

How To Get Better


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At a recent showcase, I performed a Latin dance—the samba—with a friend and fellow dance student, Robert. I knew from the start that our routine was a bit beyond my beginner abilities, but the audience seemed to like us and I was happy that I remembered all the steps and kept up the basic ‘bounce’ of this difficult dance. However, when I watched a video of myself later I was a little disappointed. I saw right away there was something essential lacking in my technique. As I studied the video, puzzling over what it was, I made my best guess:  there was no accent to my bounce—it was all a kind of mono-movement.

When I saw Atanas at our next lesson, he smiled when I told him my theory. “Is good, how you are noticing now.” He proceeded to spend the next several minutes showing me, as he had before, the brief pause on the up, or ‘ah’ beat in the samba movement. The lack of this minute detail made a big difference in the way my showcase performance looked. I’m getting better at not judging myself too harshly, beginner that I am, but as I left my lesson that day I couldn’t dispel a niggling worry. I had practiced that samba routine over and over, trying to remember everything I could about technique, and yet, I had forgotten that essential detail. If my best effort had failed me this time, how would I ever begin to do a better samba? In fact, how would ‘getting better’ ever happen for me in any of my dances?

I have undoubtedly experienced improvement already, gaining balance, body strength and heightened muscle memory the more I’ve performed my rote drills of the bronze-level steps. But as I begin to move beyond the beginner stage, I fear my comprehension is slowing. I think about something Atanas said recently, as if trying to warn me subtly, “You know, most students get stuck sometime—they cannot go further for a while.” It only makes sense—nobody gets really good overnight—but if I stall now, what will it take for me to become more skilled?

In his book “Hardwiring Happiness,” author Rick Hanson cites studies showing that brain structure changes based upon life experiences. “Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think,” Hanson says, “is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure.” Sensory intake filters through the brain constantly, but prolonged, intense experiences—especially when combined with mental awareness—actually carve visible grooves in the brain. Research is consistently showing that this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” changes not only how the brain operates, but the entire body’s cellular functions. In simple terms, you become whatever you focus your attention on.

This concept, if applied to dance, must mean that the more I immerse myself in this sport, consistently repeating what I know to be correct and not worrying about my mistakes, the more rapidly I will improve. It occurs to me I’m already seeing this happen, a bit. In the last few months, since I’ve been trying to let go of self-judgment and release my mental fears about mastering technique, I find I’m usually able to work harder at practice, with greater focus. And my body is responding to the focused repetition—muscles lengthening or rounding in ways I’ve never see before, balance and endurance increasing steadily. My brain and body even seem to crave more of this kind of input now. Atanas has talked about this feeling of wanting to “dig deeper and deeper” into dance and I have begun to understand what he means.

It’s so interesting, being a baby dancer in middle-age. Not only do I get to experience the youthfully lush feeling of developing some semblance of a dancer’s body, but I get to observe my mind as it stretches to make its way around a whole new universe of knowledge.

There Was a Crooked Girl


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When I first began taking lessons with Atanas about ten months ago I was often dismayed at how much physical capacity was required.

“You have to be in really good shape to do this,” I said to my teacher. When he merely nodded matter-of-factly, I persisted, “No, I mean you have to be in good shape just to do this at all. To do it well—with the right technique and form and cardio energy to get through several routines—you have to really work at it. It’s like an athlete preparing for a marathon.”

“Yes, I know,” he said with a forbearing smile. “But time by time, you will build strength. You will see.”

I knew he was right. I had already seen my cardio capacity expand with the two competitions I had done. But there were body issues—namely pains—that had begun early on in my lessons with Atanas that no amount of continued practice seemed to alleviate. One problem—my throbbing feet—I had mostly fixed with orthotic shoe inserts. But still, my hips ached every time we worked on deep Latin hip rotations and my upper back became stiff and inflexible after trying to achieve the left-extended frame of the Smooth dances. For days after a lesson I winced with each footfall or turn of my head.

The low point came about a month ago, when, after an evening of moderate social dancing, I was unable to sleep because of my aching hips and neck—even with an ample dose of ibuprofen, the pain kept me up long into the night. By then I had already visited a physical therapist who had offered some short term relief with deep tissue stretching, but that wasn’t helping me now. I finally got up and crept into the dark living room, weeping, certain I would soon have to admit defeat and give up dancing altogether. Still, I knew my tears meant this pursuit was too important to abandon easily, so, as the new day dawned, I vowed to reassess my problem.

I have long known that due to a mild case of teen scoliosis, my back and hips are a little crooked and consequently, not fully mobile. Assuming my stiffness was untreatable I had just learned to live with my condition. After my night of despair, I made a return visit to my physical therapist, Cindy, and asked her if dancing was just more than my ‘deformed’ back and hips could handle.

“Not at all,” she said. “We want you moving as much as possible, for as long as possible.” She reiterated what I had only vaguely comprehended before—that my back would begin to move freely again with consistent stretching. Because the muscle manipulations she did in our sessions could only go so far, she suggested I purchase a back roller to keep up my own stretching at home every day.

It was a simple wooden device—like two tennis ball-sized spheres attached in the middle. It was quite painful the first time I rolled over the device, letting it push into the deeply knotted muscles along my backbone, but the very next time I danced Latin I knew there was a difference. Although I still had hip pain afterwards, this time it was my hip flexor muscles that hurt and I understood intuitively that this pain was from muscles that were being properly engaged for the first time. In fact, with adequate stretching, my hip flexor pain goes away easily and has, in general, lessened over time. About six weeks later, I’m moving with a greater range of motion throughout my back, including my neck, so that I’m finding it easier to attempt that leftward-shaped Smooth dance frame, too. The fact that my upper back—which has always lacked the soft ‘s’ profile that is normal for a healthy spine—can now be fully utilized this way, is no less than amazing to me.

My earlier dismay at the extreme physicality required of dance is morphing into astonishment at the revitalizing capacity of the human body. Without the challenges of this sport, my poor spine would only have grown stiffer and, according to my physical therapist, have pulled me ever-forward into the slumping posture of old age. My spine—and my spirit, too—are continually renewed by dance.



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It’s been a rough week. A few days ago I woke up with a gastrointestinal malady; it was mild, but wearying enough to cause me to take a sick day from work, something I rarely do. I was feeling much better by evening, however, thinking I would not only be able to return to work but could go ahead with my usual dance lesson the next day.

Then a storm came rolling into our area and our dog, Vince, went crazy. Granted, it was quite a long-lasting storm, with multiple episodes of thunder and heavy rain that started in the late afternoon and went on all night, but even if the storm hadn’t been of much consequence, our dog would have been a wreck. At the first sound of rain, he invariably goes into self-preservation mode, panting and pacing around the house, digging in corners, knocking over everything in his path as he tries desperately to ‘go’ somewhere safe. We know from years of experience there is no reasoning with our pet in these episodes. No amount of calm talking, tender hugs, or even stern reprimands can bring him out of his angst. He’s lost in an inner-created world that makes no sense to anyone, even him, probably. We just shake our heads and do our best to keep him from damaging our home—a task which inevitably means somebody ends up babysitting him for hours. It so happened that when yesterday’s storm hit, I was the only one home with the dog. Needless to say, it was a long night for me, but I woke up from my few hours’ rest feeling determined to proceed with my day as usual.

And I did fine, getting through my dance lesson and my afternoon at work with no real difficulties despite the fact that I was bleary-eyed and a bit weak, no doubt due to my illness of the day before. The problem came when I decided to attend the group lesson Atanas was teaching that evening in International style waltz. I was anxious about the class anyway, because I knew International style was the origin of American smooth, the style of dance with which I so often struggle. But this was a beginner class, covering the most basic of steps, and I told myself it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Yet, the class very quickly became a struggle for me. Minutes into the lesson, I was murmuring my doubts, berating myself when I had trouble following the demonstrated steps. Soon I was apologizing to every leader with whom I danced and at one point, I very publicly begged out of dancing altogether, saying I needed to just watch from the sidelines a while.

For this little outburst I received a perplexed and pointedly annoyed look from my teacher—as if he were wondering about my sanity. He was looking at me, I realized, much the way I had looked at my storm-crazed dog the night before. In fact, I was in my own little storm—one I often self-create when trying to grasp something new. It’s a fear-driven torment, but I think it’s not so much fear about looking bad as it is fear of losing my ‘self.’ If I don’t roil and stress and tear my hair, there is a great danger (so the old ego is telling me) that a very important part of what formed me—my fearful child soul—will be sublimated. I cannot easily give up on the little girl who felt so inept at playground games that she turned to books as protection. She helped me survive, somehow, and I still need to give her a say in my adult world, it seems. This is selfishness of the most literal sort and not at all helpful to me or anybody else, but we all have these kinds of irrational inner selves to deal with, probably. Because it means so much to me, dance puts me more deeply in touch with both the devils and angels of my personality.

Having found no escape during his wild night, my dog finally made his way wearily into the den the next morning, stretched out on the rug and slept, oblivious to the deluge that continued outside. Though I couldn’t snap out of my fearful state at the group lesson, I know that when I’ve slept better and fully regain my physical strength, I will likely move beyond my destructive teeth-gnashing. For me, the way to survive learning International-style dance will be just to stick with it—to stay present and ride out the inevitable self-storms.



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I’ve discovered that among my male dancing acquaintances there is a disproportionate number who do not enjoy the swing or jive. I was puzzled by this discovery because those dances have always seemed to me the most purely fun—lively music, not a lot of difficult technique, a healthy dose of cardio work in just a few short minutes. I was a little put out by what seemed an unfair judgment on the part of these guys, upon whom we girls depend to make our dancing dreams come true. It was on my mind for a while as I tried to make sense of this anti-swing mentality, but I believe I’ve finally figured it out.

The swing and jive are all about fast-paced bouncing and twirling, the kind of motion that is greatly enhanced by the feeling of skirts swishing at your legs. Hence, men dislike the swing and jive because they don’t wear skirts. And men figure out what they’re missing right away. Now and then, a guy who has begrudgingly danced a swing with me will say, “Nice skirt you’ve got there.” A guy who’s really in the know might even comment accusingly, “You picked that skirt because of the way it twirls, didn’t you?”

Truthfully, it isn’t fair, because in every kind of dance, swirling skirts are a big part of the enjoyment. Men make peace with their boring pants the longer they are involved in dance, but I believe they still harbor feelings about the skirt-thing. My teacher, who has danced since forever, certainly seems to have some emotional investment in his various partners’ gowns. A month or so before my first competition, when I was still very dubious about the fussy clothes and make-up required, I mentioned to Atanas that I had purchased a Latin dress and then made an effort to describe it to him.

“Where is it?” he asked. “Why you no bring it to show me?”

“Well, I was going to, but it seemed kind of silly.”

He was astonished, even a little offended. “Is not silly. I want to see the dress!”

I’ve encountered several men in the contra dancing community who, having figured out the joy of the twirling skirt, have thrown their pants to the wind and donned skirts themselves. Although some of these contra guys cautiously choose the more universally man-accepted kilt, most are not at all concerned about potential misperception of their sexual orientation. They are usually long-haired counter-culture types whose attitude is: “Screw it—the twirlier, the better.

It isn’t all just fun and giggles for we skirt-wearers, however. In ballroom dance, especially, the skirt advantage comes with a host of selection responsibilities. Deanna, a friend and dance-mentor, recently guided me through the purchase of two competition dresses, casting a critical eye on both gowns and immediately stating their flaws. “Too short,” she said of both, but there was a gleam in her eye as she spoke. Deanna is an award-winning photographer who for many years has made something of an avocation of acquiring and then ‘re-fashioning’ ballroom gowns to suit the parameters of each style of dance. Often all that is necessary is the addition of ornamentation via Swarovski crystals—i.e. ‘stones’—but these dresses, which needed more length, were a little trickier.

After much consideration both of us had concluded I’d have send one back, until, later that same day, I got an e-mail from Deanna with a photo embedded. Her subject line read, “You could add feathers…” There followed several more rapid-fire e-mails from her with examples from her large file of gown photos. The prospect of helping me add feathers to my too-short Latin dress had caught her imagination and I was swept right along by her enthusiasm. I decided I would keep the dress, come what may.

So, if all goes well, it seems my next foray onto the competition floor will likely include not only a twirling skirt, but a twirling, feathered skirt. Sorry, boys.



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Competitive events like the recent one in Kansas City seem to serve as mile-markers for Atanas—guideposts that he uses to inform himself about the next phase of his students’ dance education. When we delve back into the waltz in the weeks after the competition, he is very focused and more critical of me than usual, stopping frequently to correct my frame and footwork. I sense he has stepped up his lead, too, challenging me to match his more precise timing. All of this seems too difficult, much more than my poor middle-aged brain and body can handle and my inclination is to divert my teacher with frivolity, but he isn’t buying that today. There will be no playing around for a while. He knows what needs to be done to hone my performance and he understands the time to do it is now, before my errors have become too deeply etched in my mind-and-muscle memory.

I can’t hide the weariness in my face when he stops to show me the footwork of the promenade chassé—something he has done many times before. The last time, a few months prior, I had recorded his demonstration on my phone, practiced it many times and sincerely believed I ‘had’ it. Apparently not.

Seeing my expression, Atanas fixes me with a serious look. “You will do this all the time—so many dances, this same step. You will use it, always you will use it. Is important to get it now, yes?”

I nod and follow him through the footwork, but I am fretful. How could I have practiced this simple step so many times, trying to be very conscious of the correct heel-lead technique and the syncopated count of the ‘rise,’ and still be getting it wrong? Not for the first time, I fear I simply don’t have what it will take to get beyond the basics of dance. I imagine myself staying at beginner bronze level forever, stuck in a kind of purgatory of dance fundamentals with no chance for the creative expression possible at higher levels of performance.

Later, at home, I sit down to put my worried thoughts onto the digital page—a kind of therapy for me. Some people have trouble writing, feeling lost after only the first few paragraphs. Writing wasn’t always that satisfying for me, either. In the beginning, I received a lot of criticism every time I shared my story attempts with others: “Too wordy…overuse of the passive voice…plodding pace…” I thought I wasn’t meant to be a writer until, after years of effort, I finally had at my disposal the range of skills needed to more skillfully construct a given scene or composition. Today I can rather easily shape a narrative, adding phrases, rearranging paragraphs, observing what theme is arising from the words and then sometimes, changing the point of the piece altogether when I understand what it’s really about. A story or essay begins to seem like a living thing, gradually transforming as I use my writer’s tools to put flesh on its bones, often winding up with a finished product that is more meaningful than I had imagined when I began.

Rather obviously, I’ve shaped this particular narrative into a comparison of dance to writing, but it’s helpful to me to imagine my future in dance will be easier when I’ve got these fundamentals down. Atanas has long possessed the technical resources he needs to perform with precision and grace and his job right now is to help me develop my own basic ‘toolbox’ from which to fashion my movement. There is no guarantee that a firm grasp of the basics will always lead to something beautiful, neither in writing nor in dance, but at least a solid framework will be there, ready for tinkering.