Dance Without Touch

Due to a complicated set of circumstances having to do with that delicate intersection between being silly and being stubborn, I got a chance recently to dance with someone without touching them at all.

Specifically, we were partners in a contra dance (a form of dancing where long lines of couples progress up or down the hall, repeating the same set of figures with each new couple. You dance constantly with your partner, and generally once or twice with everyone else in the set.) We were both allowed to touch anyone else in the set, we just wouldn't touch each other. This was a mutual decision based on our own amusement, rather than a spite decision one of us made against the other.

And it was fascinating. I'd previously only witnessed no-hands dancing between very good couple dancers, stepping through a one-step or swing based on very good eye contact and knowing each other very well. I'd never gotten a chance to do it on my own, and certainly not in a dedicated way like this. Of course, my partner is a talented dancer --I would have never tried this with a new dancer, as not being able to give them weight or help steer them would be a huge detriment to everyone involved.

The first thing I noticed was that dancing without hands has to be a little more precise. You don't get the physical cues from your partner that let you know you're in the right place. You have to pay better attention, and you have to adjust your body just a little more to compensate, especially if there's only one non-touching pair. (I refer specifically to things like a circle of four, which benefits from everyone being strong and well-balanced. When there's a broken link, it makes the circle that much weaker.) Most importantly, when swinging with my partner, I had to pay enough attention to pull away myself when I was in the right place. I couldn't rely on my partner steering me to the correct position like I often do.

The second thing was something I was already familiar with, at least in passing. Dancing without touching is arguably more intimate. Because you can't steer with physical cues, you have to do it entirely through eye contact, expressions, gesture, and if possible, verbal cues. I wouldn't dance like this with someone I didn't already know and trust to be a strong enough dancer to keep up. Having to trust someone not to be confused or led astray, paired with having to trust yourself not to mess up can be an enlightening moment --or an utter disaster.

Of course, contra's a lot easier than most dances to do without touch. The steps have already been decided by someone else, so you don't have to worry about leading or following successfully. Additionally in our case, we were still getting the necessary physical cues from everyone else in the line. If neither of us were touching anyone it may well have ben a more difficult dance.

I did enjoy the experience, and look forward to getting to try it again sometime. My mind is already trying to work out a more interesting way to swing when all you have to go on is eye contact --you can get the motions pretty easily, but it's impossible to get the speed without something to anchor against. And of course, I fully intend to get good enough at couple dancing to pull a strong partner around the room by just a clever smirk and a tilt of the head. And if nothing else, touch-free dancing has a wonderful effect on those watching, as the audience tries to figure out just what it is you're doing, and how much you've practised.


Historians and Michievians

A dance historian friend of mine hosts quarterly invite-only dances. For her, they're a chance to work out some of the figures that she can't quite get perfect without watching actual people. For us, it's a chance to dance a lot of very interesting figures and footwork, in a reasonably experienced setting. I went to one of these recently, and found myself having to coin a new word, to describe the difference in how she and I approach dancing.

She is very much a historian. She spends her time looking through ancient dance manuals and resources, reconstructing dances that no one has done in two hundred years, and getting every small detail as perfect as she can. For her, accuracy is the chief goal. She is trying to bring back to life dances no one has touched in years, and she wants them to be as exact a recreation of the nineteenth century experience as she can get. This results in very precise footwork, arguments over hand-holds, and endless repititions of figures as we try to figure out how the great dancemasters would have split setting-traveling-setting1 over eight bars.

And the dances she teaches are beautiful, and exciting, and accurate. I've been to some of the balls she's hosted, and it's a joy to watch a room full of period-costumed dancers whirl through a period-accurate dance.

But I can't do that.

I am too dramatic, and too distractible. I want my dancing to include flourishes, I want to show off. I want to be silly, I want to goof-off, and I want to do whatever is the most fun over whatever is the most accurate. Most importantly, I want to take the good pieces out of every dance form, and put them into other forms. My perfect dance has the intimacy of a waltz, the flirtation of Scottish Country, the solos and fancy footwork from Regency, and the mindbender from squares. And most importantly, the gender(s) of the people dancing doesn't matter a whit to what role they start (or end!) in.

Perhaps the simplest example of this comes from my favourite couple dancing group, hosted down in Maryland. At Oella, they dance a lot of vintage dance forms, to a lot of modern music. Sure, you can get period music for some stuff (or have it recorded, as my historian friend does), but there's a lot of great modern music that just happens to make a good waltz, or one-step, or even schottische3. Dancing the dances I love, to the music I love? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Ultimately, the two of us are just going to have to work around each other. This is where that ever-important relationship skill of "communication" comes in --knowing whether a dance will be strictly historical or a looser interpretation beforehand will help the dancers adjust their expectations. If it's really important to you to have mischief, you can ignore the historical sector. If it's really important to be accurate, skip out on the more ridiculous balls. For me, it's not particularly a problem --I like dancing, and helping her to create accurate dances ensures that they'll be around for the next generation of dancers to enjoy.

And for her? Well, I'll limit my compulsion towards doing the macarena during boring set dances to cases when it would be amusing rather than insulting. Chaos is fun, after all, but only when it's controlled enough to keep the dance coherent. If I combine my differing dance ideologies and come out with something less than the parts, I will consider myself to have done something wrong.

1: I'm not actually joking about this. I think we did eight bars of dancing at least a dozen times, going back and forth between "set for 2 bars, travel for 2 bars, set for 4 bars" and "set for 4 bars, travel for 2 bars, set for 2 bars". (No one liked my suggestion of "set three, travel two, set three"2.)

2: For good reason --I tried dancing that and it was horrible in every possible way. Don't set for an odd number of bars. It's terribly awkward.

3: I have been told quite firmly that Sweet Home Alabama is not _actually_ a schottische. I continue to be unsure of this fact, and think you just need a pairing willing to do a damn fast schottische. Any volunteers?

Cross-step at Splash!

Every year, MIT is host to an event called Splash, in which various college students and other low-lifes from around the community are encouraged to come and teach a class on anything they want. These classes are attended by 2500 middle and high school students, who spend the weekend gorging themselves on higher mathematics, the ins and outs of boffer weapons, arguments about nazi imagry in the Star Wars movies, how to make a cake that isn't a lie, and -of special interest- several different kinds of dancing.

When I learned of this nonsense, I knew immediately that I should be a part of it. So I promptly signed up to teach some classes in Cross-step waltz, and then forgot all about it until today. Since Splash is this weekend, I've chosen to spend today frantically coordinating all the various bits and bobs I need. Never let it be said that I am organized about my instruction.

As it is, I've settled things down some (with well over 24 hours to go!) and now have a pretty good sense of what I'll be trying to teach, and how I'll be trying to teach it. Best of all, I've spent the day ferreting around the internet, googling every possible combination of words to get myself some cross-step music that won't be, well, boring to me or my students.

Hopefully, I'm ready for this. I'll try and remember to post back with a report, or at least a list of the songs I used and how well they worked. And if this goes at all reasonably, well...I have dreams for dancing in this city, and being able to teach people some little things fits in well with those dreams. But that's a post for another time...


A quick aside to callers

Dear callers of the world, whatever your chosen dance form may be. I have a humble request.

Please, when trying to indicate that people dancing the same role should be facing each other, use just that terminology. Do not say "someone of the same gender". Do not say "someone who looks like you" (although that's at least good for a laugh). Say, if you must, "gents face gents, and ladies face ladies" but if you do, don't follow it with some sort of 'humorous' disclaimer aimed towards someone who appears to you to be dancing on the incorrect side of the floor --you do not know their motivations, and they may be in entirely the correct place.

Just say "face someone of the same role". It really is that simple. It gets the point across, and no one has to wince as you assume a gender for them. No one has to feel hurt or insulted that you called them a gentleman or a lady or called them out for being in the wrong place. No one has to gnash their terrible teeth and stay politely silent because it's just not worth it to speak up.

"Someone of the same role". It would make those of us who's dance-gender and real genders don't necessarily line up a whole lot happier.


Pre-Assembly 2011

The Regency Assembly is this Saturday.

For those not in the know, the Regency Assembly is a big formal ball recreating the dances and traditions of the Regency era --roughly the Napoleonic war, or "when all those books by that Jane Austen chick were written". Regency dancing is not the most popular dance form I do (that would be contra) and as such, there is an unfortunately small fanbase. The Assembly is one of the only chances we get to come together as a group and party. It's the time when you show off your gorgeous new clothes, your delicious new recipes, and your awesome elaborate new dance moves.

I am preparing for it by stressing out, and wishing I had realized it was so soon so I could make a better pair of breeches. And stressing out more. Regency dancing is particularly fraught for me, because it's one of the only dance forms in which I only take one role --that of the gentleman. I prefer to dance gentleman for several reasons, but one of the big disadvantages lies in that I find the role to be more restricting than that of the lady --both in clothing and in partner choice.

The restrictive clothing should be obvious: as a gentleman wearing proper period menswear, I am wearing four layers above the waist, not counting the bra or (for the more serious or endowed) binding. If that weren't exhausting enough, the neck should be swaddled by two of those layers, and wrapped quite thoroughly in a cravat. Huzzah for clothing that literally keeps you from turning your head!

As for partner choice, there is a certain degree to which ladies in a dance hall, especially of the vintage variety, get more freedom in choice than the gentlemen do. Because Regency dancing is typically skewed to feature more ladies than gents, the ladies are free to dance with each other, safe in the knowledge they are unlikely to be depriving a gentleman of a partner. It makes me sad to limit my potential choice by half, but it's a sacrifice I accept in exchange for some of the other freedoms of playing the boy.

At any rate, I intend to be there in my dashing dark blue tailcoat, attempting to keep my swearing to a minimum, and not set anyone on fire. This is a _formal_ event, after all. If you're there, do say hello, and if you're in Boston and want to come along, let me know --it's a dreadfully dull trip by myself, and my carriage has space to spare.


Round Peg...

So, a year later, I still find myself largely disinterested in rounds dancing, (As written about here). But here's the thing: I really enjoy couples dancing. I like waltzes, and cha-chas, and one-steps, and polkas, and did I mention waltzing? And I'll admit, I haven't been getting a lot of chances to do couples dancing lately --even the last waltzes from Scottish Country Dance have slipped through my fingers, as all my usual partners move to other parts of the world.

And so a few months ago, I let myself get pulled into a rounds dance, by one of the more proficient leads. He led me through the steps, giving verbal instruction for the things that couldn't be easily steered with hand motion, and well...the inevitable happened. I enjoyed myself. Hey, it's dancing, and in case this (poor, neglected!) blog wasn't a tip-off, I really enjoy dancing.

So that happened, and after it had happened once, well. I let it happen again. Not often, mind, but every few weeks, or months, I'd let myself get partnered with someone who can lead, and have them push me through the moves. And because I'm a good follow, I could do that. Theoretically, I could do that forever, just throw myself in the arms of someone talented when I'm at Tech Squares and want a dose of couples-dancing.

That's not actually how I dance. Ever. I don't think there's a form in the world that I could only do one role of and be totally content. And so I had my first dose of actual rounds instruction on Tuesday1. I learned a whole single waltz, from the lead position, with all the little components that comprised it. Huzzah!

My first reaction remains one of uncertainty: while strictly-following any couples dance feels about the same, properly leading a rounds dance, and doing all the called moves, is just downright *strange* in comparison to the rest of couples dancing I've done. I think part of the difference is that rounds dancing is a much more performative dance than most other couples dancing I do. There's a lot to it that involves pointing and posing, transforming the dance from just between you and your partner into something involving an audience as well.

Rounds dancing is also a lot more...frantic, for lack of a better word. I am used to, when setting my own pace as leader, being able to take time for myself or my follow to regain our footing and get back into the groove of the dance. Rounds dancing doesn't give you that time to refresh --there is no "basic step" that you return to in between doing flourishes. The whole dance is fancy footwork, and it can easily be overwhelming. (I treat it the same as DDR: when I get lost, stop, pick an upcoming point, and re-start there.)

I think I'm going to keep trying to learn, though. I still don't think of it as couples dancing in the sense I'm used to, and I might never, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. There is waltzing, and there is rounds-waltzing, and both are dance-forms I tentatively enjoy.

Plus, and this is important, rounds dancing is teaching me new moves to do as a leader. It might take some effort to translate them from the middle of a sequence to the middle of an unstructured dance, but learning new things to do as a lead is always a valuable experience in my book. I already have an advantage going to rounds dance that I have a lot of practise with keeping my footing steady to the beat. I might as well have an advantage to bring back to more typical couples dancing as well.

1: This is where I admit that my timing was awful --I am not going to be in town for the next two Tech Squares night. No more rounds learning for me, at least not until next month or something.


What I've Learned This Summer

This summer has been the summer of new dancing, something I can't complain about in the slightest.

In Square Dancing, I have begun to learn the Advanced level1. We just finished A1 last week, and presumably in a couple weeks will start A2. Huzzah for us! There are new difficult calls, and some really really interesting concepts that I don't get to enjoy in the regular Tech Squares group, which runs strictly mainstream/plus.

The most useful of these is the "As couples" signifier, which the caller can use to preface any call which is normally done in groups of four or fewer2. The dancers will then perform the call as though each couple were a single person dancing --no problem at all for someone who's spent a lot of time dancing gemini3, and is used to being half a dancer, and a lot of fun as people pivot around each other frantically.

And in Scottish Country Dancing, I spent a week at a delightful dance camp called Pinewoods, where I had four classes in Highland step dancing. Highland is a performance dance, the first kind I've learned (discounting the ballet classes I took when I was six and seven), and involves bouncing. LOTS of bouncing, with very precise footwork, and intricate flailing of the arms.

I'm sure there must be a proper Highland class somewhere in the Boston area, I just need to find the beast, and see if there is time in my tight schedule to participate. I'm already dancing three nights a week, every week, and I'm hopefully about to get a job in the real world, and lose a bunch of time there.

At any rate, it's nice to be back to the beginning level, sometimes. While I love the joy of dancing and knowing just how to go, there is a particularly delicious challenge to learning new things --and a particularly satisfying smugness when you get them right. Perhaps I'll have to keep my eyes peeled for more opportunities to broaden my dance repertoire. You know. In my copious amounts of free time.

1: MWSD levels run thusly: Mainstream; Plus; Advanced: A1, A2; Challenge: C1, C2, C3

2: I assume. Someone can feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

3: Gemini is when two people stand tight together, each with their outside arm available, and behave as one dancer --the left person being the left hand, and the right person being the right hand. I really need to create a glossary. And/or a post talking specifically about this.

Beaus and Belles

It's always disconcerting to hear that you've been using terminology incorrectly.

Especially when the terminology references role in a form of dance you enjoy, and you write passionately on the subject of dance and role and gender on a regular basis. Then it's both disconcerting and a little embarrassing, and means you have to go off and revise your opinion of certain terms.

To wit, I have been using the Modern Western Square Dancing terms "beau" and "belle" incorrectly for almost a year now, a fact which only came to my attention now that I'm learning the A1 level, and there are calls where the correct definition becomes relevant. See, when I first heard the terms, it was as "beau is the person on the left (typically male), and belle is the person on the right (typically female)". I assumed that they were referring to the roles --whether you had the left role or the right role.

I was wrong. The terms beau and belle specifically mean person standing on the left at that moment, and person standing on the right at that moment. Meaning if you have a gender typical couple, who then sashays (switches positions), the woman will be the beau, and the man the belle.

I've spent a little bit of time thinking about it since then, and I've come to decide that this is actually totally brilliant and acceptable, especially if you dance in a group as devoted to queer dancing as Tech Squares. It's a little frustrating to have one more thing to keep track of --in a square dance, you need to know whether you are a boy or girl1, whether you are a head or a side, and now whether you are a beau or a belle-- but it opens up opportunity for more complicated strings of calls, as it simplifies the calling from "person on the left, do this" to "beaus do this".

Also, looking back to my previous entry (four months ago in April, gak!), it seems like Pi-nerd has already explained this to me, and I just completely put it out of my head. Oh well. Now that it's something I have to worry about, it'll be easier to learn the concept. I would love to see it called more often in the Tech Squares mainstream/plus group though, both to give everybody more practise in keeping track of what identity the are right this instance, and because I think the terminology is elegant.

1: Starting-beau or starting-belle? It's not completely gender-free, and god is it clunky, but it's at least trying.


Vocabulary and Roles

Couples dancing is easy to degender. All you have to do is stop calling them the gentleman and the lady, and start calling them the lead and the follow. I've seen plenty of heteronormative dance halls do this already, because they're simply more descriptive titles anyways --it's pretty clear from names alone what the "lead" and "follow" do in a dance.

Then it comes time to describe the roles in a set dance, and my tongue stumbles. Lead and follow are no longer accurate descriptions, because most of the time, neither person is doing anything of the sort. Relabeling the gents as leaders simply starts to reinforce the leader/male, follow/female dichotomy that I'm specifically trying to avoid. And so the problem remains: In a set dance, you are one of two roles. How do we label these roles?

The words I've been using are "lady" and "gent", for lack of anything more recognizable1. Most of the set dance forms I do label them along similar lines. The least gendered role names come from ModernWesternSquaresDancing, where the technical terms are "Beau"(gent) and "Belle"(lady). Still gendered, albeit in a more archaic fashion, and unfortunately unused --I almost exclusively hear the words boys, girls, men, or ladies when calling one role to do something specific.

Riffing on my footnote below, I suppose a movement could be started to refer to the people on the left as the Lefts, and the people on the right as the Rights. Two things make me hesitant however --first that both words are called often to refer to hands or directions and second that a good number of dancers seem already unclear on the difference between left and right, especially when presented quickly. Saying "first Left turn the second Right by the right then turn the third Right by the left" is a technically accurate instruction for Scottish Dancing, but it becomes a parsing nightmare as the dancers try to work out what hands and people were indicated above.

I could, of course, use the above when writing here, and it wouldn't be problematic at all --I'm only rarely giving instructions to dances in this blog, after all. However, just finding good words for me to use is only a small part of my problem. I really just want something that can be universally used across dance forms and halls to indicate who's who, without attaching gender to the role.

I suppose the best current solution exists in some of the gender-free contra halls I've been a part of, where the dancers are divided into "Bands" (or "Beads") and "Bares". The people on the left are given bright ribbon to wear as armbands, or mardi gras beads, clearly marking them different from those with bare arms or necks. This is certainly the most well implemented solution, in that not only do the dancers understand who is who, but the caller is able to actually call moves one role or the other, without having to use gendered terms. Unfortunately, the practise seems limited to the contra communities, which make the words less appropriate to use universally. Not because I don't think the terms are excellent, but again, because they wouldn't be recognizable except to that particular crowd.

The conclusion of this post is that, unfortunately, I don't _have_ a conclusion. If there *are* easily recognizable names for the two roles in most set dances, I haven't heard them yet. The choice is two-fold, currently: either attempt to degender the terms Lady and Gent, at least when regarding dance roles, or attempt to bring new vocabulary into dance forms that may very well not see any need for it at all.

Seriously though, this is why I ask my partner what role they want to dance. Because then the onus of choosing a name for the role falls to them, instead.

1: Recognizability is _key_. I could easily declare that the people on the left of the hall when facing the music are the "glucks" and the people on the right are the "shoobs", but unless I'm willing to preface every following post with an explanation, the words are essentially meaningless.



(As an administrative aside, my life has become both very busy and host to something like ten dance events in the last two weeks. So I have many backlogged things to write about, and I will be making those posts when I have the scraps of time and energy to write them. If there's anything you think might be on my mind, and you'd especially like to see a post about it, please let me know.

On a semi-related note, should I start keeping a calendar of events I did or am going to?)

I have mentioned before the existence of a mischief maker at Tech Squares. He's a charming sort of boy, who can get away with being a smartass because he absolutely knows what he's doing, where he's supposed to be, and generally where everyone ELSE is supposed to be as well.

And so he leads the rest of the club into mischief, whenever he can find people willing to indulge or join. Recently, this manifested in a square containing him and me and six others of our ilk, all club members during a class review tip1. Accidental on our part --we were what was leftover after everyone else formed squares-- but not altogether a bad situation, especially as the evil smirks began.

"Snap switch?" the mischief maker innocently suggested, and it was quickly determined that everyone was amenable to the idea. After all, there were no newbies to confuse, and the moves called were likely to still be simple enough that everyone would easily recover from any missteps.

Snap-switching, in Modern Western Square Dance, refers to meeting another dancer's eyes, raising hands, and snapping your fingers. The effect is that the two of you have now switched places, and you complete the move, and the rest of the dance, from your new roles. Most often I've seen it happen between one couple, or between one couple and their facing couple. This was the first time I'd ever gotten to dance in a square where everyone was receptive to snapping.

It took very little time at all for our square to reach the ridiculous, as snaps started occurring at every possible point. The pinnacle was when the caller began calling a series of pass-throughs2 and our entire square responded by snapping through each one --rather than the tedious motion of walking all the way across the square, we would smirk, snap, and simply turn around.

This prompted me to start thinking of the situation in terms of a game, somewhat of a competition between the caller and the dancers. You may technically snap-switch for any move, so long as you end in the correct place. But for many moves, the only movement required if you snap-switch is to change your facing direction --pass throughs and trades especially.

So what happens if you set up a square in which each dancer's goal is to move from their spot as little as possible, as started to happen with us? It would require a firm working knowledge of the calls, and of where one was supposed to wind up, but it could lead to an interesting sort of chaos. I suspect it's less workable as you move from Mainstream into Plus, but it could be a cute game for an experienced square that was feeling more than a little lazy.

At the very least, if I can add some polish, it might be worthy of inclusion with other interesting Square Games (very few of which I've gotten to do yet!)

1: Tech Squares is divided into "class members", people who are currently learning the calls from Mainstream and Plus, and "club members", people who have already learned those calls. During class season, the night is usually divided into alternating club and class tips (dances), the latter of which alternate between "review" and "teaching". Review tips are nonstop dancing, teaching tips alternate between dancing and learning new moves.

2: When two people facing each other simply walk forward, passing right shoulders, to end in the other person's place, still facing their initial direction.

(As a complete aside, I must also offer my amusement at the idea of snap-switching ones way through a right and left grand. Rather than walk halfway around the set, one simply snap switches with each subsequent person, changing yours and theirs direction, and merely turning around rather than move. Sheer elegance in its simplicity.)


A brief aside on the topic of Swishy Dancers and the Vericon Masquerade

As I've mentioned before, dancers tend to like to have some swish to their movements. I am hardly an exception to that rule --if anything, I do my best to exemplify it, every chance I get. (My skirt collection is rapidly approaching the stuff of legends)

However, at the Vericon masquerade, I decided to go in costume. A close friend and I, after assessing that we could kinda pass for eleven if one squinted, decided to go as Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres and Hermione Jean Granger, from the fantastic fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and specifically in the battle fatigues worn in later chapters.

(And if you're going to make fun of me for cosplaying from a fanfiction, you understand neither that I refuse to be shamed for what I enjoy, nor that HPatMoR really isn't anywhere close to your average fanfiction.)

This meant that, for the ball, I found myself in old surplus army pants, and a long sleeved camo t-shirt (later abandoned for an olive drab tank-top.) I was dressed functionally, a state I generally enjoy, but for the dance...no swish. No twirl. No satisfying motion of my clothing to accent the motion of my dance.

And then I unbraided my hair from its multiple thin braids, hoping to get some of Hermione's classic unruly poof. And oh yes. My hair poofed alright. It was downright alarming, as my hair --already thick and formidable-- managed to nearly double in volume.

As it hung in waves around my face, I found myself smirking. In slacks and a tank-top I had more swish than nearly anyone else1 on the dance floor. I rocked out with my hair flying everywhere, restraining my motions only enough to keep my vision clear and avoid whipping any of my fellow dancers.

Having my hair down, especially having my hair down with added volume is a literal pain in the neck at a dance, especially when partners get involved and need to find a place to put their hands where they won't get tangled or lose grip. But every once in a while, for this kind of excellent single-person flailing? Screw practicality. Swishing, in any manner, just looks good.

1: I was challenged by a charming gentleman cosplaying Vim from con Guest-of-Honor Brian Sanderson's "Mistborn" book(s?). His cloak was comprised of ribbon and scraps of fabric, and seemed to be solely designed for maximum swooshiness. We wound up dancing together a couple times, partly because of how well our respective motion blur complimented each other.

Choreographing the Vericon Masquerade

Many science-fiction conventions have an event called the "Masquerade". They're basically huge costume contests, where everyone from bare novices to master-class costumers get on stage and show off the pretties that they've been working on for the last year (or more!).

Vericon1, however, skips all the judging nonsense and so their masquerade is closer to the traditional roots of the word, a ball in which attendants are encouraged (though not required) to show up in costume or cosplay. This leads to wonderful and silly situations as four decades --or more!-- of pop-culture collide.

(As an aside, have you ever wondered how EvilSpock would react to a cute girl grinding up against him to the dulcet strains of "She Blinded Me With Science"? It's pretty entertaining, let me tell you! I only wish I had my camera out to catch his perfectly quirked eyebrow as he declared: "Science.")

So because it's a ball, it is expected that there will be dancing. And because Vericon is staffed, run, and attended by complete geeks...well...let's just say that the music can be considered eclectic at best, and the dances performed to match.

Oh sure, there's definitely a lot of happy flailing and bouncing around. Just because the songs are geekier than your average club fare doesn't mean you have to change the dancing around any --just find a strong beat and rock out. But between the flailing, maybe every third or fourth song, some spectacular geek anthem comes on, and the dance floor transfers from an incohesive throng to an impromptu performance space. Different people step up, as costumes or attitudes necessitate, and instead of just dancing, they *perform*.

One of the clearest examples is the annual production of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". The room finds itself a circle, leaving plenty of space for Johnny and his foe to face off, miming fiddles as though their life depended on it. And at the point of the song where the demons of hell get to jump in and join their master...hoo boy, you get quite the cast of characters as anyone even *slightly* evil takes their cue.

Other songs get the star treatment too. "Walk Through the Fire" varies by year, but when it's good, it's good, with people of all costume stepping up to fill the roles of the various scoobies et al. (I got to be Spike this year!) And usually late in the evening, the DJs cue up "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun", which lends itself to a spectacular amount of running around screaming...at least until you get shot (at which point you get to throw yourself to the ground dramatically, which is arguably even more fun.)

The impromptu choreography is wonderful, and best of all, it lends itself to sharing, as ideas ripple across the dance floor. One person comes up with something clever, which is quickly stolen by another, or another. Some songs will lead to multiple performances, scattered across the floor --what's "Skullcrusher Mountain" with only one evil scientist after all?

My crowning victory this year was for another JoCo song. When "Re: Your Brains" came on, it took me only a few lines to realize that the logical way to "dance" was with arms outstretched, moaning the lyrics and shuffling around like a true zombie. The idea caught on like wildfire, and by the second stanza, the floor was almost entirely populated by zombies --one lone human ran around and around, giving us something to grab for.

It was wonderfully reaffirming, being in this mass of groaning humans. Sure, it was ridiculous, and in all honesty, we probably looked thoroughly uncool. But we're geeks. Most of the people in that room would probably pick fun over cool any day of the week. And being in a room of creative, kinesthetic, unashamedly silly people leads to some excellent -albeit uncool- geek choreography.

Which is probably why we could shuffle like pros during "Re: Your Brains", but not a zombie among us knew more than the fewest poses for the next undead anthem played: "Thriller". It's a great song and all, but for us?

We'd rather write our own choreographies.

1: Vericon is Harvard University's annual science-fiction convention. It seems to range from maybe two to five hundred attendees (yes, I totally guessed that number), and is currently held every year in March. I do recommend it! If nothing else, they have a fantastic dance.


Swishy Dancers

Dancers like being swishy.

I don't mean in an effeminate, limp-wristed, gay-stereotype sort of way (though I'm sure there is overlap). No, dancers really like it when they can do a swing, a twirl, a flourish and have their garments swirl out around them. It's a neat visual effect, the way the cloth moves, the rush of wind as something breezes past. Oh yes, dancers like being swishy, a lot, and that predilection is not at all limited by gender, role, or dance form.

Of course, there are certain types of dance that encourage it more than others (or perhaps it's the opposite correlation, perhaps forms develop more twirl to them when the dancers wear more swish). The kilt, as worn by dashing Scottish Country Dancers everywhere, doesn't just serve as an emphasis to a well-toned calf. It also provides incentive to keep your moves crisp, for optimal hem-swish. When a friend first got his, he remarked that it was suddenly easier to dance well --making the kilt twirl just so seemed to be the purpose of many moves that he hadn't quite instinctively gotten while he was still wearing pants.

Contra dancers seem to thrive on adding twirls, to every move they can, including (as far as I can tell) the twirls! On the one hand, it makes for a dizzying dance. On the other, it's a great excuse to wear full-circle skirts and watch the hems fly. I've never attended a contra where fewer than fifty percent of the dancers were wearing unbifurcated bottoms, and at some bigger events, that number creeps to seventy or seventy-five!

Even the less instinctively twirly dances encourage the wearing of garments that are kinesthetically pleasing as they move about the body. Oh sure, a lot of vintage lady'swear is hoops and bustles, with enough hardware beneath the skirt to ensure total rigidity. But what do you think the purpose of a tailcoat is? It's not just designed to get in the way when you sit down --tails look splendid during turns, which is quite satisfying to the more vain among us.

There are other good ways to get that visual blur as well. Beads and fringe of flapper dresses. Tiny braids or hair worn loose past the shoulders. Scarves, ties, cloaks and coats. A varied enough crowd of dancers will have all this and more, because let's face it, having your accouterments fly out around you is both visually pleasing and just damn fun!

So grab your skirts, your kilts, that excellent dress or perfect pair of tails. Let down your hair and let it fly. Spin like you've never spun before, until the cut of cloth through air becomes audible to all around you.

Just remember to wear a really cute pair of underwear. Otherwise, it gets a bit embarrassing.


I Am Not Alone

I am not alone.

It's a reassuring thing to note sometimes, when I get stuffily told "I only dance trad1" or glared daggers at for coaxing my male-gendered partner into the typically female-gendered role. I am not alone, I remind myself, when I'm told that gentlemen do not dance with other gentlemen, that a female-sexed body in male formalwear counts as a woman, and other women will feel "cheated" if they have to dance with me rather than a real man.2

I am not alone, and perhaps more importantly, I am not alone in any dance form I do. It is not that certain dancers are a safe haven for me to play with gender and roles where others are not. No, I'm remarkably lucky in that every dance form I've tried (admittedly, mostly throughout liberal New England) has held allies. Not everyone. Sometimes not even a majority. But it's a lot easier to put myself out there when I know one-two-a-few other people present who don't think the gent's role is strictly for males or the lady's role strictly female.

Lots of female-gendered people dance both roles, simply to make up for the gender imbalance on most floors. I know several male-gendered people (and at least a few female!) who like trying the opposite gender's role, simply for the challenge, to keep their skills sharp. I once met a woman at a ball who had grown bored of dancing with inexperienced partners, and so now dresses and dances the gentleman's part specifically so she can have first pick of the experienced ladies. I've an excellent friend at Tech Squares who's been teaching me how to snap-switch (trading roles in the middle of a figure, back and fourth several times during the dance) specifically because he likes to promote "mischief"3.

And of course, then there are those like me. People whose gender doesn't line up with the binary. Boys who would simply rather dance with other boys, and girls who much prefer partnering with other girls. Gender-queer, sexuality-queer, plain ol' dance-queer. We're out there, and we're clever enough and organized enough (be it through the internet, queer-flagged dance events, "indicators"4, or just straight-up announcing "hi, I'm Kat, I dance both roles") to find each other, look out for each other, and yes indeed, dance with each other.

So hi to the person who changes from a street-casual woman-in-a-dress to a dance-formal man-in-a-tailcoat. To the one with the shaved head and twirly skirt who beamed when I asked if they had a preference for role. To the pair of gentlemen old enough to be my grandfathers, who I see at contras wearing skirts and holding hands and very much in love. Hi to the people who are gendered like me, hi to the people who dance like me, hi to the people who are willing to support me.

You are all awesome people. I'm glad I'm not alone.

1: Trad = Traditional --a man in the gent's role, a woman in the lady's. Don't worry, I had to ask too the first time I heard it.

2: Which is problematic for loads of reasons above and beyond just being unwelcome to someone who is a good dancer (yes me, I'm egotistical like that) and is trying to get more people out and about on the dance floor. Smacks of homophobia, and is awful for me as a not-always-female-gendered mind in a female-sexed body. I know I'm not good enough at being a "real man". You don't have to remind me.

3: This is the same troublemaker who organizes the hexes each week of squares --and half of the reason I got pulled into my first hex (dancing gemini --side by side with another person) after only learning three dozen calls or so.

4: T-shirts or buttons with declarations of queerness. Rainbow bracelets or bangles. Male-sexed bodies in skirts, and female-sexed bodies in tailcoats. Not every indicator is accurate, and certainly not every queer person uses them, but it's sometimes nice to flag yourself to your certain subgroup.


Totally in no way inspired by real events last night during the fifth dance

Set dancing is commonly known by another title --social dancing. This is because it's almost always a very social event, one where you get to interact with many different people over the course of each dance. There are great advantages to dancing in multitude like this. Non-active dancers can help lead less experienced dancers, or detangle knots. Multiple people are trying to remember the sequence, and can guide each other if someone forgets. And of course, every dance, you not only get to interact with one partner, but with multiple other couples --from your standard eight people in a square, to the thirty couples or more at a big enough contra.

However, there is one significant disadvantage to social dancing, that doesn't really come into play with any other type of dance. Once you commit to a set in a social dance, you're stuck. You _must_ dance, or attempt to dance, the entire rest of the sequence. If you quit halfway through, you have not just stopped your dance --you have stopped the dance of everyone else as well.

Now, I'm not saying if you suddenly injure yourself, or feel faint, or otherwise have to pull out halfway through for medical reasons, you shouldn't. Persevering against all better instincts is for fools, especially when a medical emergency is on the line --please protect yourself so that you can come back and dance another day. But try to be aware of your body. If you're likely to become exhausted, sit out a round --there's no shame in it-- or if you're truly unsure whether or not you'll be able to complete a dance, find a friend who's not dancing who is willing to step in for you.

But don't just quit. Even if the dance is difficult, ill-taught, frustrating, even if your set has fallen to pieces 'round your ears. Much of set dancing repeats itself --reset yourself in the position you need to be at the end of the phrase, or the time through, and get ready to try again. If you're too petulant to reset, too annoyed to try again, then for lands sakes, at least get out of the way. Unless all eight+ people involved have agreed that the dance has become undoable, you will be impeding someone else's ability to dance if you stand in the middle of the floor, or remain at the top of the set and refuse to let others go.

Also, should you reach such a state of irritability that you refuse to go on, please find it in your heart to apologize to the rest of your set. They were depending on you in order to fully enjoy this dance, it's boorish not to acknowledge that fact. The least you can do is say you're sorry.

Lest they carefully and specifically mark you in their mind as someone to never share a set with again.

(As a postscript, I feel I should note that I am in no way referring to the knots that can occur when very new dancers are being thrown into a set dance with little or no previous training. New dancers mess up. They're inexperienced, it happened, dust off, back to places, and try again. My anger is only directed to when someone -of any dance level- consciously makes the decision that they are no longer willing to participate in this dance, and so ruin the rest of the dance for people who needed them present.)


Dancing with Myself

I wrote a bit, before Arisia, about dancing without partners, all by yourself in a big crowd of people bopping and gyrating and generally having a madcap time of things. "Club dancing" is probably the best umbrella term for it, as it is indeed the sort of thing one does inside a club. (Or at least I assume --I've only ever done it at conventions, with blinky lights and a thousand geeks).

That's only one form of dancing with yourself, though. There's another way to dance by yourself, and that's to close the doors and draw the blinds and clear out a space of your very own. Put music on the computer, the stereo, the ipod. Listen to it, and dance.

There are similarities between club dancing and solitary dancing. The movements are oft the same, flailing arms and legs, shaking hips, jumping and bouncing and twirling around. But solitary...solitary I can shake off even that last pervasive edge of people thinking I look like an idiot. I can move by myself, and I can move for myself. That's important, moving *for* oneself. It means I'm not afraid to get a little silly.

I was doing it some last night, having a melancholy evening filled with Vienna Teng. Her song "Between" is actually an excellent waltz, or cross-step waltz.. I've danced it by myself half a dozen times since the last time I was lucky enough to have a partner. It's becoming one of those songs, where you know every line and note and chord, that you just don't want to share anymore. Cross-step can be adequately danced alone --you just have to not fear swooping a little more than intended.

I also danced to her song "The Tower", which I had never danced before. This is the really interesting part of dancing all alone, to random songs from my 10k+ collection. What kinds of movements get paired with what songs, and with what moods. It's not always the same, after all.

The Tower surprised me by being sharp. I found myself moving in ways reminiscent of the two years I spent doing kung-fu --no actual figures or forms worked into my dance, but the flow reminded me, the quick steps, the give and take of the arms. I'd like to dance it again, to see if that's always the case. Ah, but finding a space where I can dance alone is not always easy --sure the stage at school works, but not if the auditorium is locked, or full.

I always feel different after I do it. It heals, it stabilizes, and yes sometimes it reopens old wounds. Regardless of the mood in which I start, and the mood in which I finish, dancing solitary always makes me feel whole, feel like myself and only myself. Not too shabby for some made-up moves strung together on impulse.


Post-Dancing with the Dashwoods

This past Saturday I attended a Regency Ball. As always, I danced as a gentleman, and as often, I had a lovely time of things. There were several friends in attendance who I don't get to see often, and I had a spectacular time flirting, dancing, and eating cookies that looked like jellyfish1.

The ball went almost without a hitch, from a gender standpoint --I took two couple dances with gentlemen of my acquaintance, one a fastpaced polka and sauteuse when the hall was half-empty at the end of the break, and one the last waltz with my boyfriend. No one complained or chided me for this action, which I approved of.

In fact, the only problem was during the workshop beforehand, when I was still wearing jeans and a t-shirt like any girl, instead of the multiple layers of frippery and finery I put on as a gentleman. We were split into two groups across the hall to learn the waltz, ladies on one side, gents on the other. I was standing by a friend, chatting casually, when an older gentleman leaned over to me.

"The ladies are on that side". He explained, in semi-patronizing tones.

I gave him my most terse smile. "Yes, but the gentleman are on this side" and returned to my conversation. It galled though, both the assumption that as a female I can't dance gentleman, and honestly, just the idea that I am so oblivious and unobservant that I could not tell we had split up along genders and I was on the wrong side.

The other interesting thing I noticed was that I was not the only female-shaped person who was on the "gents" side of the dance2. There were, however, no male-shaped people on the "ladies" side of the dance. This happens often, and is one of the hardest barriers to having an ambidancetrous dance floor --while women are often taught and encouraged to lead (in general, they have to be, due to there usually being more women on the dance floor than men), men are almost never taught to follow, and encouraged even less.

I'd like to fight this arrangement. I like dancing with everyone, and the idea that some people are ill-equipped to dance a certain role simply due to their biological gender is simply absurd. Teach everyone how to dance both roles! Make a stronger dance floor for all.

1: Technically I believe they were meant to be fans. But they looked like jellyfish! And tasted delicious.

2: I later talked to at least one other --the reason she provided was that she went to so many balls that were so female skewed that this was the only way she could be sure of A) getting to dance at all and B) dancing with good dancers --there is a lot more choice available to gents than to ladies. It was neat to talk to her though!


How to fake dressing like a Regency gentleman

I am not a costumer. I survive off hand-me-downs, "close enough", and huge amounts of advice from my friends, especially the ones who keep blogs like Historic Fancy Dress, which talks about accurate fancy clothing for all sorts of vintage eras. Largely though, I don't care what I wear to balls as long as I look accurate enough that they invite me back.
I am not wholly without vanity, however, so within that attempt for accuracy, I'd also like to look as good as I possibly can. This is especially important in Regency, where I dress and dance as a gentleman. The more accurate my costume, and the more clearly gentlemanly, the easier it is for me to pass as male, which helps everyone on the dance floor. This leads me to a frantic rush before every ball, as I try to put together an outfit that will look nice, masculine, and as period-accurate as I can fake, in between lamentations that I didn't get done that bit of sewing I really meant to a year ago, or swearing as I realize I can't find a piece I need. For Regency, at least, this is what I usually wear, from top to bottom, outer layer to inner:
(You could possibly use this as a resource for what you should wear at a Regency event (if you dress as a gent) but I would really recommend somewhere that will actually cite their sources.)

Hat: I don't actually own a period-accurate hat at all and confess to not knowing entirely what they look like. But I do own an absolutely fantastic black leather tri-corn with several feathers and flourishes, which I maintain is my persona's link back a few hundred years. More recently though, I acquired a nice felt top-hat, of the very modern variety, that I might wear to the ball this weekend. We'll see how I feel it fits. (And if it doesn't work for historical, it will certainly be appropriate for steampunk. I refuse to place goggles around the brim, however --but that's a separate rant.)

Tailcoat: I was lucky enough to inherit a not-too-inaccurate dark blue silk brocade tailcoat from a fabulous costuming and dancing friend of mine. It's one of my single favourite pieces of clothing, and one of the few things I actually bother to try and take care of. The cut is "period" though not particularly Regency, but my favourite thing about it is the colour --black wasn't exclusive for men's clothing until the eighteen forties-sixties, I believe.

Cravat: My cravat is one of the items most in need of a replacement. It's literally just an unhemmed, unfinished piece of cream/white coloured fabric about six feet long. I fold it over enough to make it look official, but something that I could properly starch and wear tightly would be wonderful. And you know, that doesn't fray.

Waistcoat: Pronounced "west-kit". Is just a vest, which would be terribly easy for me as I own several, except that I've no idea what period is for Regency waistcoats. I do have a pair of nice double breasted ones that work except for the buttons --and again, the colours are the best thing, one is navy blue, and the other salmon pink. Yum!

Shirt: A plain white men's collared shirt is pretty much mandatory1 for this sort of outfit. Unfortunately, because of my tiny stature, I can't afford to worry about accuracy with this --it's enough of a challenge just to find one that fits. I have a couple that I rotate through, some of which are feminine-cut and all of which are thoroughly modern, but until I learn to sew, they will have to do.

Undershirt: Not strictly necessary for period purposes, but it helps smooth out everything worn under the shirt, and helps provide a solid-coloured background in case the shirt is slightly translucent. I should technically wear white, and usually do, but I have a grey Excited Victorians t-shirt by Kate Beaton, and it's very hard not to just wear that to every historical dance event I ever attend.

Everything Under the Undershirt: If I were dressing up as a male and would just be standing around looking pretty, I might go the extra step and bind my breasts. But Regency involves an awful lot of bouncing. I'm already pretty flat-chested, and generally with a good sports bra and the above layers, I get enough of the illusion to pass.

Breeches: Mine are more piratey than Regency, unfortunately, but they're black, and more or less fit, which works for me. When I go to inaccurate dances, I'm happy to wear my steampunk breeches, but they've far too many pockets to be accurate for historical balls.

Hose: Generally, I just wear tights. I've got a couple pairs, at least one of which is a nice dark blue to match my tailcoat. Hose is uninteresting, and honestly, as long as you're not using flashy designs, pretty much all period.

Shoes: I could not begin to afford properly period footwear, so I wear whichever boots have the least flash to them. It doesn't really matter, as I just change into my dance shoes almost immediately anyways. My dance shoes are classic black woman's jazz shoes, but with bright pink laces. If I care enough about accuracy, I relace them, but unless I'm feeling quite charitable towards the people in charge, I don't bother.

Assuming I counted correctly, that's two layers below the waist and four above it. This is why every gentleman at every vintage event will attempt to collapse immediately after the Bumpkin is played, it gets very warm wearing so much. If nothing else, that might be what finally drives me to dress the lady --they get bare arms and open skirts, and the ability to pull their hair up off their neck.

And yes, of course I'll include a link to a picture.

1: But not entirely --ask me to recount the story of the Regency Assembly in which I lost my shirt somewhere along the way. Thank god for using the cravat to cover up where the collar's supposed to be.


Teaching Experienced Dancers

It can be difficult for regular dance groups to differentiate their instruction, especially if the class covers a wide range of skill and experience levels. Hopefully, your class will be large enough that you can split it between levels, but then you run into the issue of how to define the split. When, as I discussed recently, does a newbie start to be considered not?

In the group I do Scottish Country Dancing with, the split is between "beginners" and "intermediate/advanced". The dance night typically runs with an hour of lessons, followed by an hour or so of mixed social dance, where everyone is encouraged to dance with everyone else.

You graduate yourself when you feel confident --no one will specifically tell you "okay, you're I&A now". This tends to work well for the class, but still leads to an occasionally problematic gap in skill from one end of the I&A group to the other. The general solution is for teachers of the I&A class to focus on seriously breaking down techniques and practising particular figures until they are perfect --the more experienced dancers can generally use a friendly reminder on timing, and the less experienced dancers get to really know what the figure is supposed to look like.

Unfortunately, some teachers are more skilled at this than others, which leads occasionally to problems as they assume a higher overall skill level than is actually present in the class. So long as the teacher is open and paying attention, this isn't too bad, but when a teacher becomes caustic towards students who are less practised at certain figures or incidentals, or can't understand a question asked because they assume everyone in the class should already know that thing "because it is an experienced dance class" you have a problematic situation.

Even experienced dancers can be missing certain things. Moreover, SCD has been danced in its current form for nearly a hundred years. Yes, the "proper" way to, say, perform a rights hands round is with the hands joined only with the person on your diagonal, as opposed to all as one group of four hands, but sometimes it's easier to join all hands together, or awkward to split the hands into their diagonals due to the previous figure. So, even a dancer who is experienced in technique may not always know the exact technique for this particular dance.

About the best thing you can do to teach such groups, is to know the dance well, and watch closely as they practise. That will help you accurately answer questions on technique or movement, politely, when students ask. Sniping at students because they "should" know this achieves nothing useful1.

And remember too, sometimes students ask questions because, while they may be experienced at a certain figure, they may be dancing cross-gender for whatever reason (it's especially common in SCD for females to dance the male role, due to the natural gender imbalance of the class), and not familiar with the particular differences they need to know from dancing the opposite of their more familiar role.

1: Especially not in a social dance context, where the focus is generally more on having fun and being friendly to people. Perfection is all well and good, but if you're not preparing for a performance, perhaps it's not as necessary.


Please, think of the newbies

Easily the most frustrating part about being dancequeer is constantly having to come up with rebuttals against all the justifications and explanations and reasons why I shouldn't dance across genders, or why I shouldn't dance with other men/other women1.

I consider many of these to be bullshit --I refuse to even bother arguing with anything that smacks of homophobia or trans(queer)phobia-- but every once in a while, someone comes up with a justification for my dancing "normal" that I am actually willing to entertain. One of the most understandable of these is the idea of "think of the newbies": When you dance cross-gender, especially if your partner is also dancing cross gender, you lose the convineince of "go to the lady's side of the dance" or "trade places with the gentleman you're facing".

I understand what it's like to be a new dancer. It's confusing to remember who stands where, and when, especially when it's not consistent. And I believe in extending every support possible to new dancers, to keep them excited for the danceform. After all, if your new dancer finds themself easily confused or frustrated, they'll be less interested, less likely to return.

But only to a certain point, and that's where it gets difficult. Where do we draw the line between "new dancer, who should be coddled" and "experienced dancer, who can deal with wackiness"? I am willing to make the sacrifice of dancing "normal" in order to help out people who have never danced before. I'm willing to make the sacrifice for people who have only danced once or twice. But where does it end? Most dance forms don't have magical level tests you must pass to determine whether or not you are "experienced", and even if they did, experience from skill level is very different from experience from time spent doing the form.

Additionally, is it misleading to dance normal for a new person, especially in a group that doesn't regularly do that, or has a regular population of ambidancetrous or rolequeer2 persons? After all, the status quo for that specific population is to have certain people dance against the norm. If they all dance normal for newbies, then will the newbies be more confused when suddenly people start switching roles again?

Tech Squares, at MIT, seems to have struck a fair balance, in part by dividing their dances into club-only --experienced dancer-- tips, and teaching, or class tips. In the club tips, a little more excitement happens, people dance in hexes instead of squares, or snap-switch places and roles in the middle of a dance, as well as just relax a little more about what genders and roles they are. Because newbies are often present, they get to see that this is a regular thing among the club, but they aren't overwhelmed while actually trying to learn the figures themselves.

Additionally, I've found the population of Tech Squares to be very good about naming their gender when the call requires it. "Boys run around the girls" is often met with the person next to you declaring "boy" as they run around you, to save confusion, just like Load the Boat has people declaring "inside" or "outside" and complex partner-switching figures leading to the person returning home informing their new partner "side" or "head". This provides an excellent cue, and helps direct dancers, new and old, to where they need to go.

It's a hard balance, and most places I've danced aren't nearly as well-arranged to meet both the needs of the new dancers and the dancequeer dancers. So I request advice --how do you easily mark out to those who might otherwise get lost, which side of the dance is which?

[1] I use this structure specifically to cover instances when I am dressed as and dancing as a man (which I do at Regency events) and instances where I am dressed as and dancing as a woman (which I do at SCD and other formal dance events)

[2] In case it's not very obvious, I am making up words for this blog as I see fit. I use queer as a non-pejorative term to mean not normal, specifically in terms of dancing your expected role for your apparent gender.


Square peg, Round hole

During the fall semester this year, I took up Modern Western Square Dancing ("squares"), by taking MIT's Tech Squares class. Unlike most square dancing groups, which can take 40 weeks to a year to cover the mainstream and plus level calls, Tech Squares crams the program into thirteen weeks. It's quick and intense and you find yourself learning eight to twenty new calls each week. It's a rather intense way of doing it, but fun if you can keep up, and their regular caller is extremely good at his job, as well as being creative enough to keep things adventurous even for the more experienced dancers in the room.

Now, square dancing isn't the only thing that Tech Squares teaches, or the only thing danced at their weekly dance nights. They also teach a monthly Modern Western Rounds Dancing ("rounds") course --each month they focus on calls for a different type of dance, like cha-chas, foxtrots, one-steps and two-steps, or waltzes. Paying for squares means you can get into the rounds class too, and several people have asked me if I plan on trying it.

I had never seen called couple dancing before I first witnessed rounds. I have been doing couple dance longer than any other form of dancing1, and I have watched many extraordinary dancers spin into interesting variations and beautiful figures. Couple dancing is, to me, something to be created anew every time, a dance form filling the grey area between dancing by oneself, which is often completely dictated by your own creativity, and dancing in a set, where you follow the prescribed set of figures, a prescribed number of times.

When I first was introduced to the idea that couple dancing could have all the creativity sucked out of it, and be reduced to just rote repetition of someone else's chosen figures, I found myself utterly repulsed. While my repulsion has softened some, I am still not at all interested in learning how to dance rounds myself, and have had to politely reject several people who asked me to dance.

From the first I have tried to figure out just what it is about called couples dancing that I revile so, especially when squares --called set dancing-- is close to my favourite current type of dance. I think part of it is what I mentioned above, that I have spent so long watching creative and complex figures that the idea of subscribing to another's choice seems bland or cheap somehow. Part might also be the complexity of the figures involved. Often, especially with a clever caller, square dancing feels like a puzzle, where we tie a series of careful knots, and if you don't end up exactly where you belong, the whole thing can fall apart. Eight people (or twelve2, if you're dancing in a hex --more on that in another entry) solving a puzzle together is a lot of fun, especially when you're doing so in a rush of movement and grabbing hands. Two people logically have less complex maneuvers, and so the puzzle is less interesting --if it's even a puzzle at all.

Ultimately, I'm not sure I've solved what my beef is with round dancing. I'll keep thinking about it, and let you know if I draw any more useful conclusions. And who knows. Maybe my scientific nature will force me to try it before I decide for good that it's simply not for me.

1: Technically, my couple dancing experience dates back to when I was eight-nine-ten, and friends of the family hosted monthly balls at their place. I learned how to waltz (both the first and second time) by people who have been doing such for my lifetime and longer, and while most of the experience faded amongst the years when I was not dancing so regularly, I stubbornly maintain I have been doing Grand Marches since I was eight.

2: Or, as happens surprisingly frequently due to a friend and I dancing gemini --side by side with one of us being the left hand and one of us the right-- a thirteen person hex.



As a generally positive person, I try not to think about the downsides of being ambidancetrous, (or of any other activity in which I regularly engage.)
However, I encountered one of them last night, and I'm suddenly curious as to whether the trade-off is worth it. Namely, when you're accustomed to dancing complicated figures from either position, it becomes impossible to realize when something has gone awry in the calling (or the set) and you and your partner have gotten your sides reversed.
See, the teacher last night at SCD became slightly muddled as she gave the advanced class directions, and we wound up standing as two couples, one of which was improper -with the gentleman and the lady on opposite sides of the set. From there, we were expected to do a pousette, already one of the more difficult Scottish figures.
However the pousette is typically danced with both couples proper, and there was a momentary hesitation across the class as people tried to adjust to the "backwards" nature half of them had to face. I was oblivious to the "wrongness" of the situation until someone asked for clarification. After all, I've danced pousettes from either role often enough that I just know the directions involved, and would've gone that way and trusted my partner to do the same.
That's indeed what happened, the class managed to do an admirable job with the strangeness, and the dance looked lovely and was fun. But it was an interesting discovery of what I lack --I can dance either role just fine, but to get to that point, I've somewhat sacrificed my ability to tell when something is not quite right without paying considerable attention. It's an interesting debate, which of these is more important to the dance.

However my choice is wrong, I will keep dancing both roles. Backwards, if I have to.


Pre-Arisia: The kind of dancing one does by oneself.

So, one of my favourite parts of Arisia is that it gives me a chance to indulge in the kind of dancing that I don't get to do very often. That's because the kind of dancing I don't get to do very often is the kind of dancing where you go someplace VERY LOUD and stand in the middle of a giant group of people, and everyone starts flailing around in a magnificent sort of manner, attempting to be something close to on beat.
It's dancing all by yourself. And of course, at club dances and the like, I will grab certain partners and do some polkas, one-steps, swing. Hell, I'll waltz if the DJ is kind enough to provide one. But the core idea of this sort of thing is to drown your sorrows in VERY LOUD music, and move your body in an entertaining sort of way. Just...be yourself. Dance, as the proverb says, like no one is watching.
And I love it.
I won't say I dance well. I affectionately call what I do flailing, because let's be honest here, I jump and gyrate and wave my hands around in the air, and admittedly, I do have a good sense of rhythm, but really, you do need a little more than just a good sense of rhythm to be good at this sort of dancing.
I don't dance well, but I am quite good at it, because the skills to be good at dancing by yourself are completely different from the skills needed to dance by yourself well. To be good, you just need to be enthusiastic, honest, and completely aware of how ridiculous you look but enjoying what you're doing far too much to ever stop. Part of it for me is that I dance my absolute best when I need it --if I don't need it, I get self-conscious and start to feel silly. But because dancing can serve to snap my brain away from ever negative emotion it's currently embracing, flailing around like a stork on speed is one of those things I find myself fully willing to use to moderate my worse moods.
It struck me today that I don't really know what gender I am when I dance by myself, which may also help add to the comfort for me. My base mood tends to exist in a form of gender neutrality, and that's what I tend to feel most comfortable being. Oh sure, it's fun to be clearly one gender or the other, especially as it oft leads to my other favourite hobby -- flirting -- but my normal state is one without any particular feelings of male or female at all.
And when I dance by myself, I'm given the rare gift of dancing without a partner, without a role. Meaning, in most cases, I don't _need_ to have a gender, unless I choose one for other reasons. Now, I often do -- see that above note about flirting -- but I don't have to, and that's a wonderful and rare freedom.
So, with any luck, I will not just get to go to a formal ball and be a formal self at Arisia this year. I will also get to go to the very modern opposite of a formal ball, and I will be able to be exactly myself. I look forward to this.
And to the VERY LOUD music.


Pre-Arisia: Formal Balls and Clothing Conundrums

So, the next dance event on my calendar is Boston's best1 annual sci-fi con, Arisia! It's the weekend of the 14th-17th, and will likely have more dancing than I can shake a stick at.

If the past years are any indication, Arisia will host at least one formal costume ball, and multiple nights of bouncing around club-type dancing. I look forward to both, with some trepidation, and due to the length of this post, I'm going to split it into two discussions.

First we'll discuss the formal ball, which is causing more trepidation and almost all from the costuming aspect. The biggest problem is whether people will come to the ball because they want to dance, or because they want to show off their costume. There's nothing at all wrong with the latter, however, if it interferes with the former, I consider myself unimpressed and displeased.

How might presentation of costume interfere with dancing? First off, and most importantly, some people arrive at a costume ball and then refuse to dance with anyone uncostumed. This is well within their right (among other reasons, I've heard cited not wanting any photographs with non-costumed dancers, or not wanting to break illusion of whatever formal theme the ball might have) but to me, it comes off as arrogant. Not everyone in attendance at the ball knows how to costume with the same skill, and not everyone in attendance will have come from a convenient enough location that they can bring a full formal set of clothing to wear. (And hell, let's be honest here, not everyone will _care_ enough to put the same sort of effort into dressing up).

This goes hand-in-hand with one of my core tenets of dancing: The point of a dance is too dance. You may disagree, but for me, anything at a dance that involves not dancing is breaking that rule, and therefore counterintuitive2.

Another problem with people who come to the ball more for the costumes than the dancing is a lack of familiarity with what a dance requires, clothing-wise. Glitter, for instance, is a bad plan, unless your goal is to make every single person present sparkle. Complicated or spiky bits of costume might make it difficult for a partner to take you in a proper ballroom hold. Belt-pouches are wont to bash into legs during spins or faster dances, and if you've never danced in a corset, you'd be wise to loosen the strings first.

Of course, a lot of this particular fact depends on the types of dancing at the ball in question --if you're only doing seventeenth century minuets, your partner won't ever need to touch more than your hands, and most vintage between Regency and Ragtime is sedate enough to allow for dangling props.

Lastly, there's a personal costuming problem at convention balls. Namely, how on earth do I present myself? When I traditionally dance vintage, I do so in full formal gentleman's garb, and then dance the gent's part almost exclusively. But at conventions, I have the luxury to skip the five layers3 and break out something a little more fun --after all, most convention balls I've been to are extraordinarily lax regarding period costume, and most attendees wear something formal and fun rather than truly accurate.

That being said, I do find an advantage in wearing traditionally male garb: it helps to mark me as potentially genderqueer, and more likely to dance either role. Being accessible to new dancers is a joy, and one I try to achieve at any given ball. Still though, the full nine yards (or ten, or eleven, or twelve...) of fabric involved to be a really proper gentleman is enough to make me faint, especially in Arisia's overcrowded dance hall.

Luckily, the advent of Steampunk seems perfectly timed to solve this problem, at least. While I agree with more pedantic friends who insist that goggles and clockworks make neither steam nor punk, the pseudo-victorian aesthetic is rather lovely, and I do look stellar in earth tones. Waistcoats and collared shirts are rapidly becoming my go-to for "dressed up", and best of all, since they all fit about the same range of colours (well, except for that ludicrously excellent salmon-pink one) I find them to be extremely interchangeable.

My terrifically modern breeches, high socks, a collared shirt and a vest, and I'm perfect. Perhaps if I'm really putting in the effort, a pair of goggles to hold back my hair, and my lovely wind-up pocketwatch. I'm suddenly perfect for every con across the next year, and best of all, it's very easy to dance in. For a non-costumer, it's the perfect compromise for the conundrum of "costume balls" --everything I'm wearing remains in rotation as street clothes, but the combination is outlandish enough to avoid all but the haughtiest sneers.

Clothing conundrum? Solved. Now, to figure out how to get one of those TARDIS thingys I hear so much about, so I can actually make it to all the programming at Arisia I want...

1: I can't actually say this --I'm told Boscon is quite good, and I have friends who work ReaderCon. But Arisia, I believe, has far and away the best dance events. By the terms of this blog, that makes it the best.

2: This is a big part of why I'm ambidancetrous --because that way, so long as there are an even number of people in the hall, I can dance. I will happily dance with anyone, regardless of gender, role, or skill level, since sitting out and watching other people dance is a waste of my time.

3: Sturdy sports bra, to get a binding effect, t-shirt, collared shirt, waistcoat, tailcoat.


Keeping it interesting

I'm currently in Maryland, for my winter break, which means I don't have access to quite the same forms of dancing I do back home in Boston. Luckily, I'm friends with a fair number of dancers, one of whom, Larry, hosts a regular dance night at his local community center. It tends to be a mix of couples dances, focusing especially on waltz (vintage and cross-step), swing (east coast), one-step, foxtrot, polka, and blues.

Last night was one of those dance nights, and due to everyone being home from their respective adventures, I managed to bring close to a dozen people, making it one of the biggest nights for that venue in a while. Larry was pleased, and with so many beginner or inexperienced dancers in attendance, the night led off with a couple rounds of teaching.
One of the things I typically do while dancing is to pick whether I dance lead/follow (or in set dancing, gent/lady) by seeing what role is more in demand, and going with that. This is one of the biggest advantages about being ambidancetrous --I can always dance, regardless of the role make-up of the rest of the room. So, when Larry asked people to pick a role for learning swing dance, I paused for a moment, to let everyone else decide, and was quite pleased to find an empty spot on the lead side of the room. For learning one-step, I switched back to follow, and for the open dancing for the rest of the evening, I mostly followed, but made sure to grab some of my stricttly-follow friends to practise leading.
The biggest observation from the night came from analyzing which dances were harder to lead than follow, and why. Certainly, not all couple-dancing is created equal (a one-step has much simpler basic footwork than a waltz) but in my experience, the lead and follow portions of any given couple dance often have very similar basic steps, and role only really starts to matter when it comes to flourishes and step variations. For instance, when it comes to waltz or polka, I feel equally apt at either role, where both one-step and swing I find to be significantly harder to lead than follow.
It took me leading a particularly nice swing with a friend of mine from high school to figure out the difference: Some dances are harder to lead because they are impossibly boring if you just stick to the basic step. See, even the basic step of a good waltz or polka is twirly and fun and involves throwing yourself around the dance floor with your partner in a form of glorious chaos. But the basic step of a one-step? The basic east-coast swing?
Yeah, so not worth spending three minutes doing. And that's where the role disparity occurs, because when it comes to doing things beyond the basic step, the job falls to the lead. Which is largely a good thing, as it keeps the dance floor from turning into a power struggle. But it does mean one needs a few special skills1 to lead --creativity, improvisation, and, critically, a decent repertoire of flourishes, moves, and steps. So, leading a good swing dance is more than just getting the rhythm and steps right --you really need to throw in some elaboration to make it fun.
So now that I know that, I can concentrate a little more on learning some more interesting things to do while I dance those particular forms. Really though, I mostly just need to be confident in what I'm doing --I can dance swing, and I know at least a half dozen things to do to shake it up, which is enough to keep the follows of my level entertained.
And if all else fails, I can always just ask for the next waltz, instead.

1: This is not to say one doesn't need special skills to follow as well. One needs different skills to be proficient in each.