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.