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.