Modern Waltz Music

In a fortnight, it will be Splash, an event where people teach high schoolers stuff. Everything from physics to origami to brownie cooking to fort building to an in-depth analysis of the battle tactics in Star Wars.

I am, of course, teaching cross-step waltz. It will be my second year in a row to do so. While there's heaps to enjoy about sharing my passions with the 14-17 year old set, there is a specific benefit I'd like to discuss, to wit, the acquisition of modern music to enhance the class.

See, high schoolers want to listen to hip, modern things. I am neither of these things (I own three tailcoats for god's sakes!) which means I get to spend a week beforehand frantically searching for music. The problem, of course, being that hip modern artists don't write a whole lot of waltz music. This means I get extraordinarily excited throughout the year every time I hear something in 3/4 time on the internet or radio.

Most recently, I was sent a Girlyman CD for my birthday, and it was just *loaded* with 3/4 time! Well, okay, two songs, but I look forward to adding "St Augestine" and "The Person You Want" to my DJing list.

And because no matter how many of this particular sort of blogpost I encounter, it's always a subtly different setlist, here are some of my favourite waltzes that were actually written some time this century:

  • Between, by Vienna Teng (by far my favourite waltz)
  • Lucky, by Bif Naked
  • Cassandra's Waltz, composed by Murray Gold for Doctor Who
  • Ampersand, by Amanda Palmer
  • Coattails of a Deadman, by Tom Waits
  • Herr Drosslemeyer's Doll, by Abney Park
  • The Only Exception, by Paramore
  • Down to Earth, by Peter Gabriel, for the Wall-E soundtrack
  • Davy Jones, composed by Hans Zimmer for the Pirates of the Carribean trilogy
  • Mother Superior, by Katzenjammer
  • Rainbow Connection, by Jim Henson (although my copy is sung by Tom Smith)
  • Woodburning, by Toad the Wet Sprocket
  • Friends, by the Beach Boys (I know, right? But it's a great little slow waltz!)
  • Spark, by Tori Amos
  • Carousel, by S.J. Tucker
  • Going North, by Missy Higgins
  • Heart Attack of '64, by the World/Inferno Friendship Society
  • A Little Priest, composed by Stephen Sondheim, for the musical Sweeney Todd
  • Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, by Tom Lehrer (watch it! The melody...flutters)
  • With Whom to Dance, by the Magnetic Fields
  • The Riddle, composed by Frank Wildhorn for the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel.

If you've got recommendations to share, please do! I'm especially interested in slower waltzes for cross-step, but most any contemporary song in 3/4 or 6/8 will pique my interest. I like a wide range of music, and I'd love to be able to share it with my dancers.


Button Ideas

I happen to own a buttonmaker, which is a dangerous prospect considering that I collect buttons (known to some as pins or badges or "those usually-circular things with pithy sayings that you can attach to your clothing or bags") and enjoy owning large quantities of them.

At NEFFA, I finally put it to good use, and created a handful of buttons for me to wear or give to others. All had to do with dancing and/or gender, most were snarky. Here is what I created:

  • "Gender is for Girls" and "Gender is for Boys" --I actually thought of this line about a year ago, and am very pleased with how petulant it is, as well as the absurd factor. Most people either get confused, or giggle madly.
  • "Yes, I'm in the right spot. Are you?" --I was advised that the last two words make it a bit confrontational, but then again, I'm tired of demurring politely when concerned people try to steer me back to the woman's side of the dance. None of that please!
  • "Damn Dirty Mischief Maker"
  • "It's called a REEL!" --okay, maybe this Scottish dancer gets just a *little* bit pretentious about the fact that everyone else calls them hays.
  • "This is what a FOLLOW looks like" and "This is what a LEAD looks like" --people just get so confused, otherwise!
  • "Gender =/= role"
  • "Ambidancetrous" (with the words "Lead. Follow. Dance." repeated around the outside edge)
  • "Why yes, I am corrupting your precious pure dance form, thanks for asking!" --Oh well, I am not always nice.
  • "Since when does lead mean the same as boy?" --this is my most important and favourite of all of them. Because seriously, as genderqueer and strange as I am, I don't automatically become male every time I lead. Lead and boy are not equivalent, nor are follow and girl. Stop conflating them.
  • "Lady is one of my top ten favourite genders...probably." --Came out of a conversation I was having about some other button. I was really pleased by it, and aim to wear this button to lots of genderfucky dance things.

Additionally, though I did not come up with it, bunches of people at Tech Squares have been sporting buttons with the sweet little bird from the children's book, and the line "Are you my [Corner/Opposite/Partner]?" So I have two of those in my collection, waiting to be deployed.

And the ones I haven't made yet, that I think I probably should:

  • "Your discomfort does not dictate my gender presentation." --or possibly just gender. This is another one of those confrontational buttons, that I probably shouldn't actually make.
  • "Fuck the old guard" and "Fuck the newbies" --Okay, these ones I definitely shouldn't make, not just because I try to minimize the amount of swearing on my person, but I admit a certain amount of malicious glee towards them as an idea.
  • "Dance what's coming at you!" --Apparently there is a contra caller in Philly(?) for whom this is the motto. I like. I like very much. The idea of trusting that everyone else on the dance floor is in the right place is an idea that I support. If the person coming towards you isn't the gender you expected, cope with it, swing them anyways.
  • "Ask me about my role preference" --Based on the traditional "ask me about my pronoun preference" which is a button I need to make for general use. I do my best to ask people what role they prefer on the dance floor.
  • "Country Bumpkin" --this is subtle, but I have a favourite dance, and it's this one. All other dances are less exhausting, impressive, and enjoyable.

What other snarky buttons should I create, to get myself in even more trouble on the dance floor?


The problem with formalwear...

The problem with formalwear is that it's impossible to find a non-gendered version.

To be formal is to make a decision about which side of the dichotomy you wish to be, and stick with it for the rest of the night. There is nothing that translates or parses differently if you change your posture, how tight the belt is, whether or not the shirt is tucked in, all the little differences in coding that you can accomplish with a t-shirt and jeans.

I just don't like having to pick a gender, especially if there's not something (internal, or more oft, external) driving me to identify along the binary. Most of the time, I get away with just being a person, small, silly, slightly scruffy, and essentially neuter. I can do that in my everyday clothes, it's easy to just be viewed as another warm body on the train. But formal, real, proper clothing comes in precisely two forms: stuff boys wear and stuff girls wear. There is nothing occupied by both.

This is a large part of what has been making formal balls suck so hard for me these last few years. Because there's always been something there, I haven't attended a single Ball that wasn't preceded by anxiety about my clothing. Whether I am choosing to be a boy or choosing to be a girl, I have to choose. When my gender is so constantly in flux, when I can go from definitely a boy to definitely a girl in the course of an hour, when I don't ever -ever- know in advance what name I'll want to use upon waking up...To be frank, trying to book my gender in advance is impossible. It'll just lead me to feeling constrained, trapped.

The dysphoria as I switch pronouns in a pair of jeans is managable --at least I can hold my posture different and pretend I'm recognizable. Wearing a full cocktail dress, or tails and a top hat? Oh no. There's no easy way to break free of social cues that strong. I pull on a gender when I get dressed for the ball, and believe me when I say I'd rather just stay indifferent to the whole thing. But formally, alas, that simply isn't an option.

Genderqueer Rolemodels

When you don't have a role model for something, you must become one.

I'm still not sure on the universality of that advice, but it's certainly true for me when it comes to dancing, and finding my strange little genderstrange place in the world. In the bouncy, pretentious1, recreationist forms I do (vintage, Regency, and Scottish Country) there's very little playing with gender or pairings. The men dance in the gentleman's role, and the women dance in the lady's role, and if you've two women or two men dancing together it's a necessity due to the imbalance of the dance floor, not something enjoyable or done out of choice.

So already, there's a space where I feel uncomfortable because it seems that no one is interested in playing with gender and role and social conventions. Part of what I enjoy so much about dancing is playing with those things, so it makes me lonely when I'm without playmates. And let's be honest, it is difficult to stir the waters all by yourself. I am not so indifferent to this group that it wouldn't hurt, very much, to be outcast by them. And so when it comes to playing with gender --when it comes to honestly expressing my genders-- I find myself in a space where I am very cautious as to how I go about it.

After the Highland Ball, in May, I found myself despondent over being 'forced' into dressing and dancing as a woman. There were lots of reasons for this (including the cruelest one of "I don't have the wardrobe or money to do it right, and doing it wrong feels too inadequate"), but one I eventually figured out is that, unlike in vintage, where I commonly dance the male role, there is not really a genderqueer scottish role model for me to look up to.

I have a friend in the vintage community who is my genderqueer role model, especially so at dances. I sometimes see them in full tailcoat and breeches, identifying full as male. And I sometimes see them in a beautiful red dress, identifying full as female. It makes it so much easier for me to put on the top hat when I go dancing Regency, because I know I will not be alone, will not be the only one looked at oddly for being small and slight and ostensibly "female" while still demanding the gentleman's part and pronoun. And separate too from the solidarity is the normalization --my friend has gone through this already, and made it a thing that happens common, at least among certain groups we dance with. They are not surprised to see me in a tailcoat, because they have long since gotten used to them.

After the ball, I was lamenting to someone about how I so wished there was someone like my friend in the Scottish community, already breaking the trail, making my desire for a gentleman's airs to be somewhat less transgressive. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, my brain pinged. What if I am not the only one feeling this way?

And I suddenly knew that if there is not a role model in this community for me, well, then there's not a role model for anyone else. And I'm a lot louder and stronger and more stubborn that I give myself credit for, and I certainly am willing to be the one who fights so that others can live easier.

It will be slow going, I'm sure. They are used to me at Scottish as female, and it is so hard to pull off the other gender without owning the other clothes. But I will keep going, keep showing up sometimes as male, and others as female. Keep dancing whatever role seems right to the moment.

And because there is no one who has paved the path for me, I will be unashamed to pave it myself.

1: Look, I'm sorry, but Scottish dancers are snobs. We're very open snobs, who really want you to come dance with us, and on the whole, we're not really uptight about *people*. But "Aww, you do English Country? How cute." is well within our level of general pretentiousness. I think we just can't help but look down on every dance form that doesn't pair figures with steps, because seriously, we do it all the time, how is it so hard?


Choreography and Communication

Choreography is an important part of most of the types of dancing I do. It matters some in couples dancing (where figures can have a fairly precise path that must be followed if they're going to look and feel good), and it matters significantly in set dancing. In fact, one could easily argue that choreography is the whole POINT of set dancing --while you could just move directly to where the caller next wants you, that strips the entertainment of what makes it great. The point isn't to mill around on a dance floor, the point is to create patterns, follow paths, flow gracefully thoughout your set.

(Some of the prettiest patterns I've seen in set dancing result in very little net movement when all is said and done --Relay the Ducey, for all its winds and turns, is the same net change as "circulate twice".)

That being said, being good at choreography does not necessarily make you good at dancing, and vice versa. I'm living proof of that latter rule --I consider myself to be a fairly competent dancer (and routinely receive outside confirmation of that fact) but if we're being perfectly honest, I'm pretty lousy at a lot of choreography --especially squares. While I've technically learned all of A1 and A2, (and at least a dozen calls from C1!) were I quizzed on the actual definitions, I'd be at a complete loss. Yet I'm able to keep up on an A2 dance floor with relative ease, and have even been known to participate in dances at the C1 level --no gemini, no other square to match, just me dancing, and well enough to keep the square from breaking down.

So where's the trick? It's a lot of little things, I think. Practise, and lots of experience at set dancing is a big one. I can learn new kinds of set dances easier, because I understand the rules and can often recognize the gist of a figure based on similar things I've done. Being flexible is huge, especially about things like what direction you're supposed to be facing (quick spin!) and who's hands you're supposed to be grabbing. There are hints to be picked up from a good or familiar caller, what direction the flow of the dance is moving, whether they have a tendency to re-use certain sequences, that sort of thing. For squares, being aware of your opposite and being able to align yourself with them, quickly and effectively. (unless something interesting happens, you and they should always be symmetric, with respect to a 180degree rotation).

Most importantly, for any dance, the trick is just being able to communicate, and having a set or partner who you trust to lead you true. Be it words, hands, pushes, pulls, points... people will give you signals of where you need to be, and learning how to follow those signals, respond quickly and efficiently, will boost your ability to dance in a noticeable way. There are few things as frustrating to me as a dancer who will not listen when they are told what they need to do, and insist on dithering in the middle of a set, or doing things their own (wrong!) way despite the admonitions of the rest of the group. We all mess up sometimes, but that's why we dance together --so different people can help each other through the calls we find difficult.

Interestingly, the types of communication that help a set guide its individuals to the correct spot are also the types of communication that guide a follow through a convoluted couples dance. Because here's the thing --it's all well and good if the leader knows a complicated bit of choreography, but if they can't communicate what's going on to their follow, then the dance will fall to pieces (just like if a square of seven perfect choreographists have no ability to steer through their new student eighth.) I've had the misfortune to meet leaders who think of themselves as very good (because they know the choreography) but are actually absolutely terrible to dance with. I assure you, I am an excellent follower (and so modest), so it shocked me to find myself unable to keep up with someone who had looked so very good just a few dances before.

Here's the point of this (slightly rambly) entry: Learn the choreography. Learn the calls. Learn the figures. Practise them, and get good at them, and break them down so you can do them cold. But when it comes right down to dancing them, make sure you're doing more for the dance than just following a precise set of movements --because unless you're dancing alone, there's a lot more than choreography to being good at dancing.