Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I Sang (and Danced) For My Life, Part One: Waltzing at the Dickens Fair

(Note: this was intended to be part one in a two-part series, a bit of a tradition: see earlier blog entries...but also, I intended to finish it weeks ago so who knows about Part Two.  Anyway, here's my now-out-of-season reflections.)

The holiday season for me comes with two events that are my favorite of the whole year, and I'm not talking about the actual holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years (and Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanzaa, and so on), but the Dickens Fair - which, to be honest, is basically several weekends of Christmas Eve - and Sing For Your Life (aka SFYL) - which, to be honest, is basically New Year's Eve and, for me, the true end of the year.

I get a ton of holiday during the holidays. Except it's not that I chased down these two events because I love Christmas and NYE so much, but rather that I fell in love with the Dickens Fair and that is what made me really love Christmas, and I fell in love with a singing group that turned out to have this Dec 30 annual event, which is impressively incredible. I've mentioned before the impossibility of having a good time on New Year's Eve - but even if it was possible and could be fantastic, SFYL is still much better than any mythical, imaginary New Year's Eve.  It's the the kind you want but can never get.

WHY are these two events so great? What makes them the reason for the season, and the reason the season is truly the most wonderful time of the year? It's not hard to figure out: one is all about singing, and the other is all about dancing. (Many people go to the Dickens Fair and don't dance - it's a whole microcosm, so there's a little something for everyone, but I go almost totally for the dancing, which is just one small part of a large event. But for me, Dickens = dancing).

And singing and dancing are two of the best and most enjoyable things humans can spend their time doing. Along with sex, they all have in common people being creative together, creating something together than cannot be created alone. Yes, one CAN sing or dance (or have sex) alone, and that's all fine, but the real magic in music and dancing comes from doing it with each other, finding those harmonies, finding those moves, and making something beautiful together.

Sometimes what singers (or musicians, broader net but same basic thing) and dancers make together is art (opera leaps to mind) and sometimes it's just fun (the Happy dance videos leap to mind) and sometimes it's something else that's so weird you don't know WHAT it is (Busby Berkeley 1930's dance sequences leap to mind). It can be good to watch, but when you just watch and listen to someone else doing it, it's entertainment; when you do it, yourself, that's being truly alive - maybe the best way to feel alive. It may be the best way to be alive too. I'm very pro-participating in the arts by doing them, not just by viewing them.

I've written quite a bit before about SFYL, and the Fair as well, but this year there were a few new things, and they've been on my mind. I ridiculously am going to try and write about them. A friend of mine - a main organizer for SFYL, in fact, D - has a phrase he likes to use, or we quote at each other, and it's apt now: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Exactly, and now I am going to write about both dancing AND music, which is even worse; it's like singing to the choir, an act even more useless than preaching to them, which is the cliche ultimate useless move.

Why try? Well, why not? Plus maybe you yourself sing and/or dance - maybe it's not improvisational circlesing or vintage waltzes and set dances, but it's something, so try and use your own experience of whatever it is you do to as a jumping off point. And now, to dance about architecture.

First, dancing. This year was interesting because I've gotten even more selective about which dances I do, and how much I do. I'm not terribly out of shape but I could be more fit and every year, I'm older as well, so I spend my dancing energy wisely. Remember, please, the circumstances are also trying - all day in a corset and hoop skirt isn't easy and takes it toll on one's pep; there so much weight (eight layers at the waist!) and volume and bother to begin with, but then it's not just unwieldy but also makes any high temps incredibly uncomfortable. Occasionally, the Cow Palace (where the Dickens Fair is held) can get quite steamy, almost sauna-like because of the crowds, and the dancing and heavy clothing doesn't help.

Even so, I dance. I try to never miss the set dances - think Jane Austen movies, people in two long lines doing things gracefully and often slowly. Besides these being really fun to do, they are not too taxing either. There's maybe 1 - 2 set dances per hour, some mixers where you switch partners at regular intervals, and I love these, because you get to dance with several men in row, one after another, and the experience is great - feeling the difference in each of them, the good and the bad, is like a little journey through the vast depth and breadth that is humanity. It's amazing how people can do the exact same pattern (physically, musically, etc) and yet do it so differently.

I avoid all polkas, which, though fun and potentially exhilarating, can exhaust you instantly. I used to do one or two per Fair but stopped a few years ago. As it happened, I did a polka this year and will describe in what will probably be annoying detail to everyone except for a very small audience (likely of fellow Dickens Fair friends). You know the polka - think of it as versus a waltz.  The waltz is, of course, one-two-three, one-two-three (The Blue Danube) while the polka is more um-pah um-pah (Roll Out the Barrel). There's also the schottische, the rare schottische, thank goodness, because it's not really for anyone over 20 or with knees; it's a kind of "1-2-3-hop" dance, and looks very silly (yet always adorable) except when done well, and when done well can be surprisingly lovely despite the hopping. I never, ever schottische.

As I said, this year I was more than ever selective about my dancing. I have a habit of sitting in the back of the dance area, rather than the front which is where people go to get partners. My man (he loves to dance too) and I sit there, talking and watching during the dances we skip, and deciding to dance with each other or go to get partners for the dances we do. Sometimes I sit out and he dances, sometimes vice versa. We do the set dances together, a few waltzes - and we also dance with others. You have to, that's so much part of the fun. We get back together and during the polkas, and talk over the dances we just had, what happened, what was interesting, what we saw, how we did, who we tripped over and so on.

My partner, J, leads and I follow. I have a lot of different men that I dance with on a more or less regular basis, but for whatever reason, he has a harder time finding follows he really enjoys, and there seem to be fewer regular follows, so he has to rush out and ask women before they get all snatched up, and he tries unknowns - meaning, he just asks any woman there and maybe they can dance and maybe they can't. Me, I try and look for a lead I like and then head that way; sometimes I get him, sometimes he gets taken before I get there, and I either sit back down or dance with someone else. I rarely dance with someone who is just attending the Fair (you know, a civilian), which means my partners all know how to dance, most of them remarkably well.

It's interesting to try and define exactly what constitutes "well," because it's quite different for different people - dancing is a lot like sex, meaning there a wide variety of the same action because everyone has their own idea of what a dance should be like. Each person has their own way they like it. Some like bouncy, some like smooth; some like bold floor work and some are cautious, some like it rough and some like it gentle, some want to talk a lot and some don't want to talk at all. It's infinite variety out there, and in dancing, you express a lot of desire wordlessly - at least, the lead does; it's all up to him. He is constantly "telling" you want he wants you to do: I want you to turn this way, I want you head over here this way, I want you to go this fast, I want you to keep spinning.

(Quick note: I could say "lead" and "follow" the whole time, but 99% of the time, my leads are men, so I am just going to say "men" and "women" interchangeably, even though you see a fair number of same-sex dancing couples at the Fair. Actually, until you've seen two gentlemen dressed in full formal Victorian attire waltzing together, you kind of haven't lived in my book, but that's another story.)

I like following. It's relaxing, because all you have to do is try and match what the lead is doing as exactly as possible. The rest is up to him. You can enjoy the music, which hopefully you are dancing to, because that too is his choice; when I sometimes have to chose between dancing to the music but not with my partner because he's off the beat, and dancing with my partner and accepting we'll just be off the music together, I chose the partner. You are free to look around and enjoy seeing the other couples dance, or enjoy eye contact with your partner - if he's up for it, which I always hope they are. Followers get to relax and dance, in this moment and with this partner, and don't have to worry about much else. It's fantastic.

It's especially fantastic when the lead knows how to dance, because when you give yourself over to someone else, it's nice when they know what to do with you. I don't mind dancing with men who can't dance, actually, especially if they are polite and try, which they always do, but it's not easy. We stumble. I can backlead a little but I can't backlead so much as to make a man be able to waltz when he doesn't know how, though I think there are follows who can do that, but I am not one of them. I'm okay with stumbling about as long as he doesn't hurt me (it happens: I've been twisted, stepped on, knocked into things, etc). So many better dancers have been generous and danced with me, so I will dance with anyone who asks. But I do try and budget the energy, spending it mostly on the leads I love, because a dance with a great lead is as fantastic as one with a non-dancer can be stumbly.

Now, what makes a good lead? Again, it's personal. There's a few basic things; being well matched in terms of height or build is a nice start, though it's really more about the total physical package. Anyone can dance with anyone, but some men just fit better with me, and it doesn't seem to be limited to "short" vs "tall" or anything so specific, but rather how that man with that build interacts with mine, so I have favorite leads of all shapes and sizes. The shape and size is least important.

Basic but more important is just that regular sense you get of someone else, energetically or just generally - walk down the street and look at anyone, and if you think about it, you will be able to say how much you feel comfortable with or platonically attracted to that person just by having a sense of him or her. Some people feel good and some feel more distant. I'm pretty happy so the kinder-feeling ones attract me; I like to dance with someone who smiles and seems to enjoy the activity, which most do, but I mention this because the more enthusiastic a partner is, the better. If we both just love to dance, that's really good. If we both love to dance with each other, that's golden.

Then there's the other things I mentioned - I like smooth (but appreciate bouncy too), and eye contact, and I like variety - leads get to make up what you will dance, what the variations and turns and moves will be, so dancing with someone with a larger repertoire of moves can be fun. One of the reasons following is so joy-inducing for me is because it's like sight reading in which you hear music as you're playing it; a good lead is like a composer leading you though a song you're hearing for the first time as you're singing it. It's totally magical when the man does some move and you totally get it, you are right there with him - complicated ones are even better, because the more complex it is, the more satisfaction when you can pull it off together. It's like, wow, look what we just did! But doing simple moves perfectly is also extremely satisfying, like holding a note in perfect harmony, getting it so right on it can't get any more right on.

All of the dancing itself is compounded by the extra stuff at the Fair to appreciate - when your partner is in Victorian clothing (nothing like waltzing with man who actually has mutton chops and a wry moustache), or is in Victorian character, which can be highly amusing and sometimes hilarious, or takes your arm to walk you off the dance floor. What can I say? These little reminders of a time full of more elegant manners give me hope in such an uncivilized age as now, or at any rate, it's charming to be bowed to by a man in gloves and silk cravat; why wouldn't it be?

The Fair itself is rather large, and there are various areas: food stalls, shops, theaters, stages, pubs, even an absinthe bar. The main dancing is at one end, but at the other end is the Silk Road Stage, which mixes guest dancers and musical performers. Often, however, the Bruno Band will perform waltzes and polkas for whomever wishes to dance, and people do dance, but it's a much smaller area, not as well known, so often the floor is empty. Or very sparsely populated, which can be a treat for dancing; certain moves are not as easy on a crowded floor.

It also means partners can be hard to find. One of my regular and my very favorite partners, A, loves to dance at the Silk Road Stage, and is often encouraging me to head down there to check it out. So this season, I did.  The music - although all waltzes and polkas - is very different from the main dancing; the Bruno Band is all folk instruments (mandolins and hurdy gurdys), and the regular dancing area band is Bangers and Mash, strings and flute and piano, more classical. The Brunos favor more upbeat, lively tempos.

The set up is also different. When dancing at the Fair, it can be a bit like being on stage. Though some attendees dance, many just watch. I take pains with my costume partially because it's nice when all the dancers are dressed up - the graceful swirl of full skirts is made for the waltz. Down at the Silk Road Stage, it's even more showy, because it's set up specifically for folks to watch performances, so they sit there and watch the dancing.

So one afternoon, I went to the Silk Road, and my regular, A, was very glad to see me. Now, I have to say a few things about A. He's very smooth, extremely smooth. He's basically tied with one other regular partner of mine for Smoothest Partner Ever. He's an excellent lead and an incredibly kind human being - we've gotten to know each other over the years, and every Thanksgiving, I think, I'll be seeing A again soon, and get to dance with him, yay! Because he's one of my favorite partners, and that's because we can dance perfectly together.

It's hard to describe just what I mean, but more than any other partner, he is so easy to dance with. The way I think it to myself when it's happening is "This is as easy as breathing." It feels so natural when I dance with A, like that is my normal state of being. This is, in my experience, incredibly unusual. I've done swing, lindy hop, tango, ballroom, and I can tell you, partner dancing requires two different types of effort.  There's the kind you just need to actually move, like with any physical exertion; some require more physical effort than others - waltz is easier than swing in that sense.

But the type of effort I mean is how much energy you have to put out to make it good together - a really bad situation can be someone who can't dance at all, and it's a massive effort to just get around the floor. Or the opposite - like when you're doing something artistic, and it all just seems to flow, the creation seems effortless. Good dancing can get that way, where the two of you get into a flow, into a groove together (with the music, if possible) and it becomes more and more effortless. It's always effortless with A, and, remarkably, he feels the same way about dancing with me, which makes us both feel very lucky.

On this particular day, the dance floor was empty, and when A and I took hands to dance, I could feel a sense of "oh boy, this is going to be great: clear floor, great band, people watching, us in costume, and a partner I trust 100% and whom I know I can dance beautifully with." I felt the moment of stepping onto the floor, and he must have too, for he said, "Oh boy, I get to show you off!" (Yes, I literally thought "oh boy" and he literally said "oh boy.") And it was indeed magical; we were in our usual sync, but the lively music got us going in a more zesty fashion that we usually do and then, at some point, we took off. That's the best way I can describe it.

Let me explain. In the waltz, the man and women basically step around each other - I step around him, then turn as he steps around me, and so on. The steps are 1-2-3 each time, meaning I go around him in three steps, then turn in three steps as he goes around me. But when you waltz fast, and have a good partner, the second set of steps is reduced to just a pivot - like, no steps at all, you sort of magically just turn, pulled around by your partner's momentum. This turning around together is the heart of the waltz, the whole reason to do it. You can see it when you watch good dancers, or ice skaters; you can see how incredibly fun it looks. And it's better than it looks; if you can ever get to that stage where you barely have to put forth any effort, that's, like, IT.

Every dance contains this possibility, but most don't quite get there. This one with A really delivered. I say we took off because that is how it felt. You know how planes take off - all this acceleration and weight and rumble and effort, and then suddenly it leaves the ground and there it goes, up away from the ground, free and smooth. That's what it was like - we were going round swiftly with great energy and then suddenly, something happened and it required no effort at all. It was like we were flying. It was incredible.

Of course, that sort of thing doesn't last forever, and we went on and then the dance was over, but we both knew it had been something. I told A what had happened, how it felt to me, how he was just bringing me around with him. "Oh, but you don't realize, when we get going like that, it's you who pull me around." he said. "It feels like I don't have to make any effort. It's wonderful."

I pondered this. How can this be: neither of us having to make the effort, yet each of us carrying the other? It works, because I guess, we are so together. Because we trust each other and have given ourselves over to the dance and to the music. Partner dancing, like anything you do with others, benefits from letting go of ego, of control, of power - and just seeing what unfolds.  Apparently, we can learn a lot from the waltz, because the rest of life is pretty much the same way.

Strangely, later in the Fair I had another memorable dance with A, which was a polka. My one polka this year; it can be a high-spirited, rewarding dance which I would do all the time if it weren't for the pep and ankles it requires. Once again, I was at the Silk Road Stage, with A, and he asked me, so I thought, why not?  It was his favorite polka tune, and anyway, I'd never polka'd with A, maybe it would be something special. Plus I could trust him to not fling me about, which he did not, and give me breathers when I needed one, which he did.

And you know what? It was just as amazing as that waltz. We started, once again, alone on the floor, and it was like being a kid again at the edge of a giant grass field you could run run run across - a sense of expansiveness and freedom. The spirit overtook us, A and I, and we went for it. We danced with a perfect joint enthusiasm - him singing along with the part of the tune he especially liked, my new striped skirt flying, both of us laughing with the sheer joy of it all.

When it was over, we were like "Oh my!" That's one we won't forget, we said. That'll get us through the long dark weeks between the Fair weekends this season, we said. Or through the long months between Fairs. Or for me, really, forever. Perfect moments....well, naturally, in the Zen sense, in the Alan Watts sense, ALL moments are perfect, and I get that. But some moments are harder to get through than others, and some make you wish you'd never been born.

But some make you glad you were born. I waltz for many reasons but the main one is that it produces, all the time on a surprisingly regular basis, moments that make me so utterly glad to be alive - moments that make me feel so alive that it's not until afterwards I even know I feel that way, because in the moment, I just AM alive.

I can't promise you will have the same experience, but feel free to come by the Dickens Fair next year and try, I'll be there, and I'd be happy to dance with you.

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