Everybody’s DanceStory has got to start somewhere. No matter how convuluted the tale, no matter how old the plot line, no matter whether it is still ongoing or has been put on hold indefinitely…all of the tales have a crystal-clear beginning. Often, dancing enters a person’s life at a time of great upheaval: a relationship has often disintegrated, or a sudden reflection on their life made them realise that something needed to be done. The connotation to “dance” after all, is “abandon”: to give up all inhibitions and restraints and sublime yourself in music and rhythmn. Think of the Bacchae, think of Mardi Gras, think of drunken nights out following your final exams. ‘To dance’ is a reckless decision to make; you’ve got to be at a point in your life where you have nothing to lose.
Luckily, my DanceStory does not have a dark beginning. I was several months into my Year In Industry, and considered myself happily settled into my Philadelphian freedom. I enjoyed my job; I enjoyed my new home; I had money and I was spending it satisfactorily; my time was passing in a fairly good way. So…what was wrong?
I needed a new hobby. I’d come home in the evenings after work, have a meal, write my diary, soak in the bath and go to bed. I wasn’t getting out of the house enough, and I wanted to meet new people and be more active. So I tried a Google Search for “dance studios in Manayunk”.
Dance was a bit of a vague and random choice: I certainly wasn’t thinking of ballroom dancing. I was thinking of the month or so I’d attended weekly modern dance classes in Edinburgh last spring. Sure, I wasn’t all that great at the dancing, but it had been a nice enough way to spend a Wednesday evening. I was really just looking for something to do.
My Google Search turned up gold. I learned that there existed a studio called Society Hill Dance Academy barely 10 minutes walk away from my house. I recognised the names of the dances on offer – Waltz, Salsa, Tango, Swing – but understood such terms very little. Still, it was a good lead, so I decided to follow it.
When hearing a person’s DanceStory, you need to listen out for the key line “…and then I was hooked.” Fact: it ain’t a DanceStory unless it contains that line. It usually comes in at about the 3rd sentence.
I’m going to be useless here and say that I’m unable to pinpoint WHEN I got hooked. It certainly wasn’t at the first lesson, let me tell you that.
So, Sept 2009, I walk into the Manayunk branch of SHDA and ask to try out the Salsa 101 group class for size. I arrive ridiculously early, and sit down at the side watching the dancefloor. In the atmospheric low light I can see people dancing to some sort of rock & roll music in the corner, others are coupled up with a supervising instructor to hand. I watch with interest, but little curiosity.
The emotional connotations to my first group class are to humiliation, frustration and a battered self-confidence. I couldn’t manage the basic steps, and my movements were everything that Salsa (a sexy, fiery latin american dance) was not, I wasn’t wearing the right clothes and I felt hopeless in relation to everyone else. Ouch.
What happened next demonstrates some of my most fundamental behavioural logarithms. I COULD have just walked out the door and never come back to dance or that studio; I COULD have asked about private lessons to try and get me away from this public embarrassment as soon as possible. I COULD have cried in the corner (believe me, I could). What I DID was go straight up to the desk and buy a 40-class card: any time, any class, valid until Feb 2010. I tend to lash out when the universe puts me at a disadvantage, and I rarely stop lashing until I’m back at the advantage once more.
My attendance at the studio was sporadic for the next few weeks, but things got better. I tried out Cha-Cha (wasn’t able to talk and dance at the same time, which was another denting moment), I tried out Swing, I went back for more Salsa. Slowly I began to pick up the basic moves of the dances I tried; not only that, but it became easier to learn new moves from my understanding of the familiar ones. Dance started to look just that little bit less alien.
Hook? No…not quite yet.
The situation could have gone on like this, were it not for a catalyst that shook up my attitude to dance completely. The staff let me know about an upcoming studio event: an annual showcase night. The pitch sounded enticing, without a doubt. There would be food, a variety of performances, social dancing and an open bar. Yet there was a snag: the price. It was considerably more than I felt comfortable shelling out thoughtlessly for a dance show. Yet I was keen, so I reconciled it with myself: I’d make the showcase worth it. The best approach to attaining worth was to get the most out of the social dancing. I drew up a count-down plan, I would learn the basics for all the dances on offer, I would go to the studio’s dance parties and try out this social dancing lark. After doing that…well, I’d be all set to make the most of the more costly showcase.
So I branched out into Ballroom (Waltz, Foxtrot & Tango) and the other Latin dances (Merengue & Bachata). I was picking up the moves faster now, and relished those rare and unexpected opportunities when I was the solo class member and could receive more personal attention. I successfully reached the other SHDA location for their Thur Night Dance Party: people were very kind and friendly in what was a scary yet exhilirating atmosphere. I mean, those dancers could do ANYTHING to me. It was at my first Dance Party that a bloke taught me how to Hustle, and I got to know the fixtures of the Philadelphia dancing scene.
The staff started to recognise me and accept me as a fixture. I braved their Halloween Party
and started to feel that dancing was not wholly unnatural: I seemed to have quite a good ability to follow random moves. I found the dance parties to be exciting places, and the classes became quite relaxed and fun once I got to know my fellow students better.
The next step is pure dramatic irony. I missed the Showcase after all. It was so damn stupid. I contendedly listened to staff talk about the night, and heard all the details…but I happily assumed that it was being held at the down-town studio. Guess what? It wasn’t. I arrived at the right time, on the right day…but in the wrong place. Having no idea where I could track down a bunch of ballroom dancers, I went home in my pretty dress, ate a lovely Thai meal, and went to bed in a mood.
…And I was hooked.
The act of exposing myself to all that dancing in the build-up to an event I never even attended ensnared me. I knew the basics of all the mainstream dances; I’d settled in to the studio; I’d got the hang of dancing socially and found it to be a blast. I didn’t want to walk away from dance.
I held out from taking private lessons as long as I could. Since I’d been told that private lessons were the best (?only?) way to learn, I was determined to learn all I could from open classes and dance parties just to prove the universe wrong, and ensure that when I DID commit to lessons, the money wouldn’t be wasted on learning basics that I could have picked up in the group classes. Eventually of course, my learning curve started to flatten out: I couldn’t rely on the off-chance of being the only student in a group class any more. So, I carefully selected my preferred instructor, and shyly approached the front desk (late Dec 2009) to hesitatingly ask for my complimentary introductory lesson.
The introductory lesson is supposed to serve as a Yes/No for the potential student. I didn’t really see there being much of a decision to make. I knew fine well that I the commiting to private lessons was my full commitment to ballroom dancing.
…And that was where the trouble began.