Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kind of Blue(s)

It had only been about three and a half years.

Last night, Friday night, I was supposed to photograph a concert but it fell through. At the last minute, I had no plans for the evening. The thought of staying in and catching up on the television I missed this week sounded profoundly pathetic and frustrating. I went to yoga and came home, wondering just what exactly, now that it was 8 o'clock, I could do with the rest of my evening. Go to a movie? Maybe. Dinner? I could do that I guess. Then somewhere in my brain the button went off and I knew I had to follow the urge. I was going blues dancing.

My friend Julie brought me blues dancing my sophomore year of college, knowing I had danced most of my life and thinking I might like to try something new. I remember instantly loving the smoothness and the sensuality of it, this type of partner dancing, with no specific movements required to complete it. For example, in a dance like salsa, you have the requisite "one two three, five six seven" steps done on beat in a variety of ways. But blues is very free form, very improvisational--lots of hip movements, long, langourous leg drags, dips, and more--and the music is phenomenal because it is, of course, blues. The good folks at Blues Dance New York have a great definition of it here, if you'd like to learn a bit more. And there are blues communities and events all over the country and the world, from Colorado to London to Seoul to Seattle. Incidentally, today Julie is an internationally renowned blues dance instructor, competitive dancer, and DJ. Check out her website here and see some of her amazing moves (turns out there's a video of Julie dancing on the Blues Dance New York homepage, too!)!

When we were in college, I would go with Julie when I could, but with crazy college schedules I only managed to get to dances a couple times a semester, if that. It was always something I remembered fondly, even if I wasn't very good at it, and wished I could have picked up again. The last time I blues danced was with a random group of people in Washington Square Park all dancing in front of a stereo they brought one summer those aforementioned three and a half years ago. As social dance people often are, they were kind, welcoming, and friendly. "Come to our dances!" they said. "It's always great to have a new face!" But I never did.

Honestly, I think part of me was terribly nervous. I remembered how awkward it felt to giggle nervously and say "I'm new!" when I missed a step or couldn't understand where a lead wanted me to go next. My friend Dan, another blues instructor, told me that I thought too much. "STOP THINKING!" he'd command me when we danced. "AND DON'T BREAK YOUR FRAME!" (Breaking your frame, according to Julie, refers to "the relationship between our arms & the rest of our body, insofar as it helps us communicate with our partner. For me 'breaking frame' would be letting the connection between arm & body dissolve so they didn't behave as part of the same system (moving in a way that is disconnected from each other).) It's true, my brain would often trip me up--AAAH WHAT IS HE DOING WHERE DOES HE WANT ME TO DO I DON'T UNDERSTAND I'M SO NEW I'LL NEVER BE GOOD AT THIS!!!111!!!11!1--and I'd lose my place completely. And break my frame. Ugh.

But something happened last night where I just decided I needed to go and have fun. No, I wouldn't be dancing perfectly by any means, but I could at least try and see if I remembered anything! I remember finding out a long time ago, at another time when I was flirting with going back, that there was a Friday night blues dance in New York. Did it still happen? In fact it did! Called "FNBlues," the dances are held by Blues Dance New York, every Friday night either at Steppin' Out Studios, a dance studio, or La Nacional, a bar on 14th Street. I showered and changed and remembered to wear my shoes with the really soft soles so I could turn and move easily across the floor.

So I arrive and set down my coat, and shortly I'm dancing. And you know what? I'm not half bad! Dancing with some of the more experienced dancers is more challenging, but they are kind and helpful when I don't understand where I'm supposed to be going. I still giggle nervously and sheepishly say I'm new, but it feels less awkward this time, like it's just part of the process. I'm allowed to be new. I still notice my brain working overtime when I dance with a more experienced dancer, but then I notice it's happening and I just pay attention to the movement. "STOP THINKING!" I hear Dan say when I start to get frazzled. And then I just move and it feels good. People ask me to dance multiple times, even. I spin, I slide, I wiggle my hips, I gracefully extend my arms and it feels like this is something I should always be doing. Even in the two short hours I was there, I felt myself improve, learning to relax, learning to improvise, learning to be more confident, learning to laugh at myself and be goofy when it suits me or my partner. And I don't break my often (sorry, Dan).

Blues dances are (thankfully) not the typical dance club affair of some dude you don't know trying to grind his pelvis into your backside. Quite the opposite, you go and people ask you to dance, or you ask them to dance, and you say yes or they say yes and you dance with them for a song, say thank you, and then maybe you dance together again later. Or you say no, and they leave you alone. In an age of catcalling and other regular indecencies, it's nice to go to a place where manners and decorum are regularly upheld! Do I sound like a 1920s schoolmarm? YES and I don't care. I don't know who told guys at clubs or anywhere else that they could come up to you and touch you without your permission, but that doesn't happen here. It's a safe, respectful place. I personally like to dance with lots of different people because you never know who will surprise you--never judge a book by its cover because you could be missing out on an amazing partner (unless of course I didn't enjoy dancing with them the first time, in which case I will respectfully decline). It's one more thing about the experience that makes it easy to enjoy.

The other is of course the music. Everything is slow and sinewy, guitars that make your blood pump faster, pianos that tickle your heartbeat. Covers of Muddy Waters's "Hoochie Coochie Man and Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl," and so much more. My favorite song they played last night though was Ruth Brown's "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Sit On It," a classic innuendo-filled jam that may or may not be about an armchair. It's the stuff my soul sounds like.

I don't expect I'll be dancing like Julie any time soon, but I know in the short term I'll definitely be going back. Thanks BDNY for a lovely evening! Here's to many more nights painted blue.