Dancing In Roanoke: Hurry/Wait

peopletriprptI often say how I hate my brain, the way it processes details, and here we go again. My dance was at six so I had been memorizing to arrive by five. Many people use this trick, saying “be at school at 8:30” instead of “classes start at 9”

However, over time “arrive at five” had morphed into it starts at five, eventually convincing myself I needed to arrive in town and check in by three, to find the nearby dance hall by four. Absurdly, in the end I was racing because I eventually thought the dance class itself started at three so when I arrived at my hotel at 2:45 I was panic stricken. I threw my stuff into my room, ready to run out the door and finally had time to look closely at my phone calendar. I had raced breakneck to Roanoke only to arrive with enough time for a nap. Oh how I hate my brain.

So suddenly with lots of time, I took a deep breath and changed into my new dance shoes. I hit the nearby convenience store for waters (I learned that lesson) and headed just two blocks away, exhausted from the rush. However, it then took 20 minutes to find the place, because the location had changed its name, and it must have been illegal to display street addresses on buildings around here. I managed to deduce the location by counting down, then up, then going back around, then overshooting and finally settling that it must be THIS building. Half the buildings were set on the street, with others recessed like a shopping center, but the sequence of addresses ran across them 10 and 20 in front 30 and 40 in back 50 in front 70 in back.

With no clue forthcoming, I finally just parked and walked into the suspect building and asked “is this xxx address”. When told yes I asked why it wasn’t the “dance center” listed so cleanly in Meetup. Oh, I was told, we just changed our name. … (Thanks). It was now a health center, associated with a local hospital chain. Its name no longer even came close to implying an exercise or activity club. An inauspicious start.

I had double parked in weird spot around the corner, so I walked back out to fetch my phone and charger to have something to do while I waited the hour for class. I asked about the six o’clock dance class and received blank stares. Oh, you mean the seven o’clock class? … Yes, it turns out I had already backed off an hour when I first entered it into my phone’s calendar, before backing off another one, two, three hours. With a sigh of resignation I went back out and got the laptop, and settled into a wonderfully comfortable lobby chair work area with wireless internet, eavesdropping on the desk clerks, and on health club users as they organized and chatted in the lobby.

After an hour, the earliest dance students trickled in, and the young lady at the desk called me to meet up with one. She assured me I’d never find the dance studio, and she was right. I chatted with an older woman as we walked down a hall, around a corner, up some stairs, back across a clearing and through an adjoining room … only missing the need to step into a multi-dimensional phone box.

The dance studio was wonderful: large and square and well lit with large windows and no distraction by first floor views of moving cars and pedestrians. The floor was a wonderful wood, and two of the walls were covered in floor to ceiling mirrors, like every ballet salon from every movie ever made. I’ve seen plenty since then, but this was my first and I was impressed. We came to Roanoke to dance!

The instructors were a married couple, and just delightful. This Sunday’s class had a couple extra gentlemen, so I enjoyed the privilege of sitting out a couple exercises here and there as my legs again and again would simply run out of strength. Today was a west coast swing class so we all spent two hours chanting “one and one”, “two and two” “kick two”. Two full hours. Continuously chanting.

I had recieved an introduction to swing with Larissa in my first weeks of my first lessons back in Florida, but I just could not bond with its fast movements. We had done a bit of swing at SUUSI in the ballroom class just last week, but at nightly open dance I’d race from the floor with the first beats of its quick tempo. I could easily keep up with the slow version of swing: “one … two … kick two”. When they introduced that little “one and one” nonsense at SUUSI, I did a lot of smiling and nodding, but would only squeeze in that extra jaunty step when I knew the instructors were watching (clucking their tongues at my playing hooky). “One … two … and … kick two.” But no “slow swing” tonight; no cheating the reaper in Roanoke.

What was most wonderful was to see an entirely different approach to teaching dance. They were obsessed with us students learning the cadence of the footsteps, so had us march; first to claps, then called counts, then finally the music (chanting that damn “one and one”). Standing and marching just to learn the feel of the cadence of your feet. No moving, no “from the lead” and now “from the follow” demonstration. No twisting and spins. We spent over 20 minutes clapping and marching and chanting. It was amazing. And for the next couple hours, whenever I got tired from the floor I would sit a little then rise and do a little more marching (to that cursed chant). To this day, wherever I’m dancing, whenever I get tired or if feel I’m forgetting a move, I’ll just stand in place and cadence march. Thanks to my friends in Roanoke, very good instructors indeed.

The two of them were moving about the room, sharing lead/follow duty with different students with such glib confidence, with students so involved in helping and praising each other, that it took almost half the class for me to even figure out who the actual man and woman leaders were, and that there were two. It wasn’t until a week later, after we were facebook friends, that I learned they were married. Their style, grace, and leadership was that seamless in their instruction. It was just wonderful (one and one… two and two…).

As I rode around the Smokies the previous couple weeks, I had been imagining returning home in fall to lead Larissa in dancing to one of my Leonard Cohen ballads. She and I had talked about us doing “a performance” at a local studio show, and I wanted to use a piece of music unique to me. So I asked my instructor, a new friend for only two hours, if she would stay a few minutes after class with me, that I had several Cohen songs on my phone, and could she evaluate them as a dance performance vehicle. She agreed.

The fast swing was hard on me, but today an amazing experience. I was simply on fire since it had been a simple day of driving; no rain, no curvy roads for me. And I had three unexpected hours to cool down and rest before class. I enjoyed my several partners, but consistently ran out of gas. Fast swing has the same spins as the simple Rhumba, but they involve reversing position, with the lead going from east to west while the follow moves west to east. None of the easy leading of just hold up your hand and she spins for you. Of course after a couple beats the double switch is reversed, and you do the same wiggle walk back across and you are suddenly both back where you started. It is often danced in the open position, facing each other, but holding only fingertips. It has a funny quirk about the lead (that’s me) switching which hand, grabbing across or straight through, and about arriving on the wrong beat being easily corrected. What’s sad is in that moment in Roanoke it was crystal clear and fully repeatable, I was actually helping other students. I was on fire. But within an hour it had melted from my memory like ice cubes left out on a summer patio. Within a couple days I couldn’t demonstrate it to save my soul.

As class broke, a couple students stayed behind so I talked with Peter, a man a bit older than myself, his beard grey like mine. I was on fire, so I enthused about the joy of ballroom, the spiritual and physical connection to your female follow, the gift of being a capable lead for her. He talked to me about his life, but had a hint of sorrow in his voice. He danced, and he came to class, but I somehow picked up something like borderline depression in both his eyes and his voice.

We had both had careers with business travel and recent retirement. We talked about socializing and cruising and about how many places an older single man has an opportunity to dance ballroom with ladies dying for a partner. But the clock was ticking on our room, and the building, so our instructor eventually shooed Peter out and she allowed me to connect my phone to the room’s audio system. She thanked me for picking up her signal, and acting as an ambassador to Peter. I sheepishly admitted I saw no signal. She explained that Peter was recently widowed, and the class was one of his few efforts to get out. She meant it as a compliment. She sensed he and I had similar backgrounds and I might be a good positive role model to give a pep talk. But I was just being me, no encouragement needed.

It was bizarre to hear Leonard Cohen; “Suzanne”, “The Guests”, “So Long Marianne” being piped through the whole room audio system. Cohen’s deep baritone poured like syrup into each deep corner. It was now that I first figured out the difference between swaying your motorcycle, lazily back and forth to three quarters time, and the mechanical requirements to physically dancing to his offbeat cadence. She, by herself, then back leading me, simply could not carry Cohen’s deceptively fast beat.

Dancing to Cohen was impossible, but she taught me how to hold my arms out to an invisible partner (looking like a mannequin) and to practice my steps in front of those floor to ceiling mirrors. Intuitively I understood I could do this in my hotel room, back at home in the living room, even out in the parking lot, by simply connecting my earbuds to my phone; and repeating my ghostly routines until I learned the right rhythm and cadence. And of course my invisible partner would never miss a beat.

So I helped her pack up the room and carry stuff to her car, and she made small talk about me. Once again essentially “Who are you and why are you here?” When she asked how I came to her class I told her about my fellow SUUSI student who she knew well, but who was absent from class tonight (and absent from church this morning). She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t understand UU’s, but that she found both me and my compatriot enjoyable, well mannered, and of high moral quality. The dance studio had auctioned off some lessons at some UU fundraiser, so she had met many people from the local UU church. By now I had been getting better at making the UU elevator pitch. I took a deep breath.

As Unitarians we have ethics not dogma. Some believe in a supreme being, some don’t, and some don’t know. Some expect to go to heaven after death, some believe in reincarnation, and some think we just become worm food. Yet, we are all Unitarian Universalists. I watched her poor face crinkle up; after a long Sunday, a full dance class, and an extra 20 minutes with Peter and Leonard and me. But bless her heart she stuck with it, delighted that I was being patient with her. She asked her questions simply, and directly, so was the easiest student in the world to tutor. And she was so sincere. Ethics, I kept saying, right and wrong, because its right .. and wrong. No heaven, no hell, just motivated ethically, for the survival of our species and society. I act good because I love my kids, and his friends, and kids his age around the world. THAT’s why I don’t pollute, or rob or kill. If you back up far enough, all religions come down to some base truths, UU’s just peel off all that wrapping of holy books and ancient fables and they toss that crap out. Its condensed cream of don’t pee in the well.

She needed to go to the grocery, and still cook dinner for her family, so we eventually hugged and I let her go. I could not thank her enough for her patience and attention. Unexpectedly, somehow she echoed the sentiment. We broke the 20 minute rule, drilling and drilling what might have been an hour, with nothing personal, but it was a spiritual and powerful connection to last a lifetime. Later that night there was a friend request in my facebook and I’ve followed their fun exploits since. I hope to return to Roanoke when I finally ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, north to south, on my way home.

After she drove away I walked over to my bike, but then spontaneously put in my earbuds and clicked on Leonard Cohen. With my invisible follow, I danced around the empty parking lot of the empty health clinic nee health club on a summer Sunday night in Roanoke. The sky turned from orange to purple, dancing to music only I could hear, my eyes closed except for momentary peeks.


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