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Tomorrow of Its Strength | 2010 | Perfect Couples

02.03.10 1:34 p.m.

We only go around once. There's really no time to be afraid. So stop. Try something you've never tried. Teach it. Do it. Risk it.  

-Jon Blais


How To Jive and Wail

I arrive too late to join the beginners' swing lesson, assuming that I received it last week anyway. I watch patiently until the lesson turns to more complex turns and swings and I am envious. But there is nothing to be done, the male-to-female ratio is all wrong and I don't think I can drag one of the arriving strangers out to the floor to even things up without a proper introduction or bribe. It serves me right for coming without female companionship (Jacki is in the city this week).

"I'm not very good," I tell a short woman in her sixties after she asks me for a dance.

"Don't say that! Never say that or I won't want to dance with you!" she admonishes with a smile. I don't think I can properly explain that I mean that I am not very good yet and simply want her to know that the reason I am stilted is not owing to her but my awareness of the vast sea of my ignorance. She, at least, seems to want to be helpful, a condition I find rarer than the organizers wish to let on.

The last thing I want to do is waste their time, and some seem to go out of their way to make me feel as though I am (but, with one exception, not so much that they abandon me mid-dance). I have little that I can offer them in recompense for their few minutes of company and teaching, so I try to talk to them to take both our minds off my inexperience. This, however, turns into a nervous monologue and I decide that it is likely better to be silent and awful than self-centered and more relaxed. Besides, nervousness leads me to more colorful wordplay, which tends to fall upon baffled ears if one is not accustomed to me.

There are basics of unspoken etiquette that I simply don't get. I gather too late that it is awkward to actually look at the person with whom you are dancing - it comes off as creepy or romantic - but it seems unconscionably rude to look elsewhere. Keeping one's eyes closed, especially at my level of inexperience, seems to be a recipe for broken toes, so I flitter from my partners' foreheads to the gliding shapes all around me.

I am unused to being bad at a skill I desire to have and realize, with annoyance, that my answer to this conflict has previously been to quit. In first grade, my teacher made it clear to me that I didn't know how to do math. In reaction, I hid in the bathroom while she taught the other students addition and subtraction. To her discredit, she never noticed how regular my bladder seemed to be. And, to my discredit, I feel this urge to simply never return to swing dancing at Vassar, save that I would rightly feel like a coward for giving up, though I know too that I would not be missed.

Aside from writing and teaching, at which I excel, I feel capable enough to do most other things I attempt. Yet organized dancing evades me. I tread water, generally managing not to drown too badly, but I am far from the doggy paddle and the Olympians surrounding me seem to wish I would swallow water somewhere else. And, were it possible to learn this on my own, I would be thrilled to do just that. That is the cruelty of it, that I cannot learn it all in private and must flaunt my inelegance before several rather judgmental women to get very slightly better. The shame of swing dancing is that the men lead. If the men are ignorant, as I am, we cannot very well lead the women to do anything educational or pretty.

One lesson I have taken from this is the frustration that my students must feel when I talk about subjunctive tenses or dramatic irony. The mind does not like being forced to do something at which is it bad, especially when surrounded by those who grok the lessons with ease. There are few people here tonight who are worse than I am and I don't feel any kinship with them, however much of my empathy they are owed. Lev Vygotsky, an educational psychologist, posited a concept called "scaffolding", which states that students learn best from those who are slightly ahead of them than they do from teachers who are infinitely more knowledgeable. I am not experienced enough that I can take pity on those who are worse than I am without both of us becoming more ungainly in the process (I tried only once). When one of the organizers dances with me, I pick up ten good refinements within the course of two songs (though no new techniques, as I am not ready). She manages to keep the patience in her teaching, if not her eyes and voice.

A red-haired woman, possibly the one who made such a show of wanted to dance with me last week, is undisguisedly contemptible of me, though I try to remain gracious enough to thank her for what she has taught me, while aware that it contradicts what the previous woman told me. It is hard to swing dance with someone who decided you are not worth her touch. After she coerces me to spin her, she returns and says, "I don't know what the hell that was supposed to be!"

"Inexperienced," I reply, but she doesn't care to hear. I will avoid dancing with her in the future. I do not mind dancing with those who are better than me - as she most unquestionably is - but I mind greatly someone who feels I am inconveniencing them by accepting their favor.

"Your frame is awful," she says. "And watch your thumb. If you are pinching, you are doing it wrong!"

"My frame should be awful, I have next to no idea what I am doing. How do I fix it?" If I didn't think it so tacky when I had been ditched me in the midst of a song, I would do it now to avoid any more of her scorn. Instead, I finish it out and thank her retreating red curls. She does not care to waste a phatic "welcome."

To my extreme vexation, the harshness I received from several women infects my soul with an uncertainty that lasts into the next day, a feeling that I can't do right.

One woman, a Laura or Sarah or Laurel (I danced with them all), is goodly enough to dance with me three times and I am grateful to have had her for my final partner of the evening. The last time, she tries to teach me underarm turns and I was fumbling at best. She did not lose her patience even once. These tiny kindnesses are not enough to make this dancing worth my bruising of my soul, but they are enough that I don't write the experience off completely.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, perfect couples.

last watched: Arrested Development
reading: The Bell Jar
listening: Mark & James

Tomorrow of Its Strength | 2010 | Perfect Couples

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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