Friday, November 11, 2011

Showing off, growing up

When I was a teenager, my family went to a folk dance week once a year. The young people there danced harder, stayed up later, and were generally way cooler than me. I desperately wanted to be a hotshot like them. Unfortunately, I was stuck in a town without much of that. I was the only young Morris dancer within seventy miles. Our contra dances were infrequent and slow-paced. It was frustrating.

When I was sixteen, I had an email exchange with a young dancer in the Boston area. She complained about how the youth rapper sword team she danced with wasn't really her favorite, and she would prefer to be on one of the other youth rapper teams. My jaw dropped. There wasn't a sword team in my entire state, let alone one with anyone under 30, and she was complaining? I vowed to move north as soon as I could.

At age twenty-two, my dreams were coming true. Everyone wanted to dance with me, I was engaged to a hot young folk dancer and musician from Boston, and we were working on the crew that summer at Pinewoods dance camp, folk mecca of the United States. Of course, I was also terrified because the other workers at Pinewoods were people who had grown up doing all this. These were kids who had been hot dancers for a lot longer than I had.

The crew worked all day together, and at night we danced. We formed a crew rapper team, and I was sure I wouldn't be good enough. My boss, the one I wanted most to impress, was the best rapper dancer of us. I was sure she would lead the set. Instead, she asked me to take the leading position.

I couldn't understand. She knew the most, by far - why wouldn't she want to take the lead? Eventually, I figured it out. She had passed through her hotshot stage. She knew she was a better dancer than the rest of us, and wasn't interested in showing off. She was moving on to the teaching stage.

Last summer, Jeff and I went to a contra dance together. It was pretty tame, as Boston dances go - not many dancers, not many young people. Jeff was calling, so I couldn't even dance with him. But there were a few beginners there, and I made it my mission to be sure they had a good time. In the process, I had a good time too. If I had only been at the dance for my own enjoyment or to show off, it would have been miserable.

There are dancers who stay obsessed with The Best forever. They don't want to dance with beginners. They want to dance the fastest and coolest they can, all the time. But the more mature ones move on, and start bringing out the best in others.


Alex K-G said...

Julia, this totally resonates with me. I started out in awe of those same hot young dancers. Now, I much prefer organizing, calling, and singing to dancing. I guess the question is, how do we best encourage newcomers? How do we make sure they're having a good time? We all make attempts at this, but what are some of the best ways to do it?

Mary Harvest Kitchen said...

This is a nice post, Julia. I think what you say TOTALLY applies to Scottish and other folk dance forms too. Would you consider submitting this piece to a folkdance publication with a wide reach, such as TACTALK or similar? I think it raises some questions that many dancers might like to think about, especially with @Alex's follow up questions about HOW to encourage new comers.

Julia Wise said...

Alex -
I don't think I have any elaborate method. I'd say I seek out people who seem to have trouble getting good partners and dismiss any "I'm not very good"-type apologies with "We all started out as beginners" or "This is how you learn!" If our set gets bungled, I treat it as funny rather than frustrating. Successful iterations of the dance after bungling are celebrated with "Hey, we did it!" And at the end, "Thanks, that was fun." And then, if something is drastically wrong, "You might try (putting your arm higher on my back, etc.)"

Mary -
I hadn't thought of this as being relevant to Scottish, but it's true that after several years I still find it intimidating. It's true that hearing "That was fun" from a partner even after I bungle something would make me feel a lot better.
Hmm, maybe I'll submit to the CDSS newsletter.