During the summer of 2001, I was with a Singles Church Group that would go to Texas Tumbleweed’s country western saloon on Sunday evenings. They’d dance 2-Step while I watched, wishing I could dance, but not really minding if I just sat there. I never was fond of country western joints so going there was a bit of a stretch for me anyway. Still, I liked the folks I was with, and the music was familiar and catchy. I could see the smiles on the couples faces as they danced, and I thought how fun it would be to be able to dance some 2-Step, particularly since I was from Texas.
The following week, I went to Cactus Moon, a blues bar near my home that I went to each week. One evening while the live band played, several couples got up and danced. They danced differently than I’d ever seen before. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them because they were dancing as couples, moving perfectly to the music, not your typical drunk blues shimmy and swivel. This was sexy, defined, organized, fun and playful. They were moving slow and sultry mixed with some accelerated and stop action moves to fit perfectly with the music being played. I found out they were dancing West Coast Swing.
That was it. That was when I made up my mind. Not another day would go by without me learning to dance. I did not know how to dance, and I didn’t ever learn because I was too embarrassed to get out on the dance floor and let someone see me move. I’d do a little cutting up at a wedding, or at a disco, but I had no idea what I was doing. And I sure as hell didn’t want anybody to see me doing my ‘white boy’ dancing. But on that night, at Cactus Moon, I promised myself that no matter what it took, I promised I’d learn to dance.
I was 48 years old.
I had marched in the military to the cadence of a drill sergeant barking out ‘Bo-didly, Bo-diddly, have you heard? Daddy’s gonna buy you a mocking-bird. Hep, two, three, four!” And I had done step-aerobics at Bally’s gym for several years. I had music in my soul, and had played musical instruments for years, so I did have some rhythm and a good knowledge of all kinds of songs – from Rock and Roll to Smooth Jazz to Blues.
But to overcome the fear of dancing – that was a whole new ball of wax. To think that I was going to get out there in front of another person, or in front of a group, and twitch and wiggle and end up red-faced, sweating from sheer terror and embarrassment, and actually exposing my inept, unskilled and inadequate dance abilities – well, to say the least, it took every bit of gumption that I had to swallow my pride and do it. After all the years of going to blues clubs, rock concerts, collecting records and hand slapping my steering wheel to the songs on the radio, I was determined to do it. I wanted to learn to dance. I had to push myself in the same manner that I overcame the fear of skydiving, of committing 14 hours a day of studying to be an air traffic controller and risk failure, and controlling my shaky nerves on the golf course for a clutch put. It would take all those fears, and skills, to do this.
It was a slow process at first. I would go to dance class several times a week, practicing what I’d learned with fellow beginner dancers. That helped a lot knowing that we were all beginners instead of dancing with an accomplished dancer and trying to keep up. Still, every goof was exposed in how red my face got, and the sweat that rolled off my forehead. It was a dead giveaway that I felt totally insecure and totally out of my comfort zone. However, I kept at it.
West Coast Swing is danced to all the music that I love, and that is probably what kept me going. I wanted to be able to dance to all the songs that were touching my soul. Al Green, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt. I loved that music so, I kept at it. I’d practice and practice. I took notes. I did basic steps where ever I could. I made myself get up at blues bars and dance as best I could. I probably knew 4 or 5 moves, and that’s all I did all night long.
I started dancing and taking lessons with a partner who helped a lot. She was very patient with me. I entered a few dance contests and remember failing miserably. Missed everything that was going on in the song. I just burped up move after move that had nothing to do with the music. I remember walking off the dance floor one time feeling like a klutz who doesn’t belong anywhere near a dance floor. I was so shaken by how badly I’d done that I almost quit. I almost gave in to those folks around me that said I was spending too much time at dancing and that I should quit.
But I’m not a quitter. I swallowed whatever pride I had left, and went back at it. This was my most painful time as a dancer. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but I just couldn’t do it. I was so upset and disappointed in myself for not being able to do it. I could see other people getting the hang of it, but I just wasn’t.
It was during this time while I was at my North Houston Swing Dance Club, that I worked my way into Mario Robau, Sr.’s class. There were also three women who had the most heavenly patience with me too. They would dance with me even though I sucked, and we both knew it. Mario would teach intermediate moves. I write it down, practice it, and return to class to do it again and again and again. And my Fly Girls, as I started calling those three gals, would dance with me.
It was that group that helped me turn the corner. I gained enough confidence in myself that I began taking private lessons. I kept on competing, sorry as that was, and eventually began to have some success. However, my age often left me near the bottom of the list of younger, better dancers ahead of me during the trophy presentations.
I credit 2 people for taking me the rest of the way. David Appel and one of my dearest friends, Lisa D’Amico. They were my pro instructors and took me to the next skill level. They drilled me and practiced me. Between these two people, I finally experienced success and a growing confidence. It was a confidence that came from getting my skills up, but also from overcoming the shy-ness of dancing in front of someone else. Of actually dancing and leading and linking together that which I’m hearing in my head with body movement.
The first time I experience that was at a dance event in Tulsa, Oklahoma about 6 years after starting to take dance lessons. Six years!! I wrote an article about it then, called ‘Taking My First Ride’. It was the first time that I experienced the almost ‘spiritual’ feeling that comes from dancing in a subconscious mode – my body anticipating the music, and custom fitting my dance moves to align with the song. It was exhilarating! And it was perfectly timed, because I was growing weary of how much work I was putting into this with so little rewards. That night, gave me a taste of what it is like to really dance.
I recognized that for the first time, I wasn’t embarrassed to dance for someone, or in front of someone. As a result, I began to compete in more events. I began to do choreographed routines. I took more private lessons. I fought back shyness and insecurities, and took more body movement classes. I knew I still looked dorky and I wanted it fixed. I submitted myself to instruction that no man from Texas should have ever had to do. But I wanted it, and I wanted it bad. I remembered my promise – I would do whatever it takes to learn to dance. I wanted to be a good social dancer. That was my goal.
For the last 2 years, I have finally experience great dancing. I’ve danced socially with all the great dancers in this realm of West Coast Swing. I have great fun and I also work very hard at it. I have a fabulous girlfriend who dances with me all the time. She is my favorite dancer of all time. I have a great dance partner too. We have a dance routine that we compete with around the country. I hang out at a wonderful dance studio. And I have weekends that are saturated with dance and music that thrills my soul.
I still make lots of goofs, and embarrass myself. But my confidence level has risen and my ego has been rewarded enough that I can pretty much laugh all that off. It does keep me humble though. These days, my fear and anxiety comes from performing in front of crowds up to 2,000 fellow dancers! Can you believe that!? Me! Dancing in front of a crowd of people who know how to dance?! It makes me giggle like a schoolgirl!
I like a challenge. Dancing was one of my biggest hurdles yet. I think I’ve put a pretty big dent in that fear. Plus, now I can dance to all the music that flows through my body and soul. There is nothing like it. Fear has been replaced with splendor. Embarrassment has been replaced with pride that comes from hard work. Insecurity has been replaced with confidence that I can dance with anyone of any skill level and have a GREAT time together.
I love dancing almost as much as I love music, though in a sense, they are becoming one in me.