Last week at SwingDiego, I entered the Master’s Jack and Jill competition. Master’s is for dancers over age 50. The Jack and Jill competition means that all the men line up in one line, all the women line up in another and a partner is randomly chosen either by rotation or picking names out of a hat. You never know who you’ll be dancing with, which makes it a true representation of what West Coast Swing dancing is all about – social dancing with anyone who came to dance.
Most of the time, I’ve probably danced with the lady that I draw as a partner at some previous event or maybe even earlier that evening. Sometimes, it’s a lady I’ve never met. That’s what is fun about Jack and Jill – you never know. In the preliminary rounds, I danced with one lady who I’d never met then danced with two ladies who I’ve danced with many times.
When I dance with someone totally new, I go through kind of a feeling out process to see what their abilities are: are they able to do complex moves or should I keep it basic; are they relaxed and playful or are they scared and uptight. It’s my job to set up the lady for a great dance, not to toss her around and try doing things she won’t be able to do. I want us both to walk off the floor feeling like we just had a great dance. I’ve learned that doing lots of tricky moves and trying to show off doesn’t necessarily make you a winner. Great connection with your partner, being on time and in the groove with the music, and demonstrating how much fun you are having dancing….that’s often the winning couple. That’s what is so fun about dancing. I like to play around when I dance but I also like being respectful and skilled at the same time.
Out of 50 couples, I made it through the semi-finals and got to advance to the Finals. I was elated! I got to be one of the 10 men representing the Masters dancers at SwingDiego 2012 – the best event on the circuit. It’s a funny thing – being so excited at being picked out of that pack of dancers to go to the finals, but it’s also humbling because for me, it’s an honor to have danced in front of judges who themselves, are the best dancers in our business. I felt very blessed.
The Finals were scheduled that same night, so I didn’t even have to change clothes. I sat in the ballroom and listened as my name was called out. I jumped to my feet and shouted a good ‘Wooooohooo!!!’, then calmly walked onto the dance floor to take my place on one of the chairs in the middle of the ballroom. Once all the men were called out, the ladies were called next. We all took our seats, facing the audience.
I made the Finals last year at this same event. I was scared to death. Each dancer has to dance ‘Spotlight’, which means when your name is called by Michael Hiehm, the MC, you stand and wait for him to call the lady’s name, then you both stand together in the middle of the dance floor with nobody else dancing, and perform in front of your peers, the judges, the audience and the televised internet broadcast too. When I hear people say that they were so scared that they almost pee-d their pants, they might just be exaggerating. When I said it, I wasn’t exaggerating. I felt my bladder begin to release and I swore I was going to pee. Then I felt my face flush and my stomach tighten. I felt sweat run down my forehead. Then I felt cold. Then I shivered. Then I almost threw up. Then I swore I just pee’d my pants again. Then, thankfully, they called my name and I danced and got it over with. I don’t remember much other than I had a fabulous lady to dance with – the rest was a big blur.
This year, I drew Peggy, another great dancer. I met Peggy a few years back when she was dancing regularly with a man named Don. Together, they could do all these fancy moves including dare-devil supported drops and styled, showcase poses. They were awesome. I knew she could really put on a show but I didn’t have all those fancy moves. I wish I did, but they take practice and trust which comes over time. I certainly wasn’t going to try to pull some of those moves out there during an important competition. I was going to dance my best and let her show her best and as a result, have a great dance together.
Just before the music started, I took a look out at the audience and at the judges, bowing in appreciation. I’ve competed enough over the last 12 months that thankfully, I wasn’t as scared as I was last year. As a matter of fact, I felt pretty relaxed. My smile was genuine, not forced. However, I did feel a bit of a tummy-flip when I looked in the faces of the judges sitting in the chairs right in front of us, clipboards in hand, alert and looking right back at me -Melina Ramirez, Brent Keys, Jessica Cox, Cher Peadon, Deborah Szekely and God knows who else. Gulp!
I had a little trouble finding which beat to start on at the beginning of the song, but settled in with a few good side passes until we established our connection and our eyes confirmed that we were ready to go. I did a few of my cool moves right in line with the music. Peggy did her cool things at the perfect moments and we had a wonderful time. She even found the right time to pull off her heel-slide splits. We were dancing good and we knew it. As the music ended, we each hit a nice pose with good dance lines, hugged, bowed again to the crowd and took our seats again while the other couples danced.
I watched all the other couples dance and felt pretty good about how Peggy and I would score. Competition is a funny thing for me. I feel like I’m on top of the world when I make it to the finals, but after dancing in the Finals, if I don’t make it in the top 5, I feel like a failure. Thankfully, I have enough experience competing over the years, and I’ve developed a more realistic internal conversation that goes on in my head so that now I can talk myself out of committing suicide. We finished in 9th place.
Yes, I felt disappointed. Sure I felt a little embarrassed. Yes, I thought I danced better than some of those who placed above me. But in the end, I know that I danced very well with Peggy and that day, that’s how we placed in that competition. The world didn’t end. I still danced in the Finals at my favorite dance event of the year. I could continue with my life.
And you know what? In the end, most people have no idea how you placed in the Finals. All they know is that you danced. That’s what is really important, isn’t it? We danced!
I look back on last week and I am very proud of what I’ve been able to do. I feel very honored to have danced in the Finals and to have danced with Peggy. I sure felt different than I did last year. I have improved and I have gotten better. I also have learned to handle defeat, which is perhaps the toughest thing about competing. I’m sure some would argue that placing 9th place in the Masters Finals Jack and Jill out of 50 couples is a damn good thing and actually, they are right. Eleven years ago, I could not dance a lick and would NEVER get out in front of anyone and be seen dancing. Today, I can dance in front of thousands and smile and try to show others the joy that I feel when I dance this dance. I love dancing. I am very thankful for all that dancing has allowed me to do. I get to express what I feel when I hear great music and convert what my heart feels into body motion. I get to share it with others in great dances. I get to feel it when they share the same dances with me.
I love West Coast Swing. Thank you Peggy and thank you SwingDiego 2012!