Posts Tagged ‘graceful’


One, two, three-and, one, two, three-and, one…  Right, left, rock-step, right, left, rock-step, right…  Some things, especially repetitive things requiring concentration, get stuck in my head.  When I learned chess, I started to count knight-moves on every grid I saw, including the patchwork quilt on my bed.  Now I’m thinking the rhythm and steps of swing dancing, actually trying to get the pattern so ingrained in my mind that it becomes subconscious, so that there is hope of doing any but the most basic steps. 

I learned swing dancing from a patient and delighted friend yesterday, but I’m still not very good.  Not learning something after one lesson is difficult for me.  My usual motto is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s: “If I had ever learnt, I should be a true proficient.”  Experience has taught me that I learn quickly, and can often self-teach (and if there’s a field in which I don’t excel, I “avoid those weaknesses which expose a good understanding to ridicule.”).  But though I have seen others taught to swing, and even snuck some Youtube tutorial video viewings in, I failed to teach myself and so applied to my friend, who was equally amazed that I did not just catch on. 

My sense of rhythm is horribly out of practice.  I think I used to do rather well, and be good at following music.  Lately, I can’t even clap to songs lest I land on the off-beat.  And in swing, apparently rhythm is essential.  First you have to be able to start on the beat, then keep your feet moving – no room for tripping or forgetting a step! – all to the big band beat.  Basic swing is probably a mere step above waltzing.  The box-step of a waltz, on even beats, is quite simple, leaving only the question of direction and (for a woman) following lead.  All the same, my unpracticed feet are quite lost. 

I’d say I went through all the stages and asked almost every question a person could – except I do k now my right from my left.  When we say “right step”, for example, no one expects you to step right; steps aren’t so much, then, about any horizontal motion as about vertical, and the noise made by tapping or stomping.  All this when I thought dancing had to do with smooth, graceful, whole-body lines.  It looks much more fun that way. 

For my entire childhood my favorite movies were the old musicals, not so much ballroom classical Fred Astaire as soft-shoe numbers by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.  I’d run about the room imitating the dancers, after carefully studying their feet for the moves.  (I should have known feet were the most important and sometimes the only part of dancing.)  Never mind matching the music the same way they did; I’d follow the melody my own way.  Sometimes I would even choreograph my own dances, scribbling out on notebook paper the steps with arrows and abbreviations, full of imaginative innovations all my own.  So I’ve thought about dancing, what goes into it.  I’m as close to being self-taught as possible. 

It was interesting, then, to be both self-teacher and thoroughly taught by another.  I did a bit of self-diagnosing yesterday, identifying areas of confusion and weakness and difficulty to which my obliging teacher applied herself.  There was quite a bit of watching my feet, watching hers, and of pressing my hands to my cheeks in embarrassed failure.  I don’t know that I stepped on any toes, but I caused my friend to step on mine!  When swing dancing, it is important to let knees and even elbows bend.  Otherwise, as my instructor was so flattering to point out, one moves like a slow penguin. 

Just when I was doing well without music, we tried it to a tune from Chocolat – the best swing my friend had, but a little fast for a beginner.  We each learned: she about teaching, and me about remembering which foot comes next.  It took several tries, but I got the hang of the beat, and improved in covering up my mistakes.  Even if I forgot to step with my left foot – which often happened since it never goes anywhere – I remembered where my right one went next, and generally kept up with the music.  If you can’t fake it when you forget a step, you’re doomed to start over.  There’s no getting back into synchronization without a restart.  Only once did we keep going when I lost the beat, and I ended up coming down half a step between hers.  Oops! 

I remember watching figure skating on ice when I was little, and as spectacular as were the triple axel jumps and amazing spins, the performances that moved me, ones I still remember, were beautifully artistic.  No rigid technicality there, the great skaters were so skilled in the difficult moves that they could add grace, training their arms to bend in just the right curve, and the jump to explode into the air just as the music would crescendo.  In competition, this beautiful side of the sport was balanced, in scoring, against the impressive.  As a dreaming girl I had imagined slipping on a pair of skates and gliding serenely across the ice – a dream that crashed with my derriere the first time I actually attempted to balance on that thin metal blade. 

Swing dancing is something like that – so much more romantic in imagination.  Also like ice-skating, there is a lot to be said for being sufficiently confident in the art that one can breathe and move and remember that it is an art, and not a mathematical equation.  “We’ve got to work on the stiffness,” my friend said with a small smile.  And she had warned me earlier in our lessons that eventually I’d have to look at my partner’s face instead of their feet – which I suppose is much more the point of dancing.  The stiffness is still an issue, but maybe I’ll come up with new words to say to the count, words like: point, bend, curtsy, elbows, bend, swing-tap, right, left, rock-step, right…  I made sufficient progress in the hallway of my friend’s house that she didn’t press me.

So my eager and confident teacher decided to drag me into the next level of swing dancing.  Not only must I know the direction of the steps, be able to keep myself up on sore legs unused to such exercise, keep the rhythm, and match the music – I had to learn a special step or two.  Arms pull out, drawing the dancers closer, but askew, begging the step to come across.  I’m so technical.  From which step do we move into a special move?  Which foot comes forward in a cross step, and wait! – to which side does it go?  Does it then go back, or straight into the other side of the X formation?  With much additional thought and practice, including some stepping back and thinking it through with my own feet, deciding I rather needed to tie the left foot to the floor, I correctly danced that step a couple times, too.  But I wouldn’t risk being surprised into a move just yet.  I need to know the schedule, or I’ll be kicking partners, a prospect I find rather embarrassing.

And partners – real ones, not instructors – are really the most frightening things about the whole business.  Aside from the emotional impact of physical contact and eye-gazing, he’s going to have to be forgiving.  The men are also supposed to lead, and they won’t necessarily tell me a schedule of how many steps before a fancy one, or which fancy one.  Am I too afraid to follow, or too desperate to follow, preferring to be carried? 

Wow.  All these childhood experiences are coming back to illustrate.  When I was five or six, I was taking swimming lessons.  Being rather independent, I decided holding my breath was much easier than turning my ear to the side to breathe.  Over short distances my little lungs could handle it until I stood in the shallow end or grabbed the side of the pool.  But during lessons, we in the class were required to swim out into the deep end, around an instructor, and back to the wall.  And the path was too long for me to hold my breath.  I got to the teacher standing in the “deep end” and clung desperately to his shoulders, hoping not to drown and gasping for air.  Happily, now I am much better at breathing as I go, but I remember that helplessly immobile feeling of just needing to survive.  Forget form, forget everything, and just hold on to something or someone you can trust! 

On the few occasions when my friend tried to teach me something new, I flew into that same mode, gripping her hand and falling back into walking or just standing, unable to keep with the dance, trying only to survive until craziness stopped happening and the routine step settled back in.  I’ve already mentioned this is a doomed tactic.  But there are ways to survive, a lot like the regular turn of the head to catch a breath while I swim. 

Earlier this year life was like a brand new, confusing, and even painful dance move.  I was cast into it with plenty of warning, and even with direction, but felt my emotions and mind wavering on the edge of peace and self-control.  In a world whirling around me, each word and decision critical, I walked exercises in sanity by doing things routine, or even by naming everything that caught my eye.  “Door.  Fence.  Bird.  Sidewalk.  Shoe.”  You may think that in itself is crazy, but I was reminding myself of reality, that some things were stable and unchanging. 

In swing dancing, there is a stable reality to which I can cling.  That original pattern of steps never changes.  I may place my right foot in a different direction, be swung up and over heads and spun across the floor, but while all of it is happening, I can think to the beat: right, left, rock-step, right.  And even if I have to wait a bit to get my footing, I can hold onto the dance and come in as soon as possible.  Or at least my friend can.  She demonstrated.  That’s survival in swing dancing. 

I’ve got the concept wrapped into my brain.  Now it’s just a matter of rote practice.  “Count with me.  Don’t try to move your feet.  Just get the feel of the count.” 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn


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 January 12 I attended a Civil War Ball put on by a homeschool group in our area. The dress I designed and made myself. So accepting some, as they say in the bus – irregularities, considering the feat, I’m satisfied. Mom had to have pictures. My brother went crazy with the camera (thus the views from the top). And I’m only uploading the good ones!
We learned a lot of dances, whose steps I tried to recall the week after the dance.  If I got any of the steps wrong, omitted some, or confused the steps between dances, you’ll have to forgive me.  I can’t even find any websites that have instructions I can check.  Whenever I say “arms around,” it’s a dance step, not a position.  Elbows link and the couple swings a full circle. 
Virginia Reel: Line of gentlemen, line of partners facing.  Head lady meets food gentleman in center, curtsy and bow.  Head gentleman and foot lady do the same.  Head lady, foot gentleman meet right arms around.  Foot.  Left arms around.  Two hands around.  Dosie-do.  Head couple sachets down and back, right arms around.  Separate.  Gentleman reels with ladies line.  Lady reels with gentleman’s line.  Return to the middle to reel right arms around with partner between each outside partner (left arms).  Once down to the end of the line, right arm reel one more time and make a arch.  Other couples file through, lady, gentleman, lady, gentleman, inside and under the arch, out and around to reform line.  Begin again at the top. 
You do have to think about being graceful to move in a hoopskirt. It’s a good mental exercise.  Some dances were almost impossible.  I intentionally left out the dance that shouldn’t have been in a Civil War ball, because the dresses are too prohibitive. 
One of my favorite dances was:
Military Two-Step: Promenade position (crossed hands held, side by side, girl on gentleman’s right).  Point toe outside, cross in front and touch heels.  Point toe outside, cross in back and touch heels.  Face each other, step, right kick, step, left kick.  Right arm reel, switch partners (ladies move left, gentlemen stay)
From the back… I love the lacing! At the last minute I decided to gather the extra fabric of the skirt in swags instead of hemming. Once dancing in it I learned the skirt was too long, since I and everyone else kept stepping on it. However, I only made it to barely cover the hoopskirt, so that is what was too long. In between dances I found a discreet corner in which to lower myself into repair position and replace safety pins.

My other favorite dance was:

Yankee Reel: Lady on gentleman’s right, take hands in circle, six steps to center, turn around & go back.  Right arm around first partner.  Left arm around next partner (ladies move clockwise, gentlemen counterclockwise).  Two hands around next partner.  Dosie-do next partner.  Swing around next partner (waltz position, once around), turn under (lady do a spin under gentleman’s left arm toward center, come right back) and curtsy/gentleman bow.  Face center, take hands, start over. 

With a little more work on the gown, the lacey overlay would have gone all the way around. No one expressed criticism for this point. I am my own severest critic.
The sleeves were something I fought with, and didn’t figure out until I was making a shirt for my sister (half-making; it still isn’t finished). I needed the sleeve to be basically a rounded trapezoid, and I had a fixed length for the two sides, and for the top. But I needed the bottom to be longer than the rounded top. If you’re a math whiz you know that’s impossible… unless you round the bottom edge too! That makes poofy sleeves. So I ended up doing that, gathering the top, and tucking the hem. My only problem was that the right and left sleeve were identically cut, so they didn’t fit into the armholes the same. Oops!
Rebel Stomp: Lady on outside, moves to her right.  Two steps right, stomp.  Two steps left, stomp.  Two steps right, stomp.  Two steps left, turn (face counterclockwise in promenade position.  Point outside toe out, then bring it back together with the other foot, step outside foot back, forward sweep, and two steps.  Turn around and repeat.  Back up three steps.  Come together three steps with new partner.  (Ladies move left.) 
In the end my favorite part was the ribbon, which I found in abundance among my craft supplies. The eyelets are in backwards, but you really can’t tell.
Patty-cake Polka: Ladies on outside of circle.  Gentlemen mirror ladies.  Hold hands.  Ladies right heel out, cross over left leg and point toe.  Left heel out, cross over right leg and point toe.  Step back three.  Come together three.  Right hands clap three times.  Left hands three claps.  Both hands three claps.  Knees three claps.  Lady spins under gentleman’s right arm and on to her left. 
I did my hair in rag curls without rags (used little claw clips instead) and left it up for dance practice. After I bought hairspray and got the dress on I took the hair down to make the ringlets.

Hat Dance: Line of ladies, line of gentleman.  Three chairs.  One hat.  Hat in middle seat.  Begin two ladies in outside chairs, one gentleman in middle.  He chooses which lady not to dance with by giving her the hat.  Sachets down line with other lady, gets back in line.  Lady with hat moves to center seat.  Two gentlemen fill in.  She chooses the same way.  Repeat.  

The highlight of the day was actually the culture involved in a ball.  Ladies were expected to be ladies, and men were gentlemen. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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