Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stompology (or “MTV Made: I want to be a Jazz Dancer”) - part 2

I’ll admit; I’ve got a weakness for NY state and I was thrilled to be flying in and seeing the city of Rochester pop up out of nothing but fields of green. I was picked up at the airport, had a great dinner, and a few hours later stepping into a fourth floor walkup dance studio to hear local musicians, the Rod Blumenau Swingtet, swinging the heck out of the place.

Truth be told, as I was pushing open the door, I didn’t know what to expect. Would I walk in and see everyone dancing solo or dancing in lots of Charleston or tap jam circles? But there nothing unusual here; just a very friendly group of solid dancers with good musicality dancing to unexpectedly great music from a local band all night. Even better, all the instructors were right there dancing with anyone who asked (even lowly me who truthfully, didn't recognize instructor Bethany Powell when I asked). Heck, with all the familiar faces it made me feel like a small Swing out New Hampshire camp reunion. It was an incredibly fun (but warm) dance with few people sitting any out.

The highlight for me was about 30 minutes in when I asked Sharon to dance and, as the song was winding down, I realized the ending would be perfect to try Juan’s cute hook slide I’d stolen from Scram (or thought I had and would just have to find out). So, I set it up and nailed it perfectly only to feel an odd bump that left me thinking I’d screwed it up until I realized it was Sharon draping herself onto my side as she’d done in their routine and we both cracked up. Yup, 6 months of “what if?” day dream thoughts and it played out perfectly 30 minutes into the weekend. Of course, friends immediately joked, “Should we hand you your keys and you can drive home now having fulfilled your goal?” Instead, I beamed sheer joy and followed it up with my of my most enjoyable dances ever with Mike the girl. This weekend was going to be awesome!

Afterwards we were off the famed “Lindy Compound” for the late night, a fabled venue no one in our car had been to before. We all agreed the name conjured up images of Waco, Texas and we joked that we expected to find out buildings where follows in home sewn clothing communally raised the next generation of lindy hoppers. In truth, it was a house party in a home that was nicely decorated for, and by, dancers with enough space for any event they’d want to throw. As an aside, Sharon Davis was in the kitchen whipping up a quick little something. Yeah, add some cooking ability to the gal’s impressive list of skills.

I’ll admit, I was pretty fried so I found a very comfy couch after schmoozing and grabbing food in the kitchen and drifted in and out over the next couple hours to the sounds of dancing, merriment, and Juan Villafane giving out beatings on the home made arcade game in the corner. It was awesome to be at a house party where people all bring something and its real food, not just 30 different brands of chips and generic salsa.

Saturday morning brought the classes. Unfortunately the room temperature was too hot, but we just affectionately named the room the “Stompology Sweatlodge” and carried on in best NYS Indian nation tradition.

Struttin' & Cakewalkin' with Juan - Learn how to strut, kick and cakewalk like the great Nyas Berry of the Berry Brothers! The material was just different and physically challenging enough to really get us working hard and having a heck of a good time. It also gave you a good idea about the physical conditioning, dedication and historical accuracy Juan brings to his dancing. It was inspiring.

Fred & Ginger with Falty and Bethany - a class inspired by the ultimate in classic dance couples. Where Juan’s class worked us out, this one offered refinement and light, playful footwork. My tap really came in handy here and I came away vowing to watch all of Fred and Ginger’s movies.

Beatniks - Learn Sharon's fun new Beatnik jazz routine, with hot jazz and charleston steps given a Bop vibe. Sip an espresso, don your black turtleneck and beret, and come join the Beat generation. Bongos and beat poetry at the late night party. Words are almost insufficient. It’s Sharon Davis, my main dance crush, being silly and creative and teaching us completely off the wall stuff that still worked and got us thinking and moving in new ways. Plus, this time I’m taking her class without pneumonia in a weekend where I'm holding my own with everyone else in the place..

For the fellas: 50's Style Savoy Applejacks. This was an outdoor class late in the afternoon and I’ll admit I was too tired and unwilling to risk my knees dancing on the somewhat uneven grass. However, I did video tape the lesson to work on at home because it looked like a lot of helpful stuff to practice. Meanwhile, the followers were inside working on their slow and sassy.

All in all, it was a great day of classes. Certainly not your basic lindy workshop and not anything crazily impossible and full of itself like some jazz classes can seem to outsiders; it was just dancers playing around with new ideas - Granted, all very much younger than me (in their twenties) but that didn’t matter at all.

I did secretly wish the only person there who was my age wasn’t that “Jay Peterman dude who kicks everyone all the time hard enough to leave big bruises.” Still, it motivated me to be a good example for their parent’s generation… lol. For the record, learning solo jazz did nothing to get JP to dance smaller. Happily, he only threw his follows (who didn’t actively kick when they hit) into me twice, so it’s all good… unless you were Beth or Sharon’s (or others') shins.

Saturday night’s dance featured The Baby Soda Jazz Band and they were awesome. I can't imagine having access to bands like this in my home town (or state). Heck, this whole weekend was really making me miss my old home in NY.

There were at most 100 dancers in the room and again, all the instructors were dancing with everyone. One of the coolest things was when I started doing some solo stuff in the corner at one point Sharon and a few others nearby just smiled or did anything that gave me a sense of being judged or feeling incompetent. It was just me playing around with the music using my fledging "baby steps towards solo jazz".

After the main dance wound down it was back to the Lindy Compound for another late night. I found my comfy couch amongst the social folks. Craig Sparks joked that Juan beating him in Mortal Combat opened up a whole new arena of things for him to feel inferior to Juan about. Meanwhile, I found myself chatting with Sharon and listening to stories of her last year or two of travels, dancing, music and life in general and suddenly 3 hours had gone by. Yeah, choosing the intimate setting of Stompology over a larger camp was a great idea that gave me time to catch up with friends who are usually busy working at other events. In fact, I learned that in Asia there's usually a schedule of who'll get to dance with the instructors in what order for every song of every dance and if you're not # such and such on the list by the start of the weekend, you're locked out. "Next up, dancer #36; on deck, #37, wait over here please..."

Although we didn't get much sleep, Sunday morning we were all on our way to classes saying it was too bad they didn't start earlier. As an aside, Greg Sparks and my house buddies who stopped so I could get coffee are the most awesome bunch of guys ever. Apparently, there is an unspoken of conspiracy to only house me with non-coffee drinkers for someone's twisted amusement.

Our first class was working on a fusion routine with Bethany Powell set to "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" by Rose Murphy. Her teaching/dance style was a bit different from what I was used to and while her class was fun and challenging, I personally didn’t completely love it the way I had everything earlier. Maybe because it was pushing me even further away from my comfort when I was hoping for a little anchor to things I knew. Still a fun class and it was my first time stringing together jazz steps (as eights and some of them tried for the first time) into a routine, which went much better than I expected. A very nice confidence builder.

Ballin' the Jack. Ballin' the Jack as a dance and a popular tune has its roots stretching back to the 1910s, and headline dancers were performing their interpretations of it well into the 1950s (Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in the 1942 film For Me & My Gal, Dean Martin in That's My Boy in 1951, and even Danny Kaye in On The Riviera in 1951). This was Juan and Sharon teaching us their version and somehow I was rocking it. Completely fun, a bit campy and over the top, and a great way for the instructors to pass along a lot of things to work on, like Juan sharing the secrets of how he spins. Also, to hear them speak about how they worked out things themselves as they learned it.

Soft Shoe. This tap class was inspired by Frankie Manning's son, tap dancer extraordinaire, Chazz Young. Yay for tap. Fun, fun, fun. I was amazed at what a large percentage of people took this class as if it were just any other and how well we all did. There was no sense of, “oh, I don’t do that tap stuff.” Falty is awesome as an instructor, so it just flowed and my feet did it... most of it... and he pointed out, if you really felt like you had it all down, just do it on the other side and you had twice the amount of the lesson for the price you paid.

The last class of the weekend was Falty, Sharon, Juan, and Bethany dividing the group into 4 groups and taking us into corners of the room and giving us 5 minute mini-lessons that were some of the most important and telling things of the weekend. Juan talking about physical conditioning and sharing exercises to strengthen muscles to do what he does; Sharon sharing how to get into and out of some of the moves she does and the illusion of things, Falty getting us thinking of tap and Bethany answering questions about motivations and creativity. It was unexpectedly revealing and I felt like I’d stepped back stage to learn tons of secrets that may have taken me a decade or 2 to master.

Sunday night I ended up getting stranded at the airport with no ride home due to bad weather in DC so I drove back to the after party, which turned out to be a wonderful stroke of luck. What an amazing gathering. Locals, all the instructors and some stragglers hanging out at a parent’s house, grilling, socializing, eating, gathering around a piano to play and sing old songs and then curling up outdoors to watch vintage black and white film clips on an old projector before gathering in the kitchen to share more stories about dancing in Asia and other far off corners of the world. A magical evening.

A few hours later I was on a plane back to Virginia, thoroughly convinced I’d return next year and happy that this time I'd have an entire year to prepare. Who knows what I’ll be able to do with all that time? However, Gabrielle Kern's T-shirt from the weekend, "One time I rocked it so hard I killed a man" does pop into mind.

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