An epic tale of one man's journey from dance-floor shuffler to ballroom champion. Read about the highs and the lows, the struggles and the sacrifices as you are transported into a world where following your dream is the only law of the land and destiny is what you wake up to every morning. Strictly Ballroom eat your heart out - this is the true story of Steve... the dancer
Saturday January 06 2007
, by Steve Elsbury
Two, Three, Four-One
I always could dance. Ask anyone.
That 'hop from one foot to the other and wave your arms around' dance was always one of my favourites. I think it was called the Total Muppet. Yep - that was it. I remember people saying to each other "Wow - look at that Total Muppet" when they saw what I was doing, so it was clearly good enough to be worth a mention. However, my old favourite is the classic, 'walk-around-slowly-dance', and I'm prepared to share with you how this is done:
The basic hold comes in one of three forms: you can either adopt a pseudo-ballroom hold, but with the clasped hands held in close to the shoulder so as not to take up too much space on a crowded dance floor, or go for the hands around the waist approach - either of these are good starting form and will offend no-one. Obviously, the final aim is the hands on the buttocks, but best save that until you know your partner well. Right, so now we've mastered hold, let's move on to footwork. This is tricky, so bear with me. Start with your weight on your left foot and rock to the right, slowly transferring your weight. Try not to move your hips because sometimes people can get the wrong idea. OK, now assuming you didn't rock too far and topple over, rock back from right to left. That's called 'Basic'. Practise doing that until you are comfortable. Don't worry about trying to match the beat of the music - that just makes you look like a poof. Once you're happy, we can progress to the next level. As you rock from side to side, you have to kind of step forward a bit when your left foot is off the ground, and back a bit when your right foot is off the ground. I suspect you've spotted that the clue was indeed in the title - The Walk-around-slowly dance is born.
You'll realise by now that you are reading the words someone clearly born to dance, so being at the top of my game, I decided it was time to find a Dance Studio, to pursue the unlikely possibility that there were other dances worthy of my efforts. I know, I know, with a superb and highly polished "Total Muppet" under my belt, why should I bother? Well, because the person I described in the first couple of paragraphs is someone I don't really want to be - that's why!
One quick web search later, and I had the address for Wright Rhythm.
So what better way to progress, then to trade in the walk-around-slowly-dance for the Rumba (Rhumba? Roomba? I don't know how it's pronounced either!) The instructors started by explaining the timing. You start on two. OK, a bit odd, but I can cope with that. Then comes three - no surprises there then. Then it's four-one. Now I'm sorry - that's not a count - it's a football score, surely? "No, no - it helps explain the timing", they said. So two and three are quick, and four-one is slow. Hmm. OK. That's me none the wiser then. "Look, two (quick), three (quick), four-one (slow - imagine: fouuuuuuuuuuuuur-one - so it's one movement taking up two beats)". OK, I think I've got that, except it's not actually quick-quick-slow - it's more slow-slow-slower! But hang on a minute - why not 1-2-3-4? What bright spark decided we'd start on 2 and end on 1? Well, it's the way it fits in with the beat, apparently. Nod and smile, nod and smile - everyone assumes you understand and you can always fake it until it sinks in. The instructors pretend that they don't realise you haven't got a clue what you are doing, all the while making encouraging noises as they try to ease you into a more rhythmic movement. They're so patient, it's incredible. At no time does the despair show on their faces. Well, not often, anyway..or at least, never when I was looking!
So the days become weeks, and the weeks turn to months. The lessons continue. Other dances are learnt. Slowly - oh so slowly - the Total Muppet becomes but a memory of the days when I though I could dance but actually couldn't. Now I still can't dance, but at least I'm prepared to admit it!
Eventually, my wife Carol and I decided we'd go and watch a dance competition. Oh my God. Have these people never heard of the walk-around-slowly-dance? The rumbas we saw lit up the floor like i wouldn't have believed possible. In fact, they bore no visible relation to our Rumba. We were shown just how far we had to go, but far from being disheartened, we were actually enthused. We decided that we would like to compete, if for no other reason then as a spur to improve our dancing.
I remember a short time later when Paula said to me "Fancy a go at the Supadance team comp? It's not serious at all - just a good laugh really". I found out later that this is one of those coded phrases dance instructors use. It actually means "It'll be the most terrifying experience of your life, but if you live through it, you just might want to do it again". We knew we had to Waltz, Quickstep, Cha Cha Cha and Jive for the first competition, and we had a basic version of all of those, so along we went.
On the day, I went quiet. Very quiet. Now that's unusual for me, but it's how I cope with nerves. The dances were to be nothing more then we had done a thousand times at the studio, but this time in front of a couple of hundred people, and with 3 other couples in the team depending on us to pull our weight. There would be others on the dance floor who wouldn't get out of the way. Others who have been doing it for years. Others with a basic sense of rhythm. It was at this point that I realised I'd picked the wrong day to leave my tranquillisers at home. The odd thing is that once we got on to the dance floor, the audience ceased to exist. I was only aware of the other dancers when we crashed into them or lurched out of their way. The concentration on the dance became total. Sadly, the ability to actually remember the steps dropped off in inverse proportion to the concentration, so what we had fondly hoped would be a passable, if basic, rendition of the dances became less then ideal! Nonetheless, we didn't die of shame - nor did we maim anyone with our flailing arms and unpredictable upper line, so we decided the practise was well worthwhile and agreed to do some more.
Then, the bomb shell: the next round required a Foxtrot, Samba, Rumba and Tango. My first though was "Hooray - I get to walk-around-slowly some more". My second thought was "Hang on - Samba? Foxtrot? How the hell do you do those?". The instructors somehow convinced us we could learn what was needed in the 6 weeks or so before the next comp., so we had a go. The dances that ground painfully out of the other end of this learning process can only be described as a Foxtrot and a Samba in the loosest possible sense, but off we went again to boldly dance where we plainly had no right to do so! The Samba should have been easy for us. We only knew 5 steps and we did those in groups of 4, so all we had to remember was 5 things repeated 4 times each. How hard can that be? Well, at one point while Carol was gamely struggling in the middle of the dance floor, and doing a very passable impression of someone who knew the dance - I was walking behind her (yes, actually just walking) because my memory of the steps had fled so completely that I didn't even have the sense to bounce a bit while I was walking to at least try and make is look rhythmic! I can honestly say that was a low point in my life. I have never before wished the ground would open and swallow me. Becs later said to me "when all else fails, wiggle your arse", and these are wise words indeed.....although how well they would work mid-Waltz remains to be seen.
Our next dance was the Rumba. It started OK but the middle bit went a bit ropey, and then the timing started to slip. Not a problem for us. Not due to any inherent skill, you understand, but due to the other 20-odd members of Wright Rhythm who spotted our predicament and start chanting "2, 3, 4-1". Now you'd think that would be hugely embarrassing, wouldn't you? Not a bit of it. Firstly, it enabled us to dance the Rumba instead of the 'Total Muppet meets the walk-around-slowly' dance. Secondly, you'd never believe how many other couples on the floor subtly adjusted their timing to match the chant. I'm going to keep this one in reserve now, for future gamesmanship: If we see a team doing as particularly good Rumba, we'll chant "2, 3, 4-1" just half a beat off. Let's see the buggers dance then. That'll wipe the smug grin off their smarmy.....OK, OK, I'll just get my coat!
The funny thing is, very few people notice when you get it all wrong. (Well, if they do, they're polite enough not to say anything), and once again, the shame of it all didn't actually prove fatal, although I wished for a while that it would. So we went back to the studio and we practised and kept on practising. We also kept on competing and gradually made a few discoveries:
- Dance great, but frown, and everyone assumes you're not very good
- Smile, and you can more or less dance how you like. People assume mistakes they see are just hiccups in otherwise perfect performances
- To be able to smile all the time whilst dancing is not a special, hard-won skill - it just requires that you enjoy yourself (Thanks to Pete for this insight).
- No-one cares (well, your team mates care, but the majority of the audience are watching the people in their club and don't even know you exist)
- There's nothing wrong with stopping and starting again if it all goes pear-shaped.
- Don't get out of people's way, because they sure as hell won't get out of yours
- Don't scrunch up your hold to take up less space if you get crowded on the floor. Your biggest concession should be a slight change of direction or, at most, a pause or if you're good enough, a contra-check. (Clue: we're not good enough yet!).
- Make sure the judges aren't watching before you punch anyone
- Judges are only human - they respond well to bribery
(Please note the last two aren't strictly true: If you bribe a judge well enough, you can punch who you damned well please!)
Eventually, it was time to attend the Supadance finals, in Prestatyn in North Wales. This time, there would be teams from the North as well as the South of the country, and the event was planned for the whole weekend People had warned us that the accomodation was...well.....let's just say a bit on the basic side. Apparently there is a club-class chalet you can hire, but I never found out who you have to sleep with to get one of those, so it was Stalag-Luft 19 for us. A tip for you, gentle reader, should you ever choose the way of the sheep and stay at Prestatyn....Don't. Or if you must, buy pounds and pounds worth of electricity vouchers and use the electric cooker to keep the chalet warm. Forget a good night's sleep though. No shortage of springs in Pontin's matresses, but sadly they all seem to have independent will.
Day 1 dawns. We'd been warned we'd need to march on and twirl ourselves about a bit. Cool. No problem. Got the Wright Rhythm fleece and all good to go. What they don't warn you about is the marching legions of the damned that some of the northern clubs bring with them. Remember it's very poor up north, so most of them go to Dance Competitions instead of having proper holidays. Ecky-thump. By 'eck lad. Fortunately, as I speak the language, we got away with 'nobbut a few bruises, tha' knows!'.
The competition was just like all the others, except on a grander scale. We danced some badly, we danced some well. We were in the excellent company of our fellow Team members: Howard and Gillian; Lyn and John and Rob and Debbie. Our team won.
Sorry - can I just say that again? WE WON!
Now let's keep this in perspective: Over 35's, Division 2 is a far cry from 'National Champions'.
I later said to a far more skilled and experienced dancer "How did that happen?". The answer was "You were less rubbish then the other teams". Face? Bothered? Nope. I got a medallion now, I have. If only I could persuade Carol to let me wear it on a gold chain around my neck, I'd be well sorted. She won't let me wear my Wright Rhythm fleece to work either. Spoilsport, she is!
How did we actually win? All team members danced as best they could, having been taught by 3 excellent instructors, Paul, Gilli and Mark, who failed to lose their temper with us to any appreciable degree. Most importantly, and at the end of the day, we were indeed less rubbish they everyone else. Job done. :-)
So why go to a competition and subject yourself to abject terror and ritual humiliation? Well, we were shown how beautiful it can be, and how our dance skills were but a pale imitation. Initially, this was a wee bit depressing. It's easy to think "I'll never be as good as that so why bother?". The thing is, it depends why you do it. We dance because we love it. The more we dance, the more we love it and, strangely, as time went by, we started to find that what felt awkward and vaguely embarrassing, started to feel like fun (we're still dancing rubbish, but at least now it's enjoyable rubbish!). We both know we are still only just beginning, but we can see the way forward, and it looks like the fun will only get better from now on. If the dancing gets better too, then we'll really be ahead of the game. So how bad is that? Take 2 middle-aged people and introduce them to a hobby that they really enjoy, then stand back and watch them get boring on the subject. I reckon there's two classes of people in the world: those who go to a dance class only once or twice, and those that get hooked.
Which type are you?