Editorial: Steve's tale of his road to enlightenment in "The Way of the Bec", whilst preparing for his first Blackpool Nationwide Medallists' competition
Published Tuesday September 16 2008, by Steve Elsbury
by Steve Elsbury - this time, aged 48 and a bit, and the clock just keeps on ticking!
Steve's tale of his road to enlightenment in "The Way of the Bec", whilst preparing for his first Blackpool Nationwide Medallists' competition.
My smile clearly shows I have no idea what I am letting myself in for!
My wife Carol and I have been dancing for nearly 3 years now. As some famous dead person once said (before they died, obviously): It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. There has been laughter. There have been tears. There has been shouting. There has been walking at a time when clearly there should have been dancing. Conversely, there has been dancing at times when there should have been walking, but once my colleagues in the office told me I was doing it, I stopped. No-one wants to see that at the coffee machine. There has been friendship and camaraderie. There has been ridicule, albeit good natured. None of this will be news to you if you have read the other articles in the series, but it's worth mentioning if only to illustrate that (as another famous dead person once said)......"all life is here"!
Anyway, after many months of hard work, we have finally reached the point where competitions are approached with an attitude of "Hey, this might be fun", instead of the old "Please God - let this be over" feeling that we have come to know so well. This being the case, when we were asked if we wanted to try and qualify for the 2008 Blackpool Nationals, we decided to give it a go. We have been to the Nationals once and seen the size of that dance floor, so we already know that our 'routines' will have to have all 4 sides joined together to make just one long side of the floor at Blackpool! The annoying thing is that simply saying yes to this snapped us back out of 'fun' mode and back into 'terror' mode. After all, it's Blackpool, right? Only the Nationals, that's all. Only a comp where we will be up against the best dancers in the country (well, best IDTA dancers, anyway........OK then, best IDTA dancers in our age group........look, it's impressive - just take my word for it, ok?). Where was I? Oh yes.......Only a comp after which we will know (via the Scrutelle website) exactly where we are ranked out of all those entered.......and that's if we even qualify, which we know to be in some doubt....mainly because our studio contains mirrors - and sadly just like Shakira's hips, those mirrors don't lie!
My ballroom partner, Liesa, showing how it should be done
We overcame the original competition terrors, so there's no reason why this should be any different, right? Ditch the 'endure' and get back to the 'enjoy'? Yeah. Great theory Steve. But then again, others in our club have competed at Blackpool many times, and they did not die in the process, nor become social pariahs in any way (except...well.....OK, I'd best not say, but you know who you are :-). Anyway, let's leave this defeatist attitude behind and get on with actually qualifying!
So for several weeks, if not months, the studio rang to my cries of "Oh for God's sake - I KNOW this dance", punctuated only by Carol's "Owww, gerroff, gerroff, you're hurting!" (She still insists on putting her feet right where I want to put mine - she'll get it eventu...ouch! "OK, sorry dear. Yes, they might not realise I'm joking. I'll delete it, I promise. Yes. OK. Bye".......don't you hate it when they sneak up and read over your shoulder? Can't live with 'em, can't dance without 'em!)
The weeks rolled by like drunks on a Chingford Saturday night. The bruises from training faded, and were replaced with fresh ones. The routines became less stilted and more familiar, and we trod on the toes of a whole lot of new club dancers unlucky enough to be asked to partner us. I remember confidently leading Laura into a heel turn in the foxtrot, only to find her chasseing away. Hmmm. So it could be that Laura can't follow a lead, or it could be that I have no discernible lead. I know where the clever money is going on this one! (Shut-up Carol - they GET it already). Actually, Laura has proved a great disappointment in the dance-partner stakes. Recently we were practising the Rumba, and when we got to 'the drop', she completely failed to notice I had stepped in front of her instead of behind her, with the result that my thigh wasn't there to support her and down she went. Silly girl. Must be more observant in future. I can't imagine why this never seems to happen to her when dancing in competition with other partners - I guess she's just lucky.
My Latin partner, Becs, dancing with a purpose!
Here's an expression I never knew could be applied to dancing: 'Corner-time'. It actually doesn't mean that period in the middle of a competition when Carol and I get stuck in a corner of the floor, unable to bump-start the dance after a stalled spin turn due to the unceasing flow of traffic from 'bigger boys'. No, gentle-reader, corner time is something far simpler. It's also known as 'Dancing with Becs' (DWB). Let me explain. Our Becs is a dancer of immeasurably far greater skill, poise, elegance and experience than I - but nonetheless the instructors at Wright Rhythm clearly felt she had offended them in some way, as they saw fit to hurl her into the maelstrom that is my dancing. "You're partnered with Becs tonight, Steve" they said, as if this were no big deal! Now let me explain how it is with Becs. There are two ways any given dance, or even single step, can be done. There's her way, and then there's the wrong way. Now don't misunderstand me - that's no bad thing! It's just that where others might say "Close enough - you can work on that later" after I ruin the 17th straight attempt to do a simple step to the side, Becs simple says "Noooo - let's try again", in that very patient voice that tells you that even though your roots in 'Total-Muppet' dancing are clearly showing, she is prepared to overlook your stunning ineptitude for however long it takes to get the flipping step right.
Carol covered the actual qualifiers in superb detail in her earlier article, so I'll not revisit that topic any further - suffice to say we both qualified in both Ballroom and Latin....much to our surprise, but there you are. Turns out that equal-opportunity-employment did us a favour. Blind judges, you see. I've always been in favour.
Remember I said the 'endure' had turned to 'enjoy', and the terror had receded? Well, with a few scant months to go before competing at THE Medallist event of the year, that feeling rapidly became a distant memory. I was partnered with Liesa for Ballroom and Becs for Latin, and launched into trying to learn the Blackpool routines. Easy right? I've got medals to prove I can do this, haven't I? Luckily, there is no medal test for memory as I would have failed it. Over the coming months, we figured out the problem. I was trying to work on perfecting technique, posture, frame and expression all at the same time, when I should have first concentrated to committing the routines to muscle memory. We addressed the problem by making the routines more and more simple, until we reached a point where I was able to complete every dance I started. OK, so not necessarily while the same track was playing, but certainly during the same day, which was close enough for me.
Only one of these dancers has a clue what comes next - can you guess which it is?
There are some things that will stick in my memory though - a couple of little phrases that came up during the training, and have now more or less entered into my daily vocabulary. Let me share them with you:
My posture is appalling. Always has been and (I thought) always will be. I was round-shouldered as a lad and kind of got into the habit. Instructors have lost the will to live trying to get me to lift my head. On the odd occasion when I manage it, the shoulders come up too, instantly rendering me neckless. I had brief flashes of a good top-line, but flashes were all they were. Now Becs found this to be an intolerable situation, so told me to "stand up straight". I did so. "No", she said patiently, "stand up straight". I managed to glean another quarter inch from somewhere in my aching musculature. "OK", she said (Yippee, I thought)...."Now drop your shoulders and stop trying to stick your chest out" (Oh bugger, I thought). After what felt like hours of this, I ended up in what was deemed to be an acceptable position. The problem for me is that I wear varifocal glasses, and with my head up so straight and my neck jammed into the back of my collar, I was looking at the world through the reading bit at the bottom of the specs. Becs thought this was great. "If the world doesn't look all blurry" she said "you're not standing straight enough". Excellent. So now as well as aching shoulder and neck muscles from trying to maintain this posture all day so it become second nature, I also have aching knees and shins because I keep walking into blurry things that are in my way. Becs explained to me that it is all a mind set. "When you stand, you don't just stand straight...you stand with a purpose". At the time, this phrase just rolled over me. Little did I know it was to shape my life.
Picture the scene a week later, when Pete and Becs had popped over for Sunday lunch and I was being nagged about my posture as always. Apparently, I have to sit 'with a purpose' now too. Later, I was making coffee, when into the kitchen strolled Becs. "What are you doing Steve?". "Making coffee - what does it look like?". "Yes, but are you making coffee with a purpose?". Now the problem is that when I am pouring boiling water I prefer to have the cup in sharp focus, so making the world go blurry as I described earlier was not an option. I straightened as much as I could, and realised it was not enough. What did I do? I created a 'picture foot' - that's what. Now dancers reading this will know what this means, but for those who don't: It involves shifting all your weight to one leg while the other is stuck out to the side and slightly behind, nice and straight and with the toe pointed. The thing is, the shift in balance needed to achieve this automatically makes you stand straighter still. So there you are - how to make coffee 'with a purpose'. Clearly, this is another practice I must NOT use at the coffee machine at work. You can just imagine it, can't you? "See that bloke at the coffee machine?"........ "What, you mean the gay bloke?" .......I think not.
To say my wife Carol and I were a bit chuffed to be there would be something of an understatement.
There you have it, gentle reader. 'With a purpose' (let's say WAP, for the sake of brevity) - less of a 3-word phrase and more a state of being. It's wossname innit. Zen. That's it. Zen and the Art of Dancing With Becs With a Purpose..... DWBWAP ....'Dweeb-wap', I suppose you'd pronounce that if you really had to.
I did say earlier that a couple of phrases had stuck in my mind, and the second has all the makings of one that's really going to haunt me. Let me explain. I've always been able to pick things up quickly, and it came as a huge surprise to me that I didn't instantly become an expert dancer as soon as I started - I know that those of you who have seen me dance the 'total muppet' (see earlier article) will be equally baffled! I am just not equipped to deal with this well, so what actually happens is I get a face like a Bulldog chewing a Wasp and I sulk a lot. Paula, Gilli and Mark are used to this by now, so they either ignore it, or change the dance to one they know I am better at to lighten my mood (translation: turn me into a marginally less surly git). Have you spotted the problem yet? Yes, that's right, I am now Dweeb-wap. Does Becs use the same technique? Does she hell! "We don't have that attitude in MY lesson" is her usual reply to my falling spirits, in a similar tone to that used by my old primary school teacher oh so many years ago. If I don't instantly lighten up and get with the program, then it's followed by "Is Stevie-Weevie cwoss?", delivered in that sing-song, talking-to-very-small-children tone we all use. Put yourself in my position. Try and stay surly. Can't be done, can it? Not without looking like a total idiot anyway. The worst bit is that Liesa (my Ballroom partner) asked Becs how she deals with it when I go all quiet and moody, and Becs told her. She only bloody told her! So that'd be two of them doing it now. I'll have to leave the room in future if I want a proper sulk! Carol thinks this is very funny and has done nothing to discourage them from this heinous practice.....which just goes to show how they all stick together! Like I said earlier: Can't Kill 'em, can't dance without 'em.
So now we have poor Stevie-Weevie not allowed to get cwoss, and also wequired - sorry, required - to utilise the principles of Dweeb-wap at all times. That's enough, right? Enough for one poor sap who's doing his best to make up in enthusiasm what he so obviously lacks in talent? Nope. Nowhere near enough. Apparently it is no longer sufficient for me to simply "get dressed" when I am "about to dance". Oh no. What is required now is for me to "don a costume" as I "prepare to perform"..... A costume? .....Excuse me? ......48 years-old here and have you actually SEEN my body? .........Of course, by now I know that such objections should be voiced only in my head, so a DSI order was duly placed and eventually a "Latin Top, Man's, Basic" (LTMB) arrived. Colour me happy on opening the package to discover a garment made from Lycra and not dissimilar to a Gentleman's Victorian bathing suit. Imagine long-johns, but with short legs - OK, short-johns that'd be then. Apparently the idea is simply to make sure that it doesn't come untucked - ie trousers are worn over the top of it - however, If they sold these on Telly it would be advertised as a "Sex criminal fancy-dress". Not likely to make Today's Special Value on QVC now, is it?
Without Pete, this web-site would be largely image-less. 'Cept he didn't take this one, obviously. That would be impossible
OK, well, never mind all that, I know the new costume has to be tried on. I got both legs inserted and the whole thing bunched up around my waist before it became apparent that there was just no way it was going to fit over my torso. Oh good. More humiliation. The size ordered is insufficient for my ample frame. Now at this point Carol entered the room - doubtless attracted by my plaintive cries along the lines of "Oh for God's sake - it's too flipping small!". Do you know what her first words were? "Ahh bless - you've never worn Lycra before have you?". Well, no - strangely enough, I haven't - so how was I to know it stretches in a Tardis-like manner? After heaving mightily and getting the thing over my shoulders and zipped up - imagine my surprise to discover that far from emphasising my corpulence, this garment actually has a slimming effect. That's probably because the Lycra is stretchy and currently under pressure normally only associated with the event-horizon of a black-hole, but the end effect was slimming so I was one happy bunny. So happy was I that my normal self-preservation circuitry disengaged and I trotted off to youngest son's room to show him the effect. Bad move. I can truly say I have never seen anyone do such a poor job of stifling uncontrollable laughter. He managed the hand over the mouth bit OK, but it was the collapsing on the floor with his whole body heaving that kind of gave the game away. I suppose I should have realised this would be his attitude. He is a builder, after all!
I wandered off feeling a wee bit put out, and looking for a more sensible opinion and found older son. What I actually got from him was "Get away from me, you freak!". OK then. Lesson learned. Latin Dance-wear to be worn only in competition context. Let's be honest - wearing it down the pub is right out, no matter how thin it makes me look! The next step then was obvious, as we had medal tests on he horizon. I wore the new top. Let's be clear here: I put it on before I left the house, then I put an overcoat on top of it. Can you imagine if there has been a car crash? The Para-medics would probably have refused to treat me looking like that. Fortunately, we got to the studio unscathed and I discovered the second big advantage of "Latin Top, Man's, Basic" - I am painfully aware that if I don't stand bolt upright (WAP, remember?), my finely-honed torso slumps into a shape that might be used to frighten children, and the LTMB displays this in all it's glory. So the advantage is that it grants good posture where previously there was none! Hmmmm. Cunning plan.......LTMB worn under 'normal' clothes (WUNC)! OK, I'll be very hot, but think how great my posture will be. I'm wearing it now even as I type this. I'll probably be wearing it next time I talk to you.......well, maybe not.....but you can never be SURE of that, can you?
Becs was so disillusioned with my Latin ability that she went to audition for the country and western dancing team instead.
There can be no more humiliation now, surely? (Cue the chorus of "Oh yes there can"). It seems that in order to be a successful dancer, you have to become an Orange Person (OP). I don't mean the shade of orange known as "You'll know when you've been Tangoed" - but you ARE expected to use fake tan, and it renders you a colour that you fondly describe as "looking very natural, actually, and you'd never know it was fake tan", but that everyone else says "You're orange, man. Seriously. Yes you are. Go stand over there." Never having done this before, I had no idea what to expect but the staff in Orange-People-R-Us were very understanding as they instructed me to strip off and go stand in what was essentially a tent (I later found this is to catch the overspray), before spraying me with what looked like a paint gun. It was the work of 5 minutes, after which I was a full-qualified OP!
What I wasn't prepared for was leaving stains everywhere I went. It was like old age had come early! The idea is that you don't shower (well, you wouldn't creosote your fence when it looked like rain, would you?) and you do wear loose clothes for a fair few hours after you've been sprayed, so it gives it time to stain you properly. The downside is that it rubs off on everything. Try lying on a clean white sheet and you quickly end up with a dirty, orange sheet! This must be absolute murder for the hotels around the country near dance venues - or more accurately, for the cleaning services used by those hotels! Anyway, once I'd showered and had a proper look in a full length mirror, my honest opinion is that it looks very natural, actually, and you'd never know it is a fake tan.....and please don't feel you have to reply to this.
The closer we got to the actual event, the more my ability to dance deserted me. Poor Becs and Liesa became increasingly used to my 'lost puppy' look. (This is the one I now use when my memory of a routine deserts me. In the past, I would get angry with myself at this point, but clearly that's no longer an option for "Stevie-Weevie", so I have to go for the sympathy vote instead). Inexorably, the big weekend approached, and I was bemused to find that the abject terror I remember from my early competitions never materialised. I actually found myself looking forward to it. I know, I know, "Who are you, and what have you done with Steve?"......well, there are those who will say it was bound to happen sooner or later, but I certainly wasn't one of them!
Paula masked her feelings well on first seeing me wearing my LTBM
Now lest you think this is all about me (it is, but you mustn't think so), I'd like to point out that during all this time Carol was quietly practising with Lee, her Blackpool partner, and going from strength to strength. Able to follow a lead with no apparent problems. Able to remember routines (although clearly this is not an issue as she is able to follow a lead......now where did I put my lead?....Oh Yes, that's right - that's a bit I don't do too well!). In fact, progressing beyond me to the point where I may have to consider knobbling her in some way. It's easy with women. All you have to do is say something like "Nice dress - and what a brave colour for you!" to plant a little seed of self-doubt that with encouragement will grow into a looming tree of shattered confidence. Of course, I'd never do that, living, as I do, in something of a glass house where confidence is concerned! In my arrogance, I used to consider Carol's dancing skills as 'snapping at my heels' - now it's more a case of my watching her heels vanish into the distance! Never mind. I'll drag her back down to my level when Blackpool's done and dusted!
Right then - let's examine the facts, shall we?
* I now do most things 'with a purpose', where before I just did them any old how.
* I now own, and am not afraid to wear, what appears to be a sex-criminal's fancy dress
* I am no longer permitted the luxury of sulking
* I still can't remember my routines
* I have become experienced in kicking a wide range of partners
* I have entered the ranks of the orange people.
Yep - that's me fully qualified and ready to dance at Blackpool now. No doubt about it. Off we go then.
Carol and I had a great time and hope to qualify again next year, so we can do it all again!
.....and off we did go, driving into that part of our road map that simply says 'here there be dragons'. Yes, we are talking about the dreaded 'oop North' again. The place where the GPS stops saying "You have reached your destination" and instead simply asks "Have you lost your mind?". Glorious Blackpool - fabled land of Kiss-me-quick hats and Knicker-Bocker-Glory ice-creams. The reality is it's a 4 hour drive to get to a place where it rains horizontally. So just like every other major competition venue then! Actually, not quite the same because this time, it snowed. Now you never saw Gene Kelly perform 'Dancing in the Snow', did you? There'd be a reason for that, although clearly not a good enough reason to stop us!
We booked into the Hotel, into a room so small that the Geneva Convention would prevent you keeping prisoners of war there, behind walls so thin that privacy becomes but a distant memory and any thoughts of intimacy......well, it would take too long to get the LTBM (WUNC) off anyway! The corridors echo to the sounds of youthful exuberance and the smell of fake tan is strong in the air - not to mention the colour of fake tan being bright on the sheets, the towels, the furniture, the walls.......honestly, I have never seen so many orange people in one place. Actually, the worst is the streaky people, who have just applied it and are waiting for it to soak in, set, mature, go off or whatever it does! Some of the orange people might be accused of going a tad too far - not by me, y'understand, being newly orange myself! - but I did hear the phrase "Commando Camoflage" muttered under the breath of at least one person! Hey - whatever works for you! It's a fact that sometimes judges don't have time to judge properly. It's a fact that when they have gaps in their card for the next round, they'll mark whoever 'looks the part' - the only thing that's up for debate is exactly what part it is that you have to look. Pasty-white - bad thing! Streaky mushroom - bad thing. Mildly orange - acceptable. Natural tan from two weeks in Barbados - perfect. Now I think the dance club should provide the two weeks in Barbados - don't you?
Steve Elsbury - DWB, WAP, LTMB, WUNC, OP
PS Carol's just slapped me round the back of the head and pointed out that this is no way to end the article. Actually, it's what I intended, as it was supposed to be about getting ready for Blackpool, and not the competition itself. Never mind - Head Office has spoken, so there will be a part 2 for this article. (I can hear you groaning already!)
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