Recently in Ballroom Dance Category

MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

Horseshoe Bay is a little different than many places this time of year...it's less crowded and quieter because a lot of folks with lake houses aren't particularly interested in boating or skiing in winter weather (although the typical Hill Country winter isn't what you'd call brutal). Nevertheless, we managed to fill our schedule with some memorable events. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday

We were invited by friends to attend a Celtic music concert in nearby Marble Falls. None of us knew what to expect from the event, which was a fundraiser for The Phoenix Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their parents. The concert, billed as "A Celtic Christmas," was held in the Uptown Theater, a renovated 40s-era movie theater which, despite its name, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Marble Falls. It's a funky little place, very cool in its own way, and provided an intimate setting for what turned out to be a surprisingly delightful three hours of music.

The evening featured two musical groups. First to perform was The Here & Now, a quartet of Austin- and Dallas-based musicians. The fiddle player, Niamh Fahy, is an Irish lass who serves as a music therapist for The Phoenix Center. She was also the driving force behind organizing the event.

The Here & Now perform what I'd call traditional Irish music, although I'm hardly an expert in the genre. It's contemplative and lively by turns, and always lyrical.

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

It's worth mentioning that we were seated next to the stage, so we had a great view of the proceedings, which included some impressive dancing by Emily and Gavin, a couple of youngsters with extremely quick feet.

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

Gavin did step dancing (usually associated with productions like Riverdance), while Emily's specialty was old-style. I know this only because I visited with her during intermission where I succumbed to her atomic-powered dimple and bought one of the group's CDs.

Following that intermission, the trio known as Celjun took the stage. Celjun is a band based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and they specialize in a music amalgam of Celtic and Cajun genres (hence their name, right?). Their music is a bit more raucous...probably something you'd expect to hear around midnight in an Irish pub (not that I'm personally knowledgeable about that). I was most impressed with the skills of Pete Dawson, the flautist/whistle player (whistleist?) who hails from Baton Rouge. If you want a sample of his music, check out this video beginning at the 3 minute mark.

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

We took a day of rest from social activities and enjoyed some beautiful weather and a nice afternoon bike ride. And, as usual, Mother Nature provided some entertainment.

The Hill Country isn't really known for its fall foliage, but you can run across some spectacular, if isolated, examples.

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

Beauty in nature comes in different shapes and sizes. MLB spotted this amazing fungus during one of our bike rides, and I later returned to photograph it.

Tree fungus
It Came From Beyond: fungus growing on tree stump

There's an owl who (get it..."who...who..." OK, never mind.) hangs around our house. He (or she) is elusive, and I generally spot her (him) only as a shadow gliding through the trees...until now:

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

There's one more encounter with the animal kingdom I want to share, but in the interest of building suspense, it will come at the end. Please try to stay awake.

Monday

One of the primary purposes of this trip was to attend the annual Horseshoe Bay Members Christmas Party, a free dinner and dance held at the resort. It occurs on a Monday to reduce attendance (my theory, anyway), but if that's an effective strategy, it was difficult to discern based on the turnout. Anyway, we enjoyed the company of close friends as well as acquaintances old and new, and even got to do a little dancing.

Music was provided by the David Young Band, an Austin-based group featuring musicians who can play basically anything in any genre (we got everything from At Last to Uptown Funk).

This was our third time to attend this event, and we learned early on that a 20' x 20' dance floor doesn't accommodate the 500 or so people who want to dance, so our best bet was to get in some steps early on, while most people were still in the buffet lines. But the evening had an inauspicious start, because some sound system problems seemed to have the keyboard player doing a different song than the rest of the band, and we were all confused.

They finally got that sorted out and we were treated to a song we could actually dance to. But...it was a tango. Nobody outside of the movies plays a tango at a party...primarily because nobody actually knows how to do a tango. OK, that's an exaggeration, because, well...WE do. And so we did, alone on the floor (until mid-way through the song, an(other) older couple joined us). It was actually pretty great, and someone claimed that one table gave us a standing ovation at the end, although I'm pretty sure they were just heading for the open bar for vodka shots.

David Young Band
The David Young Band - Don't be fooled by the suits; they can boogie.

Later in the evening, the dance floor resembled a mosh pit, if mosh pits are ever populated by over-50 affluent wine-infused white folks in sparkly clothes. But I admit when the band led the crowd in doing The Stroll during an extended version of Uptown Funk, it was magically surreal.

Oh, did I mention that the whole thing was free?

Tuesday (hang in there; we're almost halfway finished)

Tuesday's plans centered around Christmas lights. But we first had a significant civic event to attend.

Today was the ribbon cutting for the new Horseshoe Creek Hiking Trail, and a pretty good crowd turned out in beautiful sunny weather for the event.

The trail begins near the Horseshoe Bay Mausoleum ("New niches coming soon!"), located on one of the highest spots overlooking Lake LBJ, and meanders along the Creek for just over two miles, down to Highway 2147. It's not a treacherous trek, but it is strenuous...hiking boots and a sturdy stick are recommended. We haven't yet done the hike, but it's on our "definite to-do" list.

The land for the trail was donated by Wayne and Eileen Hurd, who have donated untold amounts of acreage for civic use in the area. Mr. Hurd passed away in 2011, but Mrs. Hurd was present for the ribbon cutting.

Horseshoe Creek ribbon cutting
Eileen Hurd (center) cuts the ribbon to open the Horseshoe Creek Trail

I didn't even know that Horseshoe Creek existed, and it was a revelation to see (and hear) the live water coursing down and through the hills. I'm not sure it's always so energetic, but recent heavy rainfall had a wondrous effect.

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

That evening, we headed 20 minutes south to Johnson City with friends to take in the vaunted downtown square display. Each year, the courthouse and surrounding businesses go all out with lighted displays; the courthouse alone is draped with more than 100,00 lights.

We ate dinner at the Pecan Street Brewery (I heartily recommend the Pecan Sweet Fried Chicken), located directly across from the courthouse. After dinner, we braved the chill wind to walk around the square before heading back to HSB.

Christmas lights on the Johnson City square
A Christmas display on the Johnson City square

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

The display was impressive enough to make the trip worthwhile. But wait! There's more!

On the way out of town, we pulled onto Highway 290 and something caught our eyes a couple of blocks away. Well, it would have been difficult to miss it, as it resembled nothing less than a premature sunrise, or perhaps a nuclear plant meltdown. Intrigued, we drove to the display on the grounds of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters, where we were greeted by a score of huge oak trees adorned with what we would later learn are 1.2 MILLION LED lights. Holy cow...I earlier described something as surreal, but this took the concept to a whole new level.

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

PEC has been doing this display for more than a quarter century; the blue lights were added in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago, and they apparently were popular enough (or difficult enough to remove) that they've remained.

Once our retinas recovered enough to drive safely back home, we resolved to drive into Mable Falls to view that community's annual Christmas display. In retrospect, we should have done that first, because pretty much anything will pale in comparison (both figuratively and literally) to the PEC installation. 

The town's "Walkway of Lights" has a gorgeous setting on the bank of Marble Falls Lake, and it's laid out as an out-and-back route of perhaps a quarter mile through hundreds of random holiday displays. It's a pretty impressive installation for a small town. It boasts of more than 2 million lights and 400 displays, but frankly, spread out over such a wide area, it's not as dramatic as some others (*cough* PEC *cough*).

Marble Falls Walkway of Lights
The entrance to the Walkway of Lights

On the other hand, it probably is more kid-friendly (not quite as overwhelming to the senses), and there were quite a few families exploring the trail.

We were a bit disappointed at how many "sculptures" had non-functioning lights; I guess it's hard to stay on top of 2 million of them. And the displays became a little repetitive. You can have only so many Santa-and-reindeer tableaus before they start to run together. There were some imaginative ones, though: Santa riding a jet ski; Santa in a helicopter; Santa gutting a reindeer to make jerky. OK, I made that last one up. But this is hunting country, so...

Wednesday

Nothing happened on Wednesday. Well, other than...

We made a day trip to San Antonio to do some Christmas shopping at La Cantera and The Rim. Despite the proximity to Christmas, both areas were remarkably calm, which was a pleasant surprise. 

By the way, if you're driving in from the north on Highway 281 and that area is your general destination, I strongly recommend exiting onto FM 473 a few miles south of Blanco and driving through Kendalia, then on to I-10, where you'll enter the interstate just a couple of miles from the Fiesta Texas exit. Believe me, even with the winding road and lower speed limit, you'll come out ahead by avoiding 281 as it enters San Antonio. Plus it's a much more scenic drive. Just try to come back before dark, as the deer encounters might be a bit intense.

On the way home, shortly before 5:00, MLB was noodling around on her phone and discovered that Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate were playing that evening at Pardner's in Lake Buchanan. Pardner's is an old-fashioned honky-tonk that features a decent dance floor, a live band every Wednesday night, and a crowd demographic that skews AARP-wardly. (The live music begins at 6:30 and ends at 9:30, so that should give you a clue.)

If you've never heard of 8 From the Gate (Quick...can you identify the source of the band's name? The answer is helpfully provided below.), don't feel bad; neither had we. But the music that MLB streamed sounded danceable, and we decided to forego dinner to get in some two-stepping before heading over to some friends' home to drop off a gift.

We arrived around 6:45 and the dance was in full swing. We recognized several of the folks in attendance, either from other dance venues, or from previous trips to Pardner's. It's a place for regulars, and you can count on most of the same people showing up every Wednesday.

Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate at Pardner's
Can't see it in the photo, but it was almost a cliche that
the steel guitarist played with a lit cigarette in his hand


It's a great place for people watching (we were particularly intrigued this night by the man pushing 80 years and 300 pounds, sporting a straw hat and denim overalls tucked inside cowboy boots, whose dance style was primarily limited to walking around the floor with much younger women...that is, until the band played Dwight Yoakam's Fast As You, and then he absolutely rocked out), and everyone is pretty friendly. As you might expect, the crowd isn't rowdy; the biggest downside is that it's not a non-smoking venue, and despite having a good ventilation system, we always leave feeling a little smoky.

The music was good, and we got in more than an hour of dancing before heading back to our appointment in HSB.

I mentioned that we had skipped dinner; dancing always trumps eating, but we were a bit peckish and intended to go to Marble Falls for a Whataburger or something equally...fast...after a quick visit with our friends.

However, it's good to have a gourmet cook for a friend, because they also had not eaten and were laying out a spread of leftovers that rivaled anything we had consumed thus far on the trip (up to and including chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and homemade chocolate-and-coconut truffles). Maybe next time, Whataburger.

Thursday (at last)


We spent the day at home taking care of some chores. The high point of the day (and perhaps the week) was when I discovered - following several frustrating nights of lukewarm-to-cold showers - that the hot and cold water connections on the shower were actually reversed, and all the work I had done to recalibrate the scald preventer in an attempt to get more hot water was actually just providing more cold. Sometimes, the best solutions are the easiest; I'm just glad I didn't give in to the impulse to call out a plumber, who would no doubt be blogging now about yet another idiot customer. 

And, incidentally, those of you who are more deeply steeped in the arcane plumbing arts are probably wondering what good a scald preventer does in a case like that. I can answer that with an assertive "none." In my defense, the mere presence of that device kept me from trying the ultimate solution until I simply ran out of options.

Following a wonderfully steaming shower, we headed for nearby Spicewood with our dear friends to observe a long-standing Christmas tradition of buying each others' dinners instead of exchanging gifts. They had recommended Apis as a good place for a special dinner, and it was.

Apis is one of those farm-to-table eateries that are all the rage nowadays; it's also an apiary, in case you're into bees (and who isn't?). Their menus are prix fixe, which is French for "you're gonna need a bigger wallet," so it's probably never going to be a replacement for the Bluebonnet Cafe. However, it serves nicely as a celebratory spot for special occasions.

Apis specializes in what I refer to as foo-foo food. You know, the dishes that are comprised of ingredients that require several adjectives to impress upon you their elegance and sophistication: it's not just crab, it's "Peekytoe Crab"; why serve mere pastrami when you have access to "Veal Brisket Pastrami"; and a simple radish can never compete with an "Easter Egg Radish." In other words, you pay by the adjective.

All kidding aside, the food was great, the atmosphere warm, and the service knowledgeable with just the right amount of solicitousness. Highlights for me included an appetizer of charred Spanish octopus (a whole tentacle, and I was able to resist the temptation to wrestle it, Lloyd Bridges-style, much to the relief of my table mates), and the Honey and Crème Fraiche Gateau, a dessert topped with a tiny curl of crispy honeycomb. OTOH, there was a small miss: I couldn't resist trying a sardine-based "snack" (which was sort of a pre-appetizer appetizer). I was interested to see what kind of magic they could work with sardines, but just as a pig with lipstick is still, at the end of the day, a pig...well, you can figure out the rest. (And no offense to pigs; your bacon is delicious.)

All in all, it was a great way to end a great week...and this seems to be a great way to end an endless blog post. So...

Not So Fast...

Those brave few of you who are indeed still awake may recall that I promised one last thing.

I grew up in Fort Stockton, about an hour's drive from Alpine where the high school football team is known as The Fightin' Bucks. Most of you may understand that that nickname comes honestly, as deer of the buck persuasion are known to lock horns, literally, to assert dominance and win a date with the homecoming queen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

We were returning home at HSB one evening before dusk and, as usual, there were a number of whitetail deer doing deery things in the open field across the street from our house. It so happened that a couple of them were engaged in the aforementioned ritual, and I managed to get a short video of the epic struggle on my phone. The quality is poor - we were 50 yards away in low light - but you should still be able to get a sense of how, well, ridiculous bucks look when they fight. I did speed up the video considerably; two minutes of this action is 90 seconds too long. (And keep your comments about the length of this post to yourselves.)




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]
It's no secret that the Texas Hill Country is akin to Ground Zero for the state's live music scene. Austin is the mother lode for gifted musicians, but it seems that every surrounding town also has its own homegrown talents, and that translates to a lot of dancing opportunities.

I've already reported on some of our favorite Hill Country dance venues, which almost exclusively feature country music. MLB and I have enjoyed many country dances during the three years we've been transient residents headquartered in Horseshoe Bay, but we've not been able to replicate the active ballroom dance scene that we have here in Midland. I'm happy to report that we've made a couple of recent discoveries that significantly changes that situation.

The Flashbacks Big Band - Kingsland


A couple of weekends ago, our friends Doc and Sharon invited us to attend a Saturday night performance of The Flashbacks Big Band in the Kingsland Convention and Community Center [which is a pretty highfalutin label for a facility located in a town of 5,000 residents]. The promotional material billed it as a free concert and a dance, but we had no idea about how suitable the venue or music would be for dancing. Boy, were we pleasantly surprised!

According to the website, the Community Center includes a 4,900 square foot meeting hall, which is quite spacious...depending on the actual setup. As it turned out, the space set aside for dancing was more than adequate for the attendance. There were about 75 people present, but with 40 of them being members of a Sunday School class from a Baptist church in Marble Falls, the number of dancers was much lower.(1) (2) At any given time there were at most ten couples on the dance floor.

The Flashbacks were a revelation as well. Sixteen skilled musicians played classic ballroom dance tunes for three hours, with a sound as polished as anything you'd find in large cities. They're the real deal.

The Flashbacks Big Band

If you're a dancer, there are a few things to keep in mind. There's no food or drink available at the Community Center, but you're free to bring in anything you like. The floor is vinyl and a bit tacky, so leather- or suede-soled shoes are a necessity; apart from that, however, it's a really good dance floor. The dancers we saw that night were older, enthusiastic, but not really tuned into dance etiquette (one couple insisted on occasionally dancing clockwise around the floor, in opposition to everyone else). Dress is casual.

Also, the music skewed heavily toward fox trots and swings; don't expect to get much Latin dancing done. The band will take requests, but only for songs they've recently practiced, so don't be surprised if the response is "we'll make a note of that for next time." Finally, while there is no admission charge, tipping the band is encouraged because they are actually paying for the rental of the facility. My personal recommendation is to tip the same amount you'd expect to pay for a formal dance elsewhere.

The Flashbacks play at the Kingsland Community Center on the first Saturday of every month, 7:00-10:00 p.m.

The Republic of Texas Big Band - Lakeway


We extended our weekend stay in order to check out the Lakeway Activity Center where the Republic of Texas Big Band (ROTBB) was performing at yet another free concert and dance.

Lakeway is a thriving suburb of Austin, and the city's Activity Center is a multi-purpose facility featuring several meeting rooms and banquet halls. The banquet rooms can be configured several ways, with the largest layout being 3,675 square feet...again, potentially more than adequate for dancing.

Since this was our first visit to Lakeway and we weren't sure where the facility was located, we were among the first to arrive and thus picked out a table next to the dance floor. There were enough tables set up to accommodate well over a hundred people, but about half that number actually showed up...including a contingent from a local nursing home. Again, this was primarily an older audience, although there was a sprinkling of younger (i.e. 30-40 years) folks.

However, there were many more dancers in attendance than at the Kingsland event. We sat out several dances because of the crowded conditions. The dancers also tended to be a bit more accomplished than at the other venue. As at Kingsland, dress is casual.

The ROTBB was at least equal to The Flashbacks in musicianship (I noticed that one musician was a member of both groups), and had both male and female vocalists who were simply awesome. Their repertoire was slightly more varied, but still heavily tilted toward fox trot and swing tunes.

Again, this is a free monthly event - it's been taking place for five years - and it's strictly BYOE (bring your own everything). The floor is also high-end vinyl and well-suited for dancing provided you have leather- or suede-soled shoes. Tips for the band are encouraged; in fact, someone carries a bucket around to each table during one of the breaks to make sure everyone has an opportunity to make a tangible expression of appreciation. Unlike the Kingsland event, the band plays for two hours.

The Republic of Texas Big Band

My one suggestion for improvement is that the dance floor could be expanded by removing a row of tables on each side, although I'm sure it's difficult to predict attendance at a non-RSVP event like this. But considering the overall quality of the venue and the music, this is a rather insignificant complaint and is not a factor for future attendance.

By the way, the ROTBB makes occasional appearances at The Oasis on Lake Travis, a big honkin' restaurant and bar best known for its views of sunsets over the lake.

The Republic of Texas Big Band plays at the Lakeway Activity Center on the second Monday of every month, 7:30-9:30 p.m.

In summary, following several years of wandering through a virtual ballroom desert, we discovered in one three-day stretch that there's a life-sustaining musical stream literally minutes away. Country music may rule the Texas Hill Country, but big band music hasn't faded completely away.
 
(1) The reader should not be misled; not all Baptists are non-dancers, this writer being a prime example. [Return]

(2) It so happened that we attended services at that church the next morning, and we were greeted by a couple of people with "you're the dancers from last night, aren't you?"...in a purely non-judgmental way, of course. [Return]

Filling the Dance Gap
June 16, 2015 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent much of a Sunday afternoon downloading Seventies and Eighties TV show theme songs from iTunes and editing them* into gain-consistent 20-second clips with tasteful fade-ins and -outs to serve as fillers between songs in the playlist I'm compiling for an upcoming ballroom dance. If this sounds like fun, you must be a geek, like me. 

You may wonder why a ballroom dance would require the Batman theme as a transition between a fox trot and a waltz. It's a good question, and the answer is simple: it doesn't. But the interval between songs in a prerecorded playlist poses a challenge for the dance DJ or playlist organizer. Continuous music doesn't allow the dancers to gracefully exit the floor to either change partners or take a breather; a comfortable gap solves this problem. 

Now, if a live band has any kind of personality at all, it can fill the space with banter, but with a prerecorded playlist, the gap turns into an awkward silence. One solution is to provide a snippet of music to serve as a transition, such as this one:



Choosing the right music for this purpose presents its own challenge. A snippet of an actual dance song might lead some to believe that it was meant for, well, dancing, and that's awkward in and of itself, as it fades out after twenty seconds. I've found that people respond well to something whimsical and completely different from the dance music, and old TV or movie theme songs seem to perfectly fit the bill.

Not only does this approach fill the silence while providing time for the dancers to do whatever they need to do between songs, it also provides a source of conversation as they attempt to identify some familiar jingles that they may not have heard in a long time. However, one must consider the likely demographics of the attendees, who may be more familiar with the theme from I Love Lucy than that from Friends (or vice versa).

The downside to using filler music, or for that matter, filler silence, is that there's that much less music for dancing. A typical dance set for our group is about fifty minutes, with a ten minute break. That's time enough for about fifteen continuous songs/dances, but a 20-second spacer after each song means that you'll get one or two fewer dances per set. To be honest, most people don't dance to every song in a set, so that's not a big deal. And for those who have the energy to continue dancing, I'll populate the breaks with music, although those songs tend to be out on the fringes of acceptable ballroom dance tunes (think polkas, or country 2 Step, or cumbias).
 
*I use an audio editing app called DSP Quattro for tasks like this. Now that Apple has dropped its DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Store, you can edit songs directly from your hard drive, although the app must first convert them from the native .m4a format to the .aiff format.

Dancing Batman illustration created by Jesse Lonergan 

Best Dance Memories - Boogying on a Flattop
March 17, 2014 9:44 PM | Posted in:

This is the second in a series of recollections of favorite dancing memories. You can read more about why I'm writing about this here (along with an account of our very first public dance).

In 2011, we were vacationing in San Diego and found ourselves swing dancing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway, during a fundraiser for the YMCA. The event had a WWII-era theme and many of the attendees were dressed in fashions of the Forties. (I have underwear that's approximately that old, but that was the extent to which we participated in that aspect of the soirée.)

It's hard to overhype the allure of dancing to a live big band atop one of the most storied battleships in history, surrounded by equally historic warbirds and looking out over San Diego Harbor at night. We were a bit bemused by how few people actually danced, but weren't complaining  since the temporary dance floor laid on the deck was on the smallish side. We still occasionally had to slip off that floor and onto the deck itself, and dancing around those huge steel rivets just added to the special ambiance of the night.

Attendees at this event also got a private guided tour of the carrier-turned-museum, and that was icing on the cake.

This was one of our first experiences with out-of-town "dancing in the wild," as we like to call it, and it's a very liberating feeling to know that while you won't necessarily dance as though no one is watching, you can certainly dance as though no one you know or will likely ever see again is watching.

As a non-dance-related aside, we also got a reminder of the difference between the economy of West Texas and, well, the rest of the [non-Texas] nation. Despite having a population of approximately ten times that of Midland, the fundraiser brought in only a fraction of what we typically see around here. We've been blessed, and we seem to have a generous population who realizes it.

A [non-traditional] ballroom dance playlist
February 8, 2014 1:41 PM | Posted in: ,

Once each year, the Ballroom Dance Society departs from its usual practice of having live music and uses a prerecorded playlist for a dance. This is done primarily as a fundraiser, saving the cost of a band, but it also gives us a chance to expose members and guests to music that they might not otherwise associate with ballroom dancing.

I suspect that many people, when they think of ballroom dancing, conjure up visions of boring people sleepwalking through boring music, but nothing could be further from the truth. To make the point, here's the playlist that we'll be using for next Friday's dance. If you take the time to browse it, you'll see some traditional music that might conform to a stereotype (that doesn't mean it's not fun to dance to), but there's also a good representation of genres and artists that you might never think to put on the ballroom floor, like, for example, Delbert McClinton, Journey, Willie Nelson, and Santana.

Save the Last Dance for Me Michael Bublé Cha Cha
Some Kind of Wonderful Little Milton w/ Delbert McClinton Swing
Brown Eyed Girl Jimmy Buffett Rumba
Love Done Gone Billy Currington Fox Trot
Tennessee Waltz New 101 Strings Orchestra Waltz
You Are the Sunshine of My Life Stevie Wonder Rumba
I've Got The World On A String Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Blue Tango Jack Hansen And His Orchestra Tango
Fine Cindy Morgan Swing
Moon River Andy Williams Waltz
Sway The Pussycat Dolls Rumba
Fall Apart The Mavericks Samba
I've Got You Under My Skin Rod Stewart Fox Trot
Come Dance With Me Michael Bublé Cha Cha
Fallin' Connie Francis Swing
Little Rock Hayes Carll Swing
The Last Waltz Engelbert Humperdinck Waltz
Oh, Pretty Woman Roy Orbison Cha Cha
Kokomo The Beach Boys Rumba
Old Time Rock and Roll Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band Swing
Papa Loves Mambo Perry Como Mambo
Beautiful Day for Goodbye George Strait Waltz
Big Bad Handsome Man Imelda May Cha Cha/Tango
Dance In the Moonlight The Mavericks Samba
Mustang Sally Wilson Pickett West Coast Swing
La Cumparsita (Tango) Alfred Hause's Tango Orchestra Tango
Neon Moon Brooks & Dunn Rumba
The Best Is Yet To Come Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Waltz Across Texas Willie Nelson Waltz
To Be Loved Michael Bublé Night Club 2 Step
I Just Want to Dance With You George Strait Cha Cha
Smooth Santana Rumba
What The World Needs Now Is Love Jackie De Shannon Waltz
Fly Me to the Moon Frank Sinatra Fox Trot
Jalousie (Tango) Alfred Hause's Tango Orchestra Tango
Moondance Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Girl from Ipanema Big-T and the Bada-Bings Rumba
Nelly Bly Rick Shea West Coast Swing
The End of the World Skeeter Davis Night Club 2 Step
Something Stupid Michael Bublé & Reese Witherspoon Cha Cha
Could I Have This Dance Anne Murray Waltz
Mack the Knife Bobby Darin Fox Trot
Spanish Eyes Al Martino Rumba
Open Arms Journey Waltz
All for You Imelda May Swing

All of these songs are available via the iTunes Store if you want to sample any of them.
This blog serves several purposes, one of which is to make other blog writers feel better about their competence in comparison. Another important purpose is more personal: it's a medium for documenting things that I don't want to forget, even if I'm likely to forget that I documented them here. And that's why I'm doing this short series on "Best Dance Memories." If you find anything in them interesting at all, then that's a plus, but I recognize that these posts are the equivalent of old home movies and so you should feel free to fast forward through them.

Best Dance Memory #1 - Our First Dance

The exact date of our first public dance is not recorded anywhere, although the year is rumored to be 2006. The actual date has mercifully been stricken from the Historical Records (if not from our hysterical memories). I know that we'd gotten a fair number of lessons under our belts, but were exceedingly trepidatious about our first outing into the real world of dance, and with good reason, as it turns out. 

The dance was at Midland's Petroleum Club, during the golden years of the Ballroom Dance Society when the turnout was north of 100 people and dances were hoity-toity affairs well-stocked with tuxedoed doctors and CEOs and sparkly ladies, all riding the trendy waves of Dancing With The Stars (which itself was feeding on the residual vibes of Shall We Dance). Remember how we all wanted to ride mechanical bulls and live in Houston and have big hair like Debra Winger after seeing Urban Cowboy? Neither do I, but the phenomenon would have been similar, if it had existed.

We were intimidated from the get-go (likely being the only people there who used that phrase), not knowing anyone well enough to do more than flutter a wave in their general direction. We finally worked up the courage to get on the dance floor - I don't recall the type of dance - and literally froze, as if our brains were completely mystified by the concepts of feet and rhythm - and we backed off the floor and retreated to our table. I'm not sure we ever ventured onto the floor again that night...I've managed to block most everything else out of my memory.

Looking back, it's amazing that we kept going. But we learned a lasting lesson. We can now empathize with people who are just beginning to learn to dance, and we're more quick to encourage them than we might otherwise have been.

Rain/Dance
May 29, 2013 10:09 PM | Posted in: ,

Even though there is some Biblical support for the adage that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, I've never bought into that concept except as it applies to plans that are clearly contrary to His will. And so when I tell you that we took our bike to Fredericksburg for a long weekend of riding and ended up getting on it not even once because it rained every day, don't believe for a second that I think God broke a region-wide drought just to foil our plans.

Not that it didn't cross my mind.

But I do believe that when a door closes, a floor opens, and thus we found ourselves in the happy position of dancing through an entire Memorial Day weekend, in ways we never imagined. But I'm getting ahead of myself. And I hope you're intrigued enough to stick around for yet more vacation slides.

But first, you need to know that I now plan to devote my life to becoming the premier frottoirist in Texas, if not the world, as I've come to realize that the rubboard represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in the history of mankind. There's really no higher calling.

Frottoir player - Zydeco Angels
My new musical hero

Accommodations

We booked three nights in the "Gabrielle" unit of the Patio Sisters bed & breakfast (motto: "big bed...no breakfast"). If you follow the preceding link, you'll see a professional presentation of the photos I took, shown below, except you'd never know there was a toilet by looking at the professional pictures. So I recommend going with mine, especially since I spent so much time on them. But it's your call.

Exterior View Our door had a name The patio The fireplace More patio We never even uncovered the hot tub The interior was spare We were never sure of the barrel's purpose Good bed, excessively pillowed Country chic ceiling Metal-lined shower with bumpy floor Ah...there's the toilette

Here are the takeaways from the weekend's accommodations:

Pros:

  • Great location - within walking distance of Main Street, but far enough to escape much of the traffic noise.
  • Quiet
  • New constructions - clean and well-maintained; everything worked
  • Comfortable bed and effective HVAC
Cons:

  • The corrugated metal and rustic wood motif was a bit tiresome
  • River rock on shower floor very uncomfortable on some feet, and overhead "rain" shower head may not be everyone's cup of tea
  • No closets. No chest of drawers or bureau. No problem if you don't mind living out of your suitcase.
There was a time when I'd have listed "no breakfast" as a drawback, but the current standard seems to be to provide certificates good for breakfast (or, frequently, lunch) at local eateries. In this case, we had certificates for $7 each for each night's stay, and the restaurants were ones we liked anyway (Bejas Grill, Rathskeller, Java Ranch, etc.). The certificates never cover the entire cost of a meal - at least, not the way we eat; YMMV - but it's a nice gesture, and beats the meager "continental" breakfasts served by many B&Bs that still give lip service to the second "B."

Dining

I already touched on that above, so we may as well round things out. Frequent visitors to Fredericksburg will recognize the following:

  • Peach Tree Tea Room - sandwich sampler and chilled avocado soup ($$)
  • Pasta Bella - eggplant parmigiana ($$)
  • Bejas Grill - fish tacos, chips and hot salsa ("hot" as in who microwaves their salsa?!) ($$)
  • Hondo's - grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($$)
  • Navajo Grill - beef tenderloin and lemon pie with a brûlée topping and fresh berries ($$$$)
Oh, and this...

Big honkin' German pancake
Big honkin' German pancake

Shopping

It rained on and off through the weekend. Did I already mention that? So the time that we would have spent on the bike was instead spent going through every store on the main drag. Every. Store. Fortunately (for me), the only thing we bought was foodstuffs, and empty calorie stuff at that.

That means we passed up some real finds.

Cowboy wine bottle holder
This would be an elegant addition to any decor

Nature

The Texas Hill Country has not completely escaped the drought that has ravaged most of Texas, but it's faring pretty well this year - especially after last weekend. Did I mention that it rained all weekend? San Antonio got some historic, flooding rainfall, and while Fredericksburg wasn't similarly afflicted, I suspect that over the next week or so the landscape will start to display the luxurious green hues that should be the norm. Also mosquitos, stifling humidity, and fire ants, but what's lemonade without a few lemons?

I understand that the bluebonnet crop wasn't quite as good this year as in the past, but that doesn't mean that the wildflowers didn't make a showing.

Wildflower-filled pasture
Wildflower-filled pasture

You don't have to get out of the city limits to enjoy nature. This guy was sunning just a block from Main Street.

Turtle
Witness some of the worst looking legs and feet in the Animal Kingdom

We went for a walk around the neighborhood at dusk on Sunday, and were mesmerized by the sight of dozens of fireflies twinkling all around us. Fireflies make make even really good things better.

We also drove through a number of neighborhoods, with an eye toward possibly investing in some real estate at some point. There were some very nice neighborhoods where people had seemingly neglected their properties, as we saw broken and even boarded-up windows. This was puzzling and a little disturbing until we learned that the town had been hit by a monster hailstorm about a week earlier...softball-sized hail had done a number on houses across the north side of Fredericksburg. We saw big agave plants that had been smashed to jelly, and oak trees stripped of their foliage; cars were missing moonroofs, and houses had tarp-covered voids where skylights once resided. Bad mojo, and the only thing that would have kept something like that out of the news was the F5 tornado that tore through Oklahoma the following day.

Entertainment ("Here there be dancing")

You perhaps heard that it rained most of the weekend, thereby stifling our cycling plans. We even skipped our planned outing to Luckenbach on Friday night, not wanting to deal with the muddy conditions. But we're nothing if not adaptable. As it turned out, the annual Crawfish Festival was taking place within walking distance of our B&B, and for $15 each, we got weekend passes to live music starting around lunch each day.

Variety was the musical theme for the weekend. On Friday night, we danced to country music by Jake Hooker and the Outsiders, on Saturday night we danced to big band ballroom music (at the Hangar Hotel, at a fundraiser for the USO) provided by Bill Smallwood and the Lone Star Swing Orchestra, and on Sunday afternoon we boogied to zydeco as performed by Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels. And somewhere in there we squeezed in some Latin moves to an arrangement of Santana's Black Magic Woman as ably rendered by the Walburg Boys (who, in an awesome display of musical versatility, also provided some of the best yodeling we've ever heard, although, frankly, that's not saying all that much).

There's something about copious amounts of crawfish and Cajun music that makes otherwise normal people make questionable choices in haberdashery. Beer might have also made a contribution.

People wearing crawdad hats
Head-mounted crustaceans: cutting-edge fashion trend

The dance floor at the Hangar Hotel was small and tacky (in the sense of being sticky, not in poor taste, although to a dancer the two are synonymous). Also, because the orchestra had "swing" in its name, and there was a swing dance lesson beforehand, most of the dancers seemed to feel obligated to dance swing steps to every song, which made doing foxtrots and waltzes somewhat challenging. But it's a rare thing to be able to dance to a big band doing the standards of times past, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Hangar Hotel dance
All reet, you jive hep-cats

The floor was slightly less crowded at the Crawfish Festival, especially on Sunday afternoon.

Dance area at the Crawfish Festival

The thing about good music and an open floor is that it leads to, well, dancing...and that dancing can originate from unexpected (but delightful) sources.



So, what's your excuse?


That gentleman rolled in with his walker and spent most of the afternoon twitching in his chair until he finally couldn't stand it any longer and had to give in to the urge to surge.

The music, by the way, was provided by the aforementioned Zydeco Angels.

Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels

That's Jean-Pierre on the squeezebox, but the real star is, of course, the rubboard player. Did you know you could get special rubboard gloves? They're the mark of a true professional; here's a closeup:

Gloves of a frottoir player

Actually, these are very high-tech compared to most, which use either bottle caps or thimbles to generate the percussive sounds. Also, rubboards (aka frottoirs) are not exactly cheap. But I'll let nothing stand in my way of becoming a world-class washboardist, so I'm cashing in my 401K. Pretty soon.

So, we didn't get to bicycle around some of our favorite haunts, but we didn't let the rain dampen our enthusiasm. It pays to have a fallback passion, one that doesn't depend on the weather. As long as we can find some good music and a bit of floorspace, we'll do just fine. And last weekend, Fredericksburg repeatedly rose to the occasion.

Samba Ambitions
May 14, 2013 9:53 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: Miss me? I missed you. I'm trying to ease back into this blogging thing, and the best way to do that is to either (1) steal something from someone else, or (b) repeat myself. Being the overachiever I've deluded myself into thinking I am, I choose to do both. Miss me?

Maybe it's the influence of Dancing With The Stars, or perhaps the impending change of seasons that will usher in beach-like weather (if not actual beaches), but MLB and I have had an urge to dance ourselves some samba lately. Unfortunately, samba is our weak link; we rarely get a good song from the dance bands around here, so we don't practice it, and so we frankly suck at it. But that's gonna change, because The Mavericks are making it impossible not to samba, thanks to this song.



Seriously, can you resist that beat and the fun they have with that song? Neither can we. And so instead of watching the DWTS results show, we were practicing boto fogas, traveling voltas, and samba maxixes.

Need another example of a samba from a more familiar genre (assuming you're a Texan, of course)? Clay Walker is happy to oblige:


New Dance Studio Coming to Midland
December 21, 2012 10:01 AM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers with too much discretionary time and/or lack of cable TV will remember this post wherein I revealed that a new dance studio would soon be opening in Midland. Here are a few more details.

Photo of Michael GreenwellThe studio is a spinoff from the Elegance Ballroom in Oklahoma City. The studio manager, Michael Greenwell (photo at right), emailed me last week to say that they are still targeting a January 2nd opening date, but they have a lot of work to do before then.

The studio will be located in the Colonnade at Polo Park shopping center, near Abuelo's Restaurant (4610 Garfield Street, Suite B1 - in the interior of the northeast sector, to be more precise). The space they've leased is almost 4,300 square feet, and they have an option to expand beyond that. At this point, I'm not sure how much of that will be dance floor.

This will be a full service studio, offering group and private lessons, as well as regular - perhaps as often as weekly - social dances. They'll teach all steps - including ballroom, Latin and country - and at all levels of experience. The studio will offer services such as choreographing and teaching routines for weddings and quinceañeras, and their facility will also be available for private parties.  They plan to eventually have six fulltime instructors, and will also have a shop for purchasing dance shoes, clothing, and accessories.

I've met four of the staff and they are all very friendly and are also quite impressed with the vitality of the Midland economy and the hospitality of our city's residents. I think they'll also be impressed with the vibrancy of the local dancing community, and the studio will be a welcome addition to the dance scene.

Here's a link to their website - Elegance Ballroom. I expect it to be updated more frequently once they get over the not-inconsequential hurdle of getting the physical facility up and running.

Random Thursday: The Wednesday Edition
December 12, 2012 10:35 PM | Posted in: ,

I met some folks for lunch on Monday, something I rarely do, and now I remember why. We agreed to meet at Chili's at 11:30, and I figured we could easily be in and out an hour. I began to suspect that my confidence was ill-placed when the host asked each new set of prospective patrons if they had any friends who were interested in working as waiters. (His exact words were "do you happen to have about twenty friends who would come to work here?")

While I was waiting for the folks I was meeting, my former blogging bud Kelly Stark showed up and we briefly commiserated with one another over the sad state of restaurant service in boomtown Midland. "At least you'll have something to blog about," Kelly said (just as he got a table, and I didn't, not that I'm bitter).

Well, he didn't know the half of it. Setting aside the fact that in a restaurant that was perhaps 75% occupied, it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get our food - I had mine immediately decanted into a styrofoam container and ate it back at the office - I was at Chili's for the primary purpose of getting a story to blog about.

It seems that a couple of months ago someone stumbled across this post about ballroom dancing in West Texas and tracked me down. He contacted me by phone and said that he managed a dance studio in Oklahoma City, and they were planning to open a new studio in Midland. He wanted to visit with me about the dance scene - if you can call it that - in our fair burg. Fast forward to last Monday, and I'll be darned if four people from OKC didn't show up, sign a lease on some space, and find places to live (a minor miracle in itself) in preparation for the new studio to open in early January.

I'll be posting more details about the new business soon; consider this as a teaser. The studio will be located in the same shopping center as Chili's and Abuelo's and will be a full service operation with a half dozen fulltime instructors, offering private and group lessons for all levels of experience, and all dance steps. They also plan to sponsor regular social dances open to the public that will give us more opportunities to cut a rug, so to speak. Having met the principals, I think the operation will be a great addition to our community (and they were quite impressed with the friendliness of Midlanders and the, um, vigor of the economy in these here parts).

A parallel storyline springs from the fact that despite my earnest neglect of this blog, people keep noticing it. In fact, it seems that the less I write, the more attention I get, which is just weird. For example, I was contacted by a reporter with AOL News to do a phone interview about what it was like to live in an oil boom, and how this boom was different from those that came before. The reporter had found me via the Gazette, and she expressed surprise when I told her I'd been blogging for ten years. (She probably figured I'd be better at it by now.)

And a week or so ago I was contacted by a booking agent for a Christian Christmas music tour coming through town to see if I'd be interested in free tickets to the show in exchange for doing a review. They even offered to set up interviews with the performers (which includes some heavy hitters like Sanctus Real). As it turns out, I have other commitments that will keep me from taking advantage of the opportunity, but I was sort of flattered.

I've pretty much forgotten the point I set out to make at the beginning of this post, but I think the main thing we can all take away from this is that half the battle is just showing up, and the other 90% is making people think you know what you're talking about, which in my case apparently works best if I say nothing at all. This post is a prime example, even if it took 700 words to accomplish that goal.

Country Dancing in West Texas
July 9, 2012 12:15 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, the title of this post might evoke the same reaction as "Sand in the Sahara Desert" or "Idiots in Congress," but consider this as a public service announcement. I posted a similar article about ballroom dancing a couple of years ago and I continue to get feedback and questions about people who have found it via a search engine, which tells me that there's a dearth of relevant online information about local dancing opportunities. I don't know why it's so hard for dance clubs to maintain accurate and up-to-date websites, or even to have a website in the first place. But until that changes, I'll try to stand in the gap. Don't thank me; that's just the way I roll.

As an aside, when we started dancing a few years ago, we really weren't interested in country dancing, thinking it was all boring two-step, and we resisted learning. But it quickly became obvious that a majority of dancing opportunities involved both types of music - country AND western - and we also realized that country music was much more diverse than we had given it credit for. Indeed, almost all of our ballroom and Latin steps can be used for country songs (although we haven't found a good country tango), and even a traditional two-step is pretty much a straight-line foxtrot. So, if you're a ballroom purist living in West Texas, my advice is simple: lighten up and give country a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, most of the country dancing opportunities week-to-week are going to be found in the various clubs and bars around the area, but that's not my focus here. We're more interested in venues where the dancing and music is the focus, not the "extracurricular activities" that accompany the club scene. That brings us to country dance clubs, and there are two main ones in the Midland/Odessa area.
A completely biased aside about line dancing...
You'll not find line dancing at either of events sponsored by the two clubs mentioned here, and that's a Good Thing in my book. Line dancing is to "real dancing" as checkers is to chess, or as Go Fish is to five card stud. It's repetitive and takes up valuable space on the dance floor. I do understand its attraction though. Line dancing is easy enough to do after you've had a few too many beer-a-ritas, and it's also a dance that ladies can do without having to worry about klutzy guys grinding on their toes. Having said that, I must confess a certain fondness for the cumbia - or at least the Mexican version that's popular in our area - which is really just line dancing that moves around the floor, although it provides more improvisational freedom than the strict choreography of line dancing. Anyway, if you're a country fan looking for a line dancing venue, you'll need to stick with the local bars and nightclubs.

Just Dance Country (JDC)

JDC has been in existence for a few years and membership is open to anyone who is interested in dancing to country music, regardless of skill level or age. Annual dues are $40/couple, and monthly dances are $25/person. Dances are generally held on the first Thursday of each month, 6:45-10:00 p.m. at the Petroleum Club in downtown Midland. Attendance runs 60-90 people. At the lower end of this range, there's plenty of room on the Petroleum Club's excellent new dance floor; at the upper end, things can get a little crowded.

The dance fee includes a light buffet. For those of you who are accustomed to the generally great cuisine at the Petroleum Club...this ain't it. The buffet is a low-rent affair consisting of a green salad with limited dressing alternatives, some sliced fresh fruit, cheese slices and crackers, and a main "entree" of fried catfish or chicken strips, or steak fingers. Dessert consists of cookies. Coffee and tea are provided; there's also a full cash bar. The venue is non-smoking.

The average JDC member is middle-aged (however you want to define that), and most attend as couples, although there's a consistent group of singles in attendance. Dress skews toward casual; boots and jeans are welcomed but not required (I've been right at home with my Converse All-Stars on occasion). 

Overall, JDC dances are non-intimidating, and the dancers seem to genuinely enjoy others' company. And the dances are over early enough that getting up for work the next day is not a brutal event.

For more information, email jdcdc@sbcglobal.net.

Permian Basin Dance Club (PBDC)

The PBDC is a relatively new club, formed about a year ago, and its dances are open to the public. Dances are held every Tuesday, 6:30-10:00 p.m. at the Gloria Denman Ballroom located at St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland (on Neely Avenue, west of Midland Drive). This ballroom is the best venue in West Texas for social dancing, with a huge floor and lots of comfortable seating.

Dances are $5 per person for members and $6 for non-members. Membership is $10 per year, and is open to anyone regardless of age or skill level. The venue is non-smoking, and alcohol is not allowed at PBDC dances. Dances feature local bands, and attendance is generally more than 100 people. The ballroom is large enough to easily accommodate this many dancers.

The demographic of the PBDC is definitely skewed toward older dancers. Many (most?) attendees are retired, and there are many singles in attendance. Each dance features several "Paul Jones" dances where men and women switch partners throughout the extended music, primarily in order to give the single ladies a chance to dance. Participation is voluntary, of course.

Again, these dances are informal and the crowd is friendly and non-intimidating. The cost is low enough to make it a good place to practice for an hour or two, without feeling guilty for leaving early.

These are not the only local venues for regular country dances, of course. The Odessa and Big Spring Senior Centers host weekly dances (Thursdays for Odessa; Fridays for Big Spring), the Midland Senior Center hosts a bi-weekly dance (Fridays), and the Andrews Senior Center hosts a monthly dance (Mondays). Check with those venues for more details.

Ballroom Dance Playlist
April 22, 2012 2:37 PM | Posted in: ,

Last night's Ballroom Dance Society dance was the annual event where we use prerecorded music. It's sort of a fundraiser, since we save the cost of a live band, but it's also a chance to try out some new music (and to dance to an entire evening's worth of tunes that are never off-rhythm or out-of-tune!).

I had the responsibility of assembling the playlist, which is simultaneously fun and terrifying. Picking music that I think others will enjoy dancing to - and trying to make sure they feel like their money was well spent - is a little intimidating. But we've also been dancing long enough now that I think I have a pretty good feel for what will go over and what won't. Last night's lineup was well-received, and more people than usual stayed until after the last song. That's saying something when it involves almost three hours of music with less than ten minutes of break time, total, although I think prerecorded music gives you a chance to sit out a tune here and there if you know that one is coming up that you'll enjoy more. And everyone did, because we provided the playlist for each table.

A prerecorded playlist also allows you to plan the progression of dances, mixing up the tempos and musical styles so that it doesn't get boring, and there are some chances to "rest on the floor" with a slower-paced song.

Anyway, if you're planning your own dance - and why wouldn't you? - below is what we cut a rug to last night. All of these songs are available via iTunes. The dance step shown for each tune is a suggestion, not a requirement. Some of these songs lend themselves to multiple steps.

Song Title Artist Dance Step
Song Title Artist Dance Step
I Just Want To Dance With You George Straight Cha Cha
Pennsylvania 6-5000 Glenn Miller Swing
Brown Eyed Girl Van Morrison Rumba
My Dream Is You Suzy Bogguss Slow
Tennessee Waltz Unknown Waltz
Some Kind of Wonderful Little Milton/Delbert McClinton Swing
You Are The Sunshine Of My Life Stevie Wonder Rumba
I've Got You Under My Skin Rod Stewart Foxtrot
It's Now Or Never Elvis Presley Cha Cha
Blue Tango Unknown Tango
Fine Cindy Morgan Swing
Moon River Henry Mancini Waltz
Sway Pussycat Dolls Rumba
Boy From New York City Manhattan Transfer Swing
I've Got The World On A String Michael Buble Foxtrot
Old Time Rock And Roll Bob Seger Swing
Waltz Across Texas Willie Nelson Waltz
Fly Me To The Moon Frank Sinatra Foxtrot
Big Bad Handsome Man Imelda May Tango
In The Mood Glenn Miller Swing
Kokomo The Beach Boys Rumba
Mambo Italiano Ray Gelato Mambo
Beautiful Day For Goodbye George Straight Waltz
Oye Como Va Unknown Cha Cha
Mustang Sally Rascals Swing
Route 66 Natalie Cole Foxtrot
La Cumparsita Alfred Hause Orch Tango
Neon Moon Brooks & Dunn Rumba
The Best Is Yet To Come Michael Buble Foxtrot
The Last Waltz Englebert Humperdinck Waltz
Watermelon Man Julie London Swing
Oh, Pretty Woman Roy Orbison Cha Cha
Don't Stop Gin Wigmore Swing
Smooth Santana Rumba
If You Don't Know Me By Now Teddy Pendergrass Waltz
Jalousie Alfred Hause Orch Tango
Moondance Michael Buble Foxtrot
Wild, Wild West Escape Club Cha Cha
Girl From Ipanema Big T and the Badda-Bings Rumba
South Side Stomp Jenai Swing
Forget You Cee Lo Green Cha Cha
Could I Have This Dance? Anne Murray Waltz
Stuck On You Lionel Richie/Darius Rucker Slow
Mack The Knife Bobby Darin Foxtrot
Spanish Eyes Al Martino Rumba
Open Arms Journey Waltz
Save The Last Dance For Me Michael Buble Cha Cha

Awesome All-Stars
February 11, 2012 5:24 PM | Posted in: ,

So, Converse gives you the power to design your own All-Stars, a sure sign that the Apocalypse is still a ways off. And not only can you customize the regular ol' canvas sneaker, but they also provide a patent leather version as a blank canvas on which to paint your footly masterpiece. Can I resist? That would be a "no."

Custom Converse All-Star sneaker

Sure, it looks like a bowling shoe. What's your point?

By the way, it's always a surprise to people when I show up at a dance wearing All-Stars. They really do make very comfortable dance shoes; the soles have just the right amount of friction, and they don't leave marks on the floor.

Tempestuous Tango
January 21, 2012 7:01 AM | Posted in: ,

I keep getting asked when we're going to post some video of our dancing. Well, the time has come. Kinda.

Remember this post, where I linked to a video that compressed our 22 mile bike ride into 11 minutes? I've done the same thing with a recent lesson - a tango lesson, to be exact. As we all know, the tango is a serious, sensuous, sophisticated, sultry sort of step. I think I've captured that essence quite well in the following clip. You'll never again be able to watch True Lies with quite the same perspective.



Incidentally, this particular lesson involved fifteen different steps plus variations. Feel free to watch again and try to count them.

Dance lessons are difficult enough without having to tolerate the presence of a judgmental floor fan.

Cleaning up iTunes Album Art
November 19, 2011 2:58 PM | Posted in: ,

We went to a dance a few weeks ago and the band performed a song that we weren't familiar with, but it was catchy enough that I looked it up when I got home. It turned out to be Forget You by a pudgy hip hop musician named Thomas Calloway; the cognoscenti will know him as Cee Lo Green. Apparently Mr. Green is a rapper of international import (and I have to wonder how he might feel about old white people doing the cha cha to his music). He's also got a dirty mouth. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

As it turns out, Forget You is the sanitized version of the original title, which is very similar in that it begins with an "F" and ends with a "You." *wink, wink* Cee Lo apparently doesn't mind compromising his artistic vision in order to make some more money selling his music to people who still find the so-called F-word offensive - mostly old white cha-cha'ers. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

Anyway, the album from which the song comes is titled using the non-sanitized name of the song, and it's prominently displayed on the over. OK...it could be worse; a couple of strategically placed asterisks keep us from figuring out what the song really says. Fine, I say; he can title his album and song whatever he wants, as long as I have a clean alternative. Only, the album art in iTunes doesn't meet that criterion, and I didn't like the original album cover being displayed on my phone or iPad (or 46" TV when streaming via Apple TV). What to do?

Fortunately, iTunes gives you some control over these situations. First, you can name the song and album whatever you want. Just highlight those fields in iTunes and type in the new names.

Second, you can replace the album art with whatever you want. (This feature was initially intended to let people scan in their old LPs or 45 record jackets to use for obscure music without artwork in iTunes. I'm not sure they envisioned it would also be used to alter offensive artwork.) Simply highlight the song in your iTunes music catalog (I think you'll have to do this for every song on an album, but I haven't tested that; I have only the one song by Mr. Green) then select "Get Info" under the "File" menu. In the resulting window, there's a tab entitled "Artwork," and this allows you to add and delete artwork. If you click "Add," you can browse to the file you want to upload in place of the current artwork. That's all there is to it. 

Well, other than creating the replacement artwork. I'll leave you to your own devices in that regard. In my case, since the album cover is just black text set against a yellow background (very creative, Mr. Green!) - the better to shock you, my dear - I simply created replacement text to overlay the original.

Following is the after-and-before artwork (I didn't show the "before" by default out of consideration for your delicate sensibilities). Drag that vertical bar to the left to reveal the original cover, if your curiosity gets the best of you.
Yeah, I know the fonts don't match. That really wasn't the goal, you know?
It's been several days and I'm still stewing about the final results from Dancing With The Stars. The fact that Chelsea Kane, by far the best dancer on the show this season, didn't even make the top two is astounding to begin with, but to think that she was beaten by Kirstie Alley, who was perhaps the 6th or 7th best dancer of the bunch takes the cake. (And we're not making any jokes about Kirstie eating it, because she really did do a great job in getting in shape and losing weight during the course of the season. I'll grant her that much.)

I realize that DWTS is an entertainment show that happens to use ballroom dancing as a focus to get people interested, rather than a vehicle to showcase - and reward - good dancing. But this is the first season in memory that the best dancer didn't make the top two, and one of the rare times that the best dancer didn't end up winning (Donny Osmond comes to mind as one of those exceptions, winning over Mya who was clearly more talented as a dancer).

This drives home what was probably already obvious to everyone else: DWTS is a popularity contest and the judging is secondary to viewer voting. I get that, and it is what it is. But I shall no longer be an engaged viewer for that reason. DWTS will have to get along without me and my expert commentary. I hope they're prepared to meet that challenge.

For their parts, Chelsea has been a most gracious second runner-up, and winner Hines Ward has been nothing but gentlemanly and gracious throughout the entire season. I was impressed with Ward's development as a dancer...and he was definitely the second-best on the show.

Also, if you're wondering if I'm embarrassed, making such a big deal over an insignificant-in-the-cosmic-sense-of-things TV show, the answer is no, I'm not. I'm a blogger, and that's how we roll.

Pointy Boots
May 16, 2011 9:54 PM | Posted in: ,

Today's newspaper ran this AP story under the headline, "Mutant pointy boots create a craze." When I first saw the headline, I thought, "well, so what's new? I've seen lots of pointy boots on the dance floor, at country dances."

Uh, well, no.

Photo of pointy boots

Those, my friend, are Pointy Boots. Those are "you'll poke your eye out, and your dance partner's too" Pointy Boots. Those are "medieval court jester" Pointy Boots. And I have to grudgingly admit it takes a real man to do something so silly, something that's rivaled in the fashion world only by the hats at the Royal Wedding.

My pal Berry Simpson found the following video that puts feet to these boots. Things are getting seriously weird in Mexico.



I realize that significant cultural gaps exist throughout the world, and I have great respect for most aspects of the Mexican culture. But it appears somebody is playing a big joke on these vatos.

And even though the video quotes someone as saying this phenomenon is huge in Dallas , I can't see it catching on in Texas, especially in certain parts of the state. For example, I doubt that you'll ever see this on the A&M campus:

Badly Photoshopped photo

There is one thing from this report that really bothers me. In the aforementioned AP story, a fellow named Francisco Garcia is quoted thusly:
There are some steps where you have to cross your feet and throw yourself to the ground...
Francisco, I don't appreciate your taking credit for my signature move, which I've perfected through years of diligent practice. Now, granted, my partner isn't particularly wild when I try it in the middle of a waltz, but that's an entirely different issue.

Handicapping DWTS, Season 12
March 29, 2011 5:57 PM | Posted in: ,

Last year, I made the mistake of predicting the outcome of Dancing With The Stars before watching any of the competitors. That was a disaster of epic, Charlie-Sheen-as-a-babysitter proportions. However, after the first viewing, my revised handicapping was pretty darned good, if I do say so myself (and I must, because no one else will). I picked Jennifer Gray, Kyle Massey, and Brandi Norwood to finish in the top three, and nailed two of them. Would have been three, but who could have predicted the Bristol Palin juggernaut?

So, illogically emboldened, and having watched TWO dances this season, I now offer my expert opinion as to how this season will unfold, thereby saving you the trouble of having to actually watch it unless you don't have anything better to do, in which case I'd advise you not to admit it.

But first...let me just observe that this year's cast is remarkable in that there are no "sleepers," no dancers in amateur clothing. I think everyone is equally new to dancing, and while that doesn't imply that they're equally talented or motivated, this should make the competition much more, uh, competitive than in the past.

And, for whatever reason, it seems that the judges have also elevated their expectations. Some of the performances in the first week would have been lauded in the fourth or fifth week of earlier seasons, and they were met with disapproval by the judges. Len, in particular, seems to be more surly than usual, and out of step with the other two judges. 

OK, here's my handicapping, based SOLELY on dancing ability and potential (that is, I'm ignoring the "Bristol Palin Factor," although the only person who might benefit from it is Kirstie Alley). The celeb name is first, followed by his or her pro.

  • Chelsea Kane & Mark Ballas - Chelsea is terminally cute, and has a wonderful on-floor personality. I think she's athletic and coordinated, and danced much better than her early scores indicate. Top 3 finisher, if Mark's weird choreography doesn't sink her.

  • Chris Jericho & Cheryl Burke - OK, this guy's a shocker. Great personality, great moves, and apparently highly motivated. Humble for a professional wrestler. I like his chances; he could well be another Emmitt Smith, but at least a top 3 finisher. (As an aside, I wish to go on record as saying Hollywood could do a lot worse than to recruit actors from the pro wrestling ranks. The Rock has established himself as a potential A-Lister, and Paul Levesque (aka Triple H) turned in a surprisingly nuanced performance in The Chaperone. I'm not a pro wrestling fan, but I'm beginning to be a fan of pro wrestlers as actors.)

  • Hines Ward & Kym Johnson - Another very likable and motivated guy. Kym is a great partner for him, and I think he's a top fiver.

  • Kendra Wilkinson & Louis van Amstel - Playboy bunny with self-esteem issues. Go figure. And yet...she's not a bad dancer, by any stretch. Top seven.

  • Kirstie Alley & Maksim Chmerkovskiy - Kirstie made a terrible impression during the cast introductions, and, frankly, everyone thought she would be this season's Cloris Leachman...you know, the obligatory "oh isn't she so brave for trying this" celeb. But Kirstie is a hoot, and is working her butt off (literally?). Big fan base (no pun intended), and I think she'll be a top fiver.

  • Mike Catherwood & Lacey Schwimmer - Lacey got to the finals with Kyle Massey last year, but poor Mike is beyond her capabilities. He'll be gone after tonight. And it's a shame, because he's a likable guy, too.

  • Petra Nemcova & Dmitry Chaplin - Supermodels typically don't do well in DWTS and Petra won't be the exception. Her tsunami-related backstory will get her some fan votes, though, and she doesn't suck at dancing, so she'll be around a couple more weeks.

  • Ralph Macchio & Karina Smirnoff - Ralph's the mystery man. He certainly wowed the audience with his first two dances, but the second one wasn't great, and the judges called him on it. I don't know whether he can continue to measure up week after week. I'll leave him in the top five, but he could squeeze into the top three.

  • Romeo & Chelsie Hightower - You're probably comparing him to Kyle Massey, but he's no Kyle. He doesn't have the personality to get the fan votes like Kyle did, but is probably as good a dancer. Gone in six weeks.

  • Sugar Ray Leonard & Anna Trebunsakaya - I had high hopes for Sugar (as Bruno calls him), but, sadly, he's this year's David Hasselhoff. TKO in three. (And it's a shame because we really need to see Anna every week. IYKWIM.)

  • Wendy Williams & Tony Dovolani - She's not quite as annoying as Niecy Nash, but every bit as dramatic. Can't judge her fan base, but based on her dancing, she'll be the second one to go.
OK, it's probably hard to figure out my predicted lineup based on the preceding, so here's a more direct version...my predicted order of finish. Check me in May!

Update: The numbers in parentheses show the actual week of exit for each celebrity.

  1. Chelsea Kane - Finals - #3
  2. Ralph Macchio (8)
  3. Chris Jericho (5)
  4. Hines Ward - Finals - #1
  5. Romeo (7)
  6. Kendra Wilkinson (6)
  7. Kirstie Alley - Finals - #2
  8. Petra Nemcova (4)
  9. Sugar Ray Leonard (3)
  10. Wendy Williams (2)
  11. Mike Catherwood (1)
Should you have the good sense to disagree with my predictions, please leave your own in the comments.

Cultural Exchange Students
March 27, 2011 7:03 PM | Posted in: ,

One side effect of learning to dance has been that our social adventures have expanded significantly. So it was that we found ourselves in a local bar last Friday evening, surrounded by curious patrons, and listening to instructions in Spanish.

OK, let's backtrack a bit. I had received an email from Richard Ortiz, a young local dance teacher who specializes in Latin steps, primarily salsa, bachata, cumbia, and merengue. Richard was publicizing a free bachata lesson followed by a social dance, and wondered if any of the members of the Ballroom Dance Society might be interested. He recognized this would be a bit of a stretch, both culturally and from a dance perspective. The latter consideration was because he teaches a club dancing style (less, um...reserved...than the typical ballroom moves); the former because the BDS membership is overwhelmingly middle-aged (to be generous and diplomatic) and Anglo.

Regardless, I appreciated Richard's outreach and passed the invitation along to a group of our fellow ballroom dancers who I thought might be open to a different kind of dance style. Thus it was that eight of us turned up at the bar at Casa Madrid on Friday night, along with two other Anglo couples (none of us under the age of 40) and about ten Latinos, none of whom were over the age of 25. We were an odd group, but what we shared was a desire to learn and enjoy a new dance step.

I won't bore you with the details. Bachata is a very easy dance to learn, but like most things, difficult to master. We didn't progress beyond the most basic steps but that was all we expected. Richard is an excellent instructor, patient and encouraging, and seamlessly provided instructions in both English and Spanish to make sure everyone understood what to do.

Interlude: Here's one version of the bachata. This is NOT our version.


This is more like our version.


We did face one significant challenge. The bar area of Casa Madrid is small, and Richard's plan to gradually expand the dance floor by removing tables as bar patrons vacated the premises was sound but failed to anticipate the fact that we apparently represented irresistibly attractive entertainment... because nobody left! I figured we were the equivalent of a bad car wreck on the interstate; onlookers couldn't help but tarry and wonder at the unfolding madness.

The lesson was enjoyable, and the close quarters provided a sense of camaraderie. The students encouraged one another even as Richard encouraged all of us.

It was obvious, however, that our dancing experience varied widely. In fact, after the lesson I learned that the two non-BDS Anglo couples had never danced before, in any venue. As I visited with them, one of the women leaned forward and in a conspiratorial stage whisper confessed, "we're Church of Christ!" I laughed and told her that was OK; we're Baptist, and sometimes it seems about half the people at our dances are also Baptists. We decided that the need to dance just built up over the years until it finally couldn't be contained.

We didn't stay for the dance, primarily because of the small dance floor, and, frankly, because the music wasn't really our cup of tea. But Debbie and I plan to learn more bachata steps (and in fact we tried out a few of them at our Saturday night dance). And while I don't necessarily agree that all new experiences are valuable and edifying simple because they're different, this one was positive and we both came away glad that we took a chance and did something out of our comfort zone.

The Beatless
March 17, 2011 6:37 AM | Posted in: ,

I made a couple of jesting comments on Facebook and Twitter about this article describing the first documented case of something called beat deafness, wherein a man named Mathieu "can't feel music's beat or move in time with it." But it's a bigger problem than those researchers probably realize.

I'm sure that complete beat deafness is indeed rare, but beat "hard of hearingness" is quite commonplace, based on my perception of what often takes place on the dance floor. And this is an indictment of my own skill (or lack thereof), as I occasionally have trouble finding and staying with the beat of certain songs. For example, Unchained Melody gives me fits; I find that I can get started OK, but somewhere along the line the beat just disappears. Fortunately, Debbie never seems to have that problem and can keep us on the beat - and still manage to follow my lead (a miracle in itself).

Musical beat is not just an important issue for dancers. It's also a big deal for those who provide music for dances. The most popular bands are those who know how to select music that's easy to dance to (yes, Dick, your teenaged American Bandstand reviewers knew whereof they spoke), and that implies that it has a beat that's not too fast or slow for the step it's associated with. Nobody wants to dance to a waltz that's dragging along at 50 beats per minute, or frantically zooming at 180.

I have newfound respect for musicians who have both perceptiveness and skill to make danceable music. As I mentioned yesterday, we used prerecorded music at our last ballroom dance, and I volunteered to build the playlist. While I included mostly songs that dance club members had suggested or that have been popular at previous dances, I found that some of those songs had multiple arrangements using - you guessed it - different tempos. It was harder than I expected to choose just the right tempo. If I had only used a tool that could quantify differences in tempo, perhaps I could have made better decisions.

Screenshot of BPMTapper
Guess what? That tool exists, in the form of Cadence BPM Tapper, a free desktop application (Mac-only) that allows you to play any song and "tap" along (using your space bar or your mouse button) to the beat. The app computes the beats-per-minute for the song, and if you're playing the song via iTunes, it will export the computed tempo to the BPM field in that application.

Simple, no? Well, remember my comment about beat-hardofhearingness? I've found that some songs are harder to tap along to than others. You also have to deal with the phenomenon where a song may have a very rapid tempo but the dance steps are done according to half-time. That is, a song's tempo may be 180 BPM but the steps are actually 90 BPM. So, which do you use in iTunes...180 or 90? I finally decided it didn't matter as long as I was consistent in my choice, for a given step. All rumbas must be analyzed in the same fashion, as should all triple swing songs.

I've always wondered why the BPM field in iTunes wasn't populated, and now I think I have the answer: it's harder to compute than you might think. I would guess that programming a computer to accurately assess the BPM of all possible songs would be a daunting task. The same company that built BPM Tapper also sells more full-featured applications that work on both Macs and Windows computers, as well as iPhones. Those apps will, theoretically, analyze your entire music library or playlist in batch mode, without the need for you to tap along with any of the songs. However, I've been less than impressed with the results, at least on the iPhone version.

The real value of BPM Tapper isn't necessarily in the absolute calculation, but in your ability to compare songs once tempos have been established for each. If we determine that an arrangement that's 80 BPM is too slow, then we just need to look for one that's, say, 90 BPM.

At the end of the day, I'm just glad we didn't have Mathieu manning the BPM Tapper. I suppose there's a certain amount of prestige to being the first person identified with a disorder, but I'd rather be able to dance better than Elaine.
Alert readers (and I know that includes all of you, because you don't let me get away with anything) will recall that our dance last Saturday night featured something different, something that to my knowledge had never been tried in the 20 year history of the Ballroom Dance Society: prerecorded music in place of a live band.

I'm happy - nay, ecstatic - to report that the experiment was a smashing success*. Not only did we save a bunch of money, which was the primary motivation, but we got a lot of positive feedback from those in attendance (some of whom were pretty skeptical going in).

Of course, the music playlist was instrumental (ha!) in the event's success, but we had a secret weapon that was the cherry on the sundae, the icing on the cake, the sugar in the tea. OK, you get the picture. We actually did have a band...sort of:

Photo of cutout band figures

We created this "band" from foam board, and set it up on the Midland Country Club stage with the sound equipment (basically an amp and an iPad) hidden behind the drummer. It added a bit of atmosphere that somehow made the unattended music seem less, well, unattended. In fact, there was a steady stream of people throughout the night having their photos made in front of the band (which someone dubbed "The Cutouts").

This Madmen-style of black silhouettes with minimalist white accents provides a classy effect that's surprisingly striking. The photo doesn't really do it justice. If you look closely, you'll note a pearl bracelet on the singer's wrist, and a hint of a shirt cuff on the trumpet player. The shirts on the bass and sax player and drummer are actually just two pieces of white foamboard glued to the black backing board. The bandstands are flat, but appear to be 3D because of the way they were drawn.

There's a lesson here: sometimes, you need to go a little above and beyond what's expected to help people decide to accept a significant change.

If you're interested in the playlist, I've uploaded a version of it (we made some minor changes before the dance) to the iTunes Store. This link will open in iTunes if you have it installed on your computer.

*We did learn a few things. Ten seconds is just about the right gap between songs, if you don't have a DJ. The Rascals' version of Mustang Sally is too slow. If you can hear everyone's feet on the dance floor, the music needs to be louder. You can never play too many waltzes. Who's Been Talkin' by the L.A. Blues Alliance makes for a smokin' rumba. Jaci Velasquez, who's better known for her Christian contemporary recordings, has a song called Tango that's really a cha cha...and it's another fantastic dance song. And even George Strait and Willie Nelson create some great ballroom dance music!

Seeking Silence
February 22, 2011 3:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I solved a tricky little problem today and want to document it in case anyone else encounters it. But first, some background.

Our ballroom dance club is trying something different at our March dance. Up to now, we've always had live music, and that tradition will continue. But, for a variety of reasons, we're going to try some prerecorded music, sort of DJ-style...without the DJ.

I've created a play list in iTunes of about 50 songs for the evening, providing a wide variety of music for the most popular steps (foxtrot, waltz, swing, rumba, cha cha, tango, and salsa), and we're going to stream the music through a sound system via an iPad. The music is outstanding, but when Debbie and I gave the play list a run-through (well, a dance-through, to be exact), we discovered an unanticipated problem. There's not enough time between the songs.

Now, you would typically want the DJ to keep the music going in a continuous stream, but this isn't a nightclub or mosh pit. Well, sometimes it does resemble a mosh pit, but that's mostly unintentional. Anyway, ballroom dancing is a bit more formal, and we want to give people some time to get on and off the floor.

Here's the problem. iTunes, by default, puts two seconds between each song in a play list, and there's no preference or option to change that. There is an option to cross-fade songs (one fades out while the next fades in), but that doesn't help us a bit.

I tried googling a solution and found that this situation is not a problem for the vast majority of folks. In fact, most people want to know how to shorten the gap between songs. I did find one suggestion to put a short recording of, well, nothing in between each song but that seemed inelegant and tedious. Surely Apple, in its ubër-elegant and ultra-non-tedious design, had a better solution.

Uh, nope. I posted my dilemma on the discussion board on the  Apple website and the only workable solution that was suggested was - you guessed it - an "empty" audio file used as a spacer between songs. (This approach is reminiscent of a staple of website design back in the 90s, before CSS, when we used 1 pixel transparent GIFs to provide the desired spacing around various elements on the website. Can you say "inelegant" and "tedious"? And, uh, "effective"?)

So, I found a 15-second "empty" mp3 and downloaded it (it was advertised as a free download; I just hope the creators actually cleared the copyright issues around that bit of silence). I then imported it into iTunes, and dragged it into my play list.

Once in the play list, I copied-and-pasted the mp3 as many times as was needed to separate the songs, and then dragged the instances of the mp3 through the play list to provide the inter-song gaps. That's when I realized again the genius of Apple's iTunes music database approach. The actual "song" resides in one place; the duplicates are simply pointers to that one song.

Why is this important? Well, I discovered that 15 seconds was too long. That pause borders on uncomfortable. Ten seconds would be just about right. But that means I have to delete all those 15-second gaps, find a 10-second mp3, and repeat the import/copy/paste/drag process, right? Wrong.

If you select "Get Info" under the "File" menu in iTunes for a highlighted song, it provides an option (under the Option tab - go figure) for specifying a start and end time for the selected song. This allows a sort of on-the-fly cropping of an audio file, and it was the perfect solution for my "got 15 seconds of nothing but need only 10" problem. I simply selected one of the instances of the silent mp3 and set the end time to 10 seconds. As if by magick, all the other copies of the mp3 took on that same setting throughout the play list.

Now, this is where the elegance finally appears. Since I haven't physically edited the sound file, there are still 15 seconds of silence contained therein, and if I decide I want a larger gap, I can restore up to the full amount with that single setting. (There is a complication if I want to use, say, a 10 second gap on one play list and 15 seconds on another. In that case, I'll need to physically duplicate the original mp3, rename it, and import it to iTunes.)

So, there's a pretty detailed solution to a rather obscure problem. But if someone out there needs a way to increase the gap between songs in iTunes (that's a little trick to help Google find this post) then I'm happy to share what I've learned, and my job here is finished. Heck, I'll even provide a link so you can download your own slice of silence.

I'll let you know how the dance turns out. We're a little nervous. Ballroom dancers are such traditionalists, and they're like a pack of rabid hyenas under a full moon if things don't suit them.

"Dancers Among Us"
January 30, 2011 8:31 AM | Posted in: ,

So, I'm a fan of dancing, and I'm a fan of photography. Thus, this series called "Dancers Among Us" just absolutely fascinates me. I think you'll find it equally fascinating. There are more than 120 photographs in the collection, but it's really worth the time to page through the gallery.

The pictures are essentially stop-action photos of dancers performing moves or contortions in situations that seem incongruous. 

And, for sheer whimsy, this is my favorite photo fo the collection.

The Mystery of Bristol Palin
November 8, 2010 6:32 AM | Posted in: ,

We were at a dance Saturday night, sitting at a table with eight other fans of Dancing With The Stars, and someone observed that they were surprised that Bristol Palin was still on the show. The consensus was that Bristol's fan base had kept her in the competition long after her skill ceased to do so.

It is ironic that the one person who really, really seems to want to go home can't do so. Bristol is obviously uncomfortable in this setting - and who can blame her? She may be the only "celebrity" in the history of the show who isn't actually a celebrity: she's not an actor, entertainer, athlete, or politician. Her public appearances have been limited to sitting on stage with her famous mom, or to giving talks to various groups about preventing teen pregnancy. In short, she's a perfect candidate for a show like DWTS, but one who is all too rare.

I know she's homesick, and appears to not really covet the spotlight, but there is some incentive for her to stay on the show as long as possible. The celebrity paychecks increase the further into the season they get, with those who make the final show pocketing a reported $350,000 for the season. I'm sure Bristol isn't hurting for money, but I would also guess that being able to earn a third of a million dollars on her own would be an affirming accomplishment for any young woman in her circumstances. As an advocate for a specific social cause, the publicity she's gaining is simply priceless. And, finally, the longer she remains, the better paid is her dance partner, Mark Ballas (the professionals earn a reported $5,000 per episode).

Strange as it may be, while she has no chance of winning, Bristol has a shot at making the final three. Her skills aren't that far behind those of Kurt Warner, and I think her fan base is much larger than Kyle Massey's. So, we could be headed for an all-female DWTS finale, with one of those finalists being the longest of shots.

I'm not sure who comprises Bristol's fan base, but I disagree with some who think it's Tea Party support that's keeping her on the show. What do you think?
Following last night's premiere of Dancing With The Stars, it was painfully obvious that my predictions were as bad as Margaret Cho's dancing (which was just about the only thing I got right). But the good news is that this might be the most interesting season yet, for the simple reason that the show has no trained dancers (think Nicole Scherzinger) or Olympic skaters. It's a cast of pretty evenly-matched contestants.

So based on one performance, here's my revised ranking:

  • Jennifer Grey - I nailed this one, even if I did misspell her name. She turned in a beautiful and emotional waltz that had Carrie Ann in tears (which, admittedly, isn't all that unusual). Grey has enough grace and skill (and the right partner in Derek) to continue being the front-runner.

  • Kyle Massey - Big surprise (to me anyway). The kid can not only dance, but is eminently likable and has great showmanship. He's now in my top three.

  • Brandy Norwood - Another surprise. She appears to have a strong competitive streak and the talent to back it up. Another top three competitor at this point.

  • Rick Fox - Much better than expected, with grace and fluidity that can be attributed to Cheryl's expert coaching.

  • Audrina Patridge - At first glance (and second, and third...) she was the typical early-exit eye candy that has generally been reserved for the supermodel genre, but she defied expectations with a very good performance. She might be this year's Pamela Anderson, although not as nasty.
Those are the front runners. Here's the rest of the field, in descending order:

  • Kurt Warner - Warner has potential and he's just a really, really nice guy. Perhaps the fan base will carry him until he sharpens his dancing skills.

  • Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino - I thought the judges hammered him a bit unfairly; with less than a week to prepare (vs. three weeks for everyone else), he did just fine. He's more likable than I expected, too. That's still a lame nickname you got going there, dude.

  • Bristol Palin - Palin was a pleasant surprise: not wonderful, but not sucky, either. Considering her complete absence of experience as a performer, she may have turned in the best routine. That said, she's got a long way to go, and won't be a real contender.

  • Florence Henderson - I predicted a surprise from her...and did she ever deliver! Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with her dancing, but, instead, her salty language and, um, friskiness. In fact, she flashed her "abs" (and other things) in a hilarious but vaguely disturbing challenge to The Situation. Her dancing was mediocre at best.

  • David Hasselhoff - The Hoff was significantly less charming and adept than I expected. He's showing his age, or, rather, his mileage.

  • Michael Bolton - Dancing skills suspect; charm absent.

  • Margaret Cho - My only other accurate prediction. She was awful, although, surprisingly, a good part of that was due to the terrible routine cooked up by partner Louis van Amstel. Cho was probably cast as this year's Kelly Osborne, plagued by self-esteem issues, but I don't think she's nearly as sympathetic a character.

So, there you have it. Feel free to keep this as a scorecard for next week, and judge for yourself the accuracy of my observations and predictions.

The new season of Dancing With The Stars is just a few hours away, and I thought this would be the perfect time to share my predictions on how the competition will unfold. Following is the list of participants along with my handicapping of their chances, based on absolutely no insight or wisdom. Feel free to print this out and remind me as the season goes along of how incredibly lame I am.

  • Bristol Palin - She will be this year's Kate Gosselin, painfully inept through no fault of her own (and without even the on-camera experience Gosselin brought with her) but kept alive for a few weeks by sympathetic women who can't stand Levi Johnston. Exit week: 5

  • Michael Bolton - An old guy who tries to sound black when he sings, and sometimes succeeds, but he'll still dance like a white guy. Exit week: 2

  • Rick Fox - Continuing in the tradition of sucky dancing basketball players, Rick will nevertheless hang around longer than reasonable 'cause the chicks dig him. And guys dig Cheryl Burke, his partner. Exit week: 6

  • Margaret Cho - The comedienne who is not only not funny, but also can't dance. Margaret will be really sad to find out how many Christians watch DWTS. Exit week: 1

  • Jennifer Gray - Nobody puts Baby in a corner (you knew that was coming, right?), and Jennifer is still cute as a bug. I'll bet she can still channel the spirit of Dirty Dancing, too, and Swayze's ghost will give her a boost. Plus, her partner is Derek Hough, and that's good for at least three extra weeks. Exit week: 10

  • David Hasselhoff - The Hoff has the charm and wit of George Hamilton, and is probably spryer than the Sun God, so if he can lay off the burgers and Jagermeister, he'll be a contender. Exit week: 9

  • Florence Henderson - She's no Betty White or Cloris Leachman...thank goodness! Everybody's sexy grandma will surprise us. Exit week: 6

  • Kyle Massey - A 19 year old rapper. Really? How quaint. Exit week: 3

  • Brandy Norwood - She bears a slight resemblance to disco queen Donna Summer. I don't think Donna could dance, either. But somebody's got to stick around past week 6. Exit week: 7

  • Audrina Patridge - Who? Exit week: 1 (I'm pretty sure they'll drop two people right off the bat, to ease our pain.)

  • Mike "The Situtation" Sorrentino - "The Situation"? What kind of stupid nickname is that, for pete's sake? It might as well be "The Yogurt," or "The Garage Door Opener." Still, I'm told he tests well with the core audience - young straight girls and young gay guys. I'm guessing he's got some moves. Exit week: 9

  • Kurt Warner - Much as I respect Mr. Warner, he's going to bring an end to the tradition of football players who do well in DWTS. He's another old (relatively speaking), banged up white guy, and he's just too nice to get down. Heck, he may even be a Baptist. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Exit week: 5
You may have noticed that I've doubled up on some exit weeks. So sue me. To be honest, I'm not sure how long the season is this year. Anyway, the exact weeks aren't important; what's important is that you recognize the futility of guessing what will happen, and then give me big props for the lucky guesses.

Oh, and you want to know who wins? I dunno, but I think the top 3 will be Jennifer Grey, David Hasselhoff, and Mike "The Lame Nickname" Sorrentino.

Scientific Dancing
September 8, 2010 4:38 PM | Posted in: ,

Scientists have discovered what moves make a guy a good dancer, at least in the eyes of female onlookers (and, after all, what else matters?). It's apparently very simple, which only deepens the mystery of why so many of us are such bad dancers. We just need to move our torsos and necks more. *forehead slap* Why didn't I think of that before spending all that money on lessons?

OK, the sad fact is that almost none of us don't suck at dancing, when left to our own devices. I'm not talking about ballroom dancing, where the moves are choreographed and improvisation is frowned upon. (Don't believe me? You obviously haven't watched Strictly Ballroom.) I see a lot of highly skilled ballroom dancing guys on a regular basis, but when the band breaks into Louie, Louie and they have to rely on their own partner-less imaginations...well, let's just say it's a sad thing to behold.

(Girls, don't think you're much better. It's just that we guys have much different standards. Trust me.)

Further, I don't think there's any hope for most of us. Even with science-backed moves at our disposal, the best most of us can hope for is that we don't fall down too often when attempting the Water Sprinkler.

Personally, I think my best strategy is to emulate the classy moves of Los Chulapos dancing El Chotis, to wit:




Most of those guys are rockin' classy babes; I'd like to hear how the smarty-pants scientists explain that!

Hat tip: Neatorama
Today's "Close to Home" cartoon hits, well, close to home.

Close to Home cartoon - August 20, 2010

However, in our case the caption is wrong. In our case, the neighbors would be saying, "The Siegmunds aren't being tormented by wasps after all; they're practicing the rumba." Or the cha cha...or the foxtrot...or, well, you get the idea. Sometimes it's hard to tell just exactly what we're doing on the dance floor.

Ballroom Dance: A Contact Sport
July 26, 2010 8:17 AM | Posted in:

The couple moved across the dance floor, somewhat less than smoothly, obviously mismatched in terms of skill. The man provided a strong lead to which the woman bravely attempted to respond. The music had a fast beat - he later described it as "almost a quickstep," one of the more challenging of the ballroom dances, and one certainly not suited for a beginner - and as they moved across the middle of the floor their feet, instead of moving in concert, tangled briefly and the couple stumbled.

As they began their descent toward the floor, it appeared for an instant they might regain their balance but the man, in an ill-fated attempt to rescue the situation, clung to his partner rather than letting her fall free. Inexplicably, they came face-to-face, literally and forcefully, and crashed to the floor in that position, him on top of her. They immediately rolled apart and onto their backs, striking oddly similar poses, legs outstretched, holding their faces as if to reassure themselves that they were intact.

She had a broken nose and a torn nostril. His nose wasn't broken, but his eyes were already beginning to blacken. Ballroom dance had claimed yet another set of victims.


That scene played out last Saturday night, near the end of what was otherwise an enjoyable and carefree evening of dancing to the music of an outstanding band from Austin, Texas. I was an eyewitness to the mishap, which took place only a few feet from the table where we were sitting while taking a break.

This was the third serious accident (that I know of) in as many years at a club dance. All three resulted in at least one visit to the emergency room. The victim of one of those incidents suffered months of recovery. And each mishap was the result of dancers trying steps that either they or their partners were unprepared for.

I suspect that everyone who has danced regularly has had mishaps of varying degrees of seriousness, ranging from smashed toes to elbows in the face to turned ankles. My eyeglasses have gone flying across the room, and Debbie has dropped like a rock when another dancer (not me, thank goodness) stepped on her foot. Neither of us has been injured (pride doesn't count; we lost that baggage as soon as we started taking lessons!), but incidents like last Saturday night's remind us that ballroom isn't for wimps.

In fact, it might be advisable to have safety briefs at the beginning of each dance. As the police sergeant in Hill Street Blues said each day prior to the start of the next shift, "let's be careful out there." The dance floor can be a dangerous place!

"Triple Swing"
February 5, 2010 10:33 AM | Posted in:

Triple Swing is a dance step. That's not the step that the folks in the following video are doing, but watch for a minute or so and you'll see that it's still a relevant description. And, in case you're wondering, we did not teach them everything they know. ;-)


Ballroom Dancing in West Texas
January 15, 2010 9:08 AM | Posted in:

[Updated January, 2014]

Based on the number of questions Debbie and I get about ballroom dancing, I've decided to create a rare thing: a Content Filled post providing some basic information about dance lessons and venues in the Midland/Odessa area. This is by no means a comprehensive treatise but I hope it will provide some useful tips for those who are new to ballroom or who are new to the area.

Lessons/Studios

There are a large number of dance studios in Midland/Odessa, but most cater to children. I'm familiar with two that offer ballroom lessons for adults.

In Odessa, the Love to Dance studio opened in 2005 and is the go-to place for lessons. Ray and Ronnie Reynosa are the owners and instructors, and they teach all forms of ballroom and Latin dances. Their pricing and lesson options are shown on their website. The Reynosas are also great ambassadors for dancing throughout West Texas as they travel to some of the smaller outlying towns to give lessons.

In Midland, Bernadette Lindsey's Dance Design studio (no website) is the most well-established ballroom studio in the area. Dance Design is located in the Imperial Shopping Center (3211 W. Wadley, Suite 11B; phone 432.352.8866). Bernadette offers private lessons (group lessons have been discontinued, except those through Midland College) and teaches country as well as ballroom steps. She also periodically offers an introduction to ballroom dance class through Midland College's Continuing Education curriculum; you can find the current CE schedule here.

If you're an absolute beginner I strongly recommend the Midland College class. It's a great way to learn the basics of six common dances (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Rumba, Cha-Cha and Meringue) in a low-stress environment, and you can quickly decide if ballroom is something you want to pursue further.

The newest dance studio in Midland is Elegance Ballroom, which opened in January, 2013. It's located in the Colonnade Polo Park shopping center, at the northeast corner of Garfield and Loop 250 (4610 Garfield St, Suite B1, to be exact; phone 432.242.1823). This is a full-service studio, offering private and group lessons in ballroom, Latin, country, and swing, for adults and children. They generally sponsor a social dance each Saturday evening.

In the interest of full disclosure, Debbie and I have taken and continue to take private lessons from Bernadette.

Dance Clubs

Of course, knowing how to dance doesn't do you a lot of good if you have no place to use that skill. Our area is fortunate to have two active organizations that promote ballroom dancing.

The Ballroom Dance Society (BDS) is the older of the two, having been in existence since 1990. It current has about 100 members, most of whom are in Midland, Odessa, and Big Spring. Membership is open to anyone, but requires a recommendation from a current member. The annual membership fee is $45/person; dances are $35/person and are generally held at the Gloria Denman Ballroom (see below). The dress code for BDS is semi-formal to formal; men are required to wear coats and ties and you'll see more than a few tuxes at a given dance, and ladies don evening wear. The exceptions are the summer dances where casual dress is permitted. Dances are always accompanied by a buffet dinner. Dances are generally scheduled on Friday evenings, one per month.

The current BDS schedule, showing dates and bands, is available here.

More full disclosure: Debbie and I have served on the BDS board.

Club Dance was formed in 2007 by some members of BDS who wanted to expand the opportunities for dancing in the area. It's a bit larger than BDS, with perhaps 200 members. Club Dance differentiates itself from BDS in several ways. First, it's a little less expensive; annual membership fee is $40/couple or $25/individual; dances are $25/person. Second, the dress code is more casual; coats and ties are rarely required. Third, the Club dances have a wider variety of music, with a couple of dances each year featuring country music. And finally, the normal venue for their dances is the Gloria Denman Ballroom, a wonderful facility that's described in more detail below. Dances are accompanied by a buffet dinner provided by a variety of local caterers. Dances are generally scheduled on Saturday evenings, one per month.

It's logical to presume that the two clubs compete with each other, but that's not the case. With a few exceptions, most dancers are members of both clubs, and the organizations work together to ensure that their schedules don't conflict. Several of the board members of one group also serve on the board of the other. There are several benefits to having two such groups, primarily in the areas of providing alternatives for levels of formality, and exposure to different types of music and dance venues.

All dances for both clubs feature live bands and orchestras. The challenges involved in locating and booking bands that do a good job of ballroom music and that are affordable are not insignificant. While there are a few bands in the Midland/Odessa area, groups are also booked from Lubbock, Abilene, San Angelo, and even Dallas or Austin. Musical quality can vary, but it's all danceable. [It apparently borders on blasphemy to suggest using a DJ, but given some of the rather inexpert musicianship we've experienced over the years, I'd be perfectly happy to dance to prerecorded music that has a steady beat and on-pitch vocalists. But, that's just me. Update: BDS periodically - i.e. once a year - uses pre-recorded music for a dance with great success.]

Venues

The showcase venue in West Texas is the Gloria Denman Ballroom (GDB) located at St. Stephens Catholic Church (located on Neely, west of Midland Drive). This beautiful facility is named for the generous benefactor who funded its construction; Gloria and her husband Doug continue to be active in both clubs and are wonderful people. The GDB is massive (7,000 square feet); it will easily accommodate 100 couples plus tabled seating. Its permanent floor is smooth and comfortable. This is truly a showcase venue for local dancers.

There is actually a second venue that can be used for dancing and that's the Petroleum Club in downtown Midland. At one time, this was the venue of choice for the BDS until the oil and gas boom heated up competition for space and the club looked for an easier-to-book location. One of the area's country dance clubs (Just Dance Country) uses the Petroleum Club as its regular venue, but its dances are general on Thursday evenings. In any event, this venue remains an excellent choice when available, albeit with a floor area that's quite a bit smaller than GDB.

Why Join?

You certainly don't have to be a member of a dance club to be a ballroom dancer in West Texas, but you'll find your opportunities to dance to be severely limited if you choose to go it on your own. The aforementioned venues host no open-to-the-public dances, and there simply aren't any other public venues for ballroom dancing in Midland/Odessa. (It's quite another story if you want to stick with country music, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Here's more information in that regard.)

In addition to gaining access to great venues, the clubs also offer the opportunity to get to know a group of people who you might not otherwise encounter. Debbie and I have been pleasantly surprised - blessed, even - by the friends and acquaintances we've made over the past few years. We hear this a lot: we got into it for the dancing, but we've stayed with it for the people. Perhaps it's the basic etiquette that comes with ballroom training, but you meet some of the nicest folks at the dances.

Of course, many (most?) people feel a bit intimidated by dancing with a new group, especially if they're beginners. It's hard not to feel like you're being judged. We certainly felt that way at our first few dances. But we soon learned the simple truth: nobody else cares how you dance. They like it that you're trying. And we're all too concerned with our own steps to judge someone else's.

That's not to say that people don't watch you, because not everyone dances every dance and part of the fun is watching other dancers. If that's intimidating, here's a tip that's guaranteed to mitigate the problem. Find the best dancers on the floor and stick close to them. No one will even notice you. (Hmm. That could explain why we're often alone on the floor!)

If you're a ballroom dancer in West Texas and you have additional information, corrections and/or clarifications regarding anything I've written here, please feel free to share them in the comments and I'll update this post accordingly.

Rediscovering Country
January 13, 2010 8:05 AM | Posted in: ,

One of the unanticipated benefits of taking up ballroom dancing is the expansion of our appreciation of different types of music. While we've acquired the habit of judging all music we hear by the American Bandstandesque criterion of being "easy to dance to" (something that's admittedly distracting when it occurs at church), we've also found that dancing creates a hitherto missing physical connection to music, and this added dimension has opened us up to new genres. For example, we listen to more jazz and "easy listening" pop (think Michael Bublé). That shouldn't be too surprising, though, as those genres have historically been associated with ballroom-type dancing.

More unexpected is a new appreciation for country music. As our dancing abilities have improved, we've become more discerning in matching up music to dance steps, and we were surprised to find that country music isn't just an endless series of Two Steps. We've waltzed, cha-cha'd, rumba'd, and swung to country songs. And the Two Step is really just a straight-line foxtrot. About the only steps we've not been able to apply to country music thus far are the tango and the samba, and we're so clumsy at the latter that we don't miss it. [Update: George Strait's River of Love is a pretty good samba.]

I listen almost exclusively to the Outlaw Country station on the Sirius XM station in my car, and Debbie has her car radio tuned to a local country station (she's less enamored with the "outlaw" version of the genre, and I have to admit that some of the stuff they play can be pretty obnoxious; 50 Cent has nothing on David Allen Coe when it comes to filthy lyrics). But the channel is also one of the few places where you can routinely listen to some of the country classics: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Bob Wills...to name a few. I've also been introduced to some of the newer artists like Corb Lund, Lucinda Williams, and Cross Canadian Ragweed (which isn't Canadian at all, unlike Corb Lund).

In the "mainstream" side, musicians such as Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Zac Brown, and Randy Houser are breathing new life into the genre. Heck, I even like much of what Taylor Swift does, although it's a bit of a stretch to call her "country" (even so, the fact that she writes most of her own material is impressive to me).

Perhaps it's just that one can re-listen to the hits from the 60s and 70s only so much, or that modern pop/rock is too angsty and boring. Or perhaps it's that country music has appropriated what's best from those other genres while still maintaining (for the most part) its original character. It could be that, more often than not, country artists express moral values via their music that more closely aligns with ours. Whatever the reasons, country has breathed new life into our iPods and radios (and dance steps...we're not half bad Two Steppers nowadays). And for someone living in West Texas, that's got to be a Good Thing.

Major Award
July 15, 2009 6:55 AM | Posted in: ,

Programming note: If you read this post yesterday and found that it had an abrupt and unfulfilling ending, you might want to take another shot at it. Not that the ending is any more fulfilling, but at least it has one now. In the meantime, I'll be away taking a remedial course in blogging in an attempt to remember the difference between "Save as Draft" and "Publish."



As I've mentioned a couple of times, we spent the July 4th weekend at Canyon Lake, in the Texas Hill Country. We went there without much of an agenda, other than tubing down the Guadalupe River (a pastime, by the way, whose attraction escapes me, but Debbie grew up with fond memories of tubing the Frio River so I suppose we were trying to recapture her childhood. But, I digress; this is not about that.).

Having a relatively uncluttered schedule, when we saw numerous signs advertising a "sock hop" featuring the music of Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88's, one of us decided that we ought to go.

Parenthetical aside, sans parentheses: Now, lest you misinterpret the preceding sentence, let me assure you that despite all claims to the contrary, I am not a stick-in-the-mud. Well, not always. I'm just, well, deliberate. I had my reasons for initially being less than enthusiastic, and those reasons proved to be remarkably relevant as we shall soon see.

It took us a while to discover the reason for this event - it was a fund-raiser for a community service group, but after talking to a couple of enthusiastic volunteers and learning that it was an annual and well-attended event, we decided to shell out $50 for two tickets. We decided that, if nothing else, we could hear some fun music, and maybe get to practice a few dance moves in front of people who would likely never see us again. That's a liberating concept, by the way.

Neither of us had packed in anticipation of a dance, but with the understanding that this was a very casual affair, we headed for the J.C. Penney's store in nearby New Braunfels where Debbie found a fetching sundress and I scored a couple of pairs of ridiculously plaid shorts, the kind all the Kool Kids are wearing nowadays. Shoes were a slight concern, but I figured that my low-top All-Stars would fit in with the sock hop theme, and Debbie never travels with fewer than a dozen pairs, and surely one of them would work.

We had been informed that while the dance got underway at 8:00pm, there would be a dance instructor on hand earlier to give a few swing lessons to those who were interested. Since this was our first time at the event, we showed up early, and joined in the group lessons even though they were pretty basic. It was during those lessons that my initial concerns began to assume enhanced credibility.

If you were anywhere near the Hill Country over the 4th of July weekend, you know how hot it was. Temperatures were in triple digits every day, and the humidity pushed the heat index into the danger zone. Thus the temperature was still in the upper 90s when the dance began, and did I mention that it took place in an non-air-conditioned, gym-sized metal building? The organizers had set up an industrial strength fan in front of one of the four garage doors set in the sides of the building, but there was no cross ventilation so the fan didn't provide any relief unless you stood directly in front of it.

And thus we found ourselves glowing intensely following the rather mild dance lessons...and it was obvious what was coming.

The band fired up promptly at 8:00 (and if you've never been to a JD&tR88s show, you're missing a great time; these guys are pros, in every sense of the word) and while the majority of the 300 or so in attendance were content to sit and listen, the concrete dance floor was crowded throughout the evening. As you might expect from a 50s/60s retro band, most of the music was fast, and so we spent most of our time doing swing and cha cha, with an occasional rumba thrown in. We also spent all of our time sweating.

We'll never again complain about the air conditioning not being turned up enough at our ballroom dances, because we learned that evening what it means to truly sweat to the oldies. I'm talking dripping-off-your-fingertips, flung-off-the-ends-of-your-hair (well, not mine, of course), do-you-think-these-clothes-are-ruined? levels of sweat. And that was after just three dances.

Still, we quickly realized that everyone was in the same boat - the same sticky, soggy, smelly boat - and we decided just to enjoy the music and the dancing. As I said, chances were good that no one would ever see us again, and there's a lot to be said for anonymity in a situation like that.

But when the band took its first break, the aforementioned dance instructor made her way through the row of tables to where we were sitting (and dripping). She crouched down next to us and quietly asked if we could come up to the front of the bandstand at the next break. Oh, great; we've violated a local standard of personal hygiene and they want to make an example of us before they run us out of town. OK, that sounds silly, but not as silly as the real reason.

The instructor leaned forward and said (I swear this is the truth), "we've been watching the dancers and we want to recognize three couples who are doing the best job, and you are one of them." Debbie and I could barely stifle our disbelieving laughter. I mean, while we weren't falling down on the dance floor, or if we were it was gracefully choreographed, we also weren't (in our humble opinions) doing anything worthy of what was obviously A Major Award.

But, I'll admit we were flattered. And so we gratefully and humbly accepted our Major Award during the next break, still sweating like Mississippi chain gang workers. Finally, we had tangible evidence that the literally thousands of dollars we've invested in dancing (if you total the cost of the lessons, dances, ball gowns and shoes, tuxedo and accouterments, and so on) over the last three years has paid off.

And we have the denim apron, soy candle, and bar of scented soap to prove it.

What can I say? It was a fund-raiser, and local merchants donated the awards. And, as they say, beggars can't be choosers. Especially really sweaty ones.

Dancing Machines
May 10, 2005 4:57 PM | Posted in:

You may note that I've elected to categorize the following in "Ballroom Dance." I chose that category simply because I lack one called "Personal Disasters of Epic Proportions."

At 5:55 p.m. last Friday evening, we were full of enthusiasm and hope, eager to conquer the romantic and brave new world of ballroom dancing.

Two hours later we were shambling, twitching, sweating (well, MLB was merely glowing) step-counting robots whose fantasies were as shattered as our dance "moves." My wife later confessed that her dreams were filled with the mantra, "itty-bitty step...itty-bitty step..." For my part, all I managed to retain was that I, being the man, always start with my left foot. Everything thereafter is a blur; may God have mercy on my partner.

We arrived at the dance studio precisely on time, only to discover that everyone else was early. It reminded me of a junior high function (except for the male-female pairings); each couple stood in their own circle of personal space, sizing up the others ("yeah, I think I take him in the waltz; not sure about the mambo, however"), hoping to find someone who looked klutzy enough to divert attention from themselves. The demographic was pretty consistent...middle-aged WASPish, like us, with a single GenX couple who seemed to be second-guessing their Friday evening plans. There were about ten couples in all, plus two women without partners (and I gave them extra credit for their courage). MLB and I were fortunate in that we were friends with one of the couples; they had, in fact, provided us with the motivation to sign up for the class, and it remains to be seen whether forgiveness will be forthcoming.

After a five minute introduction by our instructor, a tall brunette named Bernadette, the guys were told to line up across the room and we launched immediately into the first steps of our dancing careers. We started with the foxtrot, and I encountered my first humiliation of the evening (I got used to them, by the way).

Apparently, in ballroom dancing it's considered to be the suave and gentlemenly thing to keep your knees together with feet pointed straight ahead ("pretend you're wearing corduroy pants, and the ribbing rubs with each step," Bernadette helpfully suggested). Well, that ain't happenin' with yours truly. I'm 6' 1" but I'd be 6' 4" if I weren't bowlegged, and one foot pretty much refuses to point straight ahead, if given a choice. We all had a big laugh over that, and I'm sure the others were still laughing later after I sneaked out and let the air out of their tires.

Despite my apparent physical shortcoming, I managed to get through the evening with a minimal amount of damage to either my partner or the other students. The least comfortable moment of the class was the one time we had to switch partners and I ended up with the GenX girl, who was about 4' 11" and had that deer-in-the-headlights look as she contemplated my size 10s next to her (very fashionable) size 2s. That encounter is now, thankfully, a blur; all I remember is her saying at the end, "you take really big steps, don't you?"

As this class is entitled "An Introduction to Ballroom Dancing," we went wide but not deep. We covered the foxtrot, waltz, cha-cha, rumba, mambo, tango and merengue. My personal favorite is the merengue, as it was the last one we tried and thus the only one I remember. Also, the merengue seems to consist basically of walking, and while my carriage is not a thing of beauty*, I mastered that skill a number of years ago and it's finally coming in handy.

Lessons learned? First, ballroom dancing isn't for wimps. Those who do it well are working harder than I ever imagined, especially with the latin steps. We used muscles that apparently lay back on a chaise lounge and sip iced tea during cycling and running workouts. Second, it's fun, even if you're really bad at it. In fact, for a while anyway, I think being bad at it is part of the fun. Expectations are low; everyone's messing up. I'm not sure how long I'll be able to capitalize on that situation, but it's the best plan I've got at this point.

We're facing three more lessons, one each Friday evening in May. But the only light at the end of this tunnel is an oncoming freight train, as the ladies have discovered that Midland has, of all things, a Ballroom Dance Society, where members get all gussied up once a month and go to the Petroleum Club for a couple of hours of gliding across the floor to the accompaniment of live music. The ladies think it all sounds very romantic and cultured. I can't repeat what the guys think.

*Extra credit to anyone who can identify the culturally iconic source of that phrase.

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