6th grade etiquette with senior citizens

Originally I was going to say “Where are my spontaneous friends who jump up and decide they want to dance?” Which is funny because I actually quite enjoy going by myself, that untied feeling of talking to whoever, coming and going as it feels right, and just watching people, allowing the flow of the event to roll over me with attention to what draws me. It’s always fun to share new experiences with friends though, so who can blame me.

I went with the intention to laugh, move, and open after the tight focus of reading academic texts all day. But tonight just didn’t work out the way I thought it would, which is perhaps good in its own way… but was a little disorienting… and left me pondering attachment again.

Attachment seems to be constant back and forth conversation between our desires and the reality of what is. It’s a conversation I think we have, in some form or another, at some level of intensity or another, for all of our lives… it’s been said that it is our habitual tendency is to desire permanence where there is none, and it is this attachment to the ephemeral world that causes us suffering. Tonight I was done in by either the leash of an attachment calling me to examine something, or forgetting to look my partners in the face while they were spinning me around so fast I swayed between songs.

First let me say that the kind of dancing I was participating in was contra dance, which is an old line dancing tradition from New England. In my experience most people in the Bay Area who go contra dancing are middle aged or elderly. As a young person there were perhaps 10 I would consider roughly peers out of 50-60 people. Being in amongst a group of people who are almost entirely out of your social strata means more than ever you can be a blank slate. No one knows how to interpret your dress or attitude, haircut or shoes. I find this aspect of traveling in between exotic-to-me social circles particularly liberating. It seems that there are simply fewer assumptions made. This is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed contra dancing. What I hadn’t realized is that this also means there is more than average interest in the foreign object. Perhaps my fear and excitement about the dance had previously distracted me from noticing…. but tonight I really noticed how much attention I received, and I was unprepared for it.

The first two men I danced with I had danced with the last time I was here, two years ago. These guys must not miss a dance. There were at least a dozen familiar faces in spite of the fact that I’ve only been three times on the West coast. These guys seem to really loooovve it when a young woman comes to dance. As I walk into the room, unless I’m holding the hand of someone, three or four men with wrist braces, knee braces, hawaiian shirts, spectacles, beards, huge rock hard bellies, some in shorts and some in pants, will come up and politely ask for the dance. I always say yes to the first person who asks me because I’m just there to dance and I don’t particularly care with whom. It’s also the etiquette I was taught when I was in Mr. Benjamin’s etiquette class in 6th grade. If you can imagine observing an etiquette class of 11-13 year olds, skip the next paragraph.

At Mr. Benjamin’s, on one side of the room old Mr. Benjamin would line up all the awkward 6th grade boys, most of which looked to be somewhere along the continuum between childhood, adolescence and apehood. They had to wear collared shirts, ties, sweaters or sports coats, slacks and nice shoes. The slacks were too long and too short, the sleeves had the same problem, funky hair, parts of the face outgrowing other parts of the face, we all remember that time, few people made it through with glamor or pride intact. These kids were sweet and I knew almost all of them from our years of elementary school together, but a motley crew nonetheless.

Then he’d line up all the awkward 6th grade girls, some of whom had full-fledged bossoms and mature seeming faces, and others who were in that weird stage of starting to grow breasts, but who, being too big for children’s clothes, ended up wearing dresses with more space than they needed in the top. I was in this latter group. Then he would ask the boys to pick a partner. And the stampede began. The boys weren’t allowed to run, but they’d walk very briskly with elbows out across the room to the prettiest and most popular girls who they would ask to dance. Girls could not say no. It was the rule. Which is both kind for the boys, and uncomfortable for the girls.

I was neither pretty nor popular and the same sweet but chubby red-haired boy who’d had a crush on me since fourth grade always asked me to dance, and no matter who I had a crush on, I danced with him, every other dance, as other’s would cut in and he’d find his way back to me. Once a year the girls got to ask boys to dance. Mr. Benjamin always played the same mix-tape with the “fields of gold” song, and we learned the fox-trot and the waltz, and many other dances that I have forgotten. No one was there to dance.

Anyway, back to 2009. As far as I can tell from the few words we exchange everyone here is just here to feel a sense of community and to move their bodies in a fun way with some live music. Sometimes they give me tips too (during the promenade press back hard with your hand, keep your eyes up here if you’re dizzy, don’t spin during the dosey-doe, other such folky sounding kindly intended advice).

I arrive and pay, and turn around and I now have a partner who looks to be about 70. White hair, a maroon polo shirt and black pants. His name is Lawrence. Lawrence does not talk to me. He is a fast spinner. When we swing during a certain part of the song I am only able to keep one foot on the ground. Lawrence has an intense stare that makes it uncomfortable to look at him so I look down after smiling at him, and after spinning up and down the hall, with him and the other partners I am paired with, I feel myself wobbling a little and before I’m done bowing I have another partner who leads me up to the front of the line.

Maybe it’s like this for everyone, maybe because I’m young, maybe because I’m new, maybe because I’m wearing a dress that looks good when I spin, who knows, but it feels like when I’m not dancing I have to keep my eyes down to avoid being asked to dance repeatedly. The next two dances go like the first, varying level of intense eye contact, me looking down or out to the room, and getting dizzier and dizzier. Until “Can I have this dance?” from a kind young man is met with, “I think I need to sit this one out.” and the next one too. I am now sitting on the couch drinking water and breathing into the nausea, and feeling utterly exhausted, and suddenly a wave of sadness washes over me. What is that doing there? I ask the question “Is it mine?” but I can’t discern. I want to be enjoying myself and laughing losing myself in there, but now I just really want to go home. I resolve to dance with the last young man who asked me to dance, and see how I feel.

I’m asked to dance several times during my break and am bothered by my own uneasiness with this… after all, this is simply part of it. I always enjoy obliging, dancing and the small bow at the end to thank each other for the dance. I learn a lot too, these are interesting people. But tonight I’m feeling like the attention is too much. Somehow this young man (listen to me sounding like a grandma, “the young man”) isn’t like that though. He tells me he just finished a masters in leadership at Northwestern and is here for a yoga teacher training. I tell him about my program very briefly and that is about the end of our conversation. I tell him I’ve been dizzy and he says “I won’t spin you, and don’t spin during the dosey-does.” We get up to dance and it’s a confusing one, of course! But at the end of each choreography he’s there with his tall open arms to guide me through it, and I am so thankful to him. As I get dizzy anyway he whispers one-word reminders of the next step as he passes me through the intricate steps which involve 6 other people besides he and I in each 64 beat verse. And then there he is with the big open arms and a disarming smile at the end of each verse. He’s a big guy so when we swing my feet barely touch the floor, and I laugh a little. At the end of the dance we bow and say “thank you for the dance,” and as we both turn away, he says “Have a nice night” and asks someone else to dance, and I to get the heck out of there.

One of the things I love about contra dancing is that the dance is so innocent. There is the play of the male and the female in the lead and the follow, but everybody treats it with a space of respect; after all, you’re putting yourself in someone elses arms. You’re expected to trade partners, no one stays with the same person for the whole event, there is no space really for intimacy. In fact that is the way the dance is designed, to have you dancing with several partners, long enough to test chemistry and get to know each other a little, within the safety of a group.

I want to say a few things I’m grateful for today, just because. I am grateful that I got to read in the sun today, and that chickens, dogs and cats every once in awhile distracted me with their simple wanderings seeking attention, love, food, and who-knows what else, sparkly things perhaps. I am grateful that I got up at six, and got to see sunlight coming through my windows on to my table, through the glass and the flowers in a moment of serenity. I am grateful that I got lots of work done today, it was a good today to reestablish the feeling of being deeply interested, of being a student, of opening up to learning, what my mom calls “Be the baby.” I am grateful for the food I ate today, it was good, and fresh, and not only did many hands take care of it on it’s path from the earth to my kitchen, from the sun and the water to my body, but my own hands took care preparing it, so I thank myself for that time and intention too. I thank my cousin for calling me and sharing her love with me. I am grateful for the opportunity to dance and the graciousness of my partners, even though I didn’t know the steps. I am grateful to be alive, I am grateful to hopefully be serving, and I am grateful for sorrow as well as joy, as they lead into each other over and over in a cycle that always awakens me to the underlying beauty of our existence.


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