Waltzing Matilda

image of two people waltzing ... or not

Night before last, My Darling B and I practiced our Viennese waltz steps to Billy Joel’s Only A Woman and Journey’s Open Arms. How have I lived almost thirty years with those songs without realizing they were waltzes?

I sure do love to waltz. Swing dance is almost as much fun, but the waltz is by far my favorite dance, as I suspected it would be from the first time I heard The Blue Danube in full-blown stereophonic sound. That would have been when I heard it used as background music while the moon shuttle Orion made its translunar crossing in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course. How many people, I wonder, get their classical cues from pop culture? Is Wagner’s Ritt der Walkuren the music you play when you’re rocketing the shit out of a Vietnamese village or, and here I feel as if I’m dating myself, do you remember it as the tune behind the chant, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit …”?

We’ve been waltzing for almost nine months now. In fact, we were waltzing the very first night we started going to group dance lessons, if you can call the stomping around we were doing that night “waltzing.” I call it that, but I’m more than a bit of a philistine, as you will have no trouble getting people to swear in court. And I thought we were doing pretty well, but we were not doing steps we could dance to The Blue Danube and that’s because we did not know how to dance a Viennese waltz, until the week before last.

Mr Park was considering new steps to teach us, and though we’d just finished practicing a few new waltz steps I blurted out some dumb shit like, “We’ve never tried the Viennese waltz yet.” He gave me a look that was as good as saying, “You’ve got to be kidding,” but something made him reconsider and he showed us how to do a hesitation step, and then how to turn it to the left. We could do the hesitation, but we were not quite up to turning to the left just then. The beat is wicked fast and we kept tripping over each other. We had a lot of fun, but it just wasn’t doable yet.

We were supposed to practice our right box turn for homework. We didn’t. We’re total pikers when it comes to doing our homework. Moving all the furniture out of the way is a huge project, and it’s a lot more satisfying to just sit on our asses after a long day working in an office where we mostly sit on our asses all day. I’m not saying it makes sense, I’m only saying that’s how we feel.

The next week, he showed us how to do a basic left traveling box turn. It’s very simple; all you have to do is dance a basic waltz step, walking a line down one side of the dance floor while simultaneously revolving and stepping around your partner as quickly – no, much more quickly than you possibly can. Then, just before you get to the end of the floor, you have to change step, make a right box that turns you completely around and keep doing that until you’re in the opposite corner, when you start doing the traveling, twirling, spinning left box again. It’s a nightmare. I don’t know how we made it through that lesson without breaking an ankle.

Tuesday night, though, it somehow all made sense. I had my doubts, especially when he put Only A Woman on the stereo for us to dance to. That’s a waltz? I kept asking myself, and was sure I’d be too distracted to keep my mind on my feet, but it all turned out all right, even later when he played Open Arms. I’ve never liked Journey until we waltzed to that tune. It’s got a nice, steady beat that’s just the right speed for beginners trying not to trip over each other while they’re in the early stages of trying to dance a Viennese waltz.

Waltzing is as close to flying as a two-legged mammal that doesn’t squeak and eat bugs on the fly can get, and Viennese waltz is even more so. I don’t know why. There’s plenty of twirling in swing dance or doing the cha-cha, and the tango is just as animated, but when I’m waltzing I truly get the sensation of floating through space. B said the same last night, so maybe we’re doing it right, or coming close. Anyway, after we made it around the floor several times without muffing it too often, we were starting to feel as if we might be able to make this Viennese thing work. My dream of dancing to the strains of The Blue Danube might even happen … some day.

Dancing Fools

I’m torn: I’ve got less than 120 pages left and then I’m finished with David McCullough’s Truman. I should be upstairs on the sofa finishing it off right now, but I couldn’t let the night pass without banging out some drivel. So here you go:

Dance night tonight. It’s been at least two months since we went to group class on Monday night, but Mr Park’s teaching swing on Mondays all this month and next and we have a pretty good time with swing, so we tweaked our schedule a bit. Lots of people there tonight. Group dances were slow all summer but they’re starting to get crowded again now that the weather’s turned cold and it gets dark about five minutes after dinner. Most of the others there were beginners so Mr Park spent quite a bit of time with them but still came over to us every so often to make sure we were working on our technique. My Darling B kept at her rock step until she could make her hips swivel like a cage dancer’s. She says she can’t keep up with the music but really I couldn’t have a better swing partner. She’s pretty darned good in a waltz step, too.

One of the steps we were practicing was a link. We start out dancing hand in hand, then link up arm in arm and circle around each other. Younger dancers than us would probably perform a kick or some jive. We mostly just keep on with the basic swing step until we’ve circled around a couple times, then spin apart or maybe twirl. A twirl just seems natural coming out of a link. We weren’t supposed to be twirling, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s way too much fun, and I need to practice it so I’m not yanking on B’s arms. I do tend to get carried away when a really jumpin’ tune makes me boogie.

We’ll go to group class again tomorrow night, too, because Mr Park’s starting to teach group waltz on Tuesdays and I love to waltz. Tuesday’s also our private lesson night. After ninety minutes of dance lessons without a break I’ll have to hit the hay as soon as we get home.

Back to Truman now! Toodles!

Hangar Dance

image of dancing with B

There were two or three other Rosies at the hangar dance last night, but only I had the privilege of dancing with the one who looked just like the one in the poster.

The entertainment at Madison’s annual hangar dance is provided by Ladies Must Swing, an all-girl band that plays tunes made famous by the great swing bands of the 1940’s, so the dance has naturally taken on a 40’s theme and people come dressed in costume: Women get their hair poofed up, wear 40’s dresses and nylon stockings with lines down the backs of their calves. Guys wear zoot suits or army uniforms. There were a lot of prohibition-era gangsters and mols, too, but nobody seemed to mind the discontinuity there.

B got the idea to dress as Rosie the Riveter about two weeks ago because what could be more 40’s, right? I was afraid there would be a glut of Rosies at the dance, but as it turned out I saw only two, one of them in a pair of overalls and another in a denim work outfit like B’s, but neither one of them had the authentic Rosie polka-dot bandana and B did.

She almost didn’t, though. The hangar dance was Saturday; she waited until Thursday to order it. Couldn’t say exactly why other than, that’s just her way. When the mailman delivered it Saturday afternoon she came into the house squealing, “It’s here! It’s here!” as she tore open the padded envelope. With polka-dots on her head she was the most-photographed Rosie at the dance. “You’re just so adorable!” one woman told B as she took a snapshot of us dancing.

“That’s the first time a perfect stranger has called me ‘adorable,’” B said.

“Well, you are,” I assured her.

The hangar dance marked our debut: It was the first time we used our classroom-learnin’ in public. We had a lot of fun with it, but dancing in a crowd is a lot different from dancing in a studio with the whole floor to ourselves. We didn’t run into anyone, that wasn’t the problem. What presented the biggest challenge was trying to remember our steps while we were preoccupied with watching everyone around us. By the time night fell and the dance was almost over we remembered most of the steps we’d learned, but dragging them up from our memories was more trouble than pulling hen’s teeth.

We’ll have a whole year to practice before next year’s hangar dance, though, and we ought to be able to come up with some decent costumes by then, too. I’ve also made a note to find the most powerful mosquito repellent in the world, preferably in a country where there are no pesky health regulations to keep them from using ingredients like DDT or napalm. Right after sunset but before it got dark, mosquitoes descended on the crowd like a biblical plague. To make things worse, the band had coincidentally gone on a half-hour break at exactly the same time the mosquitoes showed up for dinner. If we’d have been able to keep on dancing we might have kept them off us, or at least made them chase us and earn our blood, but no joy there. All we could do was swat and swat and swat until the music started again.

Once night fell and the band started up again, the mosquitoes left us alone and the cool, evening breeze made the rest of the evening just as much fun as the first half, maybe even more so for us as we remembered more dance steps. We stayed until the last dance and went home tired but pleasantly so, enough that we slept in late the next morning.

The Secret

Here’s one that’ll take me a little while to live down, at least in my own mind: My Darling B and I go to a group dance class each Tuesday and Thursday night. It sounds like a lot, but each class is only forty-five minutes and it goes by so quickly that it’s over just as we’re getting warmed up and feeling the urge to keep on going all night long.

I think we’ll probably be going on Monday nights, too. The schedule just changed and on Mondays they’ll be teaching some swing steps. We’ll need to learn as many steps as we can between now and the night of the hangar dance at the airport on July 31st. Right now we can do a grand total of two steps, and I can twirl B in circles a lot. That’s not going to get us very far.

But back to last night: As I said, the schedule just changed and Tuesday nights they started teaching waltz steps. This is a huge deal because I just love to waltz. The other dances are just fine, and I believe I had almost as much fun as B did learning salsa steps, but when we start waltzing I don’t want to stop. I think the last time I had that much fun was when I was learning to fly. The two are pretty much the same thing, as far as I can tell. Waltzing gets me just as high, and there’s no danger of crashing and burning.

We must have left the house to get to last night’s lesson too early, or traffic was much lighter and much faster than usual, because we ended up at the dance studio about fifteen minutes before the class started, so after changing into our dance shoes B and I stepped into the back room to warm up a little.

B bought herself a pair of dance shoes after the second or third lesson. She was already well down the road of becoming a dance nerd, although she has yet to order a pair of heels. She says she’s going to sew a ball gown this winter, too, and has already spied out a pattern. Photos to follow, promise.

I held off buying dance shoes until last week, not because I wasn’t totally devoted to learning to dance but because I’m a great big cheapskate. I already have a pair of shoes, what do I need another pair for? I’ll tell you what I need them for: I need soft, lightweight dance shoes so I don’t mash all ten toes of every dance partner at the studio to jelly. I’m sure there’s a limit to how many times they’ll put up with a pummeling from my size-twelves with patented Vibram soles, no matter how bravely they smile and assure me, “That’s all right.” Bravery is routine to women who will dance with beginners, particularly a salsa.

For our warm-up I led B through a couple basic turning box steps, an underarm turn, a crossover or two, and then, when I tried a cross-body lead, it fell apart at the end so completely that we couldn’t start up again and ended up just standing there, unable to pick up the beat. The expression on B’s face said, What the hell just happened? so vividly that we both broke down laughing.

“Okay, let’s try that again,” I said, thinking it was just a fluke and we would be able to glide right through it once we got going. It was such a simple step, and we’ve done it so many times, that surely we could fly easily through it again.

But no. I led her into it, she came to the turn, and when I stepped around to pick her up we were both out of step and couldn’t sync up again. Bizarre.

“We did this just last night,” B chuckled. “We shouldn’t have forgotten it by now.”

So we tried once more, and once more it fell apart at the end. This isn’t a hard step, and we’re two fairly intelligent people. We should have been able to figure this out, but no matter how we tried to break it down we couldn’t quite find the point where we lost it.

As we were about to give up and move on, Christopher, our regular instructor, popped into the back room. He was working with another couple out on the studio floor but would have been able to see us through the French doors and apparently couldn’t bear to watch us dork up this one simple step any longer. Or, to hit the dork squarely on the head, he couldn’t bear to watch me mess it up. The first rule of ballroom dancing is, Mistakes are the guy’s fault. He leads the dance, after all. I’m not sure how fully I agree with that, but in this case at least it carried plenty of weight.

“You’ve got to bend your arm,” he told me, giving a quick demonstration before he dashed back into the studio by lowering his left arm, then crooking his elbow. This is the signal from the gentleman to the lady that they’re about to start the cross-body lead. I’d been lowering my arm but I’d been keeping it ramrod straight, not bending it. Could the answer to our problem be that simple?

His laser-sharp eye had zeroed in on exactly the one part of our dance that would put everything right. As we stepped through half a box I dropped my arm, tucking it back by bending my elbow, and B glided effortlessly through the turn. Hey! It works! To make sure it wasn’t a fluke we tried it again, and again we pulled it off without a hitch.

How could I have missed that? Won’t miss it again, though.


Tonight was supposed to be tango night in the group dance class, but nobody showed up so it turned into a private lesson – and since we swiched our weekly private lesson from Tuesday to Thursday, that meant that tonight turned into a twofer!

We started off with a little test: Christopher wanted to see how well we could mambo if he put a little slip of card paper under the balls of each of our feet. It turns out that we’re supposed to slide our feet when we mambo, never lifting the balls of our feet off the floor. We’d never done that before, and it was damned hard to do it now, almost like having to learn it all over again. I wish I could say we caught on to it pretty quickly, but we didn’t. After maybe a half-hour of that we weren’t lurching around like Gort the Robot, but poise and grace are still a long way off.

Then we worked on our foxtrot a while. This dance has turned out to be a fiendish trap that started out deceptively simple but actually has so many details to remember that at this point I would feel less intimidated if asked to split the atom, right now, using only a few common ingredients found in any average kitchen. The first two steps are long, the last two are very short, you rise on yours toes at the end, you brush your feet as you go, don’t step to the side very much, lead with your heel, roll all the way across your foot, keep your knees bent HOLY CRAP HOW DID THIS GET SO COMPLICATED?

Still, we learned a sweet little turn to do after the cross-body lead that made the lesson worth all the sweat, and the back-to-back twofer was over before we knew it.


We mambo’d the night away at group dance class last night. A mambo is like a salsa, but in mambo you step off on the second beat; in salsa you step off on the first. Seems like a really tiny, insignificant difference, one that wouldn’t be too hard to take into account, and there’s no doubt in my mind that most people do it easily, all the time. To me, though, it’s like trying to brush my teeth with my left hand.

No, wait: Waltzing in a right-hand box after doing a change step is like brushing left-handed (as contradictory as that may sound, it makes perfect sense if you think about it for a second. Okay, that’s good, now stop.) Switching from a salsa to a mambo is like trying to sing a round of “Row, row, row your boat” after someone else has already begun singing it. So simple, and yet you can’t help muffing it the first few times by laughing or stepping on the other person’s toes.

Christopher asked us to switch from salsa to mambo, and I quote, just to mess with us, because that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s the instructor so he gets to do that whenever he wants to. You’d think that, because we’re paying him, it’d be the other way around and we’d get to call the shots, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work out that way. Life is so cruel. Dance class is even more cruel.

There’s lots and lots of twirling in salsa. My Darling B used to like twirling but she’s starting to get a little vocal about all the spinning she has to do now that we’re dancing the salsa. To be more accurate about it, she’d like to know why the girl does all the spinning in salsa while the guy just stands there, twirling her around. She’s getting a little dizzy, is the gist of her argument.

I think it goes back to something Christopher said about dancing: It’s all about making the ladies look good. The guy does an occasional underarm turn but, most of the time, he tries not to steal the show, and instead he just flicks his arm or raises it up and spins the girl around so she can twirl, probably to make her dress poof out and show off her legs, I guess. Works for me.

We learned the underarm turn ages ago, and it’s so simple that we moved on straightaway to the figure eight, an underarm turn but with a twist, literally: we don’t let go of each other’s hands, so our arms end up tied together like a pretzel. Then we prance back and forth a bit before untying our arms.

And last week we learned the “sweetheart,” a left underarm turn where we don’t let go of each other’s hands. In that one, we end up dancing side by side, arm in arm. It’s cuddling while dancing. I suppose that’s why it’s called a “sweetheart.”

Then last night we learned how to wind the ladies up in a figure eight, prance around a bit, then unwind her and go straight into a sweetheart – and then send her spinning away before winding her right back up again like Duncan a yo-yo. Sweet! It’s a whole lot more twirling, but of course the lady’s the one getting motion sickness. The guy just hangs out, waiting for her to come spinning back to him. Mambo rules.


I was up awful late last night, but it was so worth it, practicing tango steps with My Darling B after we moved as much of the furniture out of the living room as possible. If we push the recliner into the front entrance, move the coffee table into the hallway and plop the beer crate in the dining room, we have just enough room to do all the tango steps we know. Really short tango steps.

The toughest part about dancing a tango is keeping step with the music. Not because the steps are so difficult: Learning the actual steps takes a lot of practice, but it’s doable for just about anybody, even doofuses like us. Finding a tune that keeps a steady beat is just about impossible, though. Most of the tango music we’ve been able to find starts out so slow we can’t do anything but stand there for an awkwardly long time, looking like lost kids in the lobby of a busy bus terminal. Then the speed picks up and has a danceable beat for about a minute and a half before it slows to a crawl again. This seems to be the rule for most tango music. I’m sure you’re supposed to be doing something very stylish when that happens, but we haven’t advanced far enough in our classes to have a clue what that might possibly be.

Since we started taking lessons, My Darling B has been checking out collections of dance music from the library. The library likes it a lot whenever B checks out music CDs because they know they’re going to make a lot of money when she forgets to bring them back on time, and she almost always forgets. The idea, of course, is to try all kinds of music free, then pay for what we like. Maybe some day we’ll figure out how to make it work out that way.

Every time she finds a CD with plenty of the music she likes, B buys a copy of it through mail order. Last week a copy of a record called “The Absolute Best Tango Album Ever.” With a name like that, it ought to be just crammed full of tunes we could dance to, right? Well, so far we’ve found two. Yarg.

The next toughest part about dancing the tango is keeping time with the music. Or maybe it’s not so tough. Maybe we’re just klutzes. That seems very likely. In either case, the trouble we were having was getting our inner timing cue, the earworm-like tango music playing in our heads, to sync up with the tango music that happened to be playing on the stereo at the time at which we were supposed to be dancing to. If there’s a failure to learning to tango the way we were taught, it’s that we ended up dancing to “Step, together, step, collect, tang! Go! Close!” and hardly listening to the music at all, except to start.

But last night we managed to find a couple tunes we could dance to, and how to make the steps to a routine we’ve been working on match the rhythm of the music we found. It was an Aha! moment worth staying up past our bed times for. Or at least I thought so until my alarm clock woke me up this morning.


I was practicing dance steps with My Darling B in the front room last night, which is quite a feat if you take in to account that our living room is about the same size as the bed of a pickup truck, and we can’t remember dance steps to save ourselves.

Actually, our living room is a little bit bigger than the back of a pickup truck if we move the coffee table into the hallway and push the recliner into the alcove by the front door. That makes it just a little smaller than a hay wagon. I don’t know what it’s like to dance on the bed of a hay wagon, but it sure would be fun to try.

After moving the furniture we can practice almost all the dance steps we know if we take really short steps, especially when we tango. Christopher introduced us to the tango just last week. It’s a lot of very long, drawn-out steps that take us from one end of the living room to the other, leaving us painted into a corner with no way to get out, until I talked B into taking much smaller steps and pretending. “But what I really like about the tango is that the steps are so dramatic,” she said, so we’ll have to find another place to practice, like maybe a high school gym, or an aircraft hanger.

Long, dramatic steps are what I like about dancing the walz. Now that Christopher has showed us how to dance a turning box step we’re all over the room at the dance studio, but have to take tiny, crowded steps in our living room. It’s practice or perish, though. And we do perish.

I don’t know why we let this happen to us, but we do. We should be practicing every night, and some weeks we’re really very conscientious, but last week we were very lazy and now we can’t remember our cha-cha steps. In the end we just strung a bunch of our favorites together and danced to “Brick House” to have a little fun with it.


Time for a quick update before I jump in the car and head into town to apply my nose to the grindstone …
Yesterday was Tuesday, as you may have noticed, and Tuesday is dance night, which you may have already noticed if you were here last week at about this time.

My Darling B and I were very bad this past week: I think we practiced our dance steps one night, maybe two. Not more than two nights. Very naughty. Lucky for us we didn’t forget anything, and that dance move we couldn’t remember two weeks ago came right back to us when Christopher asked us to do it this week. It was like riding a bike; we hardly had to think through the steps once he reminded us, just do them.

This week, Christopher introduced a radical new concept to how we dance the walz: Rotating the box! First, we turned the box ninety degrees on every back step. Then we turned ninety degrees on every forward step. Finally, he asked us to try it either way, and throw in a few of the other dance moves as we went — and I couldn’t do it! It was too much to think about and my brain exploded! I had to box, turn, rise & fall, and try to remember when to step aside to start the cross-body lead? BLAM!

As soon as we got home, we practiced the new steps we learned and the old steps we remembered so that maybe they would remain cemented in our brains for a few more hours this time around. Hardest part was trying to adjust to taking tiny little steps in our living room after having a whole dance studio to fly around in.

step and POP

Our cha-cha lesson introduced the step and POP! Which means nothing to you, except this: Everything we learned up to this point, all the practice we put in getting our moves down, amounted to pretty much nothing when our instructor asked us to stick a step and POP! in there. The whole dance sequence came grinding to a halt as we pinballed off each other for the better part of twenty minutes trying to learn that goddamn move. But when we finally got it down, oh man did it look sweet!

Luckily we have an instructor who’s very patient and kept at it with us until we had all the steps down, even though he had to watch us walk through it v e r y s l o w l y at least two dozen times counting “One, two, three cha-cha” out loud as we went. It’s got to be excruciating for him to watch us step through these moves at one-tenth the speed he uses to demonstrate them, which is already snail-slow to him, but he diligently keeps at it, hoping, I suppose, that one day at least some of his students will show up on Dancing With The Stars.

The step and POP! is right in the middle of the cha-cha routine we learned, when we start the walk-through. It’s like a snappy little pause where we used to be on the move, which is what was throwing us off big time. The guy doesn’t have to do much at that point, thank dog, just step aside and let the lady step past and spin, but the hesitation just before that where the step and POP! goes left my teensy tiny mind in the dust while my feet wanted to keep boogying. The disconnect did not help.

Oh, and the instructor added a spin, too, but I don’t have to do much for that, either. All I have to remember is to turn my wrist toward me like I”m reading a watch and hold my hand in the air so she can twirl. Cha-cha is a dance where the lady does all the heavy work and the guy’s supposed to just stand there and make her look good. I can almost manage to do that.