It’s New Year’s Eve 2022. My wife and I are at a Great Gatsby themed dance at Bent’s Opera House in our hometown of Medina. A live band plays swing music. Most of the seventy or so party guest, decked out in 1920s elegance, watch on as my wife and I, along with a few other Lindy Hoppers, dance to various songs throughout the night. I’m dressed in a 1920’s gangster outfit. Black pants, black shirt, black pin striped vest, and a white tie and pocket square. Halfway through the night the host announces that my dance partner Val and I will be performing a Lindy Hop routine to “Lulu Swing” by Le Dancing Pepa Swing Band. It’s time.
About 4 weeks prior the event planner had asked if I would perform at the party. I didn’t have a dance partner. Through friends of friends I was introduced to Val, whom I had never met. She was an experienced Lindy Hop dancer who had time to take this on and was available New Year’s Eve. We spent the next three weeks working on a routine. After nine rehearsals, we had something to show. Together we learned some aerials and how to dance to a song at 190 beats per minute which is not something either of us was used to.
Now we stand as the crowd cheers us on. We want to share our love of Lindy Hop with everyone there. We know we’ve done everything we could in the short time we had to prepare something the audience might enjoy. Although much of the routine is choreographed, a full minute is only loosely planned. I hope something good will come to me. Val and I walk over to my phone which is sitting on the edge of the stage. She jokes asking if I’m going to play the same song we rehearsed to, knowing that of course I will. But the question helps settle me. I think that is her plan. It’s the same song. It’s just another dance. Everything is going to be fine. I start the music.
Here is the performance from that night.
The performance ends and I’m overjoyed with how well it went. It was our best run so far. I feel I danced at the level I was capable of and that was all I hoped for. I can’t believe it’s over and I’m left enjoying the satisfaction of a successful dance and, in fact, the entire night of dancing. I feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel comfortable as a dancer. It wasn’t always like this. Just ten months prior, things looked very different.
It’s February 2022. I’m sitting on the sidelines in the Polish Cadet’s Hall in Buffalo, NY for the weekly Lindy Fix dance put on by Swing Buffalo. I watch on as covid-masked Lindy Hoppers dance to the jazz playlist the DJ has put together. I try to muster up the courage to ask someone to dance.
By this point, I’ve been taking dance lessons for several months from my instructor Lihann. I’d not long before moved to Medina, NY from the Los Angeles area during the pandemic. The pandemic is pandemic still underway. Despite that the dance scene has just recently restarted here in Buffalo. I want to jump back into dancing but after a long hiatus from dance due to covid restrictions and getting established in a new town I am nervous. This nervousness is intensified by my last, and first, experience with performing which took place shortly before our move. In addition I haven’t done any social dancing in a long time, even before the pandemic started. I’d felt some lessons would help me to regain my confidence. Lihann has helped me grow as a dancer, but I’m still not comfortable yet.
A song ends and another begins as I continue to watch the dancers on the floor. I see someone who looks friendly. Maybe I’ll ask them to dance. I summon my courage and stand up. Before I get there, another person asks them and they accept. I pause and watch them walk on to the dance floor and start dancing before returning to my seat. My courage leaves me and I decide to leave the dance. I head downstairs, and on the way out I encounter a fellow classmate who had been in some of the group lessons with me. He asks if I’m leaving and I tell him yes, I need to go. I don’t say that the reason I need to go is because I’m currently overcome with anxiety and need to get out of there. I leave.
How did I arrive at this place? Dancing didn’t start this way for me.
From the time I was young I was always mesmerized by Lindy Hop dancing. Whenever I saw it in movies and television shows I thought it looked like so much fun. I never thought about me learning to swing dance myself. I wasn’t a dancer. None of my family were dancers. I didn’t even know any dancers. Dancing like that was something that a lucky few people out there in the ether somewhere got to do.
Then one day at work I was talking to a co-worker in the office I worked at in Pasadena, CA and the subject of swing dancing came up. I mentioned that I always thought it would be so fun to learn. She said I should go to LindyGroove down the road in Pasadena. She told me that she danced there sometimes. I decided to give it a try.
I remember my first time attending LindyGroove. It was the summer of 2016. I walked up the steps of the Pasadena Masonic Hall. I entered the elegant foyer area and went down the half flight of stairs into the dance hall. There were a few people there practicing bits of dance patterns as they waited. I sat in a chair watching and waiting. I had arrived early. I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
The instructors came in and did a warmup with us and then gave a demonstration. There it was! The Lindy Hop dancing I had seen all those years on screen was happening right in front of me. I was ecstatic. They said that they would teach us to dance like that. I couldn’t wait to get started.
The beginner lessons began. I stood in the circle with the other dancers listening to how the basic Lindy 8-count footwork is done. We started to dance, and to my surprise and joy I was able to do it. What fun it was to do the thing I had watched others do all those years. It looked nothing like it did in the movies, of course, because the pattern we were doing was just forward and back, the most basic of Lindy patterns. But it didn’t matter. If I could learn this I could build onto it and learn more.
Then we started to learn the Lindy circle and things got a bit trickier. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Then the lesson ended. At this point I knew that this was going to take some work. I wasn’t deterred though. I was going to learn this thing.
The open dance was next. I spent the beginning of the dance practicing my newly learned moves (well, move) alone in the wings. I finally asked people to dance and everyone was so nice. They were happy to help a new person. I felt the invincible feeling of having a beginner’s free pass. In other arenas, that “free pass” feeling had allowed me to jump into something new and quickly become decent at it while having fun doing it. It works like this. … I tell people I’m new. … That’s it! Instant invincibility. If I’m not good yet it makes sense. It’s all new to me so I’m not even critical of myself. How could I know how to do it well? I’m new. I didn’t yet know what “right” felt like so I couldn’t come down on myself. My newness helps me have a blast. It was working for me that night. I left ready to return and figure this Lindy Hop thing out.
I signed up for lessons. I learned the Lindy circle. I learned the swing out and Charleston. I learned a few stylings. I danced them with everyone I could. I’ve only been dancing for two weeks, I told people. Then only a month, then only six weeks. Everything was going great. That’s not to say that I always felt carefree. I made mistakes. Some dance partners were less enthusiastic about a newcomer. Occasional blunders resulted in stepped-on toes, hurt hands, and my feeling inadequate. But still, it has only been two months. What do you expect?
At six months, the invincibility wore off. I started to feel uncomfortable. My swing out wasn’t right. My Charleston was clunky. I could still only dance at very slow tempos. I would have one dance that felt good and then another right after where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know why. My confidence failed. More and more I feared I was annoying people by dancing with them. A dance with me, I thought, might ruin their night. Instead of just joyfully experiencing each new encounter, I made each dance into a serious study. Looking back I can almost see the concentrating scowl on my face as I tried to dance the perfect dance with each new partner.
By the time eight months went by the excitement of entering the dance hall was replaced with anxiety and even a sense of dread. It was only my unwillingness to admit defeat and give up on things that kept me coming. A lot of the joy was gone but the determination remained as the only fuel for my learning. But my learning became sporadic. I would go months and longer without dancing. I would go to a group lesson here and there but seldom attended dances. My progress slowed to almost non-existent.
At the beginning of 2019 I had an idea. It seemed a perfect solution. I would find a dance partner. Someone who was new to Lindy Hop. Someone who wouldn’t feel held back by my lack of skill. Someone who would learn alongside me. I would find a private teacher to teach us. We would learn a choreographed routine together. We would perform it. For me it solved the confidence problem I had developed with social dancing.
And so that is what I did. I found a dance partner. We found a teacher. We began practicing several times a week. The anxiety associated with social dancing went away because I no longer had to dance socially. I felt like I was progressing. I started to have some fun again
We set a date for a performance. It was in October later that year. We had six more months to learn. We began learning choreography and the moves that went with it. I see now that the way I was learning was similar to learning a long poem in another language without knowing any of the words. By dancing with only one partner, I couldn’t tell if I was learning to actually lead another person. In fact, I wasn’t. But it didn’t matter to me at that time. I wanted to feel that sense of growth as well as the comfort of learning alongside one person that I felt safe with.
After nine months of preparation the performance was days away. We had some dress rehearsals and they all went well. The routine was fairly impressive for beginners. We had worked hard. I added a bunch of additional individual practices with my instructor during the final month to make sure I was extra ready. On the day of the performance I was riddled with anxiety. I hadn’t slept well because of it. I wanted perfection. I wanted to come through for my dance partner who also had worked very hard. I was worried because there were several times in run throughs just days before where I would forget where I was in the routine. When I did, I had no way to get back on track because my dancing wasn’t connected to the music. My routine wasn’t constructed out of patterns I already understood. My dancing was mostly a series of movements one after the other in a sequence for three minutes. It made it an incredible amount of information to remember. Any blip in the sequence could throw me off completely.
The day of the performance came. Then the hour of the performance. And then we were at center stage cueing for the music to begin. I was beyond nervous. Even so, for the first minute or so things seemed to be going well. I thought that I might actually make it through the entire routine. Then it happened. I lost track of where I was. Next came that dizzying feeling of anxiety. Almost like I wasn’t quite in my own body. Everyone was watching me. Everyone. Now was when I would make a fool of myself. It felt like a trainwreck in slow motion. The music kept going. It wasn’t going to stop for me. I didn’t know what to do. I had no kind of dance experience to help me with this. I try to do something that looks like dancing. I do a simple side pass, and then another. I alternate between attempted choreography and I don’t even know what. Then toward the end of the song we were able to work together to get back on track but most of the song had passed by. I felt terrible. My anxiety felt even more grounded in reality. It got stronger. I had proof that my anxiety was founded in truth. I just wasn’t a good dancer.
Then a few months later Covid came on the scene and dance was shut down for a couple of years. This gave me loads of time to stew in the juices of failure. My family moved across the country to WNY. I didn’t even know what dancing there was in Buffalo or Rochester. I didn’t want to give up on dancing but with my lack of confidence I didn’t quite know how to jump into a new scene.
This catches me back up to walking out of that social dance in Buffalo. I hadn’t really done social dancing in about four years at that point and I was terrified of it. I came to realize this wasn’t just a dance thing. My self-confidence and self-concept both had taken a hit across the board. They had been taking hits for a long time. I needed to do some work on myself. I was afraid of social dancing because I was afraid to fail. I was afraid of rejection. Instead of only feeling that each dance with a new person was an opportunity to connect joyfully with another human being, I felt it was also an opportunity to crash and burn horribly. And the risk of any more failure and rejection now felt too great.
I started to work on being okay with failure. I worked on being okay with having a bad dance. I worked on learning that having what I perceived as a bad dance should not negatively coloring my feeling of self-worth. I worked on seeing each dance as an opportunity to practice. After another month more of preparation I had a strategy I came up with while journaling about my challenges. With that combined with some simple dance flows Lihann’s helped me with I felt ready. I went to a social dance. I asked someone to dance. And then another, and another. I danced through my nervousness for a whole night. It helped that I had gotten to know some people through the group classes. The dance scene in Buffalo was much smaller than LA so it was easier to get to know people.
I started to learn to dance as a lead. Not choreographed routines but the actual leading of a dance. I kept on getting more and more experience. I had a few dances that I was even able to have fun with. But I still was nervous each time I would dance. There was something left to figure out.
Then I went to the Herräng dance camp, a week long came for Lindy Hop in northern Sweden. There the instructors spent much of their time teaching musicality and connection. Lessons weren’t all about one new pattern after another. Instead, I also learned how to listen to the music and to my dance partner. I learned to enjoy the dance. I learned that I don’t need to stay connected to my partner all the time. We could separate and have individual self-expression. Dance, I began to see, had much more fun in store for me than I had realized even in my initial excitement for it, and that fun might well be within my reach.
After the second day I went to the late-night dance and I remember smiling and laughing, actually laughing out loud, as I danced. This was the first time I remembered that happening in a social dance. An interesting and unexpected thing happened. As I began enjoying myself, my dance partners seemed to enjoy themselves too. One after another they started to seem like they were having fun. A friend from Buffalo was also in Sweden and danced with me. She couldn’t stop laughing because I was having so much fun. She said it was like dancing with a different person. The occasions when I saw my dance partner seem disappointed, I began to see, usually had more to do with their own fear than with my performance. They were, in fact, much as I had been up until that week, when, ironically, my anxiety about people not having fun dancing with me was the very thing that was making them not have fun dancing with me.
I would love to say that my time in Sweden fixed me all at once. In some respects it did, but only by giving me another tool I could use to fight the anxiety demon that still likes to lurk in my dancing. The tool was an understanding that whatever level I was at was always good enough. It wasn’t about my skill level but rather about sharing a few minutes connecting with another person through dance. But I still needed to learn to use it and to be vigilant. To see the anxiety. To acknowledge it. To accept that it is a part of me. But to not let it define how I dance. To not let it define how I live my life.
I also started to realize that I needed to forgive myself for the struggles I’d had with dance up to that point. The obstacles I’d gone through were steppingstones to help me arrive at that point in my life. The unfortunate performance in 2019 wasn’t actually unfortunate at all. It was part of my journey. If I hadn’t made mistakes in that performance, I may not have learned that it was okay. Not just a little okay, but really okay. I did my best and that was enough.
And so I’m back to now. New Year’s Eve 2022. I’m ringing in the new year joyfully dancing with friends. Performing a routine for the guests assembled there. Making all kinds of mistakes as I do it and loving every minute of it. Val and I make them together and we are okay with that. The mistakes are part of the dance. The more we can just accept that the more fun we can have. Now when I make a mistake I usually laugh. Life is just better when we can laugh at our own mistakes. We always try to do better. I don’t try to dance badly. But sometimes badly is what happens, and that’s okay.
I’m putting it to the test. I’ve started a monthly dance in Medina. I’m teaching beginner Lindy Hop lessons to others as part of an organization I founded called Medina Lindy in the Village. I want to help dance help others like it has helped me. At the same time I’m working to generalize this to other parts of my life. The more I can do that, the less time I will watch life happening from the sidelines and instead will jump in with both feet and do a joyful Charleston.