People who watch me dance (at clubs, parking lots in Korea, karaoke bars, anywhere there's enough space for me to turn) are often surprised to learn that I didn't know how to dance until I was a sophomore or junior in college. Up to then, I had been a reliable wallflower. If there was a wall that needed to be held up at a dance party so that it would not fall on the dancers then people could call on me.
I had the ability to stand with my back against a wall for hours without moving.
* * *
I still remember the day I learned how to dance. I had gone to a party but hadn't danced. I was incredibly shy then so that didn't help. I had never drunk alcohol and wasn't interested in starting. The music was so loud that I couldn't really talk. So, as I stood there, I thought to myself that it was really kind of pointless for me to be there if the wall was already secure.
I've always been an all-or-nothing person. I decided that I would learn to dance--or drop out of college until I learned. Thankfully, I didn't do that. I might still be a sophomore at Harvard.
I'm sure that my exit interview with my academic advisers would have been quite interesting:
Ms. Spreadbury: So, Casey, you're saying you're dropping out of college because you haven't learned how to dance yet?
Casey: That's right. There is really no point in me being here if I'm just holding up the walls during dances. It seems I should be getting paid for such labor. So I will go out and work for real.
* * *
After another party of not dancing, I remember being at home the next day. I turned on my boom box, got out my favorite music of that time (Prince, New Edition and Patrice Rushen), and danced for about four hours in front of a mirror. Like magic, I could dance. Even I thought I looked smooth as I danced at college parties. I even looked natural.
* * *
One of my favorite memories from this past summer in Seoul was one of the nights I had gone out singing and drinking with my American and Korean co-workers. One of the Korean employees, an assistant manager, clearly admired my ability to dance while I sang. After he had enough to drink that particular night he decided that he wanted to try. So I was teaching him various hip-hop moves (from the 1980s and early 1990s) as we cued up every hip-hop song.
He was dancing like it was 1989!
After our group finished drinking and singing, the assistant manager called a driver to drop me off and then to drive him and his wife home. As we waited, he was still in the mood to dance. So, in the parking lot, he insisted that we dance some more. So there we were, at a parking lot at 2 or 3 in the morning, doing variations of MC Hammer's Running Man.
We had a great time! After that, he constantly addressed me as "my master" whenever the topic of going out singing and dancing came up.
I enjoy that type of dancing and still do. But I'm reminded of something Ray Charles said about singing rap music: Man, I don't respect nothing I could do when I was 12 years old.
Okay, so I was 20 when I finally learned how to dance...
* * *
Although I enjoy dancing to hip-hop, rap, top-40s, reggae, I've secretly wanted to learn how to dance to swing. That type of dancing--swing--has always looked cool to me. I loved the music before I was aware that there was a particular dance style attached to it. I wasn't aware that I could take classes to learn. It wasn't until graduate school that I actually tried to dance swing. But it seemed that I would need some help at learning swing, that I wouldn't be able to dance in front of a mirror to learn. Of course, at that time, I didn't realize that it would be almost two decades later before I would actually learn the basics, and that I would do so in Seoul, South Korea.
* * *
If you go dancing at a club you can dance by yourself, with a partner, with a group or with an imaginary friend. It doesn't really make a difference. You could be dancing with one person, then just completely move around the room and dance with no one in particular. Sometimes when people are dancing at a club it is hard to tell with whom they are dancing.
But swing dancing? You need someone to dance with. You could change partners, even during a dance, but you do need a partner. You and your partner must communicate with one another. If not, you could elbow her in the face or she could swing and hit you in a spot that would hurt a lot (probably on purpose to avenge the second or third elbow in the face).
When done right, swing dancing can be beautiful. Two people interacting. The leader leads, the follower follows. They become one.
But when done wrong? Read on.
* * *
After grad school I moved to Taiwan. I was young, free, and curious so I went. I couldn't find any swing dancing places. For all I know, I may have walked past them every day. I moved to Korea next. I couldn't find any swing dance places. My friends weren't helpful. At that time, swing dancing in Korea was dismissed as being a place for lonely housewives and playboys to meet. I didn't care who else wanted to dance that way. That is like telling me I should not vote for a particular candidate or believe in a certain idea because of others who support that candidate or idea. As it has been said, "An idea is not responsible for who believes in it." For me, an activity doesn't become bad because of the other people who also enjoy it. I can fit in with any crowd.
I moved back to America. By then I had moved on to other hobbies and didn't think about swing dancing until I was at an office party. A little guy was twirling his wife around the dance floor like he was moving his own hands in a puppet show. Ah, swing! My long-lost, I never really knew you friend!
As I was preparing to go to Seoul last summer, I e-mailed myself a to-do list. There were seven things I wanted to do in Seoul. Number 1 on the list: learn how to swing dance well enough that I wouldn't embarrass myself. I remember telling myself that if I had not learned the basic steps that I would leave Seoul after a month. I can just imagine the conversation with my bosses, explaining that I would leave early because I had not learned how to swing dance.
Perhaps I should I have told myself that I would never leave Seoul until I did learn how to swing dance.
* * *
Swing dancing is very tough for men who are beginners.
The man must lead when it comes to swing. Very often, he must physically PUSH the woman in the direction he wants her to move. I've never hit or pushed a woman who didn't ask for such things so it is kind of tough for me to push a woman when we're dancing. But it must be done or communication breaks down. I would really prefer to verbally inform her what I want her to do next, MC Hammer style: "Stop! Charleston Time!"
The man dancing is usually referred to as the leader. Guys who want to swing dance must get good, and do so fast. When you're a guy who is a beginner then you don't really have a suitable dance partner. The expert female dancers surely must be bored with a guy moving in slow-motion. The female dancers who are pretty good are probably looking to move to the next level; that means dancing with someone who can spin them around and lead them through difficult moves. Female swing partners who are also beginners? Then it is the blind being led by the blind.
There are some moves that I have now mastered. There are some moves that I'm in the process of mastering. And there are some moves that treat me like I'm their prison bitch.
This past summer, when I was moving in slow-motion through a step, one woman I was dancing with got impatient and spun herself through some moves. I was still looking at my feet. (I was being told in Korean not to look at my feet. I pretended I didn't understand.) That was the last time I mentioned swing dancing to her. Another woman, a beginner, danced with me a few times. Then she danced with a guy who looked like he should be on a dancing show. She came back to me, raving how well he had led her through moves and how great it was. We danced again, but I had less enthusiasm than before. I knew I was moving in slow motion for her.
It has been said: "Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards . . . and in high heels!" Sure, Ginger Rogers did it backwards and in high heels, but would she have taught a beginner? I asked several women who were good dancers if they could teach me moves. They had no idea about the guy's role, they just knew how to follow. Whereas men are the leaders, women swing dancing are followers. There are always guys willing to guide them, especially when they see them dancing with a guy who clearly doesn't know what he is doing.
Even though men are leaders and are ostensibly in control, to the point we must push women through dance moves, there is a lot of pressure on us when we first start. It is kind of like one of the lessons from the book A Self-Made Man. In it, lesbian journalist Norah Vincent goes undercover as a man for 18 months. She joins a bowling team, goes through therapy sessions with men, even lives at a monastery. One thing she realizes: Dating is tough for men. They are expected to take the lead in asking a woman out. Of course, women have their own challenges, but they are in the position of waiting for guys in the club or bar to come to them. As Vincent told 20/20: "In fact, we sit there and we just with one word, 'no,' will crush someone," she said. "We don't have to do the part where you cross the room and you go up to a stranger that you've never met in the middle of a room full of people and say the first words. And those first words are so hard to say without sounding like a cheeseball or sounding like a jerk."
The great thing about swing dancing is that no one refuses to dance with anyone. But what if you aren't ready to lead?
* * *
By the way, I have yet to see any gay people swing dancing. Women dance together, but as far as I have noticed, it is only because there aren't enough men available. Men, and I am definitely including myself in this, would prefer to be wallflowers rather than dance with another man.
* * *
I would probably now be considered an advanced beginner. So I can lead beginners. In Seoul, after I had learned the basic steps, I went out dancing with a beginners' class. At last, I could kick sand in someone else's face! I remember dancing with a friend I had recruited for the beginners' class, watching her struggle with the beginning steps. She was looking to me to teach her. I did so with great enthusiasm. I danced with every woman in that beginners' class, happily telling them what they were doing wrong, confidently leading them.
I have now found a happy medium back in America. I can lead a friend of mine who is a beginner and wants to learn. I was ready to kidnap her when she told me that when she gets married that she will want to swing dance for an hour every night with her husband. I'm just one chapter ahead of her in the book of swing, but that is enough for now. I'm hoping she won't go out swing dancing without me. An expert dancer could probably teach her in one night what it will take me months to learn, and I'd have to find a new beginner to experiment with.
My main dance partner now is a friend who (1) happens to be a professional dancer (2) who is also incredibly patient. She is Ginger Rogers teaching a beginner. I don't underestimate the importance of a patient woman who can also dance well. She has taught me more dance moves than my brain or feet are ready to comprehend yet. A few weeks ago she showed me, no kidding, nine different dance steps that are connected. As I tried to "lead" her through the steps, I felt like I was dancing in front of the kind of mirror at an amusement park that distorts your shape. I knew what things were supposed to look like but the mirror in my brain made everything look distorted. I did my best to lead her, but I think she could see from the befuddled look on my face that I was trying to catch nine rabbits at the same time. My brain, eyes and feet just weren't communicating. They seemed to be sabotaging one another.
A few days ago she dumbed it down for me, teaching me fewer moves, going through the same steps until my brain and feet worked together. She insisted that she was having a good time and couldn't wait to go out again.
* * *
There is a video of me that I am doing my best to keep hidden, that thankfully only my Korean friends who don't speak much English have a copy of. I am wearing a t-shirt in Korean that reads "today is my birthday." It was actually the day after my birthday. I was dragged to the dance floor and had to dance for a few minutes with women while everyone else applauded and watched. The women would change every 15 to 30 seconds. It was tough, the music was fast. I remember being embarrassed because I didn't realize I would have to do that. I had only been swing dancing for about 6 weeks so I only knew a few moves.
Anyway, next time I'm in Seoul swing dancing, I may try to keep it a secret that is my birthday unless I'm actually good then.
* * *
There's a Korean word, han, that explains the unfulfilled frustration that a person feels. There apparently isn't an English equivalent to the word. As it is explained here: "No foreign word can adequately translate it, for it includes such different nuances as are conveyed by the words rancor, grudge, hatred, lamentation, regret, grief, pathos, self-pity, fate, mortification, etc. Han's exact meaning can only be grasped experientially."
My experience with swing hasn't been that serious but I will be happy when I am a good swing dancer.