The music has that lilt, the notes elongated just a little, beats paid attention to and carefully played with. The rat-a-tat of the high hat on the drum set. The cornet crooning. The piano keys tinkling, walking up and down the scale, fingers tickling gently so they rattle inside the grand body. Slick shoes against a hard wood floor, laces tied tight, wing tips and black-and-white saddle shoes, high heels whose pointed tips barely touch the ground because the girls are on their toes. Ankles and knees and calves and swishes of thighs when the twirly skirts flare, fall, float. And our faces: so much grinning, so many looks of surprise from both leads and follows when something unexpected happens, when the move is executed perfectly and flawlessly, when our two bodies are communicating with each other by touch, pressure, movement, a curve of the wrist, a push on the back, a twist of the hips.
Swing dancing: the triple-step triple-step rock-step six count kind, for now, until we soon graduate to the more complicated eight-count Lindy Hop with the sexy-fun hip swivel on the swing out. I have always loved the music, have always loved the big band jazz from the 1940s and ’50s, then the later rockabilly aesthetic, the cool cats and hep chicks in tight slacks and sweaters and leather jackets.
I started swing dancing in 2001 with a trans guy who I was trying to date, who has since gone on to become a professional tango instructor (according to Facebook). He was a lead, so I learned to follow. A few years later I began leading in beginner classes. I had by then stopped wearing twirly skirts and started realizing I didn’t want to date, or submit to in bed, men at all anymore, and started dating women.
Leading came to me quickly and easily. It helped that I had some years of experience being on the other side, following. The same I suppose was true when I was learning how to top, that since I knew what it felt like to be on the other side I felt comfortable turning the table. It became harder as I ventured into uncharted territory, doing things as a top and a dominant that I'd never done as a bottom. But I, as always, am willing to learn.
I haven’t ventured into uncharted territory as a lead until now. I spent four years following and only about one year leading all those years ago, and though a lot of the leading I have been able to pick up and apply (only backward and without the heels, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers), I don’t have the same breadth of experience as a leader. It is so much more responsibility, so much more intention, so much more challenging.
So of course, I love it deeply.
Kristen is not the first girl I’ve asked to accompany me to classes, but she’s the first to have agreed, albeit skeptically at first, and who has since discovered a new hobby she finds very pleasurable and fun. We have a new language in which to speak to each other, and she, as usual, has many similar revelations that I do about partner dancing and courtship.
This form of courtship used to be commonplace. And while it seems archaic, it is still relevant, elegant, and telling, and to explore it is to discover more ways to court and flirt. And goodness knows I am always interested in more ways to embed foreplay, little gestures, sweet nothings into the time I spend with my girl.
There is just something beautiful about learning this kind of physical communication. Something about how our bodies speak to each other, the push-pull of energy between us, the desire building just from the sheer fact that we are communicating with our cells, with our tendons, with our movements, instead of with our brains and speech.
When I tell people that my girlfriend Kristen and I are taking swing dancing lessons, the queers are usually a bit skeptical: Isn’t it hard to find a place that is inclusive of queers? Perhaps I have skewed expectations, since when learning I was at a ballroom owned by a cute queer butch. My dance partner and I used be sure to sign up for her class series, since she was so fun to watch (we both wanted to be her) and she used “leads” and “follows” instead of “men” and “women” or “gentlemen” and “ladies,” which my gender-sensitivity appreciated, given that not all the leads are guys and not all the follows are girls. Never mind that usually in those classes, that was true: the men led and the women followed. But that wasn't a prescription, and making changes in the language helped make space in the classes for those of us who wanted to change up the roles. This is a dance rooted in the early twentieth century, and even now, sixty-plus years later, gender role restrictions dominate.
Though when Kristen and I started classes they were led by a gay boy who was very conscientious, there are plenty of other teachers who are not so aware of this and continue to say “guys” when talking to the leads. Not only is this some gender normativity, which irks me like nails on a chalkboard, I sometimes want to jump up and down. Hello? Do I look like a guy to you? I know I’m masculine, but I am not trans. I am taking your class, and it isn’t as though there are two hundred of us and you are unaware that I’m actually a woman. I am one of five or ten leads. How hard is it for you to switch your wording?
The answer to that, I suppose, is: impossible. And while I sometimes entertain the precise wording I would say to one teacher in particular, I have yet to say anything, because I can easily visualize what his response will be: “That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean anything.” Subtext reads: sensitive politically correct dyke, makes everything so difficult.
He won’t get it. I know he won’t. And I'll just be left with frustration.
That doesn't mean I won’t say something, someday. I have contemplated mentioning something to the management, to try to tell them they should be more queer-inclusive in some simple ways. There are other teachers who are much more conscientious (and better teachers), and for now Kristen and I just try to be picky about who we learn from.
Regardless, I tell people not to fear any sort of homophobia if they are inspired to take a dance class. While the heteronormativity is there, absolutely, you can choose whether or not to take that as a dig. You know it’s wrong, of course.
I recently dug through some old CDs and came across one with the ninety-nine cent sticker from Goodwill still on it: Get Ready To Swing. It was an impulse buy, I remember, at the register, when it caught my eye among the other dozens of broken-cased copies of Michael Bolton and Starbucks compilations. It may not even play, I remember thinking. But it does, oh it does, and it's got some of the great classics of swing included, like “In The Mood,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” We’ve taken to dancing around the kitchen late at night—it’s got the best slick floor and the most room in my tiny apartment, to practice.
Practice makes perfect, you know.