strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

Month: March, 2010

various dance tips i find useful

An assortment of couples dancing advice, which is generally applicable
to ballroom (waltz, polka, schottische) and to swing, and possibly to
Latin dances (cha-cha, tango, salsa). The advice at the beginning is
pretty rock-solid for any beginner, I think, but they get increasingly
me-specific and doubtful as we go further down the list.

–TAKE SMALL STEPS. A lot of beginners feel compelled to take gigantic
steps for some reason. Small steps are good because 1) they’re easier
to control, 2) faster to execute, 3) less likely to make you run into
someone, and 4) it makes you less tired.

–DANCE ON THE BALLS OF YOUR FEET. This means dancing on your
tip-toes–basically, the front part of your foot. Keep your heel
lifted off the ground, or at least, let your heel touch the ground
only lightly. Dancing on the balls of your feet makes it easier to
balance, and much easier to step quickly, and much easier to spin. You
may find that it is tiring, particularly if you are the sedentary
type, but it is completely worth it.

–WEAR SOCKS OR DANCE SHOES. Normal street shoes have rubber soles
that tend to stick to the ground and make it harder to spin or move
quickly. Also, if you’re trying to dance but are wearing sticky shoes,
you may damage your knees and ankles.

–DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR FOOTWORK. The first time you actually try to
dance for real with a partner, you’ll probably forget everything you
learned about what the basic step is. Ensuring that you step with your
right foot on the downbeat is really not as important as making sure
that you’re stepping on the downbeat, period. You will screw up, but
be happy! You now have the chance to learn the most important dance
step of all, which is making everything up.

hard enough to do that it is worth mentioning, and thinking about how
your feet are beneath your body can help guide your intuition about
the footwork is supposed to be like.

knees bent and forward a little. Bent knees are springy, responsive
knees. Also, this helps you a lot if you’re rotating with your
partner, as you do in waltz.

–SMILE. When you agree to dance with someone, you’re putting yourself
in a position that makes them vulnerable to you, and you vulnerable to
them. Ease the awkwardness by smiling. I have lead and followed, and
talked to other leads and follows, and I’ve noticed that both sides
are pretty insecure about what they think the other person might be
thinking. Make yourself and your partner happier by smiling.


the documentation of an addiction

When I was in seventh grade, my dream perfume was the exact smell of
fresh roses on the branch–a bit of woodiness from the stem, a fresh
greenness reminiscent of apple slices from the leaves, and of course
rose petals: fruity, honeyed, and yet crisp. No store-bought perfume I
knew of could preserve that crispness without causing it to degenerate
into booziness. To achieve this dream perfume, I ripped every rose
petal off of our sad, half-dying bushes that I could, shredded them,
and let them slowly drown to death in a sophisticated formula that
consisted solely of rubbing alcohol. I succeeded in producing a
yellowish, thick slime a snail could have been proud of.

Once I finally started getting an allowance in high school, I bought
some bottles of essential oil–sweet orange, peppermint, geranium, and
vetiver. Rose, good rose, was too expensive. The oils had strained my
tiny budget so much, though, that I never dared use any of them,
thinking that if I couldn’t produce something perfect the first time,
I would just be lighting money on fire. Reasoning that the individual
oils smelled fine, I slathered them on my skin and suffered scented
allergic reactions instead.

My junior year in college, I finally had enough money that I could
spend more than ten dollars at a time without wringing my hands in
despair at my frivolousness. I bought a half-empty bottle of Lalique
Encre Noire from someone whose perfume collection had grown so large
she could no longer house any overnight guests. It was marketed
towards men, back when they still made it. It came in a bottle like a
black ice cube, dark enough that you couldn’t see how much juice was
left unless you held it up to the light. The stopper was a dark cube
of wenge wood, with its own smell like crushed blackberries. The
perfume itself smelled like the earth after a good rain, fresh black
earth washed clean of all decay.

Encre Noir was marvelous, but it didn’t satisfy me. I consulted
Google. I discovered that I could buy sample vials of whatever perfume
I wanted online, and many I didn’t actually want but had only seen
good reviews for, for only three dollars each. In order to take
advantage of flat shipping rates, it seemed most economical to order
up to forty vials each time. My dream of a signature perfume had
acquired multiple personality disorder. I had spicy, jam-sweet
orientals, musty, stuffy chypres, florals that smelled like I had
taken the fresh petals and crushed them in my hands, florals that
smelled like I had left them unmolested, perfumes that smelled like
wood shavings and turpentine, perfumes of bitter coffee and soft
incense, even perfumes that smelled almost like the true rose I had
been searching for all my life–a whole library of scents, and yet it
wasn’t enough.

A funny thing happens when your drawers and shelves are filled with
hundreds of perfumes. Little atoms slip out past the plastic plugging
up their glass houses to form something unique, the same smell no
matter which or how many perfumes I have–a sweet, musky smell, as
soft, warm, and textured as cashmere, as natural as a rose, but not a
rose. If I could smell only one thing for the rest of my life, this
might be it–but thank god, I don’t have to, and I will not!

the most epic Friday Night Waltz ever

One of my favorite things about dancing is its potential for creative,
energetic play between two adults who are too old for anything but
work now. And by god, tonight we played.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate that Lewis Hom was one of my very first
partners ever; otherwise, I might never have got it into my head that
dancing should be playful and should break the mold whenever possible.
Lewis, thankfully, came to Friday Night Waltz tonight, and with him,
one of my original reasons for choosing to dance.

I have heard it said that the very best couple dancing looks
telepathic, like the lead and the follow are moving as one. I swear we
did that tonight.

One game I’ve learned in improv is the mirror game. One person, A, is
first designatd the “leader.” B is the follower. A will make some sort
of gesture, any kind of gesture–perhaps a funny face, perhaps rocking
back and forth–really, anything, and the job of B is to follow. Later
in the game, A and B switch roles, and even later, the official
designation is null and void. A and B will each lead or follow on
their own initiative, strictly as the spirit moves them. A well-played
mirror game, much like a well-done dance, looks like A and B have
independently chosen to do exactly the same thing.

Usually when I’m dancing with someone, even with someone who I trust,
I worry that I might do something wrong, or that I’m getting off
tempo. I get too analytical; I think, rather than feel. Not so this

Lewis and I were A and B tonight. I might do something crazy, like
sinking so low to the ground I ended up crawling, and Lewis would
follow, or Lewis might take it into his head to pretend that he was
pumping iron, and I would follow. Maybe sometimes we just boogied
independently–I know I did multiple consecutive free spins, and I’m
not quite sure what Lewis did during those–but even those independent
turns were collaborative at their core.

This is what happened. I danced tonight with someone who I trusted
enough to drop all inhibitions and strictures about how our bodies
ought to move, so that we might have the richest vocabulary possible
to express the music.

And tonight, we wrote one hell of a story about the joys of being alive.

things learned from biking across America

I knew nothing about cycling. I decided to ride my bike across America
anyway. I had signed up with a tour company for the trip and bought my
road bike only a couple months before the ride was to start in June.
Imagine the shock I got when I received the company’s informational
brochure and learned that novices like me were supposed to train a
year beforehand! And here, I only had two months! That was the first
thing I learned–how bloody stupid I was.

Oh yes, I learned a lot about cycling, and I had to learn it on the
ride. I learned about the differences between carbon fiber and
aluminum, and the virtues of titanium. I learned about dropping my
gears and spinning the pedals quickly for long hills, and yanking it
up into a big gear and standing up to charge up short ones. I learned
that, paradoxically, a hard seat is more comfortable than a soft seat
and prevents saddle sores. I learned how to sit, how to hold my arms,
and learned that maintaining proper form required far more
concentration than I would have ever believed.

And I learned some things about America, too. I learned that the Amish
make wonderful pumpkin bars and sell four for $1.25, that South Dakota
is ridden with gigantic grasshoppers this time of year, and that
surprisingly, not all of Middle America is corn fields–it’s also half
soybeans. (But as one might expect, I did not learn that Middle
America is more exciting from the seat of a bike than I thought it
would be.)

People ask me about my trip, how it was, and I say it was great, and
that the scenery was pretty awesome up until after the Black Hills.
Then the questions don’t come anymore, because I suspect that most
people realize, but are too polite to voice, that cycling day in and
day out must be really boring.

I wish people would ask more questions. I wish they would, because
then I could tell them about all the real things that happened,
outside of the day to day monotony of cycling. I wish I could tell
them how proud I felt to see myself improving as a rider, bolstered by
encouragement and tips from nearly everyone else on the ride. I wish I
could tell them how comforting this ride was, since the majority of
the riders were retirees in the sixties–how comforting it was to see
that when I’m sixty, I don’t have to be tired and want to stay home
all day, that I can still have dreams and live them out. But that is
all boring stuff, on par with the details of maintaining relaxed
elbows and the best stretches for keeping your neck fresh for eighty
miles a day.

What I most wish I could tell is one of the cheesiest and most boring
stories ever. Near the very end of the ride is a hill called Sullivan.
It has a twenty percent grade. How can I tell a non-cyclist how
difficult that hill was? It was the hardest twenty minutes of a three
thousand, six hundred and twenty nine mile long ride. I, who was now
capable of pushing 20 miles per hour on flat ground, was barely going
at 4, practically walking speed. The oxygen I was sucking in was
rasping in my lungs like a handful of broken dry hay. My legs–I can’t
describe the pain, only the images that came to mind of little fibers
snapping, releasing bloody fire. I thought of tissue paper falling
into water, disintegrating. I could hear my heart hammering in my
eardrums, and I could feel it in the marrow of every tooth, a gigantic
chorus of drummers each going their own way.

I thought of giving up. There was no way that I could stop riding
without simply falling over to the side on such a steep hill, because
I was going so slowly I wouldn’t have been able to swing my leg off in
time. More than the pain, thoughts of giving up preoccupied me. I
don’t remember what anything on the side of the road looked like. I
recall no trees, no houses. Just the ghost image of myself lying on
the ground, finally able to breathe again.

Perhaps halfway up, just when I was thinking there was no shame in
walking, I heard Jeff say, “Come on. You’re my champ.”

That did it. I thought only of the next pedal stroke, and the next breath.

Somehow, I made it to the top.

And that’s the story I wish I could tell people, but I know would be
received with utter indifference of what it meant to me. How Jeff
Lazer, one of my great mentors and closest friends, pulled me up that

The most important thing I learned was not about bikes. I learned what
it is to do something difficult with only love pulling me from the
front, and not the fear of failure punishing me from behind.

I have never tasted that before, but I have now, and it’s a memory
I’ll keep with me all my life.

Thank you, Jeff.

And reader, if you haven’t learned the taste of that kind of love yet,
I hope you do.