Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gene Kelly and Dancing Shoes

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Men dance in France. Oh but what a lovely thing. They truly enjoy it, and seem to have rhythm, a sense of their bodies and a proud pleasure in swinging around the women in their lives. Nearly every Frenchman of a certain age (35 and over -- well up to 60-65 if not older) dances "le rock," the swinging couple's dance that is somewhere between disco and bebop. It goes well to Rock Around the Clock and some classic 50s songs. But, the creative soul can manage it to nearly anything.

In the States, at least where I grew up, we practiced non-touching dancing, each in his own corner, facing each other, or maybe not (excepting some disco). This style of dance permitted girlfriends to dance together as the dancing hetero-sexual white male had become a rare creature. All through high school, and most of college, I danced with my girlfriends, bopping, swinging, turning. Only the rare guy joined us, and then few could go beyond a basic Elvis interpretation. I attribute this serious lack of dancing feet to be due to the intensely athletic aka macho male culture. I mean, does American football playing encourage a guy to then go and gracefully boogie? I did date a fabulously skilled dancing black/Chinese American of Jamaican heritage and Canadian upbringing for a time. We had a blast, but when we broke up, a part of me wondered if I'd ever have a dancing boyfriend/mate again?

I've always loved to dance. I wanted to be a ballet dancer when I grew up. I was that little (horribly cute and obnoxious no doubt) girl with blond curls who danced pretend tap on the teak coffee table to the duets of my mother and her friend the cellist. I wound up and put on all the music boxes in my grandmother's summer cottage and danced about the room, oblivious to any spectators. By the age of seven I was going to ballet class. Then I started going twice weekly; then I added on jazz modern, and gymnastics... At university, I tried my hand at choreography. But actually, I really just loved to move, being intellectually creative with my body wasn't what I sought.

When I came to Arles and started seeing Erick, we had a couple occasions and parties where we were able to dance. He liked dancing 'le rock', the favored dance of the French, but, hated my way of dancing -- separate but together, facing each other but doing your own thing. Either le rock or nothing. He'd leave the dance floor whenever he didn't like the music -- which was unfortunately way too often for me. Then, if I tried to continue dancing in my own way, I'd get unwanted attention from various men, married or not. It was very frustrating. However, our dancing opportunities were few, the ever rarer wedding bash, and then life, kids, etc., got in the way and dance fell out of my life completely. Years went by and my past life as a lover of dance was just that.

And here we are in the present. I bought Jean Paul An American in Paris the other day, and we watched it together during the past week's winter vacation. He'd never seen Gene Kelly dance. I, raised by a mother who adores all those wonderful Hollywood classics, was emphatic that he had to experience this American love letter to Paris, and watch one of the world's most fun cinematic dancers (next up, Singing in the Rain and the Gene Kelly duet with Cyd Charisse). He was amused by the romance, the kitsch, the nostalgia for a Paris that is no longer. I liked re-visiting the characters, the good American who is honest, energetic, optimistic, joyous, naive and enthusiastic. Anything is possible, if you want it enough.... We both enjoyed the romantic couple's dance between Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron down by the Seine, so smooth, so lovely, the push and pull, she sinking back into his embrace.

I can't deny that part of Jean Paul's charm is that he loves to dance. Long before there was anything between us, he told me about his tango lessons, and then his swing and salsa lessons and I listened avidly. When he later told me of his weak ankles and that he'd given up dancing due to them, I was dreadfully sorry. Why he asked? And here I taught him the English word "vicarious"; I'd been enjoying living the life of a dancer vicariously through him.

But happily, the ankle is better (if not perfect), and from the moment we started going out, we've been dancing together. I am re-born to a distant part of me. For too many years now I'd hidden away from myself how much I loved to move, how much I adore rhythm, and sensing each part of my body flow to the music. Now, if not weekly, then quite often we go out to dance. It might be Salsa, Swing or Tango, or le rock, always a good fallback. Salsa is pretty easy, swing can be terribly hard to do well, and tango... well, we're taking classes together by absolute necessity. You don't just dance tango.

When I first attempted to, I was simply two left feet stumbling over each other, no matter my past dancing history and my current yoga practice. It was hard. Jean Paul would try to teach me some basics, and then suffer through my stubbing toes and my insecurities, and nervousness. And I was hyper-conscious that it wasn't much fun for him, that he was being stoic and patient (he's had over five years of tango lessons). On top of all this, I'd never really done any couples' dancing, and learning to follow his lead, no matter the dance, was still a new skill for me.

A year since I was first introduced to this complicated art, it's finally getting easier. I am still at the stage of refining how to be on my axe and how to hold lightly to my partner (yet be chest to chest close too), how to stay longer on the standing leg and allow the free leg to be freer. Over and beyond these basics, I'm getting better at being attentive to the signals of my partner, and to move gracefully, fluidly from step to step... or wait till the signal is clearer.

Oh, and yes, for a shoe-aholic tango is awesome. Imagine, you get to draw your feet, fine tune their measurements, send them by email to a far-distant shop in Buenos Aires, and two months later, get a marvelous personalized package in the mail. The more outrageous and colorful the style, the better... So far, I've kept this shoe lust in check: I've only two pairs. But, the temptation for more is there...

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