In a dark corner of the lobby, late Saturday night at City of Angels, an unusually candid discussion took place.
You know Saturday nights at an event. By then you’ve been through 4am pizzas, your roommates’ toothpaste-dribble on the faucet, you’ve avoided the wall of finals sheets together, you’ve shared routines, triumphs, epic failures. You’ve laughed, gossiped, cried, told secrets.
By Saturday night you feel like you’re among friends – you remember that sometimes our little fishbowl of a dance world almost feels like family.
The best conversations happen on Saturday night, which is what happened at City of Angels on the couches outside the ballroom. First a few friends chatting about stuff which turned into honest chatting about Real Stuff. People walking by would stop to listen – be mesmerized – stay –
And what started as a few grew, and grew, until 60 people were crowded on couches and floor listening, asking questions, and telling stories, lots of stories told by the people who were in the stories.
I wasn’t there. I missed it, up in my room writing. I said aughghgh why didn’t you call me down or text shoot I would have loved to have been there daggnabbit.
They said it wasn’t like that, it was spontaneous, it wasn’t a “thing.” It just sort of happened. It arose, real organic, no one knew how long it might go on.
Like around a campfire.
Sunday morning I ran around asking everyone what happened down there? why does everyone look like they had a Mystic Revelation in the Desert?
Parker was there.
Also Brandi and Robert Royston.
PJ and Tashina, Ben and Tatiana, Andrews Opyrchal,/Sunada/Vogel, Warren and Yenni.
Mike Carringer, Kristen Humphrey, Tony and Larisa, John Lindo, Matt Auclair, Tessa,
Eric Jacobson, Isabelle, Jérome Subey,
Arthur Michelle Bobby Tara Allie Dan Dave Suzanne ….
They say the talk rambled, one subject to another, like conversations around a fire when you have nowhere to go and the night is long.
Talk about Allstars …
Do they get respect?
People call them snobs.
Monday Morning Facebook Flashers.
Used-car salesman, overcharging, voracious opportunistic predators, preying on new dancers like schools of barracudas with spiky fangs for teeth, pointy heads, and under-bites.
What do Champions think of them?
What does everbody else think of them?
Feels like a growing dislike of the swarms of new pros with “a few slots left in my schedule;” all that endless tacky self-promotion taking over newsfeeds.
All those self-appointed teachers popping up everywhere, cannibalizing each other’s students and workshops, showing up on judging panels with no clue what they’re doing, all the old-timers having to clean up wholesale misinformation and atrocious technique.
Their snobbery, their cliques, their sense of unearned entitlement, huddling together in packs acting all gross and show-offy like Next Big Things.
Sucking-up like their lives depend on it, refusing dances with the riff-raff, bunch of desperate climbers and opportunists using the dance community to become a Somebody.
Is this stuff true, all this griping about Allstars?
If it’s true, what does that say? Are we as a community spawning a colony of Narcissists?
People answered that it didn’t use to be this way. Things were different. There used to be a cameraderie, a feeling of respect for each other, support.
Stories of the Open, in the days of the Disneyland Hotel, how they’d be out in front of Goofie’s kitchen, boom-box balanced on a little brick wall covered with plants, taking turns running routines on the tile floor, cheering and jeering, laughing and giving each other a hard time.
Today it’s “every man for himself” – everybody competing for placements on the dance floor, staff positions at events everywhere all over the place.
In the old days (dance-year “old days” = 10+ years ago) the community was smaller.
The number of pros then – well, there was the “Great Eight.” Then there was the “Nifty Nine” because nine is all the pros there were. Debbie, Carlito, Ramiro, Sharlot, Avner, Mario, Lance, Mary Ann …
Years later 16 pros.
Then 20 for a while. Total, that means. There were 20 pros total, in the world.
Nothing like today with tens of thousands of minnows swimming around calling themselves pros.
The circuit was smaller, too. (I remember Hutch bragging in 1997 “We’ve gotten so big we have an event every single month!” He was talking about the entire west coast community.)
Then came the internets, and those first west coast swing Ferdinand Magellans venturing out to teach across the world, and everything exploded and now we are picky and educated consumers.
In the old days you went to whatever was offered, like when there used to be one channel on television and everbody watched it.
It was easier, the social aspects were easier. A dysfunctional hot mess, but easier somehow.
The events themselves weren’t smaller – in fact they were bigger than events today with all these choices. The Open would sell out in two weeks – by December you couldn’t get a ticket for next year. 1,100 people would attend the Open. 1,500 would be at Phoenix. (I remember years when Phoenix was sold out over a year in advance.)
These are the real actual numbers, by the way. They know these numbers because of hotel fire codes. They’d always sell 100 more tickets than allowed, planning for no-shows.
When you ask “How big was it? How many people?” what you really want to know is How many on Saturday night? At the high point, how many people were in the ballroom?
Some Event Directors – nobody we know – inflate their numbers, counting people twice, thrice, or even quadrice or quintice.* Then voila! their event looks super humongous!
One time Genieboy entered Masters, Sophisticated, and Advanced Jack and Jills in west coast, hustle and salsa. That’s nine competitions. He did Strictlys in each too. Nine more! He also did the All-American in each – three more. Plus the Triple Threat (that’s the Jack and Jill where you don’t know which dance you’ll get and sometimes they go ADHD on you and change music mid-song from Xanax west coast to Methamphetamine salsa, which those of us sitting down enjoy a lot.)
That weekend Genieboy thought he’d finally died and floated up to Competition Heaven. If you counted him in his 22 competitions he was almost enough to qualify as a sanctioned wsdc event all by himself.***
***two more like Genieboy and the three of them, all by themselves, would constitute the wsdc requirement for 60 contestants. Okay that’s a disturbing visual.
*there’s no such thing as quadrice. Or quintice.
And mentoring. Mentoring was huge.
If you were lucky or determined you’d be under the wing of one of the Greats – coaching, learning the ropes, getting guidance in how to make it the wcs world. How to be the best dancer you could be, competitor, teacher, coach, leader, how to be great. You’d be “brought along,” introduced, made a big deal of, pushed, tutored.
The culture of mentoring fostered, or was based on, respect that went in both directions – respect for the greatness of the mentor, respect for the potential of the student.
Not much mentoring today.
There was talk of bringing it back, how to reawaken the respect for community elders and luminaries, the pride and ownership of newcomers.
Parker talked of going to watch the great dancers practice, wanting to be there just to watch them work. How to work on a routine, how to practice alone in a studio. You went to workshops back then, every workshop you could, soaking up every morsel, learning how to teach, what to say, what not to say, how to say it. And you worked on your own dancing, you never stopped working and getting coaching, you couldn’t practice enough.
Robert said Kyle and Sarah – the year they won the Open – they attended EVERY workshop offered that weekend, the whole weekend long.
Today’s Allstars, they said, even Advanced dancers, they don’t take workshops, you never see them at a workshop. They don’t take privates. They think they’ve made it, nothing left to learn from a workshop or other teachers.
Parker said “I practice every day.” All the Champions said yes of course! We practice every day, of course! Always struggling to improve. Lessons, always more lessons, coaching, cross training, ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip hop. The work never ends. It’s about perspiration.
“But there’s a Glass Ceiling. We hit Allstars and there’s nowhere to go. We can’t get into Champions, we’ll never get in, Champions don’t respect us.”
“You want our respect? Then you need to earn it by showing respect. You need to know your stuff.
“Do you know our history? The influences that shaped our dance? The evolution of the style of our dance? Our connection with Lindy, with the roots of the dance?
“You need to know the personalities that steered and moved this dance. The key figures in the community, our pillars, past and present. You need to know our history – Lance, Mary Ann, Kenny, Ramiro, Festa, Charlie and Jackie, Mario, Barry.
“You need to know the changes in music over the years, how that affected the dance. The eras. Influences from the wider world like how YouTube and social media have influenced the dance in recent years.
“You need to know all that, and respect it, and show that respect in your dancing, your teaching, and your behavior.”
“We have a Culture of Storytelling.
“To know our dance you need to learn our stories.”
They asked, “What’s the difference between us Allstars, and you Champion dancers? What do we need to work on?”
“Quality of movement! That’s why Europe is blowing us away in the US, other places around the world close behind. You’ve stopped working on quality of movement.
“And find your own style. You ask what’s the difference between Champions and Allstars? Each Champion looks unique. There is only one Sarah, one Benji, Mary Ann, Lindo.
“You Allstars are all mimicking each other. Copying each other’s tricks, moves, styles. You’re like a school of fish, we can’t tell you apart. You’re good dancers – you pick things up in a flash, but maybe that’s your problem. You all change direction together, like a school of herring. That’s what you are, one big school of herring. So many and you all look the same. Same jokes on the dance floor, same clothes, maybe you all have the same personalities. You need to find your own unique styles otherwise you’re forgettable.
“And don’t blow your own horn. Be good enough that other people will blow your horn for you. Don’t be cocky, don’t pretend to know what you don’t. Don’t try to be a big fish, just try to be a better dancer. Be a student, never stop being a student.”
I wasn’t at this great Campfire, like I said.
If I had been I might have said that I feel sorry for Allstars.
Because they’re good people too. They’re us.
And how are you supposed to start a business as a west coast swing teacher? You have to let people know you’re available somehow. How are you supposed to do that without looking like a school of pointy-headed barracudas?
And what about your day job? You’re supposed to work full time, attend events on weekends, do routines, teach all those students who never heard of you, and attend every workshop like they did in the old days. Also go find Champions to watch them practice. And practice yourself, every day, like Champions. And take lessons from Champions, and also lessons in ballet, modern, and Latin.
And also pay for all of this.
Not to mention explaining to your boyfriend, wife, or kids, who used to think you were normal.
All the while being stared at like you’re in a fishbowl. Which you are in the west coast community because everybody sees everything, never underestimate the ability of humans to know exactly what you’re up to since we’re pretty much hard-wired with radar for scrutinizing and judging the behavior of other humans, antennae in the back of our heads, a keen ability perfected over hundreds of thousands of years in order to survive among other hare-brained humans, to always know who’s on top, who’s on the bottom, the pecking orders, alliances, the has been’s and the wannabe’s. In other words, we never really leave high school.
You might think you’re invisible, hiding back there in the dark of that crowded ballroom. You’re not. Everybody sees you. Everybody sees everything. We are all in a fishbowl.
So the poor Allstars – they’re an easy mark. Trying to move from amateur to pro, trying to make a living at it, scrambling to create a reputation and name for themselves, get a fan base, a customer base.
Having to sell themselves in public.
Talk about ingrained DNA – even cavemen disliked salesmen. And what cavemen disliked most was people trying to move up the ladder, especially if they were aiming for aristocracy (“Champions”) trying to leave the bourgeoisie (“The Rest Of Us”) behind. We are not fond of social climbers.
Pity the Allstars who have to do all their business in public, under the laser-like scrutiny of the public eye. They are the division with the challenge of gaining not only the respect, but the friendship of those who might be their students.
And also –
Win the respect – and friendship – of the current Champions.
Because in order to become a Champion you have to be welcomed in to the Champion division.
Because in our world Champions is a the only level not attained by points but rather by overall community recognition of a dancer’s unique “status” in our social structure, our not so small anymore fish bowl, not only as a uniquely talented dancer but as a uniquely talented person.
What those “unique talents” are exactly I have no idea. It’s a collective-unconscious kind of a thing. Maybe charisma? Grace, kindness, humor, sportsmanship, brains, savvy? Who knows maybe none of those things.
Maybe just the pointiest head.
Whatever the qualities it’s a “know it when I see it” kind of a thing that makes a Champion in our world, makes all us other fish decide to swim behind that one.
So much talked about that Saturday night, so much more than just the “Allstar Dilemma,” like it may seem from what I’ve written here. Stories, stories, a night of stories, funny and sad and revealing and beautiful. So much more – I heard about it all day Sunday, all night Sunday night, and in so many conversations since.
But this Update has gotten much longer than Genieboy says anyone with ADD will ever read. So I am stopping writing.
Will there be another Campfire Chat?
Everyone who was there wants to do it again.
Some said do a workshop! At the next event! Call it “West Coast History 101!”
Mrs. Bloomquist’s seventh-grade history class! I can’t wait!
Parker says no, this is a magic thing, it can’t be planned. Has to happen spontaneously, organically, when it feels right, when the moment presents itself. When the right people happen to be together at a comp, when they have the time. It has to be informal. Barry Jones should be there.
There will be another Campfire Chat – it’s on everyone’s minds.
So keep your ears open – keep asking, checking the grapevine, word of mouth.
Will it be a Saturday night? In a lobby? Around a pool, by the firepits? Corner of the ballroom, in the dark? Hotel restaurant? Bar?
Keep your ears open. You want to be there.
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