My adventures in dancing continued tonight when I went to Beardley’s Swing Dancing class, for beginners at 7:00, at the Peninsula Italian American Social Club on North B street in San Mateo. Ex-West coast swing dancing champion (1983, 1985, 1990, 1992)* Phil introduced the six people in our beginner class to three of the 10 basic steps.
Phil also informed me that what I thought of as swing, was actually East Coast Swing (with my apologies to Richard Powers because I’m sure he made that clear at the time), and that, he wasn’t there to judge if it was better or worse than West Coast, which they did at Beardley’s and had been doing there for 32 years. He, in fact, had danced (also with much success) East Coast swing before he’d, let’s just say, crossed over. Phil was a trim man, about 5’5″, wearing a rather loud shirt with an American flag on it (that matched Ed’s, the intermediate teacher), a diamond stud in his left ear and a gold chain. Did I mention he had raced motorcycles at one point? He did.
Phil taught us three different steps, which we repeated a lot during the hour, until they became second nature, which is how you want dance steps to be–in the memory of the muscles. He expertly counted out time and explained the moves. When I was curious about how to get back to my partner after the push-back he told me, I didn’t need to worry about yet. Not to worry. I had a long way to go.
One of the great thing about dancing with a random group of strangers is getting into the weird and wonderful world of humans-not-yourself, or even people you would ever get to know. People not familiar, and yet connections are made. There’s the moment where you and some overweight sixty year old with gaps in his teeth are balancing at the perfect resistance for the push back, or the disco instructor is counting aloud with Phil, or Neil, who is more advanced and just subbed in for a minute, moves his hips in such a way that you, eureka, realize the reason of those extra three beats and stomps in place. And all the women are wearing anklets, something you were just thinking about for yourself.
The space was a large, low ceilinged hall with both painted beams in squares and that cheap office-building style checkerboard ceiling, in the centers of the squares. A chandelier, hanging in the center was covered in plastic. The feeling was warm (although the air condition was blasting) and friendly and as people started to fill up the large space for the nine o’clock dance party, you could see there was a real old school community here.
I had noticed when I came in a very old man in a red shirt and black pants with a patch over one eye. He was very slight, and he sat waiting with us before the class began. A short way into the dance party, where us beginners practiced our few known steps with the variously more advanced group, the music stopped and Phil announced that it was Pat’s 92nd birthday and that you could find him at most of the Wednesday night swing parties. They wheeled out a cake with candles which Pat couldn’t blow out by himself. Holding the hand of a woman, Pat limped out to the middle of the now empty dance floor and the music started. It was jazzy version of Happy Birthday and Pat began to dance–graceful of body and joyous of spirit–as woman after woman cut in and danced with him.
It was five minutes of sweet celebration. And all the things you might say about community, life, friendship, or the power of dance were silenced by a man, in a red shirt, getting loose, twirling his partner on the dance floor, and bending a now nimble knee in time with the music.
* I may not have remembered these championship dates exactly right.