This year was year 10 for Austin Blues Party. I’ve been to nearly half of them. Austin Blues Party has a special place in my heart because it was my first blues event, but it also has retained that place in my heart and grown as the people that run the event and participate at the event have proved to me, time and time again, that blues can both strive to teach proper aesthetic and at the same time be a big damn party. Since this was such a great occasion to do so, I decided I would think back to my first ABP and discuss what I learned from looking back and what I learned here at ABP10, five years later.
ABP6 was my first blues dance event I ever went to, and I was probably only three months into learning about partner dancing. So naturally, I felt I needed to rely on others to give me a feel for both how I should go about participating in the event and what constituted blues in a national scene. I quickly found out how little I knew about blues and was excited to learn more, but I also found out that it’s important that I run my own damn self.
My friends I went to the event with dictated to me that I must only take fundamentals classes; they would go to the higher track classes and we would all get videos and share them with the community when we got back. But since they weren’t going to take the fundamentals track, someone had to, and since I was the newest to the community, that meant me. I could learn about the classes that were all levels that I was interested in from them when I got back to Utah.
While I definitely was interested in some of the fundamentals track classes, there were classes that I really wanted to take at were designated “all levels.” But the first day I did as my friends mandated and took all fundamentals classes no matter what my interest level in the topics. I did learn a lot, and I’m sure that I needed to learn it, but it was difficult for me to swallow that I was in there because I was told I had no other place or options. So after that night of dancing and being frustrated with my friends’ exclusion of me during social dancing, I determined that I wouldn’t let my friends tell me where I had to be for classes.
Once I made that decision, I’ll never forget what happened. I took an all levels musicality class with Dexter Santos and Heidi Fite. They were focusing on lines and how we utilize different parts of our body to create them in dance, and how we could utilize this in our blues. They encouraged us to explore our body movement and not worry so much about how good it looked at that moment in time, but rather focus on what we could do, later looking to how to make it look how we needed or wanted it to look.
As I was dancing, one of my friends came up to me and said, “You know, the instructors are pointing at you. They’re watching you. You should probably stop moving like that. You don’t want to be noticed for what you’re doing.”
I couldn’t believe he’d say that. Didn’t I want instructors to pay attention to me and help me? Wasn’t I encouraged to explore? Even though I respected my friend, I made what was probably the most important decision about my dancing that would affect the way I dance blues forever: I decided I wasn’t going to listen to people telling me that I wasn’t worth noticing and that I shouldn’t explore movement and new ideas. I’d spent several years of my life in an abusive relationship being told I didn’t matter and wasn’t worth noticing, that I had no talent and couldn’t learn, and I wasn’t going to let it continue into dance, the very format I’d chosen to try and break free of such oppression.
I felt like I learned a lot about blues that Sunday, but it wasn’t as much about dancing the dance itself as it was about why I dance.
Jump forward five years. I’ve worked incredibly hard and consistently to be able to gain the skill level I currently have in blues, especially considering the few resources for blues dance and music information in my area. Funny thing is, I’ve come to learn that really, the fundamentals are nearly always what I’m focusing on to get better. Private lessons, fundamentals classes, and intensive track classes have taught me that. I have friends from all over the nation, even some international friends, that I met dancing and I love to dance with and talk with when I see them. Because this is Austin Blues Party’s 10th year, I am going to get to see a great number of these people.
But I also know this means that I’m really going to have to step up my game if I want to make the intensive track. So many of my friends and others I don’t yet know are fantastic dancers, and I’m certain most of them who are auditioning for the intensive lessons will make the track. I’ve got some stacked competition to be in. How could I possibly make it into intensives this year?
This isn’t jealousy at others’ talent, as some may start to think here. Honestly, my brain still goes back to what I’ve been told in the past: I’m not worth noticing; I’ll never match up to those who do the same things as me because I can never learn enough to be good; I should just fade into the background and let people who actually know what they’re doing represent.
I start to let my value as a human being hinge on my abilities in comparison to where others are at. It’s so tied with my fear of never being good enough to achieve anything worthwhile or worth noticing that it can be hard for me to kick myself into gear and just try to accomplish something small, like stepping forward and saying hi to an instructor I haven’t formally met yet or hugging an instructor I’ve taken lessons from for years before I audition.
But you’ve been dancing for five years and worked your ass off to get where you’re at! What’s the issue? I know. Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, that’s all.
I was genuinely surprised, and relieved, that I made intensives. When I got in classes, I was challenged in every one I took in some way. And it was great, because everyone in the room was also working on something in their dance, and we were helping each other along. I always seem to forget how friendly these classrooms are, and that if I’m struggling with a concept, people are there to help and to struggle with me while we work it out together.
By the end of the first day of classes, I felt renewed. I’d hugged a lot of people I hadn’t seen in months, some over a year, and I had a blast dancing to a live band that evening.
Then Sunday came.
I knew I had to fly out before the Sunday dance, and I’d never had to do that before, but work and PhD studies required it of me this year. I was missing the end of the big damn party, and here I was, Sunday morning, and already sad about it, but trying to keep a good attitude and enjoy the day I had left.
Dan Repsch taught me a lot in a private lesson, and I was reminded how much fun I have learning in a one-on-one setting. About halfway through the lesson, he said in passing, “You’re a good dancer, so you’ll get this.” And I didn’t say anything for a variety of reasons, among them that I’m certain he engages with far better dancers than me. And he looked at me and said, with his hands on my shoulders, “You are a good dancer, even if you don’t know it yet.” Not long after that, I decided to accidentally choke on my own air intake, which I’m not sure who laughed harder at.
And then I hit a wall in classes. Mike Grosser and Ruth Evelyn’s class on footwork was amazing, but I was really struggling with getting certain movements in my feet. Understand that it took me nearly a year to be able to do tick tocks, and fancy footwork that requires more thought than tick tocks—well, it will continue to take me a long time, on my own, to be able to execute it. Still, I was insistent to myself that I not give up, that I keep trying. I went into internalization mode, where I don’t so much interact with people in the class because I’m trying to make sure that my brain will fully focus on the concepts even after I’m out of class. Sometimes I worry that this makes me seem frustrated (although that’s sometimes already true) and unapproachable as a dancer, but it is my method for consuming difficult (for me) information.
At the same time, another part of my brain was telling me that this class was proof I didn’t belong in with this group, that I should just leave and quit trying. Other people weren’t struggling as badly as I was. The “you’re not worth it” vibe ran strongly through my brain and body for about the second half of class, and I just couldn’t beat it.
And then Ruth noticed me. She’d been watching, and after class was over, she had individualized feedback for me to help me keep my body healthy as I dance. It’s been years since an instructor has done that for me in a non-private lesson format. Years. And it made me want to cry, because I remembered back to the first time an instructor noticed me at ABP and helped my dancing. I remembered when I told myself that it was okay to experiment and explore and not look great or be great at something, because that was what classroom time was for—growth.
Allergies, as fate would have it, determined that my eyes would already be watery and ready for waterworks as I took notes. I laughed inside at the irony that as I had managed to hold tears back from gratefulness and sadness, allergies would so kindly tell me where to stick that and they would manage the waterworks for me.
I was going to leave to go get food after I finished taking notes. I had yet to have any local Austin fare outside of Amy’s Ice Cream (nutmeg flavored ice cream is great, by the way!), and that bothered me. But as I was finishing up notes, Tim O’Neill, even though he was teaching class, came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you going to jump in?”
Noticed again. Invited in. Reminded that I am welcome.
I couldn’t decline, because I knew that if I didn’t stay, my brain would continue to beat itself up for human struggling. And Tim and Julie’s class was about a topic I was familiar with and had a lot of fun with despite being so tired after a full day of classes, learning, and mental strugglings. It was a fantastic ending, minus the lack of food.
Y’all, the people who make Austin Blues Party what it is, for me, are the people who understand that diversity in people, skill levels, and interests is what makes events fantastic. And the organizers understand that and foster that social, low key environment, even with so many amazingly skilled people in the room. As long as Austin Blues Party keeps this focus and feel, I will continue to support this event.
And as far as happy endings go, after classes, Jimmie Carter topped that off as he brought me Rudy’s BBQ to eat because he wanted to make sure I got at least one good dinner in Austin before I left. I can’t think of a better ending than that.