Monday, March 28, 2016

How my journey of dancing began

I wrote the following four years ago, intended only for my own record. Now, however, I wondered if anyone would like to know a story of being a baby dancer. When I was drawn into dancing, I was pretty amazed that I would do such activity. After all, I do not identify myself as an artistic or athletic person. Now, I still think that growing from a baby dancer to an intermediate dancer is a challenge. Most of them will just feel dancing is fun, and move on to their other parts of lives. I guess dancing just fit the needs for my life around that time! Now, I still have inertia to do it.

Thus, I copied here what I wrote four years ago almost in full. I deleted some texts that detract the main idea of this writing: how I was drawn into dancing. I knew that as I had more experience in dancing, I would somewhat forget how a beginner dancer might feel. Thus, I wrote this four years ago to make sure I had a more or less authentic record on my experience as a beginner.

So, it began from a summary of my undergrad life:
Prologue: Before there was dancing

Finally, my five years of study in the University of Michigan had ended.

Looking back, the life in the last five years went well.  I made friends from Hong Kong, U.S., and elsewhere, and we had meals together quite frequently.  There were several trips across the U.S., including trips to Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and even Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.  I learned how to do bowling and tried disc golf.  It was also the time that I started to go to church, even though I was not a devout Christian.  My experience in religion told me to be cautious of being intimate with a religion.  Nevertheless, church was a place where people were bonded together.  There were some people in churches that were a generation older than I am, and I was happy to talk to them.  Of course, American football in the Michigan’s Big House could not be missed!

These years I also understood what “we will always be friends” means.  Since the summer of 2002, I left Hong Kong and went to the U.S.  The stay in the U.S. started from a year of high school exchange program, and then the undergraduate study in the University of Michigan.  After that, I could only go back to Hong Kong a couple of months per year.  Before I left, there was a girl called Sophie that I contacted a lot during secondary school.  I still remembered the days when we walked to school together.  After I got into the University of Michigan, we still kept in touch frequently.

Then, in my final year in the University of Michigan, I was shocked to learn that she had a boyfriend and she typed “nevertheless, we will always be friends”.  Somehow, I also felt that I saw the same line from her in the past before.  When I asked about this matter to some church friends, I learned what “just friends” meant, and I will not forget what that meant.

This was also the time when my mom recommended me to watch a famous comedy, “When Harry Met Sally (1989)”.  One of the famous lines from that movie is Harry’s “men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”, but Sally did not think so.  I also read a blog discussing on this line, and I learned that how men and women think differently in terms of friendship with opposite sex.  Then, I was thinking about the “just friends” matter.  Could we really be friends?  By that time my answer was “I hoped we could, but it was too hard to do in your case”. So I wished I could forget about her.

After getting admitted to the University of Illinois for my Ph.D. study that gave me enough financial support, I learned about the Hong Kong Student Association.  There was an orientation in Hong Kong before I got to Chambana, and I met new people and learned about Chambana life.  At that moment I also noticed the church group for Hong Kong students in Chambana, which allowed me to meet a lot of Hong Kong people.   At the orientation, I noticed a girl who talked about Illinois life.  She seemed to find my conversation interesting, which sparked my interested to learn about church, so she talked to me about church more. 

This opened a new page in my life at the University of Illinois and perhaps I could see more testimonies from church people after getting into this network at the orientation.  However, I could not see that after four years in Illinois.  Instead, my testimony ironically turned to dancing, especially partnered dancing.

Chapter 1: How dancing began

Welcome to the cornfield desert!  On an August day, the airport shuttle took almost 3 hours to get from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana (aka Chambana), Illinois.  Chambana can be considered as an oasis within the cornfield desert.  Between Chambana and Chicago, there is only wide open flat land and nothing else.

After working on items that were essential for living (e.g. finding an apartment), I went to the Illini Union often to watch the Olympic Games in Beijing, 2008.  The opening and closing ceremonies were spectacular. At this moment, I was thinking about how to cope with Sophie, the girl that I was interested since secondary school.  I thought I should move on.  There are always interesting people and events in life.  Friendship and relationship were still intriguing and unfathomable topics to me.

School still had not started yet, so I walked around the new campus to familiarize myself.  In that moment I thought the setting of the town was like University of Michigan.  Some chain restaurants in Michigan also appeared in Illinois.

Near the Illini Bookstore, I saw a lot of posters on salsa dancing classes.  Later, I found that these posters were everywhere, including my new office in Newmark Building, which is for Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  Part of these flyers said “beginner salsa… no partner is necessary and no dress code”.

Partner dancing!  That could be a fun thing to do.  I remembered the day way back in secondary school, where part of the PE lessons was to learn how to dance.  Usually, boys and girls were separated in PE classes, but dancing classes were exceptions.  In one year, the teachers showed us some partner dancing, and the entire class roared.  In the following weekly classes, we learned how to “triple step, triple step, rock step”, and how to do several moves.  I really enjoyed that class to my soul. I was thinking after these crazy dancing for several weeks.

Then after the junior year of my undergrad, I was in a month-long geological camp in Jackson, Wyoming.  While daytime was classes, nighttime was usually filled with activities.  There was one night for foosball competition, another night for talent show, and then one night there was introduction to swing dancing.  The class was fun, since the beat “step, step, rock step” came back to my mind.  At that moment, I still thought swing dancing was really fun.

Now, I was in my first year in University of Illinois (U of I), with nobody that I knew around.  After school started, I had to help out a field campaign to obtain research data in Colorado Springs.  I enjoyed the work during this month of September.  After the field campaign, however, life went slowly and I did not have much to do for the research work.  Therefore, I started to find some recreational stuff to do.  I got a Netflix account and started watching different movies.  As I watched more and more movies, I felt that I only did one-man activity and did not have any interaction with people.

This was when partner dancing came to my mind.  Partner dancing is social, plus I can meet different girls.  What a nice thing to do to ease my mind about Sophie.

It was also a time when I picked up the movie “Shall We Dance”.  I watched the American version first.  The movie gave me a first impression on how learning ballroom dancing looked like and how outsiders looked at ballroom dancing.  Later on, I was told that the original Japanese version of the movie was much better, so I watched the Japanese version as well.

Moreover, in October, I saw a dance competition at the Illini Union by chance.  It looked like dancing with music was fun.

All of these brought me to attend Dancing Illini’s classes for the first time.  I read a poster about their new session of classes, and I decided to take “Salsa and Night Club Two Step”.  This began my dance life in U of I, which was on November. I found the dance classes enjoyable and I practiced at home and in my office whenever I had time.  Each week, there were some new moves that looked challenging at first, but then I managed to execute them.  Furthermore, I thought the instructors were awesome. 

Here were some memorable lines heard in my first dance class:

·         Thank your partner and rotate.
·         Introduce yourself to each other.
·         Women in 90% of time are right.  So do not blame the follower (assume all followers are women)
·         Now you’ve learned XYZ moves.  Leads, try to mix up X, Y, and Z.  Follows, try to not expect what the lead will do next.

The last line was what I liked about partner dancing.  Such dancing was about non-verbal communications.  Signals needed to be made clear so that the followers knew what to do.  At the end of my first partner dance class, I learned this kind of signaling and reacting to the signals is called “lead-and-follow”.  I loved this, since what I liked about partner dancing in the two occasions in the past (secondary school and the camp in Wyoming) was also something about signaling.  Therefore, the concept of lead-and-follow was one of my fundamental dance philosophies.  During that class, I had many opportunities to explore the numbers of combinations of moves.

By that time, I only considered partner dancing as a hobby – something fun to do after school, and never thought of being serious to it.  The true drivers that led me to get more involved with the Dancing Illini were two events after the final session of the dance class.

The first one was graduation dance, an event after the conclusion of the Dancing Illini classes.  I was sheepish in signing up for this event, since this event brought me to the Regent Ballroom for the first time, and I was nervous on what to dress.  On the other hand, such experience might be worthwhile, and in the end, I signed up for it.

It was early December.  There were only two people in my class who signed up for the graduation dance.  However, there were many other people that I did not know. That night in the ballroom was one of the most memorable moments.  I met a female PhD student who was in the same department as mine.  She was in Dancing Illini for quite a while, and she asked me to dance to a few songs.  The problem was: I had only learned salsa and night club two-step.  In the Regent Ballroom, there was a song schedule that showed what kind of dance was next.  The dances can be the following: Waltz, Tango, Quickstep, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Samba, Swing, Polka, Salsa, Merengue, Night Club Two-Step, West Coast Swing, and Hustle.  Therefore, I thought I would sit most of the time, since I did not know most of the dances.  However, that PhD student was nice to show the basic steps for some of the dances.  I learned something like “Rumba is Cha Cha without the Chas” and “Merengue is the easiest dance because it involves just stepping with the two feet”.  The basics for swing once again brought me back the memory.

There also existed the following situation.  After I danced with this PhD student, a Dancing Illini instructor named Ron asked me “how do you think about your (dance) partner?”  I said, “Pretty good”.  He then said, “I think you mean your partner is both pretty and good!”  Nice line, Ron.

After this graduation dance, I realized that there were so many dances to learn.  This led me to taking many dance classes in Spring 2009.  At the end of this dance event, I learned the name of the PhD student to be Amanda.  Because of her kindness in showing me of the different dances, I thought I would pass on what I knew to the newer dancers when I had danced longer and learned more moves.

The second event was about one to two weeks after the graduation dance.  That was another dance event in Urbana post office building (Independent Media Center).  Once again, it was a mixture of ballroom and nightclub dances, which I did not know most of them.  There I met some of the student board members of the Dancing Illini besides the instructors.  I thought they were very nice people to hang out with.  A guy called Peter looked like a good dancer, and he looked very sociable.  There was also another attractive female fellow sitting opposite to the Dancing Illini board group, and I danced with her once, and learned that her name was Christen.  It turned out that she was one of the influential people in the Chambana dance scene.

After the 2008 Christmas in Hong Kong and coming back to Chambana, it was the beginning of my thirst for dance classes.  I started learning Cha Cha, Swing, Tango, and West Coast Swing at the same time.  I continued to meet frequently with the Dancing Illini board member.  Besides Peter, I also met Allison, Colleen, Scott, Chris, and many other awesome people that came to the classes regularly. While the classes were in the basement of the McKinley Foundation, there was some other music at the second floor of the McKinley Foundation, so we checked them out after the dance classes.  The Swing Society, another dance club at the University of Illinois, played swing music every Thursday at this place.  Since I had good impression of swing in the past, I stayed there to watch people dancing even though I did not remember much about swing moves.

Then, after the first session of Spring 2009 dance classes, I went to Swing Society for a swing class in the next session.  Meanwhile, I took more West Coast Swing class, as well as intermediate Cha Cha, Waltz, Quickstep, and Viennese Waltz.  In intermediate Cha Cha, I experienced my first class with Dancesport people, and I began to see dancing more than lead-and-follow.  It was also about techniques.  My first impression was that the class was boring, but I would try to open my mind to these techniques.  West Coast Swing continued to awe me because it has a lot of lead-and-follow, and it can be danced with contemporary music (e.g. Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, etc.).  By that time, I heard for the first time that the 8-count basic of West Coast Swing, known as a whip, looked like a swingout in lindy hop.  That was my first time I heard about lindy, due to the realization of swing dancing historical lineage.

At the end of the Dancing Illini classes, there was an election for choosing the next year’s board members.  I was with my dance friends and got into the board.  I had to deal with the dance competition in October 2009.

I did not experience the classes from the two salsa groups in campus until 2009 summer.  However, those salsa classes introduced a lot of moves to me, and I felt challenged to learn them.

This was the time when I was very happy about partner dancing.  This was not only about the new moves, but also new people that I made friends with.  I also learned about the history of each group.  One story in my mind was when Yuri, who was one of the instructors in salsa group, told me about a much bigger Dancing Illini in the past, and how salsa, swing, and dancesport group broke up from Dancing Illini and formed their own groups.

There was a line that I still remembered: when I feel that I am out of moves, think if I can bring moves from the other dances, since the move in one dance may be able to be performed in another dance.  This line still applies to me today.  By doing observations about similarities of these partner dances, there seems to be universal rules that can be applied to all dances.  In the past, I thought all dances have similar hand hold for open and close positions.  All dance moves’ lead is not only through the legs, but also by the body.  Later, I found all moves should be executed as smooth as possible, even in dances with pulse (pulse is vertical, while smoothness is horizontal) or those dances with rise and falls (e.g. Waltz and Quickstep).  The dance etiquette for all of the dances seem similar.  For example, both Dancing Illini and Swing Society classes mentioned that one can turn down a dance with another person with good reason (and should not be done often), but one should not dance for the rest of that song.
This concludes my first year's dance experience in Chambana. After reading this that was written four years ago, I still feel that I owe these people thanks for making dance scene a happy place in my first year in this place. If I were born to a dance scene at another time, I might not stay at dance scenes for this long.

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