Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step, and the L.A. Night

Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step, and the L.A. Night

by Eve Babitz

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Overview

With the popularity of swing and social dancing at an all-time high, the author provides a provocative look at the hottest trend to sweep the nation. 10 line drawings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501111457
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 12/13/2014
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Table of Contents

Prologue: A Survivor's Tale
1. Fox-Trot with the Fabulous Johnny Crawford Band
2. Two-Step with Paul McClure
3. The Two Sides of Tango
4. Cajun Dancing and the Fais-Dodo: Laissez les bons temps rouler
5. Learning Ballroom Dance with the Amazing Stevens Sisters of Pasadena
6. Salsa with Albert Torres and Renée Victor
7. Tiffany Brown's East Coast Swing Class at the Hollywood Derby
8. Sonny Watson, the Crest, and West Coast Swing
Epilogue: The Finale and L.A. Now
Index

Introduction

Prologue: A Survivor's Tale A typical dance/relationship story in this day and age, in two once happy lives. Starring Laurie Pepper, my cousin, and her ex-boyfriend, Hugh.

Laurie Pepper, my cousin, was once married to jazzman Art Pepper, which was a piece of cake, really, compared to her new boyfriend, Hugh, and their crazy dance history.

"When did you start dancing?" I asked.

"I just looked it up, I thought it was longer ago, but I only started dancing in September of nineteen ninety-two, and I did it because my boyfriend, Hugh, wanted to learn how to mambo. God, had I but known!"

"Well, didn't people warn you that it was bad for relationships if one of you was really great and the other was, uh, like Hugh?"

"Nobody warned me at all, or if they did, I didn't hear them, I just thought it would be fun!" Her voice is filled with rue.

"How many different kinds of anonymous programs did you have to practice to get through this?" I joked. (You know, like AA, Al-Anon, and Debtors Anonymous.)

"I would love to do an analysis of the amount of money I've spent, because we've joked about it and we've said it was about ten thousand dollars -- but I don't think it's a joke, I think it might be more. On private lessons! It's not that expensive if you go to regular lessons, but unless you're really a good dancer to begin with...I had never danced at all in my whole life until, at the age of fifty-two, I went in to take dance lessons.

"So I went in as a complete novice, and if you do it that way, at that age, you cannot learn how to dance from group lessons. You just can't, I don't care what anyone says."

"That's why I always put 'free dance lessons' in quotes," I agree.

"Because what I wound up doing was buying a bunch of private lessons, and after a while I got so obsessed that my boyfriend and I couldn't dance together anymore because we were both so angry all the time."

"As I remember, you had to go to separate places, and he wouldn't go anywhere. And he was a terrible dancer."

"He was a terrible dancer -- and I found a guy who would practice with me. That was kind of an issue too. I never went so far as to buy private lessons with an individual other than Hugh, but things really got very rocky for a couple of years!"

"Yeah," I remembered, "and then he left you for another dancer!"

"Well, that was the only place he went, so how could he meet anybody but a dancer? You should talk to him about that because he is really very witty. In the story he tells, well, we broke up and then he met this other woman very quickly. He said the only reason he was able to get her was that the sound system at Sportsman's Lodge went out and there was silence so he was able to talk to her. That's how he got his next girlfriend; he would never have scored otherwise, certainly not as a dancer."

"Why is it that we want to do these things at this age that we can't do and we take it personally when everyone's so mean to us?"

"Evie, that's an unanswerable question," my cousin said, as we laughed about this and poured out diet peach iced tea.

Thinking it over, she said, "Well, first of all everything changes. Everything changes about you -- you eat differently, you dress differently, you think differently, and you assess people in terms of whether they can dance or not. Everything is geared toward the evening of dancing. And if you're really as insane as I think I was, you videotape every lesson so you can see how horrible you are!

"I used to videotape my practice sessions with Jerry. After two dances, we'd rewind the tape and look at ourselves, and we'd both moan. 'Oh, my shoulders, oh God, why don't I straighten my knee, oh, look at my feet, they're pointed out!' This was our entire conversation and then we'd get up and we'd try to do it again!"

"But you're both great dancers now," I mentioned, reminding her that Jerry had gone on to compete in salsa contests, and Laurie is fabulous -- everyone loves dancing with her.

"I became a pretty good dancer; Jerry became an excellent dancer -- that's the interesting thing. Hugh said it wouldn't hurt his feelings if you said he can't dance. But he looks like he can dance, because he's been asked by women to dance after they've seen him on the floor."

"Right," I said, "they don't know. But I like dancing with him, he's fun! Just because he's not on the two, what do I care?"

"Actually, when we went out on Friday, he danced quite well."

"He can dance the first three dances and then he gets tired, like me," I remind her, since I'm always leaving early, having gotten sated and tired."So then you went to Pasadena Ballroom Dance?" I prompted.

"Yeah, because it was easier. First I went to Let's Dance L.A., with many private lessons with Anna and Marlon. Then Anna and Marlon went to Amsterdam, and I decided I wanted dancing to be fun. I hated it; I had had too many lessons from Renée and I had learned to hate myself -- that's what you learn from Renée. I went to Pasadena Ballroom Dance because I wanted to learn the fox-trot and stuff, and at Let's Dance they didn't really concentrate on those things. So I went to Pasadena Ballroom Dance and I was a star there! I was a star because Renée had taught me how to follow and nobody else could follow."

"You weren't a star in Renée's eyes, but over there..."

"Over there I was a star and people would ask me where I'd been studying. I could give her the credit and say it was Renée, but I also began to enjoy it. Pasadena Ballroom changed my life because it made me feel like I was a good dancer, but the truth is that what's happened to me over time is that I don't like to go out dancing because I don't like dancing with drunks. I also don't like being criticized, but if I go to classes..."

"They don't criticize you in the fox-trot and cha-cha. They're perfectly nice!" I protested.

"But I don't like going out to clubs, I don't like waiting for someone to ask me to dance, so a class is much better. In a good class they'll rotate you every few minutes, you get a new partner. It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful -- and the good dancers and bad dancers alike have to dance with you."

"Right, Paul McClure's classes are like that; in his workshops you'd dance with the good and bad dancers."

"In some classes they don't rotate you and it drives me mad, because all the good male dancers want to dance with either a really good dancer or a really beautiful young girl. That lets us out."

"Yeah, that's true," I concede, "zese men, zey are pigs. The two-step is not like that, though; everyone's very nice. So then you went to Pasadena, but you've never been to one of their dances."

"I've never been to one of their Saturday-night dances because I'm afraid nobody would ask me to dance."

"No, they're fun, because everybody asks everybody else to dance and everybody's in such a euphoric state. They have a snowball: they have four people at the beginning of the evening, four couples who, when the music stops after a few bars, pick out eight people to dance with. When the music stops again, those people pick out sixteen people to dance with. Pretty soon everybody in the whole room is doing this huge waltz, and after that everybody dances all the time. You dance every dance with everybody there, and pretty soon you wind up wringing wet and saying 'no, thank you.'"

"God, how great," she says. "But the only thing is, I can't dance West Coast Swing."

"But they don't do great West Coast Swing at Pasadena Ballroom Dance."

"I know, but they don't know that, they have a good time anyway."

"It's hard to follow them because their moves are, like, wrong!"

"I know, I know, but they don't care and they don't know. They're very out of it that way."

"I love the way they do East Coast Swing; I could do that forever there."

"They do jitterbug and lindy hop too. They don't want to get too good at West Coast Swing because they're the king of the lindy hop, that's the mystique. Everyone thinks they try to make West Coast Swing look bad so everybody will do the lindy hop instead."

"They succeed."

"I think they just don't know how to do it, it's not something you can just learn. It's really hard. It's harder than salsa."

"It's a philosophy," I agree.

"It's harder than salsa. Have you seen that woman who teaches at Let's Dance L.A.? That little blond woman, she's terrific."

"I know a lot of incredibly great West Coast dancers, but you know, it's got so much torque in it. Every time I take a lesson, my knees hurt -- I think I'm too old," I said. "They sent me all this information, five pages, single-spaced on every page, and I want to put it in my book like that because it's so pedantic, like the dance itself. They're so crazy! They say it cannot be taught at Arthur Murray, and they must hate Pasadena Ballroom because of this, you know. So don't dance it over there, but they do everything else that's fun, they even have polkas."

"That's the one dance that I've done before that I know how to do."

"Yeah, they do polkas! They do wonderful waltzes, and everybody gets pretty tired out. That's Hugh's secret too, he just gets tired like I do, and most people who aren't dancers get tired after about an hour."

"Here's what happens to Hugh in the dance thing," Laurie said. "He goes out there and he's real nervous, so his first dance is not that great. By the end of the second dance, he's doing a lot better. The third dance is terrific, and the fourth dance is good. Then...that's it."

"Right, you have to practice for years and years and have incredible stamina. Most people can hardly dance by ten-thirty," I said, "except for the professionals. Maurice is so terrifically on the money at midnight; by one or two o'clock a.m. he is totally into the music; every dance is to the music."

"I don't think Renée gets tired," Laurie supplied.

"But Maurice, if he walks two blocks he's out of breath," I said. "Dancing is not the same as aerobic exercise, it's stop and go. But anyway, I just figure that everything will work out okay."

"At Pasadena Ballroom Dance, I was an absolute star. During the breaks people would ask me to dance. Through that practice I learned all the dances, and I really loved it! Then my knee went."

"I think anytime I get near West Coast Swing, my knee goes. I think there's a voodoo torque in that dance."

"There's a lot of torque," Laurie, who just had a knee operation this year because of West Coast, agrees. "It's much harder on the knees than salsa, you're constantly rotating your legs."

"Right," I agree, "so you have to be under twenty-five to do it."

"Except that it's so much fun, and it's my favorite music. The thing was that Hugh loved Latin music. Latin music never possessed me the way Aretha, Ray Charles, or country music does. I mean, I could sing along to some of those songs forever."

"'Black Velvet,'" I agree, a great West Coast Swing song.

"There's this incredible record, Evie, I bought it 'cause Bobby used to use it, called Taj Majal, Dancing to the Blues. Bobby Cordoba would play it to the class, and nothing will get me down when that music is playing, I can't not dance. If I fuck up I don't care because the music is so wonderful....Have you talked to Jerry lately?"

"Not for a long time. I heard that in his Phys Ed class in high school he's teaching dance class. He called me a couple of times, but I said, 'Oh, my knee, my knee, I'm waiting for my knee to get better,' and he gave up. I think he either stopped dancing or found another partner."

"His little Japanese girl is teaching salsa in Japan, and came in with Jerry for one or two lessons at Renée's, just to pick up some stuff."

"With her camcorder? She never says, 'Oh, my foot, oh, my shoulder, how horrible.'"

"Well, she hates herself equally."

"Oh, she does!"

"She hates herself in dance; to dance is to hate yourself."

"That's not true in two-step."

"It's true in salsa," she replies.

"It's true in salsa and tango, and it's true in West Coast Swing, but not as much because West Coast has that euphoria that comes from being counterweights. But the two-step is not about hating yourself at all, it's about modest good fun, ho, ho, ho."

"That's how Pasadena Ballroom Dance is!"

"That's right," I agree, "and that's why all the really fine teachers hate that place, because they say, 'Oh, you know, it's just a social thing.' And I'm wondering, do you want to get as good as they are so you can be antisocial?"

"That, in a nutshell, is it. 'It's just a social thing.' I finally get it! What those people are doing is for competition purposes. Those people, they're like Olympic athletes, and they want to compete! They start out as gymnasts and ballet dancers or in clown school and things."

"You came to In Cahoots with me once for two-step."

"I did!" she remembered. "Yes, they asked me to dance; this guy just dragged me out to the floor and just taught me....

Now that's really, boy, that is so incredible, because if you went into any salsa place and a guy came over and asked you to dance and you said, 'I've never done this before,' he'd say, 'Oh, sorry' and go over and ask somebody else. But this guy, at In Cahoots, comes up to me, and I say I've never done it before, and he says, 'Well, you've come to the right place.' Then he takes me out on the floor and teaches me how and pretty soon, he was twirling me!"

"That's right," I remembered. "Were you doing the two-step?"

"Right, Texas two-step," she remembered, "and he really twirled me, did things I've never done before -- backwards!"

"That's the easy one, that's why people like it."

"He started doing all sorts of tricks with me!"

"And you could follow."

"'Cause I could follow! Because of Renée!"

"They have classes for doing turns right. Paul McClure's hands are great."

Laurie went back to thinking about salsa, and she remembered recently going into a Salsa Two class somewhere. "I was watching this guy who was really more advanced than Salsa Two, and he was just practicing. He had that snooty expression that they get, where they won't even look at you. They're just practicing their own form and if you can't do it, fuck you. But he led me, his touch was like a butterfly. It was wonderful. I followed, and I wondered what the hell he was doing with the other women who couldn't follow something like that. I could hardly feel his finger on me, but the direction with his finger told me everything that I needed to know. It's incredible how much information can be conveyed by a good dancer."

"Right, they don't break your arm either."

"Hugh is pretty good, until he gets tired and starts flinging you around a little too much. The thing I hate and I just have to...I just swore to myself that I wasn't going to criticize -- I'd talk to him before..."

"You have to take a holy vow every time you go out with him."

"That's right, and it's because when he sends you out, he sends you out too far. He's got such long arms, and it's horrible because it takes forever to get back, and you only have a couple of beats. I just swore that I wouldn't mind and I didn't."

Anyway, I was trying to convince Laurie to come with me one night to Pasadena Ballroom Dance, and I described one of the great male dancers there who, though he'd rather be doing West Coast at The Crest, did condescend to come to these dances in Pasadena. When I danced a fox-trot with him, nothing was more of a thrill or an adventure; he just plowed forward with such a great glee and vengeance.

"The fox-trot is not about anything but moving to the music in a beautiful way," I remind her, "and it hardly throws your knees out at all. That's why I like Maurice."

"It's a lost art, smooth dances," Laurie agreed. "I loved dancing West Coast to that music. Oh, my knee, my knee!"

"You must tell everyone they should take ballroom before they take salsa or tango or West Coast Swing" -- I want to remind myself, and Laurie wants to remind people too. "So they can learn how to follow."

"You must learn how to follow," Laurie says, "so you can learn how to dance. But the one thing about learning on those hard dances is that even though it nearly kills you, destroys your relationships, your life, your morale, makes you hate yourself, changes your philosophy into something really scurrilous and stinking...even though it does all those things -- when you finally do one of those other dances, those easy ballroom dances, you are a god, you are a god on the dance floor! That's what happens!"

"Right. And there's no such thing as a 'free' dance class."

Hugh has a new hobby, reading Proust. It's much more in his vein, since brilliance, wit, repartee, and the spoken word are his métier, not Latin dancing.

Copyright © 1999 by Eve Babitz

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