What do I do with my power?

A 21 year old white male shoots and kills 9 peaceful African American churchgoers.

An ill-informed group equates racial appropriation with the transgender experience.

A town strong-arms a decision to turn a public green space into a parking lot.

Injustice takes many forms. In the face of such selfishness, bigotry, hatred, ignorance and disrespect, I feel small and powerless. I feel the cynicism that has come to be such a regrettable hallmark of my generation. I feel like the only “right” reaction is to cry out, thrust out the picket sign, and place myself on national television to decry the degradation that has overtaken our societies. And in the same breath I know that that is not me.

So what do I do from my place of privilege? What do I do with the skill set and passions that I possess? (Some days I feel as though I have no skills at all but a bullheaded will. Even if that were true, wouldn’t it be enough to make some small change?)

Dancing is one of those forms of power and privilege. The fact that I have the free time, available transportation, and expendable income to spend on dancing is a manifestation of my privilege. Communities of dancers are often communities that can wield significant social, economic, and political power.

Some may question whether social change should be the responsibility of social dance groups. I say, if not here, then where? Where do we draw the line between our pleasurable activities and the activities that “really matter?” Equality, justice, and integrity should fundamental to all aspects of our lives – at least, these are things I strive for. For me, this includes both inner and outer expressions of rebellion, community, and integral values. Communities of any kind are compilations of individual power, and can be used to make positive change in our world.

I am inspired by authors who use fantastical settings and compelling characters to explore our societal ills.

I am inspired by dancers who believe that we can blend pleasure with powerful change.

I am inspired by advocates and ninjas and providers who put it all on the line for what they believe in.

What are you inspired by? What do you do with your power?

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First snow

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Steamy windows at the Bennington, VT contra dance

It seems fitting that I called my first Vermont contra on the night of the first snow. I drove there with flurries coming at my windshield, and drove back seeing white margins to the slick road. And I felt so totally at home in this chilly corner of the country. It’s going to be a great winter. Or, as my dad puts it, an “epic season” – let the snowboarding commence!

Calling-wise, it felt good to be back behind the mic. I was pretty pooped after the grand journey, and took a month off to settle into New England. Now I’m excited to be making new ties in the surrounding community.

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Spare Parts with Eric Buddington

Tonight’s dance was full of excited beginners who made me excited to be there. I know I’m doing my best when I laugh so hard watching the dancers laugh that I almost miss a call. Sifting through my box to find the dances I want continues to be less efficient than I would like it to be, though. I think it’s time for a purge, to get rid of dance cards that I know I’ll never use. Like spring cleaning. With snow on the ground.

Life is good.

Texas Part 2: Dallas Life Lessons in Perfection (and lack thereof)

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Sound check with Sibling Revelry at the Dallas dance in an old converted movie theatre in Carrollton, TX.

As a one-year old caller, there are some aspects of calling that I am starting to feel confident in. I feel confident that I have a pretty good stage presence. I feel confident in teaching a hey to groups of beginners. I feel confident in using creative, rhythmic calls, and in dropping them as the dance progresses. 

Then there are the things that actively challenge me. I feel shy when asking a band to change tempo if I haven’t worked with them before. I am wary of getting lost while calling a double-progression. I don’t know how to handle peer-to-peer “corrections” from well-meaning dancers to other dancers on the floor – especially when the “corrections” are incorrect.

I also have now twice had difficulty getting first-time contra dancers to do any sort of bicycle-chain (some call it chainsaw) formation. What about these moves am I not teaching clearly?  Whether I have taught it as a promenade, or a whole-set circle, or a grand right-and-left, something has gotten muddled each time I am working with more than 30% beginners. And in Dallas this weekend, this challenge was combined with another: very chatty beginners.

So here’s the scene: What looked like about 40% absolute first-time dancers, 60% pretty experienced dancers, fifth dance of the evening, decided to do “Salute to Larry Jennings” by Ted Sannella. The dancers had been progressing really nicely and I was able to drop out calls for each of the first four dances. I wanted to keep the experienced dancers engaged and thought the new folks could handle this dance with a good walk-through.

Then the grand right-and-left happened.

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My office! Dallas dancers as viewed from the stage.

There was lots of chatting on the floor. There was a group of new dancers clumped together in the back. There were experienced folks at the top of the line who were looking antsy to dance. And there was absolute confusion at the bottom of one set. The grand right-and-left just wasn’t working, the chatting was getting more restless, I was being asked questions from the floor, and… I got completely flustered. Do I answer the specific questions from individual dancers? Do I start the walk-through over, yet again? Do I go out on the floor and rearrange couples myself? Do I choose another dance? (Tried that, by the way, to disappointed shouts from the experienced folks.) 

Finally some of the experienced dancers helped out by breaking up the new folks in the back. I still don’t think many people actually heard the instructions because there was too much chatting. I wasn’t able to drop the calls during the dance. And some of the new folks looked utterly bewildered throughout. 

End result: We got through it. But the walk-through was painful, and I lost the confidence of some of the dancers on the floor. I don’t blame them. I would have been frustrated with the caller, too. In this dance I didn’t succeed in teaching clearly, or in facilitating fun for all people on the floor.

Lessons learned: Two days later, I’m still not sure. Maybe I shouldn’t have called it in the first place. Maybe there was a way I could have gotten the rapt attention of everyone in the hall first. Maybe there was a better way I could have asked new dancers to dance with experienced dancers. Maybe I was using the wrong language to teach the move. Possibly all of the above are true. 

When all was said and done, it was still a fun night. The dancers in Dallas are lovely – welcoming, experienced, and very kind to this visiting caller. They dance in a converted movie theatre on first-Saturdays, which has a way cool vibe. The band, Sibling Revelry, was very pleasant to work with and I had several great chats with people during the break and after the dance.

I do feel like I failed the dancers for that one dance. But I also am trying to keep in mind that I was able to successfully call 11 other dances that went smoothly and gave (I think) the crowd a good time. I guess you can’t win ’em all – although, of course, I wish I could.

Texas Part 1: The Austin Allure

Rich MacMath calling Austin

Rich MacMath calling before me at the Austin dance.

The Hancock Rec Center was already buzzing with activity when I arrived for the dance. A group of people milled about on the wooden floor, waiting for the lesson to start. Rich MacMath started the lesson by getting everyone to laugh, and it only got better from there.What. A. Dance!

The dancers were experienced, responsive, and joyful. The music was energetic and fun. The house band changed throughout the evening as players came and went, skillfully led by Max (fiddle) and Earl (mandolin).  And when it was my turn to call, this crowd gave me the warmest welcome I could have asked for on my first night of my tour.

What can I say? I love Austin. This is a welcoming, funky, sultry city. My host, Elise, graciously welcomed me into her home where we chatted over coffee about music, politics, travel, family, and change. The first night I arrived we went to an old-time jam (scroll down for a recording!) and took a nighttime drive around the city. She gave great recommendations of things to do, and we even got to work together when she played in the contra dance band.

Oh, and did I mention: HONKYTONK. I two-stepped. Is that even a verb?

Austin, I love your strange antiques-shop aesthetic, your warm residents (and residences), and your commitment to having a good time. Thanks for the wild ride. I hope to see you soon.


Clip from Tuesday’s old-time jam: