Grand Rapids' Original Swing Society.
When I interrupted my traveling in May 2009 to fly home to Michigan, I had two main objectives: to see friends and family, and to make some money. And I did see friends and family. I am, in fact, very good at that. It just comes easily to me. "Hey, Grandpa Breen!" See? Very casual.
But, my business plan to sell travel stories on the street wasn't profitable - mostly because I couldn't wake up before noon or 12:30, I believed the working day should end at five or 4:30, and I thought, "Work only four hours? That hardly seems worth it."
After the hard working days of sleeping were over, I concentrated on a third objective: to dance with girls. A lot of objectives, huh? Such a hard-working person.
In a piano bar, I watched and waited. And I noticed a short, fifty-year-old Puerto Rican man with an old, Cuban taxi cap on his head; he smiled, watching as the female customers near the stage got drunker and danced more. Ah ha, I thought, someone who shares my objective.
When this man, Tomas, danced, he bent forward and snapped his fingers, and turned girls and held them with the effortlessness of a lifelong latin dancer. (Another time in the bar, he flopped a ridiculous tap-dance that ended with his open palm extended towards a girl; it was successful; the thin blond, in a silver dress that swept over her bulging buttox, joined him for a dance.) Even so, only a handful of women agreed to dance with Tomas or me this night. In Michigan bars, the women are timid toward casual intimacy.
But, Tomas told me, "Hey, man, if you like dancing, you should come out to Rosa Parks' Circle on Tuesdays. They got, like, 200 people dancing every week. Swing dancing. It's from 7:00 to 10:00. A few weeks ago, they did a "Prom" theme. Everybody got dressed up. It started raining, man, but everybody just kept dancing, the girls in their dresses ..."
For Tomas and me and many other people, summer swing dancing at Rosa Parks' Circle was like heaven on Earth. Many of those other people, in Grand Rapids' downtown open-air theatre, enjoying the late-evening sun, were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. A young crowd. At first, I was intimidated by this fact, but then I just liked it.
And I learned how to swing dance with a partner. Step slowly to the left ... slowly to the right ... take a step backward onto left foot, rock your weight forward again onto right ... repeat ... you got that?
Our swing dancing army was instructed by Steve Zaagman, a short-haired, happy-smiling, successful guy with dorky glasses. Holding a microphone on-stage, he made witty comments; because one old song was too sensual, he asked people under eighteen to leave the circle, and called it a "jail-bait" song. He relished in the number of newly married couples who'd met at his swing dancing, and sometimes I worried Steve's objective was to get us all married. Oh no, I had to watch out!!
Like Steve our leader, many in the young crowd could be described as charismatic and successful. Many, also, were devoted followers of the Christian Reformed Church. And nobody drank at swing dancing - except for Tomas. Getting to know them, I figured many would go on to achieve their objectives in life: to lead successful families, to earn good salaries, to avoid addiction and criminality, etc. Spirituality and meaning in life create powerful individuals.
I also figured that, due to their religion, most of the dancers were probably pre-marital celibates, as am I. (Additionally, some of the best male dancers were gay.) It's my theory that, in communities where men and women aren't trying to have sex with one another, the genders are freer to have non-sexual, intimate relationships. Befriending some of the guys and going to swing dancing parties, I noticed that females commonly sat on their platonic male friends' laps. Great.
However ... I believe some spiritualities can - while creating better individuals - make communities actually worse off: for example, the teaching that promotes the judgment of human beings into those "worthy" and those "unworthy".
I wasn't powerful enough, during June and July, to make enough money to travel again. But, I didn't mind too much, because ...
Who did I dance with on Tuesdays - and Fridays, once Steve added them? Everyone! 96% of girls said 'yes' when invited to dance. I even made a list of my all-time, worldwide favorite dance partners.
#3 on that list was a swing dancer, whom I'll refer to - lovingly - as The Bum.
The Bum had long, brown hair; shaggy bangs; brown, warbleing eyes; and hips that - it was said - "dislocated" every time she moved her short stature to the merengue music we constantly asked Steve to play. In her private life, she still attended home schooling, but mostly she just watched old silent movies, sang folk songs on her guitar, and called people who worked the "bourgesie". Dancing, she laughed and resisted, every time I tried to do a silly move, like stepping through our arms. Once, smiling, she fought free of my grasp and left me mid-dance; I returned to the edge of the circle, embarrassed and dejected; three seconds later, she innocently walked up to me: "Justin, would you care to dance?"
Swing dancing became "Tuesdays only" again, at the end of summer. In early fall, I hitchhiked to and around Wisconsin, selling my stories by the hundred. Too bad I only sold them for $1. I was saving money quickly, but I was also emailing The Bum a lot and missing swing dancing. I went back to Michigan, where ...
The Bum and I remained friends and dance buddies until late December, when she stopped coming to swing dancing and stopped returning my emails. I missed her friendship. I'd believed her to be a soaring free spirit, one too full of dreams to be tied down.
#2 on my list was a mouse-sized swing dancer I'll call Elegant Figure Skater. This sandy blonde wore fashionable heels and flowing scarlet skirts, held on to my mouse-sized right bicep with firm gentleness, and followed my lead so gracefully I felt like Leo da Vinci painting a masterpiece. Coupled with her professional success as a physician's assistant, her unmatched dancing ability intimidated guys. Yet she surprised me by calling me "a great lead" and suggested any girl who'd turn me down "must not know how to dance, then." I loved showing off with her on-stage, and we developed a move where I picked her up in the embrace of my left arm, and she wrapped her heel around my calf as I spun us. (Near us danced Tomas and high-school grad Molly, who looked so great as they skipped around each other like kangaroos.)
"Why don't you skiddily-doo? 'Cause I don’t want to see your face around here no more. Why don't you skiddily-dee? ... 'Cause you are the devil, and the devil is bad!" - my favorite swing song
Elegant Figure Skater and I once discussed going ice skating together, but I was too nervous to tell her I didn't have any money, and it never happened.
In November, an after-school program hired me to a 22-hour-a-week position. But, on the first day, I tried having an intelligent conversation with eighteen black and white and hispanic kidnergarteners. It ended with them kicking boxes of crayons all over the room and jumping from table to table, and me with no control over them. My bosses heard about this and demoted me to a 6-hour-a-week position.
By late fall, the swing dancing moved indoors. And a new girl started coming. Well, lots of new girls started coming ... But, one was important.
She was not the #1 person on my "Favorite Dance Partners" list, partly because we met after the list had been written, and mainly because, every time a guy asked her to dance, she said, "OK, but I suck, though," or "I still suck." I immediately found her adorable. Like most people in this story, she's short. Or maybe I'm just tall? She'll be called Intelligent Eyes.
In February, she came to a reading of mine in a library. Several libraries had agreed to pay me to do one-hour readings, on such themes as "Siberia" or "Funniest Stories". In December, I made a lot of money as a Spanish-English interpreter. In January, I made most of my money playing basketball with teens in the after-school program. One day, I flew and dunked over top of the teenager defending me, and all the black guys "Ooh!"ed and screamed in wild celebration. I didn't get a bonus for this.
In mid-February, our swing dancing took place on a wooden floor, beneath the hanging skeleton of a whale, surrounded by golden lights in a museum. Elegant Figure Skater told me she was about to go to Haiti to help earthquake victims.
Intelligent Eyes, meanwhile, was a tomboy who never dressed up. I'd been teasing her for months to wear a pink dress for me. But, on this night, she was stunning.
Her black hair was long and soft, parted around her lightly freckled face and gleaming, shiny seal eyes. Her stringy body wore a glossy, black, armless v-neck; gray slacks; and ruby slippers. "Like Dorothy."
She was tomboy, kid happy. "You look great."
Dancing, we ran into a couple. I said, "I should've told them it was your fault. You suck." She said, "You should've. That would be awesome!"
Our second dance was a lindy, a dance I suck at. Holding each other by one hand, we swung out, each of us squooshing the ground with his heels and snapping her fingers coolly (as if doing the "twist"). We came together, spun closely around each other, and swung out again, restarting the cycle. What a ridiculous, cool, dizzying dance! Looking at Intelligent Eyes' white smile, I was flooded with more joy than I'd thought was possible, and with a little bit of "meaning", too.
We danced almost exclusively together. Polka. Waltz. Cha-cha. A lot of swing. Intelligent Eyes only had to look at her feet a little bit, to keep the steps. And by the end, she wasn't at all afraid of being dipped, and I held her just off the floor. Intelligent Eyes was going to get a place in my little orange book of lists, under "Great Days".
She gave me a tour of the museum's second floor, where I pointed to a big globe and said, "This is where I'll be going in two days." The spot I was pointing to was on the other side of the world from Rosa Parks' Circle. I felt like my wonderful friend was sad when I said that. (I thought I'd told her earlier in the evening?)
Perhaps the day before had been the worst time possible to be offered a job in China? But since Intelligent Eyes was normally busy studying psychology and dating a guy who probably didn't make her dance, and since I finally had enough money to travel with, I'd obviously accepted.
We returned downstairs for the last dance. Poor Steve wasn't going to get me married away this time! My spirituality emphasizes compassion and beauty and the conviction that we'll all be on Earth again to feel each other's joys and sorrows. And my "meaning" is my objective to travel the world, learn how to reduce the sorrows and increase the joys, and write. Nice try, though, Steve!
"I've been waiting for so long for someone to make life complete." - sung by Mars Volta (with irony?)
Of course, the last night also proved that there can be many perfectly valid "meanings" in life - like swing dancing with your favorite girl.
Thanks to Mark; Terrance & Lisa; Frank; Dick Hines; Bob; Sally; Gerald & Ken Rozenski & "Dylan"; David; Vic & Butch; Dave; Ben & Richard; Neamiah; Will; Nick; Randy Knaack; Marisa; Doug Reading & Doug; C.C. (aka Charles); Mike; Deb Henderson; John; Jamie; John; Jim Wade; Bob, Ashley, Gregory, & Bridgett; Ben; Jean-Paul; Mike Weary; Tony & Brian; Dave Miller; Randy; Jennifer; Rob Johnston; Diane & "Jazz"; Scott; Donald & Tricia; Wendell Peterson; Don Yoder; Jared; George; Mark; Eric; Andy; Ricardo; Pat & Karen; Lel & Maria - twice; Jim & Sharon Rider; William; Cindy & Tim; Blake; Nancy & "Gracy"; Jesse; Dave; and Larry for rides in the Midwest!
----- And much thanks to Mom, Dad, & "Tucker"; Allen, Lori, Carter, Garrett, Landon, & Marshall; Brandon & Moana; Johnny, Anna, & Akilah; Joanna, Art, & Flora; Will Janicke; Jean-Paul & Patty; and Josh for places to stay!