Thursday, October 15, 2009

Part IV—Striving for Excellence

Normal working hours at Arthur Murray’s were 1-10 PM. Some students could only make it earlier so occasionally lessons were taught at 11 and noon. At one o’clock we would have a combination staff and training session for an hour and a half. During this time and all other down times, new instructors were expected to practice and learn. There were 20 steps in each of the six dances before reaching what was called Silver Dancing. All instructors had to reach this level. I was given some students that were already working on the beginning of their silver, so I was especially under pressure to get to that level ASAP. But as I recall, learning new steps got easier and easier and I had no problem. Soon I was working on my Gold Medal dancing which consisted of new dances besides more advanced steps in the other dances. There was Quick Step, English Waltz, Pasa Double, Peabody, and gold medal Mambo and Tango. I made good inroads into all of them.

There were also two kinds of Swing, Eastern and Western and both had single, double, and triple rhythm.

The other dance instructors were a close knit family and most of the time we got along fine. I recall a couple of spats that had to do with romantic concerns. We had two married couples having met each other at work. We didn’t have much life outside the studio and when we got off work, the men would spend an hour at the bar around the corner, drinking 10 cent glasses of Storz beer and playing bumper pool.

On Friday nights there was always an open house party for the students and all instructors danced with students and students danced with other students. The parties lasted until 11. So afterwards, what did all the instructors do but go dancing at a place a block away that had a dance floor and live music. We usually also did the same on Saturday night.

It was there I that I saw really great dancing by instructors that were experienced. Seeing them inspired me more than anything and I wanted to be able to dance like them. One of the great swing dancers of all time in my book was our dance director, Morris Stevie. He did things I had never seen before when we danced triple time Western Swing. So smooth, so effortless, so amazing was he. He was about 39 years old, ancient for a dancer then. He was always soft spoken and patient when he taught. He took a shine to me and taught me every single step in western swing that he knew.
Occasionally the owner Marc Stevens, would think up promotions to bring in additional money. For instance, a student could have dinner with their favorite instructor, and afterwards dance with him or her to a live combo at one of the better hotels in town. The instructors got paid for the hours put in and also got a free meal.

Then once a year all students were invited to a special exhibition of dancing put on by the staff followed by open dancing. A large dance hall and full orchestra were provided. The year I told part, we did English Waltz. All the instructor couples performed synchronized dancing for the exhibition which took many hours of practice. I believe the men wore tuxes and the women were dressed in one color. I am not to sure about this, but the exhibition was done without any problems and I look back on it as something spectacular and elegant.

I ate all this up. I gained confidence in teaching in front of a group. I gained confidence in myself and enjoyed the positive effect I had on my students. I took pride in seeing them advance and the enjoyment they received. It was a win-win.

I sometimes would go to dance bars and watch women dance before picking out someone I thought could keep up with me. Sometimes the women would be reluctant to accept my offer to dance. I was after all, just 21 and looked a little geeky with my buzz cut and dark rimmed glasses. But if one woman danced with me, then all the other women who liked to dance wanted to dance with me. I never once hit on any of the women. I was there only to dance with someone outside the studio and learn how to adapt to what abilities they had. I would try to lead them into something new for them and discovered enough success to keep trying.

I became a really good dancer in the space of 9 months and even though I don’t remember how to do the Peabody today, I still can cut an excellent rug.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Part III—One Magic Step for a Man

Unfortunately, my effort to reinvent myself to become more social and active campus life took its toll on my grade point. You might say I was too successful, but another way to look at it was that I didn’t have a good concept of moderation.

I got involved with Liz, a girl in the dance club during rehearsals for the Bolero number. She was a very good dancer and dancing and necking formed the basis of our relationship. She lived in Ames and had access to her mother’s car and would stop by and pick me up when I should have been studying. At the end of the first quarter of my Junior year, the university politely told me I was suspended and could not enroll for the winter quarter. There was nothing left to do, but to come home.

I managed to get a job at Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha with the title of clerk-filer. I worked in the accounting department probably based on the test they gave me requiring me to add a long list of numbers. I can not describe how much I hated working there. I don’t even want to describe the despair and boredom I felt. I was 21 years old and faced what to do with the rest of my life but I knew that doing menial tasks all day long and trying to look like I was busy, that was the worst part, was not for me.

I began to scour the ads in the Omaha World Herald, and I saw something I had not even thought about. “Wanted-Arthur Murray dance instructors.”
Soon I was taking Arthur Murray instructor training classes every night after work. They went from 7 to10. I was January. After class I would take a street car to Council Bluffs, hoping I would be able to catch the last bus for the night to my neighborhood. Many a time I missed it and had to walk 2 miles to reach my home. After 5-6 weeks of this, I had saved enough money to make a down payment on a 1950 straight shift Mercury dark green sedan with radio. It was my first car.

As I recall, there were 3 others in my training class when I arrived. The all had been there a week or two before I arrived. For the first two weeks, our dance trainer-instructor would be with us for the first hour and then leave us to practice on our own, dropping in occasionally to see how we were doing then a review for the last half hour. For my first two weeks, I did not learn a dance step. We practiced constantly how to move forward and back, called walking steps.

The basic steps in Fox Trot or Waltz require a big forward movement straight ahead for the man’s part, always beginning on the left foot. Leading with the toe, the left leg is extended until the toe is about to hit the floor, then the ball of the right foot pushes enough that the left foot slides about 3-4 inches when it hits the floor. At the end of the step forward, the upper body should be directly above the foot. Dance shoes always should have a rubber heel and leather sole, the leather being important because it allows the slide. And the best dance floor is always wood and is not sticky.

So we would practice walking steps constantly during the first 2 weeks. Arms extended in dance position and without partners, we would move counter-clockwise around the dance floor, the way dancers are suppose to go, moving to fox trot music. Good dancers always have precise footwork and correct dance posture.

After two weeks of basic training, we started to learn dance steps and how to teach them. To complete the training class we had to learn 10 steps in six dances, Fox Trot, Waltz, Swing, Rumba, Samba, and Tango and we had to be able to teach both men and women’s parts.

Then something happen that thrust me into becoming a full time dance instructor before I had completed everything. Two of the men dance instructors decided to join the Coast Guard at the same time. The studio was suddenly in need of male teachers and the dance director pulled me aside and told me I was needed and she was confident I could do the job.
I quit my job at Union Pacific and started full time at Arthur Murray’s.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I Can Dance--Part II--Modern Dance

My freshman year at Iowa State was all study and no play. I was an engineering student with three hour lab classes in Chemistry, Engineering Drawing required 9 hours each of class time in addition to classes in English, Math, and mandatory ROTC. I joined the cross country track team hoping to excel enough to win an athletic scholarship. This meant running after a day of classes for at least an hour. We ran on the college golf course, not my favorite place. I was used to running on a track where I knew exactly when my next foot would hit the turf and I could establish a good rhythm. Cross country running was clearly not for me. There were small holes, down hill running, and a swaying bridge to vex me. But I stuck with in and ran indoors during the winter, on a minuscule dirt track where the straight-aways were only 25 yards. I liked that even less. In the spring, the team ran outdoors on a normal track at the football stadium. I did much better there. I never did get a scholarship though. Being the second best freshman half-miler was not going to get it done. I would come back to my room at the fraternity exhausted after track and classes all day just in time for dinner. After dinner, the pledges were given 30 minutes before being ordered up to our rooms to study.
At the end of the year, I went home for the summer where I worked at night on the ice docks and during the day reading gas meters. I had a lot of time to think and I had reached an age where I was able to reflect on my life. I decided I was lonely, socially inept and needing to change my college experience. I made a real effort to be more aggressive at our fraternity dance mixers at the start of my sophomore year and had some success. I could get a date if I called early in the week for the coming weekend. This was my first attempt to re-invent myself. Soon another life changing opportunity came my way.

My fraternity brother, Norm, and I sat together at the dinner table one night and he told me that he joined the Modern Class Club. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he patiently explained what it was all about. But the only thing I really remember was that he said there were beautiful girls in the club and lots of them. Turn out Norm did not lie as I found out the first evening I went with him. Almost all the girls were trim, nice figures what were well displayed in leotards and tights. I soon learned they were good athletes, limber, flexible, strong, and possessing some of nicest bottoms, my eyes had ever witnessed. One of the upper class men became first runner up in the Miss America contest the next year and I thought she was only the second best looking female in the club.

I dropped out of track and devoted my athletics to dancing from then on.

Although I perhaps joined this group for less that noble reasons, I soon found out how much I enjoyed the movement of my body. I had great rhythm and I was a quick, eager learner. Soon the presence of women became secondary although surely not abandoned. We discussed and practiced fundamentals. We were given exercises of movement and exercises to create something. We became choreographers as well as dancers.
Betty Toman was the woman in charge. She was born in Oak Park, Illinois. At the age of 3 she started to dance and a year later, she began dancing professionally; highlights included an appearance at the 1932 World's Fair in Chicago, when she was 8 years old.

Professor Toman graduated from Morton High School in Cicero, Illinois. She received a B. A. (1948) in Physical Education (Dance) from the University of Wisconsin, where she studied under Margaret H'Doubler, credited as the creator of dance education. She received her M. S. in 1957, a year after I joined the Modern Dance club.

Betty had a short, slightly thick body and would not be considered good looking. She was also one of the nicest persons I have ever met. Her dancing was so powerful and intense it could only be described as awesome. She nurtured me and inspired me. She saw potential in me and I tried hard to meet it.

Every spring, Iowa State produced an outdoor Broadway musical type review show on the football field as part of their annual open house. In the spring of my sophomore year, I was part of three couples dancing an interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero. Our movements followed the music, slow and sensual to start and reaching a dramatic and powerful ending, climaxed with the men lifting our partners to our shoulders and the women raising their arms to the sky.

For the rest of my college days, one of my electives was a woman’s P.E. class in modern dance, assuring my grade point would be raised. The head of my engineering department would look at my schedule and would harrumph when he saw women’s P.E. on my curricula but that never stopped me.

Each winter, the club put on a dance show and all the performances were choreographed by the club members with help from Betty doing a kind of Tim Gunn critique of our work, without the “make it work” comment. My senior year I started the show with a solo performance done without music, one of my best. I was able to carve out a little niche of little known fame for myself. I was proud of what I accomplished and having Betty’s approval was all I ever wanted. She approved and I learned to approve of myself.

Betty went on to have distinguished career at Iowa State. She has an auditorium named in her honor.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Can Danced-Part I-A Rough Beginning

remember when I was in 9th grade and I was having foot problems due to the high arches I inherited from my mother. We went to a foot doctor and he recommended I wear size 13AAA shoes. They were way too big for my feet and I felt like I was wearing clown shoes. I thought surely everyone would notice them and wrinkle up their nose at me. Believe me this is the last thing I wanted to have to deal with then. I wanted girls to like me and I had enough to worry about. I had braces on my teeth and acne on my face and yet to learn that projected confidence would make me desirable more than mere physical appearance. Of course, it didn’t help that girls then seemed to prefer rosy cheeked lads with perfect teeth.

So I was at this place in town where teens gathered one day after school. It had a juke box and a dance floor and someone was there to teach us how to dance. A girl I liked a lot came up to me and asked me to be her partner. But I was too embarrassed about my clown shoes and I replied, trying to be cool, “nah, I don’t want to”. She even coaxed me to try, so I paused a second and then said, “Nah, I don’t want to”.

So I watched, wanting so much to be out there with normal sized shoes having fun and being close to her. I walked home in a funk. God, I felt miserable and if boys were allowed to cry then, I have no doubt I could have “cried me a river”.

As I was still have some foot pain, we went to another foot doctor and he said to discard the clown shoes and put me into shoes my normal 10 ½ D size with arch supports. I was one of the turning points of my young life. Seriously! Having my braces removed came in a close second.

Later in high school, there would be sock hops in the gymnasium after football and basketball games. Ironically, shoes were not allowed on the gym floor so everyone danced in their socks. But I would not call what we did as dancing. It was more hold someone close and rock back and forth. This is what people do when they don’t really have a clue about how to dance. Rock and Roll was still a couple years away and the fast dances usually were some lively Glenn Miller tunes and not much was known about the art of the Jitterbug. The boys twirled the girls, and that was about all. The Bunny Hop was way more popular. Almost everyone could catch on and hold on to some hips. I remember Bunny Hoping during our Junior and Senior Proms where the entire class would form a snake line and hop around the room into the hotel hall and back.

But during times when we were done hopping, I would watch anyone that was a better dancer. Due to the lack of sufficient boys that could or even wanted to dance, girls would dance with each other. So I would ask the girl who was leading to dance with me and she would lead herself and would just hang on. Slowly I learned and got I got better and better.