Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Halsted Street // Thursday, 11.35pm

I'm desperately glad to see Steve arrive, when at last he does. Serena had told me to meet them at the Kingston Mines, for blues and dancing. She didn't mention that we'd be there with a phalanx of professional ballroom dancers.

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Serena and I caught up on the past however many years, as Steve's workmates arrived one by one. The girls were all of Amazonian proportions, with carefully clipped hair razored to points at their cheekbones and jawlines, and makeup that seemed to have been applied with a diamond tip. The guys were a mixed crew--it's always amazing to me how schlubby good male dancers can be, if they want. They are all, however, broad-shouldered, snaky-hipped, and flawlessly attuned to each other's moves.

Kingston Mines has two rooms, being traded between two bands. Just as we walked into the back room, the band abruptly cut off the opening of "La Grange" and a toad-faced man in a newsboy cap, pulled his hoodie over his head and busted out the first stanza of "Lose Yourself," while the drummer and bassist backed him. I mention this not only because it was awesome, but also because it would have been worth the cover charge just to see, and I needed that reassurance because I was certain, that night, only of embarrassing myself. Ever since my encounter with scenesters in San Francisco--the last time I went out dancing--I've felt unceremoniously stripped of my greatest past identity.

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No joke--as Joe's song has it, I was the queen of ballroom dance, back at our tiny little liberal arts school with no electives or departments or real standard of comparison. At any rate, I thought I was the queen, and nobody ever challenged my rule. Not to my face, anyway.

Steve, however, was clearly in another class of dancer altogether. He moves with the metric control of a Swiss timepiece and the grace of an Olympic diver.

It was well known at our tiny, gossipy school that he taught professionally, and won competitions. But he also observed the rule that gentlemen should never refuse a lady's invitation to dance, and always seemed to have fun no matter whom he was dancing with.

I'm pretty sure he was the reason why our school librarian, a notoriously frigid lady, started wearing mesh-paneled costumes and flying on weekends to New York City to train with a partner.

Anyway, while I am desperately intimidated by all the professionals, I know I can at least count on Steve for a not-terrible time. 

I hope that maybe his encouragement will convince a couple of his coworkers to steer me around, just out of goodwill.

I paid $12 to get in, dammit, and I want to dance.

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I tell Serena what I'm thinking...in gentler terms. She says I should ask this one guy, a genial dude who, she says, is good at guiding less experienced dancers comfortably into fancier steps. I've been watching him dance with one of the Amazons. He clearly knows what he's doing, but has that unaccountable schlubby physique that so many really good male dancers seem to get away with.

He's talking to another one of the Arthur Murray crowd; I walk over and trot out my obliquely suggestive warm-up to actually asking someone to dance with me.

The schlubby guy cuts me off, wide-eyed and enthusiastically saying, "Hey! Dance with him! He's really good!" And he takes off. I mean really.

I look at the other guy to gauge whether he looks like he wishes he'd thought of that first. But his smile appears to be sincere.

So I ask him. We dance. It's fun.

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They call him Iowa Dan because…well, because he's from Iowa, but also for the connate wholesomeness of his personality. The hefty diamond stud in his ear and the tight striped shirt and jeans he wears can't take away from the corn-fed decency that imbues his wide grin. 

When he tells me I'm a good dancer, that watching me with Steve he was impressed, I smirk.

"I know what you're doing," I tell him, pointing a finger, "I've done it to people, too. You're dance-teachering me."

He protests.

I appreciate it.

He didn't say he was from a small town, but I'm led to understand that Iowa doesn't have any other kind. Before attending Northwestern (the one in his home state, not his current state--he elucidates this good-naturedly, like he's done it before), he'd never danced before. The first time was when he was asked by a couple of girls to help with a performance they were putting on.

At the beginning of second semester, his friends pressured him into audition for RUSH--it is, he says, a giant dance performance that pulls in hundreds of students, even those who, like him, had no experience. He performed a hiphop number and from that moment, he was all in.

He came out to Chicago to study acting, but needed a job and found the Arthur Murray studio seeking dance teachers in a Craigslist ad. He'd never really danced ballroom, but he had enough of what it takes to get the job. It's not hard, he says; they train you in their style, if you don't have experience.

He tells me that dance teaching is as much emotional counseling as it is movement instruction.

"People don't really come to learn to be great dancers or win competitions; they come to forget about work, to socialize, to reconnect with their bodies and make connections with other people. They come to help them with getting over addictions. They come because they're lonely."

That, he says, is what he loves most about his job.

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The band has traded off; Studebaker John is back playing in the front room, and everyone moves in there. I ask Iowa Dan if he wants to dance again; he says he's going to get a beer, and I sink into that dim grey awkwardness that social dancing outside of college has always entailed. The carefully meted eye contact and avoidance thereof, the metric of how many other dances you need to have with other people, and how many to wait out, before you can ask for another with somebody. I hate that shit and it's why I never go by myself except sometimes, when I just have to.

I confess that I'm watching them--the pros, I mean. They drink and gossip like anybody does after work; they just look way better in jeans, and their hair is smoother. And also, from time to time, they take hands and squeeze past the crowd at the bar and snake their way around the dance floor in front of the band and everybody else. I wonder what it's like, not just to be the best but to know you're the best, to own a place like this so securely that you can show up after work and drink a lot of beers and eat terrible food and sit out most of the tunes.

As for me, the music is just about killing me, so I ask Serena if she wants to dance with me. I'm not much of a lead. I'm not hot stuff anymore, if I ever really truly was. But I love to move and this evening I paid twelve dollars for the privilege of doing so; I'd better make what I can of it than nothing at all.

A few tunes afterward, Serena whispers in Steve's ear and he asks me to dance. It's a compassionate move and I tell her thanks; it's a fast number, and I apologize preemptively for embarrassing him, as we walk up to the empty floor.

And, um...I'm not sure what happens. Something does. A skin of self-consciousness gets shed and something in me knows that whatever used to be there is back. At least, it's back inside of me; I can feel it burning against my sternum, traveling in a ball up through my throat and exploding at the back of my head with each downbeat.

We end breathless, we high five, and everyone migrates to the back room, where Joanna Connor's band has resumed the stage.

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"It doesn't matter, honey, you're still hot."

Some drunk girl bawls this in my ear, as I get up from the floor.

Iowa Dan and I were dancing and something didn't connect and I fell, or he dropped me, or something, and I went down full length on my back.

At first, I don't care. Then I do. Then I think what the fuck, I could think about this all night or just keep going.

Iowa Dan doesn't talk to me for several minutes and at first, I think I embarrassed him. But then he blurts out how bad he feels for dropping me.

I tell him I really don't care.

He says everyone was looking at us dancing.

I say, "I bet they were." Me laid out, with my panties showing.

He says no, before that.

I say I didn't notice; I don't usually notice things like that.

He says we should dance again, and this time I should pay attention.

So we go and dance again. I'm not really paying attention, just having fun. It's kind of a disco hustle number, which always cranks me up. I haven't had anything to drink since my bourbon with Tyler three hours ago, but I feel drunk.

There's a line in that old radio show "Broadway Is My Beat," where some dame gone wrong gets described as "dance happy"...

All she needed was music and a man in high-waisted pants to make her think she was happy.

Well, all things being modified for time and context, that's me.

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I won't lie; I like it when I feel like I'm being watched. Partly because I feel invisible, most of the time. And partly because it feels like I'm providing excitement to the people who are too afraid, like I am most of the time. When they watch, I feel brave; I feel like I'm giving them something--like maybe, by letting them watch me, I'm doing for them what they can do only when no one is watching.

But it's only a feeling; if it's going to work, I can't check to see if they're watching. I have to stay locked into my partner; everything has to go but what he's telling me and what I'm telling him back.

If I think that I can feel the gaze of other people, that's fine. But really it doesn't matter as much as if my partner is happy with what I'm doing, and shows it by the deeper flow of the way his arms talk to me.

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So it's with heart-glowing surprise that I find this older lady, a regal dark-skinned woman who I'd tried not to stare at in the powder room, walking straight up to us, her arms extended like a peace offering, clapping for us.

"Now do you believe me?" says Iowa Dan.

I'm telling all this for the same reason that I'll tell you that later, some horny old fat guy (whom I couldn't help but notice was watching us) came squeezing past and said "Doesn't any other girl in here dance like her?"

I'm telling myself by way of telling you, so that maybe next time it won't take so long for me to get dance happy.

I'm not trained, I miss cues, and I'm sloppy.

But something can happen to me, and to people, when I dance.

I'm not good. But that thing inside me is.

That feeling of giving it away is the best feeling I know.

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Kingston Mines is located at 2548 N Halsted Street. It's open until 4am most nights.