It is two years to the day that Sarah and I had our first dance lesson – our first dance lesson together, that is, as Sarah studied ballet up until the age of about nineteen. Well, I suppose, you could say that that’s not strictly true, as we did take about ten lessons to learn a dance routine for our wedding five years ago, but it was a very basic foxtrot learnt purely by rote, done and forgotten, never to be revisited. It taught us nothing really and was simply a means to an end to enable us to do something other than a silly on-the-spot shuffle for our first dance.
Sarah has often said that she’d love to have someone to dance with. While driving (or being driven) around the roads of Abergavenny, I kept seeing notices put up on lampposts around the town advertising “Easy Jive” classes. She looked surprised and a little unconvinced when I suggested that we should go along. I think she was concerned about my head and all the baggage that comes along with it (if it’s agitated too much it makes me feel quite out of sorts after all the surgery it’s had to endure), and she’s always claimed that, as far as dancing is concerned, I have two left feet. I always knew that the “two left feet” was not the case; I had just never tried to dance before and therefore had no proven dancing abilities.
Lyn was our teacher (assisted by Bev), at the Forest of Dean Jive and Swing. It was all treated as a bit of fun and they used to laugh at me (kindly) and my “bag of beans” style. It was just my enthusiasm combined with my lack of ability to channel it properly into my feet, so my upper body would just shake around to the rhythm. The “Easy Jive” was actually a simplified version of Lindy Hop – a style of dancing I knew absolutely nothing about. I don’t think I’d even heard of it until then. About two months later, having been attending Lyn’s class once a week, we embarked upon our first ever organised dance at the Redbrook village hall in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire. Armed with a total of about four moves, we and about four other couples who were complete beginners were huddled in the corner, watching what we considered to be amazing dancers from “who knew where?”, and daring each other to be the first to get up and make complete fools of ourselves. It was utterly daunting, but it needn’t have been. We didn’t realise that the vintage dancing communities that can be found all around the country are completely inclusive and accepting of all kinds of abilities. Experienced dancers seem to love dancing with beginners to help them along, show them moves and give encouragement. It doesn’t matter how bad you are at it or how long it takes you to progress. This is something we were to find out.
After about eight months of Lyn’s classes, numerous dance nights out and about 20 more moves, shiny-shoed Geoff (we had to have ways of remembering who was who as there were so many new faces) and his wife, Helen, told us about a class they attended about 20 miles away from us that they regularly attended. Without Lyn, I would never have set foot onto a dance floor. Her expertise and teaching methods made it easy to make the transition from non-dancer to someone who can throw some shapes on the dance floor, and is something for which I will be forever grateful. But now was the time to look a little further afield. There are so many other styles and things to learn that you cannot fully progress without going to other classes. In order to become better, you have to mix with other dancers. So we found ourselves going to Ross Swing and Jive Classes at a village called Bishopswood, close to Ross-on-Wye, just over the border into England. Teachers Izzy and Ger (pronounced “Jeh” and short for Gerard) and occasionally Colin (in place of Ger) were a tonic, lifting us to another level.
We have now found ourselves belonging to a wonderful community of people who are all “dance related” to each other. That is what it is like – a big family. People of all ages mix together, from teens to octogenarians, and there are no barriers. But it’s even bigger than that. You see, these communities exist all over the country and even throughout the world. When we go out to a dance, we meet dancers from maybe a 30-mile radius (with the odd few travelling even further). However, if we travel 30 miles to another venue, we will meet dancers from maybe 60 miles away. Occasionally we go to weekend dancing workshops where dance teachers from different countries come to give lessons, meeting up with people from all over the UK. We see a face and ask, “Where have I seen you before?” knowing that it could be from any number of venues. When news travelled on Twitter that we were going on a road trip around Florida earlier this year, we were invited to dance with some Lindy Hoppers from the Lindy Collective in Miami. We are part of a massive community and we wouldn’t be without it.
We have now stopped going to Lyn’s classes as we have taken up another style of dancing called Balboa at the same venue at Bishopswood with teachers Julie and Steve. There is only so much that we can do. We average two classes per week and a dance on the weekend plus the occasional weekend workshop. We have just come back from a weekend workshop in Cheltenham organised by Gary and Sara Boon from Gloster Swing Dance (which is in Gloucester – not Gloster – but the locals all seem to like spelling it that way). Gary and Sara are wonderful dancers and well worth looking up on YouTube. They organise many dance events in aid of local charities and are remarkable people. Teaching at this workshop were (amongst others) everybody’s favourites, Bic and Simone Graham, who teach in Southampton and are a treat to watch (we have learnt a number of moves from them), and Ryan Francois from London who is possibly the world’s best Lindy Hopper (he danced with my Sarah last night and she hasn’t stopped smiling since). If you have just an ounce of curiosity about our dancing scene, you really must look up all of these people on YouTube. Then realise that these are not untouchable dancers, only to be seen from a distance, but real people who help beginners like Sarah and me and enjoy spreading the Lindy “word”.
It gets bigger and better, you know. Next week, Bic and Simone have organised a workshop in Calpe, Spain. We’ll be there and I fully expect to get a dance with Simone – well, she has to earn her money somehow!
It’s all a long way from how things could have been. Since our illnesses, we have been determined to live for the moment and live a healthy, active lifestyle. Sarah was very cautious at the beginning because of the weakness left in her arm as a result of having her lymph nodes removed following her breast cancer. However, she has found it not to have restricted her to any significant extent. She has taken to it easily. I find it a little harder, but it’s all coming along. I’ve been plagued by a knee problem for over thirty years and, coupled with my dodgy head since the brain surgery, I’m unable to absorb a great deal of impact. Therefore, I sometimes have “quiet” nights on the dance floor, but still like to watch some of the incredible dancing I see around me. I’m currently working on my suppleness. While Sarah is able to almost do the splits, my legs can’t quite separate even 90 degrees. This makes for an ungainly style when it comes to moves involving kicks. An extra 45 degrees would be nice. I’m aware of the problem so I’ll see what I can do.
So here we are, two years on. We never expected to achieve anything better than a very, very basic standard, but we’ve managed to go a little further so far. Without Lyn’s classes at the beginning, we would never have got off the ground. Izzy and Ger’s class on Monday evenings is always the best night of our week. They are fabulous teachers and seem to enjoy watching our progress. If I can ever dance half as well as Ger, that will make me a very happy man.
If you’ve ever considered learning social dancing but have been afraid to make that first step, there is actually nothing to fear. If you live anywhere near the venues that I have mentioned above, why not turn up and give it a try. If not, look up your nearest Lindy Hop class and find out more details.
To find out more about our book, I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…), visit our website: http://www.markdpritchard.co.uk