March 18th, 2016

restaurant face

Old tumblers click into place...

Many years ago, I spent awhile dancing at the Starry Plough on Monday nights. They used to have Irish dance lessons, jigs and reels. (Does this intro sound like "wow, I have no interest in this post? If so, feel free to skip it.)

I eventually wound up leaving in a huff, though I spent a number of months there first. A lot of the "in a huff" bit was that... thing just didn't seem to make *sense*. Nominally, it was a situation where you go, you learn to dance, you have fun dancing with people and maybe (if you're lucky) you get good enough or something that not only do you get to dance with whoever you want, you also get to dance a lot and (who knows?) pick up girls.

That all seems fair enough.

But... things were just odd. "I'm having trouble remembering all the steps." "No problem, just dance more." "But... this only meets once a week, and I can't drive up to Berkeley every week. Plus every second time or so, the person who has agreed to dance with me just flakes, so I miss about half of all the dances when I *am* here."

That seemed... Odd. Was it just me? Did people mostly cancel on me because I sucked?

(Not really, it turns out. A lot of it works like that.)

What actually happens is that when you're really good, you don't get flaked on much. But there aren't many paths to getting good, because they involve a kind of intense practice that isn't available to people who just put in years showing up to lessons. That's not what the lessons are for.

So the people who *did* get good, how did they do it? I spent a few months asking them. In nearly every case, the answer was "find somebody who is already good and have them block off months of time for one-on-one instruction to show you." A few went to anomalously good dance classes, but those were all of the "oh yeah, that was great. No, it doesn't exist any more" variety. (I did try going to various other dance classes, but it didn't help much.) But mostly, you got a lot of one-on-one instruction, nearly always from somebody who was bothering because the two of you were dating.

There *is* another way to practice without having one of the small number of skilled dancers pick you out for specific instruction. There's a book. The Starry Plough isn't traditional Irish dance -- a lot of its stuff was invented by one random guy in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s. You can't just check out a book, is what I'm saying.

But there *is* a book, and eventually somebody mentioned its existence when I complained and said they'd let me borrow it. That never happened. But somebody else later *also* mentioned the book. I eventually collected four or five different never-happened "sure, I'll loan you the book" offers.

Eventually I got tired, went less often, and that's a nasty spiral where by not going much, you dance less, so your partners flake on you more and you barely dance at all, which means you get even *less* practice, etc.

And other than a certain amount of venom in the phrase "no, I don't dance," that's a lot of where I left it until now. I had a sudden, random thought this morning. Feel free to blame that whole "thinking about privilege" thing that's going around these days -- it makes me reflexively wonder, "is there some other game going on here below the surface?"

Here's the one that I think fits for this specific dance community:

The Starry Plough community claims to be about skill. It's got classes, you show up and learn, almost all of the "get popular here" narrative is couched in terms of picking up a skill. It involved some memorization and some repetition, but nothing seriously hard.

So here's a "mystery": why were all the very skilled dancers also quite traditionally attractive, often strikingly so?

The way you got good was to date another personal who was also good and then have them put a bunch of effort into you. That's a contest of attractiveness, and specifically of attractiveness to an existing set of people with an existing aesthetic.

Sure, but then, what about the book? Doesn't that let you skeeve your way in with mere skill, study and dedication?

*Only if the book is a thing you can just borrow, not a fig leaf.*

The book is real, and I've met people that have used it. But there are (intentionally, I believe) few copies of it, and you get them by taking away valuable study time from somebody who has one. And you're always in competition with other people they might like to date.

Who wins? Well, generally the winner is whoever they'd like to win favors with. And in that community, that usually meant who they'd like to date. Which meant who they found attractive.

It wasn't a way of *actually* getting good at dancing without being attractive. That was, intentionally, quite difficult -- not least because you *then* had to also practice a lot with other people, who would flake if you weren't attractive enough to hold their interest.

....

Okay. So I wasn't tried and found stupid because everybody else could learn that way. I was tried and found not attractive to that cadre of dancers.

You know what? *That* I can live with.

But what has stuck with me for years, long after "tried and found stupid", was "something is wrong here, what they're saying isn't what they're doing."

Looking at it, I finally get what they were doing.

I am not, by the by, saying they are bad people. They are perfectly ordinary people. But one thing perfectly ordinary people do, *constantly*, is to take contests of charm, attractiveness and/or bribery and describe them as some more socially-acceptable sort of contest.

I am slowly becoming better at seeing through them.

(Mostly unrelated: that community no longer exists in that form. There was a power struggle and most of them were thrown out in favor of a different group. I have no knowledge of whether that's an improvement, but I expect it's different in any case.)