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18 March 2016 @ 07:56 am
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.)
Krissyrightkindofme on March 18th, 2016 03:22 pm (UTC)
That book is actually in your house. Because one of the attractive/good people gave it to me.

Noahangelbob on March 18th, 2016 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yup. I kind of jumped when I first found that out... And then realized it was years too late to do me any good :-)
Ethan Frantz: Harp Lapef2p on March 18th, 2016 07:22 pm (UTC)
I have the book too. Not sure where it is, but I have it.

But to quote the Anarchist's Cookbook, "A book does not a cook make". It's a good reference but it will not teach you how to dance.

My biggest problem with the plough was how they announced dances. Sure I could try to find a partner for any 'dance for anyone'. But when they called a 'dance for those that know', they wouldn't actually say which dance it was until a lot of people had paired up. It got to the point where there was a 50/50 chance I knew the dance, but couldn't try to find a partner or set to dance in until I knew what the were actually calling. By then the pickings were slim.

Ethan Frantz: Harp Lapef2p on March 18th, 2016 07:26 pm (UTC)
Near the end of the time where I regularly went to the Plough, I came up with a theory.

The more time you didn't dance, the more you were buying food/drink. As a newbie you could only dance 1/3 of the time. As someone who new all the dance you could spend most of your time dancing. I saw this in myself, as time went by I spent less and less at the bar.

From a business perspective, the Plough prefers the newbies. They need enough vets to keep the dance moving and exciting. So as long as they keep the core of vets, they don't want people to move up. Hence it was hard to do that.
Noahangelbob on March 18th, 2016 08:00 pm (UTC)
But then, why did all the veteran dancers go along with that? Even if the business preferred it, the actual behavior would have to come from somewhere.
Ethan Frantz: Harp Lapef2p on March 18th, 2016 08:31 pm (UTC)
The vets get what they want: a place to dance with a great atmosphere.

It's the feudal system, you need the newbies to keep the system going. But you got to keep people from rising to keep the boat going. The system here is a place to dance with someone else footing the bill.
Noahangelbob on March 18th, 2016 08:48 pm (UTC)
Sure, but how was that communicated. I had a *lot* of people flake on me. It helped keep me from dancing, but are you suggesting that, say, Rachel was getting instructions from the business to not dance with me? That seems intuitively unlikely.

It would be hard to have as many people do this in as many ways as they did without it being general knowledge.
blk: polychromeblk on March 20th, 2016 02:43 pm (UTC)
The business doesn't need to work within the system; they just need to encourage what was already happening to keep happening. I don't think there needs to be explicit collusion in order to have mutual benefit from the system as you describe.

Just from reading your post and that comment, I imagine it could go like this: The "core" dancers have a supportive place to dance; they help make it look fun and appealing to outsiders, while subtly preferring a smaller group of experienced/attractive partners; newbies keep coming back, hoping to get better, spending more money; bar tells the core dancers (who probably help organize stuff) "great night, don't change!"; cycle continues.

People in power are happy and content; outsiders financially support them in their attempts to be on the inside.
Noahangelbob on March 20th, 2016 03:06 pm (UTC)
Fair enough.
Shalyndrashalyndra on March 19th, 2016 02:27 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating to me.

I don't know much about dancing, but the two best dancers I had the pleasure of dancing with were definitely not conventionally attractive. I wonder about the dynamics of how they learned.
(Anonymous) on March 19th, 2016 04:01 pm (UTC)
It's also possible the Starry Plough wasn't otherwise typical. While I've taken lessons in several other places and kinds of dance, that's the only place I put in more than six months. It's highly likely the dynamics of, say, West Coast Swing are extremely different, not least because it's so rigid and formulaic and you're expected to put in 20 years. Similarly, the "Irish" dances at the Plough had weird dynamics because you couldn't go find a class somewhere else -- they were doing different dances.

I assume the Plough is typical of *something*, but likely not the whole dance community.

It was surprising how hard it was to find, say, a good Waltz class, though. I tried repeatedly.
Noahangelbob on March 19th, 2016 04:02 pm (UTC)
(Sorry, this was me but I wasn't logged in.)
inflectionpointinflectionpoint on March 20th, 2016 08:41 pm (UTC)
Yikes. That's a kind if dynamic it seems elsewhere. And it sucks.

I'm sorry you went through it.
The Onion Girl: deskphototshuma on March 25th, 2016 04:55 am (UTC)
It's an interesting perspective on the place and dynamic, for sure. I'm not sure how I "got good" at it, since I never dated anyone there until years after I was already in the advanced group. I think the main thing was probably that I had my local friends who would get together and dance once in a while, and sometimes have events where we would all haphazardly try to teach each other (Dancers Anonymous, we called ourselves). It wasn't always Irish, but since we did Irish performances at fairs, we did do some of that. It still wasn't weekly by any means, although I did start going to the Plough as often as I could manage once I discovered it.

Probably the best there was when I was learning was a woman who taught Irish dance at the UC Davis extension. She was great at teaching and very tolerant of a newby. I paid money for those weekly classes, but it wasn't a *lot* of money by your standards and only kind of a lot by my standards at the time.

Dancing came really easily to me, much like rock climbing, music, and languages. I've never not wanted to know how to dance, so I'm not sure my experience of learning it was at all typical.

I finally have a copy of the book in electronic form. But I got it only after I'd basically stopped dancing thanks to the accident.