Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NEVERMORE! Jazz ball 2011 (ever, ever more.)

This photo is going to get used on every blog of this event, because it's awesome. Photo courtesy of Elisa Peterson

November 4-6th, me and a merry band of Columbus, OH, dancers made our way to St. Louis for the weekend-long spree of awesomeness that was the Nevermore Jazz Ball.  Our merry band was actually two whole cars full of dancers, 8 people willing to travel 7 hours for some St. Louis goodness.

 You may not know this, but the S in Hunter S stands for Stanley.
photo courtesy of Travis Hartman
The weekend began for me on Friday around noon, when my travel buddies showed up at my house to stash their cars in the lot and their bags in my CRV.  My OCD kicked in just a little at the start, and I took over packing the car, haha.  But! As a result! We got 4 people's worth of stuff for the weekend in the back, and I could still see out the back window.  Win.  

The trip down was relatively uneventful: get on I-70 W, drive until you hit STL.  We found a great Vietnamese restaurant right near the venue, and found the venue with no problem.  When we got there, there was a dedicated parking lot for the dancers, with a guard.  Brilliant! I love it when events go out of their way to solve parking problems.  Just takes a stressor out of the weekend.

We quickly got changed and dove into the dancing. The floor at the Casa Loma is really fantastic- both quick and beautiful.  That night we danced to two local bands, the Sidemen and Miss Jubilee's Hot 5.    Both bands were swinging deliciously.  We settled into the groove of hugging on and dancing with old friends, and quickly started making new ones.

Shannon, ever smiling.
Photo courtesy of Travis Hartman
Someday, maybe, you'll get to see Danny be
really excited.  photo courtesy Travis Hartman.

It wasn't all just hugs and relaxations, though.  Friday night was also the Jack and Jill competition, which everybody in my car/party had entered.  We even got B to enter.   :)

Binaebi and Jeremy in the Jack and Jill.
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

Plus,  all the contests for the weekend were MC'd by the ever-ineffable Jon Tigert.

The Jack and Jill has great compliment of competitors, and Columbus's own Shannon Varner took first, with John Holmstrom.  Aaron Raiff and Hannah Burgess took second, and Michael Bradford with Emily Schuhmann placed third.

Shannon Varner and John Holmstrom, J&J 1st place. Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

Hannah Burgess and Aaron Raiff, J&J 2nd place.
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

Michael Bradford and Emily Schuhmann, J&J 3rd place.
Also, some dude's head.
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

We danced until the music ended, around 2? and then went home to our wonderful host's house. Alem, our host, just could not have been sweeter.  She let us completely take over her living room with air mattresses, and made us tea in the morning, and was just a general embodiment of graciousness.  Thanks, Alem! Friday night was passed in peaceful dreaming.... Saturday morning we got up and had to decide what our course of action was for the day.

There were classes starting at 10am which were very, very tempting.  Roots (History) of Swing, and Lindy Hop with Peter and Mia.

Peter and Mia are awesome teachers. I found this out later in the afternoon, and also Sunday.
And Sunday night.  Photo courtesy of Elisa Peterson
But there was also the option of the City Museum. It must be confessed... we went to the City Museum instead of the morning classes.

"1: too great or extreme to be expressed or described
in words. 2: too sacred to be uttered."
Also, Lindyvangelist much?
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman
Further confession: I regret it not at all. So the City Museum is more like a giant, 10 story playground.  You know that awesome house that you designed when you were a kid, with tunnels between floors, and ladders and slides and treehouse-within-a-houses?  Well the city museum is that place.  Whatever you are picturing in your head, it was better.

We spent several hours crawling in and out holes, ascending steampunk scaffolding to ride a 10 story slide, scrambling up, around, and on the branches of a tree/next complex that were real wood, but smooth from how many hands have touched them.  We even went through several tunnels too small to turn around in or turn your head (my personal fear) and walked on catwalks where you could see 10 stories down (another group member's personal *favorite.*) We were warned before we went that we should have worn knee pads, but it's hard to really emphasize enough how much that is true.  Knee pads would have helped a lot!

crawling through holes!
photo courtesy of Binaebi Akah
photo courtesy of Binaebi Akah.

View from ground level, under one of the features-
Check out the whimsy in the background!
photo courtesy of Binaebi Akah
Pro tip: click on the photos, they
get bigger. 10 story steampunk slide!
photo courtesy of Binaebi Akah

We left the City Museum reluctantly, but we wanted to get the afternoon classes more than we wanted to continue abusing our knees.  The afternoon classes were Intermediate Shag in one location, and One-step in swing (Peter and Mia), followed by Tap with Shauna Marble.  I took the latter.

The One-step class was fun, and strangely reminiscent of Balboa.  In fact, I think some of the leaders in rotation were just doing Bal straight up, though the pulse felt very different from leaders that were legit trying the one-step that Peter and Mia were demoing, versus the leaders who had that "I've already got this," or "I give up on getting this," look on their face, staring off over my shoulder and doing lazy, bouncy Bal.

The tap class, I must admit, was kind of overwhelming.  It was taught by fabulous dancer and good teacher Shauna Marble, but at a pace that kind of left my head spinning.  I think a lot of it was that I've never taken any tap, so I was spending a lot of time trying to put the form of the moves into my brain and my body while she was moving on the next part of the routine she'd choreographed for us.  In the end, or rather the middle, the moleskin that I'd glued to my new Converses to make them dance shoes drastically came off of my right shoe.  I tried to stick it back on, but it kept coming off. I think it was the shuffles.  At any rate, I gave up, and spent the latter half of the class observing.  The overall impression of the tap class among my group was that it was fabulous.  I did enjoy the part that I did; I was just in over my head.  But some of the rest of the crew who've had a smattering of dance-other-than-lindy-or-partnered-swing were over the moon.
Me and Christian in the Not-so-Strictly, rawking out.
Also, you'd think I'd have learned this by now, but black outfits
don't photograph very well in dark ballrooms.
Photo courtesy of Travis Hartman.

After classes, we had some logistical shenanigans to work out for changing and getting cleaned up and dinner.  I was signed up to enter the Not-so-strictly-Lindy competition, which we'd been told would be battle format, with a dancer friend of mine who lives in a different city.  So we wanted some time to practice stuff during the dinner break, but I was driving and had a car full of people with me and Christian (from Indy) was also driving and had a car full of people with him.

In the end, we decided that we'd go back to our respective hosts houses, get changed, and then Christian's peeps would ride to the dance with somebody else, my peeps would take my car, and the two of us would get dinner relatively quickly since we were a small group.  We got a little bit done at Alem's house on her sweet wood floors, but mostly we just wanted to get to the ballroom early and have a bunch of dances together to ratchet up the confort level, since we definitely don't get to dance together as often as most of other competition pairs.

Saturday night was huge.

Actually, let me contradict myself a little.  Saturday was huge, emotionally, but the event itself was not that huge.  I'm guessing there were 300ish people there? Enough to really ratchet up the energy. But the ballroom was ample, so you never felt crowded.  And there were tables and chairs all around to socialize, and a bar, and the atmosphere was just very friendly.  It made it seem like such a "down home" event, despite the actual numbers.  I think a lot of that can be traced back to the main organizers, Christian and Jenny, who poured so much of themselves into the event.

Christian and Jenny.... are awesome. And both quite spiffing dancers.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Peterson.

So anyway, Saturday was a big night, because, well, first it's Saturday, and Saturday is always the big night of a weekend event.  It was also dress-to-impress night, and the Columbus crew brought it, bitches.


Though, it must be said, that Stan plaintively informed me a few days before the event, that if only he'd had more notice, he'd've gotten his tux altered in time and there would have been, "None, none more black."  I told him there's always next year.  

 Elisa Peterson Photography
Saturday was also when we got to hear Meschiya Lake again.  I had personally been dying to hear her again since ULHS, so I was in luck! Meschiya has an amazing voice, is an amazing performer, and is an amazing amount of fun.  Her band is also the best.

The social dancing Saturday night was so enjoyable, as it was all of the nights of the event. I was signed up for both competitions, though, (N-S-Strictly and Blues), so I was just a little keyed up.

I had had mixed feelings about the "Not so Strictly."  First, very positive feelings for how Christian and I danced, which I thought we killed it.  I felt like we held our own in what was a really good field of competitors, and I had a lot of fun doing it.  But the format was just a regular all-skate prelim followed by spotlight finals, which is not what we'd been told it would be (which was battles).  And there wasn't even any mention that the format had changed relative to what was advertised, which I thought was odd- not so much as a mention in the competitors' meeting that, 'Hey, we know we said it'd be battles but we changed it, now its this.'

Jeremy and Amanda in the NSS Finals
photo courtesy of Travis Hartman
I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to battle, because I felt like that is a format that might be more conducive to unknown competitors being able to catch the judges' or the crowd's eyes, since there would be fewer people to look at at a time, and it's hard to be noticed for the first time in an all-skate.  The other thing that I was disappointed about in that first comp was that the judges didn't even watch the third song.  We danced two songs, mediumish and slow, and then when they put the fast song on, the judges were all huddled in the back, not even watching.  Since the finals were tap-in, and the judged were no longer either watching or tapping, we knew we hadn't made it, and it just made me wonder why they even bothered to have us dance one more song.

At any rate, the finals were quite fun to watch, with the following results:
1. Aaron Raiff and Andrea Udey
2. Michael Bradford and Eve Bradford
3. John Holmstrom and Caitlin Baird Teague

Another angle of them walking through
the final all-skate with this.  Check
out the look on Michael and Eve's
Elisa Peterson Photography 
The most truly amazing thing that happened during the finals was Aaron and Andrea's quoting of Shorty George and Big Bea.  Half the judges were up out of their seats when it happened, and the whole crowd roared with one voice.

Shorty Aaron and Andrea Bea.
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman
It was pretty awesome.  

Michael and Eve, NSS 2nd place
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

John and Caitlin, NSS 3rd place
Photo courtesy Travis Hartman

omg, y'all this is so long.  Not done yet! This is also how the weekend felt.  Not that it was overly long, but that it was just so many good things after good things that I couldn't believe that I got to have more, yet.  That's sort of how I feel writing this.  I hope you don't feel, reading it, that it drags on and on!
Mike and Dan making stretchy awesomeness.
Photo Travis Hartman
Another highlight for me, of watching the NSS finals, was watching Mike Leggett and Dan Rosenthal come and bust out some shapes that may be more traditionally associated with "blues" movement, at the speeds at which the finals were conducted.  Which was not a traditional "blues" tempo, as it were.  But that was the whole point, right? That it was NOT strictly a lindy comp.

Do you want to know what was the hands-down MOST adorable thing all weekend, though?  'Cause it was 95 year old Tommy Russo getting up on stage to sing "All of me" with Meschiya and dem Little Big Horns.  The man was dancing in the Casa Loma Ballroom when he was a teenager, and the man still dances.  It was inspiring.  

Elisa Peterson Photography

I was actually so fortunate that I got a dance with him, myself.  It was earlier in the evening, before he'd gone up on stage, and, to be honest, before I knew who he was. He'd been sitting right at the edge of the dance floor with his daughter.  He grabbed my wrist as I walked by, with surprising strength, and stopped me in my tracks.  In such a loud ballroom, his grip was stronger than his voice, I suspect.  At any rate, he pulled me in to say something about my dancing, that he'd been watching me.  I was flabbergasted, and I sat down to talk to him for a while.  He said his name was Tommy, and that he'd been dancing there since he was 13.  We set and talked for a while, and I asked him if he still danced.   He said yes, though the current song was too fast for his taste, and that he'd come find me when a more suitable song came on.  I pointed to where I was sitting, and went to get a drink, but sure enough the next song was a nice mellow tune that was swinging hard.
Brent Watson and me, blues comp.
Photo Travis Hartman

I went back to find him, and good to his word, he'd started trucking across the edge of the floor to go find me for the dance.  We danced the whole song, and I could barely contain myself from audibly going "squeee" the entire time.  There was a  smattering of people that gathered to watch us dance, and by the looks of it, not all of them were able to contain themselves.  It was  such a fun dance, and I felt so fortunate to be able to have it. I'm a ball of cheese, but it's true.

Much later in the evening, around 1 am, there was the blues comp.  The format of this one was a little different, in that there were no "prelims" or "finals," just one long tap-out route that finally got down to three couples.  I was fortunate to find a partner for this competition as well, another leader from Indiana who I've always enjoyed dancing with.   Again, I was pleased with how my partner and I danced, but we were tapped out very early in the round, so we weren't able to dance to the gorgeous song for too long.

Joe being removed from the floor.
Photo Travis Hartman
Another couple who didn't get to dance as long as they might have liked, were Joe Hanson and his partner. As they saw Tigert approaching them to tap them out, Joe started prancing away, as if to stave off the elimination by avoiding the touch.  Hemmed in by the spectators, of course, the outcome of such a chase must be known.  John tapped Joe on the shoulder, who fell, dramatically stricken, but in the middle of the dance floor.  A good MC can handle any situation, and Joe was promptly drug off the competition floor.  But A++ for hilarity and entertainment value!

When the field had finally been winnowed down to three couples, the competition among the three finalists was rowdy.  When only Paul and Meghan, Aaron and Andrea, and Michael and Dee were dancing, the dancers were going wild and the crowd was going nuts.  Ultimately, the judges tapped out Michael and Dee, and the crowd started booing like crazy.  I have never heard a crowd boo the judges like that at a dance comp.   I think they probably should have put Michael and Dee back in, since the crowd had such a negative reaction, but I guess they took the "what's done is done" approach.

Michael Bradford and Dee Daniels Locke, Blues 3rd place
photo Travis Hartman

Finally, only Aaron and Audry and Paul and Meghan were left, and when the music stopped, the crowd voted by standing up and applauding when the couple of their choice was called.  Aaron and Audry ended up in 2nd, with Paul and Meghan taking first.

Aaron and Audry, blues 2nd Place
Photo Travis Hartman
Paul Mandel and Meghan Lisi, blues 1st place.
Photo Travis Hartman

And then we danced till 3 am.  Luckily, the classes didn't begin the next day until noon.  I am nearly out of pictures, y'all, so Sunday will be covered somewhat less exhaustively.

Long story short, there were two classes at noon, Blues (Mike Leggett and Dan Rosenthal) and Dixieland Swing (Peter and Mia). I went to the latter, and then stayed for the Shuffle Bal block (2 classes) while most of my group decamped for St Louis Shag.  The nice thing about the two class venues (one was the main ballroom, the other was a yoga studio down the street) was that they were close enough to walk between.  So we stashed the car once, and then everyone was free to pick which classes they'd like to go to.

John Bedrosian, learnin' peeps some St Louis Shag
Elisa Peterson Photography

My decision to stay for Bal instead of shag was, I admit, part pessimism and part pragmatism.  Prior to the trip, I was really really looking forward to dancing some St. Louis Shag, but once I got there and was faced with the decision, I realized that I'd be dancing a lot more Bal than St. Louis Shag once I left, and I'd rather learn something I'd use more often.  Maybe a shred of this pessimism comes from the fact that I hadn't danced Carolina Shag since I moved to Ohio, despite how often I did growing up (in SC) and in college, and I missed it.  St. Louis Shag would probably prove to be similarly rare.

Plus, most of the rest of my group went to the shag class, and I figured we could trade things we learned later.

Everyone who went to the St Louis Shag class was definitely enchanted.  They came back raving about John, about Shag, and wanting to shag, ahem, all night long.  Some of that was indeed accomplished later at the Atomic Cowboy.  This included a spectacular steal jam featuring my friend Ali, who was stolen in turns by John and by Peter Loggins, and they shagged the whole song.  It was great! John Bedrosian himself was super gracious to my whole group all weekend.  He was energized by the energy of a fresh crop of dancers loving the dance he's love for so long, and it was pretty neat.  Such a sweet guy.

Once I had the opportunity to learn Peter and Mia's flavor of "shuffle" Balboa, though, I was so glad I'd stayed for the Bal class.  It was an interesting class, in that it was very much "all levels" sort of deal.  It was in opposition to the "Advanced St Louis Shag" class, so it was filled with A) everyone who'd already taken Intermediate St Louis Shag on Saturday, B) anybody who didn't feel they were up to Advanced Shag, and C) anybody that was passionate about Balboa.  The class level spectrum was pretty broad.

But Peter and Mia taught to everyone beautifully.  There was so much information that we could each personally work on, and it seemed like everyone from the students who'd never done Bal before, to dancers who I know have been to multiple All-Bal-Weekends were entranced the whole time. I know I enjoyed it quite a lot, and was psyched to try it out on the dance floor.

Sunday night, after classes, we moped around outside the Casa Loma for a bit, saying goodbyes, but really glad that we didn't have to go back yet.  Everybody in my car had taken Monday off.  As Amanda Bernice said much later at the pancake house, "It's just the smart thing to do."

We took our host Alem out to dinner, and she picked Thai Pizza! Which sounds totally scary but was actually really good.  And then we got kitted up to go out to the Sunday evening dance at the Atomic Cowboy, which I guess is the St Louis local weekly venue.  There was a pretty good sized crowd of people just standing around watching, though, so that was new to me.  Apparently some of them were confused about what swing dancing might be, though, because a few of the observers had this conversation not 4 feet from where a friend was dancing: They were speculating about which dancers were gay (I was picked out as potentially gay, apparently, but it wouldn't be the first time somebody's made that error), and whether or not we were all really "swingers," since we were changing partners every song.  Hysterical.

Almost all of my favorite dancers of the weekend were there Sunday night.  The floor in the back room where they had us was terrible, adherent and uneven.  But after the first couple of songs, I more or less forgot about it.  Step-through turns ftw! The dancers were uninhibited and relaxed, led on by the organizers and judges who could finally breathe now that the weekend was over.  In some ways, I regret that there were not photographs of Sunday night, but the lack of photographers was strangely freeing.  We danced until 3 am or so and then went and had pancakes at a local favorite with everyone who remained at the bar, 16 or so people.

Beyond that, I almost feel a little bit like "Don't talk about Fight Club" about Sunday night.  I can't say it was my favorite night of the trip, because each night was so much different, but damn, Sunday night was fun. I will say that John Bedrosian and Peter Loggins danced all night.  They stayed up dancing longer than some younger dancers I could name, who retired to the refuge of the bar after Meschiya Lake stepped off the stage.  Both John and Peter are superlatively delightful to dance with.  Also, I had probably the best dance that the two of us have ever had, with my friend Danny to the rockabilly DJ late, late that night.

Ok, one more detail.  Me and a certain head judge had an in-depth conversation about our favorite Star Trek *episodes,* after I said something about being a big nerd and he was like, oh yeah? how big? "Favorite-Star-Treks big," I replied.  And he had a few of his own.

In summary, holy cow was this post way too long, and I will do everything in my power to come back next year.  They had the best of the in-city feel of an event like ULHS, combined with a small-town-friendly vibe that warmed my cynical little soul all weekend.

Thanks, y'all! See you next year!

oooh, late-breaking update.  Elisa Peterson has but a ton more photos up on her non-facebook website! Go look!

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