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Left, Right, Rock Step

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In the fall of 2009, I took a beginning level guitar class. On the first day of this class, my instructor, Larry, expressed to us his annoyance with “sandbaggers,” and anyone that could identify as such either needed to drop the class, or find a different one.

What is a sandbagger, you ask? Well according to Larry, it is a student who has a relatively large amount of experience with a certain skill or subject, but still signs up for the beginning level course. Whether it’s for refreshment, an easy A, or just to have a blow-off class, I never knew the reason these sandbaggers do what they do. Until now.

I am in a ballroom dancing class this fall semester, and I am a sandbagger.

Every Monday, 75 or so students slowly fill the Molly Shi Boren ballroom for a couple hours, and try their hands (or should I say feet) at dances such as the Waltz, Tango, and Cha-Cha.

However, near the end of class when the music goes from a smooth and exquisite waltz to a loud, in-your-face, trumpet-blaring beat, I know it’s time for Swing. It is also at that point that my mind wanders far, far away from my partner, my feet, or the beat, and to a place call Government Springs Park, where I learned it all.

It was Labor Day weekend of 2006, and a friend of mine, Isaac King, was throwing a going-away party for himself and a friend. We enjoyed tons of food, took many pictures, and Isaac and his band, After 3, stood up to play a set for his adoring fans and friends. But suddenly the crowds parted, the music stopped, and with a big bright smile, Isaac shouted out to the crowd.

“Alright! Everyone who wants to swing dance, meet me up there.” He gestured towards the larger-than-life gazebo he and a few stragglers were standing near.

“Okay, for a lot of you, it’s the first time you’ve done this, so girls get behind Sarah, and guys follow me!” he instructed.

If you are or ever were a dancer, you understand that a dancer’s education is never complete. Or, if you have never danced in your life, you at least know that now. Me, I had danced since I could walk, so naturally I was drawn like a moth to flame at the chance to learn something new and refreshing.

I made my way to the row of shy and giggly girls standing behind Sarah, who was lean and beautiful and carried herself with a quiet yet cheery confidence. Once everyone was in place, Isaac began again.

“Swing boils down to three main steps: left, right, rock step,” he explained. “Guys, you step left, together. Now step right, together. Now step straight back on your left foot again, then shift you weight forward. That’s the rock step.”

Immediately after Isaac finished his brief instruction, Sarah chimed in. “Now, for us girls, it’s the same steps, just mirror image to your partner. So, you step right. Step left. Rock back. Step forward.”

Sounds easy enough, right? Well for those like myself just learning, it wasn’t so. In their attempt to grasp these new moves, people’s eyes were glued so fervently to their feet that they were almost completely bent over, and a constant mumbling overran the park.

“Left, right, rock step.”

However, the mumbling was cut off sharply by Isaac’s booming voice yet again.

“Okay, basic steps are done! Time to find a partner! Guys, ask a lady to dance.”

My heart started to pound. Someone was going to ask me to dance. Or worse, someone wasn’t going to. Talk about a nightmare come true. To me, this was more humiliating than being picked last in kickball, which I was.

Miraculously, I managed to snag a partner and avoid complete embarrassment, or so I thought. The hand that grabbed mine was Isaac’s, and immediately I felt a mix of stinging intimidation and some serious nerves. He obviously noticed the look of helplessness on my face, and he laughed.

“Are you nervous?” he inquired playfully.

“I… Don’t have a clue what to do,” I replied flatly.

“You’re fine, just follow me.”

The music started and people moved along with it. At first they were stiff, and paying more attention to their feet than to the person in front of them. But as the night wore on, the left, right, and rock step became easier, everybody loosened up, and joy overcame the faces of those under the gazebo.

With greater comfort came more moves. Inside turns, outside turns, reverses, and the twister, just to name a few. By the time the lights in the park shut off, we all felt like naturals.

Hours later we were all damp with sweat and out of breath, and the dancing came to a standstill in the night. Isaac decided this was a good time to share more advice with us, which manifested itself as the three rules of swing:

First, it is the man’s job to lead. Girls, let the man lead you. Men, step up and lead the girl.

Second, never apologize. Even if you mess up, just stay on beat, and keep dancing.

Third, if anything bad happens, anything at all, it is the man’s fault. Even if it actually is the girl’s fault, it is still the man’s fault.

Equipped with several moves and the three rules of swing delightfully intact in my head, over the next two years I spent countless nights at that giant gazebo in Government Springs Park, learning new moves with old friends, and even teaching old swing to new friends the same way it was taught to me: with the left, right, and rock step.

Today, I do my best to keep the swing in my step, and I suppose that is why I am a sandbagger. Even if the class isn’t as illustrious as was the dancing in the park until the sun came up, it still brings those memories to the forefront of my mind, and to me, those memories alone bring the swing back.

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About Frances Mooney