Andy Warhol On Glamour And Anticipation

Kit’s prom post reminded me of this observation:
Warhol-dead-neon

“Sometimes you’re invited to a big ball and for months you think about how glamorous and exciting it’s going to be. Then you fly to Europe and you go to the ball and when you think back on it a couple of months later what you remember is maybe the car ride to the ball, you can’t remember the ball at all. Sometimes the little times you don’t think are anything while they’re happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life. I should have been dreaming for months about the car ride to the ball and getting dressed for the car ride, and buying my ticket to Europe so I could take the car ride. Then, who knows, maybe I could have remembered the ball.”

—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol : (From A to B and Back Again) 


[“Handy Andy,” by Flickr user Son of Groucho under Creative Commons license.]

The First Big Night To Remember: Prom Glamour

Prom 1993 For high school-aged girls across America, late spring means one thing: prom time. For most, the season really probably started months – even years ago – with careful perusal of dresses in magazines and intense discussion of who’s going with whom and “OMG will I get a date??!?”

The big day arrives with corsages and manicures and hair appointments and limousines – all the trappings of grown-up red carpet glamour, tried out for the first time by 17 and 18-year olds anxious to grow up.

A rite of passage in many ways, all of the rituals and excitement surrounding the prom give most kids their first brush with adult glamour. Reared on princess mythology, girls finally get to don their own ball gowns and be perceived not just as little girls, but as something close to grown women.

The end-of-high-school dance as we know it didn’t emerge until the 1930’s or ‘40s (and really took hold in the ‘50s), but “proms,” short for promenade, most likely began in the U.S. during the late 19th century. Originally dances held at Northeastern colleges to celebrate the end of senior year, the first proms were modeled on formal debutante balls and designed to help young adults learn social skills and etiquette.

Though today’s dances, with their fancy dresses and fancier cars, often seem to be less about etiquette and more about showing off, the prom is one glamour-related tradition that hasn’t strayed too much from its original roots. It’s still about learning how to get dressed up and how to act (or not act). Even MTV, not exactly a network famous for portraying teenagers in their most flattering, mannerly light, uses prom as an opportunity to offer a bit of practical grooming and etiquette advice.

The biggest lesson my own prom taught me wasn’t about manners or social graces. Instead, it was that sometimes, the most glamorous part of the evening occurs before the event even begins. My memories of the prom are good ones, from start to finish, but my memories of finding and buying my prom dress are even better. At my grandmother’s insistence, I took a day off school and she and my mom and I drove from Annapolis to D.C., to find stores that carry something other than boat shoes and polo shirts.

After several fruitless hours and a nice lunch, we ended up in the cocktail dresses at the Neiman Marcus on Wisconsin Avenue, where I found an amazing dress that was somehow both sophisticated and age appropriate (though it was definitely not designed with prom in mind). Buying that dress was the culmination of a lot of daydreams. It was also practice for a lot of future shopping, including for a wedding dress.

Trying that dress on for the first time, and again to show it off to friends and family, I felt as glamorous as any 17-year old girl possibly can. When the big day arrived, and my hair was up and my nails were painted and I’d replaced my Chapstick with lipstick, the glamour reached fever pitch. But it wasn’t sustainable and I’m not sure that the reality of the evening could’ve possibly lived up to the fantasy. And that's OK. Part of the allure of glamour is that it’s fleeting.

That’s me in the picture, by the way (or the back of my dress, at least) and my high school boyfriend/prom date next to me. We're outside my parents’ house enjoying prom’s own version of the red carpet, the pre-dance rush of flashbulbs and corsages.

And the dress now? It’s hanging in my closet. I’m sure it’ll never fit me again, but I just can’t part with it. Too many memories, and too many lessons. Plus, it's really, really pretty.

Grace, Imagination, And The Pursuit Of A Snag-Free Existence

Snagged

I once left a wedding reception early because I’d punched hideous hole in my dark hose, and, for reasons I now forget, bare legs were not a viable option. A more graceful guest would have tucked a spare pair into her handbag or worn something more resilient. Glamour requires careful planning, or sturdier materials. Either way, you appear to exist in a snag-free state of being.

Simone de Beauvoir disapproved of the pursuit of such polish. Elegance, she believed, held women in bondage, robbing them of their humanity.

Accidents will happen; wine is spilled on her dress, a cigarette burns it; this marks the disappearance of the luxurious and festive creature who bore herself with smiling pride into the ballroom, for she now assumes the serious and severe look of the housekeeper; it becomes all at once evident that her toilette was not a set piece like fireworks, a transient burst of splendor, intended for the lavish illumination of a moment. It is rather a rich possession, capital goods, an investment; it has meant sacrifice; its loss is a real disaster. Spots, tears, botched dressmaking, bad hair-dos are catastrophes still more serious than a burnt roast or a broken vase, for not only does the woman of fashion project herself into things, she has chosen to make herself a thing. (The Second Sex)

Even accounting for the regimentation of mid-century fashion and mid-century women’s roles, de Beauvoir is too harsh. A man’s suit is also a capital good—literally, an investment used to produce income—and a single spot can spoil a necktie. Women of fashion are not the only people who dress for the eyes of others. Everyone does so, knowingly or not. In condemning the woman of fashion, de Beauvoir partakes of the intellectual’s illusion that human beings can divorce mind from body.

But grace, polish, and sprezzatura are indeed difficult and unnatural. They defy decay, entropy, gravity, and time—and pretend to do so effortlessly. Such defiance can never be more than a “transient burst.” Yet, whether captured by an artist or conjured in the mind’s eye, the image of that ideal moment invites us to inhabit it. To project ourselves into things is to express the human desire to transcend our circumstances. The woman of fashion turns herself not into a generic “thing” but a cultural artifact, a work of art.

 ["Snagged" photo by Flickr user Carol Young, used with permission.]

Ecclesiastical Fashion: Where The Well-Dressed Pontiff Shops

2986011649_a1346b3b54 Recently, I went to a press screening of Angels & Demons, and spent most of the evening trying to identify various locations in Rome. Not the obvious ones, like St. Peter's and the Pantheon, but the rather more obscure places.  I was thrilled to catch a quick glimpse of one of my favorite shops, De Ritis, on the via de Cestari. If you want nice grey cardigan, as worn by nuns, this is the place.

Of course, the really posh ecclesiastics like to shop across the street at Gammarelli, the Papal tailors since 1798. If you're not expecting election soon, you can always buy the red knee length socks--the same as worn by the Cardinals. The other Cardinals, not the World Series ones.

There are other clerical outfitters in Rome, each with their own clientele. Sorgente is rather more modern than some others, with a minimalist look, and they donate to charity.

Barbiconi, despite a rather frustrating website, also supplies several orders of knighthood, including the

Orders of Knighthood like the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Equestrian Order of St. Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Order of St. George the Great, the Order of St. Sylvester the Pope and the Scared Military Costantinian Order.

I'm guessing that last one is a typo for the Sacred Military Constantinians, but who knows?

Cardinals and bishops who like to shop close to work frequent Euroclero, but's rather downmarket. Tridentium offers the most complete online shopping--where else can you get something as wonderful as a regulation red hat?
Cappello_cardina_484e939211256

DG Q & A: Anna David

3388615386_642f3b031eAnna David has packed a lot of living into her years—she's been a staff writer for glossy magazines such as Premiere, a prolific freelancer, and a professional sex and love expert. She has investigated meth use in Hollywood, produced a TV show, written a roman à clef novel about a party-girl reporter. She appears regularly as the thinking man's pop culture pundit, and blogs, twitters, flickrs, and all the rest of whatever it is that modern media types do. She's also clean, sober, cheerful, pretty, and nice. We'd hate her if we didn't know her, and we'd be wrong. She's just great. And thus, she answered our questions.

DG: To coin a not-very-original phrase, you've looked at celebrity from both sides, now. Is show biz still glamorous (if it ever was) for you?

AD: Well, if I'm a celebrity, then I'm at best a D-list one and considering how mean I've occasionally been about mere C-listers, that's sort of frightening. As for the glamour—well, I think living in L.A. for a decade certainly cures you of any notions that being a celebrity is terribly glamorous. When I first got there, I positively worshiped at the altar of celebrity—I thought the most amazing thing that could happen to someone was to become a celebrity's confidante or girlfriend. But I was absolutely fetishizing their fame and really, when it came down to it, using whoever I was interacting with in that way because I wasn't interested in who they were as people but in what I thought their choosing to be around me meant about me. It started to make me feel terrible about myself and I could never really feel comfortable in those situations anyway.

DG: And now that you're no longer a civilian, do you regret any of your journalistic ways?

AD: I try not to regret a lot but I'm slightly embarrassed by some of the writing I did about sex before I understood exactly what I needed and didn't need to share about my personal life with complete strangers. I've always lacked that filter that stops thoughts from coming out as sentences and looking back, I see there are times where I didn't have to reveal so much or be that graphic. And I allowed editors to make my material more risqué than what I turned in because I thought I had to in order to get more work, rather than sticking to what I felt comfortable with. And it was the same situation when I started answering sex and relationship questions on TV—I thought I had to say everything I could about myself. I've now gotten to the point—with TV, with magazine stories, with my blog and Facebook and twitter and even, say, this—where I know how much to reveal without feeling like beating myself up about it later.

Aboutbought DG: Your new book, Bought, explores the demi-monde of modern Hollywood—the professional girlfriend. You'd reported on top-dollar prostitution in Details—what's the lure for these women? Just money? Or is that too simple?

AD: I think it's more about power and control than it is about money. Most of the girls that I met when I was doing the Details piece were either porn stars or had been in Penthouse; prostitution was their side job, something they were able to make a significant amount of money from because of their "fame." In the world of the book, the main prostitute character is masking massive insecurity and an inferiority complex with her beauty, airs and controlling personality: she tells herself and everyone else that she does what she does because it allows her to be in control of her life and to control her clients but it's clear from how quickly she gets agitated and defensive whenever she feels someone judging her and how much of herself she gives away in order to please her main client that she's full of it. In both the real world I saw and the world of the book, the girls are also doing so many drugs that they're able to blot out a lot of the reality of what they're doing and convince themselves that they're powerful when on some level they know they're not.

[Take the Can You Be Bought? quiz. Read the first chapter.]

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour? To me, it's a pair of Christian Louboutin heels getting out of a town car, perfectly applied fake lashes, the right kind of European accents. And I'll tell you what it's not: writing novels. Unless, of course, you're Danielle Steele. Louboutin+Anemone+satin+crepe+pump+with+bow+-+pair (Small)

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? I think Diane Von Furstenberg is pretty fabulous. I love it when someone who appears to not need to work not only busts her ass for a career but also thrives while doing so.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? It's not so much a luxury as it is reserved for certain times. It's wonderful to have a glamorous night now and again but eating fried chicken in sweats also has its appeal.

PP31257~Pulp-Fiction-Posters 4) Favorite glamorous movie? To me, it's Pulp Fiction. The wardrobes. The drugs. The music. The dancing. So glam.

5) What was your most glamorous moment? I've had a few. What feels like 1000 years ago, I dated a struggling actor named Matt Damon, who then of course became a major movie star. But I went to the premiere of his first movie, School Ties, with him at the Rainbow Room in New York.

6) Favorite glamorous object? iPhone

7) Most glamorous place? It's been a while since I've been there but Seville, Spain seemed pretty glamorous to me. The streets smelled like flowers and what's more glamorous than that?

8) Most glamorous job? I think the TV stuff I get to do is pretty glamorous. I literally get to go in, try on clothes that someone went out and bought specifically for me, have amazing hair and makeup people make me look as good as I can and then say things that are televised. I'm just a writer who happened to stumble into that seat and I often marvel at how different that is than, say, having a Maxim editor tell me that my third rewrite on the sex positions story isn't quite up to their standards.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't? Writing novels and writing for magazines. I can't tell you how many people tell me they'd love to have my writing career. I always want to say: Um, do you understand that it involves killing yourself to make editors happy and spending something like 10 hours a day in front of a computer with only cats for company?

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized? One of the cats that keeps me company. She's a mutt who came for free from a pet store but her fur is deliciously decadent and she's perfected the "Oh, you've finally arrived to tend to my needs" Joan Crawford expression.

11) Can glamour survive? I think we'll always need it to balance out the mundane.

2) Is glamour something you're born with? In my cat's case, yes.

EITHER/OR

1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Angelina because unpredictable and unhinged will always appeal to me more than stately and together.

2) Paris or Venice? Paris, because I still semi speak the language.

3) New York or Los Angeles? New York for spring and fall, L.A. for summer and winter.

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Di, if only because she was more of a cultural figure to me than Princess Grace. I still remember coming home from school one day and my mom said, "You're never going to believe this but Princess Grace died!" I was like, "Princess who?"

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Japan

6) Boots or stilettos? Boots because, as a former ballerina, I have too many sprained ankles in my past to really do the stilettos thing.

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Deco

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Jaguar

9) Armani or Versace? Armani. I think Versace is pretty over-the-top a lot of the time.

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Anna Wintour, possibly only out of my own egomania since we share the same first name.

100_wintour

11) Champagne or single malt? Formerly: champagne—specifically, Bellinis. Currently: neither.

12) 1960s or 1980s? The 80s because I was around for them.

13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds. Pearls are very Westport, Connecticut to me. Diamonds—so long as they're not huge and ostentatious—are lovely.

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate Moss because I'm mystified by the whole Dorian Gray thing she has going. How can she possibly live the way she's rumored to live and still look so good? While Naomi obviously still looks great as well, she's almost become a cartoon character in my mind.

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Neither—not a James Bond girl, I'm afraid. In fact, I twittered during the Oscars this year that Craig left me cold and got hate tweets for it!

Editor's Note: DG On The Kindle

DeepGlamour is now available for Amazon's Kindle. (If you don't already own a Kindle but, like me, wish you did, I suggest waiting for the Kindle DX, which can handle larger pages.) If you're a regular DG reader, please consider adding some descriptions and tags to the Amazon page.

DG has an RSS feed here.

That Deadly Look: Sniper Glamour

Armani The distanced gaze of models as they walk the runway is fascinating. Their elevated position appears to give them status (just as elevated thrones, raised platforms, and having subjects bow gave rulers status). Models on the runaway generally gaze above their audience, thus seeming too uninterested in anyone below their position to bother to look  down at them.

Russian model Sasha Pivovarova, seen here in an Armani ad, has self-described her gaze as influenced by the images in silent films and as being “ice cold and unreachable, like the stare of a sniper.”

To fully appreciate the significance of that remark it helps know that in World War II Russia trained 2,000 women snipers, only 500 of which survived the fighting. One of them, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, has been listed as one of the top ten snipers of all time. During the war she had 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. Russia issued two postage stamps in her honor, and in the best known photograph of her with her rifle (shown below), she appears both strikingly attractive and as relentless in purpose as one would have to be to achieve that many kills.

 Other famous Russian women snipers include Roza Shanina (a sweet-looking kindergarten teacher turned sniper), Tanya Baramzina (who was brutally tortured and executed when captured), and Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya (who commanded a company of women snipers). Russian and Soviet women have been awarded medals in some of the most hazardous combat assignments, including scouts, snipers, and fighter pilots. 

Lyudmyla_pavlichenko Thus when Sasha Pivovarova mentions the stare of a sniper, she may well be referencing images such as this one of Lyudmila Pavlichenko (most likely one of the publicity photos taken of her). Here was a woman who was extremely successful in the glamorous wartime role of sniper. The role is glamorous partly because snipers tend to work alone, or in teams of two (shooter and spotter). And partly because there is something fascinating about a sniper’s patience, stealthiness, self-control, and cold-blooded ability to kill from great distances. Snipers have been the subject of numerous novels and films. Her first day in combat Pablichenko could not bring herself to shoot until the young soldier next to her was shot and killed. After that she said, “Nothing could stop me.” Pavlichencko’s fame as a sniper eventually became so great that she was pulled out of combat so that she could be sent to Canada and the United States for publicity. She was the first Soviet citizen to be received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Any special “looks” that models repeatedly use can make them candidates for both emulation and parody. The facial poses of male models was parodied by Ben Stiller in Zoolander. (See Ben Stiller being Derek Zoolander in a commercial.) His “patented” look was named “Blue Steel” (and was identical to his other looks). To practice your Blue Steel has become an insider joke among models, and one web site tells how to do it, while at the same time complaining about seeing it commonly used by celebrities.

An irony in the name “Blue Steel” is that it references the bluing process that is used to provide rust protection to steel gun barrels, as well as to reduce the glare from the barrel. Perhaps the name emphasizes the sense of cold hardness that we sometimes feel when looking at photographs of models and actors. There is also the suggestion of danger. Sasha Pivovarova describes herself a smiling person in real life, but when she uses her sniper stare there is a feeling that if she did condescend to look your way, she could, if she chose to, kill you without hesitation.

Jean-harlow-392

Although I can think of silent film actresses who could project this quality (Louise Brooks, for example), the platinum blond quality of the Armani ad brings to mind actress Jean Harlow. Although she often sparred with her male costars using wit and laughter, she could look deadly when she wanted to.

Dance Week: Cuba, Ballet, And The Preservation Of Glamour

Cristian Rey is a 32-year-old nursing student in Miami and an active participant on the  BalletTalk discussion forum, where he upholds traditional notions of elegant comportment and dress. “I’m a firm believer of that Felia Doubrovska’s mantra about ‘walking like a ballerina, dressing like a ballerina,’” he commented during a discussion of glamour among contemporary ballerinas. Iin this guest post, he looks back at how in his childhood ballet was connected to the lost glamour of pre-revolutionary life, even as the Cuban National Ballet represented Castro's revolution.

My memories of beauty and glamour begin with growing up in Cuba during the  1980s—not what people think of when hearing about Cuba, Castro, and the whole communist ordeal. In my childhood, the hotels were open to the nationals, American currency did not circulate, and the stores, while not overstuffed, had many products, mostly from the Soviet Union and the eastern communist countries. My mother had an old 1956 Chrysler, inherited from my grandfather, and gas wasn’t expensive. 

Lago de los cisnes And then there was ballet. Ballet stories were common at home. My mother had studied at a local ballet academy, which was a natural thing to do for a girl of the middle class. Here is when I first heard about this surreal and magic world…more than a simple art or entertainment vehicle, but truly a lifestyle. Thinking back, now I understand what an important role did ballet played in my imagination as a child. There were black-and-white pictures in which my mother would be smiling at the camera dressed in classical tutus. And then the stories…in which she would reminisce about the ballet studio, the mirrors, her former teacher, and the performances. Everything was beautiful, glamorous, and, yes, somehow deliciously decadent. Then, 1959 came, along with a Revolution that was to suppress the “old regime vices,” with its “decadent bourgeoisie” and its way of living. Private clubs, religious institutions, and domestic servants, among other things, were prohibited. The old ballet studio was confiscated, the mirrors destroyed, and the teacher would eventually exile herself 90 miles away, just as her former student, my mother, did many years later.

So here I was, as a kid, listening to all this stories, looking at the pictures, hearing my mother and my grandmother describe with sorrow and pain how all was destroyed, banned, erased. I came to understand how difficult it is to give up a whole lifestyle. Inside our house they tried their best to preserve the old world. The table was set with all the silverware—even when the food for which was intended was absent—and religion was preserved against my atheist official education. Stories about “before” were passed to me in low voices. My grandmother had a whole beauty ritual, in which she would sit in front of this piece of furniture called “coqueta” (dressing table) with huge long vertical mirrors and drawers for her makeup. The process took her one hour, and I found it fascinating. She was very specific about her looks, and up to her old age, she insisted in dyeing her hair every month and wrapping it in rollers at night, just in case “I die during the night and have to be dragged out of the house in front of everybody.” Meanwhile, the official “new woman of the socialist society” dressed in work pants and traveled on top of trucks to work on the cane fields, hand in hand with the men.

Alicia Alonso
The Cuban National Ballet fit uneasily into the new world. On the one hand, it was an official vehicle of the Communist government, and Fidel Castro himself showed interest in the company’s development as far soon as he took power in 1959. The artistic director and prima ballerina assoluta Mme. Alicia Alonso (right) decided that she needed to trust Castro, and her support for the revolution remains strong to this day. She created the company in 1948, but struggled until Castro’s revolutionaries arrived 11 years later with a grant to support the company. As her group became stronger, Castro told her that she needed to produce great art in return for the funding, and that she would have to perform for the workers around the country. While other great Cuban cultural plans have fallen, Alonso has made sure that her ballet survived, its funding increased even during the darkest days. Alonso’s dancers continue to be a vehicle for exporting the idea of the revolution.

Loipa_bosh_pla_mendez The ballet's first generation of Cuban dancers, however, had been a product of the previous government. I will always remember the famous “Four Jewels”: Mirta Pla, Josefina Mendez, Loipa Araujo, and Aurora Bosh (left). These were women who had been raised before the revolution, and hence, their education and even their off-stage projection were quite different than those who were born and raised after 1959. When I started going to the ballet as a kid, three of these dancers were still active within the company, and very often they used to make appearances in festivals and special performances. They were very refined ladies, who carried the weight of being the glamorous face of the company, and they did so with style and grace. At times I got to see them at the theater, and they certainly looked from another time, another era. The hair, makeup, conversation, everything exuded elegance, refinement…in other words, old school glamour. 

After 1959, a new generation of dancers began to develop. Little by little, the ballerina was no longer a “lady,” separate from the rest of us mortals. The ballet school started to make its best efforts to “integrate” its students, and the “ladies” became “comrades.” Or at least that was the idea. New choreographies were created, like “Avanzada,” in which the dancers, guided by a uniformed woman, portrayed military forces in the process of building the new communist society.


As time passed, however, it became obvious that this project wasn’t going to succeed, as ballet is based, by nature, in grace and refinement. Eventually the old Petipa princesses came back to life, and regained their previous position. Ballerinas went back to being “different,” and class and distinction were back in fashion. This tradition is still alive. Cuban classical dancers are fully aware of their role, and they show it with pride.

Dance Week: Costumes For Social Dancing

Dancer in a red dress Anyone who ever watched an episode of Dancing with the Stars knows that elaborate costumes are an important part of competitive ballroom dancing. The costumes on the show are theatrical and extreme. But partner dancing is a special activity, and when people go out to dance they often costume themselves accordingly. The style of dance and the social situation can be major factors in clothing selection.

For example, some high school and college age students have taken an interest in swing and Lindy Hop dancing. They sometimes costume themselves in outfits resembling swing dance clothing worn in the 1940s and 50s, some even wearing Zoot suits. Loose fitting clothing or knit fabrics allow the freedom of movement needed for acrobatic moves.

Smooth dances like the waltz and fox-trot work best on dance floors large enough to allow long sweeping strides, and turns look particularly graceful in long, flowing dresses.

In Latin dance competitions women expose lots of flesh with showgirl-like costumes, and men wear tight-fitting pants. These costumes help display the sensual hip motion used in most Latin dancing. At a Latin club, you won’t see women dancing in such extreme costumes, but you will see sexy outfits. At a Latino Valentine's Day dance I attended, a store named Gloria's had a fashion show, and every woman’s outfit featured at least one strategically placed cut out.

 Many Latin dances feature fast spins for the women. These are easier to do wearing dance shoes with leather soles and at least some heel elevation (as with the dancer in red shoes in the photo). Skirts that flare up beautifully and display the legs  during these fast spins are popular. With shorter skirts that flare, women wear dance briefs in a color that goes with the skirt, just in case.

Social dancing is a large world, with lots of subgroups. One couple that I know loves to polka, and they drive long distances to dance to bands like Barefoot Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen. The polka has a long and varied history. In the 19th century it was sometimes an energetic and elegant formal dance. Today at large polka festivals in the United States and Europe you may see various national costumes, as well as costumes representing polka clubs. In the U.S. and Mexico polka costumes can vary from region to region. One constant around the world tends to be full skirts that flare nicely when the woman twirls.

West Coast Swing is done in an imaginary, long, thin slot, making it an ideal dance for bars. The attire is casual, though generally tight and sexy for the woman, befitting her provocative role in this dance. In West Coast Swing the distance between the couple repeatedly expands and contracts in an ongoing push and pull. It’s the only social dance I know in which the woman repeatedly steps toward the man as if to seduce or walk over him. When first learning this dance, from the male perspective it can feel like a elaborate form of self-defense. He can push the woman back, step backwards himself, step aside and guide her past him, or spin her in seemingly disorienting ways. Sometimes she’ll move teasingly close and then push away from him. Women dancing the West Coast Swing often make their bodies “slinky” with various intriguing undulations, especially at slow tempos. Tight fitting tops and pants (or jeans) help display these sensual bodily motions.

The video above is of two instructors randomly paired in a Jack and Jill competition. J&J dances are improvised, sometimes by partners who have never danced together. The exact choice of music will be a surprise, but the dancers usually know the possibilities well enough to interpret whatever comes up. (Incidentally, Wayne Bott danced this improvisation with a heart condition, but he clearly didn’t hold back.) West Coast Swing style is highly variable, depending on both the individual dancers and the style of music. (If you want to see examples of this, here’s three other couples improvising: 1, 2, 3.)

The Western two-step is a relatively elegant dance in which the dancers travel around the floor, similar to smooth dances like the fox-trot and waltz. The costumes are surprisingly expensive. I researched this at a farm and ranch store. A pair of cowboy boots will cost you $100 to $300+, and a nicely decorated belt $40 to $150. Many men wear hats while dancing, which adds $50 to $200. (These are local Western wear prices. High fashion cowboy hats can cost $1,000.)

The two-step is another dance with fast spins for the women, and good dancers sometimes use amazingly complex arm work. (You can see a sample of this in a competition below.) Boots work well for this dance, and, if women choose to wear skirts, they usually wear skirts that flare. However, at casual dances jeans are just as stylish for women as for men.

Since ranchers breed animals, I noticed that the stores that sell them clothing can be forthright in their advertising. One sign read, “Buy the Latest Fashions for your Favorite Stud.” A sign advertising women's jeans read, “Look Good While You’re Walking Away.” 

3489910110_e87870cf40 That Western wear can be provocative is openly acknowledged by a company named Cruel Girl. They sell hats named “Cruel Intentions,” and their jeans slogan is, “Our jeans. Your body. A cruel combination.” 

I asked a saleswoman if the advertising for men's jeans ever took a similar approach, and was told that it didn’t. Apparently, true to their strong, silent mystique, cowboys just quietly wear tight jeans. Jeans remain work wear for farmers and ranchers, and I learned that there is now a trend toward looser jeans for men. However, the women I asked preferred that their men wear tighter jeans for dancing. Perhaps their reasons are practical. After all, if cowgirls choose to go out dancing with their favorite stud (or candidates being evaluated for that position), then it’s only sensible to showcase his qualifications.

[“Dancer in Red” photo taken in a Los Angeles club by Randall Shinn. “Boots” photograph courtesy of Flickr user Julian Povey under Creative Commons license.]

Dance Week: Dancing And Self Image

Fredginger Little children will often spontaneously start dancing to energetic music. They don’t worry about how they look, they just enjoy moving to the music. Then boys and girls divide into separate tribes, and by adolescence everyone is self-conscious about their body. Worrying about how you look to others can inhibit dancing.

Social dancing was important to my parents, as it had been to my father’s parents. I learned to dance fairly young and took a couple of classes in college. Years later I signed my wife and myself up for dance lessons, and we loved it so much we continued to take lessons in a variety of dances for a decade. 

After a few years of lessons we occasionally substituted for our teacher, or served as a demonstration couple. Once, after demonstrating, we watched as some beginning students waltzed around the floor. My wife whispered to me to look at a particular couple. Nothing stood out about them to me, so I said, “What?” She said, “Look at her face. She feels like Ginger Rogers.”

Seeing films of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers can seem to define grace—his immaculate tuxedo, her impossibly beautiful gown, both of them seeming almost weightless.

By the time these movies were made Astaire had been dancing almost all his life. He grew up dancing in vaudeville with his older sister Adele. Their partnership ended only when Adele married an English Lord.

In films his partnership with Ginger Rogers was the longest and most successful. She was a great dancer, although some argue she was not as technically skilled as Astaire’s later partners like Eleanor Powell and Rita Hayworth. But Rogers remained an charming actress even while dancing, just as Adele Astaire had been. Critic John Mueller felt that “the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”

The reality was probably different. Astaire was a perfectionist. Never satisfied, always doubting himself, he wanted to practice routines weeks past their scheduled shooting dates. He would practice long hours until he and his partner were exhausted, with Astaire still never totally satisfied. Fortunately for us, none of that grueling work and endless self-doubt shows in the final illusions, those images of effortless grace.

Illusions can be important. Dancing is easier physically when you’re young. But the feeling of joy you can experience while dancing does not disappear with age. My father, widowed, danced into his 80s. Each Saturday night, he would dress up, and, looking dapper, he would drive somewhere to dance. At 83 he died at home peacefully in his sleep, and three women attended his memorial that had danced with him the previous Saturday.

No doubt they would miss my father as a friend. But the loss of their dance partner was probably just as devastating. They knew that my father wasn’t Fred Astaire, and that none of them were Ginger Rogers. But the pleasure of moving in time with the music, of being squired around the dance floor by a well-dressed man who enjoyed their company: such things allowed to them feel that life was joyous, and that they were graceful and desirable. I suspect they felt something like the way they imagined Ginger felt when dancing with Fred.

How important are such feelings? With my father no longer available as a dance partner, one woman moved away to a retirement center. Nothing had changed about her health, but her image of herself had. She no longer saw herself as a woman who, come Saturday night, would be dressing up and going out to dance.