Random Notes from the 1950s (May 28, 2009)
This was a piece I wrote for Lindy Bloggers in May, 2009 following a corporate gig Kate and I did soon after I went full-time teaching. It was hard for me to look at a corporate gig and not realize I was getting paid for two hours of my life what would have cost 8 to 16 hours of my life in my old job.
THE LIFE OF THE PROFESSIONAL SWING DANCE INSTRUCTOR isn’t all luxury flights to exotic locals like Cleveland to teach and dance all night. There is also what we call “corporate gigs,” which often involve some passive aggressive PR rep, usually named something like Mercedes, who hires us to entertain large parties. The only reason we take these gigs is because they usually pay well and often involve a free dinner of some meat wrapped in bacon. However, more often than not, they lead to the kind of experiences we had at a recent gig.
The casting company needed a greaser and a poodle skirt girl for a Country Club 1950s-themed party, and Jeff Booth was out of town. The gig came to us, and I set aside my t-shirt, blue jeans and loafers. They wanted Kate, however, to send them a picture of her outfit. It was an actual period 50s attire, something you would have seen in the actual 50s, minus a poodle on the skirt. This would not do. They wanted Kate to drive the hour down to DC, pick up a poodle skirt from their poodle skirt warehouse, and drive back. They’d reimburse her $25 for the two and a half hours it would take. She instead went out and bought a poodle to put on her skirt. She showed them the outfit, and, no, they’d really REALLY encourage getting one of their poodle skirts. They would ship it Fed Ex.
She ended up persuading them that her outfit was fine, but it took several emails and a headache to do so. We suspected some form of middle-aged demon was behind this. And we were right.
There’s a certain kind of melancholy surrounding the DJs at corporate gigs. The one at this night had the air of someone who thought he could be the wacky morning DJ of a popular radio station, if he could only have a few more years of practice. He sung along to the music over the microphone. He kept telling people who were trying to eat to get up on the dance floor, which wasn’t so much a dance floor as it was hard rubber tile. (I’ve long ago resigned myself to the fact that no corporate gig will ever have a good dance floor.) He wore a leather weave belt.
Near the end of our hour-long gig, he came over and apologized for the music. He said he was being micromanaged, and pointed to a baby-boomer lady who had been micromanaging us all night. He mentioned how she demanded only 50s music, and wanted him to get people dancing when they were still drinking. Overhead, the Chicken Song played. Damn the 1950s.
An average dance Bobby leads when doing a demo to a 1950s song:
Basic (W/ kick-ball change)
Boogie with Elvis Legs
For our final demo, the DJ played a song which I instantly recognized as Jail House Rock by Elvis. In preparation for the breaks, I was going to do something insane and enjoyable for the crowd. Imagine my surprise when the song suddenly turned into a different Elvis song, before the hit. A phrase later, it was yet another Elvis song. Even though this meant I never got a handle on a song long enough to be very musical, it was all fine and good until the Elvis medley got into later Elvis, and Kate and I, in the middle of swinging-out, were suddenly expected to dance to “Suspicious Minds” for everyone. I will stop the description now, your imagination will suffice to provide the rest.
At one point during the night, “You make me wanna SHOUT!” came on and all the baby-boomers went out to the floor. Their limbs moved with the same slight stiffness, they tuckered out halfway through the song, and at the part where everyone is supposed to get low (”a little bit softer now…”), only two of them even tried to squat. They looked like the 1980s clips of the original swing dancers, and it dawned on me–the baby boomers are officially getting old. It was strange that it struck me so much.
The middle-aged lady demon who micromanaged everything is common in the world of corporate gigs. She out-dressed everyone in her outfit straight from Grease, and it was probably her idea to have a 1950s theme in the first place. She insisted the DJ keep the music 1950s, even though most of the people in the room had probably spent most of their youth making out to motown music of the 60s, which is the only music they wanted to hear. And, I could tell that people noticed Kate and I weren’t exactly 1950s dancers ourselves. As much as we tried to dance in a 1950s style jitterbug, I’m sure our classic Lindy Hopping came through.
On the whole, it’s important to realize that, even if you have the job of your dreams, there are still going to be times when you don’t want to go to work. Dancing for an hour and a half to the music of the 1950s is not inspiring to me, personally. The clothing does not make me feel comfortable, nor does putting on a “background” show for a room full of people, only ten or so of which seem to be really interested in what we’re doing.
It didn’t help that, for the night, I decided to go all out and put enough grease pomade in my hair to run a small block Chevy engine. This had a great look, but unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands to feel clean again, and Kate spent the night with this disgusted look on her face and our hands literally kept slipping while dancing, no matter how much I tried to towel them off and clean them. Also, the smell from the classic brylcreem was so bad that both of us became nauseous on the car ride home. (I should note here the chemical company that made Brylcreem was also known for their abrasive kitchen cleaners. I’m not making that up.)
We got home, a few hundred dollars richer, but needing a long, long shower to feel clean again.