[This article has been updated since its first publication: A paragraph and final author’s note have been added to the ending.]
Being a Scandalous Tell-All of the Most Debaucherous Nature Involving the Sordid Lives of Famous (and Infamous) Bacchant Swing Dance Instructors
[Part four of the Love & Swing series, concerning the complex triangle of love, swing, and our love for swing. This installment deals specifically with how international swing dance instructors handle romance.]
You spend a lot of time in airports when you’re a traveling swing dance instructor. To keep a place like an airport clean, it helps to have smooth concrete tiles that can be washed easily, instead of carpet. The tiles often reflect the chill of the air conditioning, which is on full blast to fight the odors of so many food stands, weather changes, and people who haven’t showered since their last destination. The airport can’t have too many surfaces to lie down on, so that people won’t drool all over the place or dirty up the seats with their feet. The airlines want you to be comfortable, but in order to keep ticket prices down, they have to squash people as close together as they can.
By their very nature — the nature of handling so many people that will probably never see each other again, the nature of accommodating both comfort and high traffic, and, overall, the perpetual nature of both going and waiting — airports are constantly in an inner battle of contradictions. They’re always trying simply to have it all, even though having one thing always comes at the cost of another.
A hotel room that looks like all other hotel rooms, except it has come with the addition of a Mickey Fortanasce, free of charge. Mickey’s girlfriend is on Skype when I open the door. ( Ed. — At this time in 2011, he was dating a woman from another country. He is currently in a different relationship.)
His face and dark curls are lit by the computer screen. He hasn’t seen his girlfriend for two and a half weeks, and he won’t see her for another three. This is not uncommon for them. I see this scene because he is my roommate at an event (and a very considerate one, at that), and I offer to leave the room to allow them some time alone, though he tells me not to worry about it: he’s used to having people around when he talks to her.
It just so happens that three of my guy friends and fellow instructors are at the same event, and each in different places, romantically. We are all professional international swing dance instructors — meaning, we spend most of our weekends a year traveling to different locations and teaching dance. In such a profession, home is often defined as the place we store our stuff and do laundry, or for some, the place our suitcase sits when it’s not lost by the airlines.
Aside from Mickey’s cross-cultural relationship, Nick Williams is single and trying to search for a romantic partner while traveling all but a few weekends a year. Jeremy Otth was seriously dating a girl from his hometown, but they have just split, and he hints that his lifestyle had something to do with it.
Since my dance partner and I had been dating during all of my professional swing dance career, and I was newly single, this was a new world to me. Looking for some advice, we all decided to grab a beer and talk about the world of romance and swing dance instructing.*
“The main benefit is that you get to meet people all over the world.” Nick Williams, when he talks, often starts looking down, but then lifts his head and moves his hands around with animation. “We meet new people every weekend. Also, having the ‘instructor’ status gives you worth in the eyes of the people you meet, so proving yourself isn’t as necessary.”
“The simple ability to ask a girl to dance gives you the ability to see if there is chemistry,” said Mickey. “You can talk one on one, and if things are going well it’s an excuse to leave a group and relocate so you can spend some time talking without the distraction of people who will interrupt and sometimes literally pull you away at any moment to have a dance of their own…” said Mickey. “And if things are not meshing, you can easily go and dance with someone else.”
“But there’s plenty of sucky things about it,” Nick said. “As a single instructor at events, it’s easy to meet people — however, there is very little time to get to know anybody. On the rare occasion that I do date someone, they are usually dancers, and they usually live elsewhere, so we are always trying to find a way to have quality time. Events don’t work for quality time and are usually frustrating. So then you’re trying to spend a couple days before or after to find that time.”
“Being in a long distance relationship, you don’t get a lot of time together,” added Mickey. “You are constantly leaving and sometimes for multiple weeks. However with a little imagination you can make that ‘quality’ time. Racking up miles like we do makes for some free short romantic vacations.”
“There will be a lot of Skype conversations in your future,” he added, lifting a glass to me.
“For me Skype is a love-hate relationship,” said Jeremy Otth. Jeremy’s smile is often the smile of a happy and unapologetic twelve-year-old boy. However, it had been missing from the conversation. I attributed it to the wear and tear caused by his recent relationship’s breakdown. “Especially with the time differences and connecting, what a nightmare. I wake up early to talk or go to bed really late to just get a few words in to share about my day. Usually either one of us is tired and not as coherent or energetic as possible. But, it does come in handy when you are really missing your significant other and just want to see their face.”
Nick nodded. “Skype only ends up being a bookmark, not a good progression of a relationship,” he added. “It makes it very difficult to get to the heart of the relationship.”
“When you are single [this lifestyle] also poses other problems,” Mickey said. “‘Taking things slow’ becomes impossible. You have a limited time to truly make a connection with someone and once you leave who knows the next time you will see them. It is safe to assume while you’re trying to flirt over a Skype call or Facebook, there are other men able to make actual contact with her. That is why I think I see so many ‘quick love’ scenarios in our scene… sure there are a lot of players and playerinas out there but a lot of people are just trying to connect while they can. And waiting for the right person only works if you have somewhere to wait (i.e. you’re not constantly moving).”
“The problem with that is that whenever you are out in public, you are working,” Nick said. “People are constantly watching what you do and you get very little time to yourself. So that makes quality time, or time alone, at an event very rare. Also, people see you as an instructor and you have that stigma, which means that a lot of girls flirt with you because of what you are, not who you are. I’m the type of person who wants people to get to know the real me, because I don’t usually show that as ‘Instructor Nick.’ There are few who really want to take that time and really care.”
I nodded knowingly, also thinking about how I would call him “Instructor Nick” from now on. “What about you, Jeremy?” I asked, since he had been silent most of the time. “Thoughts on quality time for someone in a relationship with someone back home? Especially with all the traveling?”
“Traveling a lot creates breaks and moments for the relationship to ‘breathe,’ or more downtime to analyze the relationship, or time to just observe myself,” said Jeremy. “But these breaks are infrequent. And as you progress and feelings deepen, then this lifestyle is not kind, or helpful. Having dated long distance, people from home, and my dance partner, I would say it has led to the downfall of my relationships.”
He took a moment to let the weight of this sentence fall upon the table.
Please note that this took place almost a year ago, and several of us are in different places in our lives than we were then. Jeremy, for instance, has worked a great deal on making his relationships better in light of his lifestyle and is now in a much happier place.
Being a swing dance instructor, there are two facets to our work that make romance a different experience than those who have a 9-to-5. The worlds of traveling combined with (relative) fame make juggling the job and romance a complicated act. After talking with the guys, I opened up the conversation to swing dancing instructors across the world.
As I began my broader investigations, I realized that we in the modern scene were not the first to tackle this. While she was rehearsing madly and working the film shoot of Hellzapoppin’, Norma Miller met the love of her life. In her book, Swinging at the Savoy, she talks about the romance. His name was Roy Glenn, a character actor who had a voice like Orson Welles. After several days of falling in love with each other, Norma planned to go home to New York long enough to get her final paycheck and go back to Los Angeles to be with him. But when she came home, she was given the opportunity to go to Rio with the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers for an extended stay. Whitey, who had often warned her against romance in a show-business career, persuaded her to try out Rio, and if she still wanted to go to LA when she got back, he’d let her go with his blessing. Norma never did pursue a long-term relationship with Roy, though she did occasionally see him over the next few years as she traveled the country with various performance groups of her own.
She was entertaining troops in Vietnam in 1972 when she was notified of his death following a heart attack.
“When you travel as much as we do, you find that the swing scene is very small,” Nick said. “You see the same people over and over again. Thus the sometimes incestuous nature of dating in the swing scene. You’re not often meeting new people. So instead, it feels like you’re in high school with the same dramas and mentalities.”
Yet this small-town quality also has its benefits to instructors hoping to find romance on the scene.
“I tend to date people that I meet… who tend to be in the dance scene,” said international instructor Laura Keat. Her voice, joined sometimes by her head, tilts and turns engagingly when she talks, taking you along with the ride of her thoughts. “Therefore I know a little something about their background and dating history to help me stay away from potentially bad/disappointing situations, that one might experience when going on blind dates.”
However, even though we live in a small town, “Every relationship is long distance, even if they live next door,” Laura added. Which leads us to, ironically, the biggest problem all swing dance instructors have with romance: timing.
“I think the hardest part is that I’m gone on average three days a week,” said international instructor Nina Gilkenson, discussing her relationship with boyfriend Michael Seguin. “I often don’t have phone service overseas or internet connection. It’s also really hard to get into any kind of rhythm in life when you have to leave all the time. When you’re only home for three days at a time it’s hard to really get down to dealing with hard stuff. Who wants to spend one of the three days you have with your sweetie talking about crap?”
“Date nights become very hard to schedule in or you have to plan them months in advance,” she added. “Also, something like having kids is almost impossible when you travel as much as I do.”
There are some benefits, of course, to the lifestyle. “I earn frequent flyer miles which can be used for traveling to see my romantic interest and/or flying my romantic interest and myself to romantic places to be together,” Laura Keat said. “I get amazing dates around the world! I have access to knowledge of cities, restaurants, tourist hot spots and do-nots to visit in my spare time with my significant other.”
Though, Laura Keat also has experienced the negative repercussions of timing more than most.
“One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with is planning my romantic life so far in advance.” Laura found someone she was interested in enough to spend six months living in their European country. Skype was the best thing she had until she could plan her schedule for the move, which would not be able to happen for another six months.
“Imagine meeting someone you think you could have chemistry with, then saying, ‘I hope you don’t mind waiting six months to get to know me, because my flights are already booked until then.’” Laura said. “Most people are not really interested in waiting, even if they happen to think they are initially.”
Six months later she had made all the preparations for moving and was ready to make the leap, only to discover that the relationship was not going to work out.
“On the one hand,” she noted, “I’m lucky enough to have a job that I can semi-schedule to be near that ‘someone special’ and still be able to work. Alternatively, if things don’t work out… I’m stuck with six months of plans which revolved around that ex-someone special.’”
It’s an example of how abnormal dating in the swing dance world is by nature.
If the average person meets someone in their city they’d like to get to know better, they usually begin by going on a few dates. Depending on the people involved, it’s natural for each to take several dates before they decide they like and could get along with the other person romantically, that they click. It might be several dates, for instance, before they have any more intimate contact than a kiss goodnight.
There is a very important difficulty involved with the life of a traveling instructor: If you meet a romantic prospect at an event, it might very well be three months or a year before you see that person at an event again, and there’s no guarantee you will see them again. It’s a very real feeling to meet someone you’d like to get to know better, and want to ask out on a date right then and there, only to discover they get on a flight in three hours and you won’t see them until Lindy Focus at the end of the year.
Whereas instructors get to experience the perks of the job that come along with the unique romantic situation, those they date are caught in a different world: they have to juggle both a normal life and a new romantic challenge.
“I get to hear a lot of cool stories,” said a dancer who is currently dating an international instructor. (He preferred to remain anonymous, and instead suggested we call him Jimmy John.) “She has a great deal of experience traveling to Europe and I’ve never been, but want to, so that will be cool to be able to eventually travel there with someone that has experience.”
He also assured us of the most important positives: that she is who she is, and how good they are for each other, make the extraordinary circumstances worth dealing with.
“The cons are that she is always traveling, obviously,” he added. “And when she first gets back after a big weekend, or couple of weeks away, she is exhausted for the first few days back. Also, while she is away, it’s commonly in Europe so there is a big time difference and it isn’t always easy to organize our schedules to be able to have a simple Skype date.”
As Jimmy realized, there is often a division between physical and conversational contact with traveling instructors.
“For the first part of the relationship there was a good bit of getting to know each other over the internet, instead of going on a date to get to know someone. Also, when we did get to have our first dates, they weren’t small evenings of dinner and a movie. They required traveling to see each other and then being with that person for an extended amount of time.”
This bipolar pattern — random hours over Skype followed by marathon days spent together — is common in the dating lives of international instructors. It puts added pressure on each person to figure out if they like each other and how the relationship would work. It also means there’s a larger time and money commitment behind seeing each other.
Those who get romantically involved with an instructor must change the way they look at courting. It’s common for 9-to-5 significant others to learn they have to plan time together weeks in advance, sometimes going pretty far out of the way in order to make it happen. Jimmy found these changes natural. The changes he’s still getting used to are still communicating about the daily, how’s-your-day, mundane intimacies that are still an important part of the comfort of a relationship — the things that naturally occur when you see your significant other at home every night.
But, again, it’s something Jimmy — and others — are more than willing to overcome to be with the person they care about.
“If my [dance] partner doesn’t approve, the guy is gone,” said an international Lindy Hop instructor follower who wished to remain anonymous. I will say she is one of the top followers of the modern generation. “He extends me the same courtesy. We are too close for our personal lives to not affect each other.”
Most instructors have one of the closest friends they will ever have traveling with them. And, very often, they have at some point dated that person. They are also their business partner, and occasionally the person they share a hotel room with to cut the event’s cost down. Basically, romantic interests often have to come to terms with how important dance partners are to their instructing significant other, and it’s natural that it might take some time before a romantic significant other can rival that importance.
On the other hand, the brother-sister relationships most non-romantic and ex-romantic instructors share with each other can give a stability to the world of someone always on the move. The traveling companion is usually good at taking the instructor’s mind off of the significant other far away, and, if not, at least listening and being a good source of advice. And, I’ve never heard of a professional swing dance instructor that doesn’t call their partner out on their shit. The love-lost instructor will not be able to whine, or pine, or make bad romantic decisions for very long before a partner will say something about it. So, often, the significant others of instructors get a lot more benefit out of the instructor’s partner than they might imagine.
As an instructor, my weekends tend to be Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Then there’s the problem with holidays.
“We have to move our anniversary around,” said instructor Laura Glaess. She works most often with her husband Mike; however, she occasionally teaches with others. “Basically, we try to walk the line between doing a ton of stuff with swing, and continuing to take steps to remind ourselves (and show the other person) that the relationship is more important. Mike prefers to celebrate things on the actual day. This year, I’m going to be in Europe without him on our anniversary, so we celebrated it early. Not his preference, but this is another compromise. The only thing that’s not negotiable is not celebrating it or putting it off too long. Dates are also non-negotiable. Don’t know how often we have to have them, but we have to have them.”
“We do this same thing with my family,” she continued. “Every year, my family gets together for Easter. After we started traveling a whole lot, we weren’t around for it, so we got my family to move it. They call it ‘Laura’s Bullshit Easter.’” (The anniversary was actually named ‘Bullshit Anniversary’ for this reason).
“I have missed every Thanksgiving with the family for 12 years in a row,” said international instructor Carla Heiney. ” We celebrate some things on non-traditional days. I think some people are floored that I work so many holidays and sometimes, I am too. It is the nature of our work though, for now. So, I make sure I get to bring my husband to dates that are important for both of us, like birthdays, New Year’s, Christmas. However, this means we are often away from other family members, and I think this is very challenging to many people, and to us as well at times.”
With a husband in San Francisco, Carla Heiney is working out the balance in her life between work and home. From the very beginning, she and her now-husband Rye have created a romance during a worldwide swing dancing career.
“We were both coming off of long-term serious relationships,” Carla said, speaking of the time when they first began dating. “And I don’t think either one of us wanted to be serious right away, but there we were, already falling in love early on and trying to play it cool and not rush in. Anyway, traveling helped with spreading things out a bit… And, since we were not always together, we had so many great stories to share with each other. However, there were and still are, many, many times, — seriously, most of the time — where I wish we would travel together.”
Though Carla is one of the most determined people you will meet, building her relationship — and then her marriage — while still teaching most weekends a year, was a large challenge.
“For me, what is often really challenging is being away and experiencing a beautiful city, place, band, atmosphere, great new food, and not being able to share it with Rye right away.” She added. “The other challenging thing is that I was working so hard to make sure Rye and I had enough time together but I still felt I neglected some of my friendships. So, I now try to plan more things with our friends when I am home. I can see Rye with them and we can all hang out and catch up and then Rye and I can go out afterwards.”
Though Carla and Rye have mastered the juggling act of having a marriage and Carla being an international swing dance instructor, she now has a new challenge around the corner; she gave birth to a baby boy on July 14th.
Mention “swing dance instructor’s love life” and these are some of the thoughts that might cross people’s minds: “Girl in every port.” “I thought she was dating him, but then I saw her flirting with another guy at the last event.” “Dude, she’s SO hot.” “That’s gotta suck.” “That’s gotta be awesome.” “Well, what do you expect? He’s young and an instructor.” “I heard she’s kind of slutty.” “Tease.” “She looked sad at the dance last night.” “Must have all the guys pining for her.” “Player.” “Manwhore.” “Is he gay?”
“The main problem I have with being an instructor, and especially dating other instructors,” said instructor Kelly Arsenault, “is that many people assume your personal relationships are their business. And the problem with that is they also make assumptions about your relationships. For instance, why you got together, why you broke up, if you’re getting along, if you’re gonna last, who is cheating on who, etc. Fifty percent of which is usually false.”
Like celebrities, swing dance instructors are looked at from afar, are often in the spotlight, and can easily become the subject of gossip. Unlike celebrities, every person who sees us at an event can actually meet us, and see that we’re more or less completely normal people, even those who have let being swing dance instructors go to their heads. However, sometimes it’s hard for people to look at a “famous” dancer and see the real person. It can be very hard where romance is concerned.
“It’s easy to wonder if the people you are interested in see ‘you’ or only see your status,” said international instructor Jo Hoffberg. “People often have an ‘idea’ of who you are. Sometimes that can work in your favor. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
It’s strange. The confidence and allure of being an instructor are some of those very assets mom encourages you to show off. However, sometimes that’s all people see — or seem to want to see. A normal conversation, especially between romantic interests, is already hard to come by. It gets worse when people can’t see past another’s — or their own — stigma.
The stigma of romance and swing dance instructors doesn’t stop at simple gossip about our individual love lives. There’s also the stigma that romantic dance partners have affiliated with them. When Kate and I broke up, for instance, we had a strange but specific fear: We couldn’t help but wonder how it would affect us getting jobs. After all, did people take our romantic chemistry as part of the identity of Bobby and Kate? Would people assume that if we weren’t together romantically, we weren’t interested in teaching together anymore? Would people look at other broken-up couples in the past and assume we’d be awkward around students?
Since we didn’t have answers to these questions we decided the best thing to do would be to let the news seep out slowly. We made our Facebook relationship statuses private and only told a few select friends, trusting that word would slowly expand throughout the swing community. I believe doing so was a very professional way to keep our business lives separated from our personal lives. Which is good, because for all the people who do Lindy Hop in the world, it’s still only enough to fill a small town.
Are the instructors you see at a camp ever not working? By which I mean, does a teacher’s job stop the second class ends? Most people would probably say not, and as a self-employed dancer I fully realize that my presence — at the dances, at the meals, and at late-nights — is part of my job, whether I like it or not. (Most of the time I’m fine with it.) So, while at a camp, there is no clear division of worlds; our work, teaching during the day or being present at a dance that night, often occupies the same space and involves the same people as our private life at an event, like the act of meeting someone we might like to get to know or flirt with. Basically, finding out where the line is drawn between work and play, between what’s my business and what’s my business is tricky.
Jo Hoffberg recounts one of the other difficulties. “If your Significant Other travels with you on weekends, then you have to squeeze them in between work/social obligations.” She then put it in light of someone who has a 9-to-5 job. “Just imagine if your significant other showed up to hang out with you at your office, but you were in the middle of pulling all-nighters for three days.”
“For me it’s important to keep the two worlds as separate as I can,” she added. “But naturally there will be some cross over. When I’m at work, that has my focus, and my private life comes second.”
Laura Keat has tried to find an equal balance to keep her happiness. “There have been quite a few nights where I chose to miss out on sleep to get in a late night Skype conversation while on the road. I just had to deal with being tired the next day during classes. On the other side, I’ve definitely chosen to get sleep or stay out late and dance longer instead of being in front of my computer trying to catch up with my romantic interest.”
As a dance instructor, it’s easy to sometimes fall into the trap of seeing a night’s dancing on the job as simply a series of faces and dances. I think we all fall into this occasionally. I was feeling this one time last year when I suddenly snapped out of it: At a camp I was at last year, a woman and I ended up having a great conversation simply because I pushed myself out of that place, to force myself to connect with her as one human being to another. It reminded me that some of the barriers between work and play are mine, and they are not only easy to tear down, but breaking down such barriers led to me being even more happier with my job than I already am; a night’s dancing is once again a series of people and dances.
After that dance, me and the woman went for a walk and talked some more. (Though nothing romantic happened, she did ask me if I was the kind of instructor that had “a random girl in every camp.”) However, while we talked, we did walk by several different groups of students, and maybe I’m crazy, but I felt we were being looked at in a few corners of people’s eyes, or at least in the corners of their thoughts. Though maybe I’m just crazy. I think the “random girl in every camp” made me suspicious…
“Yeah, it can get very lonely on the road,” Nick said. “Airports and airplanes alone. Working at an event and always having to be the instructor. You don’t get a chance to relax and get to know people as just people. So sometimes you crave intimacy or personal attention. Then sometimes you find yourself having a fling. A quick romantic endeavor. They don’t really fill that void when what you really want is a real relationship and someone to love, but it’s sometimes all that’s available. Knock it all you want, but watch the movie Up in the Air and you’ll start to get an idea of how lonely it can get.”
Gossip loves a fling: two people who have a brief intimate encounter. However, dear reader, as we discuss this, I ask you to put away any gossipmonger that might reside in your thoughts. We are here to discuss humans trying to find happiness. And there is a very important thing to remember: adults are allowed to make their own decisions about what they do to find happiness. Provided, of course, it doesn’t harm anyone — or, as long as there is honesty, one instructor urges.
“If you are seeing multiple people, everybody needs the opportunity to make the best decision for themselves.” This international instructor follower wished to remain anonymous. “All parties are only able to do so when there is transparency. And because people gossip, it’s crucial that [dance] partners know what’s truly happening from the source instead of through the grapevine.”
Obviously, this isn’t always the way it goes down. Any world of mini-celebrity is bound to have its share of professionals who consciously or subconsciously fall into the trap of thinking sexual popularity equals intimacy. And that world is also bound to be populated by people who think that being intimate with a professional equals personal (or dance) worth. But I know many instructors close enough to discuss relationships with, and the majority of them, if they are the type to experience flings, are honest and mature in their encounters.
And, of course, each person is different in what dating, romance, and intimacy mean to them.
“A common misconception about myself and other teachers is that we have hook-ups in all the cities we visit,” said Laura Keat. “It can be difficult to get someone to take you seriously if they have heard about other teachers having casual flings and on-going romances with different people in various cities. These do happen, but not all of us teachers choose to do that. I have actually had someone almost break up with me because he assumed that I wasn’t serious about my commitment like other teachers he had seen.”
“Personally, I don’t do well with dating around,” said Kelly Arsenault. “Some people thrive on meeting new people every weekend and making 3-day romances happen with ease. I am just not that way. And actually all this traveling and meeting people makes me feel even lonelier. So having a single person that I’m tied to emotionally helps with this and gives me a bit of an anchor in my life.”
Where The Two Meet
“Trust is number one. Without it, you’re doomed.,” said Kelly. “I have to be with someone who is pretty understanding of the fact that I’m constantly traveling around with my ex-boyfriend, teaching and dancing, sometimes sharing a room, etc. and be fine with that. Fellow instructors just know this is the deal, but people who don’t know what the norm is, might have more of an issue with the whole thing.”
Everyone else I interviewed pretty much agrees.
“Be honest, and open. Perhaps this is the most important,” said Jo Hoffberg. “There is a high level of trust needed when you don’t see your [romantic] partner regularly, and when they are regularly in a party environment.”
“Although, that much time apart can breed a certain kind of trust that I think is awesome,” said Nina Gilkenson. “And coming home is always wonderful.”
So, in light of all this, who is the right person for an international swing dance instructor?
“Someone that is independent and confident,” said Nina Gilkenson. “Someone that knows what to do with themselves when you’re gone and doesn’t take it personally when the small town in Russia that you’re teaching in only has one wi-fi spot with twenty teachers trying to check their email — so you only email them once in nine days.”
“But really maybe that’s just someone that would be a good fit for me,” she continued. “I think it really depends on the kind of person you are. I’m lucky enough to have found a person that loves when I’m around, enjoys that he can have some alone time when I’m gone and is happy to see me when I get home. I think if you find someone that is a good fit for you as a person, not necessarily as an instructor — you can make anything work.”
A group that tends to offer a lot of these people is intermediate and advanced students. It makes sense; they already share a passion with the instructor, and know enough about dancing to understand what the life of an international dance instructor is like. However, as they are not professionals themselves, they won’t also be traveling around in different directions, making it even more difficult to literally have a common ground to meet on.
But like Nina said, all it really takes is the right person.
The Shocking Conclusion!
I talked with many fellow instructors for this article. One of them, someone I admire a great deal in my life as a Lindy Hopper, had this to say in response: this person thanked me for my interest, looked forward to contributing to something in the future, but regarding this article said —
“Honestly, I don’t believe that how my position as a dance teacher affects my love life choices should genuinely be important to anyone but me, my peers and my close friends. I would see myself as vain if I thought my thoughts on the matter should matter to anyone else… I don’t think that I could offer any advice that one couldn’t read in a tabloid so I’ll decline.”
Herein lies the irony in this article’s existence. It is an article about the love lives of people that people in swing scenes across the world may gossip about or at least speculate on, and it can’t help but discuss those love lives in order to find the truth in them. People in swing scenes across the country don’t have to work hard to get a quick and sometimes puzzling peak behind the blinds of an instructor’s private life.
However, as you have seen, it’s not as the subtitle suggests, “A scandalous tell-all of the most debaucherous nature involving the sordid lives of famous (and infamous) bacchant swing dance instructors.” Instead, I hope I’ve shown you that this article is simply about ordinary people who have a job that requires them to live, and love, differently than the majority of people you meet. Perhaps that will explain some of the world behind those blinds you may get a glimpse of. (But I can’t promise it will explain all of it. We can be a weird bunch.) I will say that this is probably the last you will ever hear about the love lives of swing dance instructors on this blog. As much as I learn from writing about my world, it’s not near as helpful as living in it.
I will say that because of the advice of a lot of wise friends, the support of a dance partner who always calls me out on my shit, and some incredibly understanding women, I am very confident and optimistic about having a healthy romantic life in harmony with my job. Sure, there are challenges, but challenges make life more interesting, and can even serve as a good romantic test. Also, one of the most important points of all: though this article discusses a lot of the difficulties involved with our lives, it’s not meant to make anyone feel sorry for us, or paint us as victims. We wouldn’t have chosen this lifestyle if we didn’t think it was worth the opportunity costs. We love our job and find great fulfillment in it. (We certainly wouldn’t have done it for the money.)
I spend a lot of time in airports. I can now go through the security check so fast that I have to stop myself from getting frustrated because every other person in line now holds me up. It’s not their fault; they live at a different pace, and because of this, I realize it is only so fast that we can all move together. I’m still ready though, for the time when it will actually matter.
Another thing I’ve gotten used to is the fact that everything in an airport will cost you much more than you can get it for in the real world, and is often closed when you need it the most. I carry snacks with me a lot, but getting a good meal or a drink is not always in my hands.
I’m still looking for the most comfortable way to sleep in an airport. Though I’ve adapted and can now fold up in strange ways to get a few hours in. Those times, I don’t think about my bed back home —- I just try to find peace in the present moment. Knowing that soon, I will fly.
I’d like to thank (in order of appearance) Mickey Fortanasce, Nick Williams, Jeremy Otth, Nina Gilkenson, Laura Keat, Laura Glaess, Mike Roberts, Carla Heiney, Kelly Arsenault, Jo Hoffberg, and those who spoke anonymously. It takes a great deal of courage to put one’s private life in front of the scene, and I appreciate their honesty very much.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece in particular I have felt “blind” on since the beginning — I don’t feel I know what kind of tone is conveyed by its published version. Specifically, I wanted to make a note about how positive I intended the last sentence: “Soon I will fly” implies all the things an instructor is going to: the job they love to do, home to where their friends are, or perhaps to the arms of their loved one. What could be more uplifting?
* — This was a metaphorical beer. It was actually a long group email conversation, which is still surprisingly like having a drink with the guys, depending on what emoticons you use.
18 responses to “Opportunity Costs”
This has been a tremendous series, thank you for taking the time to treat this subject fairly and objectively. Personally, to a lesser degree I’ve experienced the challenges described above when I was in a different timezone and having a long-term relationship.
“Be honest, and open. Perhaps this is the most important,” (Jo’s comment) is crucial to any relationship. I think it’s all to easy to forget that, no matter the circumstance.
[…] Email […]
I never occurred to me until now how much the life of an international swing dance instructor is like the life of a traveling IT consultant. All that talk about airports and long distance schedules definitely struck a chord.
_It_ never occurred to me. Not _I_ never occurred to me. I’d have bigger problems than traveling if I never occurred to myself…
I’ve been dancing for 6 years and the idea that an instructor could have a random hook up at every dance camp has never crossed my mind. I guess that makes me sound naive, but I’ve been to dozens of dance weekends every year and know a large portion of the Midwest and Southern dance communities and this is the first place I’ve gotten wind of that theory.
I’m just saying that while you may feel that the dance community sees you that way, its not true of the majority of us. I just want to reassure you that not everyone thinks that way or is interested in your personal business beyond the point that’s appropriate.
Appreciate it! Thanks!
Yep, the life of an international instructor is not easy. Heck, not even the life of a local instructor when it comes to their love life. I don’t know how you guys do it. But we love you and appreciate you the more for it.
And you still owe me a dance…
Ahoy! I wrote a reply to your post here: http://wonderwomanproject.tumblr.com/post/32648051025/love-and-swing-response-to-opportunity-cost
Basically, I think by describing why it’s difficult to be in your situation, you also reveal a lot about the contemporary culture of swing dance and how we don’t really talk about relationships (but over-analyze our heroes.)
I appreciate your thoughts on the post and that you felt it was worth discussion!
While I’m not an international instructor, I’m a traveling dancer/organizer/person. I currently travel almost every weekend and generally have two-three days in between trips to be home where I have a job as well. This post was very encouraging to me. I’ve felt like I’ve been hitting a giant wall in this realm, and it gets exhausting. Thank you for sharing.
Hear, hear! I’m so glad you wrote this paragraph.
Overall this was a fascinating and very meaty article (I kept thinking to myself, “There’s still more??” …But in a good way.) Thanks for writing!
So I’ll add a comment here from the other perspective: someone who’s been the one-time hookup of a couple of pro dancers and the on-and-off lover of one for 6 months or so.
– The trope of pro dancers who have a different hookup in every camp does not come out of the aether… there are at least a couple of boysluts in your ranks. :)
– You mention that intermediate and advanced students comprise a promising pool of people who share your passion. But you don’t address the built-in social power differential you’re playing with there. As the student, you’re letting yourself be vulnerable in the unique way of sex and romance to someone who is in a position to literally judge you (in auditions and competitions). That requires really good boundaries all around to not get messy.
I would have loved to see discussion in this series on that phenomenon, actually… judging your own dance partner, judging lovers and ex-lovers. I know it happens all the time, but it seems like it’s rarely discussed.
[…] It Down: Al Minns Around-the-World Charleston L1ndy Phocus Time Love & Swing: Opportunity Costs My Favorite Year: 1938 Gallery: Jason Swihart Swing Photographers: Jason Swihart Frankie On Film I […]
I found this article kind of frustrating in terms of an issue that is supposedly affecting the entire scene. I don’t know, but this just felt like a “woe is us” post about the tragic lives of glamorous people instead of a post about something to which I can relate. Maybe this is because I’m not a gossip, especially about people whom I don’t know. I find gossip about instructors to be damaging and don’t engage in it. I don’t know, but I just felt like I was reading a personal email among instructors on a topic that doesn’t relate to me at all…maybe because I just view y’all as out of my league and the idea of love with an instructor seems about as possible as love with a movie star.
But maybe that’s the point? Y’all do seem like glamorous, beautiful, unattainable celebrities.
I was very conscious that it could come across as “woe as me” when I was writing it. But, I felt that I shouldn’t worry about it, that the most important thing was to talk about it honestly —as honestly as I could — discussing both the pros and the cons, and that we choose to live this life because we love it (or at least, that’s why I choose to live this life). I was pleased with my end result.
In terms of celebrity; I hoped that me telling the story of what instructors love lives are like is would humanize dance instructors MORE, not less. “Celebrity” dehumanizes people, not to mention is pointless in a scene so small where you actually get to spend time and talk with “celebrities” of the scene.
[…] will probably be seven parts long. The sections on non-dancing and dancing significant others and the love lives of instructors were highlights of the series, but the section on partnership vies for the place in our hearts and […]
I really enjoyed reading this series.
Discovering blog posts years later! Wooh!
First I’d like to say that you give me hope, as a fellow dancer-writer-person. :).
Second: I agree with someone above who talked about dating when you’re a local instructor. It can be tricky in some ways, too, though not nearly as many.
Ready yourselves for a personal narrative:
My ex- and I started out as instructor-student. Then some bad things happened in my life that left me not super excited about physical relationships (sexual or dance-ual.) But you don’t need to know about that. The long and short of it is this: He got good. He wanted my help. I’ve pretty much stopped dancing for the time being (It’s a BREAK, just at break. I’m not giving it up. Nope. Nuh-uh. Jaw set, determined gaze staring at that new box of Keds. When I’m ready, I’ll take you all by storm! Vwa ha ha ha ha.) He got really confused about why I didn’t want to go to every dance and lesson. I felt super pressured to go to dances and pretend everything was all right (Which it was NOT.) Aaaaaand so, this fall he’ll be teaching the class I’m taking. WEIRD.
(On re-reading, maybe it’s less weird that it’s happening, and more weird that he doesn’t respect my need for a break, or my choice to take one. He’s gonna be all high-and-mighty.)
The social eyes didn’t help much. Neither did someone ELSE pushing us to take a dips and tricks class days after we broke up. Why is it important to you whether or not we start teaching together? Why can’t you let me wallow in my post-break-up piece of cake, or two, or three, without asking me who’s doing the lessons in the fall? Gah.
It starts to affect your scene, especially in small scenes. People in leadership and instructor positions set the tone. And “I’m faking being friendly, but really I want to rip you limb from limb,” is not the best attitude to demonstrate to new dancers. Neither is “I’m super annoyed that you’re bringing up my personal life, AGAIN.”
Okay, one more mini-rant: What is UP with the instructor = celebrity thing, anyway? I mean, people who dance on broadway or in Beyonce videos don’t have this sort of fan base, and they make more money and have wider exposure. You guys are great at what you do, but even Frankie was no Baryshnikov (also I know that a lot of instructors are professionals in other areas of dance, maybe even classically trained in ballet. But you spend your time swing dancing, not practicing pirouettes, and so are naturally not as good at pirouetting. It stands to reason.)
Remember what I said about also being a writer, of sorts? I hope you enjoyed my comment-novel. :D