Alison Goldfrapp's Glamour, Grit, And Gaze

Described by The Independent as a "glamorous gold chameleon," British singer-songwriter Alison Goldfrapp projects strong, stylized imagery in all her performances, whether on screen or on stage.

I suspect she's just showing off here in demonstrating that with super-slick audio and visual production values—and the right pair of legs—glamour can even shine through gritty images of ashtrays, toilets, and garbage:

The retro Studio 54 stuff doesn't hurt either.

Whatever else she has going for her, she seems to have the glamorous art of being photographed with an indirect gaze and obscured eyes down to a science:


Muses As Glamour

Nine-muses Muses are an ancient concept. For millennia creative artists have appealed to the Muses to grant them eloquence beyond their normal grasp. The nine mythological Greeks Muses are depicted dancing at left. Classical Greek writers typically began their longer works with an appeal to the muses for inspiration. In this vein Shakespeare, in the prologue of Henry V, has the chorus wish, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention….” The play that follows contains some of the most vibrant speeches ever written in the English language.

From our psychologically aware perspective we might quickly dismiss Shakespeare’s appeal for a “Muse of fire” as an Elizabethan conceit, a fanciful metaphor of no consequence. But perhaps the imaginative process of conjuring up fanciful imagery (a fiery Muse) can sometimes inspire creative artists to go beyond the boundaries of their “normal” imagination. And perhaps the magical power of muses to inspire comes in part from the power of images to spark our imagination.

The concept of muses is still current. The TV show Project Runway has fashion designers compete against each other, and their models are frequently referred to as their muses. In some episodes the designers are challenged to design for specific women, who are referred to as their muses for that week.

The traditional nine Greek muses were all goddesses, and, as symbols of artistic fertility and grace, this seems logical. Real women have served as muses as well. Dante Alighieri met Beatrice Portinari when he was nine. He fell instantly in love, and she became his muse for the rest of his life. Dante was obliged by parental contract to marry another woman, and when Beatrice died at age 24, much of Dante’s later work was inspired by and dedicated to the memory of Beatrice. Hector Berlioz was twelve when he met eighteen-year-old Estelle Dubeuf, and he was so smitten with her that she became a life-long ideal to him. In each case a relationship existed with the muse, but the romantic relationship the artist desired was only possible as an act of imagination.

FarrellChoreographer George Balanchine was noted for finding his muses in flesh-and-blood ballerinas, and he married a number of them. But when he fixated on Suzanne Farrell, there was an age gap of more than 40 years. He created some of his greatest roles for her, and though she was happy to dance them, she resisted his desire to marry her. The relationship between them seems symbolized by his choreographing of Don Quixote. He cast Farrell as Dulcinea and himself as Don Quixote, as seen in this photograph.

Terpsichore was the Greek muse of dance, and this personification seems more apt and inspiring to me than an abstract noun like “Dance.” “Dance” seems inadequate, too generic, to represent the in-the-flesh experience we might have watching a physically beautiful person dance. “Terpsichore” seems closer to creating a image that symbolizes a thrill that touches both mind and body. Real-world sensuous beauty can trigger a frisson of excitement that is unforgettable, as expressed in these lines by poet Wallace Stevens:

Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;—
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Stunned by encountering real-world beauty that must for some reason always remain beyond their grasp, artists sometimes respond by making their desire incarnate in their art form. And—as with Dante’s poetry, Berlioz’s music, and Balanchine’s choreography—when that desire is masterfully fashioned into an integral aspect of a sensible form, the resulting art can itself inspire a sense of awe, magic and glamour.

[The Italian Renaissance painting of Parnassus which shows the Muses dancing is by Andrea Mantegna.]

The Glamour Of The Nutcracker

Clara-gift New year, new decade. Reflecting back on the holiday season I realized that The Nutcracker had come up several times in conversation. One family had taken their children, another person’s best friend had been once been cast as Clara, and so on.

The Nutcracker is glamorous on many levels. Ballet itself is one of the most glamorous forms of dance, as has been discussed here before. The orchestra, especially as used by a composer like Tchaikovsky, can be a glamorous sound machine (more on that in a moment). And the costumes and stagings of this ballet are often captivating.

The Nutcracker plot joyously celebrates aspects of the winter season that are often denigrated because they seem more pagan than religious. Some historians argue that Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because that was the Roman date for the winter solstice, a tradition time for celebrating the return of the sun and longer days. The Nutcracker acknowledges that festive parties, colorful decorations, and receiving gifts are memorable and exciting, especially to a child, whatever the reason for celebrating.

The ballet’s central character Clara is an adolescent poised between childhood and young adulthood, and she has desires and longings in both domains. Boys remain mischievous and clueless about her dreams of the future. But in this ballet’s dream a prince arrives and transports her into a magical world. No wonder that countless young ballet students dream of being cast as Clara, and that mothers take their daughters to see this timeless fantasy.

I do not mean to slight men here. The ballet was created by men. The ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, and the story adaptation, original choreography, and music were all done by men. In Hoffman’s original story the heroine is named Marie and the nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew. How he came to be a nutcracker is a complex story involving magic spells, and Marie’s love for him eventually lifts the curse and he becomes himself again.

In the ballet Drosselmeyer’s ability to create life-size mechanical dolls makes him seem a kind of magician, and sets the stage for dreams of giant mice and toys that come alive to battle them. Scenes like this are bound to delight children.

Pas-de-deux Yet Clara’s trip to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a dream of transformation into adulthood, and in that land Clara becomes a woman and a prince becomes her escort. In her dream Clara becomes a princess-to-be whose life is filled with fancy costumes, elaborate entertainments, and dances that show her perfect poise as a adult.

Tchaikovsky’s music plays a major role in the success of the ballet. Tchaikovsky had a keen ability to create musical textures that can stimulate a listener’s imagination. At the same time his ballet music is easy enough to follow that we have mental room left to take in the dancing. This same openness also leaves room for his ballet music to interact with our imagination, allowing us to project auras such as “mystery” and “longing” onto what we are hearing. (Densely intellectual musical textures such as fugues seldom allow this.) 

In creating ballet music that seems glamorous, Tchaikovsky became a kind of conjurer. By developing an awareness of how particulars sounds and musical textures could stimulate a listener's imagination, he used that awareness to create music that encourages listeners to generate imaginative illusions.

In the following Pas de Deux between Clara and her prince (Bolshoi Ballet production), no words need be spoken. Clara’s prince becomes her ideal consort. He is there for her whenever she needs support to display her poise. Tchaikovsky’s music supports them both. One of his friends bet Tchaikovsky that he couldn’t compose the theme for a pas de deux with a scale. Tchaikovsky asked if the scale could go downward. When that was allowed, Tchaikovsky took the bet, and won with the main theme of this music. Tchaikovsky’s ability to create something extraordinarily evocative out of simple material demonstrates his deep understanding of what works as ballet music. His music captivates our hearing, but leaves enough room in our minds to appreciate the staging and dancing, and even to imagine that we are feeling something similar to what these dancers are feeling. And that is a beautiful illusion to experience.

[Clara’s Gift photo by adjustafresh. Pas de Deux photo by violscraper. Both used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

Ballet Turnout: Open And Legible

3476944051_65765ae108 Finding a connection to glamour in this photo of a young woman watching South Park might at first glance seem difficult, but it’s there. She normally doesn’t watch television this close to the screen or in this position. She is multitasking, entertaining herself while she does an exercise to increase her turnout for ballet. Turnout is a rotation of the legs outward from the hips (not the knees or ankles) so that the feet ideally end up pointed outward 180 degrees from each other. (Here’s a short video explaining the face-up and face-down versions of the stretching exercise this young woman is doing.)

Many ballet exercises are done in turned-out positions. This video instructs a dancer how to plié (do knee bends) with the legs rotated outward. That turnout is an example of extraordinary artifice can be seen by imagining yourself doing the stretch the young lady is doing in the photograph below.

Dancers stretching This young lady’s body position in this stretch is hardly graceful, but these stretching exercises are only a means to an end. These students are engaged in the kind of behind-the-scenes exercises that allows ballet dancers to appear on stage and make some difficult movements and body positions look easy. By stretching her body beyond a human’s natural flexibility, she is preparing to make superhuman feats of balance and leg extension appear almost effortless.

These odd looking exercises are thus a classic example of the hard work that is often necessary for sprezzatura. This lovely Italian word was invented by Castiglione in the 16th century to signify an ideal courtier’s sense of ease in performing tasks that most people would find difficult, thereby hiding the conscious effort that was required. (Kit’s post The Work Behind the Glamour set me thinking about this.) Sprezzatura applies wonderfully to ballet, given that ballet’s origins can be traced back to the late fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance courts as a dance interpretation of fencing. Ballet’s largely French vocabulary stems from its further development in the French court of Louis XIV in the 17th century. (The Italian word “balletto” became the French word “ballet.”)

Throughout its history, as first a formalized form of court dance, and then when further developed as theatrical dance, ballet dancers have always been aware that they are being watched. Ballet studios always have one mirrored wall so that the dancers can see themselves in that mirror as others would. Castiglione wrote that the ideal courtier should always be aware that he is being observed by others.

164967145_02fd182bf4 As these young ladies lie in their less than glamorous stretching positions, perhaps they  imagine themselves leaping as part of a group in a grand jeté, as seen in this photograph. (Executed perfectly, all three dancers would be in absolute unison in their leap position, which is very difficult to achieve, and is not quite the case here.) Notice that with each dancer the leading foot is pointed toward the ground to land on. The trailing leg has been turned out so that the top of the foot is turned toward the audience, giving that leg a beautiful line. (That a turned-out leg is not necessary to do a split can be seen in this vintage photo.) Perhaps while stretching, the dancers imagine themselves doing a grand jeté in perfect unision with their courtier partner, or doing a soaring solo leap as the evil black swan Odile in Swan Lake.

As ballet developed as theatrical entertainment, the techniques were amplified to be more legible from a distance. Just as opera singers developed techniques that allowed their voices able to project into a theater without amplification, so ballet dancers developed techniques that allowed their bodies to be maximally visible in a theater. Lincoln Kirstein, one of the founders of New York City Ballet, wrote that ballet was calculated for opera-houses and that the foot positions were developed for “the greatest frontal legibility.” British art critic Adrian Stokes wrote:

...“turning out” means that the dancer, whatever the convolutions of the dance, continually shows as much of himself as possible to the spectator. When he stands in the first position facing the front, we see his feet and his legs in profile. The ballet dancer is, as it were, extended.

Penche_arabesque Turning out also opens up the body, exposing the inner thighs, and “open” is an adjective often used by writers when describing the aesthetics of ballet. Eric Stokes felt that turnout was crucial to the appearance of the lifted leg in doing arabesques. The dancer at left is practicing the arabesque penchée, a particularly difficult position. (Notice that the lifted leg is turned so that the top of the foot faces us, the audience. For those ladies whose mothers told them to keep their legs together, this position must seem astonishingly open and revealing.)

In performance there is always some awareness of the audience. As choreographer George Balanchine once chided one of his dancers, “Isn’t it selfish of you expect three thousand people to sit and watch you lift your leg if you’re not going to do it beautifully?” Assuming she can gracefully lift that nonsupporting leg, then a hard-working, extraordinarily talented ballerina might someday be cast as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. In one scene Aurora has four courtiers to help her display her extraordinary skills, as in this video of Viviana Durante. (Notice that her costume uses the short classical “pancake” tutu to openly and glamorously display her beautiful legs, as well as showcase the extraordinary balance and flexibility that all those hours of grueling work have perfected.)

[The photo of the dancer stretching while watching TV is “I am ungroundable, per se” © by Grack Attack, and used by permission. “Dancers stretching” used by permission of The photo of the three dancers leaping is by Jeff Medaugh, and used under the Flickr Creative Commons License. The “Arabesque penchée” image is also from, which has numerous informative articles on dance technique.]

Painful Glamour: The Quest For Pointed Feet

Jorge_donn Virginia Postrel’s recent post on the advertising for Smuin Ballet featured one poster that said, “Ballet but sexy,” a slogan that suggested somehow that ballet is usually not sexy. Since male and female ballet dancers are in incredible physical condition and ballet costumes are often highly revealing, I have seen numerous ballet performances that were remarkably “sexy.” In New Orleans I attended a ballet performance that began with soloist Jorge Dunn rising from the stage floor wearing a smaller costume than the one he wears in the photo at left. I vividly remember hearing more than a thousand women (including my wife) gasp for breath.

If you study this photo you will see that all of the dancers, male and female, have stretched their back leg into a straight line that extends all the way through their feet and toes. This creates the ultimate pointed foot, and a ballerina’s pointe shoes are constructed in a way that to allows her to stand on an extended foot. In a recent DG interview Philip Gardner of Oberson’s Grove said, “This may seem odd, but I think the glamour of the ballet comes from...toe shoes! Yes, the satiny pointe shoes have their own mystique and give the ballerina an elegance that is quite unique.”

Ballet But Sexy If we look closely at the cleverly executed photo used for the Smuin ad, we can compare the shape of a woman’s foot wearing pointe shoes versus high heels. As it happens, this dancer in her toe shoes has exquisitely shaped legs and feet. She has increased the flexibility of her arch so much that the curve of her calf and the curve of her foot combine to create a beautiful s-curve. Developing this kind of arch is hard work. This site shows how to do it. Look at the expressions on the young girl’s face as she moves past pointing her feet to stretching to increase the curve in her arch.

Pointe shoes were gradually developed to allow ballerinas to rise from standing on the pads of their toes to standing on the tips of their toes, increasing the illusion that they are weightless. Contemporary pointe shoes have a toe box which becomes a small platform that the highly trained dancers can balance on, even during turns. (This article details their construction.) In pas de deux work the male dancer often serves to display the ballerina balanced in impossibly beautiful positions. (You can see photos of Wendy Wheelan supported by Albert Evans in a few amazing positions positions here.)

High-heeled shoes can accentuate a woman’s calf muscles, and add curves to her back and buttocks, but her toes end up bending in the opposite direction from the arch of the foot. Women’s feet and legs can look wonderful in high heels, but if the desired effect is for the feet to point, then pointe shoes have a distinct advantage.

Another approach to having a pointed foot is to wear pointy toe shoes. Naturally this is hazardous to the foot, since five toes don’t naturally taper to a single tiny point. And constantly wearing very high-heeled shoes of any kind can create foot problems for many women. Ballet point work is hazardous as to the feet as well. This site gives advice on wrapping your toes to prepare for ballet pointe that is brutal in detail. And this article on point work includes a long list of common injuries associated with pointe work.

Bettie_page Nonetheless, the pointed foot remains a sexy ideal and is characteristic of pin-up art and photography. (Here are links to two Alberto Vargas pin-ups using toe shoes:  1 2.) In pin-ups high-heeled shoes are most often used to achieve the flexed calves and pointed feet, but it is particularly revealing to look at images that include bare feet. In this situation when standing the woman often rises on her toes. But if not standing, the ideal is have her feet pointed and her toes placed in line with her arch, as in this site’s photo of young ballet-trained Brigette Bardot on the beach. And in the photo shown at left, we see famed 1950’s pin-up model Bettie Page, “playing” in the water with her foot pointed beautifully. In an interview late in her life she talked about enjoying “playing in the water” photo sessions in Florida. Her biography makes it unlikely that she had ballet training, but she certainly learned to point her feet and toes. No one ends up in this position without being aware of the effort required to maintain that pointed foot.

While researching this article I discovered that there are quite a few blogs by young women who aspire to a figure that is as sexy as those of the pin-up girls of photos and drawings. (Here are links to a couple of those blogs: 1 2 . ) Weight loss and fitness seems to be a frequent theme, but the aspirations seem to involve a more hourglass-shaped than rail-thin figure. Pin-ups date back to the 1890s, and I have no doubt that throughout that history many women have aspired to have pin-up figures. Given that high heels and pointed feet are characteristic of pin-ups, as well as high fashion, it’s little wonder that women are sometimes willing to suffer some discomfort to have those shapely calves and pointed feet.

--- advertisement ---

"Ballet, But Entertaining"

Ballet But Entertaining

That's the headline on this ad for the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. Other ads promise, "Ballet but Bold," "Ballet but Broadway," "Ballet but Different," "Ballet but Spicy," and "Ballet but Sexy" (pictured below).

Ballet But Sexy

Why would a ballet company need to sell "Ballet but..."? As Adrants comments, "One of the biggest problems with ballet is it's traditionally classified as a 'high culture' pursuit, which gives the dance some cachet, but also shuts potentially innovative new young audiences out."

If ballet today lacks some of the glamour it had in mid-century America, one reason is that aspirations have changed. "High culture" was once an aspiration in its own right—what middlebrow people wanted to achieve, the better to demonstrate their refinement and "class." Nowadays, people may enjoy high culture pursuits, but those pursuits must find their audiences on their own merits, not on the promise of status transformation. You may "better yourself" by attending ballets, operas, or museum exhibits, but the betterment comes from your genuine psychological reaction to the art, not from the idea that you're the kind of superior person who attends ballets, operas, or museum exhibits instead of rock concerts or movies.

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.

Dance Week: The Work Behind The Glamour

Earlier this week, Philip Gardner of Oberon’s Grove told DG that he thinks the glamour of ballet comes from toe shoes. He referenced both their look and their less tangible “mystique.” That mystique, to me, is all about wondering how the dancers can possibly stay en pointe for more than 15 seconds at a stretch and how they make it look so effortless.

Ballet Looking effortless, of course, isn’t the same as being effortless, and the reality is that those dancers dedicate hours of practice and pain to achieve the on-stage perfection they share with audiences. In toe shoes, ballerinas’ feet look gorgeous and otherwordly. With those shoes off, though, they’re often a big mess of blisters and bunions.

In that way, they have much in common with the brilliant chef whose white sleeves hide arms covered in burns earned during thousands of hours spent behind the stove, honing his craft. Or the interior designer whose perfect palace is the result of months – or years – of fine-tuning a design (often while dealing with a difficult, demanding, possibly tasteless client).

What’s most glamorous on the surface is often the result of the hardest work underneath.

All of this made me wonder, then, is there anything glamorous that doesn’t require hours of preparation?

["Practice Makes Perfect" photograph taken by Flickr user Lin Pernille and used under the Creative Commons license.]