Age 17: 112 Counts, 2 Wall Phrased, Intermediate/Advanced
I’m gonna pee my pants. Why did I let Bonnie talk me into this? I can’t win a choreography competition! It was an accident that I was here, really. I showed Bonnie (my line dance teacher) a dance I’d choreographed. She liked it, and told me to enter it in the 2010 Fort Wayne Dance for All Choreography Competition. So here we are.
We walk into the Grand Wayne Center’s Main Ballroom, where I’ll be competing. Whoa. The place is enormous, and the floor. I’ve never seen one so big. I step off the carpet and onto the dance floor, so large and polished. Oh, I love hardwood floors. Unable to resist, I start dancing. I love how my Pumas slide effortlessly across the perfect floor. But I have to focus.
There are a lot of experienced choreographers in the running. If I win, I get a plaque and some money I think. I don’t really care about the prize; I just hope that people like my dance. Bonnie tells me that some of the contestants are actually teaching workshops here already. My nervous system responds immediately; my heart pumps in high gear and I’ve suddenly forgotten how to breathe.
6 p.m. comes too fast, and the competition is underway. I’m in Phrased Non-Country, the very last of 6 categories. Awesome. As more and more dancers show off their creativity, my palms start sweating and I can feel my heart trying to punch through my chest. Five categories to go. Now three left. Now two. Suddenly, it’s my turn and I am seriously questioning my decision to enter this competition. I’m the youngest here. As my name is called, I start thinking, am I ready for this? Do I have the chops, the training to be a real choreographer?
A Good Foundation: 8 counts
Music and dancing. I have been surrounded by them since birth. My Grandma and Grandpa Merriman started line dancing in the early 90s. I’ve been going with them my whole life. Grandpa Roth was adamant that I have an appreciation for music, especially the songs of his youth, so I would sit in his woodworking shop for hours while he carved and glued, singing and dancing to his Time Life Classic Country cds. Both sets of my grandparents are avid country music lovers, so it was only a matter of time before I fell in love with all things musical.
At home, Mom had a record player that she moved to my room. I spent a lot of time listening to her records. Yes, records. She taught me how to play them, how to switch songs and adjust the volume. It was the coolest giant toy I could imagine. I mostly listened to her Alvin and the Chipmunks record. Mom used to tease me and say that I was going to wear the record out if I wasn’t careful. I didn’t care. I wanted to sing “Ooo-eee-ooo-ahh-ahh” every minute of every day.
If the constant repetition of annoying chipmunk music wasn’t enough to drive my parents crazy already, they soon noticed that I had another annoying habit; I constantly walked on the balls of my feet, tip-toeing and bouncing everywhere, never letting my heels touch the ground. I don’t know why I did, I just felt more comfortable walking this way. And since dancers spend most of their time like that, I have always felt like I was made to dance.
And So It Begins: 16 Counts, 1 Wall Beginner
It used to be a church. The old pump organ still sat in the entryway, and stained glass filled the windows. The smell of the brand new wood floor was intoxicating. I was six years old when I stepped into Rising Star Dance Studio for the first time. I hadn’t been there for more than a few seconds, and I was completely enraptured. Mixed in among the wall paintings of larger-than-life winged angels were posters of ballerinas leaping, twirling. They were the most beautiful creatures I’d ever seen. A wall of mirrors multiplied the throng of angels and dancers, surrounding me in colored light and elegant figures.
I sat down on a step that used to be the pulpit area and reached into my dance bag. I pulled out a brand new pair of ballet shoes. I slipped them on, admiring how pretty my feet looked, wrapped in the soft pink leather. As soon as I stood up, I started panicking. My shoes didn’t feel right. I almost started to cry, but I was saved by a small brunette lady, who calmly informed me that I had accidentally put my shoes on the wrong feet. Left and right ballet shoes are exactly the same except for the soles, which enlarge at the top to fit the step of a left or right foot. After the nice lady helped me, she walked up to the front of the dance floor and introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Jenny Joseph and I’m your new dance teacher. Welcome to ballet class!”
Jenny had a small frame and a friendly smile. She had us line up in front of the mirrors and taught us first about “windows”. That meant that if there were two or more lines of dancers, each had to be spaced so that the lines in the back could be seen through the lines in the front, making it so that every dancer was always visible to the audience. After the “window” explanation, Jenny showed us how to stretch properly, and kept repeating “Point your toes.”
I came to live by that mantra; spending years in windows, dancing on the balls of my feet, pointing my toes to pirouette, to leap left and right, to gracefully perform an arabesque, using my arms and legs to transform my body into one long graceful line, ending at my right toe.
It was fitting that I started dancing in a church, because dance soon became my religion of choice. Ballet was first, because so many of the moves were incorporated into other genres. I loved learning that a chasse (sha-say) meant one foot chased the other out of its position, demi-plies (plee-ay) were small lunges, and glissades were gliding steps, like that of an ice skater.
My favorite move in ballet was called a tour jeté: you chasse (or shuffle) to one side and then fling one leg up into the air to start your 360 degree spin, then the other leg follows in a midair switch, and you finish with your feet in the same place you started. The whole airborne turn takes less than two seconds to execute, but it took me months of practice before I could even get my inflexible legs in the right positions for the maneuver. After I learned how it was done, I got to go back and spend more hours practicing, until finally I could execute the entrancing turn without sounding like a herd of rampaging elephants. But once I landed it, I felt like a prima; the best ballerina I knew.
I caught dance fever in the worst way. I started out with ballet, jazz, and tap dance classes. Tap was my favorite, probably because it is the loudest. Sharp black leather shoes with pieces of metal screwed to the bottom made tap class so unlike the other styles. I really had to control my foot movements because every mistake was seen and heard. This class taught me the importance of rhythm.
I inherited great rhythm from my mom, thank you Jesus. I felt sorry for the dancers in my class without rhythm. They tried so hard to stay in sync, but always ended up looking like drunken ostriches; standing tall but somehow unable to maintain their center of balance, lurching from side to side, huge eyes searching for their rhythm and grace like they had just been stolen from them. They made me try harder, though, always striving for perfection in all areas.
Only adding to my parents’ annoyance, I danced more outside of class than I did in the 30 minute weekly sessions that Mom and Dad paid for. I couldn’t stop. My mom still tells people what it was like, living with a fanatic:
“Every week, we made a trip to Wal-Mart. I swear, we wouldn’t be there more than 5 minutes and Jesse would start dancing. She would follow me around, tapping up and down the aisles. People would stare, and I would ask her to please settle down, but that only worked for a few minutes. It was awful going shopping for clothes with her because every time she tried something on, she would start wiggling and twirling in front of the fitting room mirrors.”
What she didn’t realize is that Wal-Mart’s floor is almost as perfect a dance floor as hardwood. And our entire house was carpeted except the bathroom. Even our kitchen had carpet. Who does that? So when my feet hit that smooth surface, I couldn’t control it. I didn’t care who was watching, I had to dance. The material under my feet felt like a dance floor, and that’s how I was going to use it. As for the clothes, why would I wear something that I couldn’t dance in?In my usual stubborn fashion, I thought it made perfect sense. In seventh grade, I learned that I was wrong.
It was the second time I had ever been in a dance shop. I had the shoes, and now I wanted to look like a dancer with spandex pants and tank tops. I was never a fan of Leos (short for leotards, and isn’t that just a horrible-sounding word?), so I wanted leggings and shiny shirts with “DANCER” embellished in rhinestones. Mom got me what I needed for class, and on our way out I saw the absolute coolest pair of dance pants that I have heretofore laid eyes on.
They were jet black, made of a heavy spandex material. On both sides ran a vertical streak of bright red fabric, and at the bottom of the left-leg streak was a black silhouette of a badass hip-hop chick with her arm raised up, finger pointing to the block letters above her that spelled out “DANCE” in black graffiti. I added them to my “dance clothes” drawer at home, though they seldom actually made it into the drawer, because once mom washed them I wanted to put them back on. And soon after, I found out that dance doesn’t have just one meaning.
I was so excited to be in seventh grade because we finally got to start going to annual dances. Because of my experience with dance, I thought it meant that we danced in the steps that you learned when you were in dance class. So, naturally, I wanted to wear the most comfortable and cool dance pants I owned.
On a cool night in October, I jumped out of the van and ran into Parkway Junior High School. I paid my two dollars and walked into my very first school dance. I had on a black dance t-shirt and my badass pants. I was so ready to bust my moves and show off, until I walked through the gym doors. Whoa. What is going on? Everybody has dresses on? Did I miss something?
Apparently, dance and a dance are two completely different things. This dance was all about trying to find boys to dance with. That’s stupid. Oh well. I had fun doing my thing, and I even got to dance with a boy, though it wasn’t really enjoyable. He just grabbed onto the waistband of my pants and held on for dear life, swaying me back and forth, his feet glued to the gym floor. He gave me a wedgie, and I stayed away from “dancing” with boys for about 2 years after that. I liked my idea of dance better…
Beyond the Basics: 32 Count, 2 Wall Beginner/Improver
After I realized I was good at the fundamental genres, I added gymnastics and hip-hop to the mix. Hip-hop was unlike any other genre, because there was so much room for variation and attitude. The thumping music and heavy downbeats made the dances more masculine and strong, there wasn’t as much emphasis on pointing your toe, because flexing our feet (a big no-no in formal dance most of the time) and stomping made us feel like we were part ofthe music, instead of just dancing in front of the speakers. Hip-hop appealed to me because it looked so wild and uncontrolled, but it really took more control to dance that way.
I wasn’t great at gymnastics, mostly because I’m inflexible. I am also a big chicken, and much more comfortable with at least one foot on the ground. There was something about flipping through the air and spinning uncontrollably that just wasn’t appealing to me. I loved all the moves where I could twirl and tumble (in a good way) with a little bit of ungrounded fun, like back handsprings and aerials (no-handed cart wheels), but I was always uneasy about front- and back-flips. This fear solidified one fall (no pun intended), about 5 years after my first day of dance.
No way. No. Absolutely not. Those were the bull-headed words flitting around in my head when Jenny asked me if I wanted to do a back-flip for the gymnastics routine in the spring recital. It wasn’t just a back-flip, though that would’ve been scary enough for me. This one required the help of my friend Eleesha, a tall, athletic girl who had just started dance a few years before. If I could give the move my own name, it would have been something like “run-at-Eleesha-like-a-linebacker-and-put-my-foot-in-her-hands-so-she-can-launch-me-into-the-air-Apollo-11-style-and-somehow-I-backflip-and-am-supposed-to-land-safely-on-my-feet.” Did I mention that chickens don’t really fly that well? I was doomed from the start.
We practiced this move every class for a few weeks with spotters (people who stand next to you and help you so you don’t kill yourself), without incident. I was terrified I would not flip fast enough and then I’d land on my head and die. The time came to try the move without my spotter (No!), and I kept reminding myself to tuck tight and flip fast so I could get the full 360-degree rotation. Eleesha and I faced each other; she was in her lunge position with her hands laced together, waiting for me to step into them. I took off, running full speed. My feet found their mark and WHOOSH! I was propelled into the air. But what I didn’t know is that when I pushed off harder to compensate for the lack of spotter, Eleesha had done the same. I ended up crashing to the mat, flat on my back. I had flipped almost one and a half times, so my feet never had the chance to catch me. I fell like an atomic bomb, and my body landed with a ground-shaking BOOM! That was the end of gymnastics for me.
Finding My Feet through Failure: 48 Count, 4 Wall Intermediate
After being in dance lessons for 7 years, Jenny approached me and told me I should audition for the Competition Team. I was flattered; the competition girls were the best dancers at Rising Star Dance Studio, and Jenny wanted me to try out! So I did, and I made it! I felt like a professional, and I finally would get to travel and dance and help my team win trophies.
Classes started, and I soon realized that I was the odd one out. The other girls had been on the team for years, so they were all close friends. My first few weeks in the class, no one talked to me. And the dances were harder, but I loved that. I learned the moves fast (I have always been good at memorization) but there were some moves that my body just wouldn’t let me do. I practiced every day for hours, pushing my body to the extreme, but I just wasn’t flexible enough. 2 weeks before our first competition, Jenny cut me from the team. I was devastated. Why did she make me try out, and put me on the team, just to tell me I wasn’t good enough?
I went back to my old classes, deflated. I had to learn all new dances, and they were boring now. The drunken ostriches were too much for me, I hated being in the front row of classes full of girls who didn’t want to do their best and perform well. But I couldn’t quit, because I love dancing too much. Wasn’t there a way for me to enjoy myself with others who were as passionate about dance as I was? There had to be a place where people could dance if they weren’t flexible enough or strong enough to do formal dance.
I decided that since no one was teaching me anything fun, I would make up new dances by myself. I watched movies like “Step Up,” “Footloose,” and “Dirty Dancing.” My new dream was to be a choreographer; I wanted people moving to my creations. I wanted to be the next Kenny Ortega. He was my idol. His choreography in “Dirty Dancing,” “High School Musical,” and “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” was so eclectic and exciting. But the transition from dancer to choreographer wasn’t as easy as I thought.
Hearing the Right Music: 32 Count, 4 Wall Intermediate
During my formal dance years, my grandparents were still taking me to line dance class. I never danced with them; I just used the corner of the dance floor to practice my other moves. This changed after my competition team experience. I started paying attention to the dancers and the moves.
I was about 12 when I learned my first line dance. It was called Eye Candy, set to the song “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins. As I watched, the dance seemed easy, but learning the moves wasn’t enough. Many of the moves I knew were the same as line dance moves, but they had different names. For example, a pas debourrée in ballet was now a sailor step. It didn’t bother me, though. I leapt over the genre-gap and hit the ground dancing.
Bonnie taught me that every dance has a number count. Easier dances have small counts, like 16 or 32. This just meant you learned a 32 beat dance to a song, and repeat those counts over and over until the song ends. Harder dances were 48, 64 or even 96 counts. Wall numbers mattered too, but they made sense. For example, if a dance was 2 walls, you started the dance facing 12:00 and 6:00. 4 walls just meant you started the dance from 4 separate directions (12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00). For example, the Electric Slide (18 counts) and the Cupid Shuffle (32 counts) are both four wall dances, and four wall dances were usually the hardest. Every wall feels like a new dance. And the hardest line dances were the phrased dances because they had tags (add-in steps that keep the dance and music parallel) and restarts (going back to the beginning of a dance before the full choreography was danced through) that added more counts to the original dance. There was a lot of confusion on the road to learning the mechanics behind a line dance.
Side-By-Side: My Fellow Dancers
Aside from all the new dances, I was mingling with a new set of dancers. In formal dance, everything is about competing; you compete against each other, vying for the front row and solo parts. But in line dance, I was the youngest in every class by about 50 years. In my eyes, I now had centuries of dance experience surrounding me. I made friends, and I felt like a part of something much bigger than myself.
The people that I shared the floor with have shaped me more than I could ever have imagined. Bonnie is my teacher; ornery as they come, she’s been dancing and teaching for more than 30 years. Pat and Gene: the couple, seasoned line dancers. They used to roller skate in competitions together. The Other Pat has a wooden leg and he taught me how to waltz. George; the ZZ Top look-alike. Fannie Oakley (yes, that is her real name): the social butterfly and general morale-booster. And last but not least are Jim and Ruth Ann Merriman: Grandpa and Grandma, the most adorable and supportive people on the planet.
Grandpa Roth was the gruff, country music-loving voice of encouragement. Grandpa Jim is his opposite; sensitive and charismatic, he patiently taught me how to two-step and couples dance. I couldn’t ask for a better partner. When I got my first boyfriend, Grandpa Jim asked me if I was going to start dancing with him instead. But there are just some songs that wouldn’t feel right with any other dance partner.
Just when I was getting where I wanted to be, though, my road of life took me on an unexpected detour.
Falling: 0 Counts, 2 Crutches
The week of October 15th, 2007 was the most unlucky week of my life.
Monday: my pet peacock, Blue, died.
Tuesday Morning: I went to P.E. class and got hit right in the eye ball (I didn’t even have time to blink) with a rogue lacrosse ball.
Tuesday Night: Carpooling to drama club practice, my best friend shut my hand in a van door.
At this point, I was avoiding cracks, looking both ways six times before I crossed the street, and steering clear of black cats and ladders. And right about the time I thought my week couldn’t get worse, God decided to accept this as a challenge.
Wednesday night was dance lesson night. I was already upset because my eye hurt, my hand hurt, and Mom wouldn’t let me go to line dance the evening before. Once I got to the dance studio, I clumsily tied my ballet shoes with my mismatched hands. We lined up and started stretching. Leg kicks first, and then lunges. Right-leg leaps- check. I watched Katie go first for left-leg leaps, and then it was my turn. Step-together-step, bend, LEAP! I was soaring through the air, thinking about how beautiful my leap looked, but on the descent, I ended up landing too far forward on my toes and suddenly I was on the floor cradling myself in the fetal position. My fall shook the entire studio.
I froze. I didn’t cry, I didn’t move; I wasn’t going to ask for help or look like a baby. But God, I hurt. As the choruses of “Are you ok?” started, I blocked out the world and concentrated on assessing the damage without moving. I’m not sure how long I sat there. Maybe a minute, maybe ten. But I knew I was in trouble. After my self-inventory, I sat up and rolled over, so as not to do more damage to my left ankle, and scooted on my butt until I was off the dance floor.
Jenny came over and told me that she was going to take off my ballet shoe to look for herself. I nodded, not trusting my voice. It didn’t matter; I couldn’t hold my poker face.
“Ow! Crap, ouch!” I yelled. My foot was already swelling and turning purple. It’s definitely sprained, I thought. “I’m going to call your mom,” Jenny said.
About 6 minutes later, my mom ran through the door like she was on fire. “Are you okay?” She ran up and started touching and hugging me as only a mother hen can. I assured her I would live; she and Jenny half-carried me out to the van in the rain (of course) and we headed home.
Since I was sure I would think it was worse than my dad would, I decided to just wait to go to the doctor. My dad is one of those suck-it-up-and-rub-some-dirt-in-it types, so there was no way I was going to be rushed to the hospital just to be told that I was a wimp with a bruised ankle and a bull-head.
The sucky part was that I really needed to shower, but I couldn’t walk. So Dad carried me to the bathroom, grumbling something that sounded like “overreacting.” When he got to the bathroom he used my body to open the door, accidently banging my ankle on the doorknob, causing me to yowl like a cat whose tail just got caught in a lawn mower.
After Dad was finished using me as a human battering ram, I sat on the toilet trying to figure out how to proceed. I hate baths, so I ended up putting the shower curtain over the edge of the tub and sitting on it. As for the washing…well, thank God mom and dad like those handheld detachable shower heads. I was never happier to get into the safety of my bed that night. The pillows seemed pretty harmless.
When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t believe it. My leg felt worse. Mom took me to the doctor first thing.
The x-rays showed that I didn’t break anything, but he saw after an MRI that I had partially torn a ligament in my ankle. “These hurt more than breaks, because the tissues rub and move more,” he said. “If you had tried any more to walk on it, that ligament could’ve torn completely and you would’ve needed surgery.” Oh, so stubborn and torn ligaments don’t go well together…
I got some shiny crutches and a fat black boot to immobilize my foot. 2 months later I had to go to physical therapy. While there, I found out that I have the most inflexible ankles my doctors have ever seen. My dreams of being a professional dancer were irrevocably crushed.
New Opportunities: 64 Count, 4 Wall Intermediate Phrased
Once I got rid of that stupid boot (around Christmas), I decided that I was quitting dance lessons after my tenth year. I had missed half of my ninth, but I could make it up. My legs were a little less fluid and strong, and the welcome back to class didn’t help. My first class back, one of the girls who was friends with the competition girls (she considered our class an insult to her skills) walked up and said, “Nice to see you finally showed up.” I knew my decision to quit was the right one.
I focused on line dancing. I had fun with my senior friends, I liked the music better, and this type of dance is something I could literally do for the rest of my life. I started spending a lot of time up at the DJ booth with Bonnie. She had a lifetime of knowledge and a good eye for talent. My friends started coming with me, and I saw something amazing. Line dancing was a community in motion. There was no way you could just dance next to someone for weeks on end without wanting to get to know them, to joke about mess-ups, discuss favorite dances and songs. And they welcomed me in like I’d been dancing beside them for years.
Amy was my best friend, and we spent about half our time together making up cool new dances to our favorite songs. The summer before my 17th birthday was no different than the last five for Amy and me. We spent hours out in the patio, dancing to all the songs from our favorite movies. Our favorite at the moment was the “Hannah Montana Movie.” Yes, we were “too old” to still like Disney Channel, but the stars were our age and the music was catchy and fun to dance to.
We had recently given up on choreographing a dance to “I Don’t Dance” from “High School Musical 2.” The song is about baseball and dance, so we thought it would be a cool idea to dance with wooden baseball bats. Mom ended our work on that dance when a flying bat nearly crashed through our sliding glass kitchen door. Our new obsession was a song called “Hoedown Throwdown” by Hannah Montana. With lyrics like “If you’re 5 or 82, this is something you can do: pop it, lock it, polka-dot it, country-fy then hip-hop it,” the song was begging for a good dance.
We didn’t like the movie’s dance, so Amy thought I should make up a new one and teach her. We wanted to put it in a talent show during our summer community festival. But one night at line dance class, Bonnie overheard Amy and me talking about our new dance and asked us if we would show it to her sometime.
I brought my music the next week and premiered my very first piece of choreography. I didn’t think any of my senior friends would like it, but they did! Afterwards, Bonnie handed back my cd and said “Every year there is a line dance workshop in Fort Wayne; you should go and enter your dance in the choreography competition.”
“Okay!” I said.
Sometimes, I should really think before I speak.
From Dancing to Writing:??? Counts, Intermediate/Advanced
The first question Bonnie asked me was, “How many counts is your dance?”
The second was, “Do you know how to write a step sheet?”
And finally, “Have you ever been in a dance competition before?”
Crap. I may have just jumped in the deep end of the pool without learning how to swim first.
After many hours of showing and re-showing Bonnie my dance, we finally wrote out a 112 count, 2 wall, phrased monster of a line dance. The steps for the bridge (about 10 seconds long) look like this:
1&2& Right knee up, in, right foot down, slide left together
3& Point twice with right hand (leaning right)
4& Point twice with left hand (leaning left)
5&6 Step down right, left behind, step right
7-8 Right knee in, left knee in (hands laced pointing down)
1-2 Step left together with right, turn head left, right
3-4 Touch left out, then in
5-6 Jump to left side (both feet), scuff right
7-8 Step back right, HOLD with left toe up
Yes, I wrote that monster, and that is only a small fraction of the entire step sheet. Go big or go home, right?
Calling the Shots: 112 Counts, 2 Wall, Intermed/Adv. Phrased Non-Country
“And the last contestant in the category of Phrased Non-Country is Miss Jessica Roth, with her dance ‘Hoedown.’”
I’m up. Well, kind of. My knees are weak, my hands are shaking, and there’s a 60% chance that I’m going to pass out. I walk through the rows of seats filled with choreographers and step onto that floor.
By the time I make it to the middle of the floor, my heartbeat has slowed. I’m home, on this hardwood. I look down at my feet, encased in my favorite Pumas, the little embroidered felines waiting to jump into action on familiar turf. My eyes scan the audience. Mom, Dad, Bonnie, Grandma, and Grandpa are all there, clapping and cheering for me. Bonnie gives me a wink, and I nod. The music starts.
“Boom, clap. Boom de-clap de-clap.”
I’ve got this.
Though the competition started at 6 o’clock today, the winners don’t get announced until 11. The hours move slower than molasses in January, and I am nervous again. I barely remember dancing, it went so fast. People cheered when I finished, probably because I looked about twelve years old.
Finally the waiting ends and the host walks out with his assistant holding an armload of certificates and envelopes. They go through each of the six categories, handing out certificates to first, second, and third place. When my category comes up, third place is announced. Not me. Second place: not me. Oh yeah, I’m a dummy. I was so adamant about jumping into this world that I didn’t stop to think about the consequences of my headstrong actions.
“The first place winner of the Phrased Non-Country Division receives forty dollars and a certificate as well as the chance to record and teach their dance in a workshop here. In first place, and the youngest contestant in the competition, Miss Jessica Roth!”
Crap, I was daydreaming when they announced the winner. I could’ve sworn they said my name. And why is everyone staring at me?
“Jess,” Bonnie said, as she smiled at me, looking like she had just gone full-moon crazy. “You won!”