WEST COAST SWINGMy First Jack & Jill

by I.J. Wanadans

I’ve been dancing about a year and I’ve watched these Jack & Jill contests with great interest because it’s truly a test of lead/follow which I’m doing all the time in social dancing. Since I’ve competed all my life in tennis I never felt the desire to he competitive in dance. But I also recog-nized that most people have a free attitude toward the contest results because the results are somewhat dependent on your partner, the level of competitors, the mu-sic, and the quality of the judges.

Given these facts, and also the knowledge that as an athlete you improve by perform-ing in pressure situations, I began to toy with the idea of participating. I also sensed that those people who were brave enough to enter were consciously or un-consciously treated with a certain measure of respect that can only be gained by div-ing into the fray. I was somewhat an-noyed, however, to discover that there were only two divisions: Advanced and Novice. Advanced is for the Pros and Novice is for "everyone" else. Some Novice winners I’ve queried admit to have been dancing for four years or more. But I didn’t care because I was entering for the experience and the advancement of my dancing.

So I commit to the deed. But there is no way I’m going to do my first Jack & Jill in my hometown so I pass on the SOS Grand Nationals. I look ahead to the calendar and I figure starting out at the massively popular Phoenix event with all those California dancers would also be overreaching. So I pick a relatively small Country Western event in Raleigh-Durham, where few people know me, where unknown disasters could easily be overcome, and decide this event would be just perfect for me. I just happen to meet a pretty good local dancer who tells me she danced Jack & Jill the previous year. Her only comment was, "Well, I survived." I didn’t ask if she was entering this year’s contest because I as-sumed she would. But I did take notice that she was sitting on the side when the event was announced.


I’m from New Yawk. I was born coooooool and got cooler from there. I knew I would be able to maintain a certain level of composure that would help me in Jack & Jill contests. Also, competing in tennis is much more stressful than dance, so I knew I wouldn’t "brain cramp." In tennis I even perform better match day than I do practice day. So my expectation level was relaxed. I do get nervous danc-ing with a National Champion, but for the most part I'm cool. I know what nervous is.

Nervous is not developing a game plan for your rookie student’s first round match on center court at the US Open against Jimmy Conners. That’s a privilege. Nervous is sitting courtside in front of 12,000 people just prior to the start of the fifth set with Conners (illegally) grousing to his coach about jet lag and not really wanting to lift the level of his game to swat the pesky rookie away. Nervous is the fantasy of victory and the resultant explosion to the careers of both rookie and coach. PS: Conners took care of business in the fifth set!

So, standing in front of one or two hundred people preparing to dance was not particu-larly difficult for me. At every Jack & Jill I've seen there are always at least a dozen couples or more who participate in both the Novice and Advanced divisions. I was quite surprised to realize that there were only two and a half couples entered in this particular Novice division. That’s good because I can’t finish worse than third. That’s bad because the view of my dancing won’t be spread out amongst ten other couples. The magnifying glass will cer-tainly be on. It’s also bad because if you take first place you only won over a tiny field, and if you take "third" place that means you were the worst, rather than getting lost in the "also-ran" 4 through 12 grouping.


One of the male contestants I hadn’t seen dance at all. The other contestant I had seen and considered him pretty good, but he was a teenager. There were only two women entered. One I hadn’t seen dance and the other I had danced with and would have been happy to be paired with. Mario Robau Jr. (the MC) started goosing the audience for one more female to join. Mario’s sales pitch was so convincing it took no time for a woman to pop up out of the stands to a round of applause. She takes a position right in front of me. I hadn’t seen her dance, but I’m cool.

Mario then makes a comment about West Coast Swing and the girl turns to me and says, "Oh, no, is this West Coast Swing? I don't know any &ldots; I can only do East Coast Swing." I’m still hangin’ cool. But I’m thinking, "Great, I come all this way to do a West Coast Jack & Jill and now I’m going to have to do East Coast Swing just to help this girl through her mortification.

"God, you are really toying with me now." Do you know that at that very instant God spoke back to me, chuckling, "No I.J., I am not really toying with you, yet!"

I thought I was saved when I heard Mario say, "OK ladies, move two positions. The kid ended up with Miss East Coast, the other guy ended up with the girl I would have been happy with, and I ended up with Deena. Deena would be the age of my second daughter if life had brought me any chil-dren, and she had the excited, clear eyes of the beautiful, nubile female that she was. I’m still cool. I expected an unknown partner, the thin competition was a little unusual but manageable, and the judges were top notch (after Barry Jones and Debbie Ram-sey/Boz were announced I didn’t bother to hear the rest). So whatever the music I could probably deal with it. I felt reasonably prepared and ready. On comes the music and ....


In tennis we have a term called "sensory overload." You are prepared for a windy day. You are prepared for an uneven clay court, poor lighting, or power-tripping um-pires. Your game can withstand one, or even a few, "unique" challenges. You can stay focused on the ball with a Cessna flying overhead, but the task is impossible with a fleet of B-52’s whisking through your field of vision. When the wind is blowing on an uneven court with bad lighting, a power-tripping umpire and a woman falling off of her chair, you experience "sensory overload."

I immediately know on the opening release that I’ve got the best female of the group. "Great good luck, how can I lose!" Then I think, "what will it say about your dancing if you don’t win?" The music is unknown to me and at a slower pace than I’d like, but that’s OK. My plan is to keep it simple, do the basics as perfectly as possible, and try to "feel" the music. The judges have to respond positively to that plan in a Novice competition. Suddenly I’m realizing that Deena is a natural performer, has a dozen friends screaming encouragement from the sidelines, and the plan she has is 180 degrees from my simple one. Now I’ve got a tiger on my hands and, uh-oh, I realize that I just danced through a break which I knew because out of the corner of my eye I noticed the other two fellows hit it just perfectly.


I already planned not to worry about breaks because my first Jack & Jill in a Novice category should show off my basics and technique. But the tiger on my finger-tips was communicating to me (in the silent but powerful way only women know) in no uncertain terms that she was going to hit the next break whether I did or not. Real cool is now gone and "acting" cool has taken over because I’m clearly im-mersed in the confusion of sensory over-load. Forget the basics, now I’m waiting and waiting and waiting for this next break while Deena is flashing her way through a my very tentative lead.

"God, stifle that belly laugh will you please!"

I think I hear the break. Yes. But I also hear Mario mocking, "Here it comes," and I lead into a whip. The break comes on three and I awkwardly freeze her out and feel my balance going. Deena unbeliev-ably squiggles down into some sort of move that supports my weight, comes back up, and because I’m totally lost she fires herself into a release that looked like we meant it. Oh, Deena, you no rookie! At this point I’m looking around for the button that releases the guillotine. I’m ready to pull it myself. Get me outta here. Will this ever be over? God, I’d be happy to be with Miss East Coast now ... at least I’d have a bona fide excuse! Cool or not I’ve been smashed to smithereens, totally blind-sided. I’ve danced with ladies who syncopate out of control and/or steal an occasional lead. I can deal with that. But it never occurred to me (and no one ever warned me it was possible) that I, as the leader, could be "over-danced" by a fol-lower! This was the fleet of B-52’s flying across my field of vision, the straw that broke the camel’s back, sensory overload to the max!

Later that night I made certain to dance again with Deena. It was a good dance, relaxed, expressive (a tune with no breaks). I tamed the tiger. She was an excellent dancer, much better than myself. But I led her with confidence and certainty. I had to let her know that I could do a lot better. While dancing I thanked her for saving me and swore I’d return the favor to her (or another fine lady) someday. The Karmic Debt was accepted and she smiled her acknowledgment. I’m certain I’ll see her again in some other city at some other contest. And if she’s still dancing Novice (which I doubt) I’ll relish a second chance with her.


Experience is definitely the best Teacher. And I got a lesson in spades! Those who avoid these lessons grow slowly. Now I’m the one who "survived." But "I’ll be back." After 24 hours of reliving the episode in my mind, suffering great embarrassment, and swearing never to do it again, I’m now inspired. So let’s see, when do I get to do this again? When’s the next contest? Who am I to keep God from further amusements!

At the awards ceremony the names of "The Kid" and Miss East Coast were announced first, as the third place winners. Whew, at least I was better than them. Forget about my dancing, they probably put me above him out of respect for my age! But then again maybe I actually won, Maybe Deena carried me more than I knew. "Deena and I.J., second place winners," the Announcer sang out encouragingly.

"No first place distinctions for you just yet," God offered delicately.

Deena smiled at me, said nothing, and divided our $14 in winnings. I thanked her and at that moment realized that she was, without question, the most Perfect Partner I ever could have had for My First Jack & Jill.