The Wandering Scientist

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Uncanny New Orleans

New Orleans has uncanny powers. Things and events touched by this city seem to become more heavily symbolic and meaningful. It produces coincidences that are charming and mischievous.

It was two years ago that I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s odd to know the exact date, but I do. On December 24th, 2010 I walked into the Spotted Cat and saw Meschiya Lake perform, and my heart was marked ever since. Though I did visit it again soon after, I have not had the opportunity to go back there until just recently. I have been trying to go again, but nothing worked out. Until a peculiar sequence of events conspired to bring me back.

The first was my college friends having a combined birthday and end-of-the-world party at the end of December. Lake City is about thirteen hours driving from DC, which is reasonably manageable. The drive from Florida to New Orleans is even shorter. The drive from New Orleans to DC, however, is much longer. While I was trying to figure out how to complete this route, a friend of mine mentioned that she was staying with her parents in Knoxville, TN for Christmas, and that I would be welcome to stop over. Knoxville is almost exactly half-way between DC and New Orleans. It could hardly be located more perfectly. At this point, I simply could not refuse the trip. As scheduling worked out, I arrived in New Orleans on the 23rd of December. On the 24th, I was again at the Spotted Cat.

Preparing for the trip, I messaged my friend whom I had met that first time on Frenchmen St. While she wasn’t going to be in New Orleans, we were going to overlap for a night in Tampa, FL. So we met and had dinner.

The above coincidences are not that unusual, given that everyone travels around during the holidays, I have friends in many parts of the country, and I think everyone has parents in Florida. However, the last touch was much more precise.

A couple months back, my dryer viciously attacked most of my dress shirts, ripping off many of their buttons. I have only repaired one. So when the time came for me to pack for this trip, I only had two shirts suitable for dancing – a black one and a blue one, the latter being the shirt I wore two years. I brought both, then lost the black one in Tampa.

I have two black vests I like to wear to dances. The newer one turned out to be in dire need of cleaning, so I had to pick the older one. The same one I had worn two years ago.

While I did recently buy a new pair of dance shoes, they did not work out very well, and I had to revert to my old pair.

So when the time came for me to dress to go to the Spotted Cat, on the exact two-year anniversary of my first visit, I was down to a single choice of outfit. The exact same one.

Fields of greenery and sunsets

Written: July 1, 2012, in Champaign, IL

About: Champaign, IL, June 2012

Champaign-Urbana is a fairly small town. It sits surrounded by vast expanses of green fields – the famed Mid-Western farmlands. I sent a postcard to a friend from here, in which I mentioned that I had thought about walking long enough to be in those fields so I could see a sunset unrestrained by a city landscape. I was fascinated by the idea that I could walk out of the town. I have always lived either in endless suburban sprawl or large metropolises.

As soon as I have inked those words, I realized that I absolutely have to do this. I have thought about it a few times with an abstract degree of detachment. However, putting these thoughts into actual words, giving the nebulous thoughts a concrete manifestation put a bond on me. The very same evening, after getting out of the lab, I put on a comfortable pair of sneakers, grabbed my camera and headed for a two-hour hike past the city limits, into the fields of greenery and sunsets.

One thing that caught my attention early on was the long shadows on the sidewalks. I was heading almost perfectly into the sun, and the tiny pebbles scattered on concrete slabs cast shadows many times their size as the sun neared the horizon. In the absence of mountains, the sun can get very close to the horizon indeed.

I traversed a few miles of dusty streets, through several neighborhoods, each with its character. Champaign is not an especially wealthy city, so I did not pass by many mansions. (Though the more luxuriant neighborhoods have a tendency of arranging themselves in such locations that you would not happen upon them by accident, citizen of mediocre income.) A sign in front of one apartment complex sternly warned me that “distribution of substances” was forbidden. It did not elaborate on the particular type of substances.

This neighborhood was very quickly followed by a school surrounded by a lovely park where young parents were chaperoning their children in carefree running about. This park was an idyllic setting in which “distribution of substances” seemed like an absurd and irrelevant idea, unless the substance was an ice cream that was too sweet, which is absurd in its own right.

Toward the end of my journey, already facing the quickly decaying sun, I realized that the final stretch of the road did not have sidewalks. Which is fine – I am not opposed to trekking off the pavement. However, it also involved a causeway crossing an interstate highway. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t be the first time cops had to pull me out of an emergency lane on a bridge. I have walked too far to turn around and there were no other options to cross the interstate. I could not see the free fields on the other side, but I could feel them. I took to the hot asphalt of the highway bridge, on foot in the emergency lane.

It was fine. No one bothered me.

As I crested the bridge, the endless fields opened up before me. It was as if I had come through a rugged mountain pass and reached the valley of the promised land.

The contrast between the two sides of the bridge could not be more cinematic. The side I had left behind was dominated by a gas station and a complex interchange system between several highways. The side on which I emerged consisted of a single road that slowly wound between giant fields, along a rolling hill. At the top of that hill, silhouetted against the sunset was a large farm house. The sun was getting low, its orange thicker, and its edges sharper.

It was stunningly perfect.

I meandered along the country road for a little while, snapping pictures of the scene that will never equal what it actually looked like. Some time ago, I have actually realized that taking pictures limits your experience. Experiencing the world through the viewfinder roughly abrogates the way I sense what is around me. I like remembering in scenes, not photographs. It is a heavily conflicting realization, since I dearly love photography, and find this art inspiring and deeply moving.

The sun’s last spark finally ceased, leaving behind only a majestic afterglow in the sky. I took this event to mean the curtain on my trip and turned backwards, toward home. My last stop on the way home was Merry Anne’s diner in downtown Champaign. It is a narrow space lined with tables that on one end open directly into the kitchen. Though this opening, the host slings drinks and food. It is open 24/7, and serves exactly the classic diner fare that you desire – things from the fry grill and milkshakes. I have a long-running obsession with diners. Pretty much any city that has a decent late-night diner is alright by me. I’m good with Champaign.

I grabbed a milkshake to go and headed back to the hotel. Lucky, too, that the hotel was exactly one milkshake away from the diner.

Carless in the Midwest

For two weeks, I am living out of a hotel in Urbana, IL, visiting lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the hotel is only a ten-minute walk from the lab, and car rentals are kind of outrageously priced, I don’t have a car. I am carless and foot-bound.

To be sure, there is actually public transit here, and the bus traffic seems to be pretty busy. But for some reason, I’ve never felt comfortable with buses the way I am comfortable with subways. (I can see where the trains go. There is only one tunnel. But when a bus leaves that stop, it’s free to roam the whole infinite grid of a city.) In any case, after arriving here I decided to embrace the fact that I will have to walk everywhere. I have good feet and good shoes, and walking is what our ancestors did, right?

Fortunately, Champaign-Urbana seems to be a fairly compact city. Downtown is within a thirty-minute walk, and Green Street (the obligatory collection of cheap booze and food within a close proximity of a college campus) is less than twenty minutes. The weather is tolerable – the afternoons are on the warmer side of things, but that’s just an excuse to get the second beer when I get to wherever I was going. The nights are outright pleasant.

Having a car always at my disposal had grown into such an attachment that at first I felt rather unsure about how this was going to work out. The possibility of walking for thirty minutes instead of driving for five was a bit uncomfortable, especially in an unfamiliar city.

However, two things. First – smart phones and Google maps make it almost impossible to be lost. I can easily estimate the route and time before I leave, and I can always reassure myself of my location and direction when I am out. Second – there is something incredibly liberating about getting to my destination and being able to simply walk in and enjoy the spot. I don’t have to scour the place for parking or worry about getting tickets or towed. Living in DC may have traumatized me in this respect.

Not to mention that experiencing the city – any city – on foot is radically different from experiencing it from a car. Doubly so if you are the one driving. As a driver, you live in a tunnel until you park the car. As a pedestrian, you are completely free to examine every oddity, enjoy every bench, and pull into any bar just because it has a cool sign. I’ve come across street art, beautiful scenes of classic urban abandon, and the spot where wild flowers are growing furiously around a railroad bridge. In a car, these things wouldn’t even exist for me.

And there is the breathing.

I feel like I can inhale these streets. The hot gravel, the dusty grass, the peeling paint, the half-century-old cars, the lived-in neighborhoods. I feel like I can take a bit of Urbana back home with me, in my lungs, in my every fiber.

The Black Keys at Merriweather

Date: May 18, 2012
About: Merriweather Post Pavilion, near Baltimore, MD

From the moment They came on the stage and touched those holy string and drum skins, no one sat down in the whole place. Everyone was up on the feet, their very toes, reaching for the roof and the skies. The music performed a miracle. It made the seats disappear.

They played a few songs where it was just the two of them, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Just two guys set against a huge stage, a wild array of lights, and a mad crowd squeezed into every inch of the place. Yet in this picture of fame and rock glory they still seemed like two guys playing a tiny stage in a no-name bar back in Akron. It must take a mile of humility to maintain such a delicate balance of presence. On the one hand, it is just two dorky guys doing what they do because they love it, come fame or mortal obscurity. On the other hand, it is such fire, such intensity that it blows you right down like a hurricane.

They came up to every single one of us, opened our chests, and politely rifled through our hearts until they found that string, that memory, that feeling that rang true. Then they plucked it and let it sing the whole night. What happened on that stage was the raw sound of love.

Steel City Blues 2012

Written: April 2, 2012, in DC

About: Pittsburgh, March 2012

I have recently taken an extended break from blues dancing. It was not for the lack of love for the dance, or an injury. In months prior, I have found myself drifting along a bland trajectory through the dances, often feeling powerless to change my direction. This experience was even more frustrating because I had been feeling more connected to the art and the music. Yet the dancing itself seemed to be slipping away.

I had also wanted to get to know the people with whom I had been spending all this time. In the midst of a dance party, when the music flows thick and loud until you are too tired to stay on your feet, it is all too easy to just slip from dance to dance. You get to know the beautiful intricacies of someone’s body, but hardly see the elegant folds of their mind.

I dubbed it my blues fast and intentionally went to dance events and did not dance. It was excruciating at first. I did not realize just how ingrained this routine has become. Sitting at home on a Thursday night as the clock ticked past the hours of Backroom Blues felt surreal. Then came the meditative acceptance. I would sip whiskey at the bar and chat with the dancers taking a short break. The last couple weeks were filled with practically childish excitement.

I decide I should come back with an overload, and so I decided to return to blues at the Steel City blues exchange. Two days of practically nothing but dancing, drinking, and friends, all else optional.

And Blues, she took me back without a moment’s thought. The draw was instantaneous. When I got to the first dance, the air was already thick and heavy. The walls were dripping with music and low lighting. I went up to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. The old man on the other side looked around, picked up a wine glass and filled it half-full. She must have missed me, she really did.

I closed my eyes for a dance and the swirling time took me into the late midnight hours. It was all rhythm rhythm sway. It seemed like all it took to get through the evening dance was a single breath and a single pull on that vodka. Then it was off for the blues late night.

The place was pulsing. It was hot and sweaty and alive as hell in there, and no one would stop. Everyone was submerged in the music and the dancing even when they were not on the dance floor. The blues pooled and coiled on the floor, drawing everyone into the deep end. You could sit on a sofa with your feet drawn up, but the blues would snake up the furniture legs, wrap around your waist and shoulders and pull you back in, pull your head under into the sweet dream.

I switched to the whiskey flask in my back pocket. Beads of sweat roll over my eyes and my lips. I lean out the window and timidly kiss the dark beyond. She is cool and coy and lovely. Runs her fingers up my spine and through my hair. Before I can blurt out something about love and immortality, she silences me with a single finger tip on my lips and then slowly, deliberately, pushes me back on the dance floor, pushes me back under the swelling tide of blues.

Blues, that sweet junk, it flows into a familiar vein freely and easily. It never left. All along, I have been right here, in this embrace, on this breath, on this beat.

The heat and fire of the dance floor are hard to bear and I escape into the soft blanket of the deep night to cool off. We sit on the sidewalk and blissfully talk for what seems like hours. Or maybe just a few minutes. It is hard to tell the time. The mind wanders off in the company of someone close. Another dancer comes out of the building and starts playing a harmonica while meandering about place, between cars and people. Everything is framed by flashing marquee lights.

I have rearranged the time.

The trip does not end on the drive home. It does not end on the sweet goodbyes, or the midnight kiss, or the dinosaur Mr. Rogers. The breakfast of Elvis and pancakes is not the finale. Neither are the arresting Catholic cathedrals. These are all at the center of what happened. Warm layers wrapped tightly around the core, where all is good and peaceful and I am not alone.

I rearrange the time so that everything ends with me taking a rest on a shaded lawn on a clear afternoon. The grass is soft and cool and a perfect compliment to the flawless blue sky. A gentle conversation floats over us like a lazy balloon. The sun is enjoying its afternoon stroll through the clouds as much as anyone. We lay and we talk.

And then I am home.

The awkward bard

Written: September 28, 2011, in DC

About: Baltimore, Summer 2011

I have been dreamily obsessed with Jason Webley’s music for several years now. Jason Webley himself is also worth obsessing over, but that’s a different story. He has played in Tucson twice while I had lived there, and I missed both times. One of those times, I found out the day of the concert, and I was in Orlando. Curse you, mocking fate.

Shortly after I moved to DC, I looked up his touring schedule and realized he is set to play in the area. Obviously, everything else had to be set aside so that I could finally leave behind records and YouTube videos and take in the real thing. I got in the car and drove to Baltimore.

Baltimore is a pretty gritty place, and this wasn’t its most glamorous block. Zero glitz in this venue. He played at a community book store. It was the kind of place that decorates its walls with provocative political posters and stocks obscure literature as a matter of principle. There was no stage, just a cleared area presented with a few rows of haphazardly arranged folding chairs. You could get cans of beer and mugs of hot water with tea bags. There was no admission charge, only a tip jar. It was more of a venue than someone’s living room, but not by much.

I rushed in late, and nearly ran past the table where Jason Webley was politely looking over the tip jar. My eyes recognized him instantly, but the brain took a while to accept this fact. Once it did, my heart promptly lodged in my throat. He was neat and quiet as I was tripping over my apologies. For some reason I thought he’d be tall, but he is actually rather short. Words aimlessly tumbled out of my head, so I stuffed some money in the jar and found a chair.

I have been in anticipation of seeing him live for at least two years. I have listened to his records, talked about him, and build myself up for this concert in every way. All too often such intense anticipation never pays off, yet Jason’s presence consumed me whole. I had lost all sense of time until, suddenly, the show was over.

Jason Webley is awkward and humble. In retrospect, that is not that surprising – many of my performer friends are the same way. The brilliant charisma seen on the stage is genuine – it politely steps aside during the more private moments. Give them a stage and a chance to perform with honesty and passion, and theirs is a torrent of the incredible and the magnificent.

Watching him perform was almost like watching two completely different people. He frequently talked between the songs, addressing the crowd or telling stories from his life and from the road. This person seemed wracked with self-doubt and insecurity. He didn’t know what to do with his suddenly giant and conspicuous arms. He was listless and uncomfortable. Then, as he fingered the guitar strings or the accordion keys, in a single breath he would transform into a commanding creature of fierce stature. This tiny man grew many feet and his thunderous, beautiful voice filled every crevice and heart in the place. His movements became precise and confident. It is difficult to imagine that a sole person could handle such an outpouring of energy, yet there it was.

Breakfast in Paris

Written: October 14, 2011, in DC

About: Europe, summer of 2003

This is the dumb moment. The moment I am standing still, staring at the train schedule board, where my train’s departure time is instead replaced with some words in red. I arrived here on a fine-tuned, precisely designed plan, and now this plan slumped on the floor in a useless pile. The English-speaking clerk at the window confirmed the menacing words. The last train from Amsterdam to Berlin has been cancelled and clock is fast advancing on midnight.

The carefully orchestrated plan crawled to a trash can and disposed of itself. I stared at the clerk, who was of no help. I stared at the street outside. Well, I stared at the darkness outside. There was nothing much out there, certainly not a place to sleep. I didn’t have that much money in my pocket anyway.

I repeatedly stared at the board, the street, and the floor. A decision had to be made and soon. Some sort of decision. It didn’t even have to be a good one. In my pocket I had a train voucher which allowed unlimited train travel within a 24-hour window across France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Options in Amsterdam have come to a zero. The number of trains yet to depart tonight did not. A rash new plan was born.

I marched back to the clerk and asked for the next train to Paris. I decided I’d get on the next train to Berlin from there. I am beginning to think that things only get truly interesting when something unexpected goes terribly wrong.

Night trains are an excellent way to spend a night. There is barely anyone on, and the sleeper cars are often open. You can have a room all to yourself if you feel like it. Then arrive in the early morning and have yourself a full day in the new city. As an added bonus, sleep on the train is some of the best sleep possible.

New York grabs you by the collar and drags you into a jet stream of humanity. New Orleans pours you something suspect and laughs hysterically until you do as well. Paris charms you, simply and effortlessly. Gare du Nord greeted me on a cool and quiet morning. The city was fresh and just waking up to a gorgeous sun. I quickly procured coffee and something baguette-related, parked myself on the bench, and took in everything romantic and aromatic that surrounded me. Which, given the circumstances, was a fair bit.

It was the perfect hold on a cool break of a twirling song.

The idyll of the Parisian breakfast did not last as long as I had wished, and again it was time to get on a train. The final leg of the trip was also troubled, though in less charming ways. The train simply broke down. Twice.

One of the unintended train changes was in Cologne. Everything was in German (which I don’t speak). I’m pretty sure I ended up on the right train mostly by accident. In the middle of the chaos, I called my brother in Berlin to update him on my travels and let him know my adjusted arrival time. He asked me where I was, and I realized I didn’t actually know. I was asleep when we got here and someone told me I had to get off the train. I could see outside and recognized the great Cologne Cathedral, so I told him I thought I was in Cologne. This now stands as the greatest feat of my person architectural erudition.

I was now traveling in daytime and no longer had the luxury of empty train cars. The voucher allowed me on the train but did not guarantee a seat – a fine but crucial distinction. The trains were over-crowded, so I had to bounce between diner cars and entry landings. Memorable company included a group of German army cadets (who mostly grinned and smoked) and a group of Asian girls (who mostly chatted and giggled).

That afternoon, I finally made it to Berlin and my brother picked me up at the station. The moment was filled with a sense of decisive victory. So much could and did go wrong and did, and none of it mattered.

When travel plans go awry, sink your teeth into the new reality instead of angrily lamenting your schedule. It’s the only way you’ll go to Paris just to have breakfast.

A house jam

Written: June 19, 2011, in DC

About: Tucson, Spring and Summer 2005

On a cool spring evening, I’m walking half a block to a friend’s house. It’s dark. No good party starts until at least eleven anyway. I’m practically bounding down the street and up the stairs. There is a bottle of Jack in my hand. A cloud of tobacco smoke already occupies the porch. Someone, swimming in the cloud, is talking loudly and drinking cheap beer.

This isn’t a regular college party. Some of the city’s best improvisers are gathering under this roof, along with their fortunate friends. It’s a night for a house jam. A few hours ago the word had gone out over texts, and now we are converging. With all the right people, the right time and energy and place the event runs itself. Somewhere there’s a hat with people’s names. We are supposed to be picking teams and setting the show order. None of it matters – everyone brought booze, and everyone knows what’s supposed to happen. No need for rules. Too many people here are practically anarchists anyway.

There is no subtlety in the night’s acceleration. Cigarettes out front, weed in the back, alcohol everywhere. These are the nights when I would drink close to a bottle of whiskey, and others wouldn’t be far behind. But everyone is riding such a powerful wave of spiritual intoxication that all these psychoactives barely touch anyone.

The crowd is around. People standing at the ready, waiting for the moment when everything starts. Eventually, someone gets things rolling, but it’s hardly that person’s decision. The night simply reaches the right point. Some critical mass is found, and everyone collapses into the large living room. There is a pile of chairs and couches. Everything is quickly lined with bottles and cups. Someone leans in through the doorway to watch, holding the cigarette outside.

Improv is feverish and uncompromising. No one merely says “Yes.” We scream it, fling ourselves into agreement. Few teams manage to stick to a structure. Everything slides into montages and freeform. No one stops or interrupts their indulgences. People bring cups of liquor right into the scenes, sometimes shooting straight from the bottles just off-stage. Energy pours out of us like a wildfire. There is no controlling this storm. There is divine focus and precision in this play of wicked abandon.

The house is a deliriously storming sea. Waves of energy crash from wall to wall. Lines and scenes come effortlessly. All is love and brilliance. It goes until the cups run dry, the scenes hit all the buttons, and there is a post-coital smoke on the porch. The night winks out and we glide home.

This was our Woodstock. This was our Paris of the twenties.

A Santa at Mardi Gras

Written: May 16, 2011, in DC

About: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“Time to pick myself out of this mud,” I thought. Mostly, in a metaphoric sense, but a bit in the direct sense, too. I had to walk through a muddy lawn to get on the highway. Yes. Walk. Highway. At about four in the morning, dressed as a jolly Santa Claus, I am crossing the Mississippi over the Route 90 bridge in the emergency lane on foot. In a few moments, flashing lights of a police cruiser will be upon me. I know I’m far from the weirdest that the NOLA cop has probably seen, but I’d like to think I have registered at least a few clicks.

About twenty-four hours ago I was about as happy and exhilarated as I could be. I had arrived in my new love – New Orleans – to spend the weekend before Mardi Gras with someone who had completely blown my mind. I rode in on a Greyhound bus with a crowd high on dreams of jazz. I was blues-dancing on a balcony on St. Charles. Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be completely crushed as my connection to this person is utterly shattered. In an act that is both unintentional and heavy-handed in its symbolism, I will be wandering around a cemetery.

At the moment, I’m just here, at the point where the strange, the miraculous, and the terrible waves all collide and crest. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve lost most of my money. My credit card blew away into the river and no one is answering my calls. Somehow I have the apartment keys, but can’t afford the cab ride there. The buzz of the party and the alcohol is wearing off. Now it’s just me and this cold, cold bridge.

The simultaneous juxtaposition of the two extremes – complete happiness and complete heartbreak – is bewildering. My mind reels, unable to comprehend the scale of what is happening. At times like these, it’s best to simply focus on walking. Breaking down – in a pour of tears or alcohol or both – threatens to destroy me in a way that would be unrecoverable.

It’s best to just focus on the immediate reality, and the tighter the focus the better. There is nothing to be done about lost loves and money when you are wandering the dangerous streets alone. The cop picks me up and puts me in the back of the cruiser to drop me off on the other side of the bridge. I try to chat him up but barely make any sense. He points me toward Bourbon Street and peels out of the gas station.

Of course – of course – this is where the most interesting part of the evening actually begins. The city is still full of people – as it should be in New Orleans – and even away from Bourbon Street I come across groups of people in the mood to celebrate. In my giant Santa suit I’m the thing to celebrate. People rush up to me, give me hugs and ask for presents. Everyone takes pictures and videos. Lascivious posing with a gay couple. Gang signs with a crowd of street thugs. A group of college students some of whom turn out to speak pretty good Russian. Family people (yes, in New Orleans even family people can be out until five in the morning drinking). I don’t have a single picture from that night, but a myriad of stranger have stacks of them.

Interesting note. When asking for presents, most people asked for world peace. Maybe it’s because when one is bathed in the drunken and cozy glow of New Orleans, it is hard to ask for anything else. Maybe we are not entirely doomed as a species.

In this manner I walked the length of Bourbon Street. Hung around on a corner with three flirtatious black guys in nice suits and then got into a cab and made the final (and affordable) ride to the empty apartment. I opted to walk the last few blocks, greeted by the sun and the neighborhood rooster.

And I just stood for a moment on an empty street corner.

With the rising sun, the sweet afterglow in my heart, and the presence of New Orleans thick and saturated all around me, this moment was simply right. It was joy, terror, exhaustion, hope, dream, soul… Naked, honest, utterly vulnerable. Everything rolled up, pressed together, distilled and purified like the finest spirits and the dirtiest sweats, the moment was flowing into every nerve ending. This is why I had come here, this weird, twisted, right moment.

First dance

Written: May 7, 2011, in DC

About: blues dancing

Just as there is only one first kiss, there is only one first dance you have with someone. Sometimes that’s an instantly meaningful experience – when you simply know that the person is special, and you feel anxious about the approaching song’s end. Then sometimes it’s just another dance in a long line of dances.

Blues can be an especially intimate first dance. Not much structure in blues, at least compared to lindy or bal. It is much more about the musicality and the physical connection. The connection… There are two basic stances. The first is essentially a lindy position. The lead cradles the follow’s back as she lets him have her weight so the dancers counter-balance each other.

The close position is an embrace. The connection point starts at the hip and runs along the bodies all the way to the shoulders. Whereas in the open position the dancers essentially hang back from each other, here they lean in. The tiniest, most nuanced movements are transferred instantly between the dancers. The details that could easily be overlooked before – the position of the hand, the angle of the bodies, the tilt of the head – become meaningful. It’s not about the patterns anymore, it’s about moving precisely and together.

Of course, plunging into something of the sort with a stranger is not always easy. A gentlemanly lead lets the follow stay where she is most comfortable, and so the first dance will almost always start out in the open position. Though if the music is right, if it’s quite the vibe that both people are looking for, the comfort seeps in slowly, stepping closer with every chord and bar.

It is possible to slowly slide from one position into another. So upon a mutual but unspoken agreement, the follow will begin to drift closer. Her hand slowly walks up the lead’s shoulder. His hand comes to rest in the middle of her back, gently drawing her in. The bodies twist around each other slightly. The movements slow down as the conversation turns more private. Tension and apprehension of the first dance melt away. The follow’s head rests tenderly against the lead’s shoulder.

Of course, that is when blues really begins. When you both breathe out at ease, and just dance.