Liza May

SwingDiego 2016 Update #2 - The Good and the Great in Art


Four years ago I had a conversation with Benji. For four years I've been trying to write about that conversation and haven't been able. It feels like trying to describe the sound of a mountain range. Benji is that large, and rich, and profound, and multi-dimensional, and good - he needs a writer as good as he is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, comedian, warrior for social justice, giver, lover of people and lover of life. I'm simply not good enough to capture in words the phenomenon that is Benji.

Prince's death is a great loss for the world, and for me, too. But I realized I've got Prince and Benji tied together in my mind - their files are stored in the same two centimeters of my brain tissue. I think I've figured out why. Both are, for me, the definition of the much-overused word, "artist." The word is precisely right for Prince, and for Benji. They are artists through and through, in every fiber, put on this earth to create. They approach every aspect of life as a work of art. They have artist's souls.

Meaning - a life spent in the relentless, unobtainable, pursuit of perfection. No artist ever walks away saying that's finished. There's always a hole - you always walk away leaving a hole.

The life of an artist is one of continual frustration, endless hours spent on tedious attention to detail, ruthless dissatisfaction because every detail must be perfect and never is. It's a dogged pursuit that never ends, never lets up. Earl once said to me "You never finish editing. You just give up and stop, finally."

It's a life of work, never-ending work.

Which is why there are no real shortcuts to the "top," though we've all seen those in our world and the wider world who've achieved overnight fame and acclaim. But instant stardom - and the creation of a masterpiece - these don't have much to do with each other, and in fact are precisely opposite in what is actually required.

Somewhere, once, in a dark ballroom, his black silhouette painting shapes of movement against a glowing backdrop, I saw a solitary figure practicing alone, ghosting a routine over, and over, and over, to the music in his head, unnoticed by the dancers whipping and spinning around him; a man in a bubble of silence focused inward with such intensity it singed the air around him. That, to me, is the iconic picture of Benji I carry in my head.

Here's what I noticed in that conversation four years ago:

That his eyes were bloodshot with weariness. It's not from being tired, he told me, they're always that way. One wonders if he's ever experienced eyes that are not weary with exhaustion.

That he lifted his legs up onto a chair. He was wearing Toms. It was late at night, he'd just finished his last private. I wondered if his legs and feet hurt after a day teaching with no breaks. If they're always hurting.

That although we were in the hospitality suite he ignored the lasagna, pasta salad, and cupcakes, instead having a few grapes and raw veggies he'd brought himself.

That he gave laser-like attention to our conversation, his gaze and focus didn't wander for the smallest moment. 100% commitment to the "project" at hand, the goal of making our time together useful, with meaning and purpose.

His extreme kindness. And guarded generosity. Like a person who has been forced to override his own nature and impulse to give all of himself, to pour himself out; as if he'd learned early on that for his own survival he must keep a moat around the castle.

That he can be easily taken advantage of. A certain vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, gullibility, naive trust, goodness in him - that can be exploited.

That he's buff, built, hot. Powerful arms and chest. Loveable. Huggable. It was all I could do to keep from jumping out of my chair and into his lap to engulf him in a massive pounding rolling bear hug.

That he smiles with his whole face, and laughs with gusto.

That his thoughts come out in torrents, like a fire hose.

That he was careful, so careful, to not offend me. That he was taking an acute assessment of me -- how easily am I shocked, what am I able to understand or not, how much varnish do I require to be painted on the truth.

That his mind never stops. That he seems not to have "idle" or "off" buttons.

That he has a bawdy, irreverent, wildly creative sense of humour which lurks behind every word that he or anyone else ever says, or doesn't say, at every moment. That he sees and appreciates the absurdities of life, and of people, of our institutions and rules and sensibilities.

So why, here at SwingDiego, am I writing about Benji?

Because I am hoping that he and Nicole might be performing their stunning Showcase routine which I haven't seen live since the Open, though I've replayed the video so many times my devices now go there on auto-pilot.

This routine! No words.

The astute understanding of what was needed to heal a broken heart -- having just, two weeks earlier, lived through the horror of the Paris attacks.

The poignant beauty of it!

A celebration of France! A tribute to Edith Piaf and Louis Armstrong! To French history and French people and culture! To love, life, and loss! And - not lost on Benji - a celebration of gayness, too, which you might have recognized if you've seen the wonderful, delicate little film "Ma Vie En Rose."

This choreography! Such execution! Such lightness! Such sheer, exuberant, joy!

This -- against a backdrop of the Bataclan on fire, the spray of automatic weapons at a cafe, mass murder, chaos, terror.

This routine grabbed me in the gut at the Open, from the first strains of this most iconic of songs my chest caved in, I was sobbing, astonished, struggling to take pictures through tears. I'm moved to tears again, now, months later, just writing about it.

This is what I mean when I use that overused word, "art" - a word looking for a definition since Ancient Greece, since the first cavemen sat around a campfire vying for who could weave the most mesmerizing story.

"Art" has been called magical, religious, a reflection of God ... these words don't help me understand.

For me the clearest definition is Tolstoy's - that art is the transmission of my feelings to you. Across eras, across cultures - that I am able to make you feel what I am feeling.

This clarifies for me what the artist's struggle for perfection is about - it is to be genuine and sincere; and to express feelings so clearly that an onlooker in the distant future will understand.

I've included Tolstoy's definition below. It's worth reading because it's so good.


I'm hoping we'll be lucky enough to see this routine again here at SwingDiego.

It's a routine that in 2025 newcomers to West Coast Swing will watch, and  --  they will feel  --  this moment in history.

And it is so perfectly Benji.  It's a gift.  Not only to us, the audience;  and to France;  but almost more beautifully it seems a gift - a gift of love - to Nicole -  launching her career, in a way, and inducting her into the storied group of US Open Showcase Champions.

This Update is too long.

I haven't even told you what Benji actually said in our conversation together.

Or about the Breakfast Buffet.  Funny, so funny.

The first half of Jordan and Tatiana's Intensive is starting right this minute. I'll tell you about that, too.


  1. Tolstoy:

    "If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).

    The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.

    A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art."

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