ESS 2014 Update #6 – Barry Part I
It’s been several weeks since I’ve left ESS and the brilliant sunshine of a San Diego summer.
Back home Fall has arrived. The light has changed color. It’s not the cheery yellow of daffodils and children’s crayon drawings of smiling suns. Now the air glows with a deeper, richer blaze; the trees are shimmering as if a golden light reflects off a thousand brass cornets hidden in the leaves. The sun is eye-level even at midday, long black shadows jump across the yard, the whole world is saturated in color and high contrast, reds, rust, amber, emerald.
Katydids and tree crickets sing all day and all through the night, a lower chorus now than just a month ago, a thinner, colder, dryer sound. Now you can make out separate voices and almost locate where they’re coming from – high in the trees or down in the dry grasses, just beyond the window or far off in the dark. A complex symphony of mating calls, signals, aggressions, the heralding of winter.
It’s been windy in DC, sunny and chilly. I wore a scarf last week. We’re eating apples. The days are so glorious, the change of season so overwhelming, it’s hard to focus.
Packing for Boogie By The Bay I was tempted to bring sweaters and hats – had to remind myself that San Francisco is warmer than home.
I was at Boogie this past weekend, and since I didn’t have much to write about until routines on Saturday, I took the opportunity to write about a most incredible conversation I had at ESS — with a personal idol of mine, the great, great, Barry Jones.
Barry and I sat and chatted on lounge chairs on the beach, in the bright sunshine, looking out at the water and the pier, the yachts floating in the marina, paddle-boards drifting by, seagulls setting down beside us in the sand and calling to each other across the bay.
Barry has beautiful eyes. Big eyes, piercing blue with flecks and streaks of greens and aquas. Kind eyes that draw you in and make you want to stare. And Barry stares back. He looks deep into your eyes when he talks, and you can see that someone’s home in there, and the light is on. He’s all there, paying attention. He sees you.
Barry sees people. He understands people.
And he’s humble, infinitely humble. Too humble – self-effacing really. And delighted — the way a proud 8-year-old kid would be delighted — with every triumph he’s ever been able to achieve.
We talked about everything under the sun. Barry can talk. And he knows some stuff. He sure does know some stuff. He is VERY funny.
What he knows! Sheesh! I can’t think of anybody who’s been in the community – deep in the heart of the community – for as many years as Barry, or who has as much wisdom, grace, savvy, and sheer experience in all the possible community roles you could imagine. Barry is a walking encyclopedia of the history of the west coast swing world and its stories and characters.
He’s like a west coast swing encyclopedia if the encyclopedia had big kind eyes and wore its heart on its pages.
We talked for two hours, only stopping when the sun went down and we got chilly.
I’ll break up our talk into parts.
Here’s the first part, “Part I” of my conversation with this remarkable man.
“I love the west coast swing world. I don’t take any of it for granted. It has always been a blessing to me to be part of this world, and to get the titles I’ve gotten.
1983 was the very first US Open.
I wanted so bad to dance in that first Open but I couldn’t because I was too young. I had to wait. My first Open was the second year – 1984.
I remember them telling me that year that if we want to win the Open, we’ve got to dance to Big Band music.
We had been dancing to disco, and really neat Rhythm and Blues, like Teddy Pendergrass. That year, 1984 Open, we danced to “Git Up Git Down” and they called it “Swustle” because they thought we were doing Hustle. That’s where the name “Swustle” originated.
Everybody – Skippy, the Schwimmers – everybody said “That boy is good but he’s not doing Swing.” That’s because all the swing I’d known since I was in High School we did with double-resistance.
We came from Texas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma what we were doing was closest to Terry Rippa’s style, and the Dallas Push style. In Houston they were doing the Houston Whip – that was Mario Senior, Gilbert, Gary Long (Mario Jr’s idol when he first started,) Trish Huron – and so many more. They had a unique ladies’ body sway on 5 and 6. Both styles danced on the up beat and on the down beat. In Oklahoma we would do tap-step and double resistance. Sometimes we wouldn’t even do an actual triple step. You can see if you watch the tapes – it’s tap-step for the 3 & 4, and double resistance for 5 & 6. And we did a lot of patterns where the girls spun. And the girls were in heels. And of course we had the neck-wraps, and the tunnels, like they did in Texas. Some people hated those Texas moves.
At that time west coast was SO the opposite of that. So when Sharlot saw Judy Ford and me do all those head rolls she says she knew she was going to love our dancing.
In Texas and Oklahoma we had to stay in a slot. I remember in the early 80′s they ran some comps in the South – in the traditional division they’d go as far as putting tape on the floor and you had to stay inside the tape.
And we were required to do so many patterns – they’d count the patterns and you had to do the required number. They’d have a judge whose job it was to count your patterns.
And a lot of closed position. Mario tells a story where he didn’t have a beginning, he didn’t have an ending, he just got into closed position, started a routine, and then that was it.
So I saw the California style and what got me – what I loved about the California dance – was the triples. And the opening up, opening out of closed, the wider movement.
You wanted Lance and Mary Ann to like your dancing. Their opinions mattered, you wanted their stamp of approval that what you were doing was swing. And here we were and we weren’t dancing to Big Band, we weren’t doing triples, and so to some people we looked like Hustle. Our version of the dance wasn’t seen as swing at first.
And at that time there was a big battle starting up because Lance – who was very influential – Lance loved the “outside” music, meaning music other than Big Band.
I remember when Mario came on the scene, not even 18 years old yet.
I knew — everyone knew — that he was going to be something special to the world of west coast swing. His first performance at the US Open was in 1989. He and Tamara Moody entered Showcase, using music that was very contemporary for that time. 1989 was a year of US Open “statements.”
Mario went on to change west coast swing forever. His dancing in the early 90′s completely changed what Classic would look like in the 90′s. And forever after.
The year we won – Lynn Vogen and Larry – (Lynn and Larry should have won the Open omg they were amazing dancers I never understood why they didn’t win they had an AMAZING routine. And Lynn was all class, always very professional, such a beautiful dancer. Lynn made a huge contribution to swing. It’s like Jason Colacino who never won the Open and should have, another remarkable talent.) Anyway, the year that I won we all danced to everything but Big Band. That was the first year that happened. Lance and Sharlot did Gloria Estefan, and we did “Think.” First time “Think” was danced to. And that’s when we won everybody’s hearts, that year, with that song. Every California dancer – well, everyone really – loves Aretha Franklin. Everyone loves “Think.” The audience loved it, everyone loved it.
We always felt that everyone was pulling for us, because for three years we had always taken third but we felt their love. But we always took third. We always felt (don’t know if it’s true but it’s always how we felt and were told by others) that the judges thought, “We love what you’re doing but it’s not swing so we can’t give you the win.” Jack and Maryann had a lot of influence at the time, and Kenny Wetzel.
Of course there was always always moaning about the judging, and judging was always controversial at the Open, It’s just like now, people are always complaining about the judging. It’s like any sport. There was always controversy, and I understand it, it’s because everybody wants it so bad. “US OPEN CHAMPION” was the one title that every dancer wanted under their belt, and it was hard to get.
But the judges then, like now, were doing the best they could, trying to give their best based on the current thinking at that time.
The year that Lance and Sharlot won, they beat Eddie Vega and Lisa Nunziella. Do you remember “Star Search?” Eddie and Lisa had never been beaten on Star Search, undefeated champions, 15 titles, the most wins of any performer ever on Star Search. So they went out to the Open that year – and they took second. Judy and I took third, Bob and Valerie 4th, and Avner and Debbie Ramsey 5th.
That’s the year we changed Judy’s skirt from red to blue – we did “Devil With The Blue Dress” which wasn’t Big Band but we used that song because we just liked that kind of music.
And then there was a backlash – you know how the pendulum swings sometimes? And they said “We want to hear real swing music. Big Band music. Real swing.” This was 1989. I was in Dallas by then (moved there in 1985.)
So that year we danced to Chubby Checker, “Let’s Twist Again.” Corny as hell. Not Big Band, but we picked it strategically. And we WON! We shouldn’t have, hahaha, but we won! With that corny song. Because I knew they were wanting to send out a message, and that song was what they wanted to hear.
I’ve always thought this: The judges tell you what they want. They’re always pretty clear, they tell you. It’s usually unspoken – did anyone per se actually SAY this or that? No, they didn’t say it, but you know what it is. So you always have a choice. Do you want to fight it? Or do you want to give the judges what they want? The smart dancers – the Champions – they know this, they understand this dynamic. They know what needs to be done, and they choose NOT to fight, because they want to win. They’re in the game to win. If you fight it you end up angry because you don’t get the results you want. And you know what the rules are when you come in. So it’s up to you to make the choice.
I’m living proof of this myself. Because I am not even CLOSE to being better than a lot of the dancers I’ve competed against. Not even close. People think it’s the moves. Or they think it’s who you get coached by. It’s neither of these things, it’s not that at all.
There is a way of winning, a way of putting your routine together to make the different judges – ALL of the judges – happy. Because think about it, there are always one or two things that ALL the judges will agree upon. But there is a lot that they won’t agree upon. So if you try to target one or two you’re going to get one or two, and that’s all you’ll get. And you’ll go nuts if you try to dance for one or two judges at a time.
So you find out what the two or even three things are that all the judges agree upon. The three things that I focused on when putting routines together were:
Quality Of Movement;
Swing Look with Swing Timing, and
And then – even after approaching it this way – you still need to assume that you will never make every judge happy.
You always have to dance for yourself. And you also need to respect the rules – and the judges who are judging you.
I don’t take any of it for granted. It was always a matter of thinking it through, always a blessing to get the titles.
Me and Kellese, so much fun! We thought hard about it, worked hard to set it up well to do well at the Open. And we did.
When Kellese and I first went out there at the Open Kenny was upset with me, because I wasn’t dancing with Keldee. Keldee was amazing! And she and I had done Dallas Dance and we’d won, and so people just assumed we were supposed to go to the Open. I didn’t know it, and in the meantime I had met Kellese – this diamond in the rough – and I took one look at her and I just knew this girl is going to be FANTASTIC. So I took Kellese to the Open – this little itty bitty thing, she was 21 I think – and I could tell Kenny was upset. Kenny and I were really tight, I worshiped that man. Politically incorrect but that was refreshing, people loved him for that. You knew what he was about, no pretense. But he was so mad at me about that, he was mad when he saw me dancing with Kellese. With Kenny you could tell when he was mad.
One year Kenny put a petition up – the year that Lance and Sharlot danced “Baby I’m A Star” and beat Eddie Vega and Lisa. Well Kenny thought Eddie and Lisa should have won and he was so pissed he actually did a petition, he started a petition! hahaha Kenny was the “activist” in the community. He was the emcee, had a voice, had a lot of influence.
The “they” back then was Kenny, Jack and Maryann, Annie and Jack Carey. Those were your people who really ran things, made the decisions that shaped and ran the community.
Sharlot – she was a rebel. She was a competitor, a rebel who wanted to do what she wanted to do. She had respect. She was a leader because of that. She took chances. All the top people are like that, they take chances.
The Champions of those days thrived on originality and they would push the envelope. But with respect, always with respect! The dancers that I looked up to were Lance and Sharlot, when they paired up for the first time in the controversial year of 1986. They broke out and dared to dance to Prince’s “Baby I’m A Star,” one of the greatest songs ever used in competition. Lance had always looked terrific with the fabulous Mary Ann Nunez – they had an amazing partnership. But that year Lance danced with Sharlot and they had a totally different look. It was fabulous and it took courage. I loved them for that, loved Sharlot because she was a rebel – but with respect.
It’s like they were saying last night, how allstar dancers all look the same. When you get to that level you’ve got to know your basics (that should be a given but some of them don’t) but they shouldn’t try to look like someone else, they’ve gotta do their own thing, be unique and look unique, be their own person. Because you’re never going to beat the champion trying to look more like that champion than the champion does, himself.
You’ve got to take chances, make your own way. You’ve got to be original to make your mark.
But always with respect.
Respect is so important. There are some very talented up and coming allstar dancers who will go on to make their mark for that very reason – because they are able to learn from the past and respect the dancers who came before them.
(to be continued in “ESS 2014 – Barry Part II”)