Perhaps a little less autocrossing

I haven’t been dancing nearly as frequently as I used to. That probably comes as no surprise to anybody. I typically have a litany of excuses for why I don’t go out as often as I do: local dances are typically on Wednesday evenings, inconvenient for me as I typically have early morning Thursday meetings at work; it takes a solid 45 minutes to get to Ann Arbor or Ferndale one way, which means being on the road for 1.5 hours if I want to go dancing, whether it’s for a couple hours or just a brief stint; lack of weekends due to my constant being out autocrossing and doing other car things means that my weekend nights are needed to get things done around my house; etc.

Those excuses, as good as they might be, are still excuses. I saw them for exactly that over the past couple of weeks, and it’s made me re-evaluate some of my priorities in life. Namely, I’ve been super gung-ho in pursuing driver improvement and 60 second adrenaline rushes, but perhaps it’s time to dial that back just a tad such that I avoid losing what has taken years to build up to this point: the joy of dancing about with a whole bunch of different people, and the friendships that come out of that.

You don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone

What kicked everything off was very simple: a short statement on Facebook that someone was going to be leaving Michigan for California.

Now, people move all the time. What made this announcement more meaningful was that it was Lauren who would be abandoning the Midwest for greener pastures.

I had always taken it for granted that she would just be around. The Ann Arbor swing scene is primarily a student scene, with all of the churn that such a scene entails. But she wasn’t a student, and she was local. She didn’t have an impending graduation date at the University of Michigan that would stamp her time here with an expiration date.

When I first moved to Southeast Michigan, she was one of the original group of local swing dancers that welcomed me. Many of this original group were grad students, and slowly left Ann Arbor to continue their studies elsewhere or to find work. Robin and Brian, the pair whose home I stayed at during my first Pirate Swing, moved to San Francisco. Jeff and Sarah, two who were instrumental in organizing many a Swing Ann Arbor event and teaching scores of new swing dancers, scattered to the Central time zone to continue their work. Zach and Jessie, the organizers of the amazing event Pirate Swing, moved to Washington DC — and yet, they still return to Southeast Michigan every year to continue putting on Pirate Swing. Talk about dedication.

Then there’s the folks that were a part of the scene in Ann Arbor who then slowly retreated due to Real Life. Kenny moved out of Ann Arbor to a house in Farmington Hills with a big garage, though he is still involved with Friday Night Swing in Ann Arbor, and shows up to dance in Ann Arbor far more often that I do. I’ve always identified myself more with the Ann Arbor swing scene than I did with the Detroit scene, yet I eventually faded out, especially since I doubled down on living in Dearborn by buying a house within walking distance of work that just so happened to have storage space for four cars.

So Lauren was the last of a handful of dancers that welcomed me to Michigan, and one of the few that I saw all the damn time, up until I decided to pursue serious National autocross competition and started slipping away from the Ann Arbor swing scene.

As my trips to Ann Arbor for dancing slowed to a trickle, it was Lauren who used her new found power to draw me out of Dearborn and out to Ann Arbor to dance, regularly calling me out to make the trek out for local dances, festivals, and Lindy Bombing sessions at Ann Arbor bars and clubs. It eventually came to the point where I wouldn’t travel to Ann Arbor unless she put out the bat signal and explicitly called me out.

Which, I’ve now realized, is the wrong way to go about dancing.

Swing dancers are cool for, you know, more than just dancing

I have a bad habit of comparmentalizing my friend groups. I’ve got The Car People, which are people that I hang out with whenever I desire to do car stuff like autocrosses, track days, or wrenching sessions. I’ve got The Dancers, which are the people I see when I go traveling about to dance, and with whom I typically only ever dance with, and nothing more.

When I found out that Lauren wasn’t going to be around much longer, my conscious slapped my dumb self upside the head and insisted that I make the best of the time I had left with Lauren while she was in convenient driving distance and not frequent flier points distance.

So I messaged her and told her that I wanted to hang out with her. My original plans for doing a track day with 3 Balls Racing at Gingerman Raceway had been scrapped, as I was spending money on old (and arguably very stupid) cars and couldn’t afford a $400 track weekend at that moment. I gave her two options: we could travel to bluesSHOUT in Chicago and dance the Saturday evening and late night dances, or we could go do a road rally on Sunday.

Much to my complete surprise, she wanted to do the road rally. So we did the road rally, and proceeded to have a lot of fun ruining my old Mustang.

From then on, we didn’t actually do much dancing stuff together. We went out for drinks at breweries, hiked nature trails, made fun of store window displays, and woke up ducks in the middle of the night. And it was a lot of fun. It made me realize that I need to do more non-dancing stuff with my dancing friends. More drinks and food, and more irrelevancy.

Feeling left behind

I am extremely jealous of Chris. In addition to being able to grow facial hair in ways that I will never be able to, he’s become an extremely good swing dancer with excellent poise and balance, and most of all, creativity when he dances. I watch him dance with others and can’t help but think of how I wish I could dance as well as he could.

Most crucially, he’s a constant reminder of what I gave up to focus on my driving. He’s a newer dancer than I am, having started swing dancing roughly around the same time that I decided to focus on autocrossing. So while I’ve improved leaps and bounds as a driver, to the point where I can regularly challenge for trophies at big events (assuming my cone happy ways don’t doom me to needlessly unnecessary penalties), my dancing has stayed exactly the same for the past two years. In that time, Chris has blossomed from new dancer to someone who could teach me a thing or two about swing dancing.

Part of my drop off from swing dancing is due to my own unhappiness with my dancing. I’m not bad, mind you, in the same way people roll their eyes at me when I curse myself for being a shit driver while still placing Top 20 in PAX at a local Detroit Region SCCA autocross event, but as someone who had aspirations for being a much better dancing back when I was younger, my lack of forward progress in my dancing is a bit disheartening. Consequently, part of my reluctance to come out and dance was due to an unwillingness to face the music and accept that, with my time only being so finite, my level of dancing is perfectly serviceable and that the only way I can improve on it is if I start traveling to big dance weekends instead of big autocross weekends, or by doing private dance lessons. Such a perspective is a bit foolish and a bit selfish, I’ve come to realize.

Besides, as I’ve established above, there’s more to swing dancing than the dancing itself. Two nights ago, I was out at the bar with some swing dancers after the Wednesday night Swing Ann Arbor dance, and remembered how much fun it is to banter back and forth with Chris with questionable humor that makes all of the ladies roll their eyes with a mix of bemusement and flabbergasted disgust.

As Lauren pointed out over beers some time ago, there’s the fact that the two of us are roughly the same dancing “generation,” as you will, of folks who danced after the neo-swing era of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, who are into the hardcore classic jazz style of music and dance, yet are old enough that we’re slowly scattering about due to the realities of friends and dancers starting careers and families while new dancers pick up the mantle and push further into the hardcore old stuff, or splinter off into the fusion scene. In other words, change is afoot and I just need to accept that it is going to happen and go with the flow. Accepting change is something that I’ll admit I have quite a bit of trouble with, which is a disadvantage in regards to keeping up with the swing scenes, which are always in constant flux.

Best to accept the dancer that I am right now. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. As long as follows keep dragging me onto the dance floor, I’m probably still fun enough to dance with that I needn’t worry.

Autocross getting in the way of everything

It’s 6:30pm. The SCCA Starting Line School just finished, and I’m at the Pontiac Silverdome, staring at a large empty lot. Normally, being tagged as the course designer and seeing a massive stretch of empty pavement in front of me would be cause for joy.

Instead, I was slightly panicking. You see, that evening, I had hoped to be in Ann Arbor for Zach and Jessie’s wedding reception dance, which was supposed to run from 6pm to 8pm. The autocross school, originally scheduled to end at 5pm, went late, leaving me with a duty that I had promised to fellow friend and Detroit Region SCCA Sunday event chair Pat that I didn’t think I had time to do.

I hastily threw together a course on the lot — a corner of the Silverdome real estate that the club had never used before, mind you, so we didn’t know where the bad pavement and bumps were — and had Eric, safety steward for the Sunday autocross, give me input on whether or not the course could be approved or not. After about an hour of shooting ideas back and forth, we ended up with a fun but extremely short course that took 37 seconds to complete in my bone-stock 1988 Mazda RX7.

Dammit, I thought to myself, the course is way too short. If I can do this in 37 seconds with a rotary wedge of cheese from the 80’s, I could easily do this in 33 seconds or less in my modern-day STR Miata.

By then, the bat signal came through on my cell phone. It was Lauren, wondering where the hell I was and why I was missing one rocking party out on the north side of Ann Arbor. As I waited for Pat to arrive on site to take a look at the course, my anxiety increased.

Zach and Jessie had come all the way from Washington DC for their wedding, and had invited a bunch of swing dancing friends around the Midwest to come to their awesome wedding reception dance. And I’m going to miss the thing because I’m out here in the middle of a parking lot, tossing cones around and kicking sketchy pavement with my feet?!

Pat comes at 7:30pm. I give him and Eric a quick tour of my course. Pat shares his concern that the course is probably too short, and would like to see it made longer. Eric, the safety steward, is happy with the course as-is.

I told Pat that he could make whatever changes he and Eric agreed to, but that I needed to split. At 7:40pm or so, I sent Lauren a text message reply that I was on my way. From Pontiac to Ann Arbor was an hour long drive. I would miss the live band, the amazing Royal Garden Trio, and the dancing, but dammit, I needed to make it back to see the happy couple off before they returned to the East Coast.

Speeding all the way to Ann Arbor, I arrived at the park where the reception was held, with the RX7 running on fumes on a nearly empty gas tank. I caught Zach and Jessie just as they finished taking their last wedding photos during the Golden Hour, having a brief couple of minutes to say hi and goodbye before they left the venue.

I wasn’t in the best of moods the rest of that evening. I was pissed that I had missed the entire dance. I was pissed that I didn’t get to say all that much to Zach and Jessie outside of a brief “congratulations.” I was worried that I’d be hung, drawn, and quartered the next day by autocrossers who would see my 35 second course and accost me for not making a 50-60 course.

A couple of us swing dancers went out to the Pizza House for food and drinks after the wedding reception and dance party. I wasn’t in the mood to do much talking. I bought everyone appetizers, had half a calzone, decided that my Debbie Downer mood wasn’t helping matters much, and left early to go home. I wasn’t much in the mood to socialize, sadly enough, missing out on my opportunity to catch up with dancers that are from or have moved to the Chicagoland area.

The next day wasn’t much better. A little bit of drama regarding the preparation of the timing and registration computers meant that I, being the second most knowledgeable AXWare computer person on site, was roped into managing the resulting mess at registration. I drew Kenneth into the mess as well, (sorry Ken!) and the two of us worked overtime to hide the registration and timing issues from the autocross competitors on site. I think we succeeded, for the most part, as the event was run mostly on schedule, with only the occasional timing error due to some flakiness with the computers and the occasional inexperience with our new wireless timing lights and timing box.

The short course proved to be a godsend in this case, as the event didn’t run too long and we all got out pretty early, a good thing when the autocross is taking place on Father’s Day. I decided that I’d once again drive back to Ann Arbor after the autocross and try to do some dancing at the Zal Grotto, where PORK was playing and a bunch of swing dancers had gathered to dance and watch the Ragdolls perform.

I arrive in Ann Arbor right before the Ragdolls performed and was present for the second band set. After eating, however, I felt too tired to do any dancing, despite the fact that it was the best dancer crowd that I’d seen at PORK in a long time. Maybe I should have just sucked it up and at least danced a song or two. As soon as the second set finished, I did a French goodbye and just up and left.

Normally, I’m able to wedge both autocross and dancing into the same weekend, so the difficulties this past weekend were an exception, not the rule, for when I try to cram too much to do in two days. But it still drove the point home that I sacrifice a lot on the swing dancing side of things when I do my autocross things, especially when it comes to helping organize and run local Detroit Region events.

It was a talk with my friend Steve that made me reconsider my dedication to the sport of autocross. I visited his house for shits and giggles when he and Ryan were preparing Ryan’s Camaro for the Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge by peeling off all of the SCCA-mandated stickers. There, I got to see Steve’s newest purchase, a beat up Neon that he planned on running time trials in at Waterford Hills. Doing so meant effectively discarding the rest of his National autocross season ambitions.

Steve also mentioned that he was getting a bit burned out on autocross. Yes, part of the move to doing time trials would help alleviate that, but there was another motivation: he wanted to free up some time so he could go on dates.

After making fun of his car, Waterford Hills, and his motivations, it struck me that a grain of truth from the discussion could also apply to my own situation. I love autocross, don’t get me wrong, but for too long, it’s been the end all, be all, at least until the autocross season ends and “dance season” kicks in for me. But not dancing during the autocross season hasn’t been good for my mind, body, and spirit.

Time to do more things with other people

Maybe it would be worth considering missing a big National autocross event or two to go dancing instead. For example, going to the Ann Arbor Lindy Exchange, KISSME, instead of doing the Toledo Match Tour. Or going to SwingIN instead of the Pro Finale in Lincoln.

For now, I’m shoehorning some swing dance events along with my existing autocross schedule, as well as adding in some new events that I wasn’t considering before. I’m signed up for the Montreal Swing Riot, taking place over the 4th of July weekend (because naturally, one would celebrate the United States’ independence by… going to Canada?), and will probably attempt to dance at KISSME and CincyLX at the same time as the Toledo Match Tour and Wilmington Champ Tour, respectively. Depending on whether or not I get into the Pro Finale, I may or may not end up going to Indianapolis and dancing at SwingIN instead.

I’m also hoping to do more not-autocross things with not-autocross people as well. I have several friends who are also interested in giving road rallies a go, and will try doing more Southeast Michigan things and explore more, as despite having lived here for a couple years now, I still don’t really know anything about Detroit and the surrounding area at all.

And, of course, introduce not-autocross people to autocross. The “new” Lauren, who has just arrived in Ann Arbor and will be sticking around for a year (because apparently the Ann Arbor swing scene has a Lauren quota that must be filled), saw my Miata parked outside the plaza where we danced and started asking questions about it, which naturally led me to the point where I offered to let her beat the crap out of the car at an autocross.

I regret that it took the imminent departure of (old) Lauren to snap me to attention and realize that I had been heavily neglecting the non-car people friendships in my life. We did a lot of fun things together in the short span of a couple weeks that we really should have been doing together in the years that we’ve known each other. Now my challenge is to make sure that I do that with all the other friends I have, especially the dancing ones.

So I’m starting things off with a road trip to Montreal, with the ever effervescent Angela serving as my road trip buddy. We will find out if we can still keep up with the road trip, late night, dance-all-the-time explore-all-the-time don’t sleep lifestyle of younger dancers, or if we will end up realizing that we’re too old for this shit. Either way, it will be interesting, and it will be an adventure.