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Johnny Weir and Dancing with the Stars

            I started watching Dancing with the Stars when Cricket was a puppy, as a way to unwind after her training classes every Monday night. Even after we gave up on the classes – Cricket hated being told what to do – we kept on watching the show and practicing our Waltz and Tango together. In our version of Dancing with the Stars, lifts were always allowed. Cricket thought we should allow biting and scratching as well, but even I have limits.

“Help me!!!!!”

            I’ve kept up with the show ever since, even though I’ve been annoyed by the voting for years, with beautiful dancers being voted off early in favor of crowd favorites without much dance ability. Honestly, I should have given up on the show a while back, but I still love the dancing, and I record each episode so I can fast forward through the silliest parts. When the change in hosts was announced over the summer I was ready to give up again, because you need a host with a sense of humor to puncture the pomp and melodrama of the show, and they went in the opposite direction, but after the entertainment-starved Covid summer, and the announcement that Johnny Weir would be on the show this year, I decided to give it another chance.

Johnny Weir (not my picture)

Johnny Weir is a classical balletic-style figure skater, one of the first openly gay figure skaters, after Rudy Galindo opened that door with a bang in his U.S. Nationals win in 1996. Figure skating, maybe because of its reputation as a feminine sport, has spent many years forcing its gay male skaters to stay closeted, but Johnny Weir, who won his first Nationals in 2004, was ready to be himself, no matter what. I was excited to see how he would handle the ballroom styles on Dancing with the Stars, but especially the partner dancing. And he didn’t disappoint. As the season progressed, I was more and more compelled by Johnny and his partner, Britt Stewart, and how they negotiated their male and female roles, using both their costumes and their choreography to push past the expected into something less familiar and more equal. They were often at the top of the leader board, based on the judges’ votes, but the audience votes kept putting them in danger.

            I never thought I would be this compelled by Johnny Weir. He was always a beautiful skater, but as a young man he could be catty and stinging in his comments about other skaters. And when he pushed boundaries on gender norms back then, he did it in a sort of obvious way, like the teenager and young adult he was at the time. I was always impressed with his courage and his talent, but not his maturity. In his interviews on Dancing with the Stars he explained some of the snarkiness as the result of being a young skater who was surrounded by adults critiquing how he expressed his sexuality in his skating, long before he knew that that’s what he was doing.

            He started to grow on me when he and Tara Lipinski began commentating together at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, as the second team on a faraway channel. I didn’t expect to like their commentary at all, honestly. Tara Lipinski had never been one of my favorite skaters (as a Michelle Kwan fan, I am still bitter about the way Tara-the-jumping-bean came in and won so easily). But Tara and Johnny were fun to listen to together. They were playful and honest, and much kinder than I’d expected them to be. Johnny, especially, was funny and insightful and more compassionate and vulnerable each year. Tara was still Tara, but I appreciated her enthusiasm and how well she responded to Johnny’s playfulness. At some point I decided that if Johnny Weir liked her there might be something there worth liking.

SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 14: Figure skating champions Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski comment for NBC the Figure Skating Men’s Free Skating on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

            With Britt, on Dancing with the Stars, Johnny was exploring another male/female relationship, based on mutual respect and vulnerability, and quietly breaking stereotypes of what male/female relationships have to be in dance. But I guess the rest of the audience didn’t see things the same way. Johnny and Britt’s last performance in the semifinal was a jazz routine that, to me, seemed to be bursting with hope and strength and trust, but they were still voted off.

            I want to give the audience the benefit of the doubt. Maybe other dancers who made it to the finals had more intense fan bases. Or maybe the viewers preferred to watch the journey of someone with no dance experience, rather than someone coming from a similar field, like figure skating. But I’m afraid the reason Johnny Weir didn’t make it to the finals is simple homophobia, or more specifically, fear of the way he was attempting to widen the scope of what it means to be male. I wonder if people would have been more comfortable with him if he were a transgender woman, or if he had refused to identify with either gender. Instead, he was saying that there are more ways to be a man, and that there are more relationships worth exploring in dance than the heteronormative romantic partnership, and I think both of those things scared people. But, for me, there was something fascinating, and challenging, and full of potential in what Johnny and Britt were exploring together, and I wanted to see that continue. At the very least, I wanted to see their freestyle dance in the finals.

            I missed out on the chance to really see him grow as a professional skater, because by the time his generation retired from Olympic skating, the golden age of professional skating on TV was fading, and the shows that were still on TV were overproduced, with the same skaters in each show, doing programs with the same choreography just set to different music. But for years before that, there were shows and competitions for the professional skaters, where they could showcase their growth as performers, beyond the triple and quadruple jumps. I feel very lucky that I got to see skaters like Torvill and Dean, Scott Hamilton, Katya Gordeeva, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning and so many others as they pushed skating into new directions. I wished for the same with Johnny Weir’s generation of skaters, but if they were building their artistry in their professional careers, it wasn’t being shown on American TV. Dancing with the Stars was a chance to see Johnny Weir perform as an adult, and I loved that his style challenged my idea of what’s possible and what’s beautiful.

I hope that Dancing with the Stars will learn from this season and find a way forward that honors both the hard work of the dancers and the range of emotion that comes up as they learn how to dance. They’ve created a valuable platform for exposing audiences to all kinds of non-traditional dancers of different sizes, ages, abilities and backgrounds. It’s a show that can be silly and over the top one minute and then deeply resonant the next, and it’s worth saving, but it really needs saving. More than that, though, I just want to see more of Johnny Weir’s dancing. Maybe someone will hear me and give him his own show: a series where he can train with different choreographers and build his style as a dancer, or a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn kind of show, or a return to the more varied and complex skating shows of the (recent) past. That would be a nice way to say good bye to the toxicity of 2020 and move into 2021 with more hope.

I also think there should be a Dancing with the Dogs spin off, but I’m probably the only one. Cricket and Ellie are skeptical.

“Don’t even think about it, Mommy.”

Just in case you didn’t get to see Johnny Weir on Dancing with the Stars: https://youtu.be/jTLtCj-Hcj4

Or during his Olympic eligible skating career: https://youtu.be/5FVrjUIcCuQ

            And, just because, here are some of the great performances from those professional skating shows:

            Torvill and Dean: https://youtu.be/4OWk5a0I1BA

Kurt Browning, Paul Wylie, and Scott Hamilton: https://youtu.be/QCapfwISfAU

Katya Gordeeva: https://youtu.be/QdkFS3R30-8

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Dancing Raccoon

Out for a stroll.

Out for a stroll.

The other night when Mom and I took the dogs out for their last walk of the night, I heard a terrible squawking sound. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was a mix of a little girl being tortured and birds flapping their wings and leaves rustling. I was concerned, but when I looked up into the woods I couldn’t see anything to explain the sound, and the lights from the complex illuminate the area well enough that a screaming child and her tormentor would have been visible.

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

I thought it might be a cat fight or a strange bird ritual that I didn’t want to be a part of, so I turned the girls back towards home. The rustling sound came closer though, and, of course, I turned around to see what it was, and there was the dancing raccoon. He was skipping out of the woods like little red riding hood, without a care, until he saw the dogs. I don’t think of my dogs as especially frightening, especially when Cricket is keeping her barking to herself, but to this raccoon they must have looked terrifying, because first he froze in mid-hop, then he backed up on his tippy toes like a bad cat burglar, and then he turned and ran back into the woods.

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

I really wish I had a video of the dance. He was a bruiser of a raccoon, clearly eating a lot of the cat food left out for the now scrawny feral cats, but my little white fluff balls intimidated the poop out of him.

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

To be fair, it’s possible that he’d been spying on us for a while, for days or weeks or months, and had decided that the little white dog with the curly hair and the big mouth was clearly the devil in disguise. Cricket can really scream. I feel bad for the workmen who’ve been traipsing in and out of the complex for the past eight months, because Cricket barks at them every single time she sees them, and tries to break her leash and lunge at them from fifty feet away. Even Butterfly gets a few deep barks out before she calmly sniffs their pant legs.

Crazy barking Cricket!

Crazy barking Cricket!

The big raccoon had probably written out a schedule of safe times to cross the yard to get to the garbage cans in front of the Seven-Eleven, and we ruined his plans by going out at an unexpected hour. He was making such a racket on his way down the hill that I guess he couldn’t hear us until he was just a few feet away.

This was my first raccoon sighting on the premises in a year. We have a lot of wildlife behind our building: we have chipmunks and squirrels and butterflies and snails, we have tiny birds and fly over geese and feral cats and home grown cats, and of course we have the dogs. But the raccoons have been keeping a low profile, and I’m afraid that this particular raccoon will do his best not to let himself be seen again, at least not by me and my scary, scary dogs.

Who could be scared of these two?

Who could be scared of these two?

Dancing Puppies

Always start with a stretch

Always stretch first

 

Cricket first came home as an eight week old puppy, in September of 2007. She was adorable and tiny and running in every direction and we took her to puppy class that October, determined to start her off right. She needed socialization, and manners. And we needed some idea of how to make her stop biting us.

Every Monday night, after class, we drove home discouraged, and turned on the TV for some relief. I don’t remember if I’d watched Dancing with the Stars before that season, but it was on after class and it was undemanding, so it became a staple.

I picked up my exhausted, angry puppy, and we learned how to dance. She liked the calm, slow, up and down twirls of the Waltz. I liked the sharp, staccato turns of the Tango, paw in hand. But her best dance was a free form mix of the Latin dances. She loved to shake her tushy. I held her in the air and twisted her to the right and the left, shoulder shimmy right and left. We sang the “I like big butts” song and the “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” song, though Cricket does not have much of a milkshake.

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Each week, we danced with the contestants and tried new rhythms and new lifts, and the dancing bonded us in a way the class, with its forced sits and holding-puppy-on-her-back to get her calm, never could.

I’ve tried to teach Cricket some dance moves she can do on her own. There’s the slow turn on two feet, and the two-steps-forward-two-steps-back, and the sit-down-stand-up-jump combination. All held together with chicken treats. But, honestly, she’d rather be getting scratchies.

Cricket mid-spin

Cricket mid-spin

When Butterfly first came home she wasn’t up to dancing. She’d been living in a crate for her eight years at the puppy mill and needed to start slow. The first step was to get her moving, just walking around the block, using her legs, climbing curbs and steps. She learned about jumping for treats from Cricket, and she taught herself how to twirl, just for fun.

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Now that she has all of her dance steps, she prefers to dance on her own instead of with me. She has a very specific, well choreographed poopy dance. First she starts to run, back and forth, back and forth, to warm up. Then she starts to hop and skip in circles, in one direction and then the other. Then there are the spirals. She ends with a few small, hopping circles, lifting her hind end up and bouncing it off the ground.

Then, finally, she stops and poops.

Butterfly mid-dance

Butterfly mid-dance

It’s possible that Butterfly’s puppy mill was near a ballet school. I can’t imagine how she had the room to develop this dance routine living in a crate all day, day after day. She must have been dreaming this dance her whole life.

 

 

 

 

Cricket’s First Training Class

 

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Mom and I took Cricket to a puppy class at the local pet store when Cricket was three or four months old. I wanted Cricket to stop biting me; that was my most pressing goal.

All of the books said that it would be easier to train her as a puppy, rather than later on, and that I would be a terrible person if I didn’t teach her to heel, come when called, and pee on command. But for me, the thing I wanted most was for her to be able to make friends with other dogs, and people. I wanted her to be a safe companion for her young human cousins, and to not be as isolated as my previous dog had been, with her antisocial behavior and anxiety disorder.

I also had dreams of getting Cricket to do tricks, like ride a skateboard, or surf, or dance with me.

I loved meeting all of the other puppies in the class. There was a baby bloodhound named Baxter, and a pair of miniature Pinschers, and miniature Poodles, and a black Lab or two, and an older Maltese. But Cricket was not as enamored of them as I was, and she didn’t think the treats were worth working for. She ignored the commands and smiled at me and sniffed the shelves at the store and peed in the corners, and then we went home and she chewed through an entire wicker garbage can.

What I remember most about the teacher was that nothing she said made sense to me. I felt like I was listening to a foreign language I’d never studied, or trying to make sense of NASA’s instruction book for how to launch a space shuttle. I can’t tell you even now if that was because she actually didn’t make sense or if it’s because obedience training kills my circuitry.

The teacher had a way of taking my nervous, meant-to-be-funny comments and using them as lessons for the class. Like, I asked her, after a particularly grueling lesson, when do we get the magic pill that makes training just kick in, and she said, in all seriousness and pointing me out to the class, that there is no magic pill and training takes a lot of hard work.

The teacher was impatient with all of us, but especially with Cricket. She told us to flip Cricket onto her back and hold her down, as an intervention. We were supposed to show Cricket that we were in charge and resistance wasn’t going to get her anywhere. But all that did was to make Cricket more frightened and more resistant to the training.

I should have listened more carefully when the teacher told us that her mother used to hit her to keep her in line, and, instead of saying that her mother did the wrong thing, she said, mothers hit us because they love us.

I finally gave up on the class after the fourth week. The teacher had done her “intervention” one time too many and Cricket had learned to hide behind my legs whenever the teacher came by.

It all felt like a way to crush her spirit and mine. I resented the idea that Cricket was supposed to be a pod puppy, with no unique or rebellious characteristics left. And I was exhausted. So we left, and replaced training class with episodes of Dancing with the Stars. Cricket is great at the Tango.

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