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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, May 4, 2012


San Slomovits and Jackie Steinbacher at the

When I was invited to be one of the "stars" in a Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars benefit, I felt like someone invited to sing a duet with Renee Fleming at the Met after only ever singing in public in karaoke bars. If I'd been asked to jump from an airplane with a parachute of questionable quality I'd likely have been more willing to agree. The idea terrified me.

So my immediate and emphatic response was "No!" But this Dancing with the Stars was a benefit for two organizations very dear to me; the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, where my daughter, Emily has gone since kindergarten, and Wild Swan Theatre, longtime friends, and simply the best children's theater around. So I finally said "yes." It was the best thing I've done in a long time.

My three minutes and eight seconds of fame in the Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars was such a delight that ever since that night I have been contemplating a career change. No, not hardly, but I did have a blast. And even more than the performance itself, I enjoyed the preparation leading up to it. After all, practicing for a dance performance is not unlike rehearsing for a concert; endless repetition of an enjoyable activity--always with the goal of an unattainable perfection worth striving for.

My coach was Jackie Steinbacher, a superb dancer and, if possible, an even better choreographer and teacher. We chose Tish Hinojosa's beautiful song, Esperate, and Jackie created a routine that combined moves and steps from cha cha, paso doble, samba, and even a hint of swing. She tailored our dance perfectly to the different moods and rhythmic subtleties in the music and the lyrics, creating a challenging and very satisfying piece that somehow also managed to minimize my many, many limitations as a dancer.

I was as nervous--and then some--for our performance than for any musical appearance I can ever recall. Before we danced, my mouth felt like I'd been eating dry peanut butter mixed with sand, and my hands were so cold it seemed as though I'd been soaking them in a bucket of ice water for a week. I felt sorry for Jackie in her sleeveless top. I hoped she wouldn't cringe when I touched her shoulder.

And then the music started; music, which has been my friend, my go-to safe haven, for most of my life. This would be the secure boat I would sail for the next three stormy minutes. Jackie gave me a reassuring look and we were off. By the time the intro was over and Hinojosa began singing, I was no longer dancing, or sailing, I was flying--anyway, it felt like that to me. It was over much too soon.

Linda Yohn, the renowned long-time host of jazz programs on WEMU, was the MC for the evening. After our dance, she asked me how performing a dance was different from playing music. In all the most important ways, I told her, it's the same; you look to connect with your partner and with your audience. Of course, I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary, but the feeling was the same.

I came away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for the artistry of dancers and with a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity to learn something brand-new in my sixth decade. I also feel a little braver for when another new, exciting, and scary adventure might present itself. I'll for sure say yes again.

posted by John Hilton at 10:33 a.m. | 0 comments


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