“Welcome! While the government may be shut down, we shu-sure as hell are ready to dance with you.”
It was my first time as an emcee for Capital Blues. And in the middle of speaking, I felt my stutter come back.
And the words just stopped. Like I was nine years old again.
When I was younger, I had a stutter.
It wasn’t a bad one, and it was only apparent during class presentations. I would feel the stutter start, a few jittery words, stuck in my jaw. I would jerk my mouth shut and keep quiet until I felt it slide away down my mouth. It utterly mortified me.
Generally, I could chatter quite happily. But in those few moments in front of a group, I was totally mute and helpless. I worried that my classmates would think that I was dumb or incapable, and that I should stay quiet. Girls in our society are generally encouraged to be silent, more than men. When we do speak, the attention is still centered around our bodies, rather than the content of speech. Without words, I felt people staring at me, at how I looked, and how I didn’t look.
And I could not stand for that.
Fortunately, my nine year old self had an important ally: Miles Vorkosigan. Miles Vokosigan, a short space captain, the hero of Lois McMaster Bujold’s sagas, he got me. And though he was fictional, Miles inspired me to seek out my triggers and triumph over them. To jump over a wall, even if it broke your legs. To be myself, no matter how upsetting or untimely that could be.
And my normal line of reasoning, my nine year old self decided to never get nervous again, and to speak in public all the time.
I decided to outpace my stutter.
I went through every step to totally eliminate my stutter: I sat in the front row and answered questions as quickly as I could. I talked faster than anyone who would bully me about my occasional muted moments, or my stammers. I helped produce, write, and speak in a weekly radio noir drama; I taught storytelling classes; I did quiz bowl; I taught; I sang. I spoke without thinking. I let the words just get out without taking a second to pause or rest or question. I thought of Miles.
And I almost forgot about the stutter. Like an old, childhood fear.
This is the first time in nearly twenty years that I felt that training buckle, when I saw my stutter to start to get away from me. The stutter, and the quiet.
I was nervous about being an emcee for bamBLOOZled. BamBLOOZled is the biggest event we run, as Capital Blues. We generally have about 200 participants, five bands, a full teaching team from across the country, and we try to make it the best damn weekend of blues dancing that we can imagine. It’s our party.
Hours and hours of work went into the event, as it drew closer, I felt more dread, especially about announcing. I didn’t know much about the logistics of competitions, and though I’d seen hundreds of them, I couldn’t recall all the steps in the right order. If I was even a little confused, I could easily fudge it up.
On the car ride over to a venue, I’d attempted to wheedle my main organizing partner into announcing the competition. She flatly refused, bless her, as she had to run the competition.
And there I was, staring at my cheat sheet and the judges and I could feel the words start to jam. When I looked at the person whose name I had to say, I couldn’t say it. It wasn’t there. The name was stuck.
These were some exceptionally gorgeous people, dancers with social graces and beautiful faces, and the ability to maintain articulateness over a series of hours with minimal sleep and maximal annoyances. Capable attractive people. And their names just kept sticking.
The more important something is, the harder it can be to say.
I covered quickly. I apologized later. It wasn’t obvious.
But I was mortified.
Fortunately, I had an important ally: nine-year old Reyes. Likes: wolves, teachers, football, and science fiction. Strategy: triumphing over all obstacles through sheer force.
And while my nine year old self wasn’t quite as heroic as young Miles, I was still an okay little bean with some good ideas.
I decided to outpace that stutter. I decided to be honest and to take the emcee role where I wanted it to go.
I would speak, dammit. I would speak. And I would let people see what I saw.
I love Capital Blues. I’m a profound fan for the organization. I love creating and participating in blues dance spaces that showcase the dance, and allow dancers to connect more closely and express more fully. And in the past year, I’ve become more of an organizer myself.
Organizing events is never easy. Travel malfunctions, miscommunication, personal tension between organizers, sound issues, lights issues, and all manner of small crises. All of these issues couple with a mounting sleep debt, neglected partners, bad nutrition, and building exhaustion that makes problems even harder to take on. Volunteers get sick. Food arrives late and cold and overpriced.
You start to see the deep neuroses of your fellow organizers peek out. And you yourself go… a little crazy. At one point in the weekend, I lost the ability to do simple multiplication. It was 7:00am, and I started laughing, alone, in the kitchen of Du Shor dance studio. With a wad of cash in my hand, I could barely separate out the bank. I couldn’t find the forms or do the math or put the cash away. Maybe I was crying, but mostly I was laughing, but mostly, I was alone. Mostly. Mewstly.
And I know that the four of us hit that supreme lunacy, probably more than once.
Organizing can be lonely, even when you’re surrounded by others. As an organizer, you remember, at some point, that you aren’t really being compensated or recognized for the work you do. When you do go home for that three hour sleep, you’ll probably be alone. You’ll sleep on the couch. There’s no great sexiness in being an organizer. Dancers typically don’t stop you on the floor and ask for your digits (unless they need a ride). Typically, participants don’t know who book the spaces, who book the bands, who order the food, who set the stage. These are invisible actions.
We don’t talk about it.
You don’t have time to dance at your own event. You get snippy and frustrated with your friends. You realize you haven’t done laundry in three weeks, gone a date with your person (or any person), or taken a hot shower. You feel like a ghost in your own home.
And maybe you burn out.
That’s how the life cycle of an organizer ends.
And then, events end. I don’t want Capital Blues to burn out. I want there to be blues dances in DC until no one shows up. I want the organizers to stay loved, and to be recognized. And if there’s one task I feel capable of doing as an emcee, it’s recognition. As the emcee, you see everyone, and everyone sees you. And from that place, you can help everyone see the people who are hidden.
It’s an awful lot like that scene in Singing in the Rain.
It feels good to let people know who the real singers are.
It lets them sing along.
Things started badly.
There are catastrophically bad things in organizing. Like a government shutdown that closes your main venues.
And then, needing to find all new venues for nearly every event over the weekend. With a week of lead time. The DC metro area is not exactly flush with affordable dance spaces, even with all the time in the world. There’s extremely limited parking in the metro-accessible areas; non-metro accessible dances can create more headaches for locals. Sprung wood floors are rare, and often pricey and pre-booked. Concrete floors ruin knees. Building a floor, or renting a floor, is an incredible investment.
We were pretty fucked, as they say.
We needed space for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday daytime, at the most affordable price that still brought a kind-to-knees floor. And with the shut down, everyone was stressed. Thousands of people were (and are) impacted by the shutdown, from Colorado to Chicago to Glen Echo Park. I had trouble digesting food when I considered it.
It was a task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. And so, my closest friends took it on.
Though the shutdown has been bad all around, the blessing for us is that the most highly detail-conscious people, with incredible analytical skills, were suddenly left without complex issues to solve. And god bless the furloughed — they called every damn venue in the District. The sequestered cavalry took to the phones, the tubes, the wires and chatted up every church, every school, every blues joint, every studio. They got a nice email and a call from Capital Blues.
My friends, they are the best of people, even in the shittiest of times.
We found spaces. It all was finalized in the last day, with an incredible amount of hustle and flow done by the leading organizer, who puts his goddamn soul into making these events lovely.
That was him, lifting all of us up. It was some Miles Vorkosigan action.
We got studios for classes, and our main studio space kicked out other dancers to make it our venue on Friday night. We had a high school gymnasium on Saturday night. We had a sweaty, sticky blues bar for the Sunday night. We were in my living room for the Sunday late night. BamBLOOZled rose again, into the deep, rainy night. Loud and proud.
We didn’t have an official videographer, due to my bumbling.
We decided what late night food to buy three days out. There was hot food at the late night, and hot coffee.
Our volunteers worked overtime, and the volunteer coordinator worked double-overtime.
We went way over budget.
We lost money.
And I loved it.
I totally loved it.
It felt different than the other events I’d seen– more precarious and still so vibrant.
On Sunday night, there were so many dancers in New Vegas Lounge, with so much energy, that the AC started to drip rain onto all of us. The teachers taught challenging, compelling classes, that inspired so much conversation and adjustment. I saw people move with more deliberate intention and grace. The founder of Capital Blues, who had built so much of the scene, was there to see how many new dancers were learning, and how her work had brought so many people together.
An incredible amount of the organizing work is built on previous work — all of the hustling we did this time around was easier because of the incredible work done in the past. It’s obvious to me now.
On Friday night, Clarence Turner got everyone to ease up and hold onto each other. Stacy Brooks played a killer late-night after she had just won a battle of the bands. The Saturday dance, which we held in a high school gymnasium, was the sweetest. Seth Walker made us all want more days like this, and more nights like that. Competitions were wildly inspiring, and everyone was so damn happy.
There’s the point where you don’t give a damn anymore. There’s when you look around and you see everyone happy, and it’s like some magnificent drug. It’s a wild compersion to see so many happy faces.
I completely forgot about the stutter.
And those people, who work so damn hard, got the applause they so richly deserve. I was honest, publicly, about how hard instructors work, how stressful competitions are, how much judges think, how DJs plan, and how boss everyone was, for pulling together, and moving together. I want to bring the curtain up.
I want you to see who’s really singing.
I don’t want the words to get stuck. I don’t want to be quiet.
If I have any advice, dear reader, it’s to seek out the people who make things happen — the people who book the spaces, the people who make the schedules, the people who do the tedious travel details, the people who make lesson plans, the people who make the DJ sets, the people who do an extra load of laundry for their guests — and thank them. Let them be seen. Because it’s about all of us, seeing and listening to each other.
For me, Capital Blues isn’t the main organizers, but the hundreds of people who participate. It’s about seeing each other and holding each other, even when we’re feeling awful or alone. It’s about how we dance together, night after night. In my years in DC, the blues community has given me friendships that feed me, the ideas that tease me, and the music that lifts me up. It’s told me what to say and its helped me say it, loud and clear.
Yeah, I want more nights like that.
ps: A huge, huge thank you to Devon Rowland and John Joven for the photos of the event that I used here. Yup.