Risk vs. Reward

Yet another opportunity to re-post old Facebook notes and consolidate my writings.  I originally wrote this a year ago for an art project by my friend Sandy Yin, the blogger of “A Brief List of Rules.” She gave me good feedback and I was going to re-work it, but I’ve decided to just re-post it as is since it combines a lot of things happening this week like Carla appearing on “So You Think You Can Dance” and that I’m about to go spend my fifth Thanksgiving with Naomi.  It’s just a nice reminder to me of the spirit of the holiday.

The story of my start in dancing begins like many others: with a girl and a smile.

I was working at The Catholic University of America where I also graduated from a little over two years before. My job was scheduling space for the student groups and academic departments to use for meetings and events. We had a ballroom dance team that sponsored dance classes for members of the campus community. One day, the president of the team came to my office to request space for the upcoming semester’s classes.

During the course of our conversation, she (this doesn’t become a story if it’s not a she) invited me to their open house event where they were going to demonstrate some dances and offer a freebie swing lesson. I said I’d think about it. Really, I didn’t need to think about it since anytime a woman asks to go somewhere and smiles at the same time, it obviously means she wants you. So I went.

They brought in a professional ballroom instructor who demonstrated various partnered dances. I don’t remember her name, but she wasn’t going to teach the swing series, otherwise known as “Lindy Hop.” She did teach the short freebie intro lesson to help convince people to come back the next week.

Being too cool for school, I didn’t partake in the first part of the lesson which covered the all important triple step of the six count basic pattern. At one point the aforementioned ballroom president, Stephanie, spotted me on the sidelines and dragged me into the lesson. Of course, not having paid close attention to what was going on, I had a little trouble figuring out what the instructor was teaching. While it seems like a nice idea to have a pretty girl “help” you, she didn’t, but that was more my fault than hers.

For those of you that don’t swing dance, the six count basic in swing dancing consists of a rock step followed by two triple steps. A triple step is exactly what it sounds like. Shuffle three steps to the side. Sounds simple enough, but for someone who had never danced outside of shaking my butt to Bel Biv Devoe in my room, those three steps might as well have been the same as climbing K2 at that moment. Compound that with doing them the other way made it seem like I was being asked to cross the Himalayas.

As any other student who shows up in the middle of class without paying attention, I failed miserably. Stephanie tried to help as much as possible, but couldn’t keep me from confusing my left foot for my right; and also temporarily understanding that three equaled four, and occasionally two.

After the lesson ended, I left humbled and prepared to go on with my arhythmic life. Of course Stephanie stopped by later that week before the actual Lindy Hop series started, and once again invited me to attend. As I mentioned before, and is obvious to any man, any invitation accompanied by a smile equals an unspoken form of carnal lust. But that knowledge was tempered by my defeat on the dance floor the week before. I had to weigh that humiliation with a dimpled smile.

The night of the lesson, I decided to practice, and if I could figure this triple step deal on my own, I’d go, and at the very least, regain my dignity. I locked myself in my office after work, skipped dinner, and proceeded to use my deductive skills to teach myself a dance that I had only halfway paid attention to a week before — with predictable results.

I honestly can’t tell you how I screwed up the order of eight steps, but I did. However, I convinced myself that I had somehow learned the six count basic using eleven steps. Ten years later, I couldn’t even begin to describe how exactly that worked.

I think part of my brain knew I was wrong, and I was going to look even dumber than I did the week before, but that smile beaconed. If there’s one constant in my interactions with women over the years, it’s that as foolish as I can make myself, I almost never pass up an opportunity to make it worse.

After drying myself off from working up a sweat — probably from the mental and physical strain that comes from making up a new dance — I made the decision to take my unique stylings public.

A funny thing happened though. I discovered that in a dance lesson, they actually teach you how to dance, so figuring it out on your own isn’t really necessary. That was probably the most important thing I learned that night.

My teachers turned out to be pretty cool. One was a University of Maryland biology major named Steve Bailey. He had a cockiness about him that drew people to him as much as it repelled others; the kind of attitude I sometimes wished I had, but would probably hate myself if I did. However, Steve wore it well, and there was no mistake that he was in charge when he walked onto a dance floor.

His swagger was offset by the giddiness of his partner, a seventeen year old Naomi Uyama. Looking back, it does seem a little odd that a girl younger than everyone on a college dance team, and Lindy Hopping for less than a year, would be hired to teach us lessons. But if she had any doubts about her abilities, she hid them well behind a warm smile.

One week during this eight week series, Steve couldn’t make the class, and Naomi brought in a friend to help her teach. It was another girl, even younger than Naomi. She had platinum blond hair and was even more excitable; so much so that they convincingly taught us Charleston variations to a very slow and sultry Brian Setzer and Gwen Stefani song.

I’d like to say that I learned a lot during that Spring semester, but to be honest, I didn’t. Dancing wasn’t really a priority for me at the time, and I was probably still too self consciousness to really enjoy myself. I did have a good time in the classes, and decided to take the next series in the Fall. It didn’t hurt that the ballroom dance team let me take those classes for free.

Steve showed up with a different partner in the fall. There was some grumbling that she wasn’t Naomi, but this new person won us over in a very short time. In all the time I’ve known her since, I have yet to meet a person that could not be quickly impressed with Carla Heiney. I finally started to really get into the dance around that time, and she was a gracious guide into my new obsession with vernacular jazz dance.

Me dancing with Carla at Lindy U in 2001. Photo credit: Jared Goralnick

Stephanie? Had a boyfriend of course. But at least I figured that out before I said anything stupid. I would go on to many more misunderstandings with women over the years, but my one triumph from this episode was that Stephanie would not be one of them. Not sure whatever happened to her.

Steve went on to become a doctor and lives in San Francisco as told to me by Naomi’s formerly platinum blond friend, Nina Gilkenson, who randomly bumped into him late one night in an airport last year.

Nina eventually became (actually returned to being) brunette and taught the intermediate Lindy Hop class at CUA when I took over the beginner lessons three years after I started. We struck up a friendship that eventually got me involved in helping her plan the International Lindy Hop Championships.

At ILHC 2008. Photo credit: Myron Steves

When that event ended early Monday morning three months ago, she was the first woman I said “I love you” to in a very long time.  There was a small hint of irony in that declaration because her boyfriend was also in the hotel. It also prefaced a running joke we’ve been sharing for awhile, but you won’t read about that here. Despite that, I meant it in the fullest way that it can between two friends. I not sure she knows this because at that time, she was too busy laughing at me.

Carla Heiney moved to San Francisco, and because of her many accomplishments since I first met her, she was invited to judge at ILHC, and even won the very first Classic and Champions Strictly Lindy Hop divisions there. We chatted for a little while at that event — at least as much as we could during our busy schedules — and I was glad to hear how well her life is going these days.

Nina is still friends with Naomi who has done pretty well for herself too; including teaching, competing, and even singing at ILHC. I’m going to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family this week.

Dancing with Naomi at DCLX 2009. Photo credit: Soo Clark

It has occurred to me that had I come to my senses before that first dance lesson, I wouldn’t be writing about these experiences almost ten years later.

But I didn’t. Think about that and the circumstances and decisions, both bizarre and mundane, that got you to this point in your life.

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Tena said,

    November 27, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Oh Jerry. Why did this make me cry? But it did. I loved your story. I love Lindy Hop for this very reason. It reminded me of when I met Nina and Naomi 11 or 12 years ago when I was living in the DC area. I swear no other dance is this life changing and builds such life long friendships and family. Love ya!

  2. Breanna said,

    November 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I couldn’t say it better than Tena (even though we’ve had different experiences, obviously). I loved this story when you first posted it, and I still love it 🙂 Very appropriate for the season!

  3. September 6, 2011 at 12:12 am

    […] have a soft spot for Naomi. Peter is ok. But one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Naomi is the […]

  4. December 29, 2011 at 1:11 am

    […] It’s getting to a point where I need to re-evaluate that answer. I took my first Lindy Hop class in January of 1999, almost 13 years ago, from a woman who still inspires me to this […]

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