Dancing in Russia

One of the goals of this trip was to dance as many places as I can, especially considering I’m doing a weekend-long Lindy camp at the end of it, and I can’t do that kind of hardcore event after spending 3 months getting rusty. But it also gives me something specific to aim for in a few places, and an environment where, while still potentially intimidating, I feel pretty comfortable as far as social situations go. Particularly as it’s perfectly acceptable to not really talk much if you don’t feel like it. All you really have to do is dance! That I can do.

St Petersburg was my first time ever dancing away from Edinburgh, and the first time with no one I knew or recognised around for support. It was definitely a little scary to walk in there. But by the end of the night, I realised I just have to keep telling myself I’m never going to see these people again so just go all in. It’s quite freeing to your dancing to know that whatever you screw up (or nail!), no one knows who you are anyway, so you can learn a lot and have fun with it. I just tried to dance with as many different leads at as many different levels as I could. And everyone in both places was super friendly.

The space in St Petersburg was amazing. It was in the Freedom Palace, and it was an old high-ceilinged room with velvet curtains and a friggin’ canopy around the bar. The floor itself was a bit meh but it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was good and so was the music.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.
In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

One of the great things about this already is hearing the different music selections. I’m trying to remember some of my new favourites, but I wish I could shazaam everything so I could just have one big list of the music the rest of the world is dancing to on the regular. Some of it is the same of course – the band in Moscow played ‘Splanky’ and I immediately thought of my friend Graeme running by yelling ‘NAKED GUN THEME’, because, um, that’s what happens in Edinburgh – but even hearing different versions of the songs you’re used to (and deciding which you like better) is quite fun for a music dweeb.

The first thing I’m doing everywhere is just watching for a few songs. A, because it’s way too nerve-wracking to jump right in, and B, because I learn a lot – who I want to try to dance with, what the floorcraft is like (one place was definitely scarier than another in this respect), what everyone’s style is, who’s showing off, who’s shitting it because they’re a beginner (in contrast to me shitting it because I don’t know anyone).

Also there are some things that are comfortingly and amusingly the same everywhere. Everyone appreciates cake. The water is always a hot commodity. And you can never have quite enough windows to throw open, even in Russia when it’s -2 and snowing out.

If the room in St Petersburg was grand, the room in Moscow was totally cool in the opposite direction. It was like a secret Lindy clubhouse. Pictures of Dawn Hampton and Frankie Manning on the wall, old dance posters, dressing rooms and a wee bar. A bit speakeasy-ish, and very home-y and comfortable. You can tell it’s well-loved, and the floor was great – they don’t let any outdoor shoes in the place without plastic covers. And you’d never know the place was there from the outside.

Trying to find these places is always slightly intimidating when you’re somewhere strange. The MSDS website literally called the entrance to their space ‘very soviet looking’ and it was in a bit if an industrial park-ish area next to a shopping mall. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was slightly like, erm, where am I? But then you hear some jazz clarinet or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice wafting around a corner or out a window somewhere nearby and you know you’re in the right place, just follow the music.

There were some amazing dancers in Moscow, and the place was heaving. They had a live band and a super impressive cabaret the night I was there (see video playlist below) so I’m sure this meant it was probably even more crowded than usual, but it really highlighted the difference between being in a place with all your friends and being in a place where you don’t know anyone. Especially as a follow, this is super difficult. Even when you muster up the chutzpah to ask every lead in your sight line to dance, they still get snapped up crazy fast. And when you don’t have friends around, you have no guaranteed dances so it can feel like a lot of work just to get on the floor regardless of how much enthusiasm you have because NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s teaching me to adjust my expectations accordingly (and miss my friends a whole lot).

HOWEVER. Despite the difficulty if going into a social alone, it’s absolutely worth it. I had some lovely dances with some awesome leads. I got some crazy new moves thrown at me and I was able to follow at LEAST half of them. I think the lead/follow bootcamp of Winter Swing Weekend before I left Edinburgh was incredibly helpful. And it’s a pretty big boost to realise you know how to do something well enough that you CAN hold your own in a completely different scene.

(I totally need to up my fast Lindy game though. Oh my.)

Earlier in the day I went dancing in Moscow, I’d met up with Lana, who I’d been put in touch with by Ian, a fellow Edinburgh Swing Dance Society member. She walked me around, showed me some sights (in the snow!) and took me for lunch at this Russian cafeteria-style place called My-My (pronounced ‘moo moo’). We got some sweets with the bill, and I threw mine into my bag, not really knowing exactly what it was but too full to eat any candy.

Russian tablet.
Russian tablet.

At the end of the night when I made it back to the metro sweaty, exhausted, and slightly overwhelmed, I was rummaging in my bag for SUGAR PLEASE SUGAR NOW as usual after a big dancing night, I pulled out that wee sweet from lunch. I unwrapped it to find it was more or less exactly like Scottish tablet, which was such a perfect thing, because there’s always tablet at Lindy events in Edinburgh. SUGAR FUEL. It was like Edinburgh was taking care of me from far away, and the universe was saying ‘well fucking done you for sticking with it even when you were terrified’. HOORAY FOR DANCING.

Not sure if the Chinese have their own version of tablet, but I’m definitely looking forward to dancing in Beijing, which should be my next chance in a few weeks’ time.

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