Monday, July 19, 2010

How The Lindy Hop Set the Pulse for Megan Staffel's Lessons in Another Language

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Megan Staffel, author of Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books), discusses the influence of dancing on her writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I’ve been learning the Lindy Hop, a partner dance from the years before World War Two, when couples danced to big bands in local dance halls in towns and cities across America. Even in my little town in western New York, there is a long, low wooden building next to a main road that was the dance hall. Every weekend it was filled with live music. The big bands that were traveling between Manhattan and Chicago would stop there on the weekends. Now it’s an auto junkyard.

The lindy hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem where the best dancers turned it into a visually stunning acrobatic form. Over the years, as it was adapted and translated by the general culture, the aerials were dropped and the dance was simplified into what we call swing. Both swing and Lindy Hop disappeared after the war, but now both have resurfaced, and once again, couples doing the Lindy fill the bars and dance spaces of American cities. Unlike swing, where the lead (typically the male) and the follow (typically the female) dance close and in unison, the lead and follow in the Lindy dance more independently. They come together and then move away, and that rubber band compression and expansion is the signature move. It’s a fluid move, but it’s not relaxed; there is a taut energy between the partners that’s further pressured by the eight count musical phrase. Really great Lindy dancers can accentuate this structure, the eight count measure, and dissolve it, so that it goes from being a pattern that limits expression to a pattern that creates expression. It makes me understand, on a physical level, that when opposites are brought together in a small, tightly controlled space in narrative, and a pattern is established that gets repeated, the result is a raw, explosive energy.

In the Lindy, the dancers have a relationship with the floor. That is, they’re not upright, they’re slightly bent. All of the movement happens in the lower body, in the hips, legs, and feet. The eight beat phrase imposes the boundaries. It creates the underlying pulse that everyone feels. That pulse has been the most challenging thing for me to learn, but as I try to bring it into my feet, I feel as though I am tapping into the very world I imagine in my fiction, one where there’s a thread of lightness and humor winding through the starker realities of life.

Different dances express different emotions. For instance, if the tango is about seduction, the fox trot about calm and order, then the Lindy Hop is about laughter. In my most recent collection, Lessons in Another Language, humor is present in even the darkest stories. That’s been the unexpected and welcome carryover from my dancing. It’s created a ripple or pulse of humor and lightness in my work. And it’s opened my eyes to that same quality in other writers.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
There has been a lot of focus lately on the linked story collection where characters and settings reappear and a narrative thread is established. But lately, I have been more interested in stories where the linkage comes about in a different, less obvious way, where the stories express a linkage in theme. In two really fine story collections, Michael Parker’s Don't Make Me Stop Now and Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes, humor is what articulates the level of desperation the characters feel. It is another example of the way opposites create energy. Compressed into the small space of a story, the character who is compelled to make light of an uncomfortable situation by turning it into a joke, makes the reader feel two things simultaneously, the sadness that pushes these particular lives out of kilter and the possibility for laughter. Here’s what I mean: In Parker’s “What Happens Next,” sixteen year old Charlie Yancey is compressed into the small space of the car with his dead grandmother, but really it’s a moment when he’s alone with his father and as he hears the familiar litany of disappointment, he knows what he will do next. With devastating calm, he turns the situation into the very thing that will inspire the most parental disapproval.

Like Yancey, the narrator in Eisenberg’s “The Flaw in the Design,” calmly steps into a role that is so reckless it’s breathtaking. Afterwards, when she returns to her very proper life, the reader tries to fit the two halves of her existence together, but they won’t mesh and that disparity informs everything. The stories in these collections are threaded with the absurd; this is the humor that links them.