Dancing in Durham

Vennels cafe envelopes me with the comforting warmth of baking and breakfasting bodies after a brisk early morning walk into the city by the Wear from my hotel. Park runners had joined river rowers along the brooding steel river and the watery strip buzzed with heavy breathing and barked commands from boat chauffeured coxes. T shirted jellied moobs and bouncing boobs overtopped lycra legs as sightless feet padded the riverbank, owners inhabiting another world of persistence encouraged by a headphoned playlist of pace and inspiration.

The cafe, already busy with the other early risers in search, instead, of breakfast, brought chat and welcome. First name terms with customers were traded over the counter and illness symptoms and royalty conversations jostled for space amongst enormous freshly baked scones at the tables. My porridge had been gloriously anointed with plump blueberries, raspberries and some curious sugared walnuts which, in the oaty mix, were delicious. A splash of cream lifted the bowlful into heavenly perfection and time just stopped.

Persuading a warmly satisfied body back into cold morning city streets and dancing activity at the town hall was another matter. Surely time would be better spent curled up with a latte and a newspaper? Instead walking feet reshod in dancing shoes, I let the music and partner leads bring Lindy Hop muscle memory back to life. And the day gently shifted a gear.

As a follower, the workshops involve pairing with a lead to practice the new steps and moves our teachers bring. About 15 couples stand in a large circle around our Spanish and German tutors. We practice a move for a minute or so then the leads move on to the next follower and the process is repeated a few times until the teachers decide we’re all ready to move onto another step. It’s hard hot work transforming what we’ve seen into our own footwork, gallons of water are consumed over the sessions and there is much chat and giggles as left and right feet forget their true identity

After 90 minutes I have already reached 10000 steps and my brain is spinning.

Durham Castle

“You coming to the fancy footwork taster?” Graeme asks. We had just made a reasonable job of putting together all the new steps in the short practice session after the workshop.

“Mmm, I was going to find some lunch actually,” I replied, head down, fingers arguing with the knot in my shoelace. I looked at my watch. The porridge was still on active duty. Refuelling could wait a little longer. It had been that particular taster workshop that had, after all, caught my interest in the schedule.

“You heading over there now?” I asked.

Graeme nodded.

“We’ll have to get our skates on, it starts in a few minutes,” he confirmed. Rucksack still unpacked, I just grabbed everything and we headed into the market place, destination Elvet Methodist church.

“Aren’t you cold?” Graeme looked at me in amusement. I was still in sleeveless summer top and jeans mode having worked up a substantial head of steam over the last 2 hours. The idea of a few minutes letting winter air refresh me was delightful although we walked at such a pace the cooling effect was negligible. I was still hot on arrival at the church and my brain was beginning to be partially fried.

I went exploring – inside Durham cathedral

Teacher Paul introduced us to some different step variations as the “try it then move partner” method resumed. On any social dance floor, this is effectively the Lindy Hop version of speed dating; lead and follow know they have the length of a swing or jazz track to do something unforgettable with the music and then move on, no questions asked or expected. The only subconsciously agreed agenda is to connect so that the moves flow into a pleasing dance.

Generally the lead determines the moves and the order. Some are well known such as lindy circle, swing outs and pass bys and a follower will be familiar with the lead’s body language that signals those particular steps. However, we all come from geographically different dance camps where small variations in standard moves and a whole bag of additional ideas are added to the mix. Pair us up and, three minutes later, the mysterious and magical has happened: the reading of hot and sweaty body language with a healthy dose of grace and good humour results in memorable dancing that is never as expected and always fun.

After an hour of nifty footwork the porridge had run out and I put dancing on pause for the remainder of the afternoon as I sought out lunch and a rest. It isn’t just the physical expenditure that needs restoring but also the focus and concentration span. The brain works hard and, over a Cafedral salad best navigated with servers rather than knife and fork, I let my mind wander and ponder and drift. Its only remaining decision making involved cake, which came easy to a well practised eye and a hungry tummy.

The day concluded with a 20s themed Masquerade Ball in Durham Town Hall’s Great Hall. No awkward bopping round handbags in a cavernous empty space here. The floor was rammed with Peaky Blinders and fabulously blinged masked molls strutting their stuff to the Shirt Tail Stompers. Cats were the only thing that couldn’t be swung with every inch filled by movement and smiles; new and old skills finding their place under years of city history.

It was a sight to behold and to celebrate; where else can you forget life’s vagaries for a wee while on just dance and tap water? Oh, and cake.

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