It was an ordinary evening of 1960 winter, in one of my favourite cities on Earth – post – war Germany’s capital Berlin. It was February and perhaps no one remembers if there was snow, yet given that back at the day the winters were cold and Global Warming had not reached it’s peak yet, I would like to imagine it was a snowy and cold evening.
On that particular snowy evening, in a western part of Berlin you could see some couples in their fancy suits and dresses, rushing to the hall to listen to Ella Fitzgerald nightingale’s voice accompanied by Paul Smith on a piano.
Even though Ella’s start of the career was not that smooth, by that time she already counted more than 30 years of jazz and bebop in her “tiny yellow basket” and could be totally proud of performing with such big names and Chick Webb, Benny Goodman Orchestra, Duke Ellington and later, wonderful Louis Armstrong.
That evening Ella was preparing a great program for all misters and their mistresses, who impatiently and joyfully waited for a Queen of Song to start.
Here she goes, she sings, they clap.
The next song on a line up is “Mack the knife”. This song, originally written in 1928 for the opera performance in Berlin, was slow to catch it’s success. Originally written in German, “Mack the knife” was a brutal, Marxist – views influenced piece. Only later in the 60s after Louis Armstrong added his touch to the translated and jazzy version of the song, and Bobby Darin turned it into the swing song, it acquired an international success and a legacy of many covers of “Mack the knife” around the world.
And here on a stage stood Ella Fitzgerald, in Berlin, where the history of “Mack” originally begun.
The orchestra has started playing the next melody and Ella introduced the song: “We have something special for you tonight, you haven’t heard the girl sing it, but it is so popular we would like to try and do it for you. We hope we remember all the words”.
Have you ever experienced the feeling where someone says to you something like “don’t think about a blue ball, just don’t think about a blue ball” and all you can do is think about a blue ball just because of that someone saying it?
That must have happened to Ella herself. Yes, she forgot the words of one of the biggest hits of that time (Live performance here).
But the reason I am telling all this, is because of how Ella hold space for her “failure”. Instead of blushing and falling to pieces she owned it and started improvising with such confidence and humour that the audience was left in awe:
“Oh what’s the next chorus, to this song, now
This is the one now, I don’t know
But it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune
So we tried to do Mack the Knife
Ah, Louis Miller, oh, something about cash
Yeah, Miller, he was spending that trash
And Macheath dear, he spends like a sailor
Tell me, tell me, tell me could that boy do, something rash?
Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did
And now Ella, Ella, and her fellas
We’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife”
And so she went on, improvising the song until the last chord. “You won’t recognise it, it is a surprise hit” Ella sang, and the audience just witnessed something grand, indeed.
Years later Ella won two Grammys for this performance and till date it remains one of the most popular versions of “Mack the knife”.
This song is one of my favourite swing tunes. And one ordinary Friday night I was deep diving in swing dance, secretly smiling to myself, thinking about Ella’s “fuck up” when some interesting sudden thought hit upon me: “I also failed but my reaction to it wasn’t as graceful”.
When I arrived to Malaysia, people started asking me “How long have you been dancing?” It was a question hard to answer, as I dropped out of swing twice. Worse, I dropped out because of shame. This dance wasn’t easy to learn for me and the steps did not come naturally, opposite to a common first impression. I struggled to memorise the basics and even more, to ask someone to dance. I remember those awkward Friday nights where I used to stand with my back against the wall, overlooking the dance floor and feeling tragically terrible about me standing there alone. I had no group friends and barely knew anyone. A good friend of mine at that time, was a high – class dancer with many years of experience but I was to shy to ask him to dance with me. I did not want to “ruin his evening”.
To ask anyone else to dance seemed like an unbearable task. So I just stood there, making things even worse and convincing myself that all the other people, who are not dancing are secretly looking and laughing at my solitude.
I did not do much to change things, even though I felt that my soul is singing when I dance. It was easier to quit. And try again, and quit again because “it didn’t feel right”.
I am glad it turned out this way. This strong flowing sense of “not – enoughness” daunted me for a long time and yes, I am glad I felt this way.
Because when I returned to the dance floor the 3rd time, I knew, that if I am going to do the same thing again, I will never come back to Swing dancing. EVER. And so in my very first social, after two years of break in between, I came up to the guys I did not know and asked to dance. That night I made a fool of myself several times. And several times I won.
Looking back at all this time from “the return” till now, through that confidence and assertive initiative I won several friends that I aim to keep for a lifetime.
I won a new hobby.
Fast forward to the night dancing to “Mack the knife”, I understood how many limitations in dance still hold me back. I was still afraid people watching me. I was afraid to learn from dancing with a better partner. I was afraid of doing the “wrong move”.
So that night after uncovering this truth, I once again chose to do something about it. It was that night when my swing teachers truth finally sinked in: “Don’t be afraid to experiment, if you make a mistake, it will be not a mistake, but rather a new move. Austeja’s move.”
What a great sense of freedom. To make your own move, to choose dancing between the established and the newly created. This was exactly what Ella did with “Mack the knife” that snowy February in Berlin. And won the Grammys.
I like to believe I won my “Grammys” too. I believe these were several trips – to Thailand, and to the Great Wall of China. It was my readiness to dance with people I haven’t met before, to fail, slip, improve and create my own moves.
You know, recently I measured my improvement of reaction to failure: While in Lithuania, I was dancing with a guy, who spun me too strong and I tripped. I fell so hard, horizontally across the room, that it seemed that other couples stopped dancing. The guy just kept saying “Oh my God. OH my God”. Funnily enough, not because he cared if I’m alright. He was ashamed that someone could do such shame for him. And then I started laughing, so hard and strong, it seemed like Ella’s confident laughter while creating her version of ‘Mack”, was transmitted to me.
I was ok. Mostly mentally. I was glad that I did not quit out of shame. I simply created another funky move.