No Shortcuts To The Top

Here’s a quirky little fact about me; I love reading about mountain climbing.  Bouldering, 8000 meter peak epics, Nepal, Everest, K2, The Eiger Wall, and The White Spider are just a few of my favorite subjects.  I’m mildly obsessed.  For whatever reason I am enthralled by the journey, internally and externally, of those who risk their lives to reach the highest peaks and scale the most technical climbs in the world.

I think in many ways mountain-climbing parallels high-level dancing, maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it.  Both pursuits require determination, discipline, and practice.  Both are beautiful.  I think I like ballroom better because I don’t have to risk my very existence to explore my vulnerabilities and limitations.  I am challenged quite enough two and a half inches off the floor, thank you very much! Lol.

Anyways, one mountaineer-author I particularly enjoy (there are many) is Ed Viesturs.  You may recall him from the IMAX movie about Everest (which rocked my world in high school when I saw it on that eight-story screen – seriously, Khumbu Icefall?  You may pee your pants seeing how they traverse it using aluminum ladders lashed together to cross cravasses) and the 1996 Mount Everest disaster documented in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”  He’s a world-class high-altitude athlete and he is the first American to summit all 14 of the 8000-meter-er’s – the 14 highest mountains on Earth.  As you might imagine, it’s an exclusive club.

Things I appreciate about Ed are that he is pragmatic, level-headed, he trains like a madman, he climbs with an ethos, and he lives by the credo, “Getting to the top is optional, returning home is compulsory.” He pushes his personal limits while at the same time lives in a personally responsible manner.  He even takes on further responsibility when others are in need around him because that’s who he is.

Well, anyways, I’ve enjoyed reading about Ed’s pursuits and I’ve learned a lot about being human from his books (as well as other mountaineers).  Honestly, I think that is why they do such extreme feats – to get to the core of their selves, to come right up against their limitations, demons, and boundaries, and to test their mettle, to discover who they are.

I’m no adrenaline junkie, but I can relate to the journey of self-discovery.  For me, as I’ve mentioned before, dance is my practice.  It is my walking, moving, bodily meditation.  It helps me integrate all aspects of self: mind, body, spirit, physical, anatomical, atomic, subatomic, and energetic.  It also helps me connect with myself, others, the universe, God.  I am a drop in the ocean and the entire ocean in a drop.  I can go just as deeply into myself through dance as Ed does when he climbs high into the clouds.  In a way, we are on the same journey, it just looks different externally.  Internally, we are coming up against our core selves with every step.

This is why I came to Damir.

This is the work we are doing.

It is deeply personal and internal.  And it’s a big shift.  And that’s why I haven’t felt so much like blogging about every new awareness, because they are coming at light-speed.  It’s like drinking from a fire-hydrant. And I’m not even sure I could explain or describe the work we are doing, anyways.  It’s beyond dancing.  It’s beyond the movements.  It’s the metaphor of the dancing and it is the actual dancing, and it is so much more at the same time.

Everything is changing.

It’s not obvious.

People are going to be able to tell that I have changed when I’m through on the other side of this leg of the journey, but they may not know what I did exactly.

This is the work I am doing with Damir.  It is all of the invisible stuff, all of the internal dancing that happens between sinew, muscle, bone, and energy.  It is rewiring my neurons to fire differently.  It is retraining my muscle memory and placing my awareness in long-neglected cells of my body, in forgotten pockets of DNA.  It is changing my structure, my elasticitity.  It is allowing me to be stable and to stretch.  It is helping me find beauty in opposition, for only in using opposing forces can we move.

I’m learning it isn’t actually ideal to be completely balanced 100% because if you are, there is absolutely no movement; there is only stillness.  To create movement, there must be an imbalance, even if it is ever-so-slight.  And with this new level of rooting deep into the earth, this new level of stability, my bodily movement is so much more under my control, I can be so much more deliberate about it. Trust me, there’s still lots of work to do, but already it is improved exponentially.

This work changes everything.  It is transforming me and I will emerge on a different level.  From the outside, it looks like nothing has changed, or even maybe that I’ve “regressed” because it is so “ordinary,” as Damir puts it.  But I know the truth.  I know that internally I will never be the same.

Here’s a good analogy; I don’t care if you have a Rolex dripping in diamonds if it fails to tell accurate, reliable time, if it fails to fulfill its purpose.  I’d take a practical Casio calculator watch over it any day.  The faulty Rolex, however, is shiny and appears beautiful on the outside.  Dancing can be like this.  Right now I’m working to become a Casio.

With Damir, I’m learning to balance my Yin and Yang energies, my Masculine and Feminine.

I’m learning to stand on my own feet

I’m learning to hold and control my own space.

I’m learning to be present.

I have not learned any specific new dancing technique.  I have not learned one new step or one new way to style my arms.  I have not danced anything more than Rumba boxes, forward and back steps, delayed steps, hip turns or spirals.  No new figures.  No routines.  Only fundamentals.  They apply to EVERYTHING.  It is AWESOME.

I totally trust that I’ve made the correct move. This is exactly where I need to be.

I miss Ivan and I do hope we can partner again.  That’s mostly up to him.  I’m committed to do my work regardless.  But I have a deep knowingness that Damir is a coach, not a partner, at least at this point in time.  I also have a deep knowingness that I have no need to worry about this, that the right person will show up when I’m ready and he’s ready, be it Ivan, or no.

So that’s what’s going on with me.  I’ve no competitions in my sights.  I am committed to doing the work. And the work is, well, mundane, ordinary, and basic.  It is learning my body, feeling it spatially, and understanding how it works.  I’m honing my instrument in a way I’ve never had access to before.

I feel settled. If that even makes any sense.  I feel grounded and secure.  And I need this like no kidding to stretch beyond my current limitations.  That is part of why I had to make the change.  I could go no further without finding my center.  I needed a space where it was safe to explore my shortcomings.  With Damir, it’s encouraged.  We bring my imbalances to light and in this way dissolve them.

The work I’m doing is to find and embody the paradox; to find the stillness, calmness, steadiness in the frenzied movement of a Cha-Cha.  In this way I can be my most authentic self.  What a blessing to have found a guide and coach for this next leg of the journey.  I am becoming who I am, a little closer to my authentic self every day.

Dancing cannot fail to change a person if they take it up as their practice.  It is as potent and transformative as any practice, be it Yoga, or Soccer, Bible study or Mountain climbing.

And just like in Mountain climbing, I’m discovering that there are no short cuts to the top.  This is the title of one of Ed’s books and I think it reflects his philosophy, and a truth of life.  I am grateful to be in the place where I’m ready, willing, and able to do the work.  For me, it looks like this: eating clean, getting workouts in, continuing consistent coaching with Damir, practicing the basics.  It looks like putting in the time, doing the mundane process, and repeating until complete.  There are no short cuts to a body fat percent of 20% or less, or a balanced spiral turn.  There are no elevators to the top of Mount Everest.

And you know what?  Hooray for that!  I’m coming to know who I am more and more deeply and securely with each choice, with each pitfall, with each interaction.  I am building the foundation of who I am so as to be unshakeable.  And I’m not only after knowing who I am, I’m after loving who I am, reveling in who I am!  I’m going to get to be me, 100% me and I can’t wait.

Hooray for no longer striving and pushing and going to extremes.  Hooray for settling into do the work. It may take time, but time is going to pass anyways.  It’s simply up to me to be a consistent Casio, at this point.  Tic toc tic toc tic toc…..and soon enough the humble yet reliable Casio will be worthy of adorning the trappings of a Rolex.

It’s A Bitch!

Oh my gosh, guys!  It went so great with Damir today!  Yay!  I feel so good about my decision and totally that I am in the right place right now.  He’s just exactly the teacher I need at this point and I think it’s a case of that saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I love how conveniently located his studio is.  That was a nice perk this morning.  We are scheduled to dance three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next month.  I’m excited about having a regular schedule, which may sound odd, and for a while I really loved being so freewheeling with Ivan, but for now being consistent will move me forward more effectively, I think.

Also, I loved probably every second of my lesson.  I was a little bit nervous as I walked in the door but Damir quickly put me at ease.  He’s a total pro and so comfortable in his role.  He asked me what I wanted to work on, Rhythm or Latin, and I was like, well probably both, but I guess he doesn’t do Smooth or Standard.  That’s okay with me, at least for now.  I am very happy to focus on the other two styles.

So he was all, “Why don’t we do a basic Rumba box,” and I was like, “Great!”  I was glad to keep it simple.  And he had told me during our conversation on Friday last week that our first lessons would not be very physical, they would be assessments of where I am, what I understand.  Because the deal is, I have no idea what “level” I am.  I believe I come to the table with certain skills, and others are lacking.  I have some knowledge base, but there’s still so much I don’t know.  I don’t even know what I don’t know!

Anyways, we did a Rumba box and he didn’t announce it, but he began leading different steps, and I was able to follow…a cross over, an underarm turn, then something I wasn’t sure of but I interpreted as a spiral but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.  lol.  But he said, “Great!  I followed you well during that Spiral, Stefanie.  You have a lot of the advanced concepts but you are missing the vertical motion.”

“Cool,” I said, hungry to learn what this mysterious vertical motion is.

I’m not sure we actually even made it to whatever that vertical motion is, but I am confident we will get there in due time.  What we did do was get back to the basics and all I can say is Hallelujah!  Damir is big on building a strong, proper foundation, and I couldn’t agree more, especially in terms of where I am with my dancing at this point.  I feel like I can’t really do much more to improve the quality of my dancing with my current skill set and knowledge, all I can do is add more decoration.  But adding more decoration isn’t what I’m after.  I’m after discovering greater control over my body, and my energy.  I’m after being able to wield my instrument more like a virtuoso.  I’m after excellence.

And as Damir says, there’s gonna be a price to pay.  Yes, of course there are the usual prices like time, energy, practice, repetition, being willing to go out of my comfort zone, and being willing to trust my new teacher and the process.  But the other price is to be willing to maybe take a step back or not progress as quickly in terms of levels of dancing, and, even more than that, to be willing to place poorly, at least initially, because I will gain confidence in what I’m doing but it might not be as flashy as before.  To me, it’s priceless to have conviction of how I danced, if I nailed it (or not), and the results are separate from that.  Well, I’m willing to take this on.  In fact, I’m excited about it.

Well, anyways, on the lesson we mostly talked about walking backwards.  It sounds so simple but, as you dancers know, a LOT is going on in even the most simple movements.  It was amazing to discover new things about how I’m stepping, why one thing works and one thing doesn’t.  It was really illuminating.  And the amazing thing about Damir, which really works for me, is that he not only talks about the physical actions, but he also talks about the energetic processes going on.  In fact, he even spoke about my Chakras!  Not your typical dance teacher, but it resonates with me.

I think most of all, Damir helped me feel centered.  He helped me to identify it physically while transferring my weight between my feet, and he also helped me settle into it, from my energetic core.  My last two steps backwards on the lesson were so solid, so centered, and he didn’t even need to look at me to know it.  We both knew it – rather, we both felt it.  And that is something to be excited about!

I think I’m going to have so much fun with Damir.  I think I’m going to discover so much about myself and my dancing with his guidance.  I’m open and ready to receive, hungry for new knowledge.  I also think it will be uncomfortable at times because I will have the opportunity to change the mechanics of how I’ve been doing things, as well as learning how to connect with a new partner.  I mean, at this point Damir feels more like a coach than a partner, and that’s totally cool.  Maybe it will always be that way with him, who knows.  Regardless of how it looks, I’m super excited about this new portion of my journey.

Damir’s also awesome because already I feel like he really sees me.  He’s observed a lot about me, how I do things, my strengths and my weaknesses.  I feel like he hears me already and already he’s been spot on regarding who and how I am even though we never really had any conversations about it.  It feels great to be recognized.

And guess what?!  I have a folder!  I was so excited when I saw it – my name is spelled correctly, and it’s so pretty, and it just feels good that we are tracking what we are doing.  Again, with Ivan it was great to be so free for a time, but now I like the idea of routine, consistency.


I love how she looks – so free and open and expressive.  Just like I want to be.  It’s the perfect color and it just makes me happy.

So by now you are probably wondering why I titled this post, “It’s a bitch” when things went so well on the lesson lol. Well, I think that’s going to be Damir’s catchphrase.  He said it about 5 times on our lesson hehe.  Basically, he acknowledges that part of the process of becoming a dancer with greater quality and more internal movement is a pain in the butt!  We have to remember why we are doing that same step for the 5000th time.   But the phrase made me laugh.  It’s totally true, and I love how he calls a spade a spade – he’s at least as honest as Ivan ever was.

So that’s the deal, yo!  All good stuff. I’m energized about dancing again, feeling the joy, and, bonus, back on plan with my food and working out.  Things are looking up!

When it comes down to it, I’m proud of myself for making the decision I made, even though it was sad.  Good job, Stef! You’re going places!

When It’s Time To Say Goodbye

You’ve probably noticed that things have been pretty slow the last couple of months here around the Biggest Girl In The Ballroom.

I’m pretty sure I mentioned in a previous post that things have been blah.  There wasn’t much I felt like writing about.  I’ve still been chugging along but without much direction and purpose.  After my last competition the energy of things just, well, changed.  And it’s not like I can really put my finger on it.

There just wasn’t any fire on lessons with Ivan.  I thought maybe we could spark a change by trying Smooth.  Or doing a showcase routine.  I even commissioned the beginning of a dress in the hopes that we would have something to work toward.  But underneath it all, things just felt stuck.  Really stuck.  No excitement, no movement forward.  No passion.  We were just going through the motions and for me, that simply doesn’t cut it.

I thought maybe I was just depressed, or needed a break.  So I took a break.  But when I decided to have a lesson again, it was just as dead as ever.  Whatever spark or connection Ivan and I once had, it had gone, or changed, and it was apparent.  I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that sometimes we are supposed to do work with a certain person for a certain amount of time.  Sometimes relationships come to completion.  And weirdly, that’s what’s happened to me, I think.  Yes, I’m saying it.  Ivan and I are no longer going to be dancing together.  We’ve had a “divorce.”

I know, right?  It’s so weird.  I thought I’d be dancing with Ivan until I was 70 years old and gray.  He’s helped me grow so much.  He’s pulled things out of me I never knew were there.  He broke down walls I’d erected that no other person had breached before.  He has been a blessing and a gift, a mentor and a friend, a teacher and partner. I would never, ever be where I am today without the help and influence of this human being in my life, nor without that of his wife, Marieta.

Thankfully, we parted amicably.  Thankfully, we were actually on the same page when we got to talking about it.  And it’s not like there is any issue to resolve or something to “fix” – that’s not it at all.  It’s just, I have come to believe after a lot of introspection and contemplation, that we both have to grow in different ways.  And I guess we have to grow separately.

I’m sure you can imagine this has been a lot to process.  It was a surprise, though not a surprise.  I didn’t necessarily expect that last Saturday would be my last lesson with Ivan, but I guess it was, at least for the time being.  I showed up and he said, “What do you want to work on today,” and I was like, “I just want to see how it goes today,” and that started the conversation.  We talked, honestly, and toward the end we danced a little.  But it was disjointed, not connected.  It was a bittersweet goodbye.

I’m not gonna lie.  I totally cried.  But all in all, I’m mostly thankful for how it all went down.  Ivan said he was proud of the work we’ve done over the last 3 years, that other teachers would be glad to work with me, and he basically gave me his blessing to move on.  Trust me, it wasn’t all peaches and rainbows, and some of it stung, but it’s probably about as drama-free of a separation as could be.

So I took some time to grieve.  My husband was super loving and supportive and kind and took me out to dinner and a movie and let me talk it out.  He validated my decision as did a few other close friends.  I’ve been processing the ramifications of this decision for the past week.

I thought I’d take some time off from ballroom, perhaps, and get laser focused on my weight-training, workouts, and diet.  I thought maybe I wouldn’t even dance anymore, that maybe I was just done with it.  But that didn’t seem entirely correct, because it’s been such a driving force in my life and because sharing my experiences has affected so many other people.  However, I didn’t expect things to coalesce as quickly as they have.

Obviously since I wasn’t clear that I was leaving Ivan until Saturday last I wasn’t out looking for a new instructor.  However, I know most of the instructors in town that I’d be interested in working with.  The big question, then, was would they be willing or able to work with me?  Some instructors already have a dancer my age and level or have full schedules.  Not to mention different locations, prices, teaching styles, or personalities that may or may not work with mine.

In any case, I immediately thought of Damir.  I’ve written about him before since I’ve gone to a few of his workshops and he has always been a positive and supportive figure since I met him.  One of my philosophies in life is “choose and move.”   This means, take as long as necessary to “be in the question” but once you come to a decision, take urgent action.

It’s funny how things pan out, though.   I do think taking action is important and it sets things in motion.  However, it doesn’t always look exactly like we may think.  So in my case I went to Damir’s studio after Ivan and I split.  I knew they often had workshops and classes on Saturdays and thought I’d just see if Damir was available.  It turned out he wasn’t, but, I ran into on of his students who is an acquaintance of mine and told her a tiny bit of what was going on.

Since he wasn’t there, I took it as a sign to take a breather.  I thought to myself that I should just let it go, focus on getting back in integrity with my eating plan and exercise and that I was consciously going to trust the process, the Universe, the unfolding of what is happening.  So I took no further action.

A few days later, I got a Facebook message from Damir.  His student had asked him if he had talked with me, and he was like, “What?”  So he reached out to me, which was awesome.

So long story short, Damir’s going to be my new instructor.  Yay!

I’m grateful, excited, and a bit nervous to begin and tomorrow morning is our first lesson.

He’s been so awesome to me ever since I met him but what’s even more awesome about him is that he really seems to have my best interests at heart.  He’s friends with Ivan, and from conversations I’ve had with Damir, he sees a lot of himself in Ivan.  He told me, “I love Ivan.  I love you,” and I think he really does.  He, of course, had a conversation with Ivan before agreeing to teach me, and then had me come in and have a conversation as well, after we’d already talked on the phone.  I think the most endearing thing of all about Damir is that he’s still holding a vision of Ivan and I dancing in the future.  He was like, “You think you are having a divorce right now, but maybe you are not.”  Basically, he came to agree with me that for now we need to take different directions, and that he is willing to work with me during this time, but his mind is not yet made up that this is the end of Ivan and me.  Whether it is, or isn’t, I have no energy on that outcome.  But Damir remembers how Ivan and I danced and connected at People’s Choice and knows how special it is.  He promised me that he will tell me what he thinks and if he thinks I should dance with someone else in the future he’ll tell me.

I know this is a pretty big change.  When I first told my parents they were a bit panicked, I think.  They’ve seen how much Ivan’s helped me.  But this is the path that feels right.  And all this week my energy has shifted, almost immediately after the split.  I’ve had the energy and drive to do all the things I need to do to take care of myself and move me closer to my goals.  I stand by my decision and trust that this is the next evolution.  I believe my inner knowingness is guiding me and I’m choosing to go with the flow and dive right in headfirst to the next thing.

It’s been an emotional week.  But I’m glad.  I’m glad I’m no longer stuck, grateful that things have progressed so quickly, and feeling supported as I step off into the unknown.  Here’s to the next great adventure!

And of one thing I’m certain – I’ll have more to blog about!

A Graceful Badass!! Guest Post From Mel Skydancer

Hello! My name is Mel, aka Skydancer, and I feel so privileged to be guest-posting today.  Stefanie discovered me via a little TV show broadcast this year, but I discovered her over a year ago when my attention was brought to her blog through the Dance Advantage Digest that gets delivered to my inbox every week.  You’re all readers of Biggest Girl in the Ballroom, so I don’t need to say how engaging, warm and honest this blog is!  Thank you, Stefanie, for the invitation to write for your blog! So, as I’ve said, my name is Mel (known in the blogosphere as Skydancer), I’m from a small town in South Wales and I’m an aspiring Dance Artist and Dance Maker.  I’m currently doggedly pursuing a goal of entering a professional contemporary and classical ballet dance training course in London, but am facing all sorts of difficulties securing funding.  So far, so run of the mill, right?  There are thousands of fellow dancers out there who all share the same ambition of dancing professionally, and probably face the same financial difficulties, so what’s so unique about me that a guest post is warranted? Well, for starters I am thirty-one years old and I’ve been studying classical ballet for 3 years.  I used to fight semi-professional in Mixed Martial Arts/K1/Grappling, and I recently took part in a TV series called ‘Big Ballet’…. This is me:




Not your average classical ballerina, right?!  Well I don’t want to be your average classical ballerina! My passion is to start creating and performing physical Dance Theatre that incorporates elements of classical ballet.  Kind of like the neo-classical works created by Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, but with added Eastern movement practices and weaponry.  I want to challenge those physical boundaries and limitations that are placed in the way of women in dance; I want to dance powerfully, emotionally and impactfully.  But most importantly I want to engage peoples’ minds, not just to fall in love with a moving body, but to start developing curiosities and opinions about dance, particularly classical ballet.  If a female dancer is strong enough, tall enough and powerful enough to dance that way using classical technique, why can’t she? If a dancer weighs at her lightest 135 lbs and at her heaviest 155 lbs (like me!) why isn’t there room for her to perform professional in a classical way? So why do I have these strong and somewhat heretical opinions? Well, it all started at the beginning of my life….


A Mini Mover


I’ve been dancing since a little girl, although not in the typical way that most little girls did! My mother herself was a dancer and taught classes at the dance studio in my hometown, and as a toddler I would go along with her and just immerse myself in that world.  Then I became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and would try my best to copy his dance routines and practice them until I felt that they were ready for my adoring public (my bemused older brother, my mother’s gay friends, and some teddies). At one stage I would even have dance-offs with my friend, Rico, and I would be genuinely disappointed when I lost! The seeds of perfectionism develop so young! I danced in every singe school production throughout Primary and Comprehensive School and was lucky that my gym teachers also incorporated a lot of dance into physical education studies. I was also a junior athlete, specialising in 200m, 400m, and 200m hurdles.  I loved moving with power and impact, but I was obsessed with the grace and refined elegance of classical ballet. Weirdly, despite encouraging my love for classical dance by sitting me down to watch videos of Fonteyn and Nureyev, Mischa and Gelsey, Natalia Makarova, Waye Sleep and Sylvie Guillem, my mother simply wouldn’t allow me to take formal ballet classes.  I was ballet that I wanted to learn so desperately. I wanted to know what it was to move like a Firebird, to enter a stage couruing en pointe, to leap 2 meters into the air as “le Corsaire’s’ Ali and to extend and dance out like Guillem herself. I didn’t want to stay on the ground, I wanted to stretch and fly! Yet, despite pleadings and pleadings it simply wasn’t to be. I contented myself with being able to dance and move as much as possible, and clearly showed potential for it as I was invited to audition for a stage school about 30 minutes from my hometown. Despite initially seeming happy for me to do it, within a day my mother soon changed her mind. I will never have the opportunity to ask my mother why she was so reluctant to let me develop as a dancer at that crucial ‘right’ time because she passed away after battling with cervical cancer in 1998. Having experienced the effects of the same mental illness that plagued her (Bipolar Disorder, Type I) I am in a position where I often analyse her behaviour and life choices.  Relations with here were always fractured and tempestuous; at moments she had so much love for my brother and me that it would consume her. But then just as quickly her mood would darken and she would say and do things to hurt us. My birth father was violent and abusive, and it doubt had a sever effect on the way she raised us.  Her relationship with her second husband wasn’t that much better and she never seemed to be fully equipped to raise two intelligent, creative and empathetic children. At times I allow myself to wonder what my dance career would have been like had she only said ‘yes’, but that’s a fantasy and a dream and wherever possible I try to live my life now, in the moment.


Moody Teen


I didn’t deal very well with my mother’s death, just as I didn’t deal with her illness; I was 15 years old and going through a pretty difficult time with my own mental health.  Nine months after she died I managed to scrape through my GCSE exams by the skin of my teeth and applied, auditioned and was accepted into a Performing Arts course at my local college.  I was exposed to more training and development in jazz and modern, but never classical ballet, and was also given the creative freedom to start playing with my own choreographic ideas (even though the results were pretty dreadful!) I was content to be dancing around, singing when I wasn’t dancing, and studying stagecraft when I wasn’t doing either!  My grand career plan at 16 was to graduate from college, move to London and start work as a jobbing dancing in musical theatre. I was well aware that I wouldn’t make it as a classical ballet dancer, but I certainly believed I had the  potential to reach as high as performing in ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom’ on a West End stage! Even though I had managed to create this opportunity to dance, my mental health was spiralling further and further out of my control. Not long after graduation things came to a head, the boy I was in love with broke my heart and I had also lost my maternal grandmother a year after my mother’s death. My brother, too, was struggling and we both ended up being hospitalised around the same time. This was the first time I ended up on a mental health ward, dosed up on mood stabilisers to numb my energy but the treatment I received there set off a pattern which affected my physical health too. When I was released a few months later I was bloated, out of shape and probably the lowest I would ever be. I had only just turned 19, but I convinced myself that I was too fat and too old to pursue my dreams of moving to London. So I turned my back on dance, becoming angry and resentful. And there was only one thing I could do with that anger, and that was to let it lead me onto a warrior’s path.


Mel the Fighter


I needed to move and felt an instinctive pull towards competing in the ring and the octagon. As much as I had admired strong dancers in my youth, Bruce Lee was also a complete inspiration to me (he himself was a champion Cha-Cha dancer) and martial arts seemed like a natural fit. I had dabbled in some Judo and kickboxing classes in my teens, so I started doing more than dabbling.  I never really had a specific reason for wanting to fight; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I am very much an all or nothing type of person and like to do things fully, and fighting seemed like the ultimate progression when training in martial arts. So I started learning as many arts as I could to equip myself as a well-rounded warrior!


bjj Mel


Dance was so connected to my emotions, walking away from it meant that I could also walk away from having to deal with my mental health. Instead I could obsess over my physical body, conditioning it to take blows and take-downs, hardening my muscles and developing even more power and explosiveness in my legs. I was obsessed with making myself strong, pushing myself through conditioning workouts that would make even Rocky weep! I was no longer human; I was a machine with a single purpose – to be the most powerful. Period. I handled full-time work to fund my training and spent every weekend in the gym. I had no need for human comfort and compassion, I knew how to get my physical needs met and my brother was the only one who I trusted to have a real emotional connection with. Ironically even though I was studying the philosophical side of Martial Arts through the practice of Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, I wasn’t paying any sort of mindful attention to that. For me it was all about the physically, I’d shut up my emotions and toughened up my armour.


Mel Kayo


Returning to Dance


Even though I was focused on conditioning myself, all I was doing was wearing my body out. And because I was pushing myself physically I was pushing myself mentally. Yes I was competing and enjoying some success, but I wasn’t able to sustain and perform properly. I wasn’t functioning! I realised after watching a performance of ‘Cleopatra’ by the Northern Ballet that I had to try and get back into dance again. I had been able to take contemporary classes and some salsa classes on downtime from training so wasn’t completely removed from it. But my heart was calling out for ballet, and though it took some courage I did walk into an adult ballet class and started to move from my soul. Yes, I was approaching thirty, yes I had the physique of a fighter not a slender sylph but I could dance. I had lovely feedback from my ballet teacher who was impressed not just with my physical capacity for movement but the quality and expression that I could deliver when dancing. And I was focused; just as I spent hours training the same jab combination on the pads or the same wing tsun combination on the wooden dummy I poured that same enthusiasm and dedication into learning how to plie, how to tendu, how to develope a leg, how to dance en pointe. I knew my body could do these things; I just didn’t have the muscle memory to execute them. Learning ballet technique also complimented my martial arts training; I became faster and more grounded in the ring instead of being blindly aggressive. I started to wonder about where I could take my potential as a dancer, I knew joining the Royal Ballet was out, but would there be room for me in a community dance group (if such things existed) and how could I learn the techniques and tools to bring structure to the dances that I created in my head? An opportunity to take the RAD’s Grade 6 Ballet exam came up at the same time as an opportunity to fight fora UK title in K1, so I chose the exam over the fight and was awarded a Distinction for my efforts. My Martial Arts training gradually slowed down, now my time was taken up with performances with my dance studio. I was happy just dancing around again, and I was making real connections within myself and with other people.


Mel 2013 Waving!


C2D 2012 - Ballet


(third from right)


On stage


As I shed my inner armour my body started to get leaner and lighter. The increased focus on ballet and Pilates developed longer, leaner muscles in my legs. I was still incredibly physical, with wide shoulders and that dynamic movement quality more commonly seen in male dancers. But I was moving with freedom, jumping higher and faster, extending longer and opening out. I revelled in it, feeling healthy and happy.


Mel 2012


I wish I could say that was the start of my career, but sadly it wasn’t. After about 6 months of completely stopping my Martial Arts training and conditioning my body I got a bit lazy and I gained weight. It wasn’t masses, just a few kilos, but my obsession over that affected my eating habits and my mood. Again. I went back on the medication to make managing life easier, but I still hadn’t figured out the best way to condition myself as a dancer let along how to handle the changes that Lithium causes to my body. I was sad and getting heavier, I went from UK  size 10 (US size 6) to a size 14 (US size 10) and convinced myself again that I was too old and fat to be a professional dancer.


Big Ballet


And that’s what led me to participating in ‘Big Ballet’. I saw this advert one day Facebook: bIG bALLET (1)


and after talking it over with my ballet teacher and friend I sent off my audition clip and rearranged a meeting with one of the producers to discuss the show in more depth. It sounded like the ideal training and performance opportunity for me and I let my imagination run wild with visions of rigorous dance training, conditioning and nutrition advice. I met the producer and we got on like a house on fire, and had a great discussion about how important it is to show different types of dancers. I was concerned that it would be another ‘fat Reality TV’ show, but she convinces me that it was more about challenging stereotypes and that I should be a good fit for the process since I was so strong and physically capable. I imagined that the resulting ‘Swan Lake’ production would be just as impactful as Matthew Bourne’s, and I fully believed that in 6 months I could be trained to execute a professional level performance. I knew I had achieved so much just dancing in community performances and with a few hours dance classes a week. Six months intense training seemed to me that it would be a good career development opportunity as much as a chance to showcase the full potential of different physical types of dancers. Unfortunately my naive enthusiasm was a little mis-guided! It was clear from a few weeks into the process that my ideas of the show were not shared with my fellow participants; the two mentors (Monica Loughman and Wayne Sleep) hired to deliver the show and the production company. I come from a background of serious training, dedication and graft and was genuinely shocked that the other dancers picked didn’t have that same mindset. Since I first started ballet in 2011 I had worked with a number of teachers and choreographers, including an ex-professional dancer who had trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School! All of them treated me as a dancer, they would correct me and reign me in or push me when needed, but to them I was in their class for a reason, In ‘Big Ballet’ I was just seen as a plus-sized amateur. Wayne and Monica had no idea of my past achievements in dance and Martial Arts, and the continuous presence of the TV cameras made me feel incredibly wary about sharing my dance truth. I didn’t want to be mocked and I didn’t want to be yet another sob story. I closed myself up again, gritted my teeth and forced myself to see the process out. But I’m glad I did, because even though the experience of filming etc. wasn’t the one I hoped for, going through that process made me even more firm in my resolve to pursue a professional dance career. When filming ended I started to take action to get my body under control again, to stablilse my moods and to find, or if necessary, to create opportunities in which I could dance.


New Opportunities


At the start of 2014 I was hired by a UK contemporary dance company to work with them as a supporting dance artist for a major BBC TV drama. I got to dance every day for a week and met some professional actors who I greatly admire. I also took part in a UK exhibition that challenged the notions of female sexuality, and got to display my strength and elegance as a moving body that interacted with the crowd. Yes, I felt certain that a dance career was possible for me, but I also knew that I had a long way to go in terms of my training and development before I could really get it started.


Mel with Hype Dance


(I’m kneeling on the left)


So I started applying for professional training courses at major dance institutions in the UK. There were quite a few ‘no’s’ to begin with, but the audition experience in itself was valuable. I made connections, got exposure to different styles of contemporary dance and also go to appreciate my own strengths more. In May I auditioned for the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance, the first training audition that resulted in a ‘yes’! I felt relieved and happy, but I didn’t take into account the complications I would face trying to secure funding. So I’ve had to apply for new courses and think of alternate routes that I can get the training that I need, but I’ve been doing so with a positive mindset. I am passionate about dance, it is as vital to me as my breath, and I am pursuing it with as much courage as I can muster. I’m not ‘there’ yet, wherever that may actually be, but I am on my way to getting there. I am a warrior and will probably always be on the battlefield, and my path is littered with losses and victories. I’ve had my  fair share of losses so far, and am hopeful that I will be getting victories soon even if they are hard-won.


The F Word


Anyway, enough about me! The biggest impact that ‘Big Ballet’ has had, and the one that I am most grateful for, is that people across the globe are now talking and discussing bodies, dance, health and mindsets. Funnily enough before taking part in the process I never personally defined dancers as fat or thin just as I never defined people by their race. I’ve come across dancers who were bigger than me and smaller than me, but they’ve just been dancers to me! Anyone, of any age, gender, size, colour, or sexuality who walks into a space and starts dancing is exactly that – a dancer. Sure, there are opportunities that are only available to certain ‘types’ of dancers, but that shouldn’t stop anyone who has the passion to move and develop themselves mentally and physically from doing it. I do believe that you look like what you do, I’m proof of that! Ballet dancers look like ballet dancers because they train every day, same for boxers, marathon runners, and gymnasts. Nobody should be prevented from walking into a ballet class or workshop or taking part in a performance just because they don’t already ‘look’ like the typical finished body. Dance is an art form, even though it is aesthetic and athletic, and what a person can give with their heart and with their soul is just as relevant as what a superb physical specimen can do with their body. Dancing regularly will change your physical appearance, but it will also develop your emotional intelligence and can help you to enrich your life. It is something that needs to be open to anyone who wants to learn, the fears of not fitting in are only fears, and they aren’t always reality. As far as professional careers go, I also think ‘Big Ballet’ might help to be a catalyst for aspirational dancers who don’t fit the mould to go out there and carve their own career paths. I’m doing it, it’s not easy and there are moments when you doubt yourself and think that you should just give up. But if you’re anything like me you know that giving up on your dance ambitions is like giving up on life itself, so you have to keep going,. Your journey might not exactly be the one you hoped for as a dreamy child, but if you work hard enough and keep pushing through those blockages and barriers you can pursue and achieve your dreams. Mel challenge


Amazing story, isn’t it!?  If you’ve been inspired as much as I have, you can support Mel as she pursues her goals via her GoFundMe account

Follow her on Twitter: here @MelMAOW

Follow her on Facebook: here

Read her blog: here

Still Alive And Kicking

I’ve been in a funk, my friends, when it comes to my dancing and my weight loss journey.

But I’ve still been dancing, even if sporadically, even if schedules have changed, classes have been rearranged.

I’m having a new dress made, for Smooth.

I’m doing a showcase in August and a competition in September.

I’m still a chunky monkey but I’ve started doing Orange Theory for cardio and I think it’s going to help.

And I have a wonderful surprise for you tomorrow – a new guest post.  Trust me, you will not want to miss this one.  It’s truly an incredible story and I’m so excited and honored to share it with you.

Then, yes, this is my blog and all and I’ll write a post.  I’ll fill you in on what’s been going on.  But I thought you might like to know I’m still breathing…I’m too pooped to write more than this tonight after an hour of OT and Igor kicking my butt for an hour after that in Latin class.  Seriously, I’m going to sleep like a log tonight.

Oh!  And thank you so much Sweet Baby Meg from Less Thighs More Thunder for the awesome Very Inspiring Blogger Award and kind comment.  I will address it in the near future.

“See” you tomorrow,



Guest post: On finding a new partner

Originally posted on The Reinvented Lass:

You all know how much I enjoy Stef’s blog. She is such a great writer, and her journey is super inspiring! She has been through a few dance teachers, so I asked her to write a post on her experience with that. I wanted to see what her experience has been because sometimes it’s helpful to know what others have experienced. And hearing how someone worked through it is good too. Each of us has our own experiences when changing teachers, and here’s her story…


I woke up from an uneasy dream and I just knew it was over. After a couple weeks of cancelled lessons and rescheduled lessons, after we had completed our first competition together, after I’d bought a dress and made it through blisters and tears, and at a time when I was really getting into this ballroom thing, ready to step it up to…

View original 1,460 more words

Last Minute Comp! Say What?

Yesterday when I went to my lesson Ivan and I had a heart to heart.  I think Tony Meredith was a good influence on him.  They talked about the fact that nobody ever feels ready but if we wait to feel ready we’d never do anything.  They talked about how important it is to practice the mental aspects of competing as much as it is to practice the technique.  They talked about how you’ll never be younger than you are now.  They talked about how important it is to not regret – the importance of going after you goals in the now.

Anyways, it shifted something in Ivan.  He’s got a new outlook and is keen to compete and be seen more often with Marieta.  It seems to be paying off.  They did so much better last week in Atlanta and, even better than their placement, were the comments from judges afterward.  They really feel like this is their year.  If they are going to do anything, their goal is to be finalists, it’s gotta be now.

And it’s lucky for me, too.  Because the shift helped Ivan re-think things with us as well.  He realized that he actually did want to dance with me.  Both of us had had the mentality that we didn’t want to show up until I was closer to “perfect” – that I was more thin, that’s the biggest hang up, but we’ve had such a good time on our lessons lately, I’ve been so mentally relaxed and moving so much more and feeling more secure in our routines because we’ve been practicing them so much, well I felt like we could dance in a competition next week if we wanted to.  The only thing stopping us was my fat.

The main reason we didn’t want to compete and haven’t was because we didn’t want to feel like we did at our most recent competition.  A lot of that had to do with feeling insecure, and, a big portion of that had to do with Ivan’s thoughts as much as they did with mine.  Because when he’s feeling proud and good about showing me off we tend to do well.  When he’s stressed out, feeling bad because I’m the fat one and we’re focusing on that, then we do more poorly.

The reality is I’m still not where I want to be physically.  But, on the flip side, I’m in better shape.  We practiced doing rounds tonight and I was able to handle it.  The Orange Theory cardio has been helping.  And last night at Inna’s class I was surprised to see some new students who obviously had some experience but were extremely out of breath with our exercises, to the point of bending over and gasping, and I was doing just fine.  And, I tried on my dress and even if it’s not how I want it to look, it does look better than the last time I donned it.

Life’s too short.  Why not dance?  I guess that’s basically what it comes down to.  And we’re only doing open heats.  I have zero expectations.  It’s all about me, my progress, my experience, my growth.  Beyond that, it’s about enjoying our dancing, and enjoying the partnership.

I’ll be honest.  I’d lost some of my fire.  Because for me, doing this dancing thing, it has importance because I am a competitive student.  It’s fine to take a break from competitions and all, but I don’t want to dance socially.  I got clear on that a while ago.  So if I’m not ever going to compete, then I should save my money and stop taking lessons.

The long and short of it is, Ivan really wanted to dance with me, even if for just a little bit. He took the conversation with Tony to heart and it changed things.  He was so cute and told me multiple times that he wasn’t doing it for the money, and that if I couldn’t get the day off or if it was too expensive that he was fine, that I didn’t have to do it.  But that he thought it might be good to get out there once again, to just even do little things, because we are both clear on my ultimate goals.  And when I told him this morning that I was in, he texted me back, “I so excited for you!” And then tonight he told me, “I told you I not care if you can not doing this, but really I do care.  I’m so glad you are doing this.”

He really took the time to talk with me yesterday and I was like, well, sure.  If I can get the day off, I’d be up for a few heats.  My biggest concern was him being proud to dance with me, to want to dance with me.  I’m a work in progress, and I’ve made some progress.  Why not live a little and show it off?  Plus, he only wanted to do open heats with me – no more Bronze – so that speaks volumes to me as well.

I love how life is a flowing river.  You can never know what might be around the next bend.  Two weeks ago we would have said we were not competing in People’s Choice.  Yesterday we discussed it.  Today I went to see if I could maybe get the day off only to realize that it was the one Friday out of every 5 that I have off because I work on that Saturday. It’s almost like it was meant to be.

And I have to laugh because not only did we not plan this, but I have decided to loan some of my dresses to a very special lady across the country who is competing at her very first competition in just a few days!  (A blog post about that is forthcoming) At least I was smart enough to save one dress for myself, but I couldn’t dance Smooth if I wanted to!  I only have a costume suitable for Rhythm or Latin.  It all seems to be working out.

So yeah, life is pretty dang good right now.  I’m blessed to be in the position where I can do this at the drop of a hat.  I’m mentally chilled, have time to get the nails done, I’m prepared enough physically, I have a dress that will work, I have an instructor that wants to dance with me, and I could think of a lot worse ways to spend a Friday off work!

I scheduled a lesson for tonight and, like I mentioned, right away I wanted to do rounds of our open routines to see if I could hack it cardiovascularly.  I did, and that is actually a major victory for me and a testament to the work I’ve been doing outside of my dancing since we rarely practice one routine after another in a lesson.  I’ve never done open scholarship at a competition so I figure it’s better to try it out now, at a local, smaller competition, with less pressure and when I am mentally relaxed.

Alright, enough with the “serious” stuff!  Now for the funny part!  So tonight we were practicing our Bolero and Ivan all the sudden stops and says, “I hear this crack!”  And he grabs his nether-regions from behind.  “I think I split my pants!” He says.  “Third time in my career,” he says.  And he then proceeds to recount other episodes of pants splitting, the worst being white cotton pants gaping up the entire back seam from crotch to lower back while teaching at a studio all day long, not being able to change them or leave to get another pair because his schedule was so full!

I laughed, as you might imagine, hysterically, and said, “Show me.  Let’s see what happened.”


He split not one side but two!!!!   LOLOLOL.  I laughed even harder, and I love this man, because he actually let me take this photo!  OMG!!!! Never a dull moment with this guy.

I guess that’s all the news!  If you are coming to People’s Choice here in Phoenix, please do come say hello!