Just Breathe

Monday, December 12, 2011


Allegre studio with Ivan

At the start of our lesson Ivan asks me “What we gonna work on,” (remember, he’s from Bulgaria and English is like a 5th language)

“Latin,” I reply.

“Why you like Latin? What is different for you than American?”

I have to think about the question.  Since I began watching ballroom I’ve always been fascinated by the Latin and Rhythm dances, specifically Rumba and Cha Cha.  I love the sleekness of the Latin style, the control, the passion, and the play of femininity and masculinity.  I see the Latin dances as just ever so elegant as compared to the American style, though I love both and am certainly more practiced and comfortable with American Rhythm dances (except the bolero and I swear my samba is getting better!)  I think it all boils down to personal preference, but for me, Latin dances are the bee’s knees.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well done Smooth dance and International Standard is the epitome of grace.  I have come to appreciate these dances more and more over time.  But so far in my experience I take these dances as I take medicine….because I believe they are good for me, but not necessarily because I love them or me dancing them.  I think you can see it on my face in the picture below….blech! Medicine!

And, as most of us ballroom dancers know, our preference changes over time.  I’ll probably be loving the Viennese Waltz later this year – well, you never know, it could happen!

So anyways, I’m curious as to why Ivan is questioning me about my newly expressed desire to study Latin dances.  It seems he thinks I only recently decided that I liked them.

“No no,” I explain, “I’ve liked the Latin style since my first teacher and he started to teach me the beginning steps but then left.  Then with my next teacher, I asked him to teach me too, but not at first.  We always seemed to work on American Rhythm.”

He says, “Ah, well if you like Latin, if that is what is inside, in your heart, you have to do Latin.”  He says it like its not even an option not to do it.  Like this is who I am inside, really.

I just don’t think most adult Americans ask to learn Latin dances and the instructors I’ve had had more experience with American styles so they were more comfortable with them.  But always in the back of my mind I’ve wanted to explore this style and after my lesson tonight I believe once again my unconscious is leading me toward the experiences I most need.

So we begin.  It is awkward.  I don’t feel on balance.  Ivan stops me every few steps to correct something.  I can’t even walk right!  Have to suck in my stomach, hold myself up, don’t lean, don’t collapse.  Take small steps, rotate the hips, keep the body forward, keep my shoulders level.  Straighten the legs!  Let’s not even broach the subject of arms, or facial expression….

I’m getting caught up in my “mental problem.”

Ok, refocus.

It is hard.  It is not coming easily.  Was learning the other dances ever this difficult?

I have to say that I really, really, really want to be this creature that I see doing the Latin rumba.  She is confident and sexy and strong.  She is in control, cool, calm, and collected.  She is feminine, interesting, engaging and playful.  Basically, she’s someone you can’t keep your eyes off.  That is really why I want to learn these dances.  I can play this part that I am in no way, shape, or form comfortable playing in “real life.”  It is obvious to me that learning Latin is my vehicle for becoming this person hiding out inside me.  She’s been stifled for quite some time.

As we continue Ivan is coming down a bit harder on me and seems more stern than usual.  I know that this is because he sees potential in me to be really good (or at least this is a story I make up about it that works for me.)  I don’t want to be average in my dancing, I want to be extraordinary (don’t we all?) and I’m willing to work very hard to get there.

Now what endpoint that will satisfy me as finally being “extraordinary” is kinda of a ridiculous idea.  I mean, what am I aiming for here?  What would “prove” that I had become this Latin creature?  Winning a scholarship?  Dancing in a showcase?  Doing the fan 1000 times in a week?  I’m not sure.  I’m just sure that I want to become excellent at this and will not settle for average.

Ivan tells me that I must have a different mentality when approaching Latin.  I must be stronger because it is a more exacting style.  I will have to do the same steps over and over and over and over to really become great.  That doesn’t bother me.  I always seem to be able to discover more and feel more about my body and I can do this more deeply with steps that are more practiced so they are incorporated into my muscle memory.  It is endlessly fascinating.

What concerns me is my physical ability to do this.  And, I’m 33 years old.  I’m not going to be some Latin professional superstar.  What in the heck am I working so hard for?

Could this cutsie-woo gal really be a Latin dancer?  She doesn’t look anything like Karina Smirnoff!

You know what, I don’t exactly know.  All I know is that to move like those Latin ladies move is something I want.  And I am willing to pay the prices to make that happen as best as I am able.  I am willing to drop this weight.  I am willing to eat on my plan.  I am willing to go to dance class and be uncomfortable and be sore and be out of breath.  I am willing to mess up and look bad.  I’m willing to take lessons and practice on my own.

I’m not willing to settle on this one.  Don’t know why but I’m not.

But during the lesson I haven’t had time to process all this and my “mental problem” is rearing its ugly head.  I am feeling overwhelmed for sure.  I want more time to practice each step that Ivan is throwing at me.  There is no way to absorb everything much less actually get my body to do it.

So about this time I’m overloaded with new steps, new positions my body needs to create, and my instructor begins to talk to me about breathing.  Seems simple, right?

But it is at this point that I lose it.

I can take all this difficult stuff, I’m used to it.  But breathing?  That thing I do all day long?  Well, it is freaking me out.  I absolutely do not know how to breathe properly.  Nor do I use my breath to help me move.  Ivan demonstrates how sharp staccato breaths help him do sharp staccato movements.  He talks about Karate masters and how they use the breath to channel their movements.  It makes sense in my logical brain but my emotional brain is on overdrive.

How am I supposed to control my breath or otherwise use it when it is all I can do to huff and puff just to get through a few minutes of dancing?  I’m actually embarrassed by how winded I get.  For reasons I don’t understand I begin to to tear up.

“If you can’t breathe properly, you can’t dance,”  he tells me.  One of his coaches shared it with him.  If I want to be a higher level dancer (and I do) then I need to practice this stuff.

It feels like a fundamental truth to me.  And I do recall that my very first instructor used to talk about it as well.  He said that I was “panic breathing” and that I needed to learn to control it.

The tears began to fall.  There is no apparent reason for this emotion but it flows through me, I helpless to stop it.  In fact, why even try?  I know it to be a release.  I’m letting something go, even if I don’t know what it is and this is good.

I remember when I first began ballroom and my instructor then would always cajole me “More hips, more hips!”  I practically bawled moving them so much during multiple lessons.  Now I can move them just fine, even joyfully, but I had to cry my way through that one.  Thankfully most lessons are not so emotionally charged but every once in a while they really are. Plus, there is a lot of emotion stored up in this body of mine and I suspect as I continue this journey, many will be shaken up.

So it’s an interesting turn of events.  I surprise myself in wanting so fiercely to begin to study the Latin dances in earnest and in also wanting to veer toward a less comfortable style.  It would be easier, I suspect, and feel safer for me personally to stick with Rhythm dances.  I already have some level of competence in them and could build upon that.  But I’m choosing instead to take a road less travelled and step into unknown territory.

Even I can’t explain what makes me tick!

I hope you’ll join me as the journey continues.  There’s sure to be more crying, laughing, insights and yes, breathing along the way.

And one final note…

As emotional and difficult and wonderful as this journey in the ballroom world may be for me, I want to acknowledge that I am lucky to be able to take it.  I was reminded of this fact while talking to my boss who has had multiple back surgeries, replaced joints, etcetera etcetera and who lives in constant pain every day.  He still chooses to be a happy person and a contributor.  This is inspiring to me.  I was also deeply moved this past weekend while watching a local dance competition (post about it with photos is forthcoming) and there on the dance floor was a young man with some sort of physical disability.  He had constrictures in his hands and couldn’t move them properly as well as leg issues.  He was out there dancing just the same.   He is my hero.  There are so many people living with tough issues, physical or otherwise, it reminds me to be grateful that I get to participate in this inner “struggle.”

Peace out!

Man, need to work on my facial expressions! OOOOO! So funny!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s