Topical Series: Back To Basics

As a dancer, I’ve discovered some themes that I continue to return to over and over and over.  So I thought I’d share what I consider to be some of the foundational “basics” that I continue to work on in my journey to mastery and excellence in my dancing.  But the thing is, as foundational as these concepts are, and as much as I think I understand them, at least intellectually, I am still very much challenged to execute them, especially consistently and in concert.  But, hey, that’s part of what makes dancing so wonderful to pursue…the journey is never-ending and profound.

RumbaBasicBoxStep

By AaronOReilly (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So here they are, my thoughts on the basic concepts as I’ve come to know them in ballroom dancing:

1) Dance On Your Own Two Feet

Okay, okay.  This one seems obvious.  And when you are dancing alone, you have no choice but to do it yourself.  But add a partner, like in ballroom dancing, and it can create a level of dependency on one or both of the partners.  In ballet you use a barre, but you are only supposed to use it sparingly, lightly, just for balance adjustments and such.  You shouldn’t hang on it or pull on it or rip it off the wall.  Well, your partner should be used similarly – very little or not at all.  But it’s different with a partner than a barre, of course.  First off, unlike a stationary barre, your partner is moving.  In addition, you don’t dance with a barre out in the center in ballet and don’t need to be connected to it in any way, but in ballroom that connection is an essential aspect of the dance – as they say it takes two to tango!

But even if it takes two, those two should not be holding one another up!  I think this “basic” in particular has been on my mind lately for a few reasons.  First we are working on some open routines with more choreography out of a hold, and more challenging choreography in hold position.  I can’t tell you how easy it is to fall into the bad habit of using Ivan to propel myself hither and thither with my arms rather than powering myself with my own legs.  And this is even though I’m conscious of trying not hanging on him!  There most definitely areas in the dance where I depend on him more than I should.  He, on the other hand, has been supporting me too much.  He needs to pull away in those moments when I am not aware of how much I’m pulling, not over my own two feet.  I need him to do this so that I can have that kinetic feedback that alerts me immediately that I’ve invaded his space.  Without that feedback I can’t correct it because I don’t always realize how much I am doing it.

Another reason I realize it is because dancing the choreography on my own feels very different and is much more difficult than dancing it with Ivan.  When I dance alone, I can see where I am trying to step too far, where I am off-balance, where I’m not sure of the counts or the choreography.  I have to know what I’m doing 100% – be responsible for 100% of my dance…not try to off-load 15% to Ivan!  It’s humbling and so good for me.  My goal is to be able to dance the entire routine by myself as if Ivan were there so that when he joins me, I dance it like I do when I am on my own two feet, and we can create some awesome synergy rather than expending energy keeping me vertical, or in his attempts to get me back on time when I am late in a movement.

So anyways, I don’t know if I have any real tips about actually doing this dancing yourself/being-on-your-own-feet/not-hanging-on-your-partner idea except to begin to practice all your steps or routines solo to see how it feels to do it alone.  I promise it will be illuminating!

2)   Connection, Connection, Connection and Connection…and more Connection!

Let me be the first to admit I’m not always the best at connection!  There is so much to connect with in any given instant in dancing that I often feel overwhelmed!  I mean you gotta be connected to the music, connected to your partner, connected with yourself, and connected with your audience.  And each of these connections embodies a myriad of elements.  Often, if I connect with one aspect, I lose connection with a different aspect.  Let me explain what I mean by saying all this:

Connection to the music:  You have to remember that dancing is an interpretation of the music, a physical expression of the music through the body.  The movement you are doing should reflect the song.  Things to think about (or feel) when dancing to a particular song include the story told by the song, the mood of the song, the beat and timing and speed of the song.  Like, you aren’t going to do Jive moves to a romantic ballad.  The movement has to be appropriate to the music.  One of the biggest things I hone in on when dancing is how does the song make me feel inside?  How does my body want to move to express that feeling?  Am I going to keep my movements tight, sharp, upbeat and staccato, or am I going to reach for the roof and glide with sweeping large movements, or am I going to slink and prance and twist?  In any case, you can see that there is a lot to thing about in terms of connecting to the music.

Connection to your partner: This is probably one of the most difficult things to describe but when it is present you can feel it.  Of course there many aspects to connecting with a partner.  The most obvious way to connect is through physical touch.  In ballroom we connect through the arms but actually this is somewhat of an illusion.  What I mean to say is that the connection really comes from the core of the body, the spine and hips.  The arms are (or should be) connected to the core and an extension of the body’s core.  This is why if my partner moves his hips, if we are connected properly, the movement will transfer through our connection into my hips.  It’s Einstein’s law – you know the one – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?  Well, when connected properly, this law of physics can be demonstrated in ballroom dancing.

But beyond the physical connection, there is also an intangible energetic or emotional connection between dance partners.  This is the connection relied upon when not touching.  It’s the way I can tell it’s time to start so we begin in unison.  It’s how I know to step backwards as Ivan moves toward me.  Over time and with practice it becomes easier to detect – the partners become more aware of it and sensitive to it.  I can almost feel it sometimes, like when you get close to a stove and can feel the heat coming off of it without touching it….it’s kind of like that.  I will become aware that the energy I’m projecting is meeting the energy Ivan is projecting and building up in a kind of elastic tension….it pushes or resists between us when our bodies are getting closer but then pulls us together like an invisible rubber band when we are farther apart.  It’s tricky to do, especially in 360 degrees!  I’m much better at it facing forward, but a real expert should be able to connect in any way, in the back, on a knee, or whatever, in a sphere of space around them.

Connection to yourself:  This is basically being aware of what is going on for you, both physically and energetically/emotionally while you are dancing.  It is also physically integrating your movement so your arms are connected to what your legs are doing and connected to what the body is doing and connected to what the head is doing.  Movements should happen in unison, not piecemeal, with extremities reacting to the movement of the body but arriving at the same time rather than a beat before or after.

Connection to your audience:  Finally, there is connecting with spectators.  It can seem pretty scary at first but it is an essential aspect of any dance performance to project expression.  Dancing that is insular, self-absorbed, and contained is not engaging.  The movement falls flat and feels distant if you are dancing in your own little world for yourself and no one else.  Connecting with your audience means actually making eye contact, smiling, pouting, making faces, but also actually seeing them and allowing them to see you.  You have to look beyond yourself and it can feel uncomfortable, but it’s part what makes dancing so amazing.

3) Timing, Timing, Timing, and more Timing

When I first started dancing, I thought, “Hey, great, I can hear the beat and that’s enough.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Though being able to hear the beat is essential, really knowing your timing for each dance, whether quick, quick, slow, or 2-3-4-1, is imperative.  Especially when you want to play with the timing or use syncopation and pauses, it is vital to understand the timing of the dance.  One great thing to do (though it can seem tedious) is to count aloud.  And not just count, but count verbalizing the differences in the beats.  For instance, quick, quick, slow…should sound like quick, quick, sloooooow.  The longer count is drawn out, just as the movement completed during that count should also be slowed and lengthened while the movement is faster on the quick counts.  You should be able to see the difference between the counts as in a Rumba – there should be a distinct and apparent difference between the beats, not 3 even beats but two fast ones and one slower one.  You can also make counts louder vocally if they should be emphasized as in the 1 and 3 of the Cha Cha.  This helps create dynamic in the dance.

4)  Body Alignment and Mechanics

Every movement a dancer makes happens because of how the body is put together.  Dancing works and looks best when we work within the physical laws that govern how our body is knit together and how gravity works upon it.  Having proper alignment through the spine is especially vital, and correct alignment throughout the entire body from the toes to the nose, from ankles through knees to hips, not only helps create lines that are aesthetically pleasing, but prevents injuries.

For instance, we are going to move slower if we do bigger movements.  We can be quicker if we make smaller movements.  This is a universal law of physics that can’t be overcome.  We have to leverage how our bodies naturally move through space rather than fight against it.  For instance, if you are going to twist your hips around your spine, you have to keep the spine and shoulders stable so that they have something to twist against.  If you don’t resist the twisting in the upper body and instead allow it to also rotate, you will make this movement much more difficult and slower.

Knowing how your body is positioned in space, and how to properly align it by pulling upwards through the center are essential skills for any dancer.  But one of the things I find fascinating about ballroom dancing in particular is that all of the movement is based on how the body naturally moves.  This is different from ballet where movements, although possible anatomically, are not ones a person off the street would ever do (like no one is just going to break out and do a plie and sissone!)  But people off the street do spin, hold hands, step forwards and backwards.  Ballroom seems to me to be an artistic exaggeration and embellishment of normal everyday movements.  Therefore it follows that they are based on how the joints, muscles, and bones (basically the body structure) are aligned and how they relate to one another.  Finding that centered, balanced, aligned positioning is a continual challenge in my dancing, and one I continually return to all the time.

5) Sometimes You Have To Forget  All The Rules

This is kinda self-explanatory.  Sometimes you have to just stop thinking and allow the movement inside you to just come out however it looks!

Here is an example of really letting go!

When dancing from a space of total freedom, like Napoleon here, we most express ourselves, we stop trying to “be” something or someone.  We stop trying to package ourselves in a perfect box and just let go.  Sometimes this is how our soul takes flight and allows the creation of the most beautiful, unique, and pure movement.

What are the “basics” that keep resurfacing in your dance journey?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  -Stef

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Star Light, Star Bright: Topical Series – What Is Starlighting?

Ballroom is another world with its own rules and sometimes those rules are not explicitly stated and can cause confusion for people new to the hobby/activity/passion/obsession.

For instance, people newer to ballroom may not have heard of the term “starlighting.”  I guess it is kind of like the moonlighting my dad used to do as a radiologist when I was a kid.  He would work extra hours at hospitals outside of his regular job to earn some extra money when he was a resident.  In the ballroom context, “starlighting” is when a professional dancer accompanies his or her students out to social events, dance camp dinners, or other studio outings.

Hubble Watches Star Clusters on a Collision Course - Flickr - NASA Goddard Photo and Video

By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA (Hubble Watches Star Clusters on a Collision Course) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Students will pay their pro, or chip in as a group to basically “rent” the company of their pro for an evening of dancing. The pro, in turn, will dance with the students who hired him during the course of the event.  Outings may occur with many students at a particular studio and though they appear social, they have a specific start and stop time and pros will vacate the premises immediately after the event has come to an end.  Outings are generally associated with a particular price and may occur at regular intervals at studios.

One of the more confusing things that can happen as a newcomer to ballroom is that pros may not (and generally do not) ask students to dance unless they are their own students or they are friends with the students’ teacher.  There are many reasons for this behavior.  In the case of a “starlighted” event, the reason is obvious – the pro is “on the clock” with the students who have paid him to be there.  (Pros can be female, of course, but the vast majority of competitive students are female, employing a disproportionate number of male professional dancers).

Other reasons why pros may avoid dancing with students include the desire to not appear to be encroaching upon other pro’s students, or wanting to avoid angering their own students by paying attention to anyone else.  Or, perhaps they are just plain tired of dancing and want a little break!

But it creates an interesting dynamic, this “starlighting” thing.  It creates the appearance of intimacy, which may or may not be genuine, and most definitely involves a business transaction.  This can create confusion or even hurt feelings if both parties are not entirely clear about the nature of the relationship and transaction, or if there are unspoken assumptions of what an evening of “starlighting” will purchase.  I think, for instance, payment a “Starlighting” pro compensates the pro for his or her time, energy, and dancing expertise, and it may also increase the amount of attention given to the student for the duration of the engagement. It might even make the student feel “special” for a while.  If the pro views the “Starlighting” as a purely business venture but the student views it as a friendship or relationship things could get tricky.  Open, honest communications about expectations and boundaries are always a good idea!

Not all pros “Starlight” and most of the ones I’ve known to do it are independent instructors.  I don’t know if pros employed the studios are allowed to “Starlight,” and I’ve never personally hired a pro for an event other than as my pro in a competition, but I think it could be a great option for a special occasion if I wanted to be sure I’d dancing all night.

If you’ve had a “Starlighting” experience, I’d be curious to know how it went for you, if you liked it, if it was worth the investment.

And what do you think about the idea of “Starlighting?”  Does it seem like a cool thing to do, or is it a little off-putting?

Topical Series: Deciding Whether To Do A Dance Camp

Me and Ron Montez

Me and Ron Montez

Although I’ve only attended one dance camp thus far in my ballroom “career,” I discovered some useful information that might help someone who is interested in a dance camp to decide whether or not to do it.  Choosing to do a dance camp, like participating in a competition, requires planning, money, time off work, maybe even a babysitter, and perhaps travel.  It’s a significant committment so it is a significant decision to make.  Here are my thoughts on some things to consider when deciding if a dance camp a good choice for you.

Overall I thought it was a good value.  Of course every dance camp is going to be different, but using my experience as an example, the deluxe package cost $475.  This included all the classes offered, a welcome dinner and dance mixer, and a gourmet dinner with a champagne toast and party on New Year’s Eve.  Considering private lessons cost around $75-$130 each, and I got 17 group classes led by professional dancers and adjudicators, plus two lectures, I consider this a damn good deal.  I did a lot of dancing, was able to video the choreography presented, ask questions, and even eat a bit, and all for a small fraction of what a competition usually costs.  Even if you add in the hotel (which I only opted to stay at on New Year’s Eve, I commuted the other days), gas costs, and food, it still works out well.

One major advantage of attending a dance camp, especially for competitive dancers, is face time with judges.  Not only do you get to be seen so your face is familiar, but you can also ask direct questions and have actual interactions with people who may judge you at future competitions.  You can also pick their brains for what they look for in competitive dancers.  They tend to naturally share their preferences in dancing while teaching which can also give you insight on dance styling and choreographic choices. This is not as significant a factor for those who do not compete.

One possible disadvantage of a dance camp is that they may be fluid, meaning that the schedule advertised when you sign up for the camp may not be exactly what is delivered.  For instance, when I looked at the website for this dance camp, Decho Kraev and Bree Watson were listed as teaching many of the classes.  Since they are the current American Rhythm champions, I’m sure many people were looking forward to getting to learn from this particular couple.  When I arrived at the camp and got my package, the class schedule listed different instructors.  I, personally, didn’t really mind so very much.  I got to learn from Linda Dean and Radomir Pashev, and I really enjoyed their classes and felt I got great value from what they shared.  But I could see how someone could be upset by this, especially if part of why he or she chose to attend was to learn from a particular professional, judge, or couple.

There was also one other change, which I was very happy about, and it wasn’t even listed on the schedule.  When it came time for the Night Club Two Step (not a dance I’m interested in) Rado decided to do Samba instead.  Anyways, for type A individuals this could be crazy-making, but for me, I was glad about it.

Another benefit of attending a dance camp is that the instructors are also available for private lessons.  I didn’t take advantage of this during my stint, but opportunities to learn from the experts, or have them create some choreography for you, or to work on a particular troublesome step don’t happen all the time, especially if you have an independent instructor and no home studio where coaches may visit regularly.  In any case, attending a dance camp is one great way to make contact with paragons of the ballroom dance world.

As is usually the case in ballroom dancing, there were double the amount of women than men at the camp.  Only a few of the females chose to learn the leader choreography.  This meant that for much of the time in class many female students were without a partner and the men were always dancing as a duo.  And, to make matters worse, there was little to no formal rotation set up, made doubly confusing when some of the couples danced exclusively with one another, not rotating at all.  Personally, I sometimes prefer to dance by myself so I can discover my own balance and so I know that I understand what I am doing.  I didn’t mind the times when I was partner-less.  However, by the end of the camp I was exhausted by actually dancing with partners.  Half of them were uninterested in dancing with me (or seemed that way), one felt the need to correct me and was a total joy-suck.  I don’t even care how good or unskilled a dancer is, but I do mind very much when they have a bad attitude.  I was exhausted by having to interact with some of these fellow students, and just like in social dancing situations, it is a crap shoot as to who will be available to dance with.  In fact, one of my friends was also troubled by the interactions she had with some of the males and opted to not partner at all by the end of the camp because the experience was so uncomfortable, and in her case, she felt flat-out disrespected.

The majority of dancers at the camp were social dancers.  Only a very few of us were competitive students.  Obviously we had different goals and intentions with our dancing.  It would have been more valuable for me from my perspective to have more of an opportunity to dance with other competitive students.  I did get to dance with a few darling men with happy, fun personalities, and one who was excellent in all aspects, but of course I couldn’t always dance with them even though I might have wanted to.  This might be more likely at a dance camp that occurs before or after a competition so I might have to check one of those dance camps out.  But anyways, I think I might have enjoyed the camp more and maybe even gotten more value out of it if I had a friend or amateur partner to do it with.  It’s not really something you’d do with your pro partner and I found the partnering situation to be less than stellar.

Because there was such a mix in the level of expertise, skill level, and intention of the dancing, the teachers had to address broad topics and gear their classes toward general information. They did offer two tracks of classes: Beginner/Intermediate and Intermediate/Advanced. Basically this equated to one class for baby beginners and one class for everyone else. It was up to each individual to place themselves in an appropriate level, and upon registration the lady did say that a person could switch classes within the first ten minutes if it was either too easy or too difficult.

I kind of think the intermediate business is just there to make us feel better! I’m not sure what the distinction between intermediate and beginner or intermediate and advanced is, exactly. I wonder if any dance camps require a person to “test into” a level…like in dance classes in college you can’t just sign up for advanced ballet. You must audition and an assessment of your skill level is made to determine if it is an appropriate placement, or prerequisite classes must first be completed successfully to gain entry into higher level classes. Probably impractical to do at a dance camp, but it’s a thought. And I wonder what a truly advanced class would look like – probably like Inna’s class…but I think a class like that, especially for social dancers, could be pretty shocking/intimidating if a person walked into it expecting a group class like is usually presented…not as strenuous, and filled with lots of interesting steps but less of the basics. Camp organizers have to aim to please their attendees so knowing who is attending, their level, and if they are social or competitive could help in the design of classes and tracks/levels. Like I would have loved if there were beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels (or bronze, silver, gold) in both social and competitive categories, but that would sure take a lot of staff and resources, unless the camp was specifically geared toward one type of student.

In any case, at this dance camp, during most classes a series of steps were taught and the students learned a little choreography.  I am more interested in the technique behind the steps than the steps themselves so I wanted more of that type of information – how to correctly execute the steps rather than the steps themselves.  I can always learn more steps so adding more to my repertoire was fine and good but not all that exciting to me because the chances of me actually using these little choreographies in the future are slim to none.  If I was a social dancer only, or danced socially more often, or had an amateur partner, it might have created more value for me.

One disadvantage of this camp was that because it was held in a hotel, the floors were jointed and there were no mirrors. I missed having a mirror to compare my lines to those of the professional demonstrating the steps. But having it at a different venue like a dance studio might not have been as convenient and certainly would not have had all the amenities present. I wish that mirrors could have been brought in just like the floor is.

One of the best parts of the dance camp was simply spending time with my ballroom friends and making new ones.  I had some awesome and deep conversations and laughed a ton.  I’d recommend having a partner in crime to go with if possible.

Overall, I really enjoyed going to the dance camp and feel like I did learn a lot.  Just putting myself out there and participating was a big win.  And because I showed up cool things happened – I got to dance a swing step “down and dirty” with Radomir, I got to do a mambo deal with Ron and a group of people as he spontaneously got out on the dance floor on New Year’s Eve and began calling out moves, I got to win a merengue mixer contest, I got to laugh a ton, learn a ton, watch a professional show, and toast the new year.  Well, anyways, I hope this gave you some insight into what you might want to think about when considering a dance camp.  If you have any other burning questions, please do ask and I will do my best to answer.

Topical Series: The Student-Teacher Bond

I’ve recently been giving this topic a lot of thought.  At least from what I have observed in the competitive Pro/Am ballroom world, student and teacher pairings are a “thing,” meaning that many students are identified with their teachers.  People know the main dance instructors in the area, and they know that she dances with Decho, and she dances with Yavor, and she dances with Igor, and so on. (Forgive me for focusing on the female student and male teacher, but this is the vast majority of pairings, and, though there are a few dedicated male students, the serious female students significantly outnumber their male counterparts)

But the relationship between dance teacher and student is an interesting one, I think.  And just as every friendship, or marriage, or business agreement is unique, so is each student-teacher pairing.  The relationship is so interesting, in fact, it is one of the subjects my friend Marian will broach in her upcoming book about the ballroom dancing experience.

Reflecting on my own student-teacher relationships, as well as observing those of others and talking with my friends, it seems to me that there is quite a strong and unique bond that develops between partners. I think that it is always understood that one person has more experience and expertise in the area of dancing, and that there is a business exchange of money for a service, but the lines of the relationship can become blurry as well. Because of the intimacy involved in ballroom dancing, both physical and emotional, sometimes things can be confusing for students. Especially for newer students, having someone focus all their attention on you, give you encouragement, and even touch you, well, this is not the normal adult experience when interacting with other adults. Rarely do we get the full attention of another with all the distractions of modern life, and most interactions are strictly hands-off. To experience the interaction provided on a dance lesson can be intoxicating.

Some instructors, however, tend to be very businesslike and even a bit cold to students outside of lessons or competitions. They view spending time with students as a business date for which they are paid. They may attend a social event in association with the studio or a dance camp or a competition, but avoid any social contact outside of these types of events. In fact, in some studio systems fraternization outside of the studio or studio-sanctioned events is strictly forbidden and a fireable offense.

There is nothing right or wrong about any particular way of conducting a student-teacher relationship, and this particular method of viewing it only as a business transaction does perhaps create more clear and strong boundaries between the student and teacher. Indeed, some may even consider it the more professional route, however, for me, all I can say is thank God my instructor is an independent and that he is an awesome human being and friend outside of just being my instructor. From previous experience I can say that I’m glad that my current instructor has no qualms about being genuine friends outside of dancing. Personally, I think it helps the dancing itself and because our relationship is genuine on and off the dance floor, this contributes to our collaboration on the dance floor, because, well, we really do have a person-to-person level connection based on respect, friendship, and appreciation (not just on the business agreement).

In the past, my two previous instructors seemed almost mysteriously unavailable…except for when we were on a lesson, during which time they were extraordinarily available. I hardly had any idea about what may have been going on in their lives, much less know where they lived, both of which I know about my current instructor.  In fact, the first instructor I had was the son of a studio owner and he knew the ins and outs of the “game” to ensure what I perceived as basically “customer service” for his dance students. He knew that many students enjoy lavish attention focused on them and so purposely steered the conversations to be much more about me than about him (a fact he disclosed to me later on in our partnership). Again, not a bad thing, I suppose, but it prevented equal sharing and thus shifted the balance of power within the relationship. He who withholds the most generally wields the most power in a relationship, and at the core, most relationships are about an exchange of power, who has it, and who doesn’t, and the interactions that occur to get and maintain a position of power.

In the case of instructors, they have knowledge that the student doesn’t have and wants, and the more they can milk that, the more they can dribble out the information in tiny droplets, the longer they can string a student along. Now, of course, that is only one possible explanation – we students can only absorb so much information at a time! Sometimes we need tiny droplets because that is all we can handle in the moment! But, still, Ivan dances like I wish I could dance. I go to him to teach me that and pull out of me the performance that we both know is “in there.” In one sense, the instructors are in the more powerful position because they have what we students want and we are willing to pay money to get it.

On the other hand, the student may also be considered to be in the more powerful position because he or she is the one paying for the service, in effect employing the dance instructor. In America, where the customer is always right mentality pervades, and lessons are a significant chunk of change, studios and instructors will often accommodate even extremely difficult personalities to ensure positive cashflow.

This brings up a possible confounding situation for the instructors. While students may view their instructors as friends or even as someone to have a crush on, some instructors may actually dislike some students, and yet their income depends upon such people. In that case, setting firm boundaries about when the instructor is on the job and when he (or she) is not, may be imperative to keep the relationship going on at least a neutral trajectory.

When a person first starts dancing, she may be randomly paired with whomever has time in their schedule for a lesson. At this stage, it’s the luck of the draw whether a student is matched by the powers that be with an instructor she will “click” with. At the get-go, the instructor must work to make the best impression, please the new student as much as possible, and ensure the relationship starts out fun, engaging, and something the student will want to continue with. As a dancer gets more experienced, however, even such charms may not be enough. A student may decide she wishes a different experience. She may see other instructors in a competition setting and observe their dancing skills, how they interact with their other students, and how they perform with their professional partners and compare that to her own experience with and of her current instructor. If one of these factors is particularly lacking in her current instructor, she may even specifically pursue a particular instructor, especially if she wants to improve her status in the ballroom world by dancing with a champion, or because another dance instructor is a better height, or because she saw the instructor’s students do very well with placements.

But whatever the case, whether randomly matched, or purposely pursued, the student and teacher must come to some sort of agreement about the partnership (whether explicitly spoken about, or not) as well as build rapport. Some partnerships are more confrontational than others, some more based on humor, but no matter what, there has to be a connection…whether based on a shared love for dance, or affection for one another, or money, or dislike, or outright animosity….there has to be some reason that a student stays with a particular instructor.

It seems that most of us students form strong bonds with our instructors and would prefer to stay with him, even when things get tough. And do not doubt that there are bumps in the road, on both sides of the partnership. From life events, to simple frustrations about personal idiosyncracies, students and teachers can become angry with one another, or experience resentments, or other difficulties.  Even so, many of my dancing friends have overcome such difficulties and often find their relationships and connections with their instructors stronger and better for working through it.  Others, however, have felt the need to find a new instructor.  There are prices and benefits to both strategies and with each partnership formed and broken are opportunities to become more clear about what a student expects from an instructor so she can actively verbalize it a priori or at the time of a disagreement.

No matter what it looks like, I think that all student-teacher partnerships are special if only for the fact that of all the people in the world we two have chosen to work together toward a common goal for a particular length of time.  Of all the people in the world, we have come together to grow and learn and share our time and ourselves, two of our most precious resources.  Add in a passion for dancing, and well, there is no other relationship like it.

So, I’m curious…What is your relationship with your instructor like?  Or, if you are professional dancer, what is your relationship with your students like?  Are they all different?  What makes a good student-teacher relationship?  What makes a horrible one?  Have you ever broken apart from a partnership?  Why, how, and how did it all work out in the end?  What would an ideal instructor (or student) relationship look like?

I can’t wait to hear about your experiences!

Much love, Stef

Topical Series: What To Expect On A Coaching Session

Well, the honest answer is, I don’t know.

But that isn’t very helpful, now is it!?

I suppose you can never really know what will happen on a coaching session (or any other life experience) except that each one will be different not only because they may be with different coaches, but also because you will be at a different place in your dancing journey each time.

I thought it might be a good subject to cover for someone who is presented with the opportunity for a coaching but who isn’t sure what it might do for them, especially in light of the increased cost of a session.

I guess that is as good a place to start as any – the financial aspect of it.  On coaching sessions the student not only pays for the coach’s time, but also for their instructor’s time as well.  This can lead to sticker-shock, but hey, there is nothing inexpensive about ballroom.  I’ve kind of just accepted it now.

That being said, I also see great value in coaching sessions.  I’ve has some wonderful interactions with a few coaches and have come to understand steps with more clarity.  Having the perspective of an expert observing outside the dancing can be immensely helpful and for me it has been worth the added expense.

Now, I don’t claim to be a coaching expert, not by any means.  I’ve had about 6 sessions I believe.  One with Igor Suvorov, two with Ron Montez, one with Paul Holmes, one with Linda Dean, and one with Debbie Avalos-Kusumi.  Each was different and I learned different things from each coach.

One of the most basic lessons I had really has more to do with making the decision to have a coaching or not.  What I mean by this is that it may not always be worth the time, effort, and cost to indiscriminately take coaching sessions.  They are a rare opportunity for me so I like to take advantage of them when I can.  However, my first coaching session was with Igor Suvorov.  Inna and Artem brought him in to the studio and sessions were offered to students as well.  I didn’t know anything about this Igor guy but I wanted to absorb anything and everything I could.  The thing is, Igor specializes in Standard….a style I don’t dance.  Back then, I did a little of it, but had barely any experience in it at all.  We worked on just getting into frame the entire time.  This was awesome, actually.  I suddenly became aware that my then-instructor and I had skipped the most basic foundation of beginning to move together.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot.  In retrospect, however, I would probably not get a coaching from this particular coach again simply because he doesn’t focus on the styles I dance.  I am inexperienced in his area of expertise and I’m working on other things.  Though any dance lesson can help and contribute to my knowledge base, the truth is, that I’d lose a lot of what we covered because I wouldn’t use it regularly.  So my first recommendation is this – consider who the coach is and if their area of expertise aligns with your goals and styles of dance.

I’ve experienced the coaches I’ve encountered as being very helpful and knowledgable.  They give lots of feedback, and will tell you what they like and don’t like and offer suggestions how to change things.  I think it is important to remember, especially as a beginner, that they are there to help but not to stroke your ego.  They are not there to gush about how amazing you are, but will give you honest input on things you can be doing better.  It is up to you to be open to this treasure trove of information, as well as discerning about what you accept.  I just mean by this that there are many different thoughts stylistically on how to execute certain steps sometimes and seeing multiple coaches with different opinions, not to mention the opinion of your instructor, can become like too many cooks in the kitchen.  Ultimately, you and your partner will have to incorporate those aspects that work best for you while respecting the danceform and it’s proper foundational technique.

Maybe it is for this reason that most professionals work closely with only one or a very limited number of coaches.  They want to really forge a relationship with that coach and to grow under their guidance.  I honestly don’t know if my experience is typical or unique when it comes to coaching sessions, especially since I’ve never been a part of a studio system.  I suspect coaching opportunities may be more regular or widespread and maybe even with the same people multiple times.  It is possible that even pro/am couples, especially higher level pairs who dance in open scholarships, work with one particular coach in a manner similar to the professionals.  I’m personally not really on a level that would warrant such dedicated coaching but I do know at least one Amateur gal who has regular coachings with the same coach all the time.

So what can you expect on a coaching session?  Hopefully an investment of time and money and effort that helps move you forward.  And, well, part of that is up to you.  You have to be discerning about who you choose to work with.  You have to be open to feedback.  You have to be willing to do the work.

Also, it is a great way to gain some wisdom and experience as well as to be exposed to paragons in the ballroom world, people who may some day be adjudicating while you dance.  Perhaps having worked with you and to see the improvement you have made will make the difference in a ranking.  Who knows?

As always, please chime in with your experiences and expertise.

XOXO, Stef

Only Your Face Looks Stupid

Dancing at 6:30 in the morning is kind of tough.  First off, I’m not a morning person.  Second, my body isn’t at all warmed up.  I am usually stiff and tight in the muscles and groggy in the brain.  But Ivan, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is crazy, and I guess so am I.  For a while now, we have regularly met at a dance studio on the way to my work, before work.  Location-wise it works out well because it is convenient along the drive to work which is very far from where I live.  And dancing, even at ungodly hours, is better than not dancing, so I’ve agreed to it making sure that on weekends we schedule later in the A.M. so I can get my much-needed beauty sleep.

I am trying to write a blog here but this is what keeps staring at me for a treat and she is PERSISTENT!!!!

So today was one of those early days, but surprisingly, it went pretty well.  Even though my right calf is so sore from ballet this weekend that I can’t easily create an up and down motion, Ivan and I danced the Waltz to begin.  On our last lesson I had told him that he needs to correct me all the time, at least one thing in every dance we do.  Otherwise, I will continue to practice the same habits.  Ivan must have heard my request because we actually worked on some new things before the sun came up.

Like I am aware that there is supposed to be a lot of body contact when in frame in Smooth styles.  It’s difficult to maintain and because I only do Smooth, not Standard, and we go in and out of frame frequently, I haven’t been as disciplined as I could be in regards to this detail.  Well, today, that changed.  I think we began with Ivan putting me in a twisted back-bend position, kind of the same position to set up a develope’ and Ivan told me I have to give him my hips.

Intellectually, I am aware of this.  From books, talking with friends who do more closed-frame dancing, I “know” about it.  But it is a whole other level of “getting to know” your instructor when you really have to do this body mash-up.  But that is how it’s done.  That is part of what makes it possible to move as a single unit while gliding across the floor.  And you know what…it actually felt more secure.  To put my hips in the proper position is uncomfortable on some levels, but I felt more stable.  It was almost, well, comforting.

To pull back out of fear in an attempt to maintain space between bodies, puts my body out of alignment, messes with my balance, and makes it more difficult to move.  It was especially weird when Ivan demonstrated the lady’s part, rotating around my left hip, maintaining contact all the while.  I’m pretty much supposed to stick to him (or my partner) like glue.  Though it appears classy and smooth, the dances in hold feel to me more intimate in some ways than the sexy, slinky Latin and Rhythm dances.

Regardless, it was a good notice, something specific I can focus on during practice.  I’m just glad we’ve been dancing long enough now that I feel comfortable being in the proper position.  Well….I did laugh a lot out of nervousness, but still, this is not something that has happened with either of my other two previous instructors.

So after this, we worked on our open Rumba routine.  It is coming along.  I am getting better at remembering the sequence of steps and I’m also getting more clear on the counts.  I am also really excited to do this one move which involves a double Spiral Turn, which is something I really need to practice, but it is going to be so nice when I am more comfortable doing it.  Really, smooth as melted chocolate.

I also made a discovery about how to position myself with my body weight forward on the opening move we do, kind of a reverse turn step with my leg pointed behind me.  It made it look more dramatic while at the same time I felt more secure doing it.  In addition it helped with doing the proper weight changes, not rushing through the movement to the next step, which is for sure one of my bad habits….not living in the moment, not finishing, and rushing to the next thing before the last thing is complete…no I don’t do that in real life either, ha ha.

But the best thing was a new dimension to hip movement that we discovered.  Instead of simply going side to side, front and back, or making a figure eight, my hips are going to lift up as well.  Kind of difficult to describe, but it is very feminine.  Marieta does something similar in one of Ivan and her routines, but it is one of those details you absorb while watching that makes the movement look interesting but that you might not actually be able to pinpoint.  In any case, I do this little hip wiggle after a step turn and this “lifted hip” action was added.

“It look so good!”

“Then why are you laughing at me.”

“Your hips, your legs, your arms, even your neck moving are all so feminine.  It so natural and so good.  It’s just your face that is looking stupid.”

I guess I make funny faces when I’m trying to be “sexy.”  And the way Ivan was imitating me had me in stitches.  Kind of like a slack-mouthed zombie in search of brains.  Figuring out facial expressions is definitely one of my weak points.  Smiling I can do, no problem.  But looking like I want to attack, or being “sexy” or flirty, not my forte.

Well, I do have awesome hips that work for me, though.  And we incorporated this increased dimensionality into the fan as well.  I don’t find it that challenging.  In fact, it made me feel more secure, and caused me to commit my body weight over my right foot more quickly which also helped me propel myself forward and keep my energy forward.  But Ivan seemed to think it was a special ability.  Well, I’ll take it.  It feels good.  That plus I guess another of his students liked how I styled my arms when we both danced at Galaxy and she told him she wanted to have arms like mine.  Well, that was pretty surprising and also felt good, even if I still have a long way to go with them!

In the end, Ivan said what he’s only said maybe three times before, “I like this lesson.”

“I know!  I wish all could be like this.  So happy, and fun, and discovering new things.”

Truly, it doesn’t happen all that often so when it is nice like this on a lesson I really appreciate it.  It’s not every day that only my face looks stupid!  Usually much more looks stupid!  Heh heh heh.

The end.

Topical Series: Ballroom Demystified (Part Deux)

Where was part one, you may ask?  Well this post is an extension of another post by Alaina which you can read here.

I thought it was an excellent topic and told her so.  And, me being as opinionated and vociferous as I am (at least as a writer), I was inspired to continue the conversation.

I’ll use Alaina’s same format.  She was comparing DWTS, which probably represents how most uninitiated people think of ballroom, to what actually happens at a ballroom competition.  If you’ve never been to one, then you can’t possibly know, but the two are worlds apart.  I think pretty much the only things they have in common are spray tans, amazing outfits and hair, the fact that there are judges, and Pro/Am couples.  Other than that, things are really different.  And one housekeeping note – I’m talking about NDCA Dancesport competitions as those are the ones I have experience with.  There are other competitions put on through studio chains or through other independent companies like World Promotions which have their own set of rules and protocols.

Point 1: In competition, there are multiple couples on the floor at the same time

Alaina got this right.  The only thing I’ll add, is man, is it a different experience with all that movement going on at the same time.  It kind of makes more sense as to why ballroom couples try to be so ostentatious.  If you don’t know what they will be up against, it may seem particularly gaudy and over-the-top how they move, how they dress, how they do their hair and make up, and all that.  Each couple is vying for the attention of the judges and the audience and being showy, glittery, or even ridiculously cheeky, may help achieve that aim.  It is practically impossible to watch just one couple while they compete as each one will catch your eye at a different point.  This is also part of why couples rotate around the ballroom between heats – to perform for a different section of the audience and hopefully gain their support.

Point 2:  Two styles of dance

I’d argue that there are 4 categories of dance – broadly divided into American styles and International styles.  But it’s not just the styling that is different – it’s also the dances that are performed.  On the American side are the American Rhythm and Smooth Divisions, and on the International side are Standard (or Standard Ballroom) and Latin.

American

American Rhythm – Cha Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, Bolero, Mambo

American Smooth – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz

International

Standard Ballroom – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese, Waltz, Quickstep

Latin – Samba, Cha cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, Jive

As you can see, some of the dances are the same.  This is where that styling that Alaina was referring to fits in.  In general, legs are straight in Latin Rumba and Cha Cha but there is a bending and straightening action that occurs in American Rhythm.  In American Smooth, couples can go in and out of a dance frame hold and tend to do lots of sweeping movements, and spins with the lady, and maybe dips too, but in Standard Ballroom, the couples must remain in a dance frame hold throughout the entire dance and travel in unison around the floor.  On DWTS, Len’s background would be more in Latin and Standard Ballroom (being from Great Britan) and this is why he often harps about couples breaking out of hold (which I think he used to do more often than he currently does).

In addition, there are also other dances that may be at competitions like country western dances, Night Club Two Step, Argentine Tango, and West Coast Swing, but generally they have different stylization as compared to the dances as danced in their traditional milieu, like a milonga, or with true “Westies.”

Furthermore, there are more types of pairings that can occur.  On DWTS we see a little of this – sometimes there are Pro/Pro pairings, also formation teams, both of which occur at competitions.  In competitions, there are also purely Amateur couples, some of which are very high level and almost as good as the pros.  This pairing is two amateurs and would be the equivalent of two of the “Stars” on DTWS pairing up.  Now that would be interesting to see on the show, but would probably result in poor dancing because instead of only 1 person not knowing what they are doing, both would be clueless!

Also, remember that the couples dancing at competition do not know ahead of time which music they will be dancing to.  On DWTS the routines are more like those that would be presented during a showcase; the music is known and choreographed to.  But in competition, you may have a routine but it has to work and the timing must be correct no matter what music is played.  DWTS did show some of this with those “Instant dances” they have had on a few seasons.  Those dances test the skill set of leading and following.  I believe (though I don’t know for sure) that for most divisions the couples have a pre-planned routine, however they still have to remain in connection so they can react seamlessly if another couple gets in their way or something unexpected happens like one partner forgets the routine.  They can then fall back on lead-follow dancing to get them through.  However, in the Standard Ballroom division, I think there is more of a chance that the couples don’t have a planned routine.  They probably have the basic idea of what they will do and also which steps they will want to show off, but because there is so much movement around the floor and many couples are buzzing around, floorcraft is key in this division in particular.  The couple has to react quickly and often to avoid collisions. (As an aside, I think Artem and Inna are particularly adept at this.  I’ve only ever seen them almost collide once, ever, on a video, and I have seen them masterfully avoid collisions multiple times without missing a single step.)  Anyways, I think in this division, and probably Smooth as well, lead-follow plays a much bigger role.

Amendment:  Please do see the comments section of this post!  Why? Because Ellen so generously and eloquently clarified this detail, about Standard Ballroom dancers.  I am incorrect, it seems!  Standard dancers do have planned routines, and maybe even more so than other dancers!  Who knew?  See Ellen’s explanation!  The main idea is that there are only certain ways to get into and exit out of various steps (very true) so they have to be strung together in careful and meticulous order, which many times will require a pre-set routine.  And yes, I admit when I am wrong! LOL!  Love it!  Thank you for interacting, Ellen!  I appreciate you so very much.

Point 3: Scoring and points

Yeah, there are no paddles at competitions.  Instead, judges mark couples, ranking them or recalling them on forms which are collected and tabulated, and then at various intervals during the day there are awards.  The announcer quickly calls out who made 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in a particular heat.  That’s it.  You may get some gold stickers, or you may get some coupons for $1 off rounds if you compete again next year for placing, and a plaque for participating, but no mirror ball trophy.  Medals are sometimes given for placing in a scholarship competition (I will explain that in a bit).  But certainly no commentary on what each couple did well or any advice on how to improve like happens on DWTS.

Another difference is that because there are multiple couples competing at the same time, if there is a large heat, with many participants, it is possible that many rounds may have to be danced.  There can be multiple preliminary rounds, then quarterfinals, then semifinals, then finals.  During each iteration, a few of the couples will be eliminated.  In the earlier rounds where there are many couples on the floor, the judges simply vote to “recall” those couples they’d like to see more of.  The final round will consist of 6, maybe 7 couples, so getting to semifinals can be a real feat if there are like 24 couples entered in the competition.  Rounds like this can be found at bigger competitions like Ohio Star Ball, or Millennium, or USDC, but usually only happen for pros.  I’ve only ever had one heat large enough to require a semifinal.  All the other heats I’ve danced have always been a final right off the bat because there aren’t enough couples to warrant multiple rounds.

Once reaching the final, judges then place the couples as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.  Each judge gives his or her own individual opinion/ranking and these are tabulated.  This is why you see perhaps 33221 by the picture or write-up in the media of a couple that placed 3rd.  In this example, 2 judges placed the couple 3rd, two judges placed them 2nd, and 1 judge placed them 1st.  The couple with the most 1st’s wins and the ranking follows the same pattern.  Hopefully the rankings will agree somewhat, indicating that the positions were highly contested, and the the judges were generally on the same page as to the excellence of the the couples.  Sometimes, however, they may also vary widely.  A couple can miss a final round, or a higher placement by the opinion of just one judge.  Truly, for this reason, I have such respect for the strength of character and perservence of the pros who put themselves out there to compete.  It can be a brutal process sometimes and very difficult to convince the majority of judges to place you highly enough to reach any level of professional success.

Often competitors can obtain their scoresheets after the competition online to see how a particular judge placed them, or if that judge recalled them.  If the competitor knows the predilections of that judge, then they may gain insight in areas to work on.  For instance, some judges are known to focus in on toplines, others footwork, others overall presentation.  In addition, competitors can see if there was a wide variation in their placements, or if the judges generally agreed upon how they were placed, again giving them more of an idea of what to focus on in the future.

Here’s where I’m going to veer off the path laid by Alaina.

Point 4: Single dances versus Scholarship Rounds, Open versus Closed heats

Okay, so in competitions there are a variety of types of heats.  Single dances are just what they sound like.  You want to dance Mambo, you dance a Mambo.  You will dance it at the appropriate level and age category.  In America, there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels.  These may be further divided into “pre-” or “full” or “intermediate” levels.  For instance, as a way of stretching yourself, if you are ranked as a full-Bronze student, you may also participate in a pre-Silver level heat to see how you fare against more advanced competition.  In addition, you dance with people your same age, and can dance against those one age category below you.  This makes it fair so 20-year-olds aren’t competing against octagenarians.

Scholarship rounds are kind of like a mimic of what the pros do.  The pros don’t dance a single dance.  They dance all the dances in their category.  Now, for us beginners, they go a little easier on us.  First, for the lower levels like Bronze, you may only dance 3 or 4 of the dances required by the pros.  Also, the length of the heats is less – 1:10 minutes to 1:2o seconds versus about 2:00 minutes for pros.  Thank God, I have to say, because it takes time to build up the cardiovascular capacity and skill level necessary to complete all the dances for such a (relatively) long duration.  So for instance, I did a closed Bronze scholarship round in Latin at Desert Classic.  This meant that I danced 3 dances in a row: Samba, Cha cha, Rumba and was ranked on those compared to the other Pro/Am couples on the floor at the same time in my same skill level and age category.  No Paso Doble of Jive for me! (Thank heavens!  However, I did dance some single dances in Jive, separately)

Again the scholarship rounds are divided by skill level and age.  They can get very competitive, especially at the Open level.

Okay, now for the difference between Open and Closed.  Closed rounds are those that only include steps in the syllabus.  For NDCA events, this is the DVIDA syllabus.  Open rounds can include more creative choreography and include steps not strictly on the syllabus.  There can be open single dances as well as open scholarship rounds.  They can also still be divided by skill level, so for instance you can dance an open bronze Bolero or an open silver Waltz.

When pros compete, they are competing as an open.  Anyone can enter.  Though for Pro/Am and Amateur levels, the open scholarship rounds are generally still divided by age, but then again, you don’t usually see senior citizens in open professional competition, but you will see them in open Pro/Am scholarship rounds.

Hmm….well, that’s probably just scratching the surface of the differences between DWTS and a NDCA competition.  Honestly, if you’ve never been to one, it’s worth checking out.  The energy of the ballroom during pro heats is unbelievable.  And it’s so inspiring and incredible.  Though I love getting my DWTS fix, I love being a part of this other world and participating in the “real deal.”  There are a lot of ways to participate in ballroom and I’d encourage anyone to participate to any level that works for them, from social dancing, to full-on competition.  All are wonderful, and special, and important.  But for me, I’ve decided, it’s the competition route I’m interested in.  Yeah, I’m crazy.  I know.  Lol.

If you do happen to have anything to add, or any further questions, please comment!  I love hearing other perspectives, and about other experiences.  Part of what I’m after here on the blog is to build community.  Please join in the fun!