What Is It Really Like To Be An Amateur Competitive Ballroom Dancer?

So one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a trailer for this dance show called “The Studio” that is online.  I don’t know much about the program, or if they will have any more episodes, but I found the content fascinating.  You see, the pilot was about amateur competitive ballroom dancers (like me) and their professional partners as they prepared and competed at Hotlanta Dance Challenge.  I was curious to see how they would be portrayed and hunted down episode 1, the links to which I’ve posted below so you can watch for yourself.  Each episode is about 20 minutes or so, so make sure you have time to watch!  Of course, you know me.  I’m going to have my opinions.  And, I’m really interested to hear about yours as well.  It all seems especially apropos (yes!  How many times do you get to use that word in your life?!) since I’m 10 days away from my big competition!  I’m right in the middle of the preparation and can relate to these dancers.  Anyways, click below, watch, and enjoy, and then meet back up with me for some further commentary.

Pretty interesting, huh?

What did you think?

Me, well, parts I was rooting for people!  Parts, I was rolling my eyes.   Mostly, I was feeling like there is so much missing from the story!!!

Why?

Well, every ballroom dancer I know, including me, practices for hours and hours and hours.  Also, they didn’t show the actual dancing…that you do 4 or 5 dances in a row, at a minimum.  Like in my situation, I’m not just going and doing the scholarship round, I’m dancing all day long.  I’m betting these students danced lots too, at least more than they showed.  Probably they couldn’t show it because there was a contracted videographer at the competition (there always is…remember, nothing about ballroom comes cheaply!!), but that would have added an extra dimension to the story.  Like, how did they look compared to the other dancers on the floor?  Also, the results were only revealed for a few dances.  How did they do overall?  On other heats?

This project focused a little tiny bit on the practice and preparation that actually goes into showing up for a competition.  That is mostly what we students do.  It’s not all rhinestones and glamour.  It just isn’t.  It’s sweat, and tears, and triumph, and breakthroughs, and pains, and aches, and pushing your body beyond what you think it can do.  It is hours of repetition.  It is lots of money (a subject not even broached), and lots of time.  Simply stated, and I guess there’s a reason they don’t show all the “real life” stuff, it’s not all that shiny most of the time.  Most of the time it’s sweating in plain clothes, with blisters, with frustrations, with bills to pay.

But then there are those amazing sparkly moments!  I can’t wait to have a few of my own in like, 6 days OMG!

So anyways, what do you think of these videos?  I’m personally hungry to see more.  How do you think they did showing what it’s “really” like to be an amateur competitive dancer?  How is it the same, or different, from your personal experience?

Topical Series: What To Bring When You Are Competing

It’s on my mind.

In a few short weeks I’ll be dancing in a competition, which I haven’t done in 9 months, and my brain is aflurry with thoughts about all the preparations I’ll need to make before I go.  But what preparations do I need to make, you ask?  Besides practicing as much as possible, and getting into as best shape as possible, what else must be done?

First let me clarify: the kind of competition I’m thinking of here is a “full-glitz” one – not the kind you might find at a college with only amateur couples.  Those are absolutely great places to show off all your work, too, it’s just that I do pro-am and I personally haven’t done any competitions that weren’t geared for anything but the most over-the-top costumes, darkest tans, and craziest hair.  I don’t have experience to share around the kind of competition specifically, but I’m sure a lot of what I write will apply to any competition.  However, if any of you readers out there have advice, thoughts, experiences to share, especially about areas I miss or don’t know about, please do share!  Also, this is clearly from a feminine perspective!  I do think the guys have it easier when it comes to prepping for a dance competition – but guys, set me straight if I’m wrong!

So one of the items on my to-do list is to get a full set of pink and white nails put on.  And, they need to be longer than I’d ever seriously wear them in real life.  (You should see the set of talons Inna wears everyday.  She could paddle a boat with those suckers!  And, that gal is glamorous no matter what!)  But seriously, they add something.  Not only do they increase the length of lines you can create through your fingers, but they also draw attention as compared to natural nails.  And for me, they also make me pay more attention to what I am doing with my hands and fingers.  The devil is in the details, as they say, and to exude glamour in every way possible, including nails, helps create a fully polished look.  Plus, I just feel more feminine with a set of nails on.  I feel more girly, and that, of course, translates into how I move and interact with my partner.

The next item I’m debating is the fabled spray tan.  Why the debate?  Well, I don’t show much skin.  I pretty much cover myself completely and wear nylons and fishnets.  If I were showing more of my body, however, for me it would be a no brainer.  I do think the tans create a leaner, more toned appearance.

Okay, what else?  Well, one thing I didn’t really know about before I went to my first “real” competition, was the hair and make-up that is standard.  I did my own make up and hair the first two competitions I went to, and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, I felt a little out of place at the second one with my hair only in a bun because as I walked around I saw all these artistic hair sculptures adorning many of my competitors’ heads.  I had no idea that hair could be so elaborate!  For my third competition I discovered that you can actually hire someone to do your hair and make up for you.

Like I said, this is totally optional.  And for me, I’m more comfortable doing make-up than hair.  If I had to choose one to do myself to save some money, I’d do my own face, but you know what, at the point that you’ve committed to do a competition, it’s kind of a drop in the bucket to pay for this service.  It is a big event and one you want to enjoy.  If it makes it less stressful and more enjoyable for you to have someone pamper you and fix you up, well then, I highly recommend it!

The only issue with having your hair and/or make up done is making an appointment.  My goodness can they start early.  If the competition begins at 7am like some I’ve done, an appointment may need to start as early as 3:30am…remember you are not the only client!  There are other people who will have the same bright idea.  The earlier you can book your appointments before the competition, the better choice you are likely to have in terms of timing.

Okay, I just realized I forgot to mention one really, really big consideration!  The dress(es)!  Well, that’s cause I have one already.  But if you don’t already have your dress, you may need to have one made, purchase one, or rent one.  If you are going to have a dress custom-made, you will need to have started the process with lots of time to spare.  Dressmakers are often busy and there are usually multiple fittings necessary.  A month may not be enough time.  If you purchase a dress off the rack, you will still probably need to alter it, and you will want to have that done by someone who works with ballroom dresses regularly, not just your average tailor.  Finally, if you are renting, you will need to find a store that actually rents dresses (many don’t), and then try one the ones they have available.  In addition, sometimes dresses need to be shipped between locations so waiting to the last-minute for this is also not a good idea.

And don’t forget the jewelry!  You will want to accessorize your glamorous dress to complete the look.  This could come in the form of bedazzled earrings, a necklace, bracelets, or even hair ornaments.  It may take time to find the perfect accent piece.

Alrighty, assuming you have a dress, and you have a plan for your hair and make up, and you’ve got a tan or you are covered, what else do you need to think about for a competition?

I won’t claim to be the be-all-end-all expert on this, but here’s what I pack in my bag on the day of competition.  Again, those of you who have experience, please do share!

In my “gym bag” which I will bring with me to the competition (I’m doing a large number of heats, this may not be necessary for someone only competing in a single scholarship or something) I will have:

Ibuprofen – for aches and pains

Ace bandages – for my ankles which get swollen and sore (and in case of any pulled muscles)

bandaids, neosporin, and bandage tape.  I use the tape over bandaids if I get blisters because the bandaids will rub off and the tape is much more sturdy and will stay in place

Tums and/or Pepcid – for an upset stomach (likely to happen with nerves!)

You may laugh, but Immodium – just in case a nervous stomach turns into runny stools….the show must go on! (And can you tell I’m a pharmacist yet?)

Salted nuts – for electrolyte replacement, good fat, and energy

Gatorade – both the “fully leaded” kind with actual sugar, and the G2, sugar-free

A Gallon of water – dehydration is not your friend

A towel (I sweat A LOT).

Lipstick, mascara, eye pencil, lip liner, hairspray, bobbypins – touch-ups will be necessary

Feminine supplies…just in case

Safety pins – in case of a “wardrobe malfunction”

An extra pair of nylons and fishnets

Scissors – I’ve had the fringe on my dress go crazy and had to chop some errant strands off!

A sewing kit

Energy bars/fruit/quick easy snacks to keep energy up

Camera

Phone

Charger

Dance shoes

Those little clear plastic thingies you can put over smooth shoes to keep them from flying off your feet

A shoe brush (and shoes, of course go without saying.  It’d be interesting to see someone compete barefoot!)

A pen and highlighter – to keep track of when your heats are and which you have completed.  Some people also mark how they place.  You may also meet a friend and want to exchange information.

A Ziploc bag – to keep stickers or tickets or whatever they give you if you place in various heats

An iPod full of my favorite music with sound-cancelling headphones – to pump myself up!

A few bucks and some change for a soda or something from a vending machine if needed

Breath mints

Extra rhinestones and glue – those little gems do fall off!

Many will find this item controversial, but I’ll probably bring a Diet Rockstar (or two) or something similar in case I start to really drag and need a quick pick-me up.  I know these aren’t really that “good” for you but sometimes they are just the ticket.  Again, those who have alternatives that work, please do share.

One item I’d like to find before I go are some bedazzled slippers.  My friend Ceci had a glamorous pair that she wore between long stretches of heats to get her placements and such.  It was much better than staying in heels all day long, and still looked nice…nicer than my ratty Ugs would be!  Trust me, if you are a doing a lot of heats, you will want some shoe alternatives during your down time.

Also, a cover up is a must.  This is an item I haven’t had and always wished I did.  Many people use a silk robe and oftentimes it is embossed with their studio logo.  In any case, covered up you won’t feel like a sparkly freak if you choose to go to the cafe for a quick coffee or something and don’t have time to fully change, plus there’s less chance of damaging your dress if it’s covered.

and finally….

A BIG SMILE!  I’m going to be competing and dancing my heart out!  I’ve prepared for a long time and paid a lot of money.  I’m going to enjoy every single second!  Yay!

Topical Series: Being in Your Body/Being in your “Head”

I’ve neglected writing a post for my “topical series” lately and this was the one someone mentioned they were interested in reading so I thought I’d tackle it as my first one back.

To understand the concept I’m going to discuss, it’s important to realize that I’m coming from the paradigm that we, as human beings, are multifaceted entities composed of a mind, a body, and a spirit or heart.  I believe we are actually spiritual beings having a human experience, if you will, and as part of that experience, we all get a body.  This is the physical, material part of us, and of course the part we use to dance.

The spirit or heart, is our essence.  It is what leaks out of us, is expressed, when we allow it to shine through whatever it is we are doing.  The heart/spirit is our “beingness” which we sense in others and ourselves though activities….our “doingness.”  The mind, is the part of us that observes, analyzes, thinks, and assigns meaning to events.  There are various parts of the mind, like the more reptilian, survival-based mind, and also the more highly developed mind, the part we use to communicate, create, and conceptualize the world around us.

I feel that the heart/spirit is what we, as dancers, wish to reveal to ourselves and others though our dancing.  This could be done in a variety of ways, but for dancers, we do it through the medium of movement melded with music (oh!  That was some serious alliteration.  hee hee.)  Our media is our body.  Others may do it through singing, writing, painting, creating a computer program, designing a building made of legos.  Basically we can do it via anything we love doing, our “bliss,” our passion, from singing an aria to trimming shrubs, anything we love doing can be a medium through which we express ourselves.  Truthfully, this spirit and heart can shine through no matter how skilled, or not, we are in our particular field, but we generally like to work on our area of interest to improve as much as we can so that it can be expressed more clearly.

But sometimes we get our own way.  There are blocks and impediments the spirit encounters on its path through our activities.  We hold back.  We edit ourselves.  We decide we are not good enough in whatever way to really let ourselves be seen.

One of the ways we, as dancers, can do this, is by being in our head.   When we are “in our head” all of our consciousness, all of our beingness, all of our focus and attention, is on what we are thinking.  And sadly, oftentimes, our thoughts aren’t even anything worthy of thinking!  How much energy do we all pour into comparing ourselves to others, or imagining what others might think of us if we did such and so, even if it is in alignment with who we really are.  One of the major mental traps we can fall into concerning dancing is getting stuck on an intellectual understanding of a dance step.  We think we can understand every little technical detail of a particular step and thus perform it.  Any dancer knows however, from experience, this is generally not the case.  Though both mind and body must be integrated in order to fully allow our spirit out, if only one aspect is functioning (mind or body), the spirit is blocked.  It is like reading about how a strawberry tastes and actually eating a strawberry.  You can’t intellectually capture the entire experience.  Intellectually understanding the nuances of the flavors of a strawberry, how much salt, sweet, and bitter elements it contains, how many parts per million of magnesium it contains, doesn’t compare to actually tasting the strawberry.  We could chemically break down the fruit, know all its parts, but just as we are, the strawberry is more than the sum of the atoms that make it up.

When we are 100% in our head, we are not in our body.  Have you ever been driving and then arrived at your destination not remembering the trip?  You were probably in your head (or out in the spirit ethers!)  But either way, you were not fully present with your physical surroundings.

Some people are very scattered.  Their mind is on a thousand things from their grocery list to their tax return.  They are focused on a myriad of life details, even if only in the background.  There is no calm or silence in their mind.  The chatter is constant distraction.  Again, they can not be fully present in the moment.  Their mind is split.  Kind of on the task at hand, but also on other activities.  This is like driving and texting.  You can’t do either job well and risk catastrophe when your attention is divided.

So basically, being in your head, is being captivated by what you are thinking about even if it has nothing to do with what is actually going on in the present moment.  When being in your head, you will have little or no sense of your body, its position, where it is in space.   The body becomes mentally “invisible,” unimportant, and insignificant.  I spend a large portion of my day at my new job in my head.  I verify prescriptions, mentally processing information, and making decisions about the correctness, accuracy, and appropriateness of various medications as well as routing them to the proper department.  Being in your head (or your body) is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, and it is sometimes necessary to accomplish our aims.  However, being in your head (or body) to the exclusion of the other entirely, can become a hinderance.

Sometimes, we are so in our heads that we are only snapped to attention by pain.  Our physical body may need to send the signal of pain to bring our awareness back to the body.  That, or we have to pee.  I’m just sayin’!  It has to make us aware of its needs, and we can become so skilled at ignoring the body that it must metaphorically “scream” with pain to get our attention.

Alright, hopefully now, you understand what it is to “be in your head.”  So what is it to “be in your body?”

Well, I personally, am rarely only in my body.  Much effort has been expended to develop my mind through education and such but I have expended less to develop my body.  Perhaps that is exactly why I’m so fascinated with ballroom dancing.  It calls me back to my body.  It provides the means to restore balance to my “beingness.”

But, there are rare instances where I have been in my body.  The most striking have been when I have danced with Ivan with my eyes closed.  In those instances, I’ve had to put all my consciousness into my body and sense with more than my normal five senses, where he is in relation to me and what he is leading.  In those rare instances, I’ve acted solely on “instinct” using only the information gathered from feeling.  I think (what an ironic thing to say) that to be in the body is to feel.  To feel with all the senses.  To be completely transfixed upon the sensations of the body, where it is, how it is positioned, where it is going, where it is in relation to other people and objects, and so forth.

For instance, I can focus on my toes.  When I do this, my consciousness goes to that area of my body.  I suddenly feel where they are.  I feel the air around them, or the socks, or the shoes I’m wearing.  I am aware of my feet.  If I then move my focus upwards, I can feel my ankles, or my hips, or my fingers, say.  I suddenly become aware of my body and all its bits and pieces.  So to be in my body is to sense my physical presence.

In addition, and this may sound “woo woo” but when I am in my head, this feels up high in my energetic being.  It is centered around my head, or even higher.  When I am in my body, this feels more grounded.  I feel more connected to the earth.  It feels to be positioned lower in my energetic being.

Now the magic.

When I am balanced between the two, I am in my heart center.  This is located, energetically, in my chest where the heart is located.  This is the integration, the marriage and merging, of the mind and body.

This is the space, so rarely alit upon, when mind and body are in balance.  When I can feel and sense and be aware of my bodily parts and its relation in space and at the same time allow enough of my mind to be aware and open to interpret and respond to information coming my way.

You know, now that I’ve written about 1500 words, I’m thinking that this is not the easiest subject to broach!  I hope I’ve explained it in a such a way that you have a better understanding than you did before.

But I’m open to feedback!

How do YOU experience “being in your head” or “being in your body?”   What does that look or feel like?  What is the “ideal’ state when dancing?

One final thought…Here are a few ‘exercises’ I’ve devised that might facilitate the process of “getting into the body” before a dance lesson.   (As an aside here, I think sometimes we “teach” what we most need to learn….hmmmm.   Probably some activities I should be incorporating in my own regime, yes!)

Well, here goes:

1)  Focus on your feet.  Feel them.  Feel your shoes or the floor.  Go up on your toes.  Come back down and feel your heels touch the floor.

2)  Bring golf balls or tennis balls and roll them under your feet.  This will bring awareness to your feet.

3)  Touch your heart, as if you were saying the pledge of allegiance!  This is your heart center.  Bring your awareness to this area of your body and notice how it feels.  Notice if you sense any other feelings, any expansion.

For me, I’m now conditioned to be in my head more than in my body.  I need to bring awareness to my body more so than my mind.  If the reverse were true, there’d be different exercises!  Maybe doing a math problem, or thinking of how to say a sentence in a foreign language.

Hopefully, you get the idea.  You can certainly devise your own “exercises.”  And if you have any that work for you, please share them here.

The Politics of Dancing

Well, lots has happened since I last sat down to write a post.

In this “webisode” of my dancing life we’ll peruse a lesson with Mr. Ivan, including a special practice session, and we’ll recount a night at The People’s Choice dance competition that I spent with dear ballroom friends.  Lastly, I will opine about, well, the title of this post.  The glorious politics of dancing.  Who knew?  I thought it was just the title of a catchy song.

So rewind to yesterday morning, 10 am when I arrived for my lesson with Ivan at Dance Starz.  It was a great lesson, as always, but there were some extra twists that made it especially wonderful.  First, well, we did some work on cardio.  Ivan really pushed me with Samba and Cha Cha and although it made my legs wobbly, it was a good thing.  We both agree this is one of the things that holds me back most and that we should work on it.  I am hoping to get some time today after packing up my office (we are moving in a week) to put together a playlist where I can cut songs for each of the 5 dances in American Rhythm, the 4 Smooth dances, and Latin Samba, Rumba, Cha Cha and maybe Jive together in a row at 2 minutes each with 10 seconds of rest.  That way, on every lesson, we can just blast through the dances as if we were in competition and I can begin to build up some endurance.  I remember doing this with my first dance instructor and it worked well to help condition me.  I think that with a little over a month to prepare it will make a difference and help me survive the competition a bit better.

Next, we practiced presentation and winning.  I never understood why presentation was so important in ballroom before being a “ballroomer” myself.  I thought it was kind of weird, coming from a jazz/ballet background, all the parading and grandstanding that goes on before the dancers even take their first step.  A little presumptuous, I thought.  But now I kind of get it.  Kind of like how I now appreciate International Standard and Smooth dances when before I didn’t “get” them and didn’t think they looked that impressive.  How wrong I was!

So anyways, all the presentation, it reflects how a couple owns their space on the dance floor, and their confidence.  I swear you can sometimes tell who will win (or “should” win) just by their presentation.  Whoever presents themselves with calm confidence, ease, grace, well, they will also probably dance that way.  If a couple presents with overexhuberant, chaotic energy, well, they’ll probably dance like that too.  It reminds me of the class with Inna when she acted out the three couples walking on the dance floor.  The presentation is important – it’s part of the entire package.  So much of ballroom is about that.

Indeed, I thought it was kind of silly to practice this stuff when I first got into ballroom.  I wanted to get to the “meat” of the dancing.  Skip the fluff and just get to my Cha Cha basic.  But I’ll never forget my first coaching.  It was with Igor Suvarov.  He coaches Artem and Inna and they had him come when they were at the studio with my old instructor.  Well, I’d had zero experience with Standard at that point but I was up for any coaching opportunity that came my way.  Anyways, all we did was work on getting into frame.

Honestly, I felt completely unprepared and a little embarrassed that my instructor (at the time) and I had not spent anytime practicing this aspect of the dance.   It was then that I began to have my first inkling about how important all the presentation and preparation to dance really is in ballroom.

One bright aside, although the coaching was on the most elementary of subjects, and I had no idea how to do that properly, toward the end of the session Igor placed me in the proper frame position and something pretty cool happened.  He put me where I was supposed to be, with my arms out like wings, my chest up and arched back, my neck in alignment, and he was like, “Oh, I’ve never seen anyone get into that position after one try.  You should come to Los Angeles to train with me.”  He was kidding, of course, but I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to be acknowledged like that.  It made me feel like maybe there was a real dancer in me yet.

Okay, so back to the presentation stuff on my lesson with Ivan.

We walked around the studio arm in arm.  One of my old ballet habits is to walk on my toes and to try to be as silent as possible.  My former dance teacher, Glenda, was always admonishing us to not “sound like elephants” running across the stage.  But in ballroom, this won’t do.  I would try to do my ballet walk with Ivan and pretty much couldn’t keep up.  He was like, “Why you walking like this, with a stick up your butt.  Walk normal!”

It was a revolutionary idea.  Really?  Walk normally?  Not “dance-y?”  With all the presentation stuff in ballroom and how important it is, and you’re supposed to walk like normal when getting places on the ballroom floor?  It boggled my mind.  But, that’s the way to do it so I practiced stomping around.

So anyways, we walked a lot and then Ivan started running.  He put his hand out as if to give me a high-five.  I was like, what?  He was like, “Haven’t you seen this presentation?  You do a high-five and then spin out.”  “Nope.  Haven’t seen it, or if I have, didn’t take note of it.”  So we practiced that, but it felt kind of out of control and really big.  I kind of can’t imagine actually doing that but maybe we will at Desert Classic.  Who knows.  And I will say that I saw many couples doing it as I watched the People’s Choice last night, so it seems to be a pretty popular presentation style.

But then we practiced winning!  What?  You say.  Yes!  We walked over to one of the large trophies on a table at the studio and picked it up.  Ivan played the announcer.

“And now, first place, Stefanie and Ivan!  From Phoenix, Arizona.”

“Yay!”

I lifted the trophy above my head, and we posed for a picture.

“One more!”  Ivan exclaimed.

“Oh, I need to turn my foot out!  Have to make it look pretty!”

With big smiles it was fun to pose and practice being a champion.  Why not, you know!!?  It’s important to practice these things.  And it is always an adventure with Ivan.

Now fast forward to the evening.  I met up with Colette who, booger, didn’t tell me she was competing.  Apparently she didn’t know until Monday that she was going to dance Thursday.  But it went well!  And she did share one photo with me that she gave me permission to post on the blog.  All my friends are so gorgeous!

Well, anyways, I missed seeing her actually dance but she will be there with me at Desert Classic so I’ll get to see her boogie woogie then.  But we sat next to each other for the evening session, along with Rebecca, Toni, Katie, and Ceci.  Plus, I got to see lots of other familiar faces at the event.  Turns out ballroom is kind of a small world.  If you start going to competitions, you begin to see the same people again and again.

Well, we had an absolute blast cheering and hooting and screaming ourselves silly for Ivan and Marietta as they competed in the open professional American Rhythm championship.  I know that I’m biased because Ivan is my instructor and friend, but I just love the way he and Marietta dance.  I honestly prefer them over any other couples I saw on the dance floor, including the ones that placed first.  Ivan and Marietta came in second which was fantastic, but they have such great technique and an amazing connection.  I wish they’d get first once in a while because sometimes they really deserve it, in my humble opinion.  They actually look like they are enjoying dancing together.  In fact, Collette even blurted out, in an uncensored moment, that it was “getting hot in here” as they performed their Rumba.  That’s no joke.

But alas, it seems, from my perspective, that the placements are already somewhat decided no matter what happens during one particular night on the dance floor.  It feels like no matter what, certain couples are going to be positioned in a particular order, and that just stinks from a spectator perspective.  It feels unfair – like it’s not a level playing field, so to speak.  So what’s the point in having a competition if the ending is predetermined?  It’d be like watching Lakers versus the Suns and no matter how many baskets the Suns made, the Lakers would be awarded the win by a panel of judges.

It’s a sticky subject, I know, and in the case of my favorite couple, of course I’m biased!  I feel as though I can separate technique and objectively tell if there is a better couple out on the dance floor, but because of my bias, I can’t know that that is absolutely true.  I mean, there have been dances that I haven’t thought Ivan and Marietta did the best on.  They don’t get blanket adoration, you know?  They’re not perfect.  I’m just acknowledging that I may be somewhat blind to any minor weaknesses they have because I care for them.  Anyways, last night they were “on.”  They moved me the most.  I thought they should have won.  But, I’m not the judge.

You know, the situation is what it is.  I think any time you have people involved, you are going to have some sort of politics.  I don’t claim to know how widespread or deep or even how such things work in the ballroom world, but it feels like it is one of those things that exists but isn’t really talked about or even acknowledged.  It’s just this thing operating behind the scenes in the background affecting how the sport is played.  It’s tough, you know, because ballroom isn’t a sport that can be objectively scored.  There aren’t baskets to count, or a time in seconds to beat.  The competitors look different, dress different, and do different choreography.  Of course placement is going to be subjective and depend upon who is watching and who else is on the dance floor at the same time.  But I think we all know greatness when we see it.  We all can feel when we are emotionally moved.  We may not agree on who is number one, but we can probably agree who should be in the the top or bottom of the bunch.  We can see who has nice technique and who is sloppy or chaotic or uncontrolled.  We can see who is boring and who is not.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about all this political stuff.  Maybe it is fair and and unbiased and everyone who dances does have an equal chance of winning, and rankings are based solely on the merits of how a couple performs that night in comparison to the other couples on the dance floor.  I’m simply sharing my experience and feeling.  It’s an opinion, and what feels true for me, but maybe not necessarily “the truth.”

But what do you think?  What has your experience been regarding “the politics of dancing” in the ballroom arena?  Am I off my rocker about this?  And what does it mean anywyay?  So what if things are political?  Why does it even matter?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

Topical Series: Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

Not one to shy away from a touchy issue, I’m going to dare to broach the subject of money in the context of ballroom.

Oh, there are group lessons you can find as inexpensive as $5, but if you are a competitive amateur student and ballroom junkie like me, private lessons with an experienced (and maybe even some less experienced) instructor can easily cost upwards of $75 a pop. Yes, there are some cheaper lessons out there….the lowest I’ve heard of is $60….but there is also the other end of the spectrum of $100 or even $125 per lesson. For a professional who is a champion or a pro on DWTS, they can probably charge whatever they want.

For someone who dances like me, ballroom rivals, and I think exceeds, the financial cost of a another expensive sport and hobby, golf.

No doubt about it, ballroom is an expensive pastime, but where does all that money go? Why are lessons so expensive? Why would anyone in their right mind (including me) pay upwards of $50 to dance for a mere minute-and-a-half in competition? Truly, it boggles the mind.

I want to tackle this topic in a sensitive way but I do think the questions are valid. Again, this is just my perspective, and I am sure there are many others. I am open to your commentary and feedback.

I guess I’ll start by explaining why I am willing to pay such a premium.

The most basic and personally compelling reason is because I enjoy doing it. But for someone new to dancing, or for someone just new to the ballroom world, even this valid reason may not be enough to justify the expense in some people’s minds.

I mean, all the ballet and jazz dancing I did in the past, though associated with a hefty price tag, still never approached the cost of ballroom. I attribute this to the fact that the classes were group, never private, and recitals were infrequent events. Even the costumes were less expensive, never being bedazzled with Swarvosky crystals.

But in ballroom, the way I dance, it is mostly private, one-on-one lessons. So part of the expense can be explained by this fact.

Next, I consider the extensive training and expertise and experience of my instructors. They, too, have poured literally thousands of hours and dollars into their own dance training. Their education, just like that of other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists, is extensive and expensive! It’s just that their process looks different and doesn’t take place in a traditional college or university most of the time.

I have to say, that at the going rate, I consider Ivan’s rate to be a steal and I am more than happy to pay the monthly fee at Imperial for the group lessons with Inna. I have garnered great value from my money and time. So for me, even though I’m like, ugh! I wish things were less expensive overall, I am grateful to get such a comparative bargain. I feel like my ballroom dollars go a long way.

Also, I will mention one caveat here – there do exist different levels of experience and expertise when it comes to instructors. Some are worth more than they charge, and some charge more than they should! Certainly an important consideration on where to spend your money will be the level and experience of your instructor. The same $75 can buy you a varying degree of value! Make sure to do your due diligence and research your options before committing to an instructor – especially if you have to purchase a package that will entail multiple lessons with that same person.

Okay. So the process of becoming a professional dancer is expensive. Just like the process of becoming another traditionally recognized professional is.

But still, what about competing? Why is that an astronomically expensive prospect?

Okay well, on some level, that makes sense too.

First off the “daily fee” for an instructor.

I’ve heard variations from $180 to $25,000 per diem cost. Why? Well, because a dance teacher’s income is dependent upon lessons. If a person is gone say, from Thursday through Sunday, as most competition schedules would have you be, then an instructor misses out on all those lessons that would normally take place on those days. Which days do you suppose have the highest volume of lessons? Well, Thursday through the weekend, of course…that is when most people have spare time, right? And as for the variation in daily fees, that has to do with how highly ranked the professional is, how many lessons they generally conduct, and how much individual lessons cost….

For instance, in practical terms, let’s do some theoretical projections.

Say a person charges $75 per lesson and they teach 6 lessons a day…that’s $450 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

If a person charges $100 per lesson, and teaches 10 lessons daily…that’s $1000 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

So I, in theory, agree with the daily fee idea because it makes a bit of sense. However, as a student who bears that burden of making up the difference, I do find that it makes the decision to compete a bit harder.

I mean, to be able to afford an extra $1000 per day after also paying for airfare and hotel lodgings, not to mention $45 to $50 or perhaps even more per heat, and also considering the cost differential for scholarship rounds and solos…sheesh! It is a lot to take on. And that doesn’t even take into account purchasing or renting a dress or getting your hair and make-up done, the nails, the nylons, the shoes, the eyelashes, the spray tan.

And by the way, why are individual heats so costly? $50 per 1.5 minutes? WTH?

From what I understand, the cost is made up of two fees: the fee for the competition, and the fee for the instructor. The fee for the competition is usually around $35 to $40 and then the fee from the instructor can range from $15 to $25 or maybe even more, depending on the caliber of the instructor. So this means that one dance could cost $45 to $70 or more.

I honestly don’t know the exact rationale behind these charges, but I’m sure the cost associated with the competition covers the sunk costs: hotel space being used, the DJ, the staff, the adjudicators, etc., which can’t be cheap!

But no one really breaks down all the fees, usually. I think what normally happens is that students are presented with a lump sum. Some instructors may split the costs of housing and lodging and transportation between students if more than one goes, but I think it is possible that they could still charge separate daily fees, or also divide that cost up and share it among multiple students. But even so, it is pretty rare to know the details of the total bill.

And of course then there are the packages at the comp. Packages cover nights in the hotel, some meals, and tickets into the ballroom sessions. So even before you dance, there is a basic fee just to be present. Then it gets more expensive the more you dance.

By looking at the bill, as a student, you may then wonder at the cost and ponder why, if you are paying so much, your instructor isn’t a millionaire, already? I mean, most professionals can’t demand $75 or more for less than an hour! That is significantly more than I make as a pharmacist!

I certainly don’t have all the answers here….but here are my thoughts and guesses. First, maybe the instructor is making a good living. They have what we students want and are willing to pay for. But the volume of lessons can vary considerably. People move, or get injured, or only take lessons to prepare for their wedding. People switch instructors. The turnover in students can be very high. An instructor’s schedule may not be completely booked solid. Even at $100 per lesson, if a pro only teaches a few lessons a week, it could be hard to make ends meet.

Next, most pros are going to want to continue to hone their craft. This means they have to pay to be a student! Whether through videos or workshops or coachings, they must pay, often at an even higher premiums for high-level coaches than students pay, to participate. For especially well known coaches, this may also include hosting the coach locally – paying all traveling and lodging expenses plus showing the coach a good time.

Then, if the pro competes professionally, they have to pay the entry fees at the comp. I have no idea the pricing on that, but just like we amateurs, they have to have the clothes, and hair, etc. plus, they generally compete more frequently than students. They have to hoof it week in and week out. They have to pay all the costs associated with competing and if no students participate, they bear all that financial burden alone. Also, they must continually change their image. It may be okay to wear a dress a few times but no more than that. The pros have to maintain the illusion of effortless glamour and grandeur and this means new dresses, different hair styling, and a different “look” to keep things exciting.

I personally own just one dress and it cost more than my wedding gown. To imagine having to obtain a new dress every few months, with all it’s fringe and crystals and sequins, is a daunting prospect.

It makes me wonder if there is still a hidden agenda to keep ballroom “exclusive” meaning that only those in the upper classes can participate in it. I’m just sayin’ that ballroom dancing is not very accessible to the general public, the hoi paloi if you will. And that, I personally believe, is a shame.

I wish ballroom were more available and accessible to anyone who had an interest regardless of their socio-economic standing.

I suppose that if a person were truly and deeply motivated, they’d find a way to participate in this sport – however, the price of playing, even at a novice level, makes the chances of someone casually engaging in this particular craft pretty darn slim. And that is too bad. I’d like to see people have more options and access, at least at the beginning levels so they could discover if this was something they’d want to pursue. (For the purposes of this discussion we are only considering competitive ballroom. Yes, there are less expensive ways to dance such as doing Amateur only events or social dancing or taking classes at the local community college. For many people this works great. But for others we want that competitive experience.)

So anyways, competitive pro/am ballroom isn’t for the person without some expendable income. I personally just accept that this is the price to play as a participant in the ballroom game. Whether I agree with the fees, or not, to do this particular activity, I must pay in dollars what I must pay. I mean, every moment is a choice and every choice has prices and benefits. I guess, for me, the benefits outweigh the prices, even at $75 or more per 45 minutes. If you’ve read my blog you’ll probably be able to see the value I’ve garnered from my interactions and many times there is no dollar amount that could possibly be assigned to what I have gained.

So what is your take on the sensitive issue of money in ballroom? How does it affect your decisions to participate in various activities? Do you think it is worth the cost?

Topical Series #3: I’m A Free Agent

Ooohhh, I’m a bit nervous writing this post, but I think it is a very important subject that is not often talked about. It kind of relates to my previous post about when learning to dance that you make sure you find an instructor that can teach in a way that you can understand and process. And if it’s not working out, to feel free to move on to a different instructor who can suit your needs. Sometimes that can be a little tricky. One of those situations where it is easier said, than done.

The topic I’m talking about is whether or not as a dance student we are free agents, at liberty to dance with whichever instructor we desire and the sometimes-weird possessiveness that the instructor or studio may exhibit for his/her/its students.

When it all boils down, I personally believe that I am the customer, I am the one paying to learn, and I should be able to go wherever I want to do that.

However, it actually isn’t as black and white as that. It isn’t as easy to navigate as one might think.

Hopefully you can avoid some of the difficulties I’ll mention by doing “dancer-views” before settling on a particular instructor. I plan to write a post later on about how to go about the process of finding and selecting an instructor, so I’ll leave that for another time. However, even if you do your due diligence, it may not always be possible to stay with your current instructor indefinitely. Life happens. I’m with my third instructor, and in both previous cases, there were life events that pushed that change along.

But for now (and for what I hope is a long, long time to come) as you know from the blog, my primary instructor is Ivan, who is an independent dance instructor. He is my #1. Any place I go to take group classes or whatever (unless it is just social dancing or I’m not there enough for it to matter and it’s none of their business) is aware of my instructor. Conversely, Ivan is aware that I take group classes at Inna’s studio, and I often inform him if I go social dancing as well, out of courtesy.

With Ivan, he has made it clear that if I want to dance with other instructors for ballroom, then I need to not dance with him. Coaching would be a different situation, or a lesson with Marietta or Nona as a one time deal for styling or something would be fine too, and he’d know about it.

But if I want to learn something that he doesn’t have expertise in, like West Coast Swing, or Argentine Tango, then I just have to tell him my desire and he’d be cool with that. That is the arrangement we have set up. But the point is, we had a conversation about it. At no point did I go behind his back and do things. I wouldn’t want to risk losing him as an instructor. We have this agreement set up and I respect it.

Somehow, however, I’ve managed to be dancing at like three different places (sometimes more), but this is not, from what I’ve heard, the “norm” when it comes to ballroom dancing. And if you are going to go that road, it is extremely, extremely important to be respectful of the professionals at each location, as well as their students, and the relationships between them. It is extremely, extremely important to be upfront and clear on what relationship you have to each place you dance. Otherwise, things can get very messy, very quickly!

From my past personal experience, and from that of others who have shared with me, some teachers and studios can become almost possessive of their students. I can even understand it, to a point. They want to protect their business and that only makes sense. However, I feel like it comes from a scarcity mindset – the idea that the instructor or studio has to keep the student away from any other dance influences for fear that the new or different dance instructor or class may “steal” the student away is focused on a fear of losing something. From my perspective, it isn’t possible to steal a student. If you are providing the value a student is looking for, they won’t go anywhere, no matter how many “other” group classes they take, or instructors they are exposed to. This would be an abundant mindset.

If a student leaves, that is some feedback for you. Dare to ask the questions about why the person left and work to amend the area of weakness. Sadly, many professionals and studios don’t see it that way. They see it as a cut-throat business and rivalries with bad-blood can exist, especially if a student is particularly bad about “studio-hopping.” (You have to know that some people just cannot be pleased, no matter what!)

But the fact is, some of the studios just don’t offer everything a person might be looking for. Not everyone offers Lindy Hop, or ballet. If I can’t get those at my primary studio, and I want them, I should be at liberty to go elsewhere to find them. My primary studio can always take that as feedback and grow such areas if they so desire. But to prevent me, threaten me, or guilt me into not doing more dancing if I have that desire, I feel is poor behavior. To allow myself to let any threat, or guilt deter me from what I really want is not okay either.

However, there is really something to be said for sticking with one instructor or studio when its good for you, even if it is tough. Sometimes there are issues to work through, even if you adore your instructor. I’ve had a lesson or two with Ivan where we had to get clear on a few things and it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. But I’d choose being uncomfortable and having open, honest communication, than to lose a fab instructor any day of the week. That is just me.

Again, as mentioned in a previous post, there isn’t necessarily one “right” way, the be-all and end-all way of dancing. That means that each instructor you learn from will give you some similar information, and some very different information than others. This can be very confusing and muddle the clarity of your dancing. A person has to be careful of not always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It might be very green right where you are. Sticking it out with your instructor may be the best choice you ever make. Also, if you do decide to receive instruction from multiple sources, be aware that you may need to filter some of the information and make sure that you apply those things that will best serve you while leaving the rest behind. This will take discernment on your part.

If the time does come when you feel the need to change instructors, I’d encourage you to do it in as clean, clear, and honest manner as possible. Although some people just stop taking lessons, not only can this strain your relationship with the instructor and the studio, but it steals the opportunity for the instructor or studio to respond to your issue, and even if the issue can’t be amended, it robs them of the feedback you could provide so they don’t recreate the same pitfall with another student.

So, to answer the primary question of this post, am I a free agent? Yes…and no. Yes, because I take classes at a variety of places that I feel will enhance and enrich my dancing. But no, because I am very clear that Ivan is my primary ballroom instructor and I’m not going anywhere else for that. I mean, the entire relationship is built on trust. You can’t have trust if you are not engaging in open, honest communication or going behind someone’s back. I guarantee it will show up in your dancing.

What about you? Do you only dance with one instructor at one location? Why? How does that work for you? Or do you dance a lot of places? What positive or negative experiences can you share around that? What advice would you give someone who was considering dancing more than one place or changing instructors? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

-Stef

Topical Series #2: How Do You Learn To Dance?

Inspired by the very interesting commentary from two readers (Aurora – which if you haven’t checked out her website, you should!  Her photography is awesome and very creative, and Speaker In Heels, who is an amazing lady Ellen I featured in this post and who created her own website where you can buy, sell, and trade shoes), I want to tackle the topic of how a person learns how to dance.

It’s not really something I’d ever thought about before except that people often tell me that I pick steps up quickly.  I simply attributed this to the many years of practice I had learning combinations in ballet and jazz.  My instructor would demonstrate little combinations before we did each exercise at the barre, and then other ones when we went across the floor.  We had to remember what we were supposed to do in a short amount of time, often only being shown the exercises on the right foot and then being told to reverse it once we switched sides at the barre to work the left leg.

I have no doubt that the practice helped.  I learned little tricks, like if you are doing an odd number of movements and you want your working leg to end in back, it has to start in back – aka the same place you want it to end, you start.  If you do an even number of movements, you must have your leg in the opposite position – aka start in the front if you want to end in the back.

I also learned to “chunk” information.  This is a technique also used in memorizing academic material.  Instead of remembering each individual move I was to make, I’d group them.  So instead of remembering individual letters of a word (h.e.l.l.o), say, I’d remember the entire word (hello).  For instance: If I was to do tendu front, tendu side, tendu back, frappe back, frappe side , frappe front, I’d remember only 3 tendus going around and 3 frappes going around in reverse. These little “shortcuts” made remembering the combinations a little easier.

I notice that I do much better with short-term memorization than long-term.  Ivan has to show me steps a few times before I actually remember them.  Like he can show me a combination and I can usually pick it up fairly quickly and perform it with him in the moment, but if I come back to a lesson even just two days later, I will have forgotten how the combination goes.

And it always helps if I’ve had at least a little instruction in the dance step previously.  There was one lesson at Inna’s where I went to the International Standard Ballroom class and pretty much froze.  I have done so little Quickstep and she had us doing what was considered a basic combination around the floor, and I couldn’t keep up.  It is much harder for me to see what I am supposed to be doing in Smooth or Standard Ballroom.  It helps so much to have the reference point of the leader’s body positioning to know what I’m supposed to do.

One of the biggest challenges I had when I first started ballroom dancing was how to practice on my own.  Seriously, I only knew the basic box steps in all the dances, even though we would do much more than that on lessons.  I simply couldn’t do any other steps without my partner.  Dancing the half of the choreography that I was responsible for by myself was confusing and mystifying.  I also found it difficult to learn the steps alone because it is so different from jazz or ballet where the focus is usually a place in the room, rather than orbiting around another human being.  And here I was trying to dance around a human being that wasn’t there!

What I needed were practice drills.  Combinations of moves either across the floor or in place that would let me practice all the movements I’d need to make.  I learned one in Rumba from the mother of my disappearing instructor but no more until I went to class with Inna.  Pretty much drills are all we do and they are great.  It takes a lot more energy to move myself by myself in the drills than to do them with the assistance of Ivan, my instructor.  Plus, I really have to know exactly what I am doing to execute the drill successfully.

Beyond that, besides just learning the actual steps, I am also interested in learning the shapes my body is supposed to make as compared to those made by the body of the instructor.  I want to match them as much as I can.  I use the mirror a lot because I think I am a very visual learner.  This is my learning strength.

My learning weakness is on the anyalytical side – the details.  For instance, I may know a move, but I may not know what it’s called.  I am also undisciplined about counting.  I now know the general gist of things, the counts for the main dance basic steps, but I’m not that detail-oriented in nature (I rarely count aloud or in my head, but rather dance to the beat of the music).  Some people know all the counts, the beats, the names of the steps, the way you should face in the ballroom along the line of dance, center or wall, you know, all the little minutiae.  I think probably my engineer dance friends would be like that.  Randall keeps detailed notes after every lesson.  But me, I just kind of feel the musical rhythm, tune into my partner, and see what he is doing and follow.  To me, there is head knowing (all the details), and then the body knowing (getting those details into muscle memory).  Learning both is probably best but I rely on learning through my body more than my brain, I think.

Based on the comments from both Ellen and Aurora, there are many different (and opposite) ways people learn.  People can dance from their head or from their body.  The point is, no matter how you learn, no matter how fast or slow it comes in relation to other people, we are all still dancing!

Of course there is no one right way to learn.  Probably the most important thing would be to find an instructor that can effectively communicate information in a way you can process.  Like for me to have an instructor who told me all the details, I’d go absolutely nuts!  I need someone to just start moving, then fill me in on the few details I really need to know.  On the flip side, a person who is more analytical might freak if a person just started moving them – they’d want to know what they were going to do mentally before they did it physically.

You and I will probably get the most out of our lessons when we work with an instructor that can teach material in a way we can absorb.  Think about how you learn when you are looking for an instructor or partner so you can communicate your needs.  And if your instructor can’t teach effectively for you, that’s okay.  It might not be the best fit.  Don’t be afraid to go out and find what will work best for you.  That is instructor is the perfect teacher for someone else and you deserve only the very best.  Don’t settle on something as important as having a teacher that can teach in a way you can learn.

So, how do you learn?  What tricks or tips have helped you along the way?  Are you better at short-term or long-term memory?  I think we’d all like to be more efficient learners so if anyone has any insights, I’m very interested to hear your opinion!

-Stef

Topical Series #1: Am I Doing It Right?

 

Ask ten different ballroom dancers how to do a basic Rumba box, and I bet you’d get ten different answers.

Yes, the basics would be the same:  the timing, the direction of the steps for the man and lady, that there should Cuban motion in the hips, for instance, but beyond the obvious “rules” listed in a syllabus, there are a myriad of ways a person could perform the same step.

Last night I had the pleasure of hanging out with mi amiga, Ivonne.  After a fun little class learning some Tango and Cha Cha from Toni at Imperial, we headed over to a nearby Starbucks to chat.  Among the many topics we broached, one that irked Ivonne was knowing if she was doing a step “right.”  I’ve often had the same frustration; different people have told me different and even downright conflicting information about various dance steps over my dance “career.”

Who should I trust?  Who is right?  How will I know if I’m practicing a good habit or a bad one?

Let me make it clear that I don’t have all the answers, but here’s how I’ve come to think about this particular dancing issue.

1)  Just as there is a “right” way to perform a tendu in ballet, there is a “right” way to dance ballroom steps, but at the same time, there perhaps there is more than one “right” way.  One thing that would make a step “right,” for instance, would be that it is done in such a way that it doesn’t cause injuries.  It would be in proper anatomical alignment.  It would create aesthetically appealing lines in the body.  You’d be on balance doing it.  You’d be in control.  But since all bodies are different, they will perhaps have slightly different alignments, create slightly different lines.  The same steps done side by side with another person may look completely different on one person’s body than the other’s.  It’s probably most important to be in sync with your partner in ballroom, and to aim to generate identical lines with one another.

2) Each dancer is a creative being who breathes life into movement.  Is there a “right” way to do that?  I think perhaps there are more or less authentic ways of embodying a dance, and perhaps people connect with themselves, their partners, and their audience to different degrees.  Then there is the personal preference of those watching.  But to say there is a “right” or “wrong” way of “being” defies logic.

3) Part of what I’m sussing out when I’m working on a step is how I, personally, am going to dance it.  I can tell you that the way Marietta does a Samba is very different than how Inna does it.  It’s because of who they are.  I am on a hunt for who I am as a dancer.  What movement comes naturally to me?  Which one causes me to express more?  What story am I telling with my movement, my body, the interactions between me and my partner?  Am I being pouty, or sad, or exuberant?  It’s all about the step but it’s not at all about the step, you know?  Doing the steps with proper technique frees the dancer to express, which is really what dancing is all about.

4)  Just like there are different “flavors” of ballet (Vaganova, Cecchetti, École Française, etc) there are going to be variations in ballroom dancing depending on which syllabus is used and who trained the person you are learning from.  The master teachers infuse their students with their particular brand of dancing, from which steps they favor to arm styling but who can say which is right?  Just is if you were a virtuoso with the opportunity to choose to play a violin made by Amati, Stradivari, or Guarneri, who could say which was the “right” one?  All would be amazing, but all have subtle nuances that make them special, just like each dancer or master teacher.  But again, none of them are 100% “right.”  Art can’t be “right.”

5)  Use the mirror.  I’ll admit, I still have a difficult time with this one.  The mirror can be an amazing tool to develop my dancing, but it can also be a weapon I use against myself.  When I’m having a good relationship with the mirror, I can use it to see if I am moving like my professional partner.  If I am not matching him completely, then I will know something’s not right.  I often don’t know exactly what tweak I need to make (if I did, then I wouldn’t be mismatching him) but at least if I can observe the feedback I’m getting by looking in the mirror I can be aware that something is amiss and ask a question.

So, is there a “right” way to dance ballroom?  I think the answer is yes…and no.  Like most things in this world, a simple black and white answer doesn’t cut it.  It’s not a dualistic question, but rather a paradoxical one.  I think both ends of the paradox are true in the proper context.  Yes, there is a “right” way to do ballroom steps, according to a syllabus and in proper anatomical alignment.  But no, there is no absolute one “right” way to express through the movement.  Part of what makes ballroom dancing so wonderful and beautiful is the uniqueness each individual dancer contributes and the synergy created by partnership.

As for determining whether you are doing something “right,” well, you’ll have to use your own discernment.  For me, it’s important to receive information from a source I respect and trust.  I remain open to the feedback from everyone, from coaches, to fellow students, to my personal instructor, but filter it in level of importance.  I use the mirror to see how I am moving compared to my partner, the professional dancers, and fellow students.  I watch a ton of videos of professional dancers performing so at least I have an idea of what things are “supposed” to look like.  If I were really disciplined, I could even look at a syllabus (but let’s face it, I’m too lazy for that!  Plus, I tend to be a visual learner.  Reading about the details of a step in a syllabus seems like it would be a tedious task and difficult to envision – like reading the standard for a breed of dogs and then trying to picture the canine using only that description).

So now it’s your turn!  What do you think?  Is there a right way to dance ballroom?  How do you know if it is right?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Topics Of Interest

I have really enjoyed the recent interaction that has occurred between some of the blog’s readers and realized that the topics of those posts with the greatest number of commentaries were about practical things we ballroom dancers encounter such as which shoes to purchase and if we should try a competition.

This made me think.  Perhaps I should expand the topics I address on this blog.  It is pretty self-indulgent of me to describe my dance lessons, I know.  I suppose it increases my “expertise” in the area of ballroom dance because you’ll know as a reader that I’m slogging through my continual practice and search for improvement, but maybe it’s not applicable to you, what you want to know about ballroom dancing, the questions you have.

So I thought I’d do a little series of blog posts about various topics that pertain to the experience of ballroom dancing.  It might be a great way to start some more conversations since I’m sure many people have many different opinions and experiences to share around such topics as finding a partner, social dance versus competitive dance, navigating the complex relationships with professional instructors/partners (I have no experience dancing/practicing regularly with an amateur partner so if someone wants to write a guest post about that, consider it an open invitation), what it is like to compete, how competitions are scored, and “other” facets of ballroom dancing such as same-sex ballroom, and ballroom dancing where one partner is in a wheelchair (my friend had no idea these existed and though I don’t have experience in them, I am also open to guest posts about these topics plus I love the idea of EVERYONE dancing).

I also want to give a special thanks to Paragon2Pieces for starting the dialogue.  She asked about buying dance shoes.  I felt awesome that she trusted my opinion enough to ask, and that so many others chimed in with their valuable experience as well.  This blog can be a community, a place where lovers of ballroom come to hang out, share, and encourage one another.  A place where we can learn from each other.

So, here’s your call to action: think of a topic related to ballroom dancing that you’d like to learn more about or that you have expertise in.  Post it in the comments on the bottom of this post.  Ask a question, or offer to write a guest post.  You can also message me directly via Facebook if you want to remain anonymous.  You can do that if you “Like” the Dancing With Stefanie Facebook page here.

Let’s get this conversation started!

Paragon2Pieces, This One’s For You

Belated.  Yes.  But here goes…

About a week ago one of my readers, Paragon2Pieces, posted a comment on the blog:

Hi Stephanie, this is unrelated to DWTS, but I was wondering if you could do a post about dance shoes.  How long does a pair last?  What style works best for you?  Have you ever tried one of the more expensive brands and, if yes, was it worth it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Hope all is going well inside and outside of the dance studio!

Bad blogger that I am, I have allowed life to get in the way of a prompt response.  But I can’t express enough how much I appreciate interacting with my readers.  I originally intended to just reply to her comment but, as you know, I am a prolific writer, I love to opine, I have lots to say.  There could be no short, concise response from me.  As I began to see how long my reply was becoming, I decided it should be a blog post in its own right.

Perhaps I missed the boat, Paragon, and you’ve already purchased a new pair of shoes.  Even so, I guess late is better than never.  Here is my experience:  I have tried Dance Naturals.  They are expensive and actually made in Italy, I think.  It took about a month to get them – I bought them online.  They were, to date, my favorite shoes.  In that case, for me, they were worth the money.  I don’t remember how much they cost (probably upwards of $300 with all the shipping and everything – plus they were leather, not satin), but I do remember how amazing they felt on my feet once they were broken in, and that, if you’ve ever danced in heels (much less walked in them) is priceless.

However, I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary to purchase a top end pair of dance shoes to find a pair that you love.  I think that the shoe style that will work best for a person depends upon their feet.  It is probably best to be fitted in person.  I took a chance buying the Dance Naturals online, especially since they are in European sizes.  I was worried for a long time that they wouldn’t fit once I got them and I had to stretch them out a lot.  The top of my foot always bulged a little below the strap over the toes.  They honestly weren’t a perfect fit.  But over time they softened and it worked well enough.  So, next time around, even though I loved that pair of Dance Naturals, I’d prefer to get a pair fit in person before purchasing them again.

I recently purchased some new shoes that were not Dance Naturals.  I tried on a bunch of pairs in the store.  Some I thought were cute but when I put them on I could barely stand in them.  I don’t know if one brand is “better” than another but I do think that quality of materials and construction methods used can extend or shorten the life of a shoe.  I am really bad about wearing my shoes (and clothes too) way past when a normal person would still wear them – they just get so broken in and comfortable.  The guy at the shoe store told me I had to throw out the two pairs of shoes I’d been holding on to, they were that bad.  lol.  The other pair of shoes that worked for me are not as cute but they support my foot well and they just came from a catalog at one of the dance studios I used to go to – a no-name brand.

I will also share that my friend, Ivonne, had an experience buying shoes.  She opted for a less expensive pair before the competition she did and realized very quickly that in general you get what you pay for in terms of ballroom shoes.

I think it’s probably wise to have a few pairs of dancing shoes.  Practice shoes, for instance, are awesome.  I can dance for a long time in those suckers, they are so cushy.  However, they have a lower heel, so if I only dance in those I have to retrain my calves, ankles, and all the little accessory balance muscles in my lower leg to handle higher heels like I’d wear in a competition.  It took me a long time the first time around to acclimate my feet and legs to dancing in heels – it is not something I’d like to repeat!  It was painful, required that I ice my feet nightly, and took a long time.  So, I’m looking to have a balance between keeping my lower legs and feet trained to handle higher heels, and also giving them a break so I don’t overstress my feet by wearing the practice shoes.  It stinks to not be able to get in the cardiovascular conditioning I need to accrue because my feet hurt too much to walk.

The pair I currently have are a middle-of-the-road brand.  They are sturdy and they work well enough for everyday practice.  They aren’t particularly cute and I’ve been thinking that I want another pair of those Dance Naturals again.  Once I get my new job lined up and financially things aren’t so tight, I probably will do that for myself.  At the end of my Dance Natural shoe life-span they felt as good on my feet (with 2.5 inch heels) as my practice shoes feel now (with a 1 inch or 1.5 inch heel).

I don’t know how long ballroom shoes are “supposed” to last.  It probably depends on how often you dance.  For someone like me who tries to dance multiple times a week and doing double lessons sometimes, they won’t last as long as for someone who dances once weekly.

Also, I think because of the differences we all have in foot shape, size, and anatomy, we will all have different preferences for brands that work well for us.  I know Marietta has a particular brand she likes (I can’t remember it right now), and a lot of people like Ray Rose.  Again, it depends on what fits your foot best and what you are willing to pay.  I’ve personally used both less expensive and more expensive shoes and both have served their purpose.  Ultimately I liked the more expensive pair better.

I hope this perspective helps and good luck finding the perfect pair for you!  Maybe when you find them you can send me a picture of them and I’ll share it on the blog, or you could post them on the Dancing With Stefanie Facebook page.  You could even write a follow-up guest post to this sharing your shoe-related experience, if you like.  Consider it an open invitation.  Also, I invite you, and any other reader, to ask questions, suggest topics for future blog posts, and to generally interact on the blog.

I appreciate you!

Sincerely, Stefanie