Mambo In Chinatown

Hello readers!

Maybe you’ve noticed – I’ve been on a little hiatus.  Things are going just fine, still dancing and all that but I guess there just doesn’t seem like much noteworthy to share recently, well, except that on my last lesson we went to a new studio and there was another couple there that Ivan and I know from competitions and they were totally having all these dramatic spats!  It was kinda uncomfortable but kinda funny at the same time because even though they’d yell at each other like cats, and storm off to opposite ends of the room, two seconds later they were smiling and dancing again.  I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s healthy, but it seems like that is how they communicate, how their relationship is set up.  To each his own.  But I digress.  This is not the main purpose of my post today.

Today I have a special treat for you!

You see, I have fans, fans far and wide.  Even fans who are bestselling authors, yes I do!  Fans who write great books about ballroom dancing and who have agents who approach me to feature their book.  This particular fan is named Jean Kwok and I know she is a fan only because I got this note:

Will you also please tell Stefanie that I actually found and read her blog when I was doing research for Mambo in Chinatown? Isn’t that a coincidence? I’m a big fan of hers! I love her voice and enthusiasm. I enjoyed hearing her insights about the world of ballroom very much, and I absolutely share her passion for ballroom!

Ha!  Too cool, right?!

Well you see, Jean is already a bestselling author for her book “Girl in Translation,” and now she has a second book coming out, poised to be another bestseller titled, “Mambo in Chinatown.”

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Yours truly was lucky enough to get an advanced copy which I really enjoyed and then, even better than that, I had the opportunity to ask Jean some questions as well as get some exclusive photos of Jean herself, dancing, which I will share with you presently.  Because guess what?  Jean is the real deal.  Not only has she danced ballroom, she was a professional and even competed both with professional and amateur partners, once upon a time even with Jose Decamps!

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So what is the book about?  To quote the book cover, it’s “a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties and her secret escapes into a more Western world.”

Charlie Wong is the main character, an American-born Chinese girl 21 years of age.  She lives pretty miserably as a dishwasher with her widower father and younger sister.  She gets a job as the receptionist of a ballroom studio and her world changes.  We follow Charlie’s journey as she blossoms through her exposure to the ballroom dancing world even as her sister becomes chronically ill.  While Charlie comes to understand more of the Western world, her father continues to be suspicious of it and insists his youngest daughter be treated only with Eastern practices.  Charlie is left to reconcile where she has come from with who she has become.

If this piques your interest, because come on, if you are like me, you are always looking for books about ballroom, and I think most of us relate to the transformative power of dancing, then you can pre-order the book here

So without further ado, here we go with the exclusive Q and A!  I’m pretty excited about it!

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom: When did you start dancing? 

Jean Kwok:  I was an immigrant child living in an unheated apartment in the slums of Brooklyn, so I didn’t have the chance to take any dance lessons when I was growing up. I desperately wanted to, though. I envied my friends who went to ballet school. It wasn’t until I was at Harvard that I started taking dance lessons on my own. I must have been terrible since I was such a late beginner, but I loved it. I took all sorts of dance classes: ballet, African, jazz, Middle Eastern. I made the decision to become a writer at around the same time, so after I graduated, I searched for a day job in New York City that would allow me to write in the evenings. I saw an ad in the paper that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.”

I was terrified but I wanted that job so much. I passed the interview and was invited to an audition. At the audition, they picked about twenty of us to join a three-week training class. At the end of that class, miraculously, they hired me at Fred Astaire and that was the beginning of my truly learning how to dance.

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom:  How long have you danced?

Jean Kwok:  I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years. It was so hard to learn to dance well, and yet it was one of the most exhilarating things I’d ever done. In that time, I did shows, competitions and taught students. I still love to dance but unfortunately, I am married to a wonderful man who does not dance. I guess you can’t have everything. 😉 In the process of doing research for Mambo in Chinatown, I not only came across this wonderful blog of yours, Stefanie, but I also went back into the ballroom world. I danced a salsa with Jungie Zamora at Fred Astaire East Side Studio, which is now owned by my dear friends, famous choreographer and coaches Taliat and Marina Tarsinov. We filmed this salsa and I’ll release it on my website soon.

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom: What is your favorite dance style?

Jean Kwok:  I love all of the dances: the speed and precision of a Viennese waltz, for example; the poise and grace of foxtrot; the hypnotic rhythm of tango; but I have to say that my heart belongs to the Latin dances. Mambo, rumba, cha cha are so unfettered, passionate and intense, while requiring tremendous discipline at the same time. I love doing high-speed turns and I enjoy the complexity of interaction with my dance partner. Outside of ballroom, I also love just going out dancing and rocking the night away. I’ve been hoping to get a group of dancing writers together but thus far, no success.

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom:  Do you compete?

Jean Kwok:  I competed with my students and with professional partners as well. I had some wonderful students and we competed in all dance styles as Pro-Am couples. With my professional partners, I competed in Latin. In fact, I danced briefly with Jose Decamps, now 4-time US and 3-time World Rhythm Champion. Jose and I had some great times together. I won Top Professional Female at Fred Astaire National Championships right before I left ballroom. Leaving dance broke my heart but I needed to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, so I went to Columbia to get my MFA in fiction.

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom:  Is the story autobiographical in any way? How so?

Jean Kwok:  I think that fiction is for me, always a veiled way of telling the truth. Like my heroine Charlie, I had always been considered clumsy and not-too-bright by my family. I was dreamy and no good at any domestic skills whatsoever. I burned everything, I hated to clean, I was opinionated and stubborn. (I’m still like that, actually.) Unlike Charlie, I was born with a gift for school, which is kind of like being born with an extra toe. I’ve often thought that if my gifts had been reversed, if I were good at cooking and cleaning and not gifted at school, I would be most likely working in a restaurant somewhere today. That was the beginning of Mambo in Chinatown.

I wanted to tell the story of a seemingly talentless young woman who discovers something she loves – ballroom dance – and thereby unleashes her own gifts. I also wanted to show my readers worlds they might not have seen firsthand: the professional ballroom dance world and Chinatown.

There are so many incidents from the book that come from my own life. Charlie goes to her interview at the dance studio in an oversized red dress, a red turban around her badly-cut hair, and black pumps that she has filled in with magic marker to cover up their worn patches. That was exactly what I wore to my interview. I had learned many things in college but how to dress was not one of them!

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom:  How has dancing enriched your life?

Jean Kwok:  If I had never discovered dance, I would be a different person today. Dance has taught me about passion, health, my body, grace, humility, beauty and discipline. For me, both writing and dance are ways of accessing the deepest parts of my spirit. Through dance, I rejoice and grieve, I stretch the boundaries of my experience as a woman and as a human being.

Biggest Girl In The Ballroom:  How do you respond when people say that they are interested in dancing but are too afraid to start?

Jean Kwok:  Well, I know all about fear and I sympathize. Years ago, I made a decision that changed my life: to never allow fear to stop me from doing something I truly wanted to do. If I had listened to my fear, I would never have stepped into the dance studio and my life would be so much poorer for it. I would also say that ballroom is extremely forgiving. It’s been designed to be easy and anyone can do it. Of course, it also grows with you and the better you become, the harder it gets. That’s why it’s so fun.

So there you go!  I’m so happy Jean allowed me to be involved with the launch of her new novel.  It’s one of the better books about ballroom dancing I’ve had the pleasure to read.

You can follow Jean on Facebook here and on Twitter here

 

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A Rainy Day: Shoot Ivan, And Then He Goes Down To Hell

Yesterday I awoke to grey skies, frigid air, and fat wet drops beading upon my car.

Desert rain is a wonderful thing. There is nothing like the smell of creosote and wet earth. Since we get rain so infrequently I tend to really enjoy rainy days and overcast skies, even if it makes driving a little bit scary.

But I braved the weather (and traffic) so I could dance – I mean what else could propel me out of bed on a day that just begs to be spent in pajamas, under the bed sheets, with a cup of hot tea and a good book? You are right. Nothing.

But dance did rouse me and I met Ivan for a double lesson and we continued to work on our routines. And also, something kind of funny happened. We never discussed it, but all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we are working on an open Mambo routine. Actually, this started a few lessons ago, but today we took it to a new level.

Now here is a funny aside for you…from what Ivan tells me, dancers trained in Europe in the International Latin style have a very difficult time picking out the “2” count in the Mambo. For years and years, Ivan says, he and other dancers he knew danced off the timing, and started on the “1” count because that is what they could hear. In any case, these foreigners finally devised a way to locate the “2” count by pretending the song was for a Cha Cha! So, for instance, if you count a Mambo as a very fast Cha Cha you can find the “2” fairly easy. In fact, I remember Rado sharing this same tidbit at the dance camp! In any case, I find this amusing.

But I can relate. The very first partner dance I ever did was when I went to Spain. I went abroad for a summer of classes. An enterprising dance instructor talked many of my classmates into meeting at a local bar for Salsa lessons while we were at school. So for about a month and a half twice a week I went to a bar, drank Fanta orange with Malibu, and learned Salsa with my main partner who was from Algeria. Wow, when I write it like that, my life kind of sounds exciting!

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Anyways, I loved it!

Can you believe this is me?!

Can you believe this is me?!

But of course in Salsa you start on the “1” count. This is what I was used to when it came to Latin music. So when my very first ballroom instructor began teaching me Mambo, I totally thought he was off the beat! LOL. I danced along with him, but I secretly thought he couldn’t hear the music properly! It took a long time to hone in on the “2” count, but ironically enough, now that I primarily dance Mambo, it feels awkward to dance on the “1” beat!

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Okay, so back to my narrative.

We are working on this Mambo routine which is kind of exciting to me because it’s the first American Rhythm dance we’ve worked on beyond syllabus steps. I think I just asked for “cardio” in my lesson and this was the result. But anyways, just like in the Rumba and Cha Cha that we’ve already worked on, I need to know the choreography, the timing, the sequence of the steps. So the lesson was all about this, and it was pretty awesome.

Here’s the thing, though – in the beginning of the routine there are a lot of distinct steps, out of hold, and this makes them easy to remember in sequence. In the middle of the routine, however, I do about 15 left-right-left-hold (meaning balance on the left leg with the right leg free and available to move) steps. They all look different because we are doing different things with our arms and different facings in relation to the dance floor. But when it comes to remembering the routine, by myself, it gets tricky!

Seriously, the first hurdle is just knowing the steps with the proper timing. We didn’t even broach technique, character, performance, accenting, etc. But Ivan helped me. First, he laid down on the floor. You see, I was to do this by myself, and Ivan had had a late night involving wine heh heh heh. Second, we counted the steps and I did them over and over. The first few times, he’d prompt me when I was drawing a blank. By the end of the lesson, I pretty much had it. I say pretty much because I’m still slow – my brain is still working on overdrive to remember what comes next – but that is okay. Because now even if I have to pause and think, I can run through the routine on my own.

But the other thing Ivan did to help was to label certain distinguishing characteristics of the mostly similar steps. For instance, the first step, doing the left-right-left hold ends with me pointing forward with my left hand. We labeled this “Shoot Ivan.” Next in the sequence, I turn my partner lifting my left arm high and my right arm low. For whatever reason we focused on the low arm and Ivan called this move, “Send Ivan to Hell.” I laughed at these stupid names, but you know what? It helped me remember what was coming and it even makes a little bit of sense. I mean, you have to shoot Ivan first before you can send him to Hell – you know? LOL.

So anyways, the majority of my lesson was just getting clear on the what I’m supposed to be doing. Once we had done the choreography, and by “we” I mean me by myself, I asked Ivan to review the proper motion for the basic step. Why? For a few reasons. First, it’s been a long time since I reviewed the proper motion, much less danced the American Styles with any consistency. Second, because I noticed that I looked different doing it than Ivan did. Well, it was a great thing to request. More and more I find that going back to the very basics is so important and elucidating for more complicated steps and choreography. Knowing how to move properly in the basic sets me up for moving properly in every step.

So here’s what I learned. Well, probably more like “remembered” because I swear I’ve been told this stuff before but hey, if you don’t use it you lose it! (There is no Mambo in Inna’s class and Ivan and I have been focusing on Latin lately.) But anyways, what I “remembered” is that when doing the basic step you first place the foot (going forward or backward) and then even as you are changing your weight to that placed foot, you are actually propelling yourself in the opposite direction to land on the opposite foot. For instance, if you place the foot back, at the same time, as you are committing your body weight to the back foot, you are simultaneously shifting it forward to land on the next step on the opposite leg and foot which is stepping forward. The same holds true for the front step with the left foot, placing it but then shifting the body weight on to the back foot almost immediately. (One note here: the steps described are from the perspective of the lady (a.k.a. my perspective – because, after all, that is the most important perspective, no? lol).

Not only does this way of thinking about the basic Mambo step exemplify proper technique, but it also will change the look of the step, and even better, it will make dancing it with a partner easier and more in unison if both partners are doing it properly.

So I guess that’s the meat of my latest adventures. After my lesson, I made my way to a ballet class. It was pretty cool and in some parts easy but others challenging. I do believe that I will be sore tomorrow from the work I did today. And also, we worked on turns. And just by the way, turns from 5th position suck! LOL. Seriously, they are so hard, especially for someone with a tight Achilles Tendon and limited plie’ (AKA me) but we practiced them nonetheless. We did chaine’ turns across the floor which I managed fairly well, and weirdly I don’t get dizzy actually doing them, but I get extremely dizzy upon stopping (and I remember a time where I didn’t get dizzy anymore at all!), and then we did the turns from 5th. Well, mostly I did them average-like to poorly, but there was one really lovely turn! And you know what? I want to celebrate that one lovely turn because it was uplifted, and I looked like I was almost floating, and I held the posse position for just a fraction of a second longer than necessary with such beautiful control and center, placing my foot in 5th gracefully and solidly to end it. It was awesome! Of course, right after that the next 3 turns sucked ass, but hey, but you know, that’s what dancing is, right? Lots of practice to find that balanced uplifted strong space. 9 times out of 10, or even 99 out of 100, I blow it, or something is “off” – but then that 10th or 100th time it clicks and is an out-of-the-body experience of perfection. Well, at least that is how it feels to me.

So shoot Ivan and send him to hell! It’s been a good day to dance. And, to echo a Klingon sentiment (because I am a total nerd and Trekkie), it would be a good day to die. Because if I died today, well, I was in my process, doing what I love to do, working towards my potential. There is no worthier pursuit, no better way to spend my time. And for that, my friends, I am grateful.

The end.