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!

How Does 75 Become 120???

The quick answer is, Ivan Dishliev.

Here’s the longer version:

So, if you’ve read my story, you know that I’m going to compete at the Desert Classic DanceSport Competition.  It’s coming up in July, the 11th through the 14th to be exact.  And today I wrote the check.  I kissed a nice sum of money goodbye and also made it official.  I’m REALLY going.  It’s REALLY going to happen.

So when we started talking about the competition, I thought I’d maybe do like 75 entries.  That’s still no small number, maybe averaging out to be around 25 per day of the 3 days of the competition.  I’m going to do Latin (minus Paso Doble, but plus Jive, which I haven’t worked on one iota), and Smooth, and American Rhythm.  We’ll also throw in a Hustle or two and some West Coast Swings just for fun, just to relax and enjoy.  I thought this would be enough dancing that I’d feel like I was doing something while I was there, but not so much that I’d kill myself.

If you read more of my blog, you’d know that last June I did 150 heats at the San Diego DanceSport Competition, and that was in two days time. I had to ice my feet between heats, and had 30 in a row right off the bat which about killed me.  It was a Herculean feat, one I didn’t know if I could do, but I did, and even earned Top Student in the Bronze category.  So anyways, I’ve done a marathon.  I’ve done pushing my limits past what I thought I could do.  So I thought I wouldn’t do that this time around and 75 seemed like the reasonable number.

But not to Ivan.

“Why only 75?”

“Ivan!  That’s a lot!  That’s plenty!”

I suppose to someone who once did 600 heats in a competition I’m small potatoes.  But I’m no pro.  I’m just me.  And I’m not in the best dancer’s shape either!  75 sounded like a good challenge.

“How about 100?”

“I might consider 100.  But I want to try doing a scholarship round this time.  I’ve never done one of those.  I’d like to see how I’d do.”

“Okay, okay.  It’s fine.  You think about it.  Maybe if you doing 100 you can be Top Student.”

To be honest, that would be cool.  I would be thrilled to achieve that again.  But with the 150 heats I did last time, that was my clear intent.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually do it.  And I made sure to enter enough heats that I had a fighting chance.  Not a lot of people do that many heats, I don’t think.  But since I already did that, it’s actually about having more dance time this go-around.  I want to be out on the floor showing off what Ivan and I have worked on for the last 8 months.  I want to have time to really express myself.  I want enjoy my time dancing.

So the prospect of going for Top Student hasn’t really been a driving force in my decision.  But I know that I would rather be dancing than sitting so since I can afford it right now, I thought, well, if Ivan wants to dance with me that much, then I will say yes.

But the negotiations didn’t end there, it seems.

Today I showed up on my lesson and wrote out the check for 100 heats.  I thought that was it.  But Ivan had another surprise in store for me.

Around 10am I got a call.  Somehow Ivan had a way for me to dance in 20 more heats for the cost of only 2 more.  How could I say no to an opportunity like that?  Suddenly I was dancing in 120 heats instead of 75.  So I guess that’s how you get from 75 to 120!

“Now you maybe can be Top Student.”

“Maybe Ivan.  We’ll see.”

“Yes.  You have to doing all the expression, and melt the ice, and energy, and breathing, and all that.  Me too.  Me too.  It depending.  But maybe we can do it.”

It’s actually kind of exciting.  I think it is a longer shot and would mean more if I actually made Top Student in this upcoming competition.  For one thing, it would be at a larger competition.  For another, I’d have to place really well in most heats to earn enough points to win.  In the other competition I had 30 more heats which meant more opportunities for points, even if I placed last.  We’ll see.

I’m actually more psyched about the scholarship rounds.  I’m excited about being introduced on the dance floor like they do with the professionals (assuming I make it to the final!  Just making the final would be a huge accomplishment for me!).  I want to put myself out there and see what happens.  I figure it will be some great feedback no matter what the outcome and great experience as well.

Anyways, that’s what’s going on in my world right now.  We moved this weekend and I’m dancing.  I’ve been going in at 6:30 am before work.  I think it’s a good thing and I’m excited to see how far I can get in terms of fitness and cardiovascular endurance with a final concerted effort in this last month before the competition.  Today I did 2 minutes on most dances we did and over 3 minutes of Waltz.  It’s brutal, but great!  Progress!

And one final thing.  I’d like to share something that made me smile.  I get spam links on my blog all the time. Luckily I have a program that identifies them and I can look through them, purge them, etc.  But every once in a while one comes along that isn’t trash.  There was a bona fide comment in there once, and today, it probably was spam, but I clicked the link because it had dance in the title and it turned out to be a fun thing.  It also made me think, if this guy can go out there and shake it in a tiny sequin speedo, I can go out there and shake it in my bedazzled ballroom dress.  I have to admit, I was a little worried for him doing the open-legged handstands…that could have gone very wrong, but I love his energy, and cool, calm confidence.  Hopefully I’ll be like that at Desert Classic…but don’t expect to see me in a sequined speedo any time soon!  Enjoy!

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?

Keep The Comments Coming!

My email box done ’bout blown up with all the comments people are posting about shoes, competitions, and dancing in general!  I love it!  I’m so excited that there are others out there in the blogosphere as passionate and excited about dancing, and in particular ballroom dancing, as I.

Thank you, all, for sharing your experiences, perspectives, opinions, and asking questions.  Thank you for being respectful in your communications.  You are giving me great things to think about and it makes me want to also jump into the conversation.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to fill you all in on a few things.

First, the blog will be getting upgraded sometime in the near future.  My dear friend, Ivonne, has graciously agreed to help me make the blog more professional and personalized.  What this means is that there may be some times where the blog is down while things are getting moved to the new server.  Don’t fret!  It is all in the name of creating a bigger, better, more beautiful blog.

Second, life is unpredictable.  Remember that job offer I had, well, yeah, not so much anymore.  After the acceptance letter and pee test, I got notice that plans had changed with the company at large and I was only one of many people geting similar news.  Also, I got a bad chest cold, and coupled with asthma this means I haven’t danced in over a week and a half.  I’m grateful I never officially quit my current job and they were glad (cheering and hugs ensued) when I notified them that my plans had changed.  They are glad to still have me on staff.  So I’m not destitute, and that is a good thing.

Third, I’d love to delve into the topic of partners.  But that is a juicy subject so I’ll leave that for a later post.  Hopefully I’ll have something to write about after dancing with Ivan, my partner, very soon.

Fourth, let’s talk competitions.

In response to Paragon’s comment (I added the bold letters):

Another line of questions that I’d love to get your take on have to do with first competitions.  My teacher and I had a chat about this tonight and it was a little overwhelming.  I already know the choreography, but it’s all the other details that I’m clueless about–from the issue of number of entries (for me, this will come down to budget), dress rental, getting a tan, to having hair and makeup done.  My teacher is recommending that I do it all.  But, if it were you doing your first competition all over again, what would you do given what you know now?  For the first two levels of bronze (latin) is it really necessary to have your hair and makeup professionally done?  Do I need a blinged-out dress (I love them, I’m just worried about budget) or could I get away with this for now: http://www.discountdance.com/dancewear/style_N7038.html?pid=9369&Shop=Style&SID=328412990 ?  My main concerns are not looking overdone for my level (I’ve never watched pro am in person) and not letting concern about expense eclipse the fun of the competition.

Of course I have thoughts – and I also loved seeing the interactions that took place in the comments of the blog.  I think those who participated had great things to say, great perspective.

As for my reply, if I were going to do my first competition all over again, what would I do given what I know now, I’m not sure I’d have done anything different. Why? I guess because it has kind of been a “learn-as-you-go” type of experience for me.  I’ve learned about the competitions by doing them, seeing how other people show up for them, and also talking with others more experienced than I am.  Also, I have to realize that I only have my experiences – there are others out there to be had, but I didn’t have them.  For instance, I’ve only danced Pro/Am and never been a part of a big studio.  I’ve never done a “studio” competition, only “real world” ones – but even those “real world” ones come in different “flavors” from what I have observed.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into by deciding to do a dance competition.  It was just something my first instructor mentioned would be a good thing to do.  I went into sticker shock when I learned how much getting a dress would cost, and because of my size, I couldn’t buy one off the rack.  So I swallowed the bullet and had one made.  I’m sure some people would have balked at the expense of it all and said no, but for whatever reason, I just decided it was an experience I wanted to have, so I made it happen.

Even so, I didn’t really understand all the ins and outs of a competition, nor the unwritten “rules.”  I kind of knew you needed to wear stage make-up on the ballroom floor, but I had no idea the extremes people go to, nor that you could hire someone to do your hair and make up, nor that the hairstyles should be as stiff as a football helmet.  I watched a video online about how to apply dark eye make-up and fake eyelashes and did my hair myself.

The first competition I did was a World Promotions event.  These competitions are fun and kind of geared toward destinations.  They play fun music, stuff like AC/DC, that you won’t hear at most “standard” ballroom competitions.  World Promotions events are not where the pros go to compete.  It was, as my then-instructor said, a “nice little competition” for a first one.  Some of their events are very large, they have one in Argentina for instance, and I think they can be great, depending on what your goals for competing are.

The second competition I did was a real eye-opener.  It was the San Diego Open.  This was a more “competitive” situation and had pro heats.  I saw how over-the-top some of the costumes and hairstyles could be.  I realized that my bun maybe wasn’t cutting it.  Again, I did my own hair and make-up, but I realized that for future competitions, I’d probably get some more competent help.

The dress you provided a link to, Paragon, would have made you feel out-of-place at this competition – everyone was blinged out.  But I realize that there are a bunch of different types of competitions where a plain dress like that would be appropriate.  It would be important to know before stepping onto the dance floor.  I don’t think there are any rules against it, or anything, but you’d feel out-of-place, I think, in a sea of sparkles at a competition like this one.  One would hope that you’d be judged more on the quality of your dancing than on your outfit, but many times, from what I understand, it is the entire package you present that the judges mark.  It really could affect your placement, so depending on what is important to you, you will have to decide how you will play the game, and also decide which type of competition will suit you best.

I think the only advice I’d give to my competition-naive-self from my perspective after a few competitions under my belt would be to remind myself that I’m creating this experience for myself.  I should do whatever I want that makes me feel best.  If I want to go big, play blinged out, do the hair, get the tan, don the nails, and get my make-up done, then do it.  If I want to play in a low-key arena, that is great too.  I would tell myself just to be clear on what I want and then to go for it with all that I am in the moment.  And, for God’s sake, to just enjoy every second of it!

I think people compete for different reasons.  All of them are valid – from just wanting to look pretty, to showing off, to testing your mettle, to winning an award, they are all great.  Some people want to just do it once before they die and to find the courage to be seen is a huge accomplishment.  Others want to travel.  Or maybe to make friends.  There is a competition to suit every desire.

I know for me doing the competitions was about setting some goals and seeing how close I could come to reaching them.  It was also about demonstrating my progress over time since I’d put in a lot of effort, time, and money to improve.  I also really just enjoy the experience of dancing in public.  It is a little bit exhilarating (and scary) to vie for the attention of onlookers, and to get a judge to see you.

If I were you, I’d start looking into local competitions.  I’d check out their websites and ask others who have participated in them how they liked them.  I’d ask for the honest opinion of other students.  I’d look for videos from the competition in past years on YouTube.  I’d decide if it was something I was interested in doing, or not.

If your instructor brought it up, there could be a number of reasons for that.  You’ll have to use your own discernment to feel out the motivation behind that.  Obviously, your instructor believes in you and thinks you could be successful on some level in a competitive arena.  If your instructor is encouraging you to stretch yourself, set goals, improve, this is all good.  When I signed up for the San Diego competition it brought focus and intensity and motivation to my lessons.  I improved in quantum jumps instead of plodding along with small incremental changes because I had a definite target I was working toward.  Signing up for a competition may light a fire under your butt and push you farther than you ever thought you’d go.

However, make no mistake, competitions are revenue generators, for everyone involved except students.  This is neither good, nor bad, right nor wrong.  I would just want to make sure I wanted to do the competition for me, not because I was being pressured into it.  I think we can all sense when someone has an agenda – it doesn’t feel good.  I suppose that even if I was aware that my instructor or my studio had an agenda (to make money) to get me to dance in a competition, even that would be okay, as long as I actually wanted to participate.

I have loved my experiences dancing in competitions.  It has deepened my passion for dancing and exposed me to a big wide world greater than I see in my daily life.  I’ve made friends, and grown as a person and a dancer because of setting goals and working toward them at competitions.  If you are at all interested, I’d encourage you to explore the possibility of dancing in a competition.  You never have to do another one again if you hate it, and you just might discover some things about yourself or find that you love competing if you at least give it a chance.

There are a lot of things to think about if you are considering competing, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  It can be an adventure.  Also, since you are connected to this community, you can interact with others who have competed and ask as many questions as you like.  A lot of life is just getting out there and doing “it” even when you don’t have all the information – we rarely do.  Life is short.  Enjoy it.  If competing is something that intrigues you, why not explore it?

I hope this helps!

Inspiring Ellen

Howdy ya’ll!  It’s me again in italics.  Why? I have another amazing guest blog post! 

This time it is Ellen from If The Shoe Doesn’t Fit, who borrowed my dress,  as she writes about her latest competition.  Ellen does the International Ballroom style of dancing.  It was so fun to watch her videos of this style which I’ve personally put on the back-burner for the moment.  When done well, however, it is gorgeous, and Ellen does a great job here as you will see. 

Ellen is inspiring to me.  You’ll understand why once you read her post.  She’s overcome a lot to get where she is in her dancing.  Honestly, I question if I would have the stick-to-it-iveness that Ellen displays.  Truly, it blows my mind.  She sets a fantastic example for all dancers of perserverence, beauty, and determination.

So, Ellen is another amazing gift brought to me by starting this blog.  We have kindled a nice little long-distance friendship all because of our love of dancing!  I hope you’ll enjoy her post!

The first thing I want to do is thank Stef for being :

·         an inspiration by being willing to sharing her struggles and triumphs

·         open to friendship and communication

·         generous beyond belief in allowing me to wear her beautiful dress and share my story in a guest post

I found Stefanie’s blog by accident because of a post she did about shoes…I couldn’t pass it by.  As soon as I realized she was a ballroom dancer, I went through and read every post  and I was hooked! It was strange because a part of me felt like I was reading about a version of myself in an alternate universe.

You see, although I am older than Stef, (I’m 50) I am a writer and a pharmacist as Stef is, and have many of the same life and health issues; asthma and weight struggles to name a few.  It was like looking into an odd mirror.  So I started following and commenting on the blog, and Stef and I started emailing; I became blessed with a kind, generous and supportive friend. Stef was even willing to let me wear her amazing ballroom dress to my competition – so I promised to write this post to share a bit about my dance background for perspective, my recent competition and the blessing of wearing Stefanie’s dress to compete.

I  love ballroom dancing. When asked about it, my response is usually “I’ve never worked so hard at something in my life to be mediocre – and not by choice!  I feel like I could study and dance for 25 years and still be in first grade.”

Then again – first grade was when I first started and stopped dancing.  At 6 years old, my mom signed me up for ballet at the community center’s after school program.  I was sooooo excited–I wanted to be a ballerina!  Unfortunately for me, after the first dance class, the teacher talked to my mom when she came to pick me up and told her that I didn’t belong in the class and she should sign me up for something that required less physical coordination – and mom did!  I was devastated! I spent my afternoons learning to crochet with a great big hook instead of learning how to dance.  Kind of a silly story – but admittedly – it had an impact on me that shows up even today.

At 43 years old, I  decided to take ballroom dancing, signed up for lessons at the local Fred Astaire and quickly became obsessed, taking 2 privates and 1 group a week.   But at the same time, a lot of my old demons came up.  I wasn’t very coordinated and not very good.  I am a very auditory person – I learn and remember things by hearing them – but dance is a very tactile sport – you learn by feeling and doing.  When a step was taught, changed or corrected and I was asked “can you feel the difference” I couldn’t.  I mean, I get the huge differences, (especially when it’s wrong – like being way off-balance) but not the subtleties of frame  or being over my foot or not.

Another issue that had a big impact on my dancing and my confidence was that I’d had a bad accident years earlier in January of 1989.  I went out one morning to run with my puppy 2 doors from my house and were crossing a small side street when a 1 ½  ton masonry truck took a right turn on red without stopping.  It drove into me hitting me on my right side. I was thrown 6 feet, landed on my head (contracoup brain injury – which means my brain bounced back and forth in my skull), my right arm and leg had muscles cut through to the bone (what they call a sausage cut  – all internal injury but no external cut) my right kidney was bruised and torn, etc.  I spent 4 months learning to walk and talk again, I was out of work for 9 months and I had seizures that required me to give up my driver’s license for a year.

To look at me today you can’t tell about the accident, except for the extra weight I carry from the medicinal studies I did on the healing properties of M&Ms at the time! J Any remaining speech issue I cover with pauses or by rambling long enough to find the right words so people don’t notice much.

But my back and neck are both in constant pain and have muscle spasms to this day as well as range of motion issues. This means I cannot whip my head around to spot.  Rhythm and Latin are very difficult for me with all the spins and turns.  Even American Smooth presented challenges; every time I did an underarm turn and came out of frame, I’d lose my balance because I could not spot, and then I’d lose my confidence and it was a downward spiral.

I practiced, took lessons, had coaching, you name it.  I went to competitions religiously and placed last in every heat more times than I can count.  Once I even placed 2nd in Rumba and Cha Cha proficiencies (87 and 84 respectively); it’s pretty depressing to place 2nd against yourself!   Between the head games from first grade and my physical issues, I felt defeated, but I stuck with it.

And then something wonderful happened…I started to learn International Standard about 2 years into dancing.  OMG – I didn’t have to let go of anyone!  I could stay in frame all the time!  No spins and no spotting!! Well, there is Viennese, but I am in frame and can hold onto someone!  YAHOOOO!  My world of dance changed!

I still learn more slowly than many people because of how I learn, and my head snaps in tango aren’t as sharp as other people’s because of my neck, etc. but I found my niche and my comfort level and confidence as well as my ability has improved!  For the last 5 years I’ve done International Standard exclusively in my lessons and my competitions.  My stamina has never been great though – I have asthma and at 210lbs I get winded easily, especially with Viennese and Quickstep.

Like everyone, I have my good days and bad days in dance.  There are days when I get it and days when I feel like I never will.  Sometimes it’s frustrating to see the newbies in the studio, many of whom dance better after 1 year, than I do after 7 years!  But I remind myself that I cannot compare myself to anyone else – only to where I was yesterday, or the day/week/month/year before that.  And when I am clear headed, I know I have improved.

So now you know a lot about me and how I got to know Stef. When I told her I had a competition coming up March 1, and that since I am having foot surgery just days after my showcase in June later this year, I don’t know when I’ll be competing again, she was generous enough to let me wear her incredible dress, custom made by Julia Gorchakova.

At competition I danced 20 heats and a 5-dance championship – the first time I did a Silver level championship.  When I saw my heat sheet a couple of days before, I realized I was starting with 10 heats in row, 1 off, then 2 more and so on.  Basically I had all 20 heats and the championship in an hour and 20 minutes!  While it may not seem like a lot to some-I was nervous about my ability to even make it through the heats, let alone how I danced!  I sent Stef an email asking for advice and she sent me words of wisdom and an inspirational link http://youtu.be/-vB59PkB0eQ that made the difference.

Wearing such an amazing dress made a huge difference in how I felt and how I danced. I received more compliments on Stefanie’s dress than on any dress I’ve ever worn in 7 years of competing! Even one of the judges told me how nice I looked when he saw me in the hall!  Everyone loved the way it showed on the floor and the way it moved.

So how did I do? My placements were good – not the best I’ve ever done but very good, and I am ok with that.  I not only survived the 10 dances in a row, I did them decently.  More importantly I feel like overall, I danced the best I’ve ever danced at a competition.  I was consistent (a couple of blips but nothing major) and relaxed – which is huge for me; I tend to let nerves take over on the floor. Despite the fact that people always give me grief that I don’t smile when I dance ( I really am smiling on the inside) I was having a great time and I’m really proud and pleased with how I danced.  I danced my best in this moment – and that is the most I could have asked for.

My goals in dance are first and foremost to do this for the joy and fun in it – when I get to the point of tears or stress I have to remind myself why I am dancing.  Second I want to learn and grow and become the best that I can be in this moment.  Today’s best may not be tomorrow’s, but I want to allow myself to appreciate where I am today, and what I have accomplished in this moment before I move to the next thing/moment.  And I want to dance to enhance my health-my heart, my limbs, my mind, my weight, etc.

So all in all – I accomplished my goals at competition with the support of a wonderful friend and beautiful dress.  Thank you Stef!

Thank you Ellen!  I hope the foot surgery goes well and you have a very speedy recovery! I hope to hear that you are dancing once again very soon.  Thanks for being my friend.

You’re So Close

Saturday Ivan and I practiced at Dance Starz studio. When I arrived, we had the entire space to ourselves. We started working straight away on the Latin Rumba for the showcase in February. Although it is still in pieces, we have figured out the beginning for sure. I’m supposed to remember it and remind Ivan if he tries to change anything.

So we get a few of the steps set in stone as to the order of them but then Ivan wants me to make the movements over and over. I do one pose or step and he stops me, corrects something, then I repeat it 5 more times. Then on to the next millisecond of the dance and the process repeats. The way I’m describing it here you might think it was tedious or annoying, but really, for me, it wasn’t. It was actually endlessly fascinating.

I worked up a sweat just raising up my hand above my head in preparation to move. Ivan shows me where to look, how to hold my fingers, to turn out my front foot and cross my back leg to increase balance. These all seem like minute details, but these miniscule pointers are what will separate me from the pack so that my movements have a different and unique quality to them, so that they are finished.

I’m doing pretty well but Ivan has a very sensitive BS radar. One of the other aspects of my dancing that I believe will set me apart from others is the authenticity I bring to it. I truly feel things when I move. Sometimes I feel too shy to reveal them but luckily my instructor recognizes that. He can sense the dancer in me and we are working on bringing her out completely. The downside of this is that the moment I’m not present or feeling, Ivan can tell and he’ll call me on it.

The thing is, I can flip in and out of being present and authentic in a nanosecond and not even realize it. One minute I’m dancing, the next I’m in my head worrying about all the stuff I’m supposed to do rather than feeling it. For instance, I did the opening sequence for the Rumba a few times. Then, with the increased feedback from Ivan about where to look, fingers, toes, etc, I went into mental land.

“What happened? You doing so good, then now you being scary.” (Scary translates to scared in Ivan-talk)

Well, it didn’t help that a group of about 12 people entered the studio. I saw they were watching us work as they waited for their lesson. Instead of being excited about that, I tend to withdraw, contract inward, and avoid eye contact….the exact opposite of what I should be doing. Like, the entire point of being a ballroom dancer is to get noticed. I’m getting noticed, but it makes me want to hide.

I have to take a deep breath and try to tune out the crowd, just focus on the feeling. Again, more details are shared that I must remember and my brain is starting to reach capacity.

“Ivan, it’s just so much to remember.”

“But you doing so well. Don’t be thinking, oh, it’s too much. You are doing it, almost like a professional. You are so close. It’s okay to not getting it right away. I see you understand. I see you feeling but then it goes away.”

He wants me to emote and move at my best in every moment. He sees me withdrawing and demonstrates what I’m effectively doing. He walks toward a nearby office door with purpose, looking directly at it, and making a straight line to it. This is how I should be moving. Then he demonstrates what I’m doing. I’m walking toward the door, but my eyes are looking all around the room. It’s like he’s trying to find the door blind. He is in the general vicinity and eventually locates the door handle, but it is disconnected, sloppy, slower than the direct approach.

I laugh but I also know he is absolutely right.

“I know, Ivan, I know I do this.” I sigh.

Then he pulls me over to the bathroom. He is walking directly toward other objects in the studio demonstrating the concept again, and this time with more passion. He’s almost getting angry. He walks to a screen, the wall, the bathroom sign. Then he grabs my arm and pulls me to a photo on the wall. It is two of the dance instructors doing that overhead lift from “Dirty Dancing.” Pretty impressive.

“When we gonna do this, Stefanie?”

In my head I answer, “like about 120 pounds from now, Ivan.”

It doesn’t even seem like a real possibility at this time. Why is he even bringing it up? Overhead lifts have never been a part of my plan. Even in my skinny days I was too heavy to be lifted, at least in my own head. I always felt like the biggest girl.

He’s fearless, though, and doesn’t have my particular flavor of mental baggage that creates limitations in my mind. I’ve seen him toss around a 70-year-old woman, one of his students, in the Hustle.

And don’t get me wrong, I have big dreams when it comes to dancing. In my head I have all sorts of fantasies about how I’m going to look, that I’m going to win some scholarship competitions, that I’m going to eventually get to dance in open heats in the night sessions when the lights are low and the ballroom is buzzing. But all that feels like a fairy tale – things I generally do not talk about for fear that others will think me mad but that are in my heart and that I desire greatly.

But today is not the day to attempt this particular trick. Just standing still and preparing to move have been a challenge. But ultimately I feel encouraged by Ivan’s belief in me. Sometimes I think he believes in me more than I do. That’s why he endlessly crams my brain full of details. That’s why he has me do the same thing over and over and over.

And one day I’m going to believe in myself this much. One day, if I stick with it, and work hard, and practice, and sweat, then one day I will get to maybe play out in real life some of those fantasies in my head. And what an amazing feeling that will be.

After all, I’m so close.

It reminds me of this movie I saw on the internet which you can see here:

http://www.212movie.com/

After all, I’m not working at all this to just be good.

I want to be GREAT!

I think it is time to turn up the heat…