Topical Series: Back To Basics

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


By AaronOReilly (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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

1) Dance On Your Own Two Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Timing, Timing, Timing, and more Timing

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

4)  Body Alignment and Mechanics

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

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

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

5) Sometimes You Have To Forget  All The Rules

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

Here is an example of really letting go!

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

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

My Rumba Walks Will Never Be The Same

Well folks, it’s been a busy few days what with the holidays and all. I’ve worked 14 days straight (minus Christmas day) and now I’m due for a little break! Like I said, I did get Christmas day off, which was wonderful, but ended up being exhausting to make up the necessary overtime. I also participated in the 12th annual family pinochle tournament and came in 2nd place!

But even more amazing than that are all the discoveries I’m continuing to make with my dancing. It’s been kind of slow going with Imperial closed and ballet off the docket during the holidays, but since Ivan is independent, when he’s been available, we’ve caught a few lessons before I went into work yesterday and today.

Honestly, I’m so tired right now because I had an insomniac night last night waking up at 1:30am or so and not falling back to sleep until 4am, needing to get up at 5am to meet Ivan for our 6:30am lesson. This means, especially after 9 hours of work and the 1.5 hour commute, my mind is jumbled. The perfect time to write a blog post! LOL.

But I wanted to quickly process what we covered so I don’t forget it and also to say that tomorrow is the Ron and Karla Montez Dance Camp and I’m super excited to get to go for the next three days, culminating in a gourmet dinner and dance party with a champagne toast to kick off the new year. The schedule looks very juicy but I’m not entirely sure who will be instructing. Originally Bree and Decho were part of the staff but it looks like maybe they are now not participating. Ron and Karla will be there of course, and also possibly Radomir Pashev and Linda Dean as well as Jim and Janelle Maranto. We’ll see. I’m planning on going with a notebook to write down as much as I can and I’m sure there will be much to share after 3 full days of classes!

But back to what Ivan and I have been working on, well, it’s the basics, really. But I’m coming to experience them in deeper detail and the most exciting part is that things are changing, for the better I think, in my dancing. For instance, yesterday a lot of the lesson was spent on connection. It’s something we talk about and work on a lot and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like somebody can tell you the same thing 500 times and the 501st time you finally get it. Well, I had one of those experiences while doing a fan in the Rumba. In all honesty, it made me tear up a little bit!

So the thing is, that if someone was looking from the outside at what we were doing it wouldn’t probably appear any different from what we always do. But from the inside out, it felt completely different. I don’t know if I can truly explain the experience, it has so much to do with feeling and that nebulous concept of “energy” that we dancers hear about. Like Debbie Alvarez told me that I was allowing my “energy” to leak out behind me instead of directing it toward Ivan, my partner, on the fan. I “get it” but I also don’t entirely “get it” since I can’t execute utilizing my energy properly all the time. In any case, what happened was that I felt the connection through more than just my arms, but through my entre upper body, transferring into my hips and legs. It was a feeling of…simply put….presence. Me being present, integrated, whole and entire through my body and arms. Usually my arms end up being somewhat disconnected from my body which is probably why arm styling tends to be such a struggle for me. And it was beyond even the arms. The connection itself was intangible yet palpable. I would have been led and responded even if we hadn’t been touching physically.

This connection thing takes a while to feel, and then it is about being consistent and constant with it, whether in hold or not, being in partnership with the dancing partner and not having dead spaces whether energetically or physically, no moments of withdrawal. The moment I drop my guard, the moment I lose concentration, that is the moment that I miss the next signal and the wheels begin to fall off. Then there is a moment of overcompensation and pushing hard to reconnect. I mean, I can feel the difference when I’m really present and really paying attention so I know (theoretically) what it should feel like, but my habits run deep, not to mention the myriad of things I’m thinking about on every single step. But when I manage it, connection is the magic peanut butter in the sandwich called ballroom dancing, what holds it together and makes it so delicious!

But yeah, it’s difficult with all there is to manage when dancing. In fact, I was pondering this idea today – the idea that Ivan probably has no idea all the things I’m thinking about when we are dancing together and it’s really hard to just be present when I’m trying to remember the new step, the correction to my arms, the timing, the expression, how we tweaked this detail and that detail. It’s a lot!

But no matter! I’m addicted! I love it. Which is what caused me to go to another lesson this morning in which I had more discoveries and breakthroughs. First we worked on rumba walks. It’s not like I’ve done them badly all this time, it’s just that there is always more possibilities for movement. We broke it down and worked on it for quite a few minutes and then I began to discover how to do it in a totally new way which fills up more of the music. I tend to try to hit lines and thus get stuck as well as throw myself off-balance. I discovered that I was putting my hip into its final destination straight away instead of stepping forward with hips square, then raising the back hip, then twisting around my spine, and finally settling onto the standing leg. I began to get the hang of it, which is encouraging, however, it will take a lot of conscious practice to change my muscle memory so that I can do it automatically without thinking. But I’m excited with the possibilities.

I have the same problem going into a fan step in Rumba. I would immediately hit the final swivel position with my hip and have nowhere to go. I knew that I needed to melt into that final position but couldn’t figure out how to actually do it. Well, the change in the Rumba walks helped with this issue as well. Instead of immediately twisting my hips when switching my weight on count 2, I stopped in the middle and then could melt with the twist. Magic! I swear! I feel more and more like a “grown up” dancer when I discover these details. It’s exciting!

I guess that’s the main idea of what’s been going on. I must say that I can’t wait for my schedule to normalize a bit and to have my weekly ballet and Advanced Latin Group class as well as to fit in some gym time along with my private lessons. I have big goals for the new year and I’m looking to compete in May. I can’t wait to dive in with increased activity levels, as well as my new job training, position, and work schedule. It’s going to be a few weeks of transition, but even so, at least it will be better than the craziness of the holidays.

I’m hoping I’ll find the time to write some about my dance camp experiences but who knows how much time I will have so if I don’t get to it until after the New Year, well, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! Thanks for being a part of this experience along with me. The blog has been live for just over a year now and I’m thankful for every person who has ever read any post or made a comment or even become my friend! 2012 has been an interesting year, but I think 2013 is going to provide even more opportunities for growth, discovery, and connection. I’m looking forward to sharing it all with you!


Repetition, Connection, and Inna’s Gonna Be Back

Well sheesh.

Hello there neglected blog and readers.  It’s me, Stefanie.  Your reprobate blogger.

Do I have an excuse for the paucity of my blog posts?  Not really.  I just kind of lost some momentum after Desert Classic and getting injured.  I was off dancing for about 3 weeks, and now I’m back, but its a struggle.  I expected as much, knowing how hard the first class back after being off just even one week when I was at my peak as a dancer.  And now off three, up 5 pounds, and with lingering hip issues.  Happily the weird dizzy thing finally faded away but I’m still not feeling at my best.  Plus, I only had like two lessons last week and Ivan and Marieta were away competing this weekend, so I missed my double lesson for the week.

I did go back to Inna’s class but she was with Artem in England.  I don’t know if they were taking coachings or competing, but honestly it was a mixed blessing she was gone.  They recently lowered the price for the advanced Latin class which means there are more people in the class which is kind of exciting.  Last week Igor took over.  He’s a great instructor and knows his technique, but there is just something about the way Inna conducts a class.  She really pours herself into it and basically demands only the very best for all students.  She will cajole you into working your arms, hanging on and pushing through for an extra 10 seconds, and brings focus and intensity to your performance.  So anyways, it was Igor teaching class and I’ll admit it, I wasn’t at my best.  I wasn’t pushing it as hard as I could, but then again, it sure felt like it.  I was so winded, and I just didn’t have any energy through my muscles.  It was brutal.  So anyways, everyone in class seemed a little pooped and at one point Igor even said, “He you guys, next week Inna will be back!  She will not like to see your arms like that!  You have to push yourselves 100%, 100% of the time.”  I knew he was exactly on target, and I was also glad that my first week back I was able to slack off a little bit just because my physical conditioning has deteriorated with all the time off.

One highlight of the past week was that I had a coaching with Debbie Avalos-Kusumi.  First off, she is absolutely darling, probably as tall as my mom, about 5 foot nothing, and has this vibrant, kind, lovely personality.  We worked on Latin Rumba.  Always a good place to start.  I feel so blessed to get to interact with people like Debbie and Ron Montez.  Both just know what it is I need to do to change the picture I am creating with my dancing.  It is absolutely amazing and I generally walk away with an improved understanding of certain steps.

Probably the biggest point she mentioned was that I was allowing my energy to “go out the back door” like on the fan where I would sit into my hip and get a little stuck rather than using the fan to set me up to move forward, keeping my energy moving ahead.  Basically using every step to set up the next.

Another realization was that legs are straight on the count and bent on the and.  This should have been already in my knowledge database but you know, I am really just now, after about 2 years of doing bronze level, really coming to know the proper counts for steps.  It honestly was just a little too much information in the past, but now, I’m ready for it, hungry for the details.  I know fully knowing these points will set my dancing apart.

I also realized on a new level how I am so concerned with what I am thinking, getting so lost in my own experience of what I think I need to do, that I am unavailable in the connection.  It is a point in my dancing I’ve mentioned about a million times before, and I probably will mention a million times again.

I basically have a thought about this dancing thing which is I am willing to repeat, repeat, repeat the same movements and routines over and over and over because in doing so, I discover them more deeply.  I discover nuances within them.  I come to greater understanding of the mechanics involved, and more importantly, the relationship in the step.  Indeed, in the Latin Rumba, the steps only really make sense when my body is in a certain relationship to my partner’s.

In any case, it is going to take many more hours of practice and repetition to translate what I learned and understand in my head into my body muscle memory.  It’s gonna feel weird for a while, but ultimately, so much better, so much more on balance and connected, which is the reason I love ballroom dancing in particular.

So I need to get my butt in gear.  Get back to the gym in the mornings, get back on the eating plan, and get in more lessons with my instructor.  But I have to admit, I feel a little drag pulling on me.  You see, in my other life, my work life, it’s been a tough ride the past few years.  Basically right now I have an awesome position as a temp doing a job I enjoy pretty well with sane and regular hours which I really appreciate, and at a pay rate for which I am eternally grateful.  Without this position there is no way I would have been able to dance as much as I have, afford coachings, participate in the Desert Classic competition, and have a new dress to wear during it.  The only problem is, it is not a permanent position with the company.  The contract did get renewed for another 6 months so thank you and Hallelujah…and, what will I do once the time runs out?  Well, I’m being proactive.  I applied for a full-time position but didn’t get it, and I’m applying for some other job opportunities as well.  But the uncertainty, I find it uncomfortable and a bit stressful.  I really value security, especially when having a stable job is what allows me to afford to do what I love.  In any case, I feel that my energy is a bit scattered.  I’m expending some energies performing the job I currently do, which requires an enormous amount of mental concentration as well as 70 miles of driving 5 days of the week.  I’m also expending another portion of energy to explore other job opportunities.  This means my reserves feel a little depleted when it comes to creating time for physical activity, dancing, diet.  Wah boo.  I have just as many hours in a day as everyone else, I know, I know.  I’m just acknowledging that it feels a bit like I’m pulling a heavy load behind me.  Yes, if this is my biggest complaint, I am living a charmed and blessed life.  I acknowledge that.  I also acknowledge the part of me that is tired, and feeling a bit down.  I’m missing some my normal spark and passion.  It will be good for me to go get my butt kicked by Inna tomorrow night and I will need to schedule a lesson with Ivan soon.  Honestly, I’m just looking forward to making it through to tomorrow night at this point.  That, and a trip to Disneyland in the near future for a much-needed fun get-away, and taking my 3-and-a-half-year-old niece to The Nutcracker, just me and her which will be so special.

Alrighty, I also pledge to get back to my topical series.  What burning questions do you have about ballroom dancing?  Is there anything you’d be interested to know?

That’s the scoop.  Hopefully I’ll have something exciting to write after class tomorrow.

XOXO, Stef

Melt The Ice

Well, this post is a little bit belated.  Reason being I’m moving this weekend, and that takes a lot of time.  Between packing, and working, and still getting in a dance lesson or two, life has been going full speed ahead.

But I had the most amazing lesson Friday morning and I just kind of want to process it all.  I feel like sometimes I say the same things over and over, and maybe that’s repetitive and boring, but then I think, well, that’s what I do on a dance lesson, you know?  I practice the same thing over and over, but I’m discovering the same thing in a different way.  It is an entirely new experience each time I do a volta, even if it feels somewhat familiar.  This is because I am a different person and I’ve gained new experiences since the last time I did a volta.  But then again, when I bring up the subject of connection, say, again and again, I may sound like a broken record.  And yet, I am coming to know connection anew – this familiar subject – but as if for the first time.

So anyways, I showed up on my lesson fresh with some ideas in my little brain.  One of the things I appreciate most about Ivan is that I feel like I’m an equal.  I feel like he will listen to me and my ideas, and that he values my dance experience.  I totally acknowledge that he is the more experienced person in the room and has expertise that I don’t posses, and yet, I have things to offer in the dance relationship as well.  Other instructors I’ve had have been very invested in keeping the teacher-student (i.e. supperior-inferior) relationship in place.  They were not as open to my feedback or ideas.

But with Ivan, I’ve felt that it’s safe to bring things up, ask questions, and even, gasp, have an agenda for my dance lesson.  Anyways, the night before I spent some time surfing on YouTube.   I was actually looking for music.  I was searching for ballroom performances to find music that would be suitable for practicing and that I would like. I happened upon a video of Donnie Burns conducting a lecture.  I didn’t watch the entire 45 minutes, but one day I really need to.  The bit I did watch was amazing.

You see, Donnie Burns happens to be one of Ivan’s heroes.  He used to watch Mr. Burns compete when he was in his prime.  So he’s mentioned the man on occasion.

I didn’t know much about the guy but when the video popped up, I was intrigued and decided maybe I should learn a little bit about one of the people Ivan most looks up to as an example.  Man!  It was amazing the little bit I happened upon.

Basically, Donnie was talking about connection.  I think it’s kind of a lost art in ballroom dancing today.  Truly.  I never really even broached the subject until I danced with Ivan.  And the few times it has actually happened, me being actually connected to Ivan on a lesson, have been amazing.  Most people are so focused on learning the steps, learning the syllabus and technique, and of course all that is important and good, but so much time and energy is spent on this that no time is taken to develop the connection.  Now, I realize I’m generalizing here.  And this is just my opinion.  I’m sure some instructors do work on connection with their students, but I have to say, I feel like Ivan is kind of a master at it.  From day one he brought to my awareness the need to be connected and focused on him as the lead.  Not only that, but he’s been working on pulling the emotional expression out of me through that connection.

Anyways, in the little part of the video that I watched, Donnie was talking about how when you first connect with a partner you have to “melt the ice” a little bit.  The man has to get through the defenses of the woman so that she will respond to his invitation.  Even if you’ve only been apart for a little bit of time, there’s some “ice” that has built up that must be melted.  This is a result of just the daily experiences and stresses of living.  But through connecting, the ice can melt.  You know it’s melted when you breathe together, the man begins to move, and the woman will settle on the hip in preparation to move. (This was in the context of Latin dancing, by the way).

Donnie explained that dancing in a partnership isn’t about the man dancing with the inconvenience of a woman that he has to push and pull here and there.  He explained that 90% of the leads in the Rumba, say, are actually to stop the woman, not to start her.  She will move, on her own, if only the man will allow her to do so.  Suddenly, the dance becomes effortless, a physical, mental and spiritual joint experience.

And Donnie said one last thing that really stuck with me.  He said that the only way to dance, was to dance.  That just like the lyrics don’t make a song, the steps alone, don’t make a dance.  Wow, I thought.  This is why I do this.  It’s about melting the ice, being connected, and dancing.  This guy’s a freakin’ genius!  No wonder he was a World Champion so many times.  No wonder Ivan idolizes him.  He’s got some good things to say.

So anyways, I had all this on my brain as I walked into my lesson.  I’ve been thinking for a while now that it is important that Ivan back off a little, meaning that he not help me as much when we are dancing.  Why?  Well, because when he makes it possible for me to move when really I shouldn’t be able to, because on my own I’d be stuck, or off-balance, then I don’t get the kinetic feedback that something is amiss.  I don’t have the opportunity to correct myself.  Nor do I begin to build the muscle memory necessary to perform these movements properly.  Also, it causes both of us to expend a lot of energy in the tension of the physical connection.  And, I also realized, that I actually can’t move as well.  There is a restriction I experience when the lead is too strong.  The help Ivan is used to providing turns out to be a hinderance at this point.

But the thing is, that I think that it is probably just as hard for Ivan to back off as it is for me to step up and drive forward forcefully.  But really, it is something we need to work on, I think, in our partnership, to improve the quality of our collective dancing.

Alright, so I began the lesson spewing all these thoughts out into the ethers, hoping that Ivan would “get” what I was blabbering on about.  Lucky enough for me, he totally did!

We began with Rumba.  And, we began with the simplest of actions, the hand connection at the start of the dance, but it was amazing.  Why?  Well, the whole point of the hand connection is to connect the body and the core.  The hand connection translates into a connection beyond the physical, though it also includes the physical.  In any case, this time, on this particular morning, I actually began by looking Ivan directly in the eyes.  I actually allowed my defenses to come down for just a second.  I became completely focused on Ivan, kind of the feeling I had when we danced with our eyes closed, when I had to rely on all my peripheral senses to follow his lead.  But I discovered this morning that it is also possible to feel that expansiveness with eyes open.  And magic happened:  Ivan began to move toward me, and just like what had happened in the video of Donnie Burns, Ivan and I breathed together and I settled onto my hip before we began the first step.  It felt as smooth and effortless a hot knife slicing butter.

And then, well, my usual programs began running.  I messed up a step.  Fell off of balance.  I lost concentration and ergo connection.  But Ivan wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily.   He was like, “You doing so well, then you gone again.  You show me a little bit of your world, then you shut the window again.  Why you shut the window?”

I didn’t have time to respond.  Ivan grabbed my hand and pointed upwards.  The studio where we were practicing is decorated like a beach get-away and there are a bunch of floaty rings and beach balls hanging from the ceiling.  He pointed to one of the floating rings and said, “You only show me a little peep hole into your world.  Why you do that?  Your world is so bright and colorful.  Share it.”

Inside, I was processing all this.  Like, really, I thought, you actually want to see what’s going on inside me?  You are actually interested?  I have to come clear here and say that so much of my defenses and hiding have to do with not feeling good enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, and sexy enough to really be worth being seen.  And, a lot of that has to do with my physical appearance.  Like, I will connect and show myself to a point, the point where it is comfortable, the point where I’m still holding a person at arm’s length.  I’m still blocking access to the inner sanctum of my essence, if you will, because I allow my personal demons and insecurities to get in the way.

But Ivan seemed so genuine, and we’ve been dancing together for  like 10 months or so, and he’s become a trusted friend.  If I were to let someone in, really in, wouldn’t he be a good choice?  In the context of dancing, of course!  So something inside me decided in that moment to just let go.  And I did.  And we connected.  I’ve never looked that clearly, directly, and openly into Ivan’s eyes.  You know, one of them is half a different color.  Anyways, he’s always been there, been available.  I’ve been the one not open.  So when I decided to connect, really connect, he was right there ready for me.

“Wow.”  I said.

Honestly, I don’t know that I can fully capture the feeling of that experience in words.  All I can say, is that there was an entirely different quality to our movements.  We were in unison.  I could almost tell what he was going to do before he did it.  I began to tear up.  It brought up some emotion inside me.  Perhaps because I felt vulnerable.  Perhaps because it felt good.

I realized that one thing Ivan has always created the space for on our lessons was to actually enjoy the dancing.  Like the time he grabbed my hand and put it on various parts of his body, even his butt!  Saying, “Hello, I am Ivan.”  And really letting me know that it was okay to touch him while we were dancing and playing the parts that are played on the dance floor.  But again, I’d permissioned myself to only go so far.  “Okay,” I thought, “I get now that it is okay to touch Ivan.”  I still get a little shy about it now and then, but for the most part, I’ve accepted that he’s okay with me touching him.  The part I held back on was actually allowing myself to enjoy it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, I was keeping the experience at arm’s length, once again.  Letting the touching be okay, but keeping it very aloof, very disconnected…what I was thinking was “professional” or “appropriate.”  I didn’t actually let it be enjoyable.  I kept that feeling at bay.

But here’s the thing….natrually, when we are touched, by something pleasant, like a feather, or another person gently, or like getting a massage or something….it feels good.  It is natural for touch to feel good (when it is appropriate, safe, healthy, nice touch).

And yet there is a part of me that is like, for whatever reason I haven’t yet deciphered, that it’s not okay to enjoy this touch.

But the kicker is that the whole point of dancing is to feel and to actually enjoy it!  People can sense when you are faking that, just going through the motions, and when you are actually feeling it, emoting it.  I was blocking the very thing that brings meaning to my dancing!  What’s up with that!?!?

I can’t tell you how many times Ivan has demonstrated this to me.  He will show me what it is like to touch someone and to have them not react.  It is disconnected, off-putting, unexciting.  Part of what makes Ivan and Marietta’s dancing so mesmerizing is that they each respond to the touch of the other.  They look at where they were touched, or express with their face and body how it felt to be touched.  But me, I’m a cold fish.  Poor Ivan is reacting to me, but I’m unresponsive as a raw potato.  How annoying would that be to dance with?

But hey, I’m not all bad.  Just today, I was more aggressive on my Rumba walks, and then I just made all sorts of breathing noises and faces during my cha-cha which to me felt over-the-top, excessive, loud, uncomfortable, and crazy, but to Ivan, well, he just said, “You make me so happy now!”  Go me!

And heck, I’m opening up a little, at least.  Ivan got a glimpse inside me.  And the truth is, that I want to open the windows wide open.  Inside, I want to just let spirit fly!  I want to feel, and connect.  I suppose that is why I even want to dance.  And you know what, I’m on my way.  I’m getting there.  I’m getting closer and closer to that vision every time I practice.

Alas, there is still much to work on. But I’m reminded of this thing I saw on Facebook just the other day:

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion. -Martha Graham

Well now.  I’m deciding right this instant that I am a great dancer!  I certainly have great passion for this medium.  And well, maybe my inner great dancer is not yet fully expressed, but she’s in there, I just know it!  She’s banging on the door to come out, and sometimes I even open it for her to play.

And yet, I know there is still more to be done.  For instance, yesterday after my lesson with Ivan, I decided to stay and practice a bit.  I popped on my headphones and was about to begin and this gorgeous blond lady walks in the studio.  Seconds ago it had been people I knew, now there was this stranger, and she was lovely to boot.  I was almost going to leave just because of that!  I always feel like I don’t want to take up any of the floor space at a studio.  It is one thing when on an actual lesson, but to just be by myself and practice…well, I don’t know if there are any “rules” about that, but I’d guess that couples with a teacher take precedence.  And the studio was becoming more busy and crowded.  Certainly I wouldn’t want to get in their way.  But then, I cow myself in.  I don’t go around the room in a big circle to practice my Samba walks or Rumba walks like I want to.  Instead, I grab a little corner in the back, and even then I worry about being in the way of people trying to get to the bathroom, or the instructors getting to the office.  I mean, like, couldn’t they um, just walk around me?  I’m not that important.  I’m not being disrespectful or obnoxious, right?  Or am I?  I ended up turning with my face to the back wall because I was so concerned about everyone else and what they might think of me that I had to physically turn myself around to block it out!  Isn’t this insane?  And also, it reveals to me that I’m not willing to hold my own space, to claim my spot on the dance floor.  I had a realization that I really was being run by my need to look good (or rather, not look bad!), my need to be approved of, my need to be liked….and…get this….by people I didn’t even know!  By people who probably weren’t even watching me!  (But what if they were? Oh shut up you stupid little voice!)  So what if they were!  It’s crowded in my head sometimes, I tell you….

And sometimes it’s not.  Like when I’m connected and just dancing….

And yet, in that instance, I was paralyzed.  Yes, during my practice session, I did a little of this and a little of that, but I stopped myself from really feeling anything, really dancing full-out.  For instance, I was touched by this one song, “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw and wanted (inside) to dance really big and expansive.  But did I?  No.  It kinda makes me want to cry, this editing, this blocking.  Why do I do this to myself?  Actually, who even cares?  I do it now and it doesn’t serve me.

It’s time to change.

And I mean that on a lot of different levels.

And life is going to change…tomorrow.  I’m moving houses which will mean a new environment and a fresh opportunity to claim and organize my new living space.  Also, lots is going on “behind the scenes” for me emotionally, though dancing and other means.  I’m having a lot of time to reflect, for introspection, especially during my long commute to work, and I’ve come to a few decisions about who I want to become in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, physically and mentally.

Remember that whole thing about being a broken record?  Well, I’ve become one to myself.  I’m sick of hearing myself say the same stupid things to myself about myself all the time.  So it’s time to take action.  A wise friend once told me, “If you want to change, you have to change.”  Well, I want some changes, so I guess I must make the changes necessary to create them.

It’s way past time for me to stop the insanity, be who I am meant to be, and just let that be enough.  It’s time to let my emotions shine though my dancing and to get out of my own way.  It’s time for me to claim my space on the dance floor and to stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking.  It’s time to really commit to creating the body I deserve and desire through choices that serve me each and every day.  It’s time to stop squandering my days as if they are not numbered.  It’s time to live a life I love, love the life I live, and love myself.  It’s time to create myself anew.

And, you know what?

It’s time to melt the damn ice!

I Like You For One Second

So I decided to fit one last lesson in before Ivan and Marietta headed off to Emerald Ball Wednesday afternoon.

Tangent here….congratulations to Rose and Michelle who made it to the finals in the Latin Open A Division at Emerald Ball on Thursday.  Rose got 2nd place!  Seriously, they are amazing.

Okay, back to my story.  It was a good choice to take that lesson.  Because for me it was one of the best, most enjoyable lessons I’ve had.  Most of them are pretty great, I’ll admit, but for the first time today, I think I really experienced and generated what people talk about when they say how important it is to dance with your energy.

First things first: Alaina, Ivan was thrilled when I told him that he was right about calling jellyfish medusa.  He said, “See, I so smart!”  So thanks Miss science major.  You brightened Ivan’s day.

Secondly, we began with a little Mambo to kind of warm up.  At first Ivan was being arm-y (this is an official dance term – Not! – but what it means is that the movement and leads felt like they were generated from the arms rather than the body) and forceful.  As hard as he pushes, I, as a follower, have to match that and resist. It is exhausting when he’s pushing hard.  And, I discovered something else about that as well, which I’ll get to later.  So anyways, I was really noticing the force and pushing so I actually stopped Ivan and told him to relax.  He was just being his “puppy dog” excited self, but it was making things more difficult.

So he kind of calmed down and we moved on to my favorite, Latin Rumba.  He went on automatic pilot and just grabbed my hand, but me, I love the connection stuff and wasn’t willing to settle.  I pulled my hand away and said, “Now Ivan.  You gotta invite me to dance!”  He immediately perked up and was like, “Yes.”  So we slowed down, centered ourselves, he offered me his arm, and I took a moment to raise my hand above my head and place it in his.

“I like the arm.  But what the hell (he said smilingly while laughing) is going on with the foot?  I like you for one second, but you dancing three seconds.”

Yeah, Ivan.  Thanks for the feedback.   So I corrected that detail and we started again.

But then he wanted me to wait and hold that position as he began the dance, stepping toward me so that our faces were close.  I was to wait for the lead to actually step back and hold my ground until that time, even as he was coming directly toward me.  It was a bit of a challenge.  I was unsure of where to go because normally I vacate space so he can step into it, but in this case I wasn’t supposed to do that.  Ivan explained that the Rumba (in not as eloquent words as I’m going to use here) is like breathing, in and out.  The Rumba is supposed to be a coming in close and the illusion of almost consummating close contact, and then the pushing away, moving outward at just the last moment – a dance of expansion and contraction of the space between the partners.  Well, anyways, that bit needs a bit of work but it is exciting to be thinking of things artistically in this way.

The long and short of today’s lesson was that I still need to push that button inside me that will allow me to step into complete confidence and freedom of expression.  Ivan even told me, “I know you can do it,” and it always means a lot when your mentor says something like that, you know?  He can see it in me, so he’s bothering to pull it out.  He even commented that perhaps other instructors who might be on the clock wouldn’t necessarily take the time to work on such things.  But that right there is why Ivan is my instructor.  That is why I’m so devoted to being his student.  That is the amazing value I get from learning from this particular man.  Ivan does take the time to work on this stuff.  He does slow down and try and pull the expression out of me.  It is so completely what I need.  I feel like perhaps we had a celestial contract to work with one another in this lifetime, you know?  It may sound woo woo, but really, it is a special, sacred kind of work.  And seriously, ask my mom, for whatever reason that I can’t explain, Ivan is able to tell me things and do things to me and with me that if my family or husband would do, I would absolutely have a meltdown!  Somehow he is able to bypass my programming and defenses and make it work.  Thank you God for this gift in my life.

Ivan made a point to tell me that he is not judging me.  That we’ll get enough of that with judges at competitions.  And that other instructors perhaps might not want to dance with me like he does, or be willing to dance with me at larger competitions, because of my size.  Yes, he said, yes I dance well, but other instructors might be so concerned with how things are supposed to look that they might prefer to dance with a slimmer, fitter, blonder, more traditionally-beautiful student, even if they danced worse because the truth is, the reputation of the pro is at stake when they dance with amateurs.  How the amateur student-partner performs reflects upon the teacher in the ballroom world.

Believe it or not, this totally didn’t bother me.  Actually, it just occurred to me as I’m writing this that for some people, this might be hard to hear.  I guess I just already accepted the fact that I’m not the usual ballroom dancer.  I already experienced going to studios (when I was looking for an instructor) and them just partnering me with whomever had space in their schedule, rather than seeing how I moved or asking me my goals so they could match me with the best fit.  I “get” that from just seeing me, you’d never know how deeply my motivation runs, or how well I move, or even my potential – Ron Montez, himself, was a bit flabbergasted and admitted to me that he’d kind of formed an idea of how I would move when he saw me initially but that it wasn’t the case and that I’d surprised him – so if that kind of high level champion and professional can’t tell, I can’t expect anyone else to, either.  I’ve already accepted that there will be people who will judge me and who will see my adipose tissue before all else.  I’ve already faced the music, knowing that it is possible that I could dance better than anyone else (which isn’t really where I am as a dancer but to make the point go with me here) and still be judged harshly, and scored lowly, just for presentation.

So I think that makes it even more exceptional that Ivan is willing to dance with me, and even more, that he is willing to develop me.  He so isn’t in the game of just sucking me dry financially.  He’s in the game of a person helping another person out.  Thanks Ivan.  You are the best.

Okay, back to the actual lesson….

Ivan made me play.  He put on a song and asked me just to move.  Not to dance and “steps” but rather just to be interesting, engaged, dancing.  He referenced the time at Sunburst last Decemeber when we just danced for fun.  I told him that the music informed my music – basically, whatever the music was, it told me how to move.  Fast. Slow. Crazy. Playful. Fun.  Whatever.  But it made me remember that when we were jamming that night, there was an amazing energy exchange between us.  Ivan was leading me in dances I didn’t know (the Lambada) and also just dancing like you’d dance in a club with no choreographed steps.  It was SO fun!  And, people gave me compliments on how fun it was to watch me.  My energy was in full force that night.  I was just out there, not caring what anyone thought because the floor was full and the judges panel had gone to dinner and I was just dancing to the music with my friend.  I felt free.

So, it was a good reference.

Ivan made me play around just like that.  He wanted me to “surprise” him.  He used to say that to me in our earlier lessons when he was trying to coax some expression out of me.  But he hasn’t said it in a while.  The thing is, that Ivan truly does want to have an authentic energetic exchange while we are dancing.  He wants, as far I can can discern, to have that conversation between leader and follower.  He wants to have the connection.  What I am saying, is that it would be great for him to be on the receiving end of a person “surprising” him.

The problem is, I’m shy.  The problem is, I contain myself, because part of my brain is concerned with how I look and what Ivan will think of me if I look stupid.  It’s so unconscious at this point, I don’t even realize I’m doing it.  Until Ivan had me do this exercise, that is.

He told me to dance in front of him and that he was going to be totally disinterested.  He was going to be judgemental and tell me I was a horrible dancer.  It was my job to ignore that and be interesting enough that he’d start to watch me.  I moved around a bit but it wasn’t working.  Then I stepped behind Ivan’s back where he couldn’t actually see me and went nuts!  I totally let loose because there was no one actually watching me.

“See!  This is it!”  Ivan exclaimed.


“Didn’t you feel the difference, Stefanie?  When you going behind me you completely free.  You let go.  This is what you supposed to be doing in front of me.”

Suddenly it clicked.  I “got” the difference.  I felt the difference.  It was an “Aha” moment.

So then he went even deeper.  He told me, “See, we touching the button.  It not totally pushed yet, but we hitting on it.”

He explained that there were still barriers that have to come down.  For instance, he told me that when I am concerned or worried about my body or how I’m dancing, he feels that same way.  He said he feels “shy to touching” my body when I am hating on it because he can feel my concern that he will “discover my fats” on the arms, the legs.  He could also tell that I’m struggling a little bit with touching him while dancing too.  He physically grabbed my hand and said, “Hello.  I am Ivan.  This is my leg.  This is my butt. This is my head.  This is my arm.  This is my breasts.”  He slapped my hand on each part as he named it.  “It’s okay to touching it.”

I got a bit scared.  Because what he was really asking of me was to touch him and energetically connect with him as if I wanted him physically.  That isn’t appropriate! My mind screamed.  But the thing is, this is that acting hat I’ve got to learn to put on.  Of course it isn’t how things are in “real life” but rather it’s that magic, protected bubble Aurora was talking about where the normal rules don’t apply.  Where the show happens. But there also has to be an element of authenticity to it.  Even though I don’t really want to like, oh my gosh, I’m getting so embarrassed here, but I don’t really want to “bone” my instructor but I have to act and imagine how I’d be if I were going to do that.

Before in this post Ivan told me to come at him like a tiger.  But this was pretending to be an animal.  It was supposed to help me connect with that kind of character.  But a tiger is a tiger, and a woman who is interested in a man is something different.  The tiger is less scary to play at.

But after the “Aha” moment, I was able to wrap my head around all this a little bit better.  Ivan asked me to do some Latin walks, coming toward him.  I thought to myself, how would I walk toward him if I was pursuing him?  And it’s kind of hard to put into words what happened.  I’ll try my best.

The Latin Walks were no longer just steps I was taking to move forward.  They had a purpose.  I was driving toward my “man,” coming directly at him, unabashed, confident.  My energy, usually scattered, was focused and directed to Ivan.  It’s like the light produced from a light bulb which is diffuse and harmless versus the light of a laser which is focused and can cut through cement.

And Ivan noticed the difference too.  I was coming from my core, both physically and energetically.  He was like, a little bit scared!  He was genuinely surprised.  For once I was a driving force in the partnership.  He could retreat a little.  I was showing up.  He told me, “Now I become shy!  I put you to a turn because I scary!”

So I can do it.  It is there inside me!  Wow!

Next, Ivan had me do more walks and I put my free arm out to the side, holding it still for the first four counts because on my coaching with Linda Dean she demonstrated the power of keeping the arms still to emphasize the legs.  My legs and feet are more of a strength in my dancing than my arms so it makes sense to take advantage of this way to draw attention to my assets.

Ivan was like, “You always putting your arm still because of Linda Dean.”

“Yes, Ivan, I like to do that for the first few counts.”  I explained my reasoning.

“Okay, okay.  Do it like that then change it to how Ivan would like you to do it.”

That meant I should allow my arm to undulate like the tentacles of a jellyfish.  He likes to never stop moving.

Then he got excited.  “Okay, it’s good.  Now do it like Inna!”

I was like, “Pah!”  Thinking strength and attack.

“Good, good!  Now Marietta!”

I pouted and tried to be flirty and soft and feminine.  He laughed at my impression.

But it was a really great discovery.  I cycled through the four personalities, Linda Dean (proper and elegant), Ivan’s way (moving and fun-loving), Inna’s way (powerful, aggressive), and Marietta’s way (flirty and sassy).  It was easier to imagine how these very different and amazing dancers would do the movement than to imagine a tiger.  And it created amazing contrast in the steps, making the Latin walks much more interesting.  It was fantastic.

Next we moved on to Cha Cha.  We do this one figure from a cross-over to face each other and cha cha, then I step forward and flip 180 degrees and we travel backwards doing a cha cha lock and then I flip to face him and I’m supposed to put my hand on his chest.

Well, when I do it, I look down, or to the side.  I’m focused on placing my hand.  But it’s not a very exciting moment when it really should be.

“Why you always looking to down?  NO!  You have to looking directly at me.”

Aha.  I got it!

We did the move again, and just like I came at Ivan with that directed, focused energy on the Latin walks that surprised him, I came at him like that in this move.

He was like, “Wow!  You scary.  This good.  I have to be uncomfortable dancing with you.  I have to be feeling this.”

What?  Him uncomfortable to dance with me?  This is a total reversal of the usual situation!  Huh.  But wow.  That is really asking me to be an equal partner.  That is allowing for me affect him as much as he affects me during the dance.  I’ve just assumed the submissive role being the student, you know?  But that doesn’t make for an interesting dance dynamic.

And now we come full-circle.  Back to the other thing I discovered on the lesson that I mentioned in the beginning of the post. About when he was kind of pushing me around the floor.  The thing I noticed was that when he is dancing from that place, I don’t have the space to move my own self.  All the resistance restricts my movement.  It seems like it’s helping but really it is making me more dependant on him than I should be.  I really should be on my own two feet, maybe like 98%, and using Ivan like 2%.  But when we dance like usual, it is something like 90%/10%.  When he backs off, and only gives me the merest suggestion of a lead, I am empowered.  I have to move my own ass!  But it is so much freer.  I can move more.  So as much as I need to drive forward and be more active in the dancing, Ivan needs to practice backing off!  Interesting, huh?

Sheesh! Probably one of my longest posts ever.  It was just such an “Aha” awareness that I had.  I don’t think my dancing will ever be the same.  Now maybe Ivan will like me for a whole two seconds!  Ha ha.

Alrighty.  I’ll end for now.  Good luck to Ivan and Marietta as the compete at Emerald Ball tomorrow (Sunday) night!


Connection, Connection, Connection

On my lesson yesterday there was one main theme and that was connection!

I’ve written about this aspect of my dancing/ballroom dancing before but once again we revisited the topic.

I kind of wonder sometimes how Ivan decides what we will work on during lessons.  Since he’s independent and doesn’t follow a particular syllabus, it’s free form.  It’s great in my opinion, though I still have no idea what “level” dancer I am.  I guess we’ll find out when we go do our next comp.  Ivan did tell me that at the next one it would be the last time I dance in bronze.  Who knows, though.  I certainly have no idea which steps are what level….I just know our little routines or possible steps, and every once in a while Ivan throws in another new one.

In any case, unlike at chain studios where you buy packages and are promised to learn say, Bronze I, in a certain amount of lessons, or you buy a package of lessons to learn a showcase number, or whatever, I pay as I go.  If I have extra money one week, I can have an extra lesson.  If things are tight, I can cut back.  It works great for me!

But because of this, there is no particular agenda for the lessons.  When I came in the studio, Ivan was working with another one of his students on a particular step in Cha Cha.  When we started, he wanted to work on that step with me right away.  It was like, he needed to be complete with it or something.  He’s shown me it once before so it was good to refresh my memory, but it still needs a LOT of work.  It’s just a very fast step.

So we worked on that particular step, open hip twist, I think he told me, and then we danced some swing.  I mentioned to him that I’d seen how Marieta did it on Monday’s class and it was different than I was doing it.  She created much more up and down swing in her movement than I’ve ever created.  I was like, “Ivan, tell me what’s right, here.  Let’s go over the basic.  Because if you don’t correct it, I will keep practicing it this way and it’s not right.”  It’s almost like I’m going to have to continue to ask him to push me more, correct me more.  This is not necessary when Intense-diva-Ivan is out to play.  That bitch will just take control and put me in the right position.  But most days it’s puppy-dog-Ivan.  We have lots of fun, and he still makes corrections, but I think maybe there is more he could be telling me but isn’t.  Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings or something.  But I addressed it specifically with him that I want corrections.  Lots of ’em!

Anyways, the lesson then became about connection.  Of the three instructors I’ve had, I think only Ivan really knows what connection feels like.  I almost wonder if it is a little bit of a lost art among most instructors.  But it is one of the defining characteristics of ballroom dancing, in my opinion.  It is the thing that makes it possible for two pieces to move as one.  Without it, you have two people dancing alongside one another doing their own thing.  With it, magic, unity, synergy.

I think the biggest issue I encounter with connection is that I’ll have it, then lose it.  I’ll relax and release the tone in my arms that makes the connection possible.  Break at any joint, my wrist, my elbow, or my shoulder, and the connection fizzles out, even for just one second.  I then overreach to find it again.  I’m so new at it, I don’t always feel when the connection has been severed.  To really be connected is much more than just the physical touching, but includes eye connection, and body connection.

Ivan can and has lead me using just his eyes or his body language but this is much more challenging and I have to be completely focused on him, his energy to make it work.  One lapse in concentration, one errant thought about what I’m supposed to be doing, and poof! It’s gone.

I’m still sussing out exactly how every move is supposed to feel when connected.  I’m noticing that there is a huge difference between how dancing the Cha Cha feels alone in Inna’s class and connected with Ivan on my private lesson in my very own body.  It’s like I have to find the sweet spot between dancing myself and my body (which takes a lot of energy), and being connected to Ivan, but not hanging on him, not making him push me around the floor, and basically “moving my ass.”

Connection, as far as I understand it, isn’t about him moving me.  I’m supposed to move myself but I think I’m late, slow, stuck, a lot of the time so he helps me out.  The thing is, if he always helps me out then I think things are right because we make it to the next step.  If he wasn’t there, however, I’d be sunk.  He did once pull away during a spot turn and I immediately understood what I was doing wrong.  I was leaning in too much, thus off-balance, and creating extra force on Ivan.  So sometimes I try to connect too much!  It seems to oscillate between the extremes of being completely absent, such as when I break at my shoulder, to being too forceful, creating extra work.

Ivan likens it to driving.  When we are connected properly, he’s driving a Ferrari.  He gently invites, asks me to rev my engine, and I move.  When we are not connected properly, he’s driving a truck.  Each gear shift is clunky and slow.

I’ll admit it – sometimes I’m a Ferrari and sometimes I’m a truck, and both can be true in one single dance.

By the end of the lesson Ivan said that I was doing so much better.  That is true, but I also wondered if that was partially because Ivan was so focused on connection.  Sometimes I think he isn’t really being connected to me, either.  I mean, we are all human.  I still look to him as my leader, superior, teacher, and if he isn’t present enough to connect, my connection is probably going to be lacking as well.  But I can be responsible for my own dancing, too.  When something is asked of me, I respond.  I feel differences in Ivan’s lead all the time.  If he is especially excited, he can get forceful (especially in Samba).  We’ve also danced without touching, or even with just a gentle lead.  So part of how I show up as a partner depends on how Ivan shows up in the moment as a partner.

It makes me realize that I can come to class with my own agenda.  If connection is important to me, I can set that context by taking a few breaths and a moment to center before we begin moving.  I can invite Ivan to connect with me from that space, instead of always expecting him to do it all.  I mean, it is supposed to be a 50/50 partnership in an ideal world, right?  That may not be possible just yet at my level of dancing versus his level of dancing, but I still think it is a goal to strive for.

At this point,  I just feel like I am rambling because I’m still trying to figure out what connection means.  There are so many aspects to it – from feeling it physically, to tuning into it if all I get is a body lead with no touching, to how I’m showing up as a partner on one end of the connection.  Just like all the fundamentals (swing, sway, basic steps in every dance, etc), I feel like a person can revisit them over and over and over and discover a new aspect to something he’s been doing for a long time.  There is always a way to go deeper and arrive at the same place but see it with new eyes, knowing it for the first time.

So, what did I learn on my lesson yesterday?  I’m not entirely sure.  Maybe not every lesson has to end it a neat little package of learning.  What I did find is that the process continues.  The adventure goes on and on.

But this I know: connection is a vital part of ballroom dancing and I’m going to work to be great at it!  When it works right, it feels awesome.  I want more of that and I’m thrilled that I get to practice it on each and every lesson.

How Is A Champion Created?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011


Private Lesson with Ivan at Allegre Studio

Ivan will call me if I am even a few minutes late to my lesson. Actually, I wasn’t even late…it was exactly 10am when he called and I was 2 minutes away. After our phone conversation yesterday I decided to apply some lipstick today and it set me behind schedule. Plus, its the last time I’ll see him before Christmas so I have to grab his presents, and those for his wife and mom too.

I arrive and we exchange gifts. Ivan gives me wine and some fancy European chocolates….which I will be sharing with my family. It is a nice gesture, but I’m on this mission to slim down! Willpower, be with me today.

Anyways, we enter the studio and begin to talk about our coaching session with Linda Dean. As with any coaching, I think it is important to take what I have been given and find what works best for me personally. Ivan agrees with some things and not with others. This is fine. We will figure out the best thing for us as a partnership incorporating the feedback we get from others, or not.

But I was fascinated with two items that I want to revisit. The first was how to do the Alemana. I’d been stepping in a very different direction than the step calls for. I want to practice making a 3 point triangle, stepping to Ivan’s side, to the kitty-corner away from him, and then back to face him while also holding myself up straight and making the movement on balance.

We work on the Rumba for a good 30 minutes without music just doing the movements over and over. We also work on the connection once again. It seems like I can understand, or that I “know” what I am supposed to do and want to do, but it all flies out the window when dancing to music. There is just so much to be aware of! Straighten the legs, dance the body, look up, keep connection in the frame but don’t use the arms to pull, stay upright, listen to the music, emphasize the counts 1 and 3, but not 2 and 4…..the list goes on and on. Thank God my heart beats on its own! I’d forget to keep it going with my mind occupied like this.

And my arms. The fisted-octopus-tentacle-extremtities that they are, are in desperate need of help. They are the first thing to go wonky when I’m concentrating.

Today was a practice session like so many others. Repeating, repeating, repeating. Hearing the same corrections over, and over, and over. Knowing that I’m not doing what I mean to do a second after I’ve done it.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is some nice movement in the mix here, too. I’m not bagging on myself so much as being in the process of becomming. And trust me, I’m 1000 times more compassionate with myself than I used to be! That, in and of itself, is a huge victory.

I suppose there is always room to be a little kinder to myself and others but I have this overriding drive to improve. Sometimes I just need to relax.

Also, the stuff we are beginning to work on takes years to congeal, from what I’m told. Based on what I’ve experienced in my own body so far, I believe there to be some truth in this. We’re talking here about having that tuned in, direct, plugged in connection that still allows each person to dance themselves. We’re even talking about appropriately using the breath to fuel the movments. And one day, to even create unity. It is possible, Ivan says, to even be breathing at the same time while dancing. That sounds like it will probably be a few years off, especially with the shape I am in, but it’s nice to know it’s possible.

So I figure I have thousands of hours of practice ahead of me, with and without Ivan. I have thousands of hours of pondering how to do things, and messing up, and learning new things.

To some this may sound boring or daunting. To me, I’m so thankful to be in the process of becoming. It makes me think of a quote I saw today on Facebook:

“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months, years they spend preparing for it.” T. Alan Armstrong

I am preparing for my success. I am preparing to be a champion in every minute I dance, practice, show up at competitions.

Ivan looked me straight in the eyes today and said that I could be a champion (we’re talking Pro/Am here, I think) and he’s actually said it before. I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it because to achieve that would be beyond my wildest dreams.

I could choose to listen to the rational, dogmatic, practical self that whispers in my ear saying, “You are too old, to fat, and you started too late.”

Or, I can choose to focus my attention differently. I can listen to the part of me connected to The Universe, or God, Higher Self, or Source, or whatever you like to call it which, in an even softer whisper says:

“Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible.” I’m gonna amend that last one….Expect more than even I think is possible, THINK being the operational word here.

I say this because today Ivan and I did the Samba. How does this relate to thinking? Well, we agreed that to work on my stamina, we’d dance our routine multiple times in a row. We agreed we’d start with two times and lately I’ve been handling that pretty well so today he said we’d do it 3 times through. Ok I agreed, I thought I could probably make it through and then be spent.

But after the third go around, Ivan says, “And one more time for Merry Christmas!”

It was unexpected, but I did it! We danced for 3.5 minutes total and I was worried about making it through 2 minutes. Now, my goal is to get through 10 minutes straight without looking or feeling like I’m going to die, but this is a nice little start! I realized I could actually probably have gone another time through the Samba even. I might have pushed my heart rate to faster than a hummingbird on caffeine, but I probably could have made it.

The moral of the story, even I don’t know my limitations.

Its possible you don’t either. How great is that!

So, as you go through your activities today, ask yourself, “Is it possible that I actually don’t know my limits?” And, “What kind of champion am I practicing to be?”