Like Potatoes

Maybe the case is the same at your studio, too.  At mine, everyone is at Beach Bash.

 

A Grande Batata

By FelipeFronchetti (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why that’s important for this story is because my regular teacher, Kristijan, is out-of-town, gracing the floor in Latin probably right about now.  Maybe if you are at the competition you will get to see him dance, as well as a few people from EuroRhythm and more people from Arizona that I’m friends with, some of whom will be performing in the Showcase Fundraiser that’s happening next Saturday, April 16th to raise money for a local domestic violence shelter here in Phoenix called Chrysalis.

In any case, because Kristijan is out-of-town, I had a lesson with my old pal, Damir tonight.  It reminded me that I should make sure to schedule a lesson with Damir maybe once a month or so because what he offers me is so different and helpful and refreshing from what my other instructors, as wonderful and as contributing as they are, can provide.  I marvel at how tiny adjustments made internally make such a dramatic difference in how my movement looks and in how stable I feel.  I am even more surprised at how Damir can tell when I’m “on” and when I’m “off” even when we are talking differences in millimeters or where the pressure is in my foot (like inside edge, or not).

I got in the studio and we caught up a little bit because it’s been a while since I’ve had a significant chunk of time to chat with him one on one.  He asked me how he could help me on the lesson.  Originally I thought maybe I’d learn the Sweetheart step in Gold since it was so completely baffling to me when Shirley Ballas taught class, but then I thought the better of it.  I’m in Silver right now, after all, and learning a step is just learning a step.  I could probably find a video on Facebook if I wanted to learn it badly enough.  More valuable, I decided, was discovering how to be over my hip.

I’d discovered in previous coachings that my hips were not where they should be, especially when stepping to the side.  I have very flexible hips which is an asset and a curse.  The asset is that I can emphasize certain movements in an exaggerated way.  The curse is that I tend to move them too far forward or laterally, or even to prematurely settle backwards because I have the possibility of such freedom of movement there.  But when I do that, and it’s not intentional, I’m not exactly on balance, I’m late in timing, my movements aren’t as coordinated as they could be.  What I wanted to discover with Damir was where it was they should be optimally in a front step, side step, and cross over, so that I could feel it in my body and recreate it later.  I am definitely a kinesthetic learner when it comes to dancing.  I can see things in the mirror and recreate them up to a point, but it’s the internal stuff that you can’t visually see that eludes me.  This is why it is so incredible to have a coach like Damir in my life because he can describe these internal movements and energetic intentions and see them and provide me feedback around them.

What was also so great was that Damir began talking about the Chakra system in relation to the dance movements we were doing.  Most instruction I receive is structural in nature, speaking to the physical body.  It helps me, personally, to have the energetic perspective as well.  Damir talks about where to place my focus on various moves so that my body is then in the proper position.  For instance, for me, I have to focus on the back of my knee, the back of my neck, basically the back side of my body even as I move forward because if I don’t, I will fall forward and create a big mess.  For other people it might be opposite, but I tend to try to get ahead of the dancing and keeping my awareness in the back of my body helps me to actually stay present.

So we began simply and Damir described that what to do was to have the iliac crest of the hip directly over the ball/toes of the foot.  Then before moving, think of the crest going up and under, which also causes the pelvis to become more tucked under, before continuing the motion.  I’m to imagine that my hip bones project all the way to my armpits, they are that solid into the floor, compressed by the ribcage and scapula.  This seems to keep me in better alignment overall as well as to create a gooey, rich movement that doesn’t stop but continues to cycle throughout the body until it comes to the time to take the next step.

Tonight I actually felt the complete cycle internally from step, through the hip, upwards compressing into the spine, then to the lat which perpetuates coming onto the standing leg fully and pulling the moving leg under the body.  It’s all connected.  There were no gaps for the first time that I am aware of from foot one through the leg, hip, the entire body up the spine through the lat and back down in reverse to foot two.

So why, you might be wondering, did I title this post Like Potatoes?  Well in his description of this cycle, especially the part that we were grappling with in terms of the hip and pulling it under the ribcage before moving, he told me this analogy of planting potatoes.  He laughed, admitting that it was probably the craziest metaphor I would hear, but said that if during the winter you eat all the potatoes you have, you will have nothing left to plant come spring.  He said that the general rule is to save about 10% for the future planting.  In dancing, he contested, it is the same.  Conserve about 10% of motion to continue into and thus generate the following movement.  In this case, get on the leg, get the hip over the foot properly, then use the 10% energy left to go up internally into the body to generate the following step.

So there’s that, and also, it ties to something else that’s been happening in my life.  For just the last 3 days or so I’ve been eating vegan.  I’ve been saying that I’ve wanted to eat a more plant-based diet for a long while now, and for Christmas I got a book called “Thrive” which has a bunch of recipes and was created by a guy who is an elite athlete.  I’ve tried a few dishes here and there but for whatever reason, I went to Whole Foods last week and was completely inspired by all the gorgeous produce.  I bought a bunch and then proceeded to make a variety of recipes from the book.  I had plenty of each so I’ve been grazing from each of the 6 to 7 dishes I experimented with.  I discovered that the food prep for the vegan stuff is no more intensive than it was for when I was working with Chelle the nutritionist.  Also, and this is really surprising to me, I’ve felt more satisfied, fuller, less hungry, and have had no cravings whatsoever for meat or anything else, eating this way.

I made kale chips and a garlic broccoli mix with garlic, rutabega tiki masala, a carrot based “pizza” that tastes nothing like pizza but is very filling, Brussel’s sprouts with a Dijon sauce, roasted beets with a balsamic sauce plus fake cashew-based cream cheese, not to mention a variety of shakes with lemongrass, carob chips, cocoa, agave nectar, vegan vanilla gelato, coconut water, almond milk, banana, and cashews.

It’s been so easy to eat this way, I’ve surprised myself, and I’ve even packed my meals tomorrow as I go to a seminar for the entire day.  My body is still adjusting in the gastrointestinal department – it’s a lot more fiber, I think, than I’m used to, more veggies, of course, and maybe it’s too much info, but of course adjusting your diet adjusts how often you have to go, which seems to be a lot more.  I’m hoping things will stabilize as I continue along.  It’s a small price to pay for feeling full, satisfied, and like I’m eating fresh, healthy food, having no cravings, and sincerely enjoying what I’m eating.  I tend to think my body is getting tons of nutrients as well which is maybe why I feel like I’m actually eating less food overall while feeling more satisfied.

With this unexpected ease and success, I’ve decided to explore more options for vegan cooking.  So tonight I went to the store and bought ingredients for vegan gnocchi, which, if you didn’t know, is made from potatoes.  So there you go, it also relates to the title, even if circuitously.  Who knows if this will affect my body shape, size, or lean and fat mass content.  But what I do know is that the experience of it is satisfying and supports me right now and I like being aligned with the idea of not eating animals.  The funny thing is that I truly have told myself that nothing is off the menu.  If one day I decide that it is the time to have a Twinkie, then that is alright as well.  But I don’t even want a Twinkie eating like this.  I cooked up some Swai fish during the food prep as well in case I felt I needed more protein or whatever and I have as yet had no desire to even eat that.  We’ll see what happens but for now I’m going to play and experiment.  I’m going to find other recipes that sound good and give them a try.  I bet eventually I will find a routine that works well for me.  I would say it would be balanced for me to eat this way 80 to 90% of the time then allow some space for grace and enjoying social events, or special treats or whatever.  But so far I’m feeling anything but deprived.  I could easily skip traditional party food feeling this way.

So that’s what’s going on in my world.  Please check out the Ballroom Village page on Facebook, join it, share it with your friends, and post links to your blog when you write something new.  You can also share the page and any links on your Facebook page or on the blog.  Whatever you want to do to promote it.  I hope it will continue to grow and create another, expanded platform for us to be in community, share, and nurture our Ballroom Village.

That’s it for now!

 

 

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Ernie Miller

When I was five and I lived in Aurora, Colorado, I had a black vinyl dance bag.  I use the term loosely, because the “bag” was actually a rectangular cardboard box covered in ink-black shiny vinyl imprinted with a pink pair of ballet toe shoes in Sous-sou.

 

Two to three times a week I made a sojourn from my home on the Army base to the doors of Ernie Miller’s dance studio to practice ballet and tap.  Again, I use the term “practice” loosely.   At the age of five through eight, I mostly flailed grossly.  And yet at the end of each dance lesson I was reward with a Dum Dum sucker, being the adorable “little peanut” I was.

Every year the studio would have a recital.  Every year Ernie and his wife would dance the very last dance in the show.  It was a lovely and vulnerable and authentic moment.  So much so that it made quite an impression on me in a time in my life when I don’t remember much detail.  It was that  special.

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The deal is, Ernie and his wife and his beautiful daughters who taught in the studio WERE the studio.

Of course there were physical walls, and spring-loaded wood floors, and barres fastened securely to the walls.  But the studio was Ernie.  He created it.  He carved out the space for it to exist.  And he and his family populated it.  They created the tone.  They created the atmosphere.  They created the philosophy.  They lived it and breathed life into it.

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So now fast forward 30 years.  I am an adult.  I’ve rediscovered dancing through the medium of ballroom.  I’ve been through three  instructors and now I’m on my fourth.  I’ve recently left my most favorite instructor (thus far) who moved me forward exponentially.  I’m now with this crazy Bosnian who is so very ORDINARY.

He emphasizes proper alignment of the bones and the body over anything flashy.  He promotes repetition, repetition, repetition of any and all steps, done properly, 10,000 times.  He is not teaching me any new figures or choreography whatsoever.  He’s simply going deeper into the most basic work.

So here I am, being serious and all about my dancing.  I don’t have much interest in being a social dancer.  I don’t care much to dance with people who are less experienced than I.

And yet, I’m invited to the annual EuroRhythm Luau.  With all manner of enthusiams!  Not only from Damir, but also from his wife.  Truth is, my hubby was out of town so what else was I going to do Friday night?  I figured there were worse ways to spend time and bought a ticket to attend what I thought would most likely be a hokey stupid party.

And so after work I took a break then got out my hair dryer and straightener.  I put on mascara and a comfortable outfit.  I got myself ready and drove over to the studio.

At first, it definitely seemed super hokey!  And then, after about 2 minutes, it seemed awesome.  It seemed like home.

It struck me as shockingly as if I had stuck my fingers into a socket – I have lived this before.  I have lived this as a five-year-old in Ernie Miller’s Studio.

It was family.  As humble as it might be, as hokey as it could be, who the hell cares.  There was joy in that space.  There were families present with grandparents and grandchildren.

And this studio, that I am now a part of, is Damir and his family.  He’s so very clear about his role as the leader of it.  He knows absolutely that he sets the tone, the rules. He knows beyond a doubt that he is the one that creates and holds the space.

I’m not going to lie.  The physical space of EuroRhythm is tiny!  It seems humble.  From the outside it is just a part of a strip mall.  On the inside there is nothing flashy.

And you know what, for me it melts away.  It’s not what I notice.  I walk into this space and I am embraced as I am, where I am, who I am in this moment.  I notice that I feel comfortable, I feel that it is safe and supported.  I know that I am surrounded by greatness, and that greatness is eagerly, generously shared with all those who walk through the doors; it’s shared with all those who seek the wisdom being offered.

I was just so singularly struck by this feeling of familiarity Friday night.  I knew that I knew this space.  It recalled and referenced my past experiences with Ernie Miller.  And wow, how very grateful I am about it all.

I got a great start with Ernie.  My mother to this day will profess the influence he and his daughters had on me in terms of molding me and shaping me to be the dancer I am today.  What a blessing and advantage I had being able to dance at such a young age.  I am especially grateful to my mother and my father for making that possible for me.

And Damir is just like Ernie.  He IS the studio.  His family IS the studio.  He sets the tone.  He creates the atmosphere.  And I’m just left agog.  What an amazing human being I have come to interact with.  He has come from a war-torn country, experienced unspeakable traumas, I’m sure, he became a world-class dancer, he immigrated, he created his own studio, and best of all, he is a JOYFUL and GIVING human being.  He has arrived on the other side of all these negative circumstances and chosen to be a compassionate, loving, generous, passionate, kind, caring, gentle, expert human being and dance coach.   He has created a home for all of us who chose to accept his brand of study and excellence.

Damir, and the results he creates, looking both at the students of his I know and his studio, are seemingly humble, simple, and, even, dare I say, boring!  And yet, they are also captivating, impeccable, and embodying excellence.   He has a quiet sort of “shouting” to the world.  And his results speak loud and clear for those with eyes to see, for those who have the clarity of mind  to understand.

So you know what?  I am so happy I went Friday.  I realized that I will never miss a party for the studio again if I can help it!  I realized that it’s about family.  And I realized, on a whole new level, what a special and excepetional human being Damir is.  God bless him for creating this space.

I am come home.

This Week So Far

I know, I know, my life is SO exciting!  Well, not really, but I still feel the need to process my experiences, and guess what, that is what I do here on the blog.  In any case, I don’t think this will be a very profound post or anything, but I guess I just wanted to jot down the latest happenings.

I guess one of the main things is that I’m back to taking ballet.  I didn’t make it to class on Sunday because of overtime at work, but I did manage to squeak in on Monday night.  I think it is going to be a permanent part of my routine.  Class feels good and it’s frustrating at the same time.  It’s good because of course it is more physical activity, and it builds strength, and flexibility.  I’m also finding my center a little bit and improving my balance because of it.  I also give myself a free pass on it.  I’m not expecting myself to really be able to do like grand jetes, but every once in a while in class, I’m able to surprise myself a bit and hit a combination well.  Of course, in the next exercise the wheels generally fall completely off the bus, but hey, it’s ballet.  I’m mostly doing it as a support for my ballroom dancing and when I goof up, I simply laugh it off.  I am not putting an enormous amount of pressure on myself in the class, though I do want to do well, and I do push to try to stretch myself to do what I can.  Just showing up and moving for an hour and a half is a worthy way to spend my time and it makes me feel better to know I’m doing this for myself.  Plus, there is an added advantage of making some more dance buddies and building another layer to my dance community.

I must say that I am so thankful to have a place to take a class like this.  It is for adults and just the right level – not too hard, like I’d find at say Ballet Arizona, but not too easy or alongside 10 year olds.  But even with this little reintroduction of ballet, I’ve already had dreams about putting my toe shoes back on.  And by dreams, I mean literal dreams, NOT as in, I’m wanting to get back into those torture devices.  No thanks.  Not really on my radar.  But I guess my subconscious mind has a different idea!

In any case, I’m pretty excited because the owner of the studio knows I do ballroom and she is involved with a charity called Dancing Classrooms here in the Phoenix area.  I got an invite via Twitter to come to a meeting about it in the coming week.  I’d love to participate in this program and share my love and passion for dance with youngsters as well as to help provide the opportunity for them to experience the healing and empowering magic that dance can be.   I’m excited to see how I can be of service and pretty psyched to have been invited.

Well anyways, ballet class on Monday went as well as can be expected in an obese body.  I have difficulty closing my legs completely in a tight fifth position because they are so massive and jumping is chore.  I do the best I can but it’s pretty hard on my ankles.  My left ankle is already weaker because of past injuries and I know the weight doesn’t help.  I’m looking forward to being significantly lighter, but you know what, every pound helps and my diet is working.  I’ve not been able to get under 250 pounds for the longest time but I’m determined to be there within the next two weeks.  It’s only a few pounds away and I feel like it will be a breakthrough.  I’ve been bouncing around with about 10 pounds and pardon my French but it’s time to stop dicking around.  The holidays are over, thank goodness, and I’ve been able to get a bit more physical activity in, and doing well with the diet.  My weight was down this morning and that is a good thing, a sign I’m doing something right!  But now more yo-yo bullshit!  What I’m doing is working and I’m ready for significant change.  I do think, looking at myself in the mirror at class tonight, that I am beginning to look a tiny bit smaller.  I will take it.  Though by far still the biggest gal in the ballroom, it’s a step in the right direction and I’m going to celebrate it.

Which, brings me to tonight.  Inna and Artem must be competing out-of-town somewhere so it was Igor who taught Latin.  I must say that I really enjoy watching him demonstrate the Latin movements.  His hip action is so clear, and he generates great fast and slow dynamic.  I always learn something new when Igor teaches and I’m grateful for all the teachers who have crossed my path and contributed to my dancing.

So tonight we began with Rumba walks.  Wow.  I just had a realization, which is pretty ironic especially considering what I’m going to say in a minute (you’ll see what I mean in a moment).  The realization is that we did a lot of rumba walks tonight, around in a really big circle.  Probably for 4 or 5 minutes straight, which may not sound like a long time, but when you are dancing it sure is!  Well, my realization is that I was able to do them the entire time.  Perhaps my arms could have been stronger, but you know what?  When I first walked into that class a little over a year ago, I could not have lasted that long.  No way.

Anyways, after our Rumba walk warm-up, Igor shared with us the proper positioning of our hips, which should be under the body and tucked under, similar to how the pelvis should be placed in ballet.  We did some plies, feeling that tucked in, pulled up and under position in our hips and then repeated our rumba walks attempting to maintain that alignment.

Next we did some Cha Cha.  We did a little routine:  Check, ronde, back-together-side, time step, time step, back basic to a hip twist and repeat.  First we just learned the steps.  Then we worked on playing with the timing, accenting the movements on the 1 and 3 counts – prolonging them with a bit of hip action/settling/twisting as a wind-up for the next movements which had to be quicker (and looked lightning fast when Igor did them) to make up the time used prolonging the 1 and 3 counts.  It created a great dynamic but man was it hard!  I was out of breath almost immediately!

But then Igor shared with us the nugget that made the biggest difference to me tonight.  It’s a concept I already “know” about, but one I still struggle to implement.  Basically its keeping my upper body/shoulders facing forward and allowing the lower body only to twist.  Igor said many of us were fighting against our own bodies, and I know that I was one of them.  In any case, seeing how he did it, along with the explanation, I was able to implement this new information (well, old information but not absorbed or integrated) and oh my goodness did it make the step easier and clearer and sharper and it even looked faster!  I am never going to forget this lesson!  Well, at least that is what I tell myself ha ha.

But just when I was beginning to feel better about this new cha cha cha, alas!  It was time for “a little” Jive.  Uh, yeah….Well, we did a little bit of what football players do, hunched over and pumping the legs as fast as we could.  The whole thing about the Jive, it seems, is to move the legs, making the knees reach the waist with every move, and jumping up and down like a bunny rabbit, all while keeping the head completely level and preventing it from moving up and down.  The knees must move up to the body but the head must stay still.

Well, Igor is pretty dang amazing.  He was jumping like the Energizer Bunny doing that basic step, his knees practically up to his throat as he caught significant air while jumping upwards.  Me, I’m baba metza, remember?  I thought I might pound through the floor and I jumped – I could hear it creaking under my weight.  Well, my Jive doesn’t look as heavy as it could, but it has a long way to go before it really looks light, airy, and athletic – it is nothing like the Jive Igor was pounding out, not even close.  The truth is that I’m in no shape to do it properly…even the basic exhausted me, made me feel sick, and I had to stop before the rest of the class.  I felt that my performance was pathetic with a capital “P.”  What business do I have competing when I can’t even dance the basic of the step properly for a measly minute by myself!?  I was totally thinking that Igor must be thinking, “These ridiculous Americans!  They have NO idea what it is really like to dance.”  And then saying “Good job” out loud because god forbid he actually tell us the truth of how crappy some of us actually looked and offending someone…I mean, I wasn’t looking at other people.  I honestly don’t know what they were doing because I was focused on me, so obviously this thought process has nothing to do with their performance and everything to do with mine.  I thought mine was pretty shoddy.  And I have no idea what Igor was really thinking.  But in my head my old dance teacher would be so disappointed in what I was doing in class and would have yelled and cajoled me until I gave more and that would still not be enough. Sigh.  I felt a little like this is an uphill battle and I’m not going to climb the mountain tonight.  I felt a little defeated and deflated.

Which makes me think of my last lesson with Ivan.  During it we worked on cleaning up more of the Cha Cha routine.  There was one step in particular that I was not able to execute and that I was always a little bit late on.  It really had me mad at myself.  And, like in the lesson tonight, I felt defeated and sad.  Well, Ivan noticed and after the lesson he talked to me about it.

“You can’t feeling so bad about this step.  It’s a hard step.  You are changing direction a lot and it is really fast.  You can’t expect yourself to do it right away.  Even the professionals, they gonna have a hard time with it.”

It sure didn’t look like Ivan was having any problem making it look awesome!

He continued, “Now I’m feeling bad because you are feeling bad.  Like, you can’t be giving up on yourself or thinking that you will never be able to do this.  It’s like I believe in you more than you believe in yourself.  You have to not be sad about this.  I see that you understanding.  You show me that you understanding this and that is the most important part.  It’s better if you can tell me that you understanding but that you can’t do it right now than to get so upset about it.  Cause you are gonna do it.”

“Don’t feel bad Ivan.  I’m just upset because I feel like I don’t practice enough.  I need to do more on my own.  I’m frustrated with myself because I still am relying on you too much when we are dancing instead of dancing on my own two feet, being on balance, and using my arms more than my feet, legs and ‘engine.’ It’s super frustrating to me because I want it so badly and I feel like I should do more.”

I mean, deep down inside I know that these routines with some more difficult steps are a really good thing for me.  I’m going to struggle and I’m going to become a better dancer because of the challenge.  I’d much rather be working really hard to reach for something than to only do what is easy and stay the same.  I am thankful to have the opportunity to break every step down so that it will be awesome eventually.  I don’t find it tedious or boring at all – I think it is awesome and it makes me feel more secure.

Just like dancing tonight, not being able to participate every second of the class, having to take a break and rest, it’s beyond my current capacity, but showing up to class and doing what I can does move me forward.  I know this because I can see the difference in my endurance with rumba walks as compared to when I took my first class at Imperial.  I trust that I will improve in stamina, in technique, in expression, because I continue to show up and do my work.

Ivan told me that he didn’t think I don’t practice enough.  Well, he conceded, “we should all be practicing 8 hours a day but even this will not be enough.  It’s never enough.  But you, Stef, you come in to dancing a lot.  I don’t think you don’t practice enough.”

Hmmm.  I’m not sure I agree.  I feel like I’m pretty lazy – meaning that unlike my friend Lady Gaga who will practice on her own at the gym, I pretty much only dance on lessons.  Maybe I will go over one tiny thing in my kitchen for a minute or two but that’s it.  How lazy am I!

Well, anyways, that’s what’s been going on the last couple of days.  Tomorrow I get to see my favorite Bulgarian instructor for a lesson in the evening.  I’m going to do everything I can to remember what I learned today in the Cha Cha and maybe he will notice a difference.  We’ll see.  Either way, I’m looking forward to it.  It’s another day, tomorrow.  And that means it’s another chance to dance, which I’m pretty happy about.

Topical Series: Ballroom Demystified (Part Deux)

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

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

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

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

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

Point 2:  Two styles of dance

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

American

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

American Smooth – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz

International

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point 3: Scoring and points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topical Series #4: Points, Points, and More Points

It all started with this comment from Ellen:

I’ve never understood the whole points thing, scholarships, etc. for open comps.  I don’t do enough open comps for it to matter – but I’d love to understand it.  I’ve tried to look it up and other than the official rules which are like reading a law-book ( in other words make no sense to me!) I can’t find a simple explanation of it all.  If anyone can give a layperson’s explanation it would be cool!

I had to clarify.  What to which “points” was she referring, exactly?

Ellen, what do you mean by “the whole points thing?”  I am under the understanding that in competitions for scholarships you are ranked in the dances in order of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. as compared to the other couples on the floor.  Whoever  gets ranked 1st by the most judges gets 1st place and so on.  There is a rule about when there is a tie that I don’t remember, but I don’t think that happens all that often.  So, I’m just not sure what you mean by “points.”

Maybe you are referring to being top student or top teacher in a competition or a district or in a competition series?  If that is the case, what happens is you get a certain amount of points for each entry you are in (or your instructor dances), and then more points for placing higher.  Like when I got top student in San Diego it was like 8 points (or something, I don’t exactly remember the point value) for 1st place, 6 for 2nd, down through 6th and then 1 point for participating.  You get more points for participating more and for placing higher.  Your instructor gets points for the same things, but obviously if they bring more students and dance more often, they earn more points.

So in that last example if I dance 50 dances but place 1st in all of them and get 3 points for each 1st place, and another lady in my category dances 100 dances but places 3rd and only gets 1 point for each 3rd place, then I’d be ranked higher than she with 150 points and be closer to being “Top Student.”

So anyways, Ellen referred me to the USA Dance website at http://usadance.org/dancesport and a link below the DanceSport Rulebook for “Proficiency Points.”

So I checked it out, not being familiar with proficiency points.  No one had ever mentioned them to me before.

Reading them was like reading the instruction manual for a VCR.  Very technical and not very enjoyable but here’s what I gathered:

Ellen, I’ve looked at the proficiency point guide and I’m intrigued.  Seems to be a complicated system to determine which category you should dance in…what age, what level, as an attempt in making sure people are competing at an appropriate level – not too high or too low.  It says in the guide that USA dance will make a database online of the points so I’m now trying to find that.  I’m curious to see where I might rank.  I’ve always been told that the instructor decides which category you dance at.  It seems like the points might be more important for high level amateur competitors or professional couples.  I’ll ask Ivan about it, but who knows if he knows anything about it.  It does say that you can be disciplined for dancing below your level!  Thanks for asking this question.  I love learning more about my favorite sport!  I’ll keep you updated.

But the story continues.

The topic sparked my interest in a number of facets of ballroom dancing that involve points and I had a big ‘ole conversation with Ivan about it after my lesson today.

Sadly, he didn’t know about proficiency points, but he did comment on another type of points used by ballroom studios which I found intriguing.  Also, I did a little more research and found on http://DanceForums.com some old comments about the proficiency points.  You can see the comments I found here.

First, the database is not current.  I don’t even know if you can find it.  Someone who is on the USA Dance board must have been in the conversation because he or she commented that they needed someone to volunteer to keep up with the points.  I guess you are supposed to keep track of them yourself!  Well, I for one, haven’t been doing that.

Second, the link Ellen sent me on the USA Dance page that directs you to the rules about the Proficiency points is outdated.  I guess there have been changes (that a couple must now only accrue 200 points instead of the 300 mentioned in the pdf file) that aren’t reflected in that edition of the rules.

But the plot thickens.  These mystery proficiency points are only applicable to USA Dance sanctioned events.

USA Dance isn’t the only governing body of ballroom dance.

There are different proficiency points and rules for the National Dance Council of America (NDCA) and the Youth College Network (YCN).

(I think there is another post in the making here about all the “alphabet soup” of dance organizations: NDCA, USA Dance, IDSF, WDSF, YCN etc.)

So there are points you accrue in competition.  But after my conversation with Ivan, I have learned there are also points you can accrue at a studio.  Now, I don’t purport to have expertise in this area because I’ve never danced in a ballroom dance franchise studio.  I’m going on what Ivan told me.  If things are different, feel free to comment below and fill us all in.  At least this is what I gather went on at Ivan’s studio when he was employed by a franchised studio.

Students accrue points and have proficiency tests to determine what level they are at: pre-bronze, bronze, silver, etc.  Then packages are sold around getting to the next level.  Like for every lesson you take or every figure you learn it’s recorded and there are charts of points and where you are.  There are also charts proclaiming which student is which level, so you can compare yourself to other students and follow your and their progress.

To me, this seems a bit weird.  I guess it is great for goal setting and is some form of monitoring progress, but just knowing the steps in the gold syllabus doesn’t necessarily, I think, mean you are a gold level dancer – meaning that you might be dancing a gold step with bronze level technique.

What it does do is give a person a sense of being able to put a feather in their cap.  I’ve had people ask me what level dancer I am, but since I have no points or proficiency tests to go on, I honestly don’t know.  I have no idea what level the steps I know are considered nor my level in terms of technique.

Finally, I also reached out to my friend Ceci and asked her if she knew anything about these mysterious points because she is so well-connected in the ballroom world.  Here’s what she sent me:

NDCA Proficiency Point System From http://www.ndca.org/competitor-information/amateurs/eligibility-definitions/

C. ELIGIBILITY DEFINITIONS

1. A competitor is eligible to dance in the “Syllabus”, “Novice” and/or “Pre-Championship” proficiency classifications until they accumulate three proficiency points. There is no limit to the number of proficiency points that may be accumulated in the “Open Amateur” level.

2. A competitor receives one point when they either a) place first in their current classification when a semi-final was danced, or b) dance in the final of a higher proficiency event where a semi-final was danced.

3. In the “Syllabus” categories proficiency points should be accumulated independently for each dance.

4. The eligibility to compete in a classification is applied to individual amateur competitors and not the couple as an entity.

5. An amateur couple is only eligible to compete in a classification if both members of the couple are eligible.

6. An amateur competitor’s eligibility is based on his/her accomplishments regardless of the number or length of partnerships they have had.

7. It is the responsibility of all amateur competitors to ensure that they are eligible for the category in which they desire to dance.

8. An amateur competitor may enter at most two consecutive proficiency classifications in any particular style and age group at a particular competition.

9. An amateur competitor’s ineligibility begins at the conclusion of the competition in which his/her third point was acquired. In this case the word “competition” refers to the entire event (generally a “weekend”).

10. An amateur competitor’s proficiency level as a Pro/Am shall not be used in determining his/her amateur proficiency level.

Seems like another VCR manual to me, but at least this one only applies to amateurs.  I still don’t know what this means if I’m dancing Pro/Am since my proficiency in Pro/Am shall not be used in determining my amateur proficiency level….though I don’t dance Am/Am, myself!

Sheesh!  I think it’s an interesting topic, but still kind of a mystery even after all this writing and after all the various research!

So, now the ball is in your court.  Do you know anything about points tracked in ballroom?  What do you think of these point systems?  Does your studio use them?  How? Have you heard of them in the context of NDCA or USA Dance?  Have you kept track of yours?  What do they mean….really?  I’m curious to know.

Signing off,

Stef

Topical Series #3: I’m A Free Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Stef