Unsung Hero

If you read my last post, it may be apparent to you, as it is to me, that there is quite a bit of forward movement in my life that has happened in a short amount of time.  To recap:  I’m dancing with Ivan again (Rhythm), I’m staying at Damir’s studio (of course!) for Latin, and he has a new high-level couple from Slovenia, Kristijan and Anja, both of whom I am working with in addition to the coaching I get from Damir, himself.


(That’s me with Kristijan! And yes, we choreographed a wink into our Cha Cha!)

My last lesson with Ivan was on Saturday and it went so very well.  As I walked in the door, however, I was greeted with a big surprise.   Miss Linda Dean and Anna Nicole were in the studio.  I’m not much acquainted with Anna Nicole but Miss Linda came right up to me and gave me a big genuine hug. Indeed, it surprised me a bit as it was a full embrace and longer than I expected…you know how ballroom people generally are when we greet one another – kiss, kiss, hug, hug – perfunctory and devoid of meaning, authenticity, or emotion?  Well, this was not that – in my experience this particular hug was more than the usual “ballroom” greeting, and it pleasantly surprised me.

She said, “So you are dancing again?”

I said, “Yes! I’m back! I’m going to show more expression, I’m mentally in a much better place, and I feel more solid in what I’m doing!”

“I don’t care about that,” she said.  “I want to see how you were already; on your leg and with the rhythmicality in your body.”

I took a moment to process her input – to me, expression is paramount.  For me, full self-expression with complete abandon is my ultimate goal. And, also, it was incredibly elucidating and helpful to hear what she (and I imagine what other judges) are looking for.  I can deliver on this!  Be on my leg, be rhythmical.  Great!

But the funny thing is, I never stopped dancing.  In fact, Miss Linda saw me at Damir’s studio, briefly, at one point.  She knew I was dancing there.  So I find it interesting her choice of words, “You’re dancing again!”

Well, I’ll take it!  She seemed genuinely pleased and she actually said, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear this [news].”  (The unsaid part is …daincing with IVAN!)


So I had an incredible lesson with Ivan.  We pretty much have our Cha Cha squared away, which is great.  Of course, we were moving around and dancing while we were reviewing it and finalizing it and I noticed this slim, petite lady with frizzy reddish-brown braided hair watching.  I’m not sure who she is but she is either a pro or a high-level amateur who is dancing with a recent California transplant who briefly flittered with Damir for a spot in his studio.  I’ve met him before but I’ve never seen her.  Anyways, about halfway through my lesson with Ivan she approached me and said, “Oh My God!  You have the most amazing leg action! I guess your teacher must be pretty good!” To which I smartly replied, “He’s alright,” LOLOLOL.  And Ivan turns to me and says, “See! Nobody is coming to me ever when I dancing with anybody else!”

So that was cool and all, but for me the best part was that I felt solid.  We reviewed our Cha Cha and we have it on video in case we forget.  Then we spent the rest of the lesson exploring the Rumba – we danced various pieces from previous Rumba routines as well as explored new possible movements.  It was so much fun and a little bit exhilarating.  I mean, when your dance instructor says, “Let’s try  Marieta’s routine here” that’s kind of a big deal!  She’s the professional!  And yet, suddenly, my arm is firmly grasping Ivan’s shoulder from behind his neck, I’m slowly sinking into middle splits and pointing and flirting with the imaginary audience to my diagonal.  Then I squeeze my legs and thighs together, make sure my ankles kiss, and reach my hands heavenward.   Suddenly I’m the dancer I’ve watched from afar in the audience….wishing I could be her…now I am her.

And Ivan says, “What you think is missing from this Rumba?”  And I say, “I like it all very much.  I don’t have any idea of the order of the steps but I am enjoying what we are discovering.  I feel like we have a lot of puzzle pieces and we can work on the next couple lessons to fit them together in the proper place and order to create a beautiful image.”  And then I say, “Beyond the fact that I have no idea how this Rumba goes in terms of sequence, the only thing that I want to do is touch you!”

I have to tell you, audience, this is a major breakthrough.

I don’t know about you, but for me, I had a lot of hang ups about enjoying my body, and also, enjoying anybody else’s body.  I think that I correlated “enjoying” with something prohibited or profane.  I imagined that any sort of physical enjoyment, no matter how innocuous or laid back, was something to be avoided.  I imagined that to simply enjoy one’s body was to be sexual.  And now I know that is not the case.

Anyways, I embraced the feeling and idea of the Rumba and what came up naturally, when Ivan asked me, which in and of itself is a breakthrough – because he’s involving me in the process of creating the routine we will do (in the past it just would have been assigning or dictating what the steps were)  – okay so what came up naturally was, “I want to touch you and your body more.”  And naturally I found opportunities to do so – on his neck or chest or shoulders.  And how great is that?!  Seriously?!

Okay so if you dance with a professional Ballroom dancer you know they have different body boundaries than most “normal” people.  It’s all about getting and being in their personal space.  It’s all about touching and sensuality.  It’s all about full expression.  When I first came to a lesson with Ivan, I was so completely intimidated and shy.  I pulled inward because I was afraid of what he might think of me.  I was afraid to *really* show who I am and all I feel inside.  My excuse/story for holding back was about my body/weight/size/I-don’t-look-like-a-ballroom-dancer-thererfore-I-could-never-be-one…yada yada yada….

And, that’s the past.

So how I show up now is open, authentic, and willing to be myself.  And I surprised myself by being open, authentic and confident enough to declare my truth that the only thing that was missing from the Rumba was more touching.  I was like, let’s find every opportunity we can to touch!

And it was so fun!  I mean, Ivan is a good looking cat with a good, solid body.  I enjoy touching it.  I was just afraid to admit that previously and so I didn’t touch it and I held back.  Now I’m like, whatever!  It’s another body in this world.  All bodies are miraculous and wonderful in so many ways.  And, this one in front of me is wonderful and looks nice to touch.  Because of the nature of our relationship, and the roles we play for various dances, it is appropriate to touch his body (within reason!) and so I’ve come to peace with this aspect of the dance-acting and have chosen to embrace and enjoy the sensuality of it!  Why not?

I do think it caught Ivan a little off-guard with my, ahem, enthusiasm, lol.  But of course, what I consider courageous and outrageous and acting with abandon seems middle-of-the-road to Ivan lol!  Even so, after a beat or two and a few practices of a hip roll, we got in to a position where I was directly in front of Ivan and he was like, “Now I get to touch!” as he grabbed my ample hips. Woo! Lol!  It was so lighthearted and great!  I loved it all.

But here’s the deal:

So, like, Miss Linda Dean has seen me in relation to Ivan on the dance floor.  From the feedback we’ve gotten, it is a pleasing and even, maybe, exciting show.  This is how all the judges who have taken any notice of me have seen me – in the context of dancing with Ivan.

It’s actually such an incredible gift, in my mind, that anyone remembers me…I last danced maybe a year ago.  And I find it even more incredible that others are invested in the possibility of me participating in competitions in the (near) future.

And they see me as in relation, or maybe as an extension of Ivan.  That’s fine.  That’s great, actually.  Ivan has been a major, major influence in my dancing and has pulled out so much from inside me.  I adore Ivan and I’m so grateful to be dancing with him again.  It feels like home.

And yet….there is an amazing, humble, giving, kind, compassionate, generous, extraordinary human being (who disguises himself as “ordinary”) who has contributed incredibly to my life.  He has been a support, an uplifting presence, an example, a coach, a guide, a mentor, a friend.  He has given me tools such that I can be on my own feet, solidly on my legs, independent.  And yet, I know this person has my back like no kidding.  All he has ever wanted to do was support me in becoming the dancer I have wanted to be. He has given so generously of his knowledge, his wisdom, his authentic self.  I have been truly blessed to work with this exceptional man.

And yet, this man will be an unsung hero.  He will be unseen.  He is the person who helped build me up.  He brought me back to center and sanity and balance.  He is such a genuine and humble man that he cares not who I dance with, but rather, that I am empowered to dance as I wish to dance.  It’s such an amazing gift.  He tells me, “Nothing has changed.  I am still here for you.”  And I believe him, wholeheartedly, even as many external circumstances in my dancing world are shifting.

This is a true master.  This is an extraordinary human being.  This is one who is willing to step aside, to never receive any recognition or accolades for the work he has done, to gain nothing for the wisdom he has shared, and to receive no tangible reward for the love he has poured into a person.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this person is Damir.  He is the unsung hero.  He is the humble, supportive, wise, kind man who has helped me get to where I am in attitude and technique these past 9 months.

No one will ever visibly “see” all he has done for me as I dance with Ivan, and if I end up competing with Kristijan.  Because of my previous foray into the competitive ballroom world, I am inexorably connected to Ivan (happily so!) and that is how I am seen.  I feel like many people might attribute my progress to Ivan.

And this is how amazing Damir is.  He’s totally okay with that.  He doesn’t even care where the recognition lands.  He’s that humble, that committed to being of service that he has removed any trace of his ego from the equation.

So this is why I want to publicly and formally and gratefully acknowledge the “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Damir.  I want at least some people to know how big of an influence he has been for me, how much he has helped me, how much he has loved me, and how much he has supported me…and even how much he has believed in me.   Like everything he coaches to, it’s the stuff that’s not obvious, the stuff that is internal, being with the “ordinary,” that really makes a difference in quality of a person’s life.

The trajectory of my life is profoundly changed because it intersected with Damir.  I don’t think many people will “see” that when I dance with Ivan and, perhaps, Kristijan.  But it is Damir who has helped me make a quantum leap during the past months.  He may not need or expect acknowledgement or recognition, however, I wanted to give it!  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I look up to you in so many ways, as a dancer, and as a human being.  You are incredible and I am ridiculously blessed to get to work with you.  Know that even if others outside my “story” don’t know who you are and what you’ve contributed to me, I do, and I am Grateful beyond words.

The End.

Love, Stef



Check Your Ego At The Door

Although the breathing issues are still present, they have improved somewhat and I have been able to get back to some dancin’ with Ivan.  This is a very good thing, though I still missed class with Inna, Marieta, and Toni this week.

I’ve been mostly working on a performance piece for an upcomming showcase which was originally scheduled for February 24th.  Wouldn’t you know it but just after I sent out an email to my nearest and dearest friends and family about my very first showcase with a solo routine I got word that the date was changed.

I have to admit, I’m kinda bummed.  Yeah, they say that it is just rescheduled, not cancelled, and I will get extra time to practice my routine (and based on my lesson today I could use it), plus, my husband had a potential scheduling conflict so he was uncertain he would be able to come see me dance, but even with all these positives, I was still all geared up and excited for this thing that I had been working toward for a month to finally happen.  It knocked the wind out of my sails a little bit, if you know what I mean.

This was after my lesson this morning.

Now, as you know I love Ivan as my teacher.  He is just amazing in so many ways.  From his idiot-savant-type spiritual guidance to his knowledge of ballroom dancing and technique, and his ability to draw things out of me I didn’t know were there, to his capacity to see my potential, I just think he’s the cat’s meow.

But I’ve also mentioned that he has an intense side and boy was it out to play today.  You know what, though, I can also be very intense.  When I get focused on a task at work, for instance, I can become so set on that particular thing to the exclusion of others.  Intensity can be great, at times.  Today, however, on my lesson, I felt like when it came to my routine, I couldn’t have done anything right enough to please my instructor.

It sounds kind of harsh, maybe, but sometimes it is just what is needed.  I think it’s good to be humbled at times as a reminder of how much work there is left to do.  I have enjoyed many nice compliments on my dancing over my “career,” and even recently Nona, Ivan’s mother-in-law (Marieta’s mom) who is an excellent ballroom dancer and instructor herself, told me that I was was doing well.  I take that as a great compliment and acknowledgement of how far I’ve come.  Nona saw me when I first started dancing with Jeff back in August of last year, so she can see the difference.  She basically told me, “I don’t know what Ivan’s telling you, but it’s working.  You are looking great out there.”

Well anyways, today I needed to check my ego at the door of the dance studio.  Not that I’m like, an egotistical maniac, or that I think that I’ve “arrived,” or even that I walk around thinking, “I’m such a great dancer!” But with all the nice compliments lately, it’s easier to become complacent.  To think, “Hey!  I’m doing okay here!  I’m actually pretty good.”

But if I’m honest, I don’t want to settle for “good.”  I want to be great.  Also, I know good and well there are some major issues with my dancing…balance, being on my heels instead of my toes, my weight, my cardiovascular capacity and stamina, arm styling…just to name a few.  There is always room for improvement, as they say.

Well, anyways, I nailed the opening steps of the showcase routine and Ivan tells me “Perfect! Perfect!” This kind of feedback is what my ego likes.

It went well until the first spiral turn, which I always lose my balance while doing because I’m trying to do this arm thing and not look like a ballerina (which, when I do the ballerina arms, I can keep my balance….go figure).  So it started to downhill from there.

Then we did an underarm turn.  I freakin’ hate the arm on that – shooting my arm straight out.  I asked Ivan if there was something different I could do there.  We came up with running my arm behind my head but then like a minute later I did a turn with my arm completely down (another bad habit that occurs when I’m focusing on fixing something else) and Ivan was like, “You complain you want to do a different arm, but then you don’t even do the basic beginner arm styling! I prefer you do the simple movement and do it well than to do what you just did.”

Okay, feedback.  Okay, note to self, work on damn arms…wait didn’t I already know that?

Then I’m screwing up this walking turn thing.  I’m sure it has a name…spot turn, maybe?  Anyways, I’m giving Ivan a good frame, but according to him I’m not moving my feet enough and I’m leaning in with my upper body.

Okay, stop that.

Then on to sliding doors.  I’m doing the same leaning thing with my upper body in this step.  Ivan tells me to cut it out, to get out of his space.

Then on to this step where I go forward on my right and then flip 180 degrees, switch my weight, then step forward.  Again, my body is leaning sideways, I’m pulling on Ivan, making it difficult and sloppy and slow.

By the end of all this feedback (and more that I’m just not listing here), my brain was boggled and I felt pretty crappy about myself and my dancing abilities.  I mean, I’m still trying to remember the entire routine. It’s like 4 minutes long. So I’m not certain 100% of the time what I’m doing. And with uncertainty for me comes tensing up. So I’m thinking to myself, you not only want me to do the steps but execute them correctly, too?

I’m being facetious here! Of course I want to do the steps well! But this is a big bite to chew.

But you know what?  We danced the routine just one last time and somehow I was able to incorporate a vast majority of all the feedback I’d been given, and although I didn’t feel very good emotionally about it, I realized I’d actually danced it better, cleaner, and more on balance.

I’m grateful I have an instructor who can help me do that, even if it means my ego gets a little bruised.

At the end of the lesson another student entered the studio and asked me how I was doing.

“Pretty good,” I replied.  “But Ivan’s being a task master today.  We’re working on a routine for this showcase next week and I have a lot to work on.  Ivan’s making me dance myself, be on my own feet.  I’m like, ‘What do you mean, Ivan?  You don’t want me to hang on you?  That’s the best part!'”  We all laughed.

In all seriousness, though, I think it is such a gift to have an instructor who would rather risk bruising my ego and give me honest feedback as well as the means to correct some bad habits so that I may be empowered as a dancer than keep me dependent on him.  I just have to remember to check my ego at the door and embrace the feedback.  It got me some awesome results today.  My ego may not like the corrections or miss being told how great I am, but my spirit is glad.  And, I want to evolve into my best dancing self and I can’t let anything, not even my very own ego, get in the way of that.  I’m really grateful, too, that I just went with it today.  If my ego had really gotten out of hand such that I’d reacted emotionally and got all butt-hurt that Ivan was being more intense about fixing stuff today, it would have seriously gotten in the way and I would have missed out on the lessons and results.

It also made me realize that there is always more I could be doing.  I could be practicing more, and after today, especially on this routine, I think I will…in fact, I have a date scheduled with my friend Ivonne to do just that on Saturday.  Also, I have occasionally taken notes after my lessons to remember what we talked about or what I felt in my body or learned on the lesson but I haven’t done it for months.  That’s just lazy.  Today I immediately sat down and jotted down the main corrections.

But most of all, I was reminded that I am much more than my personality or my ego.  Yes, they are parts of me, vital parts, but they do not comprise the whole being that I am.  I was reminded that my ego may not like how things are presented sometimes but that when I can acknowledge that and yet still remain open to the feedback and find the value in it, I may benefit greatly in such a way that creates fantastic results.  Sure praise and positive attention feel great, but you know what feels better?


Yes it sure does.