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.

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100th Post – Woot!

Because I’ve reached my hundredth post, I thought I should write something special about that.  You know?  Cause it seems like a milestone or something.

But the truth is, I have no idea what I could do that’s special!  I think it would be boring, and maybe difficult, to read (and write) 100 reasons why I love dancing, or something like that.

So I thought I’d celebrate simply, by just doing what I always do, and chronicle my dancing adventures.  And also, I’m going to dedicate this post to my instructor, Ivan, who has made more of a difference in my life than I think he will ever know.

I will start with yesterday morning when I danced with Ivan at that new studio.  This time I remembered my shoes and there was no electrical shock therapy involved.  But it was a great lesson.  Just one of those times when I felt healthy (for the most part) and energized.  I awoke feeling that life is full of possibilities especially with the increase in cashflow I anticipate with the new job.  I don’t know if the lesson was remarkable for any other reason than that.

After work, I then headed over to Imperial Ballroom because they were going to have a social dance party with wine and my friends Colette and Katie were planning on going.   I arrived at 7pm for class with Toni where we worked on Mambo and Tango and I had a blast, as usual.  Toni is so cute and funny and I generally just feel better about life after a lesson with her.  Also, I made a new friend, Harry (or Harold) who had just started taking lessons with Toni but has some experience with Salsa and Argentine Tango and that was a special treat.  He really seemed to get the “soulfulness” of dancing, and how it can fill a special place in a person’s heart.  In addition, I saw my friend Rebecca, whom I haven’t seen since December.  We used to dance with the same instructor but she has also moved on and seems very happy.

It was a very fun night full of laughter and conversation and just enjoying dance.  I got to dance with Harry a little bit, and Toni and I did a wacky (horrible) Hustle which was mostly just messing up and freestyling.  Then I also had the opportunity to dance some Mambo and Cha Cha with Artem.  I was like, “Artem, you dance Mambo?!” because he competes professionally in Standard and I’ve never seen him dance Latin.  He was like, “Yes.  It’s dance.  I dance everything!”  I did pretty well though there were certainly some things I didn’t know and my knee-jerk reflex is to say “Sorry!” when I screw up.  He was like, “Why you keep saying sorry?  You think I know what I’m doing?”  I was like, “Yeah – you are the professional!”  When the Cha Cha started playing, I asked Artem which kind we were going to do, American Rhythm or Latin, and he said, “Let’s just keep it social,” which was fine with me.  It was pretty fun and Igor even said after our Cha Cha that it was “spicy” which was a total ego boost.

I also got to dance one Latin Rumba with Igor which was fun but nerve-wracking, a little bit.  I’m still pretty new to the Latin dances and only ever have done them with Ivan.  Every man leads a little bit differently and there are also differences in body shape and size.  Igor is quite a bit shorter than Ivan so when we did some side by side rocks and I spun in front of him, I realized it wasn’t necessary to go up on my toes like I normally do with Ivan.  He was also very gentle with his leads…it just felt different.  Not bad, by any means – I absolutely love the Latin Rumba, it’s just that dancing with a different partner creates a totally different experience.  Plus, it made me even more insecure just because it was my first time ever dancing with either Artem or Igor.  However, I was thrilled to hear Igor complement my dancing, saying “Nice Rumba!”

It was all very, very fun.  I was sweating buckets by the end of the evening but even so, it felt like everyone was just cutting loose and playing with the dancing, which is especially nice for us ballroomers because we work so hard and get so technical most of the time on our lessons.

I will also say that as fun as the dance party was (I always love dancing with good dancers and especially ones who are better than me!) I absolutely, completely, and fully feel that Ivan is the instructor for me.  It’s just such a good fit in all ways – personality, teaching and learning style, body shape and size even, and I am so grateful.

So today I awoke and headed off to a lesson with Ivan.  I got there early so I stopped by the Starbucks to grab an unsweetened iced green tea for myself and a hot white chocolate mocha for Mr. Ivan.  Sometimes I just think I am psychic.  When I walked in the door the first thing Ivan said was “Hot Mocha! (my nickname) I just thinking I want to go get a mocha from Starbucks but no time.”  Apparently I got the mental request through the cosmos.

Just then, Marietta came out from the back.  Had I known she was going to be there, I’d have gotten her a drink too!  She was subbing for her mom on a lesson but since she was there, Ivan began to tell her about our “shocking” experience at the other studio.  And somehow then the conversation turned to doing lifts.  I told Ivan I was more likely to be able to lift him so he asked me to try.  I grabbed him around the waist and lifted him up!  We laughed heartily.  Then Ivan decided to give it a go.  And he managed to lift me off the ground holding me around my waist twice!  Then Marietta told him he had to hold me over his head.  Ummm, I think we need to wait on that one, Ivan.

So anyways, we began with the Smooth dances and Ivan reminded me that he wanted to hear my heels scraping along the floor.  Boy could I hear his feetsies and I told him he was doing a great job all the while laughing at myself and wishing my feet would just do what they are supposed to do, sliding connected along the floor, heel and toe coming up and going down at the correct time.  Ah, yeah, still need to work on that.  But of course it wouldn’t be a lesson with Ivan without more twists.  He made us get really close to the mirror to practice being in tight quarters on the dance floor.  He also made me get close to Marietta, like right up in her face while we did a pose in the Waltz.  I noticed that with her, since I know her and feel comfortable around her, it felt okay to do it.  I could even look her in the eye.  I wasn’t uncomfortable or shy.  Normally, this isn’t the case – especially with strangers.  I am afraid to look and so my eyes find the floor.  I still really struggle with issues around worrying about what other people think of me.  It has gotten better, especially with Ivan, and I find more and more confidence, and care less and less, and express more, but I still have a long way to go.

Anyways, after the Smooth dances were complete, we began Latin Rumba and I have to say, it is so easy for me to go on automatic pilot.  It sucks!  Bad Stefanie!  I continue to forget to tune in and connect right away.  I kind of did but then Ivan decided to delay a movement going into an underarm turn creating a slow controlled dynamic and then a quick movement to catch up and get back on time.  It felt so grown-up and fun.  But then Ivan upped the ante.  He wanted me to find my sexy.  I still cringe inside around this.

“C’mon hot mocha!  You gotta dance like that, hot!”  He made me practice squashing my face so close to his that our noses were touching.  He made me practice coming toward him like that hungry tiger we’ve talked about.  He also made me do it when he didn’t react (like I normally don’t) being “cold,” as he calls it, so I could see how un-fun it is to come at someone with that hot and heavy energy and get no reaction.  It’s all just so dang uncomfortable!  Ugh!  So many thoughts go through my head when working on this stuff – bringing out the “inner whore” as Ivan calls it.  He tells me I dance like a nice virginal high school girl but what I need to do on these particular dances is be a harlot.  It’s just so much easier to dance a swing and be happy-go-lucky!

Also, I think about like, is it really okay that I’m this close to you, Ivan?  Or that I’m touching you?  And what are other people who are watching think?  I automatically look anywhere but into his eyes and then remember that I’m supposed to look in them but then my head wobbles around and I don’t seem focused.  Not very sexy, I know.

Anyways, we ended up having a whole conversation about all this (and more) after the lesson.  Ivan assured me it is okay for me to touch him in the Rumba.  He told me that he has to help me push some buttons inside me.  He agreed that my expression is getting better but that there is still more that needs coaxing out and the sooner I can “push my buttons” and get it out there, the better.  Ivan told me I need to love my body as it is and that I need to lose weight.  He told me I dance very feminine.  He told me I need to start feeling sexy, even right now – that it would be great if I came wearing less clothing or whatever to help me feel that.  I started getting teary-eyed.  My willingness and ability to allow myself to feel such things is so tied into my body image.  How can someone as fat as I am be sexy?  Is that even possible?

It’s tough, you know, because there is this idea of what a dancer should look like, both male and female.  I may feel a certain way inside, but no matter how good a dancer I may be, it can only be expressed so much though my physicality such as it is.  So there is both the mental and physical aspects of me that still need to evolve.

I feel like such an oddity.  I do believe myself to be a good dancer but I look so much different than most of my competitors.  Last night, for instance, I went to grab a drink after the dance party Colette and Katie.  Alongside those gorgeous gals I felt like we were Wilson Phillips, and you can guess which member of the band I represent!

To a certain extent, I’m at the place that I don’t care about my size and shape – that I love dancing and I’m a dancer, and dancing from the heart transcends physicality.  In some ways this is true.  But it is also true that my physical presentation absolutely does matter.  It absolutely affects the ease with which I can move (or not), my endurance, my overall health, and the lines and pictures I can create.  To to another extent, I am very concerned about my size and shape.  Layer womanly insecurities about being sexy on top of all that and you get a befuddled mess!

I mean, at the end of Inna’s class on Tuesday, she did a little demonstration, acting out three different couples with help from Chuck, one of my classmates.  First, they walked out with a belligerent, combative, irritated attitude.  Next, they acted very shy and lacking energy.  Finally, they came out with heads held high in calm confidence.  Inna asked, “Which couple will win the scholarship?”  We all knew it was the third couple.  “How do you know this?”  she asked, “None of the couples even danced.  You saw no dancing.”  It was a visceral demonstration of how very important presentation is.  She then proceeded to ask us, “How do you present yourselves?  To your co-workers, your dance partners, your children, your friends?  How do you present yourself to yourself?”

Ask any of my family members and they will tell you how little I generally bother with how I present myself.  From wearing worn-out clothes to pulling my hair back into a ponytail from my make-up-less face, I’ve considered spending the time and effort to present myself nice usually not worth it.  This isn’t to say I don’t dress up appropriately for special events, but in most of my daily life, I’m as casual as they come.  I always figured it wasn’t that important – that what mattered was what was inside and that people who loved me or were my friends would love me or befriend me because of who I am and that had nothing to do with how I look.

And now, here I am, addicted to this dancing sport in which presentation is 80% of the game!  Where make up and glitz and glamour are as important as technique.  Where to win at the game, I have to play by the rules that are 180 degrees from how I normally show up in life.

I almost started crying after Inna’s demonstration because I realized that I don’t always present myself that well.  I want to hide.  I don’t want to put effort and energy into make up and hair and clothes because nothing can hide how obese I am.  If you dress up a frog in the clothes of a prince, everyone can easily see that it’s still a frog.  Like I don’t want to look nice with nails and hair when I’m ashamed of the rest of me.  You can’t hide 250 pounds behind a haircut, you know?

So on this 100th post, I’m feeling like I’m still the same person as I was on the first post – still someone struggling to find herself and evolve.  Someone who acknolwedges her greatness and also is humbled by her humanity.  Someone who is still in the game, moving forward, learning, and growing.  Someone who has gratitude in her heart for all the lessons and friendships and experiences she has had thus far.

On this 100th post I can see how my ballroom family has grown larger and deeper, and so have I.  I feel re-energized and re-focused as I gear up to compete in the Desert Classic competition in about two months.  I feel clear that the choices I make regarding how I feed myself, care for myself, exercise myself, and present myself in the coming days and weeks will build to create how I show up for this next competition.

So the story continues!  Yay!

Now…. on to the 101st post.

Toodles, Stef