Dancing With Disabilities: Guest Post From Author Nicole Luongo!!!

Hi there friends, Stef here!  I’m super excited to share this guest blog post with you today.  I have been fortunate enough to connect with Nicole Luongo, published poet, blogger, and dancer.  She also happens to have Cerebral Palsy.  She’s a pretty awesome human being.  I discovered her because I’m always scouring the blogosphere for anything ballroom-related and I found her videos of her dancing.  Reading her blog post I was touched and inspired.  She’s overcome a lot and takes on life in a big way with gratitude, zest, and passion.  We connected and decided to do guest blog posts for each other.  I love getting the word out about inspiring ballroom dancers!  So without further ado, I’ll let Nicole take it away:  

“Disability is natural. We must stop believing that disabilities keep a person from doing something. Because that’s not true – having a disability doesn’t stop me from doing anything.”Benjamin Snow, director of the award-winning short film, Thumbs Down to Pity.

Throughout my life I can remember sitting on the sidelines watching other people dance. This happened at my prom, parties and weddings. Most of the time it was because I was alone or no one asked me to dance. Then there was the obvious: I have cerebral palsy (CP) cerebral palsy (CP), a physical disability on display 24/7.  And, while I usually never let having CP stop me from doing anything, it stopped me from dancing. I was too self-conscious, too stiff, unsure of how I would move in my shoes, afraid I couldn’t keep up (and quite possibly ruining a line dance) or that I would fall.

Nine months ago (just shy of forty years old), I had Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR), the only surgical procedure that can permanently remove tightness caused by spastic diplegia, the most common type of cerebral palsy. My four month follow-up visit in St. Louis with Dr. T.S. Park went well. He was thrilled with my results! The tightness in my legs was completely gone, I walked much straighter (no more bent knees) with heel-toe motion (instead of striking the floor with my toes first), no longer leaning heavily to one side and both legs were even (they weren’t pre-SDR) – eliminating the need for ugly shoe orthotics. I was doing so well that I didn’t have to go to physical therapy anymore. WOW!

It’s important to understand that the surgery does not cure cerebral palsy. I still have the same challenges I had before: poor balance, range of motion issues, tight hamstrings, heel cords and hip flexors. The wonderful news is that my gait is dramatically different, I can walk up and down stairs without holding on (I would never attempt this before SDR) and I balance better on my right leg. I tried rock climbing for the first time. Wow, is that hard! What’s next? I want to learn how to ride a bike. I always thought (and was told, in one form or another) it was impossible. Contrary to popular belief, people with cerebral palsy who have not had SDR, can ride a two-wheel bike. My SDR journey is teaching me to stop believing in limits – those imposed by myself or others. All of us are capable of much more than we imagine.

About five months ago, I decided to go back to ballroom dancing. I started group dancing lessons about eight years ago. I loved it! Unfortunately, my instructor was not a nice person, so I stopped after about a year and a half. I was curious about what dancing would be like with my new legs. It’s the same, yet different because I move better. I’m not so concerned about losing my balance. My legs, due to the lack of tightness, can move more freely. I still have problems with balance and turning around. Dancing is so much fun! Here I am with my instructor, William, at A Step Above Ballroom Dance Studio.

First, I chose to dance the foxtrot in honor of Dr. Park who, in addition to being a world renowned neurosurgeon, is also a competitive ballroom dancer. The foxtrot is one of his favorite dances. It’s also good for my hip flexors. Since SDR, it’s much easier to step back with my left leg, an integral part of this ballroom dance. Second, I chose to dance the salsa, my favorite of all!

William exudes charisma and kindness. He’s the reason I signed up for lessons (with him, of course) at the studio. He never lets me sit out of ANY class regardless of whether or not I think I can do it. He believes in my ability. When we dance, William leads me around the dance floor just like he would any other partner. No kid gloves. Just laughter and a great smile. All I have to do is follow his lead, try not to mess up or step on his toes! Or hit him. I feel so bad when that happens! And, in a moment that I will remember forever, when I got frustrated because he would not take no for an answer, trying to teach me to do something my body cannot do, I stopped and said, “Do you know what I really want to do? I want to learn how to ride a two-wheel bike.” William’s jaw dropped and he looked at me in amazement, the thought of me not being able to ride a bike unfathomable. I told him I don’t have a bike or a teacher, yet. Without blinking, he offered to teach me how to ride a bike. I was stunned that this young man in his early 20’s would make such a generous offer to someone he hardly knows. I put the word out on Facebook. A friend donated a bike, I bought a helmet and look forward to starting lessons very soon.

One day, I did a search looking for ballroom dancers who have cerebral palsy. I sifted through page after page on Google and came across Stefanie’s blog. It became an instant favorite! Stefanie inspires me. She has dancing disabilities. Some are similar while others are very different from mine. She slays negative thoughts and weight issue demons with every choreographed dance step. She doesn’t give up! I love her engagingly honest posts baring it all – sharing the good, bad and ugly about her journey as the biggest girl in the ballroom. I admire Stefanie’s ability on the dance floor. I’d love to compete someday. I want to perform in the next showcase, however, I am letting my dancing disabilities talk me out of it! I get frustrated (inwardly for the most part) when I can’t do something, wishing I could do the moves correctly and perfectly. Sometimes, it pains me knowing that no matter how hard I try, I can’t do certain things. Balancing on one foot is impossible. Spins are challenging. I have to modify a lot. I don’t want to modify. I want to be able to do the moves justice – and do them just like everyone else. But, I’m not like everyone else. I dance with a disability which, in a strange twist of fate, levels the dancing floor – making me just like you.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my dancing journey, it’s that I’m not alone. Although sometimes it feels like I am the only person on the floor with limitations, it’s just not true. So, what’s your dancing disability? We all have limitations that can prevent us from dancing, or doing anything in life. Some we can see (balance issues, for example), others we cannot (negative thoughts telling us we can’t do it). It’s time we accept our dancing disabilities. Let’s share them and dance in spite of them! The floor is yours. Embrace it. Own it. Life is too short. If you get the chance to sit it out or dance – I hope you dance!

Nicole Luongo is the author of Naked Desires, a poignant book for everyone who is searching for love, delighting in love, or hoping to understand love. Her mission is to raise awareness for Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR). Nicole believes information about the surgery should be provided to every person living with cerebral palsy. Please help spread the word by sharing this blog post.

Connect with Nicole:

Blog – Bare Your Naked Truth

Nicole on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/NicolesNewLegs

Nicole on Twitterhttp://www.twitter.com/BareNakedAuthor

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Fluffy

Well friends,  I’m tired and have to be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow, but I’m committed to this blog, right, so I thought I’d at least write a little something about my lesson today.

I went after work and wore a dress with bike pants underneath.  A conscious choice to wear something better than on my last lesson.  I guess it worked because when Ivan saw me he told me I looked “fluffy.”

Oh Ivan, I will never truly understand you, even though sometimes I feel like I totally “get” you!  Anyways, he said, “Is that the word?  Fluffy?  Puffy?”

“I don’t know, Ivan.  What are you trying to say?  Am I retaining water?”

“No, you so cute today.  Like fluffy.  It not mean fat.”

I imagine the little cute fluffy chick named Stefanie that I gifted to Ivan not long ago.  I have a feeling this is the kind of “fluffy” he’s referrring to.  Even if it isn’t, it’s put me in a good mood and started the lesson of to a nice beginning.

But there’s a problem.  The music computer is kaput.  Completely.  It was already on it’s last leg.  Luckily, I have my trusty iPad today and we are able to plug it in to the speakers.  On the downside, I have a weird mish-mash of music, and not a ton of ballroom music.  But there is this one cool song I have from Frank Sinatra called the “Coffee Song.”  It starts out as a Samba and progresses into a Foxtrot.  It’s just darling and I wanted to share it with Ivan.  So we start there and the mood is light, ebullient.

Next we decide to do a Rumba.  But with my weird mix of music, I spend a lot of time trying to find something that will work to do a Rumba but it takes so long Ivan gets frustrated.  He walks over and just randomly picks something.  It’s Lisa Loeb.  These slow kind of whiney songs but Ivan says it’ll work for a Bolero.

“See.  You crazy.  You working so hard to find a song.  I just two tries and find one.  I feel the music.”

I don’t say it but I was like, well, I thought there were, you know, rules, about what song you can dance to.  Clearly not a lot of the music they generally play on the radio is going to be suitable for a ballroom dance.  But maybe that’s not as true as I thought.  Oh, I’m pretty sure there are rules about the beats per minute that are necessary for regulation Cha Cha and all that, but we’re just practicing in a church rec room, here.  We can be flexible.

It begins an avalance of unlikely dancing songs.  And it is so much fun!

We do those Lisa Loeb songs, then “Bulletproof” by Le Roux, and then “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk.  And then “Lady Marmalade” from Moulin Rouge which I totally blast at the highest volume possible.

Interspersed with bronze and silver syllabus steps are bits and pieces of complete freestyle dancing.  No rules except having fun.  And Ivan’s trying to sing along with me, off-key, like a baying dog in pain, to songs he doesn’t know at all.  He really dives into things with everything he has.

We even did a little ballet.  Ivan sticks his butt out.  It’s kind of funny being the more experienced person in the room for a minute.  And though I’m no true ballerina, I still have more technique in my little pinky toe when it comes to a plie’ or bourre’ or pique’ or posse than Ivan does.

It was exciting.  He told me that there is another showcase coming up the weekend before the Galaxy dance competition here in Phoenix and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it.

“If it nice, we can doing it at Galaxy as a solo.”

Woo….that would be a stretch for me.  I’m interested.

Even better, he then said, “We maybe do some freestyle dancing in it.  You can help with the choreography.”

Oh, well, goodness now.  I am feeling more and more like a grown up every minute here.  To have more creative control over what I perform.  I’m enticed.

And, about this time, Ivan began reminiscing about dancing with my mom last weekend at my birthday party.  He really enjoyed it, I think.  He was fantasizing that maybe my mom would join Ivan and I for a little routine.  I’m not so sure she’d be willing to do that, but it’d be pretty fun and cool if she was.  But I do think he enjoyed the mambo they did because she was smiling and having so much fun during the entire thing.  It was pretty cool to watch!

Isn’t my mom the cutest thing ever?!

Anyways, Ivan said I could do anything I wanted for the upcoming showcase.  And, if it is good enough, he’d be willing to do it with me at competition.

So, what do you think I should tackle?  A Samba?  A Mambo?  A Swing?  A Foxtrot?

Is there any song that you are really digging right now that might be good to do a routine to?

I think I got my mojo back.  That was quick!  It helped to see my mom dancing like that!  Who wouldn’t want to jump up and dance after seeing her bust a move?  Best birthday evarrrr!

Love, Stef

Medusa

Good news is, I’ve begun a new job.  It’s a contract job and guaranteed for six months.  After that, who knows, but I’m really hoping it might turn into a “real” job.  They have to put a lot of resources into training us newbies and I can’t imagine they’d want to mobilize the resources again in a few months, except for in extreme cases of workers with poor performance or a hiring freeze or financial cutbacks.  But again, not something I have control over and I am just extremely thankful for what is, right now.

The bad news is, the learning curve is steep.  Not the normal pharmacist stuff…that’s fine…it’s all the company-specific computer and operational stuff.  It is just a LOT of information to absorb (not unlike learning the entire Bronze syllabus for the Rumba or something in just a few days).  In any case, it was so much info that I dreamt about it last night!  I just know my little brain was assimilating all it could.

You see, I’m playing catch-up because I was added to the job a week after everyone else started.  I’ve had 2 days.  They’ve had 9.  AHHH!  Luckily, I got some one-on-one training to help with all that, but it is still a lot to absorb.  So, all-in-all, not bad news, really – not even close!  After all I’ve been through in the job/financial/work environment categories, I’m GRATEFUL!  It’s just that my mind is spent.  I have the IQ of a wombat by the end of my 8 hour shift (no offense to wombats! Perhaps they are very smart, like parrots.  But I wouldn’t know about that, especially right now.)  And this showed up in my lesson tonight….not to mention the fact that yes, I did watch DWTS this week, and yes, the topical series articles are still in process, but I just haven’t had the mental fortitude to actually complete posts about them with real words and sentences and paragraphs in English and all that.

So anyways, I finished work for the day as a mental case and headed to meet with Ivan.

Even from the beginning he noticed a difference.  I told him, “Ivan!  I’m so tired.  I’m stupid right now.  Seriously.  It’s just that I’m starting a new job and have a lot to learn.  Let’s just dance something socially, kay?”

He was amenable and we began with a nice, soft, sloppy West Coast Swing.  Seriously, I was just barely moving as compared to how I normally show up, but it was about all I could physically and mentally muster.

“Stefanie?  What happen?  You dancing like Medusa?”

“Huh?  The woman with snakes for hair? The one who turned men to stone?  Also known as a Gorgon?  What the hell are you talking about, Ivan?”

“No, a medusa.”

“????”  Arms spread outward to the sides, palms up, shoulders shrugged.

“I make a picture later.”

“Okay Ivan.”

So before I get to that…this is/was the other “bad” news of the night.  I was pretty much worthless on my lesson.  First, I was exhausted mentally.  Secondly, the energy in my body seemed to be completely sapped after about 15 seconds of any dance we worked on.  And, finally I was laughing so much my belly hurt, I almost peed my pants, and because I was guffaw-ing so hard, I couldn’t breathe to dance properly.  It didn’t help that Ivan made fun of every little noise I made.  Yes, I admit, they weren’t what you’d usually hear on the dance floor, but I was so tired that I sighed, or grunted, or squealed depending on if I was trying to push through a move or scared or whatever.

Seriously, my stomach hurt from giggling so much, especially when I tried to “be serious” and then made a noise out of frustration or effort or just to try and breathe and Ivan imitated it which, like a row of dominoes, cascaded into a collapsing heap of me folding inward into a belly laugh.

In any case, we continued to dance and Ivan decided that Bolero was appropriate. Somehow this morphed into Latin Rumba and my Bulgarian dance instructor then decided that it was a prime opportunity to practice crazy stupid lifts and dips for someone as large as I am. We did a few leans with developes and some dips with me lifting my left leg into the air.  But Ivan was making me place all my body weight on his knee while he was in a deep lunge.  It freaked me out.  I actually felt my foot leave the floor for a second, realized that for that moment he was bearing all my body weight, and immediately broke the position so I could plant my feet firmly on the ground.  How can that man hold me up like that?!  I am just so insecure about it I wish he wouldn’t do it.

I have to admit this is not a new fear.  Even when I was 16 and weighed 116 pounds I was concerned about this.  Not logical, I know.  But I was in a production of “The Music Man” in my high school and cast as a dancer and member of the chorus.  There was one move in which I was partnered with a senior theater “god” which made me feel horribly insecure because 1) he was a Thespian paragon and 2) he had to pick me up at the waist and place me on a table.  But then again, looking back on it, it might not have been because of my weight that he failed to get me up there on the table that night.  Truly, he was a slight young man, and not at all muscular in the upper limbs.  In addition, he never practiced the particular move but once with me, and it had absolutely been ingrained in me to practice piano/ballet/anything if it was to be performed to the point where you can do it mindlessly, because when the moment comes to perform, all kinds of things can go wrong.  (And also, once I didn’t practice appropriately and bombed my piano recital.  Not a good feeling! But that is another story).  Anyways, I had a high anxiety level about this move knowing how un-practiced it was, and not having any connection to the person who was responsible for lifting me aloft except for a fearful and reverent adoration from afar, and so, my big fear did come to fruition.  He went to lift me up and I just fell right down.  At least I landed upright, on my feet (so that was good), and he had the theatrical training to grab me and sway side to side to cover the mishap – but I’m pretty sure the audience noticed the gaffe because 1) I made a big loud BOOM! when my character shoes hit the wooden stage floor instead of the table and 2) my dancing counterpart was on a table on stage right doing the same choreography I was supposed to be doing on stage left so things didn’t look symmetrical.  This, plus the fact that the bench I sat on during “Oliver!” while singing “Food, Glorious Food,” collapsed on stage while I (and about 19 other people) were sitting on it, confirmed my fear that I was horribly huge and fat.  See, all along, I really DID have a mental problem.  It just now has manifested into my physical reality, not just my mental reality.

Okay, back now from that psychological detour.  Interestingly, I actually thought this post would be quick because not much happened on the lesson – but clearly my complexes are rooted deeply!  Ahhh!

So a brilliant thing did actually happen on this very-low-energy lesson.  Ivan and I did all our basic Latin Rumba stuff and then I asked him about a step I’ve seen others do, and one that I *think* Igor may have been trying to lead me into last Friday, but that I didn’t know how to do.  What happened next may or may not be the same move, but it was damn cool, whatever it was.  Pretty much from an Alemana I then step forward into a double spiral turn and complete with two walks around the back of Ivan to fan position.  But I didn’t know this at the time.  All I knew was I’d seen this turn-y thing done on YouTube videos by professionals and Igor tried to lead me into something I wasn’t familiar with.

After two tries to decipher which step I meant, Ivan demonstrated what I *thought* I wanted to know so I said, “Ivan, teach me this step.”

At first he seemed a little reluctant but then he was like, okay.

“Is this a Bronze or Silver step?”

“No.  It’s an Ivan step.”

“Huh?”

“It not in the syllabus.  You do it, they kicking you off the floor.  You know who doing this?  It Joanna Leunis.”

“Really!?!  I LOVE her.  She’s amazing.  But okay.  I’m clear. So if we get to do it, we do it in an open heat.”

“Yes, open.”

He led me into it, but only indicated one spiral turn.  I did this successfully then he said, “Oh.  It better if you can do a double.  Can you do a double?”

I didn’t know if I could but I wanted to try.

Bam!  I totally did it.

Ivan and I gave each other a double “Hi Five” and a hug.  I was so excited.  In fact, it was probably the most animated part of my lesson, succeeding at this maneuver.  He told me, “Most people doing this step and can’t even do a single turn.”  He demonstrated, in his Ivan-exaggerated way of how people fall out of the turn (normally), leaning and listing to this side or the other and causing a big problem.  So he wanted me to try it again, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

But me, woot! I easily did the double again! Maybe I’m finally finding my center, once again, and also remembering to spot, plus I had the added advantage of just that little assist in balance from connecting with Ivan – for me that little bit of support makes all the difference, I have to say. So yay.

“See.  I no have to teach you the step.  You already doing it.”

“Let’s try it again, Ivan.”

We did.  And it was successful for the next 3 tries.  On the 4th try I fell to the floor.  I swear the wooden floor at the church is so slippery!  I need new shoes and that floor is difficult.  I love the sticky/tacky floor at Imperial.  It spoils me and I wish it were everywhere!  Anywhoo….I fell.  But I am uninjured and overall the move was a rousing success.

Next onto a Samba.  For some reason, Ivan keeps calling it “Sambera” lately.  Whatever.  He put on the music and since I had suggested we dance socially, we decided to do the Samba in that character.  Oh my gosh, I can’t remember when I ever laughed so hard.  I told Ivan that it is sometimes painfully difficult to watch social dancers do the Samba.  Some of them hop, and jolt, and have no hip movement.  They dance like 2 x 4’s as Ivan calls it when he means people are stiff.  This isn’t to generalize or degrade people who socially dance the Samba, I promise, it’s just that I’ve seen some couples and I’m like, wow, why are you dancing this dance this way?  It is awkward.  Probably the same reaction someone had to me dancing West Coast Swing (as taught by a ballroom instructor) before I knew about the dance.  I promise, we all have stuff to work on, you know?!

So Ivan and I danced this way – no hips, stiff, 2×4, wooden.  It was hilarious!  It looked ridiculous.  And such a contrast from Ivan, who normally dances it so amazingly, and from me, who works so dang hard to create a proper Samba bounce plus hip motion.  I truly wish I had that s*@t on film!  It was too funny.

Honestly though, besides that, the rest of my lesson was unremarkable.  We did Foxtrot, Tango, Waltz, Viennese Waltz, and Cha Cha.  I dragged.  Ivan poured as much Chi energy my way as he could.  It felt a little like an energetic transfusion of sorts.  I did feel somewhat better by the end of the lesson, but still, I’m drained.  Oh well.  Glad I did have one “triumph.”

So please root for Ivan and Marietta as they compete this weekend at the Emerald Ball in LA.  There is live streaming of the entire event (though a pay-per-view) here if you want to watch from home.  It is a big and prestigious and competitive event.  I really, really hope my favorite couple (besides Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski) does well.  Ivan seemed to think they wouldn’t even make the final at such a large comp, but I reminded him to look into his mirror, remember the champion he already is, and have an optomistic attitude.  Because you know what? I believe in him and Marietta.  I enjoy watching them dance because they have an real and emotional connection.  And to me, that makes things interesting.  As I’ve said before – I’d prefer to watch a couple that is less technically excellent with an authentic connection than an impeccably technically excellent couple with no emotion or connection any day of the week.

So anyways, as I pumped this positive support Ivan’s way, he rebutted my support by asking me to jump on the roof.  So I jumped.  Not high, not impressively, and certainly not onto the roof, but happily.

He about peed his pants laughing at me.  He said, “Being in the final of Emerald Ball for me is like jumping on the roof right now.  Can people do it?  Yes.  But they need to practice.  You have to remember, I lazy.  And I should be practicing jumping and little by little I jump on the roof like it easy.”

“So what?!” I replied. I jumped up again.  Again, not graceful, not impressive, but to illustrate a point that I hope Ivan got.

The point is, GO FOR IT.  Wherever I am/he is/you are right now, go for it.  Why not?

“You can’t controlling how the judging goes in competitions so you might as well have fun.” Said Ivan.  And I agreed.

“So go have fun at Emerald Ball, Ivan, damnit!  Go have fun!  I will be watching and rooting for you.  You know you are my favorite couple? Right?  Well, if I am honest, besides Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski….they I like them best, and you guys (Ivan and Marietta) the second best.”

Ivan was so excited by my comment he said laughingly, “I tell Marietta this.  You know her favorite dancer?”

“Yes, Ivan.  I know it’s Joanna.”

“Yes.  She gonna get a kick that your two favorite couples are Joanna Leunis with Michael Malitowski and us!”

But I mean it.  And so you must be wondering why?  Well, my response is, why not love these two couples?  Because for me, when I watch them, there actually seems to be a connection and that makes the interaction between man and woman interesting to watch.  And Joanna is immaculate.  Truly.  From my perspective, all the high level competitors are technically excellent in their dancing, no doubt about it, but I love the drama, the connection, the emotion.  I personally prefer that above perfect technique, and I guess Ivan does too, based on our conversation which is interesting and makes it no mystery why he ended up being my instructor since we both value the same things in dancing.  I do believe Joanna and Michael to be superior to Ivan and Marietta in terms of experience, ranking, technicque, and even, I hate to say it, connection, but I also happen to believe Ivan and Maretta have the potential to forge an excellence and connection strong enough of their own to compete with the best in the world.  Of course, I’m biased.  But as a dancer and human being, I also happen to see that potential in them.

Whew!  Have I said everything I wanted to say?  Yep.  A brief post – just another 2800-word (and change) post.  Ha ha. Not!

Oh – and before I sign off, I have to explain the title of this post.  Medusa. Well, Ivan “made” me a picture of what “the hell” he was talking about….a jellyfish.  Apparently I was dancing like a boneless, blubbery, soft jellyfish.  The interesting part is that how Ivan described “medusa” to me was that it “90% water.”  Uh huh.  How do you know how to communicate something like that but you don’t know the word for jellyfish?  I’ll never know.  And also, once I figured out that medusa meant jellyfish, I asked Ivan, “Is that the word in Polish or Bulgarian?”

” Bulgarian,” he replied.

“Well great.  ‘Cause that is a useful word, if I ever go to visit there….now I know how to say jellyfish.”  Probably “bathroom” and “beer” and “I’m sorry” would actually be more useful, right?

Damn.

Watch out you Bulgarians.  I am now armed with the word for jellyfish.  Kind of like a Marine armed with a banana.  Sheesh!

It’s way past bedtime.

Gute Nacht,  Stefanie

You Growing So Quickly!

Today, I must say, was a good lesson.

I don’t know why some days are just better than others and today turned out to be loads of fun, a good work out, and left me feeling as bubbly as a shaken champagne bottle.

I walked into the studio and caught Ivan doing something in front of the mirror.

“What were you doing?”

After a pause, “Looking at myself.”

That’s Ivan for you!  Unabashed.  I hope to get that comfortable with myself one day.

“I seeing how I look, if I am handsome.”

“Oh Ivan, I think like every female in my life thinks you are handsome.  My mom has mentioned it.  My mother-in-law, when we were at Galaxy, and the subject came up said, ‘I may be old, but I’m not blind!’  Yes, Ivan, I often get comments about how lucky I am to dance with someone so handsome.”

He glowed.  His inner rooster puffed out his chest.  He stood a little straighter.  I think if I can compliment him (or Marietta, or Katie, or whomever is going to dance with him) before we begin at a competition, he’d dance better, with more confidence.  There is something about having your partner compliment you, like what you are doing or how you look, that just is encouraging and invigorating.

I told him, “Maybe you should say something nice to Marietta before you dance.  And just think how you’d dance if she said something nice to you?”

“I used to.  But now, even if I say something, she not believing me.”

“Well, don’t worry about it.  Just say something nice and leave it at that.”

Maybe he’ll take my advice.  Doubtful, but maybe.  At least the took the advice in the moment.

“You so beautiful!”

“Thanks Ivan.”

So we began with Foxtrot and from the get-go I was connecting and following pretty well.  I was just not thinking, just dancing, just being, and it makes things so much simpler.  The more I get out of my head and into my body, the better I seem to do.  I didn’t even know it, but we were dancing the International Standard Foxtrot.  How could I not know this?  Well, I just thought I was doing a step in the Smooth Foxtrot where you don’t close the feet but pass them.  Silly me.

So I had a moment of brilliance.  I was tuned in, really connected and following, and Ivan moved very, very slowly, leading me into a develope’ at like half speed.  But I did it!  I had great balance.  He was like, “Wow!”

And the best part was, that wasn’t the only “Wow!” on the lesson!!!

Next was the Tango.  Again, good frame, and snap, snap, snap.  My head whipped left and right quick as if I were watching a match between Borg and McEnroe as we went into Promenade and back.  “Good!”  Said Ivan.  Only one small mishap – I kicked him on accident doing some Gauchos.  But he just kicked me back and we laughed.

Then Waltz.  Nothing really remarkable on that one, but I did get to learn a new step with a ronde’ and develope’.

Then Viennese Waltz.  “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler On The Roof” was the song.  So I started singing.

“How you know this?”  Asked Ivan.

“It’s from a musical – Fiddler On The Roof.”

“You so smart!  You know so much!”

“Don’t they have musicals in Bulgaria?”

“No.  No musicals in Bulgaria.”

I don’t know if I believe him, but whatever.  He was so impressed I knew the song.  Why, I wonder?  Most songs I don’t know and he’s never been impressed before.

All the Smooth dances complete, we moved on to Rhythm.

I was enjoying myself doing the Rumba and Ivan encouraged me to dance in 360 degrees.  To pay attention to my back, not just my front.  To make my shoulders and upper back move as much as my feet.  To style my arms so that I don’t look the same as everyone else, because as Ivan puts it, “You not like everyone else.”

I’m getting much better at the Spiral turn, which is a triumph.  It helps just to have that little extra help with balance holding on to Ivan’s hand, but I’m getting more and more independent.  It’s this weird dance between relying on my partner and yet being fully self-sufficient.  Like I could do everything I’m doing on my own, but I’m choosing to do it with a little assist from my partner.  Sometimes it’s not that centered, though, and I rely on my partner too much!  On other moves I try too hard to do it all on my own.  No wonder it takes a long time to develop a proper and good connection, but I digress.

So we were dancing and I was following so well that Ivan, I guess, felt like he could lead me into stuff I haven’t exactly learned.  He dipped me over his knee, and I bent like a wet noodle into a back bend.  It is like I got there and then I realized what was going on.  If I had thought about it, I’d probably have stiffened up, lost my balance, resisted.  But it happened so quickly – quicker than I could think about it, and I did this move I wouldn’t expect my body to do so easily first thing in the morning…or anytime during the day, really.  Once again, I don’t know my own limits.  They are much more expansive than I’d have thought.

“You’ve never done that with me before, Ivan.”  I say as he changes the music.

“I don’t want to telling you so you no thinking.”

That’s probably a good thing.

Next, the highlight of the lesson.  It rivals the time Ivan taught me the move at the end of the Rumba routine.  The one where I was like, “You want me to do what?”

It was a split.  Him holding me up.  Me giving him my left leg, him stretching me into the splits (I may be bigger, but I’m pretty dang flexible – I can still do the splits, believe it or not!), me opening my arm.

“Wow! This so good!  Why we not put this in our routine?  Fuck!”  He said.  He has that new penchant for cussing, just because he can.  It was a good-natured remark…but “Dang it!” probably would have been more to the point.

He made me do it again, and I was sure he was going to drop me.  I can’t believe he could support all this weight.  Seriously, he was holding at least 90% of me up, maybe more!

Not only did he make me do the split thing, but then he dragged me around, doing this move I’ve seen him do with Marietta.  Now she has a bit more space between her ribcage and belly so she can really collapse toward him, but still, I was impressed he was moving me at all, still holding me up.

“You have to trusting me.”

“Yeah, Ivan, you’re right.  I just can’t believe you can hold me up like that.  It makes me scared.”

On the up side, if I lose more weight then I will really not fear doing these tricks as I’m doing them now and he is handling them.

“I strong.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Wow, your dancing is growing so quickly.  You growing so much!”

“Well, you’re giving me more to do.”

So we then danced an unremarkable Cha Cha, except I was doing “Pah!” and “Sha!” expressions, practicing the performance element of the dance, and then it was on to Samba.

I ask him to review the step he taught me for the Latin Samba.  We do that and then he starts in on Samba Rolls.  He’s tried them with me once before, but its trial by fire.  He doesn’t show me the move, he just wraps is arms around me and tells me to step, front, side, together, back, side together, while dragging me where I’m supposed to go and twisting my upper body and arms around in a large circle.  It was pretty horrendous, but that’s okay.  After all I did so well today, I don’t mind not getting this one.

The lesson ends and we part with our usual bear hug.

“What are you doing the rest of the day, Ivan?”

“I’m renting a machine to plow the earth.”

Ivan was able to purchase a horse property recently and I’m so happy for him.  It was one of his dreams to have a large property like that and I guess they are putting in irrigation tomorrow so he has to till the earth in preparation.  Not your typical life for a professional dancer, I know, but there’s nothing typical about Ivan and Marietta.  She’s studying astronomy and loves the science of the cosmos.  They have a life outside of dancing, which is not something you usually see in dancers of their level, I think.

“I like this lesson today.” Ivan says as he closes the door and jumps on his Vespa.

Me too, Ivan.  Me too.

Dancing In Heaven

Finally!  Though not fully healed, I’m breathing well enough to have my first dance lesson in like two weeks.

It’s so very interesting to me how my obsession with dancing waxes and wanes over time.  There are moments when I am compulsive about it.  I want to spend every second on a dance lesson, or practicing, or watching endless hours of internet videos of both students and professionals dancing.

Then there are times when I don’t dance, like these past two weeks when I was sick, and it is somehow okay that I’m not spending every waking hour dreaming about dance.  How odd.

But one thing is certain:  it feels really good to dance, espeically after a little hiatus.  I forget how cleansing it is for me on so many levels when I am without it for a while.  Physically, psychologically, emotionally it’s like getting purified by a soft spring rain when I make the space in my life to dance.

Anyways, I showed up to my lesson kind of lukewarm about the prospect but, even so, amazing things happened.  For one, by the end of the lesson Ivan was happy.  He told me, “You give me energy.  Like the past three days have been hard to sleep.  Now, I feel good.”  That was amazing to me because I didn’t feel like my usual ebullient self.  I was just kind of neutrally present but not effervescent.  Just by dancing together, both of our spirits were lifted.

Second, we worked on our frame.  Ivan encouraged me to dance softly connected, gently holding on.  I about cried when we danced the waltz, it was so beautiful.  It reminded me of one of our first dance lessons.  Ivan told me that one day maybe we’d dance together in Heaven.  I don’t remember the context of the conversation or anything, but the comment stuck with me.  Like somewhere on a soul-level I do believe that after we die we will meet up in the afterlife and dance together once again, swirling freely in rivers of energy, unencumbered by our bodies, floating among the clouds.  And the dancing we did yesterday was probably about as close as I could come in real life to experiencing that.  We were floating across the floor on strains of music rather than clouds, but just the same, it was a little piece of Heaven here on earth.

Also, I managed to dance for a full five minutes doing a Foxtrot.  That is quite a cardiovascular accomplishment for me.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like doing a Cha Cha for five minutes, but still, pretty good, especially after a bad cold.  I was shocked.

Lastly, hugs.  Ivan and I always hug to greet one another and to say goodbye.  Not like, superficial quick squeezes, but rather full-on bear hugs.  I was like, “Ohhhhh Ivan, I missed you.”  And he was like, “Ohhhhhh Mocha, I missed you.”  He said, “I miss the hugs.”

“But Ivan, you hug all your students.  Don’t you?”

“Yes. But it’s different hugs with you.”

“Awwwww.  Well, I do have a lot of body to hug!”

We laughed.  But there is nothing better than a good, heartfelt, bear hug from a friend.

It makes me think that there are miracles everywhere in life if only I have the eyes to see them.  And a lot of them happen for me when dancing.

Yep, dancing is my Heaven.

Good Animal. Meow.

So now that I’ve told my current employer that I’ve been offered a new position, I guess it’s kosher to share that news with you, too.   This is a very good thing and I’m very thankful.  After writing my letter of intent and warily walking into work this morning, I was thrilled that things went really well and that it has been an amicable parting of ways.  I will still be there for a few more weeks to help them out but then I’ll be off to the next adventure.

I preemptively scheduled a lesson after work because you just never know how the day is going to go and dancing is my outlet.  No matter what is going on in my life, if I have to focus on a step and be present in the moment, worries melt away, at least for a little while.  Plus I get the opportunity to lather up a good sweat and then the endorphins kick in, so I generally end up feeling better after 45 minutes of dancing.

I walked in to the studio this afternoon and after changing into workout clothes, we began with a Tango.  Man, did it feel awesome!  I was so fiery for a change and Ivan told me my frame was good.  Interestingly, from my perspective it was his frame that was better.  To me, I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, but he felt more present, strong, direct through the arms and upper chest.  I don’t actually know what may have shifted and truthfully, I don’t really care, but for whatever reason, whether it is him, or me, or the both of us, it was really working well.

I began to think that Ivan was really enjoying doing all those head snaps and cortes and staccato movements.  Truly, it is so fun when it works and it seemed to be working pretty well right then, so I was really enjoying it too.  It also made me feel like dancing bigger, taking larger steps that open at the hip rather than the knee, and really flying around the studio.  It was fantastic way to begin the lesson.

The fun didn’t stop there…does it ever really end with my favorite Bulgarian?  We put on a Viennese Waltz, a softer song by Whitney Houston.  I don’t know all the words but I know the tune and Ivan was singing.  We were belting out the song to each other (poorly) but it was so much fun, I can’t stand it!  I don’t know if laughing is allowed on the elegant Viennese Waltz, but I couldn’t help it.  Ivan sang in falsetto!

Then on to a fun Foxtrot and Waltz.  Ivan was really testing me today, seeing if I was following properly.  He would stop in unexpected places.  I really couldn’t go on autopilot but had to pay attention every second.  I did really well, in my own estimation.  I slipped up in a few of the moves, but for most of the ones the threw at me, I responded instantly.  I followed, for reals.  It felt so great.

When we are really in sync as we were today, Ivan will do all sorts of steps and moves he’s never showed me.  He launched me into a big circular dip and also into the ending move we do in the Latin Rumba.  The amazing thing was that it was fun, there was no fear.  My brain didn’t have a chance to analyze the situation and tell me now difficult it was, that I couldn’t do it.  I was just dancing, feeling secure, feeling safe with my partner, that he wouldn’t lead me astray or into anything that would cause me to injure myself.  I relaxed into the trust we have been building over all this time, and it was just one of those magical lessons where things click.  But even better than that, it wasn’t so much coming to understand a particular step as it was creating unity.  The two of us came together to dance today but once we got into hold, we became a single unit in the flow.  Really, there is nothing better.  I feel like I’m doing a poor job of explaining, but if you’ve ever felt this you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Anyways, then we were on to American Rhythm Rumba.  Again, the dang arm styling.  I’m doing better but then at the very end of moves I don’t know how to finish so I don’t follow through with the movement and my arm or hand or wrist just stops moving.  But it’s better.  I’m actually even enjoying playing with it where before I just loathed it.  This is an improvement.

Then a little Cha Cha which was fun and I got to learn a new step involving locks.  But then on to Samba.

Oh, I had been laughing a lot on the lesson and Ivan was making fun of my laugh.  He told me, “You should be in opera.” Because it is pretty high-pitched (No higher than Ivan singing in falsetto, though!)  Then somehow his imitation of my operatic laughter morphed into the sound a monkey makes.  Ivan began grunting like an ape and then told me that we would need to practice making animal sounds while dancing.

Um, okay.  Maybe this was to make me breathe while dancing?  That’s definitely an issue.  Or maybe he was just being silly.  Whatever.  I went with it.

He went first, making our lesson a live episode of Wild Kingdom, ca-cawing, and howling, and grunting like a monkey.  Needless to say, I was a noodle.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t dance.  All I could do was laugh, laugh, laugh!

So then Ivan told me it was my turn.  We made it to the fourth sound, maybe 16 counts into the Samba.  I started with a bird call, then a frog ribbit, then an owl hoot.  Ivan was good to his word.  He was silent and stayed “serious.”  Well, that is until I did a little Me-ow.

OMG!  He totally lost it.  It was Hi-lar-ious!

Now really, who does this on a lesson?  Who tells their student to make animal noises while dancing?

Only Ivan.  He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure!

So at the end of the lesson he told me, “Good animal.”

Thanks, Ivan.  I’ll take it.