Hitting World-Ranked Pros In The Head…’Cause That Is How I Roll

I have amazing news.

I have been to ballroom hell, and I survived it!  Heck!  I even enjoyed myself a bit.

You see, ever since I began taking Inna’s Advanced International Latin class on Tuesday nights, she’s always ended the class by saying how sad she is (wink, wink), that we’ve run out of time, and that we won’t be able to do the Jive that evening.

This is where I went to “ballroom hell” by taking Inna’s Jive class….but it’s also where I find a bit of ballroom Nirvana. I’m so grateful to get to dance here!

Usually we all groan, and sigh in relief.  Jive is freakin’ hardcore cardio for 2 minutes straight!  Not easy in a fit body, much more difficult carrying the extra weight of an entire person on your frame.  So, I always dreaded the day that we would do Jive in class.  I didn’t expect it to come so soon.  But Tuesday it happened!

Not even a warm-up Rumba!  Inna went straight for the jugular.

“Oh shit!” I thought.


I coped.

I managed.

Maybe only dancing the routine one time through with any quality before my cardiovascular capacity (er…or the lack thereof) would stop me.  I’d huff and puff a minute or so and get back to it.  And, you know what, as pathetic of shape as I may be in at this point, it is a heck of a lot better than when I first began.  In fact, I was even reflecting that Inna saw me about 2 years ago at my highest weight, when I’d just come back to ballroom dancing.  She’s actually seen the entire journey so far, which is kind of cool.  And, even cooler, we both know there has been progress.  (At the end of class I told her my strategy is to go as full-out as I can until I can’t and then recover and then go at it again during class and that eventually I WILL be able to make it through the entire thing.  I commented that I did think it was better than at the beginning, and she wholeheartedly agreed.)

Anyways, Inna showed us how we were supposed to bounce on our feet and taught us a little combo that involved a basic, some kicks all around, and some chasses.  It is important to have the body forward, the arms forward and relaxed, and no hips!  That was a bid admonition!  NO HIPS IN THE JIVE!

But then, after that, Inna, being Inna, upped the ante.  It’s never just simply about the steps with her.  I always get more.  She always shares a golden nugget, and this Tuesday was no different.

She split the class in half and had the first half dance the routine while the rest of us, including her, tried to distract them.  Their object was to stay focused, calm, to stay in their performance regardless of our obnoxious intrusions.

So that was fun, of course, to try and bug my classmates.  But then, alas, it was my turn.

I did pretty well, I think.  My biggest limitation being lack of breath and inexperience with the technique of the dance.  But I didn’t let that stop me.  I did the routine with my friend up in my grill, and looked her directly in the eye until my legs and lungs gave out.

As I was breathing deeply to recover I heard the soundtrack to Jaws playing through my brain.

Inna, like a shark stalking its prey had arrived to my end of the room.  She could see I was struggling.

“Are you okay?”  She asked.  “Can you do it?”

I nodded in assent, gulped in one last breath of air, and set to it.

Inna didn’t hold back.  She got even more in my face than my friend had.  It was actually quite fun.  But it did goof me up a little bit…Inna is pretty intimidating to have in your space.  I used to be afraid of her from afar when I first saw her at my old dance studio.  She just has such a presence.  Anyways, I feel more confident now, but still, come on!  She a world-ranked pro!

So she got in my face and instead of doing two sets of the basic before launching into the kicks, I only did one set.  But I thought I recovered pretty well.  I simply smiled and told her I’d changed the choreography as I continued to dance toward her.  Then, on the way back, she danced right beside me.  As I switched my arms, my left arm hit her in the head!


It messed up her hair, but not much more than that.  It was truly a glancing blow.  It just sounds much more dramatic if I say I hit her.  But, still, you know, well Inna….you got in my space!  This is what happens when you get in MY space!  And I’m now, after this exercise (and a lot of other background work) I’m holding my space like never before.

So that made me giggle.  And I’m glad I didn’t injure anybody, including myself.  I think I deserve a sparkly t-shirt that says “I survived Jive class with Inna!”  kind of like how my husband got an orange headband for completing a Tough Mudder.  (It’s about as hard, I think ha ha)

Anyways, as the class was about to close, Inna invited us to do the Jive routine one last time.

“Imagine it is the last round of your scholarship.  Or the last 10 minutes of the final round.  How do you want to dance?”  She asked.

“Give it all.”  She told us.  “Because, no matter how you place, if you do your very best and leave it all on the floor and know that, you won’t feel badly about it.  But if you know you gave up, gave in, didn’t give it all you have, then when you get placed lower, you will wonder if you could have made the final round, or 2nd place instead of 3rd.”

She reminded me that it’s all tough but there is the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.  I have to remember this each time I practice.

Even more so, with what she said next after we had danced.

“How did you end?”

Most of us had made it to the end of the routine and collapsed, mentally, and physically.  We immediately lost focus.  It was apparent in our body language that we were relieved to be done, that it had been a huge effort, and that we were tired.

She demonstrated for us.

I was like, ohhhhhh.  Yeah.  I so do that.

“It’s the last 10 seconds when the judges are making their decision.  Who is the last couple to be placed in the final round?  Who should be 1st and who should be 2nd?  This may be the moment they make that decision!  What do you want to show them in that moment?  How do you want to end?”

Again, a nugget of pure gold.  I appreciate Inna and her expertise so much and I’m so grateful because it is helping me transform and grow every time I go.

The only problem is…..

Inna promised more Jive next week!  AAHHHHHHHHH!

But, yo!  I’ll be there!  (With my sparkly shirt on)  Hopefully it won’t involve hitting anyone…..

Inna’s Gift

So last night I went to Inna’s butt-kicking International Latin class over at Imperial Studio.

It began a usual with a Rumba exercise, which, I’m proud to report, I was able to make it through. Finally, finally, I feel like my body is responding to the demands I’m placing on it. Now, I’m still pushing my body to it’s limit, it feels like, but I was able to complete the exercise and didn’t have to stop, or drop my arms. I didn’t have to “cheat” or halt to rest. This is progress! Progress, not perfection, has to be my motto as I’m doing this process right now. The moment I get caught up in all I still can’t do is the moment my internal devil begins spewing all sorts of unhelpful and demoralizing drivel. I’ve got to keep my eye on the prize…not on the roadbumps.

Now, I did have to bow out of an exercise at the end of the class, being doubled over for breath, but this is par for the course. One day I WILL make it through this class. One day my body WILL have adapted to it enough and will be physically capable of doing it. Yesterday wasn’t that day, but it’s gonna come.

But then Inna threw us a curveball. She seemed to be in a good mood. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that she and Artem placed 1st in the Professional Rising Star International Ballroom division at the UK Open last week, and also made it to the quarterfinals in the Professional division as well. They were competing against top, world-ranked International couples and held their own. They’ve worked really hard to get where they are and I wish them only the very best. I feel privileged to be able to learn from teachers with such expertise in their field. And although Inna is currently competing in International Standard, she is a master teacher and also a master dancer herself, Latin style included.

I wrote about her in my Tumblr post today in response to a 30 day challenge question which was, “Describe a dancer you admire.” I think this describes Inna, from my perspective, pretty well:

She is strong and powerful. She is tiny but can take up all the space in a gigantic ballroom. She has exceptional technique and bleach-blond hair. She commands attention, and can control her body so precisely, that all she needs to do is shrug a shoulder and everyone stops to watch. She is a master teacher and a master dancer, expressive from the tips of her French nails, to the point of her toes, down through the earth. This is an actual person, not some idealized made up person in my mind, who, as one commentator put it, is “something else.” http://dancingwithstefanie.tumblr.com/post/16453769849/day-19-describe-a-dancer-you-admire

You can see the dance that prompted a commentator to say she is “something else,” here:


Well, in my experience she sure is.

So miss Inna decided to change the rules of the game on us in class last night. Basically, she told us that we all knew at this point how to do the basic steps she was asking for. Now mind you there were only 6 of us and all were girls and this created an opportunity. She told us that we all knew how to move our arms in the prescribed motion and where to step which way when. But it was boring to watch! She challenged us to make it interesting, to stand out from the crowd by doing something different, something “out of the box,” as she put it. Apparently her coach in the Ukraine asked her class to do the same thing one time too. And everyone had a choice: do it, make it work or say, “but I don’t know how.” But I think in the Ukraine if you are told to do something, you just do it. There is no tired, or hurting, or can’t breathe. These options don’t exist.

It’s a little different here in America, that’s for sure. But I think all students still ultimately want to do well and please their teacher. We’d prefer to rise to the occasion. But when Inna asked us all to just creatively make up some arm movements, it felt like the entire room balked. What were we supposed to do? At least in my experience in ballroom, everything about what you are supposed to do is told to you. Only the professionals do more creative movement in open routines. A student does mostly performs lead and follow dancing or has a prescribed routine in which every detail of movement is already predetermined. Also, I’ve put in lots of hours trying to get my arms to do the right basic movement when doing say, an under arm turn, but not a lot of hours creating different arm movements.

I mean, it makes sense, right. Part of being a competitor in ballroom is to draw the attention of the judges and gain audience support. You can’t do that if you blend into the background or look just like everyone else. The idea is to emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. But I don’t think a lot of time is spent on developing this skill at the outset of ballroom lessons. It is something only explored once the student is a little more advanced.

I have to give Ivan some props here. If he hadn’t been working with me on doing different things with my body and arms, I’d have been at a complete loss as to what to do when asked by Inna. Once he made me just move to music and he walked around me over and over in a circle. I noticed myself constantly looking to him for a response, for approval, but what I needed to do was hold my space, claim my center, make him a moon to my planetary body.

Listen, it’s easier to do when you’re alone and no one is watching, even someone like Ivan who I trust and respect. It’s just so revealing, so vulnerable. What if I look stupid? What if I fall?

Well, the amazing thing about last night, was that I experienced this but I felt like a lot of the other girls in the class did as well. Look, they are all very very good dancers. Many have been dancing for years and have some Pro/Am titles under their belt. They all have better bodies than I do, for sure, by far. I’m so hung up with my body image that I think that I’d be more confident if I was in a body like any of the other five girls in that class last night. Like, if I had one of their bodies, I’d be super-confident and comfortable in my own skin. But these buff, fit, lean, girls, with beautiful legs, and hips, and arms, well, it seemed like they were feeling the same way I was feeling (insecure) in my 262 pound body. Oh, by the way, I’m finally down a few pounds again. I have a goal to be below 260 by Sunday. The next goal will be for getting under 250 pounds, but I digress. I’m just glad I’m back on the right track even after that detour a week ago.

Now, let me be personally responsible here and be sure to clarify that I have no idea what those other girls were thinking, nor is it really any of my business. I could totally be projecting my “stuff” onto them, and they could totally have been feeling confident. But I have to say that it really seemed like they were experiencing some of the same internal struggles to bust out of their comfort zones and be confident just like I was experiencing, regardless of the disparity between our respective body sizes. I’m not the only one to struggle with this. And this includes even girls who outwardly appear immaculate to me.

In any case, we did the exercise again, each playing with arms but dear Inna wasn’t satisfied. She upped the ante once more.

Now let me take a moment to express my appreciation for Inna doing this. I am very thankful that she is putting forth the effort to challenge us students. I feel like she really does want to pull the best out of each of us, and encourage us to become unique dancers, showcasing our individual strengths. That right there in my humble opinion is some quality instruction and it will contribute to the creation of some exemplary student dancers. This calling forth of the dancer and person within, something deeper than just teaching steps, is so special. I can imagine that teaching a syllabus of steps might be easier to do, but this level of engagement that Inna’s bringing to the table, well, I just feel so privileged to benefit from it.

She also told us that the studio is the place to practice. That we aren’t being judged here. We weren’t at competition. Basically she was making it okay for us to experiment, even if we looked silly or messed up in the process. As she described, it was no longer about just the steps. It was about being creative, expressing ourselves, becoming something greater.

So Inna gave each and every one of us girls a different body part to emphasize. I got hips. (Whew! I thought! Probably the part I’m most comfortable with at this point). The girl next to me, who is probably the best dancer of the bunch got assigned shoulders. (What the heck should a person do to emphasize their shoulders? I had no idea and breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me that had to do that!) Another girl got legs, which was appropriate because her legs and feet are gorgeous. Absolutely one of her strong points. Another gal got arms. And finally the last girl got head. (Really? Head? WTH would I do if I had to do head?)

We were given a few moments to prepare and then it was go time. We all had to perform one by one in front of the group. The gal who got arms blew me away. Her opening movement was so strong, so expressive, so engrossing. It was fabulous.

But wait, there’s more! Next Inna told us to pick a body part to emphasize then the rest of the group would have to guess which part we were emphasizing. Again we were given more time and then one by one faced the music. I picked legs because I think they are one of my better features, at least my footwork is pretty good.

It was really an amazing opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and consider some new ways to approach my dancing. I’d never considered emphasizing my head or shoulders, ever. Now at least it is on my radar. Also, I can begin to play and practice with doing some movement, maybe before I start dancing, that will immediately set me apart from other competitors in the ballroom. A lesson like this is priceless. Actually, it was an opportunity for transformation, and this I know: that the seed of the ideas planted in my psyche today will bear fruit far beyond this one lesson. That is a lesson from a master teacher. That was Inna’s gift to me and to the people who showed up to class last night.

I’m grateful.


Ivonne, You’re My Hero

Yesterday was a day of friendship.

I got to spend time with my dear friend Sonya who is a powerful and compassionate woman.  She is helping me create a transformational workshop using the metaphor of dance that I’m planning for March.  She shared with me her current struggles, and I shared my with her.  She is one of those friends you can not talk to for a year and pick up right where you left off.

I also got to hang with my new friend, Ivonne.  I met Ivonne at Dance Starz and immediately liked her.  She is vibrant and inquisitive, and has an amazing zest for life.  She’s one of those people you meet and suddenly, effortlessly, you are friends.  No need to set up a coffee date, you just fall into an easy pattern of talking on the phone and meeting up for different activities.

Finally, I got to talk to another special friend, Erin, who lives across the country and has been experiencing some very difficult health issues.  I hadn’t heard from her since I heard that she was injured, so I was thrilled that she called.  She and I enjoy one of those very deep, authentic friendships in which we can share absolutely anything with one another and will receive support, even if it looks like tough love.  She brings out the best in me, and reminds me of my specialness and awesomeness.

I treasure all my friends, so if you are reading this and you aren’t mentioned, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, it just means that I didn’t see you yesterday!  So call me!  Let’s hang out soon.

Being with my friends yesterday, whether in person or on the phone was just what I needed.  I am feeling much better about myself and life after sharing with my friends.  This post, however, is mostly dedicated to Ivonne because she is a dancer like me, and this blog is, of course, mostly about dancing, right?

So Ivonne is amazing.  Let’s just start there.  She has been dancing all her life.  She has a Cuban heritage and so dancing to rhythm is in her blood.  But in terms of ballroom dancing, she just started in October.  She’s already lost a partner and gained a new one.  And, get this, she’s already committed to doing a competition next month!  Can you believe it?  This girl doesn’t mess around.  I have rarely experienced this level of courage and committment in others.  But with Ivonne, it is just one of her traits.  She regularly dives head-first into experiences that may be beyond her current abilities.  Listen, she blew me away when she told me about racing a Chinese Dragon Boat.  How many people would say yes to an experience like that, especially when she just showed up because they needed one extra person on the team?  They won gold!

I think being Ivonne’s friend is going to be a rich, effervescent adventure and I can hardly wait.  It could also be very dangerous because she is comfortable with being uncomfortable.  She has made it a habit to get out of her comfort zone, something I admire greatly about her, and want to do a bit more in my own life….but that comes with a price….the price of being uncomfortable, and even, gasp! failing once in a while.  That, I have yet to experience as fun, but this I know:  If you’re not failing at anything, then you’re not doing anything.  (Hmmm, I should listen to my own advice)

So last night Ivonne came with me to Inna’s class at Imperial studio.  Inna and Artem are busy placing first in the Rising Star category of the UK championship (Congratulations, guys!) so Igor taught the class.

I personally had a great time.  It was actually pretty enjoyable for me, for once, because we wern’t doing cardio intervals in the form of Cha Cha combinations across their football-field-sized ballroom.  Rather, we focused on technique.  I especially liked the exercise he did taking each body part one at a time.  We did the same combination over and over but first we focused only on our feet, trying to make them absolutely perfect, forgetting about anything else.  Then we worked on the legs, then the hips, then the arms, then presentation.  Finally we did it (ahem, attempted) to incorporate all aspects.  He also had each student step forward and dance in front of the rest of us one-by-one.

Now, mind you, this is still an advanced level course.  When Ivonne asked me if she could come, I didn’t want to discourage her.  How many times are people passionate about something and others throw cold water on them to dampen their spirits, to tell them what is “reasonable” to do?  Well, the heck with that!  I think if Ivonne wanted to be there, then Ivonne should be there.  No matter what, she could create value for herself, even if it was just by watching, even if she wasn’t yet able to do everything presented.  Also, who am I to determine Ivonne’s limitations?  I think Ivan has proven to me that I don’t even know my own limitations, so how can I possibly presume to determine them for another human being.  So I decided to encourage Ivonne to join me.  Maybe I could have mentioned that there is another class on Wednesday that might be less intimidating, or demanding, but even if I had, I have a feeling that Ivonne wouldn’t have backed down from the challenge.

So Ivonne came and told me about a quarter of the way in that it was way over her head.  Oh well!  She hung in there, did what she could, and even got in front of the class (Igor was kind enough to stand beside her for some support) just like us regular students.

I love her courage.

At the end of the class, Ivonne shared with me that she felt a little defeated, just like I had felt after Marieta’s class on Monday.  But, also like me, she knew it would pass.

What a Samurai!

I’m just so proud of my new friend.  She is open to the full experience of life and even the threat of potentially failing in the moment doesn’t deter her.  I am excited for her as she prepares for the Dancesport Jam in Tucson, Arizona next month.  I’m also excited for me because I get to watch her journey as she kicks butt and takes names and because she is my friend.

So for Tuesday, January 17, 2012, Ivonne, you are my hero.  Just thought you should know.  Love, Stef