Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

My bathroom

The exercise mentioned in the blog post “Once More With Feeling”

I set my alarm for three minutes and walk to the bathroom.  I look into my own eyes.  Almost immediately the tears begin pool.

Why is this so scary, just to be present with myself?

I have to keep taking deep breaths and remind myself to stay present.  I already want to disassociate.  It would be much more comfortable to look at the eyes before me rather than really see into them.

I am reminded of looking at but not into Ivan’s eyes.  I’ve been hiding out.

I promise myself to stay present.  “I am here, I am here.  I’m not going to leave you.” I mentally tell myself.

What I see is a lot of pain.  It’s blocking the view to my inner light.  More tears fall.

A scene from The Neverending Story flashes in my mind’s eye.  The one when Atreyu faces the Gate of Riddles, also called the Sphinxes.  The scene creeeped me out as a kid.  Why am I thinking of it now?  I vaguely remember the scene has something to do with a person looking into themselves.

My alarm rings.  I’ve made it.  What did I experience?  What does it mean?

Listening to my intuition, I decide to search for a video of the scene from the movie.  You can view the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCLAduDXPpQ

It was dead on.

The Sphinxes, it is explained, are a gate.  Those who wish to pass must feel their own worth or else the Sphinxes’ eyes will open and blast the passerby to smithereens.

Atreyu watches as knight approaches in fancy armor.  It doesn’t help.  The Sphinxes can see straight into a man’s heart.  The knight is blasted to smithereens.

Atreyu takes his chance.  He is just a boy with no protection or armor.  He approaches the gate and things seem to be going well until he sees the fate of the knight up close.  He begins to doubt.  He has forsaken confidence in himself and Sphinxes sense it.  Their eyes begin to open.

But Atreyu digs down deep and with everything he’s got the makes a run for it.  He makes it through the gate.

Staring at myself in the mirrior I am on the same journey as Atreyu.  I, like Atreyu, allow doubt to erode my confidence.  But I, like Atreyu, dug down deep and stayed with myself.  I made it through the experience just as he made it though the gate.

Now on the other side I see that it is up to me to claim that I am worthy and to live from that space moving forward.  And if I find myself doubting, I can re-choose something different.  I can choose confidence.

This is what I discovered when I took the time to be present with myself for a measly three minutes.  It’s pretty profound if you ask me.

So now, what did you discover?

Once More, With Feeling!

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Dance Starz Studio

Private lesson with Ivan

I’m thinking about changing the name of this blog to “Ivan Says.” Just kidding. But in all sincerity, having Ivan as my instructor and the conversations we have on lessons are changing my life. The things he tells me help me to become a better dancer, partner, and person. So be prepared to read alot about what “Ivan Says” because it’s valuable stuff and I think worth sharing.

I arrive to my lesson today and Ivan says, “Let’s just dance.” I’m amenable (of course!) and we begin to Cha Cha. I’m still working on getting onto my own feet, cleaning up foot work, finding my center, staying on balance. I’m “in my head” trying so hard to do everything right, even while having a good time just being with my friend. But you see, when my attention is in my head with my myriad of thoughts, it can’t be elsewhere.

We work on cross-overs, trying to get the arm placement right but something is missing. There’s no “pop” or “pizazz” or excitement in the movement. Yawn.

Ivan reminds me to extend in five directions like a star, to stand up straight and lift my spine, and I do this. The picture is prettier but again, the movement empty.

I’m still not doing something.

Oh, I’m not looking at myself in the mirror.

I make no eye contact.

I am avoiding connection.

“Look at yourself in the mirror.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Don’t be scary.” (Translated this means don’t be scared)

“Uh huh, right.”

Ivan grabs my hands and says, “When you gonna do it? In a year? No, now!”

He pulls over one of the dummies used to display ballroom gowns in the studio.

“This is Linda Dean, a judge. You gonna see her. Let’s get close.”

Ivan positions us next to the dummy. It is an inanimate object but I am still feeling timid. I fear getting in the space of strangers. I don’t want to be “too much” or up in somebody’s grill. You see, I was always told I was “too much” so I’ve learned to tone it down. No, that’s a lie. I’ve learned to reign in myself so much that I can be invisible when I want to. I’ve learned to not to be the center of attention. I’ve learned to dim my light so that everyone else can shine, so that things are “fair.”

But this defense mechanism isn’t going to work for me in this situation and I really want to become the dancer I sense inside. So I decide that I’m going to act “as if.” I’m going to be confident, right here in this moment, and look at the pretend face of the judge. I’m going to direct my energy straight to her, unabashedly, freely, joyfully.

And I do.

We practice it a few times doing a cross-over and Ivan is pleased.

“Okay, now we do it to Marieta.” We will know if we are successful if she has some reaction in response to us.

We walk right over to Marieta and bam! She physically jolts. I feel Ivan hugging me in celebration. We nailed it!

So far this is shaping up to be a great lesson. I am feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin, less “scary”, and more willing to let it all hang out.

But as we start to move again, my steps are riddled with errors. One of the things I often do is connect then pull away. Ivan may lead a turn and I stay with him to a point but then my arms become noodles. The next minute I’m grasping, pulling, frantically trying to find the connection again. I invade his space rather than maintaining my own area. I’m late. Ivan has moved on to the next step and I’m one fraction of a second behind.

This process is unconscious. I have been advised of it before (many times) but it still continues to haunt me.

So we’re working on connection and Ivan is talking about the fact that I’m not staying with him. He demonstrates how it should feel and then how it feels when I pull back and break the connection. He’s done this with me before so why am I still doing it? As a kinetic learner, after the demonstration I am able to recreate the connection. We begin to move in unison.

We close our eyes. The world fades away. I have no cues to go on except to feel Ivan inviting me to move through the connection. I’m feeling, not thinking, and things are flowing. My attention has shifted from my head where I “know” everything to my body and heart. They have their own form of wisdom found in the expanse devoid of words. I am in the moment feeling, being connected, and nothing else. I am no longer an “I.”

The moment I think I know what Ivan will do next because we have done the step 100 times before “I” shows up again, my brain interferes with the flow, and I start to misstep. If I stay connected we move like silk.

Ivan spins me but because my eyes are closed I don’t know exactly where his hand is. But I’m reaching for him, seeking the connection and make one by finding his upper arm. The unexpected touch is exhilarating. I’ve stayed connected and best of all Ivan is excited as well. He was thrilled that we were really connecting and his body reacted as he got goosebumps on his arm from the touch.

“You are like the plug and I am the outlet.” He says.

From now on we are to practice first “plugging in” before we take a single step. I don’t often do this, and we usually just start moving, but when we do take the time to do this, or rather, create the space with awareness, the dancing is on an entire different level. It transcends steps and figures. It is something authentic and wonderful, more than the sum of its parts.

We practice just making the initial connection with hands as if we are going to start dancing. Once Ivan is satisfied that I am connecting he gets creative.

“Ok, now I have no hands.”

I have to connect with his upper arm. But he takes that away from me soon enough. Now I only have his shoulders. He signals me to turn but I’m slow in the uptake. It is more difficult but still possible to respond to his invitation.

“But I not caring I have no arms. I am dancing with a girl and she is responding to me. I feel so good about myself.”

He puts my hands on his head. We dance this way feeling the connection.

“See, even with the head!”

Truth be told, no actual touching is required. At the beginning of the lesson Ivan did some Rumba with me using just his body to signal where I should go next. It was trickier to follow to be sure, but so amazing to feel the energy of it. I had to completely tune into Ivan’s energy and this left no space for errant thoughts or worries. Just as when I close my eyes, focusing on the connection suddenly makes things crystal clear.

And you know what, I’m dancing better according to Ivan when I do this. No worrying about the steps or my balance or pointing my toes, just feeling.

“We are all forgetting this. We are all forgetting to feeling. Me, you, Marieta, professionals, everybody.”

He taps my back and my chest three times with the palms of his hands, “Feel! Feel! Feel!”

Ivan is a wizard breaking the curse.

Didn’t I spend a good portion of my life learning how to block feeling? To avoid the difficult emotions like sadness, or grief, or fear, or anger I learned how to numb myself through food and distractions. I’ve learned how to tune out. I have been practicing how to appear like I am present but my essence, my soul, my consciousness have vacated the premises. My true self is floating in the ethers away from the pain and harsh realities of life.

It works to a point but I miss out on fully feeling my life. Life is flat, devoid of good feelings along with the difficult ones. I don’t taste my nourishment. I am living in the future or the past which don’t exist. I am disconnected from my surroundings, from my body, and from other people. I am disconnected from myself.

Now the secret to my success is to be present. 100% present in my body. 100% present in my heart. Feeling life. Experiencing it fully. Not analyzing it, labeling it, or judging the experience, just being in it as it is. I can’t explain how freeing this is. You’ll have to experience it for yourself.

But I think this is why ballroom dancing is so addicting for me. How often in our daily lives are we really 100% present with one another? How many times are we in a conversation but instead of being with the other person, we are thinking about the bills, or doing the dishes, or determining whether what the other person is saying or doing is good or bad, right or wrong?

Metaphorically we are dancing alongside our partner but not with them. We are cheating ourselves and them of the gift of connection.

Ivan was so happy to be dancing with me today because I was being a present partner (for the most part). It is easy to slip back into old habits via my analyzing brain and these are the moments I break connection. But being with another human being, truly just being with another person, is a precious and wonderful experience. I’m so glad I get to share it with Ivan and vicariously with you.

I’m still new at this connection thing so I’m going to begin to consciously practice it. There is a great book by Cheri Huber called What You Practice Is What You Have (actually ALL of her books are excellent and I highly recommend them). I’m going to practice connecting so that I will have more connection in my life. But I need to start small. I’m going to connect with myself first because really, if I can’t connect with myself, know my own feelings, hurts, wants, and wishes, how can I ever really connect with someone else?

I’ve devised a little exercise to jump start the process. I’m going to look into my own eyes in front of the mirror for 3 minutes. I will set a timer. And to keep myself honest about doing this exercise I will post what I discover before the end of the week.

So I now challenge you show up as a bigger player in the game of your life. Together let’s create a more present and connected world one person at a time, starting with ourselves. I invite you to join me in practicing awareness and connection, in dancing, in relationships, and in daily business by participating in the same exercise that I’ve committed to do. I know that only a courageous 1% of you will actually do this, but for those of you who are ready for a breakthrough and do participate, I want to hear about your experience. I know we can do it!


Halleljuah! And, You Have A Weight Problem

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Allegre Studio


Private Lesson with Ivan

There are two ways to learn something: repetition, reptition, reptition and emotional invovlement.  The cool thing about having an emotional reaction while learning something new is that it creates transformational change.  This means that a person can make a quantum leap in a matter of seconds if they are willing to tolerate how uncomfortable all that emotion can be.

Although I have experienced both types of learning during my years of dancing, sometimes the only way to really “get” something is to repeat it 1000 times.  And sometimes one type of learning translates into the other.  Such has been the case for me in ballroom specificially in terms of changing my weight completely from one foot to the other.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my instructors tell me, “You’re not on your foot,”  “You are between your feet, that’s why you can’t move,” “You have to change your weight completely.”  Literally it may have been 1000 times so far and I anticipate I will hear it for the rest of my dancing career.

Each time I hear the admonition, I process it intellectually but somehow this doesn’t translate into my body.  If I stay completely present and focused on this one aspect of moving right after I’ve been reminded of this “bad habit” I can overcome it.  But it requires a lot of attention.  I get easily distracted by all the other pieces of information I’m processing.

So theoretically, the fact that I must change my weight completely before I take the next step is something I “know,” but based on results (often harsh but always fair) I don’t really know it at all because I don’t always do it.

But I had a little breakthrough today.  I finally heard the message with all of me. It was one of those moments of arriving at the same place and knowing it for the first time. Here’s what happened:

Today we again worked on the Latin dances (yay!).  During the lesson Ivan was throwing so much information at me, my brain was overloaded.  It was like it hit capacity and then nothing he said made sense.  My brains had become scrambled eggs!

But it felt familiar.  I haven’t felt this way in a while but I did feel this way when I first began ballroom.  The memory jog made me realize some specific reasons I now want to do the Latin dances – they are the same reasons I started dancing again in the first place.

Firstly, they will heal my body.  I am going to shrink because I have to to be able to do the jive (I’m tired just thinking about doing this dance.)  Also, I’m going to have to have strong legs and core to hold myself properly for the Rumba and Cha Cha.  In addition, my cardiovascular system will improve efficiency so I can make it through the Samba.

Secondly, I will get the opportunity to channel pieces of me that I’ve never let out completely.  Sassy, Sexy, even Angry Stefanie will be invited to join the party.  You really can’t fake this in Latin.  I can kinda get away with being a “nice girl” in American Rhythm, but in Latin I will have to be a woman.

Finally, they provide the opportunity to be a beginner and to face a different set of challenges than I face in American dances.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m a creature who likes comfort.  I like being good at things.  I like it when things come easily.  I don’t like messing up.  I don’t like it when I don’t catch onto something right away.

Or so I thought…

You see, those things feel good for a moment or two but the feeling fades away.  Things just mean more when you have to work for them.

I see that on a deeper level, I love the challenge.  I love stretching myself to see how far I can really go.  I love rising beyond what’s expected.  There is no better feeling than pouring my entire self into something.  It is exciting.

I just have to get used to the idea that I must let go of being “good” which is comfortable so that I can be “great.”  That is the scary part – the part that feels like being a trapeze artist without a net!

Because I am in this new beginner space the dynamic with my teacher has also changed.  Usually he tells me something or shows me a step and I am able to make it happen in a very short time.  But with this new style and new steps and my brain becomming scrambled eggs, it is taking a little while longer to “get” things.  I think Ivan must have noticed it too.  Katie and Marieta have both shared that sometimes when they are working on a new step that isn’t coming easily or quickly a relieved Ivan will say, “Hallelujah!” when they finally get it.  Well, I got my first “Hallelujah!”  like “Finally!” today and it felt great!  (Usually I get, “Ole!” when I do something right and he’s happy with me! lol.)

But you know what, it is okay.  I love being flooded with more than I can absorb.  I love that my instructor is sharing information with me so abundantly.  Even if I only absorb just a little bit, drop by drop, over time I will become a deep pool.  I refuse to put the pressure on myself anymore to become this overnight.  Besides, what fun would that be?  I’d miss the entire journey!

So even amidst being inundated with information, I finally “got” something beyond just the step.

We were working on spot turns in which require me to get completely on one leg then turn.  I wasn’t getting it.  I couldn’t maintain my balance and do this little swoosh with my foot to make the next step pretty.  Ivan broke it down for me.

“Whenever you slow, or can’t turning it is always a weight problem.”

Yeah, I know!  I now have both a mental problem and a weight problem!  But what he really meant is that the problem is that I’m not moving the weight of my body where it needs to be.  It’s something I’ve heard a million times, but the million and first time I heard it today produced a breakthrough!

I finally (Hallelujah!) committed my weight to one leg then the other.  I finally (Hallelujah!) completed one movement before starting the next.  I did all this while holding my spine straight.

Suddenly, transformationally, things became easier and more controlled.  The repeition had reached a tipping point and became transformational change.  Instantly Ivan was able to lead me in an under arm turn with one finger!  It felt like velvet effortlessness.  I was on my own two feet, dancing myself, carrying my own weight and placing it properly.  It was a magical moment of confidence and centeredness, and dare I say it, perfection.

I think it will take a few more repetitions to fully integrate this into my muscle memory but now that I’ve done it once and know what is possible I will be able to find it more and more easily over time.  Soon it will become second nature.  It will be a good habit that I have cultivated.

Now that I’ve told you my story it’s your turn.  You see, believe it or not, this blog isn’t just about me.  I am curious as to the experience of other dancers out there and believe there is enormous value in sharing our experience.  I want to invite you to an ongoing dialog about the process of being a dancer.  This conversation on my blog so far has been pretty one sided so I thought I’d ask some questions of my readers and learn a little more about you.

We all have a story and every story is worth voicing.  I’m interested in hearing about it.  So, to kick things off, I have a few questions.

Is there something you have heard over and over in your dancing practice or your life that you know intellectually but doesn’t translate into action?  Why do you think that is?  Also, did you ever have a moment where things finally “clicked” and if so, what happened when it did?  How did that make you feel?

I can’t wait to hear what you have to share!

Ole! and Halleljuah!

Just Breathe

Monday, December 12, 2011


Allegre studio with Ivan

At the start of our lesson Ivan asks me “What we gonna work on,” (remember, he’s from Bulgaria and English is like a 5th language)

“Latin,” I reply.

“Why you like Latin? What is different for you than American?”

I have to think about the question.  Since I began watching ballroom I’ve always been fascinated by the Latin and Rhythm dances, specifically Rumba and Cha Cha.  I love the sleekness of the Latin style, the control, the passion, and the play of femininity and masculinity.  I see the Latin dances as just ever so elegant as compared to the American style, though I love both and am certainly more practiced and comfortable with American Rhythm dances (except the bolero and I swear my samba is getting better!)  I think it all boils down to personal preference, but for me, Latin dances are the bee’s knees.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well done Smooth dance and International Standard is the epitome of grace.  I have come to appreciate these dances more and more over time.  But so far in my experience I take these dances as I take medicine….because I believe they are good for me, but not necessarily because I love them or me dancing them.  I think you can see it on my face in the picture below….blech! Medicine!

And, as most of us ballroom dancers know, our preference changes over time.  I’ll probably be loving the Viennese Waltz later this year – well, you never know, it could happen!

So anyways, I’m curious as to why Ivan is questioning me about my newly expressed desire to study Latin dances.  It seems he thinks I only recently decided that I liked them.

“No no,” I explain, “I’ve liked the Latin style since my first teacher and he started to teach me the beginning steps but then left.  Then with my next teacher, I asked him to teach me too, but not at first.  We always seemed to work on American Rhythm.”

He says, “Ah, well if you like Latin, if that is what is inside, in your heart, you have to do Latin.”  He says it like its not even an option not to do it.  Like this is who I am inside, really.

I just don’t think most adult Americans ask to learn Latin dances and the instructors I’ve had had more experience with American styles so they were more comfortable with them.  But always in the back of my mind I’ve wanted to explore this style and after my lesson tonight I believe once again my unconscious is leading me toward the experiences I most need.

So we begin.  It is awkward.  I don’t feel on balance.  Ivan stops me every few steps to correct something.  I can’t even walk right!  Have to suck in my stomach, hold myself up, don’t lean, don’t collapse.  Take small steps, rotate the hips, keep the body forward, keep my shoulders level.  Straighten the legs!  Let’s not even broach the subject of arms, or facial expression….

I’m getting caught up in my “mental problem.”

Ok, refocus.

It is hard.  It is not coming easily.  Was learning the other dances ever this difficult?

I have to say that I really, really, really want to be this creature that I see doing the Latin rumba.  She is confident and sexy and strong.  She is in control, cool, calm, and collected.  She is feminine, interesting, engaging and playful.  Basically, she’s someone you can’t keep your eyes off.  That is really why I want to learn these dances.  I can play this part that I am in no way, shape, or form comfortable playing in “real life.”  It is obvious to me that learning Latin is my vehicle for becoming this person hiding out inside me.  She’s been stifled for quite some time.

As we continue Ivan is coming down a bit harder on me and seems more stern than usual.  I know that this is because he sees potential in me to be really good (or at least this is a story I make up about it that works for me.)  I don’t want to be average in my dancing, I want to be extraordinary (don’t we all?) and I’m willing to work very hard to get there.

Now what endpoint that will satisfy me as finally being “extraordinary” is kinda of a ridiculous idea.  I mean, what am I aiming for here?  What would “prove” that I had become this Latin creature?  Winning a scholarship?  Dancing in a showcase?  Doing the fan 1000 times in a week?  I’m not sure.  I’m just sure that I want to become excellent at this and will not settle for average.

Ivan tells me that I must have a different mentality when approaching Latin.  I must be stronger because it is a more exacting style.  I will have to do the same steps over and over and over and over to really become great.  That doesn’t bother me.  I always seem to be able to discover more and feel more about my body and I can do this more deeply with steps that are more practiced so they are incorporated into my muscle memory.  It is endlessly fascinating.

What concerns me is my physical ability to do this.  And, I’m 33 years old.  I’m not going to be some Latin professional superstar.  What in the heck am I working so hard for?

Could this cutsie-woo gal really be a Latin dancer?  She doesn’t look anything like Karina Smirnoff!

You know what, I don’t exactly know.  All I know is that to move like those Latin ladies move is something I want.  And I am willing to pay the prices to make that happen as best as I am able.  I am willing to drop this weight.  I am willing to eat on my plan.  I am willing to go to dance class and be uncomfortable and be sore and be out of breath.  I am willing to mess up and look bad.  I’m willing to take lessons and practice on my own.

I’m not willing to settle on this one.  Don’t know why but I’m not.

But during the lesson I haven’t had time to process all this and my “mental problem” is rearing its ugly head.  I am feeling overwhelmed for sure.  I want more time to practice each step that Ivan is throwing at me.  There is no way to absorb everything much less actually get my body to do it.

So about this time I’m overloaded with new steps, new positions my body needs to create, and my instructor begins to talk to me about breathing.  Seems simple, right?

But it is at this point that I lose it.

I can take all this difficult stuff, I’m used to it.  But breathing?  That thing I do all day long?  Well, it is freaking me out.  I absolutely do not know how to breathe properly.  Nor do I use my breath to help me move.  Ivan demonstrates how sharp staccato breaths help him do sharp staccato movements.  He talks about Karate masters and how they use the breath to channel their movements.  It makes sense in my logical brain but my emotional brain is on overdrive.

How am I supposed to control my breath or otherwise use it when it is all I can do to huff and puff just to get through a few minutes of dancing?  I’m actually embarrassed by how winded I get.  For reasons I don’t understand I begin to to tear up.

“If you can’t breathe properly, you can’t dance,”  he tells me.  One of his coaches shared it with him.  If I want to be a higher level dancer (and I do) then I need to practice this stuff.

It feels like a fundamental truth to me.  And I do recall that my very first instructor used to talk about it as well.  He said that I was “panic breathing” and that I needed to learn to control it.

The tears began to fall.  There is no apparent reason for this emotion but it flows through me, I helpless to stop it.  In fact, why even try?  I know it to be a release.  I’m letting something go, even if I don’t know what it is and this is good.

I remember when I first began ballroom and my instructor then would always cajole me “More hips, more hips!”  I practically bawled moving them so much during multiple lessons.  Now I can move them just fine, even joyfully, but I had to cry my way through that one.  Thankfully most lessons are not so emotionally charged but every once in a while they really are. Plus, there is a lot of emotion stored up in this body of mine and I suspect as I continue this journey, many will be shaken up.

So it’s an interesting turn of events.  I surprise myself in wanting so fiercely to begin to study the Latin dances in earnest and in also wanting to veer toward a less comfortable style.  It would be easier, I suspect, and feel safer for me personally to stick with Rhythm dances.  I already have some level of competence in them and could build upon that.  But I’m choosing instead to take a road less travelled and step into unknown territory.

Even I can’t explain what makes me tick!

I hope you’ll join me as the journey continues.  There’s sure to be more crying, laughing, insights and yes, breathing along the way.

And one final note…

As emotional and difficult and wonderful as this journey in the ballroom world may be for me, I want to acknowledge that I am lucky to be able to take it.  I was reminded of this fact while talking to my boss who has had multiple back surgeries, replaced joints, etcetera etcetera and who lives in constant pain every day.  He still chooses to be a happy person and a contributor.  This is inspiring to me.  I was also deeply moved this past weekend while watching a local dance competition (post about it with photos is forthcoming) and there on the dance floor was a young man with some sort of physical disability.  He had constrictures in his hands and couldn’t move them properly as well as leg issues.  He was out there dancing just the same.   He is my hero.  There are so many people living with tough issues, physical or otherwise, it reminds me to be grateful that I get to participate in this inner “struggle.”

Peace out!

Man, need to work on my facial expressions! OOOOO! So funny!

Thank You For Being My Friend

Sunday, December 11

Sunburst World Promotions Competition

Scottsdale, Arizona

Kierland Resort

Generally I view people as either players or spectators in the game of life.  Usually I like to be a player but today I was genuinely grateful to be a spectator for two of my dear dancing friends, Katie and Randall as they danced their hearts out at the Sunburst competition this weekend.

I met Katie because she is also a student of my instructor, Ivan.  She is the one I mentioned in my first post who has shed 140 pounds.  This was her second ballroom competition and I couldn’t be more proud of her.  She has already improved since I saw her dance at her first competition only 3 months ago at the Galaxy Dance Festival in September.

This is Katie (with Ivan).  Isn’t she gorgeous?

I met Randall at the Galaxy competition and it was also his first competition.  He dances with the lovely Nona who I have also taken lessons with on occasion.  He shared with me that the reason he started dancing was for his daughter’s wedding.  When their performance moved the crowd to tears, he realized the power of dance as a form of expression.  He’s been dancing ever since!

Here’s Randall with Nona.  Isn’t he manly?

I realized watching my friends that I was satisfied just being there to support them.  I chose not to dance in the competition for a variety of reasons but was still able to come in the afternoon.  I joined the table and cheered them on.  I felt like I was with my second family and just happy to be there in their presence.

I admit, after watching a few dances and especially when songs I like were played, part of me wanted to jump up and dance.  But sometimes it is great to enjoy others in the spotlight.  I don’t know many other arenas in my life where I am so at peace with this.  Usually I want to stand out in some good way and be recognized.  This day, it was simply amazing to celebrate wins with my friends and love on them.

Plus, if I hadn’t come, I’d have missed out on some of Ivan’s crazy antics.  He is seriously like a puppy dog and always a source of great entertainment.  On this particular day, after his month long sojourn to Bulgaria and getting married and eating all the delicious food available and missing out on so much dance practice, I don’t think his pants were particularly comfortable.  I say this because he unbuttoned his pants after each heat while waiting at the table.  Now to me he looks absolutely great; thin, athletic, fit.  But he must have felt the need to relieve some pressure.

In any case, Ivan proceeded to zip up his pants in the middle of a cha cha heat right there on the dance floor with Katie!  It was the only one she got placed 3rd and we all agree it was probably because of Ivan’s wardrobe malfunction.

I think this sums it up:  Cost of gas to venue, $15.  Cost of admission to Sunburst $30.  Seeing your ballroom instructor have an entire conversation with Bob Powers with his fly down, priceless.

But beyond priceless was spending such special time with my friends.  I even got to dance later that night during the evening session.  Ivan and I did the running man, some break dancing, the Lamabda (my first time learning that one), and even the Roger Rabbit…basically anything and everything besides ballroom.  It was a blast letting loose like that!

I will leave you with a song that sums up the point of today’s post which is dedicated to my friends:


Panic Attack

Imperial Dance Studio

International Standard and Latin Group Dances


I arrive at the studio with water and Gatorade in hand (I’m prepared this time!) expecting another butt-whooping.  Trust me, I did get one, but it was a little different pace today as Igor instructed both classes and it was my first time having him as a teacher.

We work on the Waltz.  Igor moves gracefully across the floor demonstrating various steps, proper swing action, and finally creates a small series of figures for us to dance.  We do a natural turn (I think that’s what it’s called), and then some move that involves brushing my legs and feet together (no idea what it is called) and then stepping forward, then a reverse turn (I think), and then disaster!

This move I certainly know the name of….it is my nemesis!

duh duh duhhhh (menacing music)

The Heel Turn.

Okay, listen.  I’m no expert in International Standard dances.  I learned (and I use this term loosely here) all of ’em in about 2 weeks, maybe in 5 lessons spread between all of the dances, and maybe 2 of them touched on the heel turn specifically.  I learned them for the competition in San Diego since I was competing in so many heats.  So anyways, I’m not comfortable nor practiced in them.  I just kinda move as best I can they way I think I’m supposed to based on how it looks on other people.

So here I am in class surrounded by all these amazing students, some of whom just returned from kicking butt at a competition in Vegas (congratulations guys!), and I am being asked to do a heel turn.  One of the basic figures in this style of dance, I know, but not one that I’ve figured out.

I begin to panic.  I almost began to laugh uncontrollably.  Instead, I swallow hard and ask the instructor, “Excuse me, but, um, how do you make that turn?”

Have you ever jumped into a situation without knowing all the information?  Or taken on a task which turns out to be more than expected?  Well, taking this class feels like jumping off a high diving board into a pool of water.  In this moment of sheer panic it feels like my stomach has dropped through the floor while a stone has suddently lodged in my throat.  In this moment, I don’t think I am up to the task.  What am I going to do?

I do what I can do which is take a breath.  In this breath I remember that I really don’t know what the bleep I am doing.  I just don’t have the much experience.  My brain is primed to launch that “mental problem” program but this time I am aware enough to pull the plug before it gets too far.  I remember that I’m a baby beginner in this arena.  I remember all the stuff I wrote about being kind to myself in moments like this.  I remember that it is okay to mess up, look stupid, be wrong.  I remember I declared I was willing to accept these prices to get where I want to go.

So I chuckle to myself and do my best.

But the interesting thing is that even through I’m struggling, and falling, and off balance, and really not making the move look anything like this:


the instructor tells the class at large, “Good job.  Beautiful.”

I don’t believe him for a second!

I know that I’m not doing it right.  I know I am doing it so wrong.  He makes it look so easy and effortless, but I’m clunking around, sometimes not even know which direction in which I am supposed to clunk.

Wait a minute.  Didn’t I just make a case for how inexperienced I am at all this?  Why am I now making judgements as if I knew anything about this?

But I’m convinced.  I’m a failure at this heel turn thing.  I just can’t do it.

So anyways, we conclude our lessons and he says at the end, again to the class in general, “I am impressed.  You guys did well.”

I am on the precipice, ready to jump into the abyss of negativity when a small voice halts me.  I am about to negate his comment, assume he is referring to the other students in the class but certainly not to me because all the evidence I’ve gathered about myself during this lesson in my sick head with my “mental problem” program says that I’m in over my head, don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m doing it poorly.

I have been indulging in the comparison game.  Not only comparing myself to others in the room, but to the professional teaching me, and the “perfect me” in my head that I can never measure up to.  I notice that for me, sadly, there is something comfortable about feeling that I am “less than” others.  I choose the devil I know rather than risk actually feeling good about myself.  Now isn’t that interesting?

But then the voice whispers, “Why not be impressed with you just as much as anyone else?”

It is kind a ridiculous if you think about it.  Why do I assume I’m excluded from any postitive comment automatically?  Why not believe the best about myself?

Maybe the movement I am making, as awkward as it is, is stellar for someone who has had as little experience as I have had with it.  Isn’t this a valid possibility?  Wouldn’t making up a story that went like this serve me better?  Since I’m making it all up anyways, why not make up a good one?

So my new story goes like this – I’m doing great.  I’m showing up and taking on a big challenge.  I’m hanging in there and doing the best I can in the moment.  And because of all this, I’m going to get better, and stronger, and most importantly, more comfortable with myself.  The heel turn, it will come in time with practice.  There is no need to worry about not getting it just now.  And you know what, my instructor said he was impressed and that the class did beautifully.  I must be doing something right!  Hey, I’m doing some things right!

I don’t know about you, but this story makes me feel encouraged.  I now feel like I can face the next challenge that comes my way.  Good thing I figured it out because I have another lesson tomorrow!  Woo Hoo!  Details to follow.

Stopping And Starting

Saturday, December 10th 2011

Dance Starz studio


Before I get to the meat of this post I wanted to first say a huge thank you to everyone who has emailed me, commented, liked, or read my blog!  I have been getting such encouraging feedback and I can’t express my sincere gratitude for this support.  It has been amazing to hear from you and really exciting for me, like jump-up-and-down exciting, so thanks!!!

Also, I wanted to share some news.  In the spirit of being vulnerable and transparent as discussed in my last post, I wanted to get real and let you know where I am with the weight loss goal.  It will provide me with much needed accountability knowing that someone out there is watching me.  I will update my progress on a biweekly basis.

I am down from my highest weight of 313 lbs.

I am, as of the writing of this post at 268.2 lbs.

My goal is 140 lbs.

As you can see, there are three people on the dance floor when I dance with Ivan.  I have a 128.2 pound person on my back.  Time for her to get off.

To do this I have a plan.  1) Dance as much as possible taking private lessons, group lessons, and fitness classes.  2) Eat less calories than I expend each day.

I originally did a medically supervised plan but a person can only live so long on bars and shakes.  It wasn’t pratical for the long term and I gave it up.  I’m proud that I didn’t put the weight back on, but I also haven’t been dropping it like I need to for my goal in July, 2012.  I liked the convenience of the shakes and bars so have signed up for a service that mails me meals each week.  I got my first package today.  So far, so good.  It is real food so there will be variety this time around but I get to keep the convenience of grab and go.

Also, I wanted to address the name of my blog.  I have had a few comments about the name, in particular asking me if it is really the best thing to be putting out there saying that I am the biggest girl in the ballroom.  Firstly, people have pointed out that words are powerful and the ones we choose create our experience.  Also, if I am of the mind to shed this weight and thus no longer be the biggest girl dancing why make it the name of my blog?

My response is twofold.  First I’m just calling a spade a spade.  This is my reality at the moment.  Second, the title will work for me even after I am smaller in size because I still intend to have the “biggest” personality, “biggest” success, and “biggest”expression even after the shift in my physical appearance.

So with housekeeping complete, onward to my most recent dance lesson.

We begin with Latin rumba.  This is a style different than Ameican rumba and I am less practiced in the movements.  It is a gorgeous dance, probably my favorite to watch and thus I am very motivated to learn how to do it.  But I keep getting stuck at various points in the figures.  Usually this is because body weight hasn’t been completely transferred from one foot to the other and so both legs are supporting the body making it impossible to move the leg without losing balance.  Also, I am in heels which doesn’t help.

What I discovered is that I start and stop my body instead of allowing it to continuously flow.  This makes things difficult in that I am stopping my momentum then having to start it back up again.  I am using every muscle fiber to try to overcome Newton’s first law of motion which states that a body in motion tends to stay in motion.  When Ivan showed me how abuptly I was halting my hip rotation, for instance, and then demonstrated how to keep them moving, it instantly became easier to take the next step.

Now I don’t know about you, but I see this as a metaphor for life.  There is a saying that they way you do anything is the way you do everything.  How often in my life do I try to control whatever process I am engaged in, taking fearful little steps here and there, expending enormous amounts of effort starting and stopping when I could simply relax into the process and allow my momentum to propel me along, allowing life to flow?  Probably more often than I even realize.  This habit is so unconscious that I didn’t even realize I was doing it while dancing.  I only took note of the difficulties I was having, how I was getting stuck.  I didn’t realize the difficulty was my own creation born from a need to control.  I am just getting in my own way.

It seems I always end these blog posts with a “Doogie Howser” type life lesson.  Today, I don’t know what to write.  I’m not sure what to do about this discovery.  In fact, I’m not certain that there really is anything to do about it execpt keep moving.  It all comes back to the idea of really letting go.  So scary, yet in reality it would probably make my dancing life easier and more enjoyable.  The task before me is to drop all the pretense of working hard (because it is always hard, duh!), being great, doing it right, being perfect (whatever that is) and just to be me, knowing in my bones that I am enough.  It will take some courage to embrace this.  And when I do, world watch out!

I’m now wondering what it is gonna take to embrace this….

You Have A Mental Problem



Lesson with Ivan

It is ironic that in my last post I mentioned that for me dancing is somewhat of a spiritual practice. I arrived at my lesson with Ivan today expecting the usual work out and practicing of technique but the work we did today was so much deeper than that, and for me, potentially life-changing.

Today Ivan and I talked about the essence of dance, why people even do it. The reason, I think, is self-expression. Deep down we all want to be seen, heard, acknowledged (I certainly do). Dance is one medium for this. But many of us (me included) have learned to cow ourselves in, edit ourselves, hold back, make sure that everything we say or do is perfect or politically correct or socially acceptable. Now I’m not advocating for people to do whatever they want without considering the consequences or how it may affect others but I do think holding back has prices, steep prices, that I’ve been paying to my detriment.

The feedback Ivan has given me is that it’s killing me. When I hold back, I kill the movement in my body that could be. I stop myself for fear of looking bad, doing it wrong, being ridiculed, or to prevent people from judging me. I’m afraid of being vulnerable and really letting go. If I did, everyone would think I was too much or a diva or making a fool of myself. They would see my imperfections, and no one wants to see that, right?

The reality is, however, that holding back does me no favors. Why can’t I just embrace the idea that I’m gonna look bad when I’m first learning a step and even when praticing it? I have to experiment to find the right placement of my foot, my balance, how to settle into the hip, and not every try is going to look good, espeically right off the bat. I am probably going to be doing something “wrong” too. I don’t know how to do all this dance stuff, that’s why I’m taking lessons, so to expect myself to do it all “right” is an impossible expectation that sets me up to fail every time. Finally, people will judge me. We all judge each other all the time. It is a a fact of the human experience. I have to accept this fact and go be me and dance anyways.

I have to think of it like this: how would I be toward a child learning to dance? Would I expect a 3 year old to do the steps perfectly every time? Would I berate her for doing it “wrong?” Would I yell at her as I so often do to myself in my own head? Or would I encourage her, tell her what she is doing right, praise her for her progress and forgive any backtracking? Would I think she was precious and darling just as she was and value her for no other reason that that? Would I acknowledge the effort she put forth? Probably so.

But for me this is not as simple as it sounds. I get really caught up in my head about how I look, how I’m doing everything wrong, how I’ll never get it right, how my body isn’t a “dancer’s” body. As Ivan says it, I have a mental problem.

Now you have to understand that Ivan is from Bulgaria so English is a second language. Sometimes the way he says things cracks me up. Usually you tell someone they have a mental problem if they are psychotic, but in this case I get his point. I psych myself out of owning my beauty, my greatness, my expressiveness before I even take the first step. I am looking to him for feedback if I’m doing okay rather than simply dancing and loving it and staying centered in myself.

This is tricky too. I have to stay centered in myself but not get so caught up in my own experience that I forget to connect with my partner. Ivan says this is selfish, that I’m not sharing myself with him or the audience when I do this. Also, I have to dance myself, be on my own two feet, and not rely on him to pull me or push me, but still stay in the dance with him, simply responding to his invitation to move in a particular direction and choosing of my own volition to do so. I have discovered that it is completely possible to be dancing alongside someone and even to be in a hold together but not be dancing with them. I want the connection but I cut it off at the same time.

I have asked myself what the appeal of ballroom dancing is for me. I have a theory that we seek out those experiences that teach us what we most need to learn. For me, it is embracing vulnerablility, loving myself, owning my power, expressing myself, and connecting authentically with others. I’m deficient in all these areas and ballroom dancing is the perfect therapy. When I reflect on it as art form, I love it specifically because when the connection is there, when the partners are 100% with themselves and also at the same time 100% with each other and 100% sharing that with the audience (yes I know that adds up to 300%, but we are talking synergy here, people) the effect is magical. I want to be that. I want to live like that. And I get to practice it when I’m dancing.

But the holding back, my “mental problem” creates a barrier within my own body and between me and everyone else. As Ivan tells me, I am looking at him but not really seeing him. Nor, I realize, in effect allowing him or anyone watching to see me. It is what I so deeply desire, to be seen, but so deeply fear at the same time. I feel naked, vulnerable to really open up like that. Yet that is why I even dance! I admit it, I’m a mess!

So I guess Ivan’s right, I do have a mental problem. I have been believing the illusion that I am not worthy enough to be seen. But I don’t think I’m alone in this. Ivan shared with me he also has a “mental problem.” He also makes up stories about himself that are negative. And so does his exquisitely beautiful partner and wife. I think we can all find things about ourselves we dislike. But if I dance focused on this, everyone can feel it. If I am scared or insecure or ashamed, those watching me can feel it. The good news is that if I am loving me and confident and happy, they can feel that too.

At the end of my lesson Ivan told me to stop trying to be somebody, to quit trying so hard and to quit attempting to emulate anyone else. He told me I am very feminine and soft in my movements and to embrace that, finding how a step will look best on me, not anyone else. It is up to me to make the choice in every moment to break down the wall, release this dam, and allow myself to be seen authentically, vulnerably, and whole-heartedly, whatever that looks like along the way.

I think this blog is a step in the right direction.

Got My Butt Kicked


Imperial Dance Studio

Competition Student International Standard and Latin Classes

7:30pm to 9:30pm

There is one bright spot from tonight’s dance lesson. Well, actually there are many, but mostly I got my butt handed to me. Absolutely, completely, totally, utterly out of my league. But I hold to the idea that “jumping into the deep end” and “playing with the big boys” will improve my dancing. And I’m sure it will, once I can actually make it through the classes, that is.

Let me explain: these classes are not for the beginner. I have no idea how long most of the other students in the class have been taking ballroom lessons, but probably for longer than I have. They are probably at least silver but more likley gold level students (I compete in bronze and just like Olympic medals, gold is the highest). Heck, some of these students may even compete as amateur or rising star professionals. They are good. Really, really good.

And in good shape. I mean, you don’t get to that level without being conditioned. It just isn’t physically possible to move like these guys move unless you are fit…as I most certainly discovered during my first visit to the class.

It was tortuous! I was out of breath, like turning blue, puffing and panting and coughing. My limbs felt like they weighed two tons each. I could barely move my legs or arms. I literally thought to myself, “I must be crazy to pay for this pain!”

But I remember back to when I was taking jazz class in 7th grade and the only class available on weekends was an adult level lesson. I showed up and was completely out of my comfort zone, I couldn’t keep up with the class, and in basic terms, I sucked. But I kept going (like there was a choice with mom driving me) and over time I began to get better. In fact, I think this was the time of most growth and the biggest jump for me in my level of technique and ability.

So in any case, part of the appeal for me to return to the competitive level ballroom group classes is that I have the opportunity to really grow, espeically being surrounded by such great dancers. But right now, it is quite a challenge. So big a challenge this past Tuesday, that I had to sit out of a few exercises and got so dizzy I thought something was wrong. I sucked on hard candy to try and raise my blood sugar. I kept resting, then joining the class, then resting again. I didn’t give up so I’m proud of that. And honestly, it was the best I could do in the moment. I really left it all out on the dance floor. I had nothing left after class. So much so that on my way home I cried from sheer physical exhaustion. Digging down deep to just make it through the class shook something up inside me emotionally. And it has never been more apparent to me than after this particular class that being so big doesn’t work for me anymore. It is really holding me back.

So I wonder what my motivation is that keeps me going during times like this. There are two things I discovered. The first is that I am not able to put this level of committment or work into just anything in my life. I have a deep passion for dance and it fuels me even when the going gets tough. This is one area in my life where I am in true choice, 100% in and 100% dedicated. Try to train for a marathon like this and I’d probably fail miserably because deep down I wouldn’t really care about it or want it badly enough.

And secondly, there are moments where everything is perfect. The dance becomes effortless. I am a leaf floating on the wind. I am nobody, doing nothing. I am the energy flowing through my body, the movement, the music. These moments are indescribable simple peaceful perfection. I am connected to myself, my partner, and the universe in such moments. I know it sounds kind of esoterically spiritual, but for me, I guess it is. Dance is my practice. It is in my practice I find moments of feeling whole and complete. But these soap bubble moments are fragile and as soon as they form they pop out of existence once again.

I had one such moment in the International Standard class. And a moment of perfection is a rare and precious gem. Each one is brilliant and wonderful and just one little sparkle can motivate me for quite a while. In this case we were practicing a proper hold position. And after some minor corrections the instructor put up his frame to match mine and we fit like two puzzle pieces. We never moved one inch, but it was wonderful for me just the same. It is better than any food could taste, or any drug could make me feel. It is my Nirvana.

Who knew that getting my butt kicked would lead me to heaven? Life is funny like that.

Taking It One Thing At A Time


6pm to 7:30pm

Dance Lesson With Ivan

We start with East Coast Swing (ECS) and go through all the steps that I’ve forgotten since I worked with Ivan so long ago. It comes back rather quickly and one step even becomes easier as my instructor explains to me how I’ve been making it more difficult than it needs to be, adding an extra step and change of weight where it is unnecessary. Hmmm, that doesn’t happen anywhere else in my life…just kidding.

But hey, I’m feeling good because ECS is a happy-go-lucky dance to happy-go-lucky music and I truly enjoy playing the bubbly, cutesy lady role which easily matches my personality.

But the lesson is going to take a turn for the worse. I admit, it was my fault. I brought up the issue.

You see, while Ivan was gone, I investigated some group classes at studios around town. I found particularly challenging classes at Imperial Studio that are geared for competition dancers rather than social dancers. While doing the tango in the International Standard class I noticed that my heels were clunking, banging, and otherwise making a general ruckus while the feet of all the other students were as silent as a television on mute. Clearly I was doing something wrong and it was glaringly obvious to me during this class.

I explained the dilemma to Ivan and he began to show me the technique required to fix the problem.

So, I’m supposed to roll my foot, millimeter by millimeter as it transitions between any steps. Not only does this require nearly superhuman fine muscle control but it also requires very strong ankles, and feline-like balance. Do this while moving, stretching each step to just the perfect width, holding a perfect frame, facing the right wall at the right angle, to the timing of the music, while constantly changing direction, and staying in unison with your partner. Easy as pie… NOT!

As Ivan is demonstrating all this, I am amazed by the level of his knowledge, the facility with which he can perform each step, the gracefulness he displays with each movement. He’s been dancing since age five or six and I am in awe of how the years of practice that have culminated in this mastery of ballroom dancing – a mastery I am also seeking but fear I will never achieve.

Realistically, how could I ever catch up to that? I may have also been dancing since a young age but in very different genres and with over 10 years off during which time I gained the weight of an entire extra human being. Just the volume of knowledge he has assimilated alone would be enough to keep me studying for years, and that would be purely intellectual in nature. To actually embody the movements is a whole other ballgame.

I am almost in tears thinking such self-defeating thoughts. My biggest regret to date is that I ever stopped dancing. But I guess a person must give up things sometimes to truly discover their value. All I know is that I have lived life with dancing and I have lived it without dancing and with dancing is much better. I would never give it up again.

In any case, I am dancing now. I must choose to focus on this and move forward from where I am rather than rue the fact that I may have been somewhere different in terms of health if I had never stopped dancing. It is a pointless and depressing mind game based on a past that never existed. All that exists is now.

And in the now, I’m thinking about 1500 details as I try to do the waltz. I mimic the step Ivan does so gracefully, easily, and quietly in a jerky, forced, clunking manner.

Ok, stop! Sometimes I have to tell the negative voice in my head to shut up! Enough with the negativity! It is so easy to do and a very old habit that I used to practice in front of the mirror in ballet class. It is no wonder my brain wants to go there. But with my new awareness I can nip it in the bud.

I realize that I can’t focus on all the technicalities before me and it does me no good to get upset by my human limitations. But what I can do is focus on one thing. This empowers me because I can still improve, even if it is at a snail’s pace, even if I can only practice correcting one small detail at a time.

I can do this. Big sigh of relief! I can do this!

And I realize I’m not actually only working to master ballroom dancing. I am working to master myself.