Topical Series: Deciding Whether To Do A Dance Camp

Me and Ron Montez

Me and Ron Montez

Although I’ve only attended one dance camp thus far in my ballroom “career,” I discovered some useful information that might help someone who is interested in a dance camp to decide whether or not to do it.  Choosing to do a dance camp, like participating in a competition, requires planning, money, time off work, maybe even a babysitter, and perhaps travel.  It’s a significant committment so it is a significant decision to make.  Here are my thoughts on some things to consider when deciding if a dance camp a good choice for you.

Overall I thought it was a good value.  Of course every dance camp is going to be different, but using my experience as an example, the deluxe package cost $475.  This included all the classes offered, a welcome dinner and dance mixer, and a gourmet dinner with a champagne toast and party on New Year’s Eve.  Considering private lessons cost around $75-$130 each, and I got 17 group classes led by professional dancers and adjudicators, plus two lectures, I consider this a damn good deal.  I did a lot of dancing, was able to video the choreography presented, ask questions, and even eat a bit, and all for a small fraction of what a competition usually costs.  Even if you add in the hotel (which I only opted to stay at on New Year’s Eve, I commuted the other days), gas costs, and food, it still works out well.

One major advantage of attending a dance camp, especially for competitive dancers, is face time with judges.  Not only do you get to be seen so your face is familiar, but you can also ask direct questions and have actual interactions with people who may judge you at future competitions.  You can also pick their brains for what they look for in competitive dancers.  They tend to naturally share their preferences in dancing while teaching which can also give you insight on dance styling and choreographic choices. This is not as significant a factor for those who do not compete.

One possible disadvantage of a dance camp is that they may be fluid, meaning that the schedule advertised when you sign up for the camp may not be exactly what is delivered.  For instance, when I looked at the website for this dance camp, Decho Kraev and Bree Watson were listed as teaching many of the classes.  Since they are the current American Rhythm champions, I’m sure many people were looking forward to getting to learn from this particular couple.  When I arrived at the camp and got my package, the class schedule listed different instructors.  I, personally, didn’t really mind so very much.  I got to learn from Linda Dean and Radomir Pashev, and I really enjoyed their classes and felt I got great value from what they shared.  But I could see how someone could be upset by this, especially if part of why he or she chose to attend was to learn from a particular professional, judge, or couple.

There was also one other change, which I was very happy about, and it wasn’t even listed on the schedule.  When it came time for the Night Club Two Step (not a dance I’m interested in) Rado decided to do Samba instead.  Anyways, for type A individuals this could be crazy-making, but for me, I was glad about it.

Another benefit of attending a dance camp is that the instructors are also available for private lessons.  I didn’t take advantage of this during my stint, but opportunities to learn from the experts, or have them create some choreography for you, or to work on a particular troublesome step don’t happen all the time, especially if you have an independent instructor and no home studio where coaches may visit regularly.  In any case, attending a dance camp is one great way to make contact with paragons of the ballroom dance world.

As is usually the case in ballroom dancing, there were double the amount of women than men at the camp.  Only a few of the females chose to learn the leader choreography.  This meant that for much of the time in class many female students were without a partner and the men were always dancing as a duo.  And, to make matters worse, there was little to no formal rotation set up, made doubly confusing when some of the couples danced exclusively with one another, not rotating at all.  Personally, I sometimes prefer to dance by myself so I can discover my own balance and so I know that I understand what I am doing.  I didn’t mind the times when I was partner-less.  However, by the end of the camp I was exhausted by actually dancing with partners.  Half of them were uninterested in dancing with me (or seemed that way), one felt the need to correct me and was a total joy-suck.  I don’t even care how good or unskilled a dancer is, but I do mind very much when they have a bad attitude.  I was exhausted by having to interact with some of these fellow students, and just like in social dancing situations, it is a crap shoot as to who will be available to dance with.  In fact, one of my friends was also troubled by the interactions she had with some of the males and opted to not partner at all by the end of the camp because the experience was so uncomfortable, and in her case, she felt flat-out disrespected.

The majority of dancers at the camp were social dancers.  Only a very few of us were competitive students.  Obviously we had different goals and intentions with our dancing.  It would have been more valuable for me from my perspective to have more of an opportunity to dance with other competitive students.  I did get to dance with a few darling men with happy, fun personalities, and one who was excellent in all aspects, but of course I couldn’t always dance with them even though I might have wanted to.  This might be more likely at a dance camp that occurs before or after a competition so I might have to check one of those dance camps out.  But anyways, I think I might have enjoyed the camp more and maybe even gotten more value out of it if I had a friend or amateur partner to do it with.  It’s not really something you’d do with your pro partner and I found the partnering situation to be less than stellar.

Because there was such a mix in the level of expertise, skill level, and intention of the dancing, the teachers had to address broad topics and gear their classes toward general information. They did offer two tracks of classes: Beginner/Intermediate and Intermediate/Advanced. Basically this equated to one class for baby beginners and one class for everyone else. It was up to each individual to place themselves in an appropriate level, and upon registration the lady did say that a person could switch classes within the first ten minutes if it was either too easy or too difficult.

I kind of think the intermediate business is just there to make us feel better! I’m not sure what the distinction between intermediate and beginner or intermediate and advanced is, exactly. I wonder if any dance camps require a person to “test into” a level…like in dance classes in college you can’t just sign up for advanced ballet. You must audition and an assessment of your skill level is made to determine if it is an appropriate placement, or prerequisite classes must first be completed successfully to gain entry into higher level classes. Probably impractical to do at a dance camp, but it’s a thought. And I wonder what a truly advanced class would look like – probably like Inna’s class…but I think a class like that, especially for social dancers, could be pretty shocking/intimidating if a person walked into it expecting a group class like is usually presented…not as strenuous, and filled with lots of interesting steps but less of the basics. Camp organizers have to aim to please their attendees so knowing who is attending, their level, and if they are social or competitive could help in the design of classes and tracks/levels. Like I would have loved if there were beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels (or bronze, silver, gold) in both social and competitive categories, but that would sure take a lot of staff and resources, unless the camp was specifically geared toward one type of student.

In any case, at this dance camp, during most classes a series of steps were taught and the students learned a little choreography.  I am more interested in the technique behind the steps than the steps themselves so I wanted more of that type of information – how to correctly execute the steps rather than the steps themselves.  I can always learn more steps so adding more to my repertoire was fine and good but not all that exciting to me because the chances of me actually using these little choreographies in the future are slim to none.  If I was a social dancer only, or danced socially more often, or had an amateur partner, it might have created more value for me.

One disadvantage of this camp was that because it was held in a hotel, the floors were jointed and there were no mirrors. I missed having a mirror to compare my lines to those of the professional demonstrating the steps. But having it at a different venue like a dance studio might not have been as convenient and certainly would not have had all the amenities present. I wish that mirrors could have been brought in just like the floor is.

One of the best parts of the dance camp was simply spending time with my ballroom friends and making new ones.  I had some awesome and deep conversations and laughed a ton.  I’d recommend having a partner in crime to go with if possible.

Overall, I really enjoyed going to the dance camp and feel like I did learn a lot.  Just putting myself out there and participating was a big win.  And because I showed up cool things happened – I got to dance a swing step “down and dirty” with Radomir, I got to do a mambo deal with Ron and a group of people as he spontaneously got out on the dance floor on New Year’s Eve and began calling out moves, I got to win a merengue mixer contest, I got to laugh a ton, learn a ton, watch a professional show, and toast the new year.  Well, anyways, I hope this gave you some insight into what you might want to think about when considering a dance camp.  If you have any other burning questions, please do ask and I will do my best to answer.

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Stuff I Learned At Ron Montez Dance Camp

Now, it really isn’t possible to share everything I learned at dance camp.  Partly because a dance camp is experiential in nature, just like a competition, there is a lot of learning that happens by actually being present and having the experiences – a person can’t really learn how to dance (or ride a bike or paint in watercolor) by only reading about it.

I did, however, discover some nuggets that I thought were pretty interesting.  So this post is a conglomeration of information miscellany that doesn’t warrant separate posts.  Hopefully you will discover something new that adds value to your dancing.

That being said, I would share that doing this dance camp was a good choice overall.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in doing one to give it a shot.  I feel that the more a person can expose themselves to dancing, different perspectives about the dancing, and different dance instructors, the better.  A dance camp is one way to experience a variety of input from a variety of dance professionals in a short amount of time.

Now perhaps you already know some of these ballroom details.  And it’s also possible that I’d already heard these things in the past.  But there is so much to learn in ballroom, I generally can’t absorb all that is presented to me.  I have to hear things multiple times, and sometimes even hear the concepts described in a different way from a different instructor to develop a new awareness and understanding.  So for what it’s worth, here goes!

1)  In ballroom your knees always work together.  By “ballroom” I mean the Smooth or Standard dances and by “work together” I mean that both knees are bent or straight at the same time.  Conversely, in the Latin and Rhythm dances knees will often be performing opposite actions, one being bent and one being straight.

2) A Fall-away is the opposite of a Promenade.  Who knew?

3) Strictly speaking, in Rhythm Cha Cha there are no locks, only backward and forward chasses with the feet passing one another.

4)  There are 3 types of backward breaks in Bolero (video of Linda Dean demonstrating the 3 types below)

5)  Arm movement should come from the center of the chest, the sternum.

6)  There is no need for releve’ in the Bolero basic (this surprised me!) and in fact some judges prefer it be absent

7)  Always, always, always start a Bolero on a slow

8)  You can do Rumba timing in Bolero if it is on purpose and only lasts for two bars of music

9)  Everything in ballroom is a freakin’ optical illusion!  Don’t take big steps but do create big movement

10) Keep your nose over your toes!

11) Partners don’t actually connect via the back and hand in the ballroom frame, rather they connect upward through the arms

12)  The Samba is the “Brazilian Waltz” because just like a Waltz, every 2nd step is on the ball of the foot

13)  There is a difference between American Samba and International Samba!  It has to do with the timing.  In American Samba it is counted 1 & 2, or half beat, half beat, whole beat – the timing is pretty even.  In International Samba the counts are broken into fourths – the movement is less evenly spaced with 1/4th a beat, 3/4ths a beat, 3/4ths a beat, 1/4th a beat, whole beat, counted 1 ah 2, 3 ah 4.  International Samba appears to move more quickly and then slowly as movement is drawn out longer, then the next move is made quicker to make up the difference and to stay on the beat.

14) In swing you are supposed to emphasize the even counts

15) The “and” or “ah” count in Samba represents the time to do the Samba bounce action

16) Sharp leg extensions that occur when a dancer is at the lowest point of their movement (think foot flat on the floor, knee bent) is a Kick.  A Flick, on the other hand, is performed when a dancer is at their highest point of action (think on tippy toes with legs straight).  (Kind of like the difference between stalagmites and stalagtites!)

And there you have it.  Random but informative (hopefully)

Down And Dirty!

Okay folks, I’m tired and there is so much to say about the last two days of Dance Camp and the New Year.  I promise another, more detailed post will be forthcoming with multiple pictures, dance tips, and maybe even some video.

But there is one experience I am burning to share!  It was just too cool and makes me giggle so here goes….

First off, here is a photo of me an my new instructor:

rado

JUST KIDDING! 

Do you honestly think I’d EVER want to dance with anyone other than Ivan.  Exactly.   You are right.  Not gonna happen in this lifetime. 

But over the last weekend, Radomir was one of the excellent instructors at the dance camp and I honestly really enjoyed his sessions.  He is a technically excellent dancer, extremely disciplined and pristine in his movement, but he is also a pretty darn good teacher and communicator.  He brought a gentle warmth and humor to his classes while at the same time explaining the mechanics of steps.  In any case, he’s kind of a big deal and as an instructor and professional competitor, I, being a student, of course look up to him. 

Well, in the East Coast Swing class he taught, he introduced this one twisting move.  Imagine doing the actual “Twist” like from the song of the same name by the Beatles.  The extreme twisting action of the upper half of the body and the lower half.

In any case, after he had showed us this move in a series of steps of choreography, he stopped the class and told us he wanted it not to be so prissy, but rather “down and really dirty.” I think he expounded upon this even more but I couldn’t hear what he said because we were all laughing with embarrassment so heartily. Once he realized how he had come across, he started laughing too, but still the intention behind the move was there. He did want us to get low and feel the sultry, earthy quality inherent in the movement.

Now here is where it get’s really interesting. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Let’s show them how it’s done!”

OMG! LOL!

So he invited me to demonstrate to the class how to do this twist action “Down and Dirty” but first he explained the incorrect way of doing it…He began to panomime the same actions in a very repressed, shall I say “English-stiff-upper-lip” fashion and invited me to play along. I did and we performed the step stiffly and unemotively. He likened it to one of those middle-class gentry English dances done in the countryside at the turn of the century. We raised our hands and circled one another as if we were doing a courtship dance in the movie “A Knight’s Tale.”

But then we went for it! We twisted and we got low and we shook our katukus’ (katukasi???) Well, we shook our behinds like no kidding and it was awesome and he even gave me a high five when we finished.

You know, I think for me this was the best moment in the camp. It was just so cool to get to go to “the head of the class” with a professional like Rado and totally rock it. I danced with him a few other times for brief moments in other classes and always screwed up at least a little bit. But still, this kind of made up for it. It may sound silly, for me it meant that I had the ability to excute this move, so much so, that even being the biggest girl in the class, I was the one to demonstrate it to others.  I felt acknowledged and I also got to share my enjoyment of doing that particular move.

In any case, that’s my short story! I want to say Happy New Year and that I’m looking forward to what 2013 will bring.  I’m grateful to still be dancing and blogging. I wish you all the very best during our next orbit around the sun and I just wanted to share this little tidbit even if I don’t have the energy and patience just now to fill you in on all the other cool things that happened at Dance camp over the last two days.

Cheers!

Love, Stef

Dancing With Lady Gaga

My goodness.  Lots has happened in my dancing life in the last 72 hours.

First, USDC has been going on.  I have many friends who danced there and it was exciting to hear how they did, as well as to watch some of the professional performances via live streaming on the web.  It is amazing to feel connected to the dancers.  Lots of them I just admire from afar, but others I have a personal connection to, or, since ballroom is a small world, sometimes I am just one person removed.  For instance, my friend “Lady Gaga” is a student of the current national American Rhythm champion, Decho, and of course I have personal ties to Ivan and Marieta and Artem and Inna.  I also am aware of other pro dancers and have briefly interacted with many in the Phoenix area or at other competitions I attended, all of which makes me feel connected in a personal way.  (By the way, I call my friend Lady Gaga for two reasons: first, to protect her anonymity, and second, because Ivan had trouble saying her actual name and dubbed her Lady Gaga.)

Me and Lady Gaga – a new partnership!

Anyways, it is exciting to see my classmates be recognized for their amazing dancing, and to get to watch the pros.  I was especially intrigued by something that happened in the American Rhythm final.  The couple who got second place, Emmanuel and Liana, got a standing ovation from the crowd and they even did a victory lap, grandstanding.  Then very interestingly, the champions received only polite clapping.  It seems perhaps the audience disagreed with the judges’ decision.  I have to say that personally, I did feel that Emmanuel and Liana danced stronger that particular evening than the winners, though all the couples in the final, as well as many other who were cut in earlier rounds, were pretty darn amazing.  Is this just a case of an uninformed audience who doesn’t understand what they are seeing?  I doubt it considering most of that audience are dancers themselves and have some level of expertise.  It begs the question why was the judges evaluation so at odds with what the audience ascertained from the performances? Of course flashy moves that may not be executed with as high a level of technique may capture the audience attention, but hey, that is partly what ballroom is all about.  I just think it was very interesting.

I loved the ability to stream the competition online though I wish it were televised.  I suppose it’s a pretty niche market here in the US, kind of like Rugby or Lacrosse, but I think especially in Europe, it is much more followed and they do televise the bigger competitions.  I’d love to see this available in the US as well, but at least I can stream the “real deal.”  I enjoy DWTS and all, but it is like a cotton candy, cream puff version of ballroom.  I give the stars and pros on that show props for the hard work they do and the good dancing they produce, but the parts I especially love are when they showcase what the pros can do.  However, it’s still worlds apart from an actual ballroom competition.

I don’t think the average American viewer of DWTS has any concept of what ballroom is really like.  And, on the world/European stage it is even more different.  I do think it takes some education to actually understand what you are seeing in the case of say, watching International Standard Ballroom.  Plus, if you have no idea how difficult it is to execute these moves, it might not be as exciting, to a general viewer, than the “flash and trash” shown on DWTS.  Me, I love all dance, pretty much and appreciate different aspects of it in different contexts, but still, I’d personally love to see competitions broadcast live.  I wish that PBS show of the Ohio Star Ball was still going on.  In fact, I’m so “into” all this stuff, that I hunt down pictures and results of people I know and share them on the Facebook page for the blog.  It’s fun pretending to be a “ballroom correspondent!”  I don’t know who, if anyone, actually cares about this stuff they obsessive way I do, but oh well.  It floats my boat.

In any case, watching the USDC added some excitement to my mundane week and it also motivated me once again to get with the program and live up to my dance manifesto.  Why?  Well, because I want to be there next year!  I want to be at the bigger competitions, and not just as a spectator.  I want to be a fierce competitor.  So, I have a year.  Let’s see what progress I can make in that time.  I’ve made a deal with myself.  After Galaxy, I am not going to even think about competing until I shed 50 pounds.  I just have to, for myself, be different the next time I take the floor.  I just won’t do it if I don’t look significantly different.  It’s important to me.  I’m not going to like, wait to be “perfect” or at my final goal before I play, but there needs to be significant, apparent, progress.  It’s just something I’ve got to do for me.  I believe in my potential too much to just lay down or settle for less than my best, and being my best in terms of ability, athleticism, artistry, will greatly have to do with my physical body and it’s health.

Alright, enough of that!  That’s looking a bit ahead.  And Galaxy is in just a few short days.  In fact, I’ve already gotten my nails put on and the first layer of the spray tan.  I’m meeting Marieta about some accessories tomorrow, and making the hair and makeup appointments.  Just a short 3 day work week then dancing for 4 days in a row!  Woo!

And probably the very best part is that I’m on home turf this time.  I have friends who will also be dancing, more so than at Desert Classic.  Also, there will be other students of Ivan to share the table with, and my family will be able to attend.

Two of those friends who will be dancing at Galaxy are Lady Gaga and my friend who I will call “Skinny Blue Eyes.”  We went out dancing last night and, I have to say, it was magical.  I happened to see a post on Facebook for a Dance Phoenix group to which I’m subscribed advertising a guest instructor for a Rumba lesson at Lady Gaga’s home studio.  I put a shout out to my buds spontaneously, and both said “yes!” to going.  We were kind of hoping, from the course description, that maybe the class would be something similar to Inna’s class, but alas, it was another social dancing class.  However, since I already knew the steps as a girl, I chose to attempt to learn the boy part.  That was an excellent choice for two reasons, one, I got to practice being the man with my guinea pig Skinny Blue Eyes, a process in which and hilarity and fun ensued, and two, I got to appreciate the tough job of the man in ballroom dancing.

It felt so completely awkward to reverse the hold in rumba.  Plus I lacked a basic boy skill which would be leading a cross-body lead.  It was challenging, but super fun.  It actually made me more motivated to learn the guy part on more steps.  One day I think it’d be awesome to be a Dancing Classrooms instructor or something.  Plus, it might give me more insight in the mechanics of the dance and help me to be a stronger partner.  Anyways, it was very fun, even if it felt completely  weird.

But after the class, we were hungry for more.  The three of us went to an open dance party at another local studio, and I braved the social dancing scene once again.  Previously, at other studios, I’ve had fairly disappointing experiences, even getting injured once.  So I was wary, but I was with friends and figured I’d risk it.  Boy am I glad I did.  It reminded me of how magical it can be to social dance.  The fact that you can not know a person’s name and then move in unison with them is mind-blowing.  I had the pleasure of dancing with a lot of leaders last night who gave clear, confident leads.  I floated across the floor in some lovely Waltzes, did the Merengue with men older than my grandpa, and especially enjoyed some frantic Swing and Mambo with an older gentleman who was an instructor in the past and knew all the moves.  I spun for most of the songs and it was ever so much fun!  I do think I will be back to do it again, which is a first for me, because it was so comfortable and safe.  It was a great, friendly crowd for the most part and I even enjoyed dancing the Cha Cha on the wrong beat because the leader was respectful.  Oh, and I learned the Night Club Two Step.   It helped that my friends could make some introductions so that I could dance but once I did, and people could see that I moved well, then others felt more confident asking me.  I think it would be a great way to burn some more calories while enjoying myself!

Skinny Blue Eyes, Me, and Lady Gaga

So I got home around 1am which is super late for me, but I got enough sleep in to be well rested for my double lesson this morning with Mr. Ivan.  And what a lesson it was.  I am feeling more confident in my dancing, overall, though it was quite challenging to dance in my new heels, which feel less secure and maybe have a slightly higher heel than my other heels (and are certainly more difficult to wear than my comfy practice shoes!)  But I coped pretty well, and I think it makes my movement look more feminine and delicate.  I definitely need to practice more in my heels, but my feet need more conditioning, as well as my ankles and calves, and of course losing more weight can only make it all easier.  So my plan for the competition and on future lessons is to see how much I can do in my new, snazzy, sexy shoes, and then put my old heels on if necessary.  My smooth heels are considerably shorter and much easier to move in, and this time I have ones with actual straps on them so they shouldn’t fly off my feet or cause me to fall like has happened in my last two competitions.

And, today on my lesson, I’m happy to report I had a Tango breakthrough.  I find it hilariously frustrating that a tiny little fix can change the entire quality of a dance.  Tango has been a struggle for me, and the dance that Ivan says I was hanging on him the most.  All it took was for me to do the movement by myself.  Ivan prompted me to lift my toe and drag my heel of the front foot when I stepped backward and bam!  Everything changed.  I mean everything.  It’s not like I didn’t “know” this, oh I did.  I’d heard it before and even practiced it.  But after doing it alone a bit Ivan partnered up with me and it was as light as a feather!  He was pleased and so was I.

It goes back to the idea that I need to be able to dance every step by myself, then partner with Ivan (or any other leader).  It happened in the Bolero as well.  And Ivan needs to work on pulling back, not holding me up so much because when he does that I’m allowed/forced to be on my own feet and hold my own balance and I actually tend to do better.  Of course there are steps still where I need an assist, but I can’t know what those steps are without the kinetic feedback of having to “dance myself.”

Anyways, It was a great, empowered feeling, and I’m really motivated about dancing right now.  I’m excited just to dance and reveal myself at Galaxy, in my present incarnation.  I’ve decided it will be fun.  Period.  I am going to do my darndest to live my dance manifesto and enjoy the experience.  That is all that is required…this time around.  Then, the work of transforming my body and really stepping into the competitor I know I can be, because that is what I want to do.

I’m excited.  I’m excited about my stupid fake tan, and about my new shoes, and about social dancing.  I’m full of vivacity, and looking forward to my lesson tomorrow, and to the competition.  I’m looking forward to the next one after that, too!  I’m looking forward to Inna’s class, and to meeting more ballroom friends, and cheering them on.  I’m also excited to go watch some professional Swing dancing tonight at the convention that’s in town.  Benji Schwimmer is here and hopefully I’ll get to see him bust a move!

Ta-ta for now.  I’m sure another I’ll have another post soon with all that is going on!  And a special thanks to my dear ballroom friends Skinny Blue Eyes and Lady Gaga for being so awesome and sharing a spectacular night alongside me.  I treasure having you in my life.