Before Enlightenment Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Enlightenment, Chop Wood, Carry Water.

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As I continue along in my dancing journey, I continue to come into contact with the most amazing people. Dancers are a unique breed, I think, and of course there are many ways to “play the game” but most of the dancers I’ve interacted with have been, first and foremost, awesome human beings. They are humble. They are passionate. They are hard working. They are encouraging. The live life fully and fight intensely for what they want. And no person embodies these characteristics (besides my favorite Bulgarians, Ivan and Marieta) more than a gentleman I’ve recently had the honor of learning from.

I mean, dance is one of the great equalizers – because dancing takes all of a human being, every little bit! And it is a great teacher. It can teach patience, discipline, self-expression, trust, balance, self-confidence, grace, partnership, authenticity, and presence – but only when we are willing students, ready to put in the time, energy, and effort necessary. Only then will dance reveal it’s jewels. Because dancing is difficult! Sometimes I think most of us question why we are attempting this! It can be painful and tiring and frustrating. And yet when things finally click after that 10,000-and-first repetition, it is suddenly completely worth it.

Anyways, to get back to this amazing person, his name is Damir. He owns a studio, ironically probably the closest one in town to my house, and I met him at my last competition. He saw me dance a little and we chatted a little and I made friends with his receptionist. When I found out last week that they have group classes on Latin technique on Saturdays, I was hoping I would be able to attend. You know, cause I’m not an official student at the studio, but I guess that hasn’t been a problem at Imperial but I didn’t know how it would work at EuroRhythm. Well, they were as welcoming as can be and I enjoyed my first class last weekend. I am hungry to learn as much as I can and want to take advantage of every opportunity in my path. And you know that saying, when the student is ready, the master will appear, well, perhaps I’m ready to learn some new information and that is really exciting.

So this time, that master is Damir. I knew he was something special right off the bat because of his authenticity, and his kindness. Plus I could see he was a great dancer. What I didn’t know, until today, is that he and his partner and wife, Nina, were six-time National Champions for Bosnia. And that he didn’t start dancing until he was eighteen! Which is pretty darn late for a professional dancer. And I didn’t know that dancing was the one thing that didn’t come easily to him in this life but maybe that is why he decided to do it. He saw dancing for the first time, and as he put it, his “subconscious knew” he could “learn a lot” from it. Everyone thought he was joking. He’d go out dancing and be awful at it and everyone laughed at him, and he simply laughed along with them. But he perservered. It took becoming a National Champion for his father to finally “get” that he was serious about this dancing thing. And I learned that he had a lot of struggles along they way. But most importantly, for me, I learned that I could recognize the same greatness I identified in Damir inside in myself.

I don’t know about you, but in my mind I always think that other people have it easier than I do when it comes to dancing. You can totally apply this to other areas of life but since this is a blog about dancing, we’ll stick with the metaphor. Well, anyways, look, I have asthma. I’m severely overweight. This makes things tough. I tell myself that if I was thinner or more fit that I’d be a better dancer. Now to a certain extent this is absolutely true, and I am working toward it! But on another level, it is total crap! Because we ALL have our advantages and disadvantages. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think that I don’t have it in me to dance like those I look up to – people like Ivan, Marieta, Damir, Inna, and more. I think that there is something lacking in me that makes it impossible. But today I really felt for the first time that THIS IS A COMPLETE LIE! We ALL have what it takes inside of us. That is the REAL truth. Maybe we perceive others have it better or easier because we don’t see the struggles and the sweat and the exasperation behind it – we only see the final product, paraded out on the competition floor, bedecked in crystals. It all looks so glamorous and even effortless, and if you are like me, you forget all the unglamorous pieces that went into creating that picture. It is easy to imagine, looking at that polished dancing, that these dancers are just “talented” or “special” or “hard working” and that they have some secret I don’t posess, and never could. But perhaps I am more similar to them than I ever imagined.

You see, I went to a workshop today at EuroRhythm. Ivan is out of town competing so I needed to get my ballroom fix and this opportunity arose. And it was completely incredible. I’m so glad I chose to participate and I kind of have to laugh, too, because it is about as opposite as could possibly be from the instruction at Imperial!

Damir started the lesson talking about some theory. Now this is the kind of juicy dancing I can really get into! He was talking about more than just dancing; see the photo at the beginning of this blog post. That white board was the first fifteen minutes of our time together. He was talking about how we are human beings, and we have both human and energetic or spiritual aspects. He explained that as human, we are “doing” things, and we are in the universe of form, matter, and the laws of physics. He further opined that as spirits we are “being” and in the universe of the formless, beyond limits, all connected, and basically in the realm of quantum physics. I don’t think Inna would ever start a class this way lol! But it set such an expansive tone for the work we were about to do, and I really appreciated the contextual framework Damir set up for us as we stepped into our “Dojo.”

During the workshop, we mostly talked about being grounded. We discussed being energetically connected to the floor, knowing where our body weight is every moment, and how to incorporate the arms into the picture. I personally focused more on my lats than ever before which was awkward but great. We did Rumba and Cha Cha and Jive. We did things slow and half time. We danced a little at full speed. I still feel like my arms are not fully integrated and connected to my body but it was a nice little foray into the subject beyond the norm. And even more beyond the norm was Damir’s encouragement for us to purposely try to throw ourselves off balance, to purposely mess up! To not try to be so perfect all the time! Why? Because you WANT to expose your weaknesses! Why? So you can actually ADDRESS them! Pretty radical thinking in one sense, and completely logical in another. I mean, I personally like to hide in my strengths! It’s way more comfortable and I feel better (or rather, my ego feels better) about me when I do things “well.” But this means I am haunted by the shadow of the imperfections and weaknesses I’m trying to hide. If I never expose them, I never have the opportunity to expose them to the light. And, as we all know, once shadows are exposed to light, they disappear.

It was an awesome lesson/workshop, and I got my heart rate up a little and I am always grateful for the opportunity to work and learn about this art I love so dearly. And when it was over, we all took a seat and Damir told us a story that really affected me.

He and Nina were dancing at a competition that averaged 300 couples. They wanted to make the top 48 because if they made that, they would get to dance in Albert Hall. Every day they would practice. Monday was Cha Cha, Tuesday Samba, Wednesday Jive and so on. They would, for an hour, do basics, dancing 4 minutes straight, then rest a few seconds, then go again. Physically they were as prepared as they could be. It was grueling. Apparently Nina would have tears streaming down her face, but she would not stop, which is pretty incredible. When I heard this, I found it even more incredible that I could recognize that same fire and strength inside of me. This happens to me all the time at the gym. I cry and I keep going. And it sucks and it hurts and I want to give up but I don’t.

So, anyways, apparently I have the same thing inside of me as a champion so that is a good thing! lol. But to get back to the story – Damir and Nina were prepared and they made it to the top 96 after 4 or 5 rounds of dancing. And then, it happened! Another female dancer did a forceful ronde’ and kicked Nina across both legs, creating a huge bruise on both legs that appeared in seconds and cut a gash on one leg. She was injured and couldn’t move, and it was during their best dance, Cha Cha. They weren’t seen by the judges, didn’t get the marks, and didn’t make top 48. And it was completely out of their control! This dancer, whom they nicknamed “wild horse” in their native tongue as a play on words of her actual last name, had thrown a huge, unexpected wrench into their system. They prepared themselves as best as they possibly could, and I think that is all we can ever really do. Though the story kinda sucks, and I’m sure it was really disappointing at the time, I also find it very empowering and inspiring. Because it is my job right now to prepare myself as best as I can for the challenges ahead. Things may happen that are out of my control, but I will be proud of myself and able to hold my head high no matter the result if I know I did everything in my power to prepare and left everything I could on the dancefloor on that day, with the resources and currently have.

I got so much from showing up today and participating. More than steps or technique, I feel like my spirit was nourished as well, and that is kind of what dancing is all about, ya? I had a great conversation with Damir after the workshop and left feeling happy, energized, and hungry to work even harder for my goals. As he said, when things are going on in his life, it will also show up on the dancefloor. So when he needs to figure something out, he dances. And if he is patient enough, and diligent enough, and present enough, he gets answers. Dancing is the best therapy, ever, right?! We talked about that we are all on our own journey, that we are all special. We are all magnificent in our own right and we need not compare ourselves to others but rather to ourselves yesterday (I think Baryshnikov said the same thing). We talked about how important it is to feel safe and grounded so we can expand energetically beyond our physical limits. We talked about how the struggle is important and that it is imperative to find the joy, peace, and balance in every day life. He quoted Buddha saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. And after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I’ve said it before, that dancing is a spiritual walk for me in so many ways – truly a pathway to enlightenment. And through it all I will chop my wood and carry my water – which in my life looks like doing my cardio at the gym, eating on my plan, going to my dance lessons, and embracing compassionate self-discipline, pushing myself just a little further each and every day in my pursuits.

So that’s just what I did upon leaving today. I went to the gym, banged out a leg work out (they are toast!) and even did some cardio at the end. And I just know that I picked the right theme song for myself (“Roar” by Katy Perry) because I AM a champion. I’m proving it to myself with every squat and ballet class when I struggle to lift my leg higher, with every moment my body screams to stop and I keep going, with every time I choose to stick to my plan when I want to eat chocolate and laze about all day! I’m proving it to myself that this IS possible. I’m proving that I DO have what it takes to do this. This is what a champion is, I think – what Nina and Damir did, dancing so disciplined every day, pushing through the tears, preparing themselves by doing everything humanly possible to get ready, day in and day out. Those are the times that make the champion. That is the foundational groundwork that is laid so that a champion is confident in their abilities for the few minutes they have to show themselves on the floor. Behind each minute of dancing under the spotlight there are hours upon hours behind it. That is my definition of a champion, anyways, and I’m practicing to be one every day. And I’m excited to have another incredible mentor to look up to as I continue along my journey. Dancing continues to bless and enrich my life in so many ways. I can’t wait for Ivan to come home and have my next lesson!

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Claim Your Space

Ever since our honest conversation, things have been different on my lessons….for the better.  I had such a nice lesson today.  It wasn’t easy.  Actually, it means I’m taking more responsibility for my dancing.  It takes more energy, but overall, I’m really happy about it.

So I decided I wanted to come to my lesson with a directed agenda today and I told Ivan about it.  Again, another way in which I’m stepping up and taking responsibility for myself and my dancing.  Instead of just doing whatever, I wanted to review my Latin Rumba routine.  Why?  First, so I don’t completely forget it.  And boy did this turn out to be a really good thing.

The other things I told Ivan I wanted to do on our lesson, we only got to some of them.  But it’s all good.  I know that we will work on those things too, but first things first.  Soon I hope we will begin work on a nice open Samba routine.

Anyways, for now, what we discovered is this….I’ve really been unsure of my timing.  I know the steps, for the most part, but even some of those I couldn’t do without Ivan.  It’s totally different without your partner in front of you, leading you.  So we broke it down, step by step, count by count.  It was a bit tedious, but totally awesome.  I’m moving myself, 100%.  I’m counting, and know when I’m supposed to do what.  It makes me feel more secure.  It makes me feel more confident.  It also exposes my weaknesses and when I don’t know exactly what I’m doing…which is perfect!  Once these areas are identified, I can correct them.  When we dance together, much of this is covered up because I can go on automatic pilot with Ivan’s lead and he can help balance me and such.

So, I’m excited.  I’m fired up to practice my routine, by myself.  I’m super excited for when we dance it together again, but with him giving me a very light lead so that I can move myself, and be on my own two feet.

It also felt good on another level that Ivan was actually giving me more responsiblity and treating me more like a partner.  Yes, I’m still the student and all, and he definately jumps in when I mess up to correct me, but when I hit it, he’s so happy.  It’s a very good thing.

We also practiced presentation a bit.  I felt that it was quite off at the competition, along with a lot of other things.  The bottom line is that we weren’t connecting like we should have.  When we connect (and we can do it), it feels like we are one piece moving – the two puzzle pieces meld into one.  When we are in a hold like this, when we are connected like this, it’s hard not to follow.  Today, since we were conected, Ivan led me in all manner of presentations and I didn’t miss a beat.  He didn’t have to show me them, or instruct me in them.  It was kind of magically amazing. Connection, connection, connection!!!

So, I’m excited for when I can dance myself, I know my routine backwards and forwards with the timing and counts, and when we can connect to dance it like we did today when all that is in place.

I’ll be honest.  It was a lot to absorb, a lot to keep track of.  It’s going to take practice on my part and I’m going to have to integrate my computer (brain) with my muscles and body.  I’ve been very irresponsible about practicing my routines by myself but now am excited to create the space and time in my life to do this more.

Speaking of space, one thing I still need to work on is claming my space on the floor.  Ivan is so attuned, he can zero in when I’m not 100% convicted or committed in my movements.  Anyways, we were doing a crossover and I was thinking I was being a bold and confident and such, but Ivan, he called my bluff.

“You can’t partially claim your space, or maybe claim it.  Take it!  It’s yours! Declare it!”

He runs over to a rack of dresses over in the corner.

“Stefanie, what If I Dore’ and I tell you all these dresses are yours!  What you do?”

He hugs them all in a big, exhuberant squeeze.

“You don’t doing this.”  He half-way hugs some of the dresses, kind of unsure.  Maybe touching some, avoiding others, being shy.

He’s so good at acting out these concepts.  It’s pretty funny.  No one could ever say Ivan isn’t animated.

In any case, yes, he’s right.  I experienced it at Desert Classic, being afraid to really claim my space and take it.  As my confidence grows, I will feel more and more like I have a “right” to be there on the floor, which we all do….if we are there to dance then we have the right to claim our space.  So, I’m looking forward do doing this more and more in the future.

In that same vein, Ivan always admonishes me to finish my movements.  To complete one movement, then start the next one, and finish it.  I got another understanding of this lesson, not only on my underarm turn and spot turns, but also when Ivan had me do a little Cha Cha combo across the floor.  I did Cha Cha walk, spiral, repeat.  After fixing my spiral by making sure I was standing up straight, lengthening my spine, and not leaning, as well as not leaning backwards, Ivan wanted me to look directly at him while I walked toward him.  Basically, I was supposed to direct my energy along with my movements to him, representing someone in the audience.  It feels awesome when the two are in sync – my body and my energy.  Anyways, I made it across the floor and back a few times, then Ivan leaned over sticking out his cheek and told me to come and kiss it.  Well, what did I do?  I did my walks, all directed and all, but then stopped short about two steps before his cheek.  I didn’t complete the movement.  I stopped myself just like I always do….well, let’s say did.  Because I’m a changed woman.  No more.  Time to complete.  Every time.  All the way.  No holding back.

One final thing happened today that was pretty interesting.  Ivan had me do swivels.  I struggle with those things like crazy.  So when he started doing them, I immediately went into the mode of knowing that I’m bad at them.

“Oh Ivan!  Swivels!  Ugh! I’m so bad at them!”

He was all, “You always like this.  You say this to me like you never going to be able to do them in your life.  And look, 20 minutes later you are doing them, doing them so much better.  You not allowed to say you can’t doing things anymore.  You have to just count to ten and do it!”

Its a new rule.  I have to shut up and dance.

Because the truth is, I generally catch on and can do most, if not all, of what is asked of me or taught to me.  Sometimes I’m missing a piece of information which makes it difficult, like in the swivels, I wasn’t bringing my feet together fast enough and this was making the swivels slow and cumbersome.  Ivan gives me this little nugget, and bam, immediately I’m dancing different.

So, I’m not allowed to say I can’t anymore. I have to count to ten and then just do it.  It’s probably a good rule to apply to life in general as well.

So anyways, I’m focused and directed.  I have a new attitude and am determined and committed.  I have been moving every day this week except Friday, taking extra group dance classes at a local adult dance studio.  I took a stretch and tone class, kind of a yoga hybrid, belly dancing, a Glee cardio fitness class, and a Zumba class (not my cup of tea, but at least I sweated a bit), and then worked out with my friend at the gym on the treadmill before my lesson today.  I have dropped a few pounds and notice some changes in my body, but they aren’t enough that Ivan could see just yet.

Though a bit disappointed by this, that lasted about 10 seconds because then it just fired me up to work even harder to drop more weight so it is noticible next time, or at least in the very near future.  Also, I’m motivated because even if Ivan can’t see the changes, he can feel energetically, or whatever, that I’m serious, that my mentality has switched.

“I not feeling like you losing weight just now, but you already dancing different.  You already feeling different.  Very nice lesson today.  I like it.  I love it.  I like it.”

Cool.  I can live with that.  Actually, I’m excited about next week and have my next weight loss target written on my white board so I will see it every time I walk in my door at home.  It will remind me of what I need to do and why I am doing it.  Suddenly staying on my eating plan becomes easy.  I have to keep myself busy, and as long as I do that, I’m going to succeed.  Actually, I can’t possibly fail, unless I give up, which I won’t.  I’m still breathing so I’m still in the game.

This leads me to my last item of note – I have a confession to make.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the videos of me dancing at Desert Classic just yet.  It’s always been difficult for me to watch myself dancing, even at a smaller size.  It’s good to watch because it’s feedback – I can see how my body is moving, see where I’m not completing my momvents, see if my toes are pointed, etc, etc.  But esepcially because I don’t like my body right now, and because I’m not dancing like I wish I could, it’s hard to see.  Anyways, at the end of the lesson today Ivan asked me if I had watched my videos yet and I was like no.  He said to bring them next time and we will watch them together.  He wants to see not only how I was moving, but also the people around me.  If I am moving well, then we will know that the appearance issue really affected my results.  If I’m not moving well, I guess the jury will still be out.  But I do trust Ivan’s eye.  He knows what he’s talking about.  So if he decides I danced well, I’m going to be even more fired up to dramatically change my body for our next competition….whenever that is.

So, after our next lesson, I’ll let you know what he thought.  I’ll let you know what I thought.  Maybe, I’ll even share some video, if I don’t feel it is too horrid!

I guess that’s it for now.  I really needed to process all that happened today and that, in all honesty, is why I started the blog.  My husband got sick of me blabbing about it so much!  So, I have no idea if you found this post entertaining or if you got anything from it, but, well, I sure did!  Ha!  I feel much better, re-committed, re-energized, and excited.

I’m so glad I went and did the Desert Classic.  I feel like going to competitions, for me, is such a growing experience which lasts even beyond the actual event.  I just know my dancing is on a different level and I’m exctied to explore it.

Until next time,

Committed, Consistent, Disciplined, Svelte, Powerful, and Determined Stefanie

I Love Chocolate….And My Friends, And My Mom

Sometimes I feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.  One of the very important (to me) things that sometimes gets put on the backburner when other responsibilities get in the way is writing a blog post.  You know, these things take time and between work, the commute, getting a dance lesson in, and preparing my food for my eating plan, not to mention some online writing gigs, and fitting in some time to make sure I still connect with my husband and some time to have fun and relax, well, living a balanced life is a full time prospect!  I don’t think I’d get even half of this done if I had kiddos!

Anyways, the short of it is that a lot has happened since my last blog post and I kind of don’t know where to start.  I think tonight it’s going to be a stream-of-consciousness ramble about some lessons, a boating trip (with dancing friends), and my mom’s first dance lesson, plus an update about the Desert Classic.  And Paragon, I would be happy to tell you about the dress – thanks for asking!

Let’s see….

I guess with Ivan I’ve probably had 3 lessons?  We’ve worked on all sorts of stuff, but mostly connection and expression.  As Ivan explains it to me, I’m not the first one to ever do a fan.  It’s not like people have never seen a fan before (in Cha Cha or Rumba), but how am I going to style it so I stand out?   One of the things I’m most excited about, which may sound silly, but to me is scrumptious, is the preparation to dancing (did I really just write that?  OMG, Ivan’s Bulgarian English is rubbing off on me!  What I mean is ….preparation to dance).  Especially in Latin Rumba and Cha Cha we’ve been working on Ivan placing me on the floor and then a little interaction where I am like bursting, I want to dance so bad (well, the idea is to act that way), and then he approaches, we connect, and then we begin as one.  Of course, it doesn’t always happen that smoothly, but the idea is there and I do think it will set us apart.

Also I am working on doing a better job of shifting my weight over my standing leg more quickly, and moving myself.  There are some “deadspots” in my dancing at times.  They way Ivan explains it, it’s like my engine stops working.

“You doing so good, Stefanie, to this point but then your “Check Engine” light goes on.  You run out of gas.”

Ah yes, the car metaphors abound.  Hopefully I’ll show up as a Ferrari rather than a dump truck while dancing at Desert Classic!  Ha Ha.

One thing I’m not excited about is the Jive.  Seriously, we haven’t even practiced it!  If I place last in all my Jives I will let myself off the hook!  We haven’t worked on it.  I’m just going to try and enjoy them as much as I can and let it be whatever experience it is.  I’ll expect more of myself once we’ve actually worked on the dang dance!

I’m feeling better about the stamina issue.  It looks like based on the schedule at Desert Classic that I will dance Smooth Thursday morning then Latin in the afternoon.  Friday I’ll have off to recouperate.  Then Saturday is American Rhythm.  I will wear my red and black dress for Rhythm and Smooth and I’m having a new dress made by Marietta for Latin.  I had a fitting just yesterday, and although still a work in progress, I really like it – more than I thought I would from the sketches.  It is going to be very figure flattering for me.  It’s black and gold with lovely asymmetrical draping.  If it continues along the same lines as what I saw yesterday, I’m going to feel very sexy and sleek in this frock.  Once I have it in my posession, I’ll be happy to post pictures.

Also, I’ve decided that I will get a tan this go-around.  Yes, I’m mostly covered, but go big or go home, as they say.  Why not do everything to play the part?  And time to put on the nails as well.

Okay, so besides doing what I can to get ready for Desert Classic, because seriously, there is so much I learn every day I dance, and at a certain point you just have to show up as you are – a work in progress, you know?  Well besides doing what I can to prepare, I also had some time for some R & R this weekend.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to go on a pontoon boat for a few hours this past Sunday with my friend Colette (featured in this post ) as well as my friend Ghada, and also Ivan and Marietta.  OMG!  It was SUCH a good time.  And yes, believe it or not, we do have a few lakes here in Arizona!  Anyways, I think we talked about dance for the entire time, which is just the way I like it.  The coolest part is that Ghada, Colette, and I all take from different instructors, but we are all friends and genuinely support one another.  Like if either of those gals won, even if they beat me in competition, I’d be happy for them and celebrate.  I know they’d feel the same about me too!

And we brought Ivan along for the entertainment, and he didn’t disappoint!  As you can see, we got into some chocolate trouble.  We also danced on the boat, ate, drank, posed for pictures, talked, laughed, tanned, and floated.  It was a most relaxing day and the entire world melted away.   I just feel so very blessed to have such amazing friends.

Oh, and here’s Ivan making a “Bulgarian cocktail”  Ha Ha!  He actually was a bartender for a few years in Spain, believe it or not!

Anyways, best day ever…well, one of the best ever.

But then I had to come back to the real world.  *Sigh*

However, back in the real world, there was another exciting event on the horizon.  Remember how Ivan was like, infatuated with the idea of dancing with my mom?  Well, he convinced her to come in for a lesson!  He has it in his mind to do a showcase number to “Gonna Make You Sweat” by C & C Music Factory with her as the centerpiece.  So today she came for her very first lesson and I got to be there too!

She was really cute.

“Wow.  That is quite a drive!”  She exclaimed upon arriving.  We got started and it was really fun.  We played around making up different moves and Ivan taught mom the Cha Cha basic step.  The showcase number is going to be freestyle so we can just have a lot of fun with it and not worry too much about technique.  Mom showed us some moves from the 60’s like the Pony and the Twist and Ivan made her do side splits and we also lifted her up in the air, making a seat with our arms.  She did great for her first lesson and Ivan said she was learning quickly.  I had to laugh, though when Ivan suggested, “Chris, maybe you to coming by yourself for the next lesson so we not killing Stefanie’s lesson.”

The thing is, we are gearing up for the competition right now, and Ivan has a lot of choreography to figure out and teach my mom.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to pick it up pretty quickly, so this sounds like a good plan to me, but I’m really looking forward to the day we do this performance.  It’s going to be EPIC!

I also had to laugh when Ivan suggested to my mom, “You have to practicing.  Listen to the song lots at home and dance at home.  Discover different movements, and how the music makes you dance.  Dance in front of the mirror.  Dance in front of your husband.”

“Oh no!” Said Mom.

“Yeah!”  I laughed, “Dad probably wouldn’t watch.”  He’s not big on the dancing.  This made it especially wonderful that he came to my showcase because he had to sit through a lot of dancing before I performed.

“Okay, okay.” Interjected Mr. Ivan.  “You not dancing in front of your husband.  You save it to being a surprise!”

“Okay, Ivan.  When do you think this showcase will be?”

“In September maybe.  There is a showcase the weekend before the Galaxy competition.”

“But I’ll be in Italy from August 31st through September 18.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.  You can practicing in Italy!”

We all laughed at that.

“But we’ll see,” he said.  “Maybe we can doing it in September.  If not, there will be other events.  Maybe November or January.  It okay.”

So, the long and short of it is mom did great, Ivan is very excited about the whole thing, and at one point or another we will be performing as a trio.

Alright, last in a long list of updates, I had a lesson with Inna tonight.  Actually, she wasn’t even supposed to teach tonight!  She was supposed to be in Florida, competiting at Milennium.  But apparently there was a snag with her travel plans and she was there tonight.  I think since most people thought Inna would be gone it was a smaller class than usual.  There were only four of us plus Inna.  And you know what?  I’m SO glad I showed up tonight.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again…Inna is a master teacher.  Tonight, because the class was smaller and consisted of more experienced students, she was able to get into deeper detail and explain timing in a way such that I discovered an entire new level to it.  I actually felt it differently in my body.  And as Inna explained it, when you really get the timing and rhythm of a dance it feels like the music is dancing you rather than you dancing to the music.  I had a tiny little taste of it tonight and it was honestly a breakthrough.  Like I said, at the very end, it actually felt different in my body, and it felt good.

You know, if you are a ballroom-er, then you’ve heard about timing.  We all “know” the counts.   But wow, I’ve never understood the timing in this way before.  It took the better part of the class for Inna to get her point across, as well as many demonstrations, so I’ll probably not do the subject justice, but I’ll do my best to share what I discovered.  One of the things Inna does that is so very effective is that she will demonstrate two different ways of dancing the same steps.  This allows us to visually see two different ways of dancing.  And the thing that is so effective about it is that she will dance the steps well, with the correct timing and arms and all, but then she will dance it with that added flair that makes it look professional.  One of the hardest things to figure out as a student is how to make my movements match those of my instructors.  What is it, exactly, that makes the quality of their dancing so much more amazing than mine?

Like I can see that it is cleaner and sharper, but try as I might, I can’t always emulate this, even if I use all my abilities.  But tonight, I discovered the importance of timing.  Holy heck!  It changed everything.  And, ha ha, I thought I knew timing before, right?  I also knew that one of my less-than-stellar-habits is to pass through steps, making them look sloppy, soft, mushy, because I am so concerned about getting where I need to get two steps ahead, rather than fully completing the step I am presently in in the moment.  Oh, Ivan’s communicated the same thing, but somehow I was able to hear it more deeply from Inna tonight.

So the concept is this:  In Cha Cha, say, the counts are 2, 3, Cha Cha, 1.  There are 8 counts in the measure.  The 2, 3, and 1 are all one full beat (2 counts).  Each “Cha” is one half of a beat (one count).  Therefore, logically, the 2, 3, and 1 are movements that take more time.   The Cha Cha part should take less time.

But in my dancing, even though I’d step on the right beats and all, everything looks even.  I made 2, 3 about the same length of time, but then I made the Cha Cha, 1 like 3 even beats, instead of quick, quick, full count.  I’d rush the 3 to get to the Cha’s, power through the Cha’s to get to the 1.  Okay, again, very confusing to put into words, especially without a physical demonstration.  So if you can’t follow what I’m trying to say, sorry!  The point is that conceptually I’ve known about this construct called timing, but today, I think for the first time, I truly felt it IN my body.  Amazing.  And super hard!  OMG it takes so much concentration and energy.  But it’s worth it!

One final thought and then I have to sign off.  It’s 11:35pm and I’ve got to be up early and have a full, full day once again.  Anyways, that last thought is this:  It takes no talent to be a dancer, just discipline, and having talent as a dancer, meaning the dance comes from the inside, is paramount.

What do I mean by this?  Well, I’m talking about being able to embrace the paradox of two opposites and knowing that both are true.  The paradigm that it takes no talent to be a dancer, but it does take a mind and discipline and practice, this comes from Inna.  She said this herself to us tonight.  And I think she is right.

But also, the paradigm that having that inner dancer, being able to move and change and evolve quickly, and having the dance come from inside is more important than all the practice in the world, this comes from Ivan.  And I think he is right, too.

How can this be?  Well, I think both are essential.  There is absolutely an element of training the body and creating muscle memory through repetition and practice in the study of dancing.  There is also absolutely an element of the dance transcending the technique, and that can’t be taught.

So my feeling is, I’m so grateful to have both teachers and both paradigms in my dancing practice.  I get the yin and the yang.  The whole shebang. (And that is my poem for the night).  My practice is to embody both the discipline and the freedom.

Alright, I think my system is shutting down now.  My bed is calling!

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9D2lazAEiao

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.

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Dance Party at Dance Starz!

It is exciting to me to see my dancing community thriving.

I’m not kidding.

I love dancing and I think everyone should do it.

So, it makes sense that I am genuinely pleased for owner Bill Jones who has opened an independent studio called Dance Starz (I’ve written about it in some of my blog posts) because last night I had the pleasure of seeing first-hand what creating a safe, welcoming, encouraging, and comfortable dance space can do.

The place was hopping!

Before I get any further, I want to write a disclaimer:

1) In no way did anyone ask me to write this post

2) In no way did I receive any monetary or other form of compensation for this post

I want to clarify this point, up front, because the following is an unabashed, happy, fully supportive description of a place I have been.  I say what I say because I believe it or experience it.  Period.

I think many websites could be suspect because of commercial sponsorship.  This is neither good or bad, right or wrong, it is just that I have no obligation to write what I write heretofore except that I desire to.  That, in and of itself, should be compelling evidence.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I am open to the possibility of making some money to pay for my lessons, and dress, and diet, and competitions through this blog someday.  But today is not that day.

Whew!  Glad we are all clear.

Okay, so now let’s get on with business.  Now that the disclaimer has been satisfied, allow me to continue with my evening….like a normal blogger!

I arrived at Dance Starz, too late to make the “Sassy Cabaret” group class, but too early for the open dance party.  But this was no problem – I felt comfortable enough to lounge.  I perched on one of the striped chairs at the front of the studio and drank in my surroundings.  The studio is bright and clean.  It even boasts a chandelier and a mirrored disco ball.  (Okay, maybe I’m a dorkus maximus, but I think this is cool…a person can go from Foxtrot to Cha Cha in one second).  It’s a subtle hint that the space is inclusive for all types of dancers.  Also importantly, the staff is very welcoming, and Bill alone has over 25 years in the dance business industry, not to mention he competed professionally!  He has made sure to hire some top-notch instructors and has recently welcomed a few more because of the increased volume of dance students inundating the studio.

In any case, during this particular night, I looked out onto the floor to see that there were about five couples and their instructors working.  Some were learning the Waltz, others Salsa.  There were younger couples and sexagenerians.  It may have even been a first lesson for some people.  But the point is, there was a place for every type of person, every type of dancer and it was fun to watch.

Since Bill has opened his doors the stream of dancers has flooded in.  He kicked things off with a Grand Opening hosted by Mary Murphy from So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD).  The place was packed for the entire day while staff instructors led classes in Hip Hop, Zumba, Modern, and Salsa dancing.  One lucky attendant even got to eat dinner with Ms. Murphy!

In any case, I came last night and since I was early Bill came over to have a chat.  Where else do you get personal attention from the owner of a dance studio?  This is when I learned a little more about his history and expertise, which I have happily been able to share with you, dear reader.

But finally it was time for the dance party.  My trusty friend Randall arrived and threw on his shoes.  Joe (you can read about him on the website for Dance Starz) led a little warm-up exercise teaching us the start to a Country Western Line Dance.  Then the music changed and we did a Waltz mixer.  I got to dance with a bunch of different partners and meet some friendly people.  I hope to see them again and even more new faces at future parties.  Then came open dancing.  The music was great and the atmosphere comfortable and non-threatening, even for a beginner.  All-in-all it was a very fun night.

To me, this is what dancing is about.  Well, being a competitive dancer is another part (if people choose to participate that way) but being a good social dancer is a very valuable skill.  It is fun and good for you to just dance for the heck of dancing, without concern for technique or being judged, or doing anything other than simply dancing and connecting with another human being.  It is also is a way to meet a lot of different and interesting people…I mean, the most interesting people I know in my life are dancers.  And finally, having a party like the one hosted by this a dance studio is a much more comfortable environment than say a bar or club because generally people are there for the dancing, not for picking someone up.

Even though I was really sad to lose Ivan for a month when he went to Bulgaria to get married, one of the wonderful blessings to have found Dance Starz studio.  Can you understand why I wrote the disclaimer at the beginning of this post?!

If you want to learn more about this studio, you can visit their website at: http://www.dancestarzaz.com/

How Is A Champion Created?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

10am

Private Lesson with Ivan at Allegre Studio

Ivan will call me if I am even a few minutes late to my lesson. Actually, I wasn’t even late…it was exactly 10am when he called and I was 2 minutes away. After our phone conversation yesterday I decided to apply some lipstick today and it set me behind schedule. Plus, its the last time I’ll see him before Christmas so I have to grab his presents, and those for his wife and mom too.

I arrive and we exchange gifts. Ivan gives me wine and some fancy European chocolates….which I will be sharing with my family. It is a nice gesture, but I’m on this mission to slim down! Willpower, be with me today.

Anyways, we enter the studio and begin to talk about our coaching session with Linda Dean. As with any coaching, I think it is important to take what I have been given and find what works best for me personally. Ivan agrees with some things and not with others. This is fine. We will figure out the best thing for us as a partnership incorporating the feedback we get from others, or not.

But I was fascinated with two items that I want to revisit. The first was how to do the Alemana. I’d been stepping in a very different direction than the step calls for. I want to practice making a 3 point triangle, stepping to Ivan’s side, to the kitty-corner away from him, and then back to face him while also holding myself up straight and making the movement on balance.

We work on the Rumba for a good 30 minutes without music just doing the movements over and over. We also work on the connection once again. It seems like I can understand, or that I “know” what I am supposed to do and want to do, but it all flies out the window when dancing to music. There is just so much to be aware of! Straighten the legs, dance the body, look up, keep connection in the frame but don’t use the arms to pull, stay upright, listen to the music, emphasize the counts 1 and 3, but not 2 and 4…..the list goes on and on. Thank God my heart beats on its own! I’d forget to keep it going with my mind occupied like this.

And my arms. The fisted-octopus-tentacle-extremtities that they are, are in desperate need of help. They are the first thing to go wonky when I’m concentrating.

Today was a practice session like so many others. Repeating, repeating, repeating. Hearing the same corrections over, and over, and over. Knowing that I’m not doing what I mean to do a second after I’ve done it.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is some nice movement in the mix here, too. I’m not bagging on myself so much as being in the process of becomming. And trust me, I’m 1000 times more compassionate with myself than I used to be! That, in and of itself, is a huge victory.

I suppose there is always room to be a little kinder to myself and others but I have this overriding drive to improve. Sometimes I just need to relax.

Also, the stuff we are beginning to work on takes years to congeal, from what I’m told. Based on what I’ve experienced in my own body so far, I believe there to be some truth in this. We’re talking here about having that tuned in, direct, plugged in connection that still allows each person to dance themselves. We’re even talking about appropriately using the breath to fuel the movments. And one day, to even create unity. It is possible, Ivan says, to even be breathing at the same time while dancing. That sounds like it will probably be a few years off, especially with the shape I am in, but it’s nice to know it’s possible.

So I figure I have thousands of hours of practice ahead of me, with and without Ivan. I have thousands of hours of pondering how to do things, and messing up, and learning new things.

To some this may sound boring or daunting. To me, I’m so thankful to be in the process of becoming. It makes me think of a quote I saw today on Facebook:

“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months, years they spend preparing for it.” T. Alan Armstrong

I am preparing for my success. I am preparing to be a champion in every minute I dance, practice, show up at competitions.

Ivan looked me straight in the eyes today and said that I could be a champion (we’re talking Pro/Am here, I think) and he’s actually said it before. I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it because to achieve that would be beyond my wildest dreams.

I could choose to listen to the rational, dogmatic, practical self that whispers in my ear saying, “You are too old, to fat, and you started too late.”

Or, I can choose to focus my attention differently. I can listen to the part of me connected to The Universe, or God, Higher Self, or Source, or whatever you like to call it which, in an even softer whisper says:

“Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible.” I’m gonna amend that last one….Expect more than even I think is possible, THINK being the operational word here.

I say this because today Ivan and I did the Samba. How does this relate to thinking? Well, we agreed that to work on my stamina, we’d dance our routine multiple times in a row. We agreed we’d start with two times and lately I’ve been handling that pretty well so today he said we’d do it 3 times through. Ok I agreed, I thought I could probably make it through and then be spent.

But after the third go around, Ivan says, “And one more time for Merry Christmas!”

It was unexpected, but I did it! We danced for 3.5 minutes total and I was worried about making it through 2 minutes. Now, my goal is to get through 10 minutes straight without looking or feeling like I’m going to die, but this is a nice little start! I realized I could actually probably have gone another time through the Samba even. I might have pushed my heart rate to faster than a hummingbird on caffeine, but I probably could have made it.

The moral of the story, even I don’t know my limitations.

Its possible you don’t either. How great is that!

So, as you go through your activities today, ask yourself, “Is it possible that I actually don’t know my limits?” And, “What kind of champion am I practicing to be?”

Blessings,

Stefanie