Topical Series: The Student-Teacher Bond

I’ve recently been giving this topic a lot of thought.  At least from what I have observed in the competitive Pro/Am ballroom world, student and teacher pairings are a “thing,” meaning that many students are identified with their teachers.  People know the main dance instructors in the area, and they know that she dances with Decho, and she dances with Yavor, and she dances with Igor, and so on. (Forgive me for focusing on the female student and male teacher, but this is the vast majority of pairings, and, though there are a few dedicated male students, the serious female students significantly outnumber their male counterparts)

But the relationship between dance teacher and student is an interesting one, I think.  And just as every friendship, or marriage, or business agreement is unique, so is each student-teacher pairing.  The relationship is so interesting, in fact, it is one of the subjects my friend Marian will broach in her upcoming book about the ballroom dancing experience.

Reflecting on my own student-teacher relationships, as well as observing those of others and talking with my friends, it seems to me that there is quite a strong and unique bond that develops between partners. I think that it is always understood that one person has more experience and expertise in the area of dancing, and that there is a business exchange of money for a service, but the lines of the relationship can become blurry as well. Because of the intimacy involved in ballroom dancing, both physical and emotional, sometimes things can be confusing for students. Especially for newer students, having someone focus all their attention on you, give you encouragement, and even touch you, well, this is not the normal adult experience when interacting with other adults. Rarely do we get the full attention of another with all the distractions of modern life, and most interactions are strictly hands-off. To experience the interaction provided on a dance lesson can be intoxicating.

Some instructors, however, tend to be very businesslike and even a bit cold to students outside of lessons or competitions. They view spending time with students as a business date for which they are paid. They may attend a social event in association with the studio or a dance camp or a competition, but avoid any social contact outside of these types of events. In fact, in some studio systems fraternization outside of the studio or studio-sanctioned events is strictly forbidden and a fireable offense.

There is nothing right or wrong about any particular way of conducting a student-teacher relationship, and this particular method of viewing it only as a business transaction does perhaps create more clear and strong boundaries between the student and teacher. Indeed, some may even consider it the more professional route, however, for me, all I can say is thank God my instructor is an independent and that he is an awesome human being and friend outside of just being my instructor. From previous experience I can say that I’m glad that my current instructor has no qualms about being genuine friends outside of dancing. Personally, I think it helps the dancing itself and because our relationship is genuine on and off the dance floor, this contributes to our collaboration on the dance floor, because, well, we really do have a person-to-person level connection based on respect, friendship, and appreciation (not just on the business agreement).

In the past, my two previous instructors seemed almost mysteriously unavailable…except for when we were on a lesson, during which time they were extraordinarily available. I hardly had any idea about what may have been going on in their lives, much less know where they lived, both of which I know about my current instructor.  In fact, the first instructor I had was the son of a studio owner and he knew the ins and outs of the “game” to ensure what I perceived as basically “customer service” for his dance students. He knew that many students enjoy lavish attention focused on them and so purposely steered the conversations to be much more about me than about him (a fact he disclosed to me later on in our partnership). Again, not a bad thing, I suppose, but it prevented equal sharing and thus shifted the balance of power within the relationship. He who withholds the most generally wields the most power in a relationship, and at the core, most relationships are about an exchange of power, who has it, and who doesn’t, and the interactions that occur to get and maintain a position of power.

In the case of instructors, they have knowledge that the student doesn’t have and wants, and the more they can milk that, the more they can dribble out the information in tiny droplets, the longer they can string a student along. Now, of course, that is only one possible explanation – we students can only absorb so much information at a time! Sometimes we need tiny droplets because that is all we can handle in the moment! But, still, Ivan dances like I wish I could dance. I go to him to teach me that and pull out of me the performance that we both know is “in there.” In one sense, the instructors are in the more powerful position because they have what we students want and we are willing to pay money to get it.

On the other hand, the student may also be considered to be in the more powerful position because he or she is the one paying for the service, in effect employing the dance instructor. In America, where the customer is always right mentality pervades, and lessons are a significant chunk of change, studios and instructors will often accommodate even extremely difficult personalities to ensure positive cashflow.

This brings up a possible confounding situation for the instructors. While students may view their instructors as friends or even as someone to have a crush on, some instructors may actually dislike some students, and yet their income depends upon such people. In that case, setting firm boundaries about when the instructor is on the job and when he (or she) is not, may be imperative to keep the relationship going on at least a neutral trajectory.

When a person first starts dancing, she may be randomly paired with whomever has time in their schedule for a lesson. At this stage, it’s the luck of the draw whether a student is matched by the powers that be with an instructor she will “click” with. At the get-go, the instructor must work to make the best impression, please the new student as much as possible, and ensure the relationship starts out fun, engaging, and something the student will want to continue with. As a dancer gets more experienced, however, even such charms may not be enough. A student may decide she wishes a different experience. She may see other instructors in a competition setting and observe their dancing skills, how they interact with their other students, and how they perform with their professional partners and compare that to her own experience with and of her current instructor. If one of these factors is particularly lacking in her current instructor, she may even specifically pursue a particular instructor, especially if she wants to improve her status in the ballroom world by dancing with a champion, or because another dance instructor is a better height, or because she saw the instructor’s students do very well with placements.

But whatever the case, whether randomly matched, or purposely pursued, the student and teacher must come to some sort of agreement about the partnership (whether explicitly spoken about, or not) as well as build rapport. Some partnerships are more confrontational than others, some more based on humor, but no matter what, there has to be a connection…whether based on a shared love for dance, or affection for one another, or money, or dislike, or outright animosity….there has to be some reason that a student stays with a particular instructor.

It seems that most of us students form strong bonds with our instructors and would prefer to stay with him, even when things get tough. And do not doubt that there are bumps in the road, on both sides of the partnership. From life events, to simple frustrations about personal idiosyncracies, students and teachers can become angry with one another, or experience resentments, or other difficulties.  Even so, many of my dancing friends have overcome such difficulties and often find their relationships and connections with their instructors stronger and better for working through it.  Others, however, have felt the need to find a new instructor.  There are prices and benefits to both strategies and with each partnership formed and broken are opportunities to become more clear about what a student expects from an instructor so she can actively verbalize it a priori or at the time of a disagreement.

No matter what it looks like, I think that all student-teacher partnerships are special if only for the fact that of all the people in the world we two have chosen to work together toward a common goal for a particular length of time.  Of all the people in the world, we have come together to grow and learn and share our time and ourselves, two of our most precious resources.  Add in a passion for dancing, and well, there is no other relationship like it.

So, I’m curious…What is your relationship with your instructor like?  Or, if you are professional dancer, what is your relationship with your students like?  Are they all different?  What makes a good student-teacher relationship?  What makes a horrible one?  Have you ever broken apart from a partnership?  Why, how, and how did it all work out in the end?  What would an ideal instructor (or student) relationship look like?

I can’t wait to hear about your experiences!

Much love, Stef

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Topical Series: Ballroom Demystified (Part Deux)

Where was part one, you may ask?  Well this post is an extension of another post by Alaina which you can read here.

I thought it was an excellent topic and told her so.  And, me being as opinionated and vociferous as I am (at least as a writer), I was inspired to continue the conversation.

I’ll use Alaina’s same format.  She was comparing DWTS, which probably represents how most uninitiated people think of ballroom, to what actually happens at a ballroom competition.  If you’ve never been to one, then you can’t possibly know, but the two are worlds apart.  I think pretty much the only things they have in common are spray tans, amazing outfits and hair, the fact that there are judges, and Pro/Am couples.  Other than that, things are really different.  And one housekeeping note – I’m talking about NDCA Dancesport competitions as those are the ones I have experience with.  There are other competitions put on through studio chains or through other independent companies like World Promotions which have their own set of rules and protocols.

Point 1: In competition, there are multiple couples on the floor at the same time

Alaina got this right.  The only thing I’ll add, is man, is it a different experience with all that movement going on at the same time.  It kind of makes more sense as to why ballroom couples try to be so ostentatious.  If you don’t know what they will be up against, it may seem particularly gaudy and over-the-top how they move, how they dress, how they do their hair and make up, and all that.  Each couple is vying for the attention of the judges and the audience and being showy, glittery, or even ridiculously cheeky, may help achieve that aim.  It is practically impossible to watch just one couple while they compete as each one will catch your eye at a different point.  This is also part of why couples rotate around the ballroom between heats – to perform for a different section of the audience and hopefully gain their support.

Point 2:  Two styles of dance

I’d argue that there are 4 categories of dance – broadly divided into American styles and International styles.  But it’s not just the styling that is different – it’s also the dances that are performed.  On the American side are the American Rhythm and Smooth Divisions, and on the International side are Standard (or Standard Ballroom) and Latin.

American

American Rhythm – Cha Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, Bolero, Mambo

American Smooth – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz

International

Standard Ballroom – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese, Waltz, Quickstep

Latin – Samba, Cha cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, Jive

As you can see, some of the dances are the same.  This is where that styling that Alaina was referring to fits in.  In general, legs are straight in Latin Rumba and Cha Cha but there is a bending and straightening action that occurs in American Rhythm.  In American Smooth, couples can go in and out of a dance frame hold and tend to do lots of sweeping movements, and spins with the lady, and maybe dips too, but in Standard Ballroom, the couples must remain in a dance frame hold throughout the entire dance and travel in unison around the floor.  On DWTS, Len’s background would be more in Latin and Standard Ballroom (being from Great Britan) and this is why he often harps about couples breaking out of hold (which I think he used to do more often than he currently does).

In addition, there are also other dances that may be at competitions like country western dances, Night Club Two Step, Argentine Tango, and West Coast Swing, but generally they have different stylization as compared to the dances as danced in their traditional milieu, like a milonga, or with true “Westies.”

Furthermore, there are more types of pairings that can occur.  On DWTS we see a little of this – sometimes there are Pro/Pro pairings, also formation teams, both of which occur at competitions.  In competitions, there are also purely Amateur couples, some of which are very high level and almost as good as the pros.  This pairing is two amateurs and would be the equivalent of two of the “Stars” on DTWS pairing up.  Now that would be interesting to see on the show, but would probably result in poor dancing because instead of only 1 person not knowing what they are doing, both would be clueless!

Also, remember that the couples dancing at competition do not know ahead of time which music they will be dancing to.  On DWTS the routines are more like those that would be presented during a showcase; the music is known and choreographed to.  But in competition, you may have a routine but it has to work and the timing must be correct no matter what music is played.  DWTS did show some of this with those “Instant dances” they have had on a few seasons.  Those dances test the skill set of leading and following.  I believe (though I don’t know for sure) that for most divisions the couples have a pre-planned routine, however they still have to remain in connection so they can react seamlessly if another couple gets in their way or something unexpected happens like one partner forgets the routine.  They can then fall back on lead-follow dancing to get them through.  However, in the Standard Ballroom division, I think there is more of a chance that the couples don’t have a planned routine.  They probably have the basic idea of what they will do and also which steps they will want to show off, but because there is so much movement around the floor and many couples are buzzing around, floorcraft is key in this division in particular.  The couple has to react quickly and often to avoid collisions. (As an aside, I think Artem and Inna are particularly adept at this.  I’ve only ever seen them almost collide once, ever, on a video, and I have seen them masterfully avoid collisions multiple times without missing a single step.)  Anyways, I think in this division, and probably Smooth as well, lead-follow plays a much bigger role.

Amendment:  Please do see the comments section of this post!  Why? Because Ellen so generously and eloquently clarified this detail, about Standard Ballroom dancers.  I am incorrect, it seems!  Standard dancers do have planned routines, and maybe even more so than other dancers!  Who knew?  See Ellen’s explanation!  The main idea is that there are only certain ways to get into and exit out of various steps (very true) so they have to be strung together in careful and meticulous order, which many times will require a pre-set routine.  And yes, I admit when I am wrong! LOL!  Love it!  Thank you for interacting, Ellen!  I appreciate you so very much.

Point 3: Scoring and points

Yeah, there are no paddles at competitions.  Instead, judges mark couples, ranking them or recalling them on forms which are collected and tabulated, and then at various intervals during the day there are awards.  The announcer quickly calls out who made 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in a particular heat.  That’s it.  You may get some gold stickers, or you may get some coupons for $1 off rounds if you compete again next year for placing, and a plaque for participating, but no mirror ball trophy.  Medals are sometimes given for placing in a scholarship competition (I will explain that in a bit).  But certainly no commentary on what each couple did well or any advice on how to improve like happens on DWTS.

Another difference is that because there are multiple couples competing at the same time, if there is a large heat, with many participants, it is possible that many rounds may have to be danced.  There can be multiple preliminary rounds, then quarterfinals, then semifinals, then finals.  During each iteration, a few of the couples will be eliminated.  In the earlier rounds where there are many couples on the floor, the judges simply vote to “recall” those couples they’d like to see more of.  The final round will consist of 6, maybe 7 couples, so getting to semifinals can be a real feat if there are like 24 couples entered in the competition.  Rounds like this can be found at bigger competitions like Ohio Star Ball, or Millennium, or USDC, but usually only happen for pros.  I’ve only ever had one heat large enough to require a semifinal.  All the other heats I’ve danced have always been a final right off the bat because there aren’t enough couples to warrant multiple rounds.

Once reaching the final, judges then place the couples as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.  Each judge gives his or her own individual opinion/ranking and these are tabulated.  This is why you see perhaps 33221 by the picture or write-up in the media of a couple that placed 3rd.  In this example, 2 judges placed the couple 3rd, two judges placed them 2nd, and 1 judge placed them 1st.  The couple with the most 1st’s wins and the ranking follows the same pattern.  Hopefully the rankings will agree somewhat, indicating that the positions were highly contested, and the the judges were generally on the same page as to the excellence of the the couples.  Sometimes, however, they may also vary widely.  A couple can miss a final round, or a higher placement by the opinion of just one judge.  Truly, for this reason, I have such respect for the strength of character and perservence of the pros who put themselves out there to compete.  It can be a brutal process sometimes and very difficult to convince the majority of judges to place you highly enough to reach any level of professional success.

Often competitors can obtain their scoresheets after the competition online to see how a particular judge placed them, or if that judge recalled them.  If the competitor knows the predilections of that judge, then they may gain insight in areas to work on.  For instance, some judges are known to focus in on toplines, others footwork, others overall presentation.  In addition, competitors can see if there was a wide variation in their placements, or if the judges generally agreed upon how they were placed, again giving them more of an idea of what to focus on in the future.

Here’s where I’m going to veer off the path laid by Alaina.

Point 4: Single dances versus Scholarship Rounds, Open versus Closed heats

Okay, so in competitions there are a variety of types of heats.  Single dances are just what they sound like.  You want to dance Mambo, you dance a Mambo.  You will dance it at the appropriate level and age category.  In America, there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels.  These may be further divided into “pre-” or “full” or “intermediate” levels.  For instance, as a way of stretching yourself, if you are ranked as a full-Bronze student, you may also participate in a pre-Silver level heat to see how you fare against more advanced competition.  In addition, you dance with people your same age, and can dance against those one age category below you.  This makes it fair so 20-year-olds aren’t competing against octagenarians.

Scholarship rounds are kind of like a mimic of what the pros do.  The pros don’t dance a single dance.  They dance all the dances in their category.  Now, for us beginners, they go a little easier on us.  First, for the lower levels like Bronze, you may only dance 3 or 4 of the dances required by the pros.  Also, the length of the heats is less – 1:10 minutes to 1:2o seconds versus about 2:00 minutes for pros.  Thank God, I have to say, because it takes time to build up the cardiovascular capacity and skill level necessary to complete all the dances for such a (relatively) long duration.  So for instance, I did a closed Bronze scholarship round in Latin at Desert Classic.  This meant that I danced 3 dances in a row: Samba, Cha cha, Rumba and was ranked on those compared to the other Pro/Am couples on the floor at the same time in my same skill level and age category.  No Paso Doble of Jive for me! (Thank heavens!  However, I did dance some single dances in Jive, separately)

Again the scholarship rounds are divided by skill level and age.  They can get very competitive, especially at the Open level.

Okay, now for the difference between Open and Closed.  Closed rounds are those that only include steps in the syllabus.  For NDCA events, this is the DVIDA syllabus.  Open rounds can include more creative choreography and include steps not strictly on the syllabus.  There can be open single dances as well as open scholarship rounds.  They can also still be divided by skill level, so for instance you can dance an open bronze Bolero or an open silver Waltz.

When pros compete, they are competing as an open.  Anyone can enter.  Though for Pro/Am and Amateur levels, the open scholarship rounds are generally still divided by age, but then again, you don’t usually see senior citizens in open professional competition, but you will see them in open Pro/Am scholarship rounds.

Hmm….well, that’s probably just scratching the surface of the differences between DWTS and a NDCA competition.  Honestly, if you’ve never been to one, it’s worth checking out.  The energy of the ballroom during pro heats is unbelievable.  And it’s so inspiring and incredible.  Though I love getting my DWTS fix, I love being a part of this other world and participating in the “real deal.”  There are a lot of ways to participate in ballroom and I’d encourage anyone to participate to any level that works for them, from social dancing, to full-on competition.  All are wonderful, and special, and important.  But for me, I’ve decided, it’s the competition route I’m interested in.  Yeah, I’m crazy.  I know.  Lol.

If you do happen to have anything to add, or any further questions, please comment!  I love hearing other perspectives, and about other experiences.  Part of what I’m after here on the blog is to build community.  Please join in the fun!

Things I Tell Myself

How to begin this post?  I suppose I’ll be direct and to the point.

I’m going to dance at the Galaxy Dance Festival here in Phoenix in about a month.

(For those of you who haven’t liked my Facebook Page you could have known this days ago as I posted it there first.  I’ve decided I’m going to continue to put “bonus” material on there and my goal is to get to 100 likes.  I’m only 5 away!  So if you know anyone who might be interested in the blog, please share it.)

If you’ve been following the blog, well, then, you’ve probably gathered that this is kind of a big deal, personally, for me.  It’s one of those “get back in the saddle” deals – I’ve got to get back up and just do it.  No, I’m not at my ideal body weight after just a month, but there has been progress.  More important than that, though, is the different head-space I find myself in.  Additionally, and equally important, Ivan is coming from a different perspective as well.

Honestly, there is just so much to write about now that I’ve finally made the time and space to do it.  But I guess it boils down to a few main things:

1) When it comes to dancing, ballroom dancing specifically for me, it’s who I am and who I want to become.  Period.  Regardless of how others perceive me or judge me or place me against other dancers on the dance floor, this is my undeniable truth, and it’s none of my business what other people think of me anyways, unless they choose to tell me.  To cower in shame about my body and refuse to dance does no good – indeed, the opposite is true.  To refuse to dance for this reason is to give away my power to others and their perceptions of me.  Better to get out there and let my spirit shine through my current, latest, greatest, version of myself.  This is to stand in my personal power.  And, as I am constantly evolving, growing, and changing, as well as changing the composition of my body these days, tomorrow I will be a different version.

2) It’s all about connection.  I feel like a broken record here, folks.  No matter how many times on a lesson, or in life, I get a reminder of this, I still (frustratingly) blank out, withdraw, fail to be present.  I still struggle with looking directly at myself in the mirror (connecting with myself), directly at Ivan, directly at anyone who happens to be watching.  Two things have been happening on lessons which demonstrate my lack of connecting.  First, especially through my shoulders, I am weak.  My core is not connected with my arms and this causes me to misread leads, be off-balance, and generally foul up.  Second, since I’m not looking directly at anything when I dance, my dancing is unfocused.  Ironically this point was emphasized in Inna’s class this past week as we did Paso Doble.  She danced the same steps mechanically the same for us, the only variable nuance being her direct focus, and it made all the difference.  It was like two different dancers.

3) I’ve got to surrender my white flag.  (Like the double entendre here?)  What I mean by this is that there is a part of me that gives up on a regular basis.  Sometimes before even trying.  Like my psyche finds it easier to say I can’t do something so that when I fail at it its okay because I wasn’t trying my very best, right?  Like if I already know I’m a failure it won’t hurt as much when that turns out to be true.  Whether in the context of dieting or learning a new dance step, it’s a deeply ingrained habit, and one I’ve got to replace.

Ivan, being the intuitive being that he is, has called me on this, and honestly he’s looking for me to fight for it.  To fight for my improved physique.  To fight to finish a 3 minute dance.  To fight to own the potential inside and manifest it into real life.  He has told me on multiple occasions to stop “how do you say?  Do you understand?  The white flag?  Waving the white flag.”

It’s kind of difficult to realize what a coward you are.  To realize that you give up so easily at the slightest suggestion of difficulty.  But actually, from that recognition comes choice.  And I guess I’m choosing to not give up after all.  I’m choosing not to settle.  The trick is catching myself each time I backside, or give up (which happens fairly unconsciously sometimes), and course-correct.

You know, the funny thing is, that I tell myself some of these things before a dance lesson.  I vow to myself that I will be connected, every moment.  I promise myself that I will be sure to focus on my shoulders so that my body and my arms are connected and that I will be able to follow as an active partner.  I tell myself I will dance with strength and energy every second of the lesson.  And then I am upset and frustrated with myself when I fail at these endeavors, which inevitably happens, even if just for a moment.

But still I dance.  And still, I want to work at it.  I mean, on some level, it’s fun because of the challenge.  If it was easy, I wouldn’t value the journey like I do when I have to work for every ounce of improvement.

And doing the Galaxy competition is part of that.  It’s me refusing to wave the white flag.  It’s me risking putting myself “out there” once again, because, well, I’m a masochist.  Just kidding.  I’m doing it because there is growth to be had from taking this challenge on and because I love dancing.

So, this time around, things will be different.  Ivan and I have had conversations about our aim dancing together at this particular competition, and how we will both work at communicating differently during the event.  First off, I’m only going to do single dances.  No scholarship rounds, at least for now.  Ivan’s so awesome, though, that this could be a possibility on the day of the event depending on how he and I are feeling.  If we are really feeling strong and good, we can always add it in.  But for now, it’s less pressure, and I can just go and not take everything so seriously.

Also, we are focusing on the performance aspect this go-around.  We are going to pay attention to how the dancing feels – and our goal is to have it feel strong, powerful, beautiful, in unison.  If we achieve that, that will be a big win.  We are going to focus on the dancing rather than the outcome.  It is a much healthier stance to take, I think, and this time I am deliberately choosing it.  I think at Desert Classic I still had some expectations in the back of my mind that I’d do well.  By doing poorly in terms of placements, I am now able to let go of this, come from the space that I will probably place poorly, and this becomes so very freeing.  I’ve released the deep desire to be liked and approved of, because there is a very good chance I won’t be, and in that recognition, I can really go out there and be myself 100% in a carefree manner.  I am grateful for the gift.

So that’s the deal, folks.  I’m in.

And one final note…off topic, but in recognition of a fellow blogger who kindly likes and comments on my posts occasionally, caityrosey, this one’s for you.  Check out her blog All She Wants To Do Is Knit here.

Bet you didn’t know I was a knitter, too!  This is my latest project.  Fingerless gloves.  My hands are perpetually freezing at work so I thought I’d make myself a pair.  I’m using a merino, cashmere, possum blend I picked up in New Zealand when we visited there in November.   I thought I’d splurge and use a nice yarn since I will be using these suckers daily.  And, it’s my first project doing a cable knit.  So, there you go.  Ballroom dancer and knitter extrordinare!  My next ambitious project will be to make a shrug to cover my arms for dancing.  I’ve never made anything that has had to actually fit so far – just pillows, and hats, and purses, and toys – you know, projects where you don’t actually have to find your gague.  Well, anyways, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Peace!

Desert Classic Part Two

Phew!  I’m home, I’m exhausted, but it has been an amazing 48 hours and I’m very grateful.

I’m sure I will have more to write when I’m a little better rested but I wanted to at least share a few of the highlights that occurred after my last post.

First off, I want to say that I’m thankful for every part of my journey.

Next, I’ll just list a few things that made my experience so wonderful.  Each one could probably be an individual post, and maybe I’ll write more about them later, but for now, I’m fried, in both body and mind.  I just want to at least get down the broad brush strokes just so I don’t forget anything.

Okay, so after Thursday, Friday was a relaxed day of recovery with a massage and just enjoying the company of my friends, Colette, Ivan and Marieta.  We laughed until our bellies hurt, did a little shopping, had a little practice, and watched a little ballroom dancing.  Dinner was especially meaningful to me because Ivan shared his life story and let me tell you, that man has been through a lot.  I’m amazed by all he has weathered to get to where he is.

Although my right shin and ankle was sore and my neck had a crick in it (thank you ibuprofen), I felt pretty good upon rising Friday morning and made sure to have plenty of time scheduled for makeup, hair, and breakfast.  Again, my nerves were very bad – honestly, I’ve never experienced such nerves all throughout a competition like I did this time.  Yes, I got nervous before, but it was right before I went on the floor the first time.  At this competition, I got nervous, breathing hard, my stomach churning, not being able to eat, and feeling like I had to pee every time I had a chance to cool down.  It was particularly difficult with the dance schedule Saturday because there was a lot of 30 minute breaks between sets of dancing rather than 5 minutes, which would have been ideal from my perspective.  But what it taught me is that I need to develop strategies to cope with the nerves.  When I was very tired as after a set of 5 dances, I didn’t have nerves and felt relaxed.  I think something physical is just the ticket for the next competition.  I really value my experiences this time around because once again, I’m learning so much and will be better prepared the next go around.

Saturday morning was lots of fun with dances of West Coast Swing, Hustle, and Salsa.  This was less pressure and let me move without feeling so worried about how I did.  By afternoon, the American Rhythm dances were in full force.  I did do closed Bronze scholarship and hey, made 5th out of 6, so not dead last this time.  But better than the placement, I’m very pleased on two accounts.  First, I really pulled it together right before the scholarship.  I know that I danced my best for those three dances during the competition.  Marieta was watching and she agreed.  It was the best I’d done the entire time.  So, I am satisfied in my performance, because I know I did my best.  Yay!  Second, and the most fulfilling, was a comment from professional Jason Daly.  He happened to be in the lineup for a dance heat right behind me and Ivan.  Ivan started a conversation with him, and Jason mentioned to me that I was “doing great out there.”  Seriously, wow!  Made my day!  He doesn’t know me from Tuesday, and didn’t have to say anything, that’s for sure.  The fact that he did bother to tell me this little nugget means a lot to me, even more than how the judges place me.  To me, it means I do have potential and people can see it, even professionals.  Anyways, that was a real win for me.

Also, there was a few great moments in some of the heats toward the end where I saw the judges watching me and smiling.  I still think I got placed 2nd or 3rd but the fact they were reacting to me, was awesome.  Yay!  I wasn’t boring (at least not all the time lol).

Also completely wonderful was meeting two very special women.  One is a reader of the blog who I got to meet in person.  She is delightful and helped me with the laborious task of getting into and out of my ballroom dress so I could use the restroom.  I was tickled to have this opportunity to meet her.

In addition, I also met the author of another dance blog, plus got to see her perform two numbers, one of which I recognized from her blog post!  I introduced myself during a break and heartily laughed with her over a bit of conversation and enjoyed her fantastic company.  If you haven’t checked out The Spinning Dancer, you should – it is authentic, honest, artsy, creative, entertaining, well-written, and I love it.  Hopefully we will be doing guest posts soon for one another.  She did great in her dance performances and I could totally sense her passion.  She is quite a performer and dances with a conviction I admire.

Next big win was completing the 119 heats.  Somehow my heats got screwed up, the numbers changed or something between the day of dancing and the day we got there and were handed the heat list.  Anyways, it led to a little bit of confusion toward the end about whether we should be on the floor dancing or not.  But all heats were completed and that in and of itself is a big accomplishment.  I never really thought too much of it, but now being surrounded by other dancers who are very targeted in their dancing, like only doing a round of single dances as a warm up and then the scholarship round, they get very tired just doing those 10 heats or so.  It is an accomplishment I can be proud of that even though I may not be in the physical shape I ultimately hope to be, I have made it so I can tolerate this physical challenge of completing a relatively large number of heats.

Subsequent to that win, of being on the dance floor as much as I was, came two nice results.  First, I made it into the top 20 students, and I think I was in maybe the top 5 or so.  It had to be up there because I was Ivan’s only student, and he got 4th place top teacher.  Honestly, I didn’t think he’d get anything, or if he did, he’d get like, 9th or 10th.  Once they announced the 7th top teacher, I was like, oh well, too bad, it didn’t happen.  But that made it so much sweeter to hear his name called when it was.  It gives me great joy to be able to have made that happen.  The cash prize was a nice unexpected bonus and I’m happy that Ivan got a little something extra to thank him for all he’s done.

But the wins didn’t end there!  I heard my name again and I was like, what?!  It was for the Big Heart Award, given for acts of kindness from Igor and Irina Suvarov.  There were five given, and one was to the lady who made sure everyone got on and off the dance floor at the right time for pretty much the entire weekend – obviously someone who contributed greatly to the competition.  Ivan was especially proud of the award to me.  The funny thing is, I don’t know exactly what I did to receive it.  I had interacted with Irina online prior to the competition, and apparently she remembers me from Galaxy last year, and she knew exactly who I was when I showed up on Thursday, but still,  I didn’t do any huge act, I just showed up as myself.  In any case, it felt awesome to be recognized.

And in the recognition, I realized, I actually achieved what I had come to the competition to do.  In all honesty, I wasn’t that focused.  I didn’t say to myself, “Self.  I want to earn 3rd place or higher in bronze smooth closed scholarship.”  I didn’t get specific.  I pretty much just thought I’d show up and dance and let the cards fall where they may.  I didn’t give much thought to most details, except for three things – 1)  I really wanted to support Project Kindness and 2)  I thought it would be awesome if I could get Ivan in the top teachers for an award, and 3) that it would be nice to make it into the top 20 students with 119 heats.  Holy crap!  I achieved all of the three things I actually thought about doing!  That, plus I had a whole lot of fun, and learned a ton about myself.  Much will be explored deeper in the coming weeks and this I know – it is time for change.  It is time to grow.  I’m excited!

Lastly, Ivan and Marieta danced in the open professional American Rhythm Championship and placed 2nd out of a semi-final.  I love watching them dance – they are so captivating and really draw me in to the performance.  Last night, I couldn’t keep my eyes of them.  Honestly, I usually watch them, then look around the dance floor – they can’t keep my attention the entire time.  But last night they sure did.  When I would look away for a second, it just wasn’t as interesting to me and I had to look back.  I hope they continue to do well and be recognized for their gorgeous dancing.  I feel so lucky to be learning from them.

Another bonus was watching some other excellent dancing including amateur International Ballroom which included a couple that dances out of Inna and Artem’s studio.  I got to cheer for Hans and Ans (not sure how it is spelled) and he even smiled which was fun since he is normally so serious.  They placed third.  Also, I got to watch Artem and Inna dance, which is always a joy, and they also placed third in the open professional International Standard competition.

After the competition ended, there was a fantastic and fun professional show to watch and even better was when the judges, who had been so seriously evaluating us all weekend, busted a move themselves.  It was fantastic and involved many odd couples, including boy-boy couples.  It was absolutely darling and so much fun.  Then, after that, they had a “breakfast under the stars” where they served breakfast foods outside.  It was yummy, and meant more hysterical laughter and fun.  Ivan poured ice water down my front and back.  Yeah, thanks you crazy Bulgarian!  I love you!

So, my gosh…what more could I want from this past weekend?  Yes, as someone mentioned in one of the comments, a competition is a roller coaster.  I’m glad I stayed on for the entire ride, and as you can tell, it all ended well.  I’m quite motivated and ready to make some decisions about where I want my dancing to go, specifically, in the next 2 months before Galaxy, and beyond.  I’m ready to grow, work, change.  I treasure my time with my friends, and love seeing amazing dancing.  I got recognized, in many ways, I met new friends, and gosh, I’m just toast!  Time to recuperate before work tomorrow….and a dance lesson ASAP!  LOL

What Is It Really Like To Be An Amateur Competitive Ballroom Dancer?

So one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a trailer for this dance show called “The Studio” that is online.  I don’t know much about the program, or if they will have any more episodes, but I found the content fascinating.  You see, the pilot was about amateur competitive ballroom dancers (like me) and their professional partners as they prepared and competed at Hotlanta Dance Challenge.  I was curious to see how they would be portrayed and hunted down episode 1, the links to which I’ve posted below so you can watch for yourself.  Each episode is about 20 minutes or so, so make sure you have time to watch!  Of course, you know me.  I’m going to have my opinions.  And, I’m really interested to hear about yours as well.  It all seems especially apropos (yes!  How many times do you get to use that word in your life?!) since I’m 10 days away from my big competition!  I’m right in the middle of the preparation and can relate to these dancers.  Anyways, click below, watch, and enjoy, and then meet back up with me for some further commentary.

Pretty interesting, huh?

What did you think?

Me, well, parts I was rooting for people!  Parts, I was rolling my eyes.   Mostly, I was feeling like there is so much missing from the story!!!

Why?

Well, every ballroom dancer I know, including me, practices for hours and hours and hours.  Also, they didn’t show the actual dancing…that you do 4 or 5 dances in a row, at a minimum.  Like in my situation, I’m not just going and doing the scholarship round, I’m dancing all day long.  I’m betting these students danced lots too, at least more than they showed.  Probably they couldn’t show it because there was a contracted videographer at the competition (there always is…remember, nothing about ballroom comes cheaply!!), but that would have added an extra dimension to the story.  Like, how did they look compared to the other dancers on the floor?  Also, the results were only revealed for a few dances.  How did they do overall?  On other heats?

This project focused a little tiny bit on the practice and preparation that actually goes into showing up for a competition.  That is mostly what we students do.  It’s not all rhinestones and glamour.  It just isn’t.  It’s sweat, and tears, and triumph, and breakthroughs, and pains, and aches, and pushing your body beyond what you think it can do.  It is hours of repetition.  It is lots of money (a subject not even broached), and lots of time.  Simply stated, and I guess there’s a reason they don’t show all the “real life” stuff, it’s not all that shiny most of the time.  Most of the time it’s sweating in plain clothes, with blisters, with frustrations, with bills to pay.

But then there are those amazing sparkly moments!  I can’t wait to have a few of my own in like, 6 days OMG!

So anyways, what do you think of these videos?  I’m personally hungry to see more.  How do you think they did showing what it’s “really” like to be an amateur competitive dancer?  How is it the same, or different, from your personal experience?

I’m Gonna Find My Inner Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer

If you haven’t been watching SYTYCD, you should be.

It’s like, my fav-o-rite dance show evarrrrr.

And it relates to the title of my post. You know, everything happens for a reason and there are signs everywhere if we have the eyes to see them. The messages in my life abound. They come via friends, conversations, encounters at the grocery store, and even while watching t.v.

Tonight something Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer said on the on the show really stuck with me. He was asked to dance for his life. This happens when the judges aren’t sure about a dancer but he still has enough support that he or she gets one final chance to win the judges over for a spot on the show. He had to perform his solo, doing the style of dance that he is best at.

While very nervous in the previous rounds, Cyrus suddenly seemed calm and centered. Peaceful. Cat Deely interviewed him before he put it all on the line and he said, “There is no better feeling than being myself. I cannot wait to show the judges what I got.”

That stopped me dead in my tracks.

It represented what I call a paradigm shift.

If you haven’t already figured it out from reading my blog, I sometimes struggle with self-esteem issues, confidence issues, and body image issues. And I am also a dancer. A ballroom dancer. You know, those super sexy and elegant creatures, very feminine, confident, love having all the attention on them. Like, the very opposite of how I generally feel inside. But that is not why I am a dancer. I am a dancer because I was born that way, even if I didn’t even realize it for portions of my life. Dance lives inside me. My job, my biggest struggle, is to simply let it out, get out of my own way. To halt my hang-ups and insecurities, and analysis to paralysis, and negative thinking from getting in the way of the expression of that greater spirit that sometimes comes out when I let it.

So when Cyrus said what he said about there being nothing better than being himself and being so excited to share that with the judges, it was like, what? That thought never occurred to me.

You see, my aim for the Desert Classic, the goal behind the goal if you will, is not just to dance well, or place high, or even to get a top student award, it is actually to allow myself to be seen. To have dances full of pure dance, connection, joy. To let myself go to the places I usually keep dammed up, closed. I guess, in the end, it’s really about being vulnerable. Like some part of me is afraid to really let that show because I don’t necessarily feel like Cyrus. I don’t always feel like it’s awesome to be me. If I don’t feel great about myself, why would I want to share it? I’d want to only reveal the polished veneer, to look good.

You know, in theory, I believe we are all special, even me. We all have our own unique greatness. But when it comes to actually feeling that way about myself I waver between delusions of grandeur and being a squashed bug. Like in my dancing, sometimes I think I’m awesome. Other times, I feel like I can’t do anything right.

But the part of me that is actually awesome is bigger than any dance technique. It’s the part that my friend Colette saw when I danced on my birthday with Ivan. She told me, “I don’t know if it was the wine, but when you danced that night you shone.” It’s the part that my mom saw that brought her to tears when I danced in the showcase. It’s the part that gives Ivan goosebumps every once in a while when we dance together, like happened this morning for no particular reason I could discern.

But OMG, do you know what he told me Monday morning? There I was, struggling through more Rumba walks (in my head concentrating on my hips, getting over my feet, not slapping them on the floor, making my arms move, not dying because of the cardio, etc, etc, etc.) I was in the space of knowing that what I was doing just wasn’t good enough. That I was lacking proper technique…something Ivan was quick to remind me of, correcting something every few steps. And he tells me some fixes, and I do the best I can to implement them and you know what he tells me? He says, “I jealous of you.”

Like, say WHAT? Back that train up!

Here is this man, this amazing dancer. This person that I look up to and wish I could move like him, or Marieta. And he’s telling me that he’s jealous of me. I couldn’t believe it.

Like, what on earth did he have to be jealous of?

He explained. “You getting it so quickly! I have to practicing years and years and I never move like this. It’s cause you have talent.”

I have always thought that it really wasn’t talent. It was the fact that I danced as a kid and had a great teacher who knew her technique in ballet, tap, and jazz. I worked really hard to be moderately good in those genres, but I knew I’d never be able to do say the kind of dancing that is performed on SYTYCD. I knew I’d never be a professional dancer.

But ballroom is different. Not only is all about connection and partnering, but it seems to fit the way my body moves like a glove. By this I mean my hips are very flexible. Apparently this is not the case for a lot of people. I never gave it a second thought because it just came naturally to me. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of technique to absorb, and a lot of working it though, but I think the base is there.

Anyways, I thought Ivan was totally off his rocker. I would give anything to move like he and Marieta or Inna…but then again, maybe I should rethink that?

You know, on Tuesday night I went to get my butt kicked in Inna’s class and we did Rumba, Cha Cha, and Samba. There is some tricky stuff in all three dances to master, and Inna often has students demonstrate what we are working on. It’s good because it gets us used to performing, being in front of others, being uncomfortable. etc. So at one point she had me do a Samba combination across the floor.

As an aside, I think I am actually doing better in the class in terms of stamina. Trust me, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but we had a new student in the class who looked like she was really fit. Even she was like, “When is this class gonna be over?” I had to laugh. I’ve so been there! But at least last night I was hanging in there pretty well.

So back to the Samba combo. Anyways, after class Inna said to me, “I love your Samba.”

Wow! That’s so cool. And I was like, “Thanks Inna.”

“It’s so much better!” She said.

Which is true. I actually had a lesson with her while Ivan was in Bulgaria getting married specifically to work on my Samba bounce – that tricksy movement! So she knew where I had started from.

Anyways, that felt like a pretty good acknowledgement. See, Stef, there has been progress. You are becoming a better dancer. Enough that others notice.

But every time I think about the Desert Classic, which happens multiple times during the day, I get butterflies in my stomach. Part of me is excited. Part of me is nervous.

I wonder if I will have the stamina to do what I need to do. I waver between being okay with how my body is because it isn’t going to change all that much between now and the competition, and just trusting that I move well and will be expressive and that it will be enough, and then freaking out because I am going to look so different from most of my competitors.

Well, I guess I’m deciding right now that screw it. Screw it all! Screw all the chatter in my head! It just needs to shut up!

Instead I’ll listen to Ivan and the music. I will tune into the dance.

I’m big. But I’ll be big in all ways, not just in my ass. I will be noticed. And not just for my size. I think it’s kind of unavoidable that I will be noticed for that initially. But that doesn’t have to be the main attraction. Instead, I will then begin to move. And from then on, I will be noticed because I will shine.

You know, I’ve got to get over myself and just set aside all this B.S. I will find my inner Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer and love being me, at least for the time that I’m dancing. I will find my inner Cyrus and be so excited to “show those judges what I’ve got.” Whatever that looks like in the moment.

I suppose I’m giving myself a little pep talk here on the blog, well so be it.

This is my time to shine. Carpe Diem and all that.

Topical Series: Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

Not one to shy away from a touchy issue, I’m going to dare to broach the subject of money in the context of ballroom.

Oh, there are group lessons you can find as inexpensive as $5, but if you are a competitive amateur student and ballroom junkie like me, private lessons with an experienced (and maybe even some less experienced) instructor can easily cost upwards of $75 a pop. Yes, there are some cheaper lessons out there….the lowest I’ve heard of is $60….but there is also the other end of the spectrum of $100 or even $125 per lesson. For a professional who is a champion or a pro on DWTS, they can probably charge whatever they want.

For someone who dances like me, ballroom rivals, and I think exceeds, the financial cost of a another expensive sport and hobby, golf.

No doubt about it, ballroom is an expensive pastime, but where does all that money go? Why are lessons so expensive? Why would anyone in their right mind (including me) pay upwards of $50 to dance for a mere minute-and-a-half in competition? Truly, it boggles the mind.

I want to tackle this topic in a sensitive way but I do think the questions are valid. Again, this is just my perspective, and I am sure there are many others. I am open to your commentary and feedback.

I guess I’ll start by explaining why I am willing to pay such a premium.

The most basic and personally compelling reason is because I enjoy doing it. But for someone new to dancing, or for someone just new to the ballroom world, even this valid reason may not be enough to justify the expense in some people’s minds.

I mean, all the ballet and jazz dancing I did in the past, though associated with a hefty price tag, still never approached the cost of ballroom. I attribute this to the fact that the classes were group, never private, and recitals were infrequent events. Even the costumes were less expensive, never being bedazzled with Swarvosky crystals.

But in ballroom, the way I dance, it is mostly private, one-on-one lessons. So part of the expense can be explained by this fact.

Next, I consider the extensive training and expertise and experience of my instructors. They, too, have poured literally thousands of hours and dollars into their own dance training. Their education, just like that of other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists, is extensive and expensive! It’s just that their process looks different and doesn’t take place in a traditional college or university most of the time.

I have to say, that at the going rate, I consider Ivan’s rate to be a steal and I am more than happy to pay the monthly fee at Imperial for the group lessons with Inna. I have garnered great value from my money and time. So for me, even though I’m like, ugh! I wish things were less expensive overall, I am grateful to get such a comparative bargain. I feel like my ballroom dollars go a long way.

Also, I will mention one caveat here – there do exist different levels of experience and expertise when it comes to instructors. Some are worth more than they charge, and some charge more than they should! Certainly an important consideration on where to spend your money will be the level and experience of your instructor. The same $75 can buy you a varying degree of value! Make sure to do your due diligence and research your options before committing to an instructor – especially if you have to purchase a package that will entail multiple lessons with that same person.

Okay. So the process of becoming a professional dancer is expensive. Just like the process of becoming another traditionally recognized professional is.

But still, what about competing? Why is that an astronomically expensive prospect?

Okay well, on some level, that makes sense too.

First off the “daily fee” for an instructor.

I’ve heard variations from $180 to $25,000 per diem cost. Why? Well, because a dance teacher’s income is dependent upon lessons. If a person is gone say, from Thursday through Sunday, as most competition schedules would have you be, then an instructor misses out on all those lessons that would normally take place on those days. Which days do you suppose have the highest volume of lessons? Well, Thursday through the weekend, of course…that is when most people have spare time, right? And as for the variation in daily fees, that has to do with how highly ranked the professional is, how many lessons they generally conduct, and how much individual lessons cost….

For instance, in practical terms, let’s do some theoretical projections.

Say a person charges $75 per lesson and they teach 6 lessons a day…that’s $450 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

If a person charges $100 per lesson, and teaches 10 lessons daily…that’s $1000 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

So I, in theory, agree with the daily fee idea because it makes a bit of sense. However, as a student who bears that burden of making up the difference, I do find that it makes the decision to compete a bit harder.

I mean, to be able to afford an extra $1000 per day after also paying for airfare and hotel lodgings, not to mention $45 to $50 or perhaps even more per heat, and also considering the cost differential for scholarship rounds and solos…sheesh! It is a lot to take on. And that doesn’t even take into account purchasing or renting a dress or getting your hair and make-up done, the nails, the nylons, the shoes, the eyelashes, the spray tan.

And by the way, why are individual heats so costly? $50 per 1.5 minutes? WTH?

From what I understand, the cost is made up of two fees: the fee for the competition, and the fee for the instructor. The fee for the competition is usually around $35 to $40 and then the fee from the instructor can range from $15 to $25 or maybe even more, depending on the caliber of the instructor. So this means that one dance could cost $45 to $70 or more.

I honestly don’t know the exact rationale behind these charges, but I’m sure the cost associated with the competition covers the sunk costs: hotel space being used, the DJ, the staff, the adjudicators, etc., which can’t be cheap!

But no one really breaks down all the fees, usually. I think what normally happens is that students are presented with a lump sum. Some instructors may split the costs of housing and lodging and transportation between students if more than one goes, but I think it is possible that they could still charge separate daily fees, or also divide that cost up and share it among multiple students. But even so, it is pretty rare to know the details of the total bill.

And of course then there are the packages at the comp. Packages cover nights in the hotel, some meals, and tickets into the ballroom sessions. So even before you dance, there is a basic fee just to be present. Then it gets more expensive the more you dance.

By looking at the bill, as a student, you may then wonder at the cost and ponder why, if you are paying so much, your instructor isn’t a millionaire, already? I mean, most professionals can’t demand $75 or more for less than an hour! That is significantly more than I make as a pharmacist!

I certainly don’t have all the answers here….but here are my thoughts and guesses. First, maybe the instructor is making a good living. They have what we students want and are willing to pay for. But the volume of lessons can vary considerably. People move, or get injured, or only take lessons to prepare for their wedding. People switch instructors. The turnover in students can be very high. An instructor’s schedule may not be completely booked solid. Even at $100 per lesson, if a pro only teaches a few lessons a week, it could be hard to make ends meet.

Next, most pros are going to want to continue to hone their craft. This means they have to pay to be a student! Whether through videos or workshops or coachings, they must pay, often at an even higher premiums for high-level coaches than students pay, to participate. For especially well known coaches, this may also include hosting the coach locally – paying all traveling and lodging expenses plus showing the coach a good time.

Then, if the pro competes professionally, they have to pay the entry fees at the comp. I have no idea the pricing on that, but just like we amateurs, they have to have the clothes, and hair, etc. plus, they generally compete more frequently than students. They have to hoof it week in and week out. They have to pay all the costs associated with competing and if no students participate, they bear all that financial burden alone. Also, they must continually change their image. It may be okay to wear a dress a few times but no more than that. The pros have to maintain the illusion of effortless glamour and grandeur and this means new dresses, different hair styling, and a different “look” to keep things exciting.

I personally own just one dress and it cost more than my wedding gown. To imagine having to obtain a new dress every few months, with all it’s fringe and crystals and sequins, is a daunting prospect.

It makes me wonder if there is still a hidden agenda to keep ballroom “exclusive” meaning that only those in the upper classes can participate in it. I’m just sayin’ that ballroom dancing is not very accessible to the general public, the hoi paloi if you will. And that, I personally believe, is a shame.

I wish ballroom were more available and accessible to anyone who had an interest regardless of their socio-economic standing.

I suppose that if a person were truly and deeply motivated, they’d find a way to participate in this sport – however, the price of playing, even at a novice level, makes the chances of someone casually engaging in this particular craft pretty darn slim. And that is too bad. I’d like to see people have more options and access, at least at the beginning levels so they could discover if this was something they’d want to pursue. (For the purposes of this discussion we are only considering competitive ballroom. Yes, there are less expensive ways to dance such as doing Amateur only events or social dancing or taking classes at the local community college. For many people this works great. But for others we want that competitive experience.)

So anyways, competitive pro/am ballroom isn’t for the person without some expendable income. I personally just accept that this is the price to play as a participant in the ballroom game. Whether I agree with the fees, or not, to do this particular activity, I must pay in dollars what I must pay. I mean, every moment is a choice and every choice has prices and benefits. I guess, for me, the benefits outweigh the prices, even at $75 or more per 45 minutes. If you’ve read my blog you’ll probably be able to see the value I’ve garnered from my interactions and many times there is no dollar amount that could possibly be assigned to what I have gained.

So what is your take on the sensitive issue of money in ballroom? How does it affect your decisions to participate in various activities? Do you think it is worth the cost?