Star Light, Star Bright: Topical Series – What Is Starlighting?

Ballroom is another world with its own rules and sometimes those rules are not explicitly stated and can cause confusion for people new to the hobby/activity/passion/obsession.

For instance, people newer to ballroom may not have heard of the term “starlighting.”  I guess it is kind of like the moonlighting my dad used to do as a radiologist when I was a kid.  He would work extra hours at hospitals outside of his regular job to earn some extra money when he was a resident.  In the ballroom context, “starlighting” is when a professional dancer accompanies his or her students out to social events, dance camp dinners, or other studio outings.

Hubble Watches Star Clusters on a Collision Course - Flickr - NASA Goddard Photo and Video

By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA (Hubble Watches Star Clusters on a Collision Course) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Students will pay their pro, or chip in as a group to basically “rent” the company of their pro for an evening of dancing. The pro, in turn, will dance with the students who hired him during the course of the event.  Outings may occur with many students at a particular studio and though they appear social, they have a specific start and stop time and pros will vacate the premises immediately after the event has come to an end.  Outings are generally associated with a particular price and may occur at regular intervals at studios.

One of the more confusing things that can happen as a newcomer to ballroom is that pros may not (and generally do not) ask students to dance unless they are their own students or they are friends with the students’ teacher.  There are many reasons for this behavior.  In the case of a “starlighted” event, the reason is obvious – the pro is “on the clock” with the students who have paid him to be there.  (Pros can be female, of course, but the vast majority of competitive students are female, employing a disproportionate number of male professional dancers).

Other reasons why pros may avoid dancing with students include the desire to not appear to be encroaching upon other pro’s students, or wanting to avoid angering their own students by paying attention to anyone else.  Or, perhaps they are just plain tired of dancing and want a little break!

But it creates an interesting dynamic, this “starlighting” thing.  It creates the appearance of intimacy, which may or may not be genuine, and most definitely involves a business transaction.  This can create confusion or even hurt feelings if both parties are not entirely clear about the nature of the relationship and transaction, or if there are unspoken assumptions of what an evening of “starlighting” will purchase.  I think, for instance, payment a “Starlighting” pro compensates the pro for his or her time, energy, and dancing expertise, and it may also increase the amount of attention given to the student for the duration of the engagement. It might even make the student feel “special” for a while.  If the pro views the “Starlighting” as a purely business venture but the student views it as a friendship or relationship things could get tricky.  Open, honest communications about expectations and boundaries are always a good idea!

Not all pros “Starlight” and most of the ones I’ve known to do it are independent instructors.  I don’t know if pros employed the studios are allowed to “Starlight,” and I’ve never personally hired a pro for an event other than as my pro in a competition, but I think it could be a great option for a special occasion if I wanted to be sure I’d dancing all night.

If you’ve had a “Starlighting” experience, I’d be curious to know how it went for you, if you liked it, if it was worth the investment.

And what do you think about the idea of “Starlighting?”  Does it seem like a cool thing to do, or is it a little off-putting?

Zip Up Your Pants!

Today I went to a lesson with Ivan.  Things have been very fun lately on our lessons, and today I laughed so much I almost cried.  Don’t ask me how or why, but I was even laughing when Ivan stepped on my toe!  It hurt, darn it, but then he saw my reaction, “Ouch, Ivan!” he kicked it again.  I hit him back in the chest.  Then he kicked my toe again.  We sound like kids on the playground, but I guess a little play is good, even for so-called adults.  My toe is sore because yesterday I stepped on it with my heels on and it bled a little bit, so it doesn’t need the extra abuse.  But that’s Ivan.  Always entertaining.  Never a dull moment.

I walked in the studio with a purpose this morning because we have to get this number for the showcase finished.  Actually, things are really starting to fall into place, except that like three times in the routine we end up in a position that I don’t know how we can get out of unless we do a ronde’ kick around.  So now every time Ivan tells me, “Imagine you gonna doing a ronde’ here. but I not sure.  Maybe gonna change.”  We will have to figure something else out for at least one of these moments because otherwise people will think they are watching a re-run.

But that is a pretty small issue.  We have the first half pretty well set, and I’m feeling more comfortable about it.  Yes, polishing will need to be done, but at least it fits the music.  We have about 40 seconds more to choreograph.  I use the term, “we” here loosely.  Really, Ivan’s making up the routine because I don’t know enough steps to do that.  I just mainly experiment with what he wants and then tell him if I really don’t like the way something looks, but usually he doesn’t like the way it looks either.

At one point Ivan wanted to drag me in the splits.  He showed me how to kick doing a releve’ and develope’…I started cracking up.  His fly was down and it was quite apparent with his legs split up in the air like that.  Awkward!  I caught a serious case of the giggles and so did Ivan.  Like I said, never a dull moment.

So things are going well with the dance and I’m pretty excited about performing it next month.  I kinda can’t wait to have some new photos/video to share, especially since I probably won’t do another competition until May, and May seems a long time to wait.  Ah, such is life.  If only I were a trust-fund baby…

In any case, after the lesson, Ivan and I got to chatting.  One of the things I really appreciate about my current teacher is that he is who he is on and off a lesson.  He’s invited me to be a part of his life outside of the dance classes and I can’t tell you how much I value and feel grateful for this.  I value authenticity, and Ivan’s the real deal, even if he is a little crazy.

But today what was on his mind was kind of the dirty little secrets, the underbelly, of the ballroom world.  I think most people realize that not everything is always as glamorous and idealistic as it may appear for the 10 minutes on the ballroom dance floor.  There is a lot of political maneuvering, money changing hands, and pandering even.  I guess it even extends in some cases beyond just the professional levels and into high level students who dance with professionals.  It’s like this big machine, set up to keep certain people in power and to keep others giving to those in power to get the results they desire.  Now of course, a person has to be a great dancer to get excellent results.  But beyond that, there are all these games to be played.

But Ivan, well, I think he has a rather healthy view about it all.  I think it bothers him, all this stuff.  He’s resolved to enjoy his life, all of it, and not to have tunnel vision just for dancing.  He’s willing to play the game to a certain extent because that’s kind of “how it is,” but not to the point that he gets sick in the head about it.  The machinations could seriously drive a person crazy if he lets them.  Ivan would rather have fun and love the dancing and let the chips fall where they may in terms of being judged.  I suppose that in any sport where things are judged rather than simply recorded as in the time of a race, or the height of a pole vault, that there is the possibility of bias, corruption, and as a given, subjectivity.  I initially found it fascinating that dancing could even be “judged,” since watching it is such a subjective experience.

For instance, I may enjoy the performance of someone who I can see is less technically skilled because I am moved emotionally.  For me, being moved is paramount to exemplary technical skill.  For others this may be reverse.  Therefore, if I were to judge couples I would probably place them differently than someone who prefers technical capability over emotional content.  How can a couple really be determined to be “number one?”  We’d probably all find different merits and things that we liked about various dancers and couples but what makes a couple my favorite may make them someone else’s least favorite.  It is a fascinating thing we all do, trying to compare and judge and discover who is “the best.”  Because frankly, I may be the best at one aspect but the worst at another.  How then, do I rank overall?  And really, who cares anyway?

I suppose for a professional dancer it would matter more to have a championship title under your belt.  It means that more people will know about you and want to take lessons with you or coachings from you.  It also makes it more likely you could be hired to be a judge.  But for me, little ole me, really, why?  I mean, it would sure feel good to do well and win something, but as far as it actually meaning anything, I feel like there is more meaning to be found in the journey and the story of each dance than in a title.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I am extremely competitive, I’ve discovered.  I also think that going for some scholarship or something would be a great goal and challenge me to test my limits, motivate myself, and stretch beyond what I currently think is possible.  It was a great big hairy goal for me to declare that I wanted to be the Top Student (Bronze) at San Diego last year.  But because I decided I wanted to go for it, I trained harder, put more blood, sweat, and tears, and money, and effort, and time into it and that was what felt so amazing at the end of the competition.  When I thought I’d only made it into the top 20 students, I was satisfied, knowing I’d done my best, given it my all, and had created an amazing experience for myself.  I was further ahead in health and a better dancer than I had been two months prior when I decided to do the competition.

And yet, at the end of the day, the question both was and wasn’t  whether I achieved Top Student or not.  Rather, I discovered that the deeper question really, was did I love myself dancing?  Did I enjoy every moment of connection with myself, my partner, the audience?  Did I move someone to feel something?

Those are the things I really value.

Earning Top Student was icing on the cake – specific feedback for a specific aim I’d set for myself.  This time I achieved the goal.  But in achieving the goal, I discovered it wasn’t really about the goal.

What it was about was showing up with all of me.  And I’m pretty awesome, as are we all, when I do that.  I surprise even myself.

So for me, this experience of competitive ballroom dancing is about the dancing and the goals and the achievements and it is not about them at all.  Can I be a champion in my own heart, and dance like the champion I am, regardless of what others see or how they judge me….especially since I don’t have the typical ballroom dancer physique?  You know what, in moments, yes I can.  In others, I shrivel inwards, embarrassed to shine, feeling “less than” all my competitors.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that if I show up believing in myself, dance after dance, letting my passion and joy flow, that I’ll convince the “judges” to believe in me too.  In some ways, they are simply outward projections of my own inner judge.  If I can dance and find myself to be worthy, whatever that looks like, then I will have won in all the ways that really matter, and I’m guessing others will jump on my bandwagon.

And, it feels damn good to win.  It matters, too, while at the same time doesn’t matter one iota.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t important to me because it is…in some ways.  But in the grand scheme of things, it is simply feedback, and my work isn’t done.  I know this because I am still alive.

Weird, huh?

I know, I know. Can’t a post ever just be light and fluffy?  Why all the deep introspection?  It’s just what I do my friends.  It’s just what I do.