Melt The Ice

Well, this post is a little bit belated.  Reason being I’m moving this weekend, and that takes a lot of time.  Between packing, and working, and still getting in a dance lesson or two, life has been going full speed ahead.

But I had the most amazing lesson Friday morning and I just kind of want to process it all.  I feel like sometimes I say the same things over and over, and maybe that’s repetitive and boring, but then I think, well, that’s what I do on a dance lesson, you know?  I practice the same thing over and over, but I’m discovering the same thing in a different way.  It is an entirely new experience each time I do a volta, even if it feels somewhat familiar.  This is because I am a different person and I’ve gained new experiences since the last time I did a volta.  But then again, when I bring up the subject of connection, say, again and again, I may sound like a broken record.  And yet, I am coming to know connection anew – this familiar subject – but as if for the first time.

So anyways, I showed up on my lesson fresh with some ideas in my little brain.  One of the things I appreciate most about Ivan is that I feel like I’m an equal.  I feel like he will listen to me and my ideas, and that he values my dance experience.  I totally acknowledge that he is the more experienced person in the room and has expertise that I don’t posses, and yet, I have things to offer in the dance relationship as well.  Other instructors I’ve had have been very invested in keeping the teacher-student (i.e. supperior-inferior) relationship in place.  They were not as open to my feedback or ideas.

But with Ivan, I’ve felt that it’s safe to bring things up, ask questions, and even, gasp, have an agenda for my dance lesson.  Anyways, the night before I spent some time surfing on YouTube.   I was actually looking for music.  I was searching for ballroom performances to find music that would be suitable for practicing and that I would like. I happened upon a video of Donnie Burns conducting a lecture.  I didn’t watch the entire 45 minutes, but one day I really need to.  The bit I did watch was amazing.

You see, Donnie Burns happens to be one of Ivan’s heroes.  He used to watch Mr. Burns compete when he was in his prime.  So he’s mentioned the man on occasion.

I didn’t know much about the guy but when the video popped up, I was intrigued and decided maybe I should learn a little bit about one of the people Ivan most looks up to as an example.  Man!  It was amazing the little bit I happened upon.

Basically, Donnie was talking about connection.  I think it’s kind of a lost art in ballroom dancing today.  Truly.  I never really even broached the subject until I danced with Ivan.  And the few times it has actually happened, me being actually connected to Ivan on a lesson, have been amazing.  Most people are so focused on learning the steps, learning the syllabus and technique, and of course all that is important and good, but so much time and energy is spent on this that no time is taken to develop the connection.  Now, I realize I’m generalizing here.  And this is just my opinion.  I’m sure some instructors do work on connection with their students, but I have to say, I feel like Ivan is kind of a master at it.  From day one he brought to my awareness the need to be connected and focused on him as the lead.  Not only that, but he’s been working on pulling the emotional expression out of me through that connection.

Anyways, in the little part of the video that I watched, Donnie was talking about how when you first connect with a partner you have to “melt the ice” a little bit.  The man has to get through the defenses of the woman so that she will respond to his invitation.  Even if you’ve only been apart for a little bit of time, there’s some “ice” that has built up that must be melted.  This is a result of just the daily experiences and stresses of living.  But through connecting, the ice can melt.  You know it’s melted when you breathe together, the man begins to move, and the woman will settle on the hip in preparation to move. (This was in the context of Latin dancing, by the way).

Donnie explained that dancing in a partnership isn’t about the man dancing with the inconvenience of a woman that he has to push and pull here and there.  He explained that 90% of the leads in the Rumba, say, are actually to stop the woman, not to start her.  She will move, on her own, if only the man will allow her to do so.  Suddenly, the dance becomes effortless, a physical, mental and spiritual joint experience.

And Donnie said one last thing that really stuck with me.  He said that the only way to dance, was to dance.  That just like the lyrics don’t make a song, the steps alone, don’t make a dance.  Wow, I thought.  This is why I do this.  It’s about melting the ice, being connected, and dancing.  This guy’s a freakin’ genius!  No wonder he was a World Champion so many times.  No wonder Ivan idolizes him.  He’s got some good things to say.

So anyways, I had all this on my brain as I walked into my lesson.  I’ve been thinking for a while now that it is important that Ivan back off a little, meaning that he not help me as much when we are dancing.  Why?  Well, because when he makes it possible for me to move when really I shouldn’t be able to, because on my own I’d be stuck, or off-balance, then I don’t get the kinetic feedback that something is amiss.  I don’t have the opportunity to correct myself.  Nor do I begin to build the muscle memory necessary to perform these movements properly.  Also, it causes both of us to expend a lot of energy in the tension of the physical connection.  And, I also realized, that I actually can’t move as well.  There is a restriction I experience when the lead is too strong.  The help Ivan is used to providing turns out to be a hinderance at this point.

But the thing is, that I think that it is probably just as hard for Ivan to back off as it is for me to step up and drive forward forcefully.  But really, it is something we need to work on, I think, in our partnership, to improve the quality of our collective dancing.

Alright, so I began the lesson spewing all these thoughts out into the ethers, hoping that Ivan would “get” what I was blabbering on about.  Lucky enough for me, he totally did!

We began with Rumba.  And, we began with the simplest of actions, the hand connection at the start of the dance, but it was amazing.  Why?  Well, the whole point of the hand connection is to connect the body and the core.  The hand connection translates into a connection beyond the physical, though it also includes the physical.  In any case, this time, on this particular morning, I actually began by looking Ivan directly in the eyes.  I actually allowed my defenses to come down for just a second.  I became completely focused on Ivan, kind of the feeling I had when we danced with our eyes closed, when I had to rely on all my peripheral senses to follow his lead.  But I discovered this morning that it is also possible to feel that expansiveness with eyes open.  And magic happened:  Ivan began to move toward me, and just like what had happened in the video of Donnie Burns, Ivan and I breathed together and I settled onto my hip before we began the first step.  It felt as smooth and effortless a hot knife slicing butter.

And then, well, my usual programs began running.  I messed up a step.  Fell off of balance.  I lost concentration and ergo connection.  But Ivan wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily.   He was like, “You doing so well, then you gone again.  You show me a little bit of your world, then you shut the window again.  Why you shut the window?”

I didn’t have time to respond.  Ivan grabbed my hand and pointed upwards.  The studio where we were practicing is decorated like a beach get-away and there are a bunch of floaty rings and beach balls hanging from the ceiling.  He pointed to one of the floating rings and said, “You only show me a little peep hole into your world.  Why you do that?  Your world is so bright and colorful.  Share it.”

Inside, I was processing all this.  Like, really, I thought, you actually want to see what’s going on inside me?  You are actually interested?  I have to come clear here and say that so much of my defenses and hiding have to do with not feeling good enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, and sexy enough to really be worth being seen.  And, a lot of that has to do with my physical appearance.  Like, I will connect and show myself to a point, the point where it is comfortable, the point where I’m still holding a person at arm’s length.  I’m still blocking access to the inner sanctum of my essence, if you will, because I allow my personal demons and insecurities to get in the way.

But Ivan seemed so genuine, and we’ve been dancing together for  like 10 months or so, and he’s become a trusted friend.  If I were to let someone in, really in, wouldn’t he be a good choice?  In the context of dancing, of course!  So something inside me decided in that moment to just let go.  And I did.  And we connected.  I’ve never looked that clearly, directly, and openly into Ivan’s eyes.  You know, one of them is half a different color.  Anyways, he’s always been there, been available.  I’ve been the one not open.  So when I decided to connect, really connect, he was right there ready for me.

“Wow.”  I said.

Honestly, I don’t know that I can fully capture the feeling of that experience in words.  All I can say, is that there was an entirely different quality to our movements.  We were in unison.  I could almost tell what he was going to do before he did it.  I began to tear up.  It brought up some emotion inside me.  Perhaps because I felt vulnerable.  Perhaps because it felt good.

I realized that one thing Ivan has always created the space for on our lessons was to actually enjoy the dancing.  Like the time he grabbed my hand and put it on various parts of his body, even his butt!  Saying, “Hello, I am Ivan.”  And really letting me know that it was okay to touch him while we were dancing and playing the parts that are played on the dance floor.  But again, I’d permissioned myself to only go so far.  “Okay,” I thought, “I get now that it is okay to touch Ivan.”  I still get a little shy about it now and then, but for the most part, I’ve accepted that he’s okay with me touching him.  The part I held back on was actually allowing myself to enjoy it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, I was keeping the experience at arm’s length, once again.  Letting the touching be okay, but keeping it very aloof, very disconnected…what I was thinking was “professional” or “appropriate.”  I didn’t actually let it be enjoyable.  I kept that feeling at bay.

But here’s the thing….natrually, when we are touched, by something pleasant, like a feather, or another person gently, or like getting a massage or something….it feels good.  It is natural for touch to feel good (when it is appropriate, safe, healthy, nice touch).

And yet there is a part of me that is like, for whatever reason I haven’t yet deciphered, that it’s not okay to enjoy this touch.

But the kicker is that the whole point of dancing is to feel and to actually enjoy it!  People can sense when you are faking that, just going through the motions, and when you are actually feeling it, emoting it.  I was blocking the very thing that brings meaning to my dancing!  What’s up with that!?!?

I can’t tell you how many times Ivan has demonstrated this to me.  He will show me what it is like to touch someone and to have them not react.  It is disconnected, off-putting, unexciting.  Part of what makes Ivan and Marietta’s dancing so mesmerizing is that they each respond to the touch of the other.  They look at where they were touched, or express with their face and body how it felt to be touched.  But me, I’m a cold fish.  Poor Ivan is reacting to me, but I’m unresponsive as a raw potato.  How annoying would that be to dance with?

But hey, I’m not all bad.  Just today, I was more aggressive on my Rumba walks, and then I just made all sorts of breathing noises and faces during my cha-cha which to me felt over-the-top, excessive, loud, uncomfortable, and crazy, but to Ivan, well, he just said, “You make me so happy now!”  Go me!

And heck, I’m opening up a little, at least.  Ivan got a glimpse inside me.  And the truth is, that I want to open the windows wide open.  Inside, I want to just let spirit fly!  I want to feel, and connect.  I suppose that is why I even want to dance.  And you know what, I’m on my way.  I’m getting there.  I’m getting closer and closer to that vision every time I practice.

Alas, there is still much to work on. But I’m reminded of this thing I saw on Facebook just the other day:

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion. -Martha Graham

Well now.  I’m deciding right this instant that I am a great dancer!  I certainly have great passion for this medium.  And well, maybe my inner great dancer is not yet fully expressed, but she’s in there, I just know it!  She’s banging on the door to come out, and sometimes I even open it for her to play.

And yet, I know there is still more to be done.  For instance, yesterday after my lesson with Ivan, I decided to stay and practice a bit.  I popped on my headphones and was about to begin and this gorgeous blond lady walks in the studio.  Seconds ago it had been people I knew, now there was this stranger, and she was lovely to boot.  I was almost going to leave just because of that!  I always feel like I don’t want to take up any of the floor space at a studio.  It is one thing when on an actual lesson, but to just be by myself and practice…well, I don’t know if there are any “rules” about that, but I’d guess that couples with a teacher take precedence.  And the studio was becoming more busy and crowded.  Certainly I wouldn’t want to get in their way.  But then, I cow myself in.  I don’t go around the room in a big circle to practice my Samba walks or Rumba walks like I want to.  Instead, I grab a little corner in the back, and even then I worry about being in the way of people trying to get to the bathroom, or the instructors getting to the office.  I mean, like, couldn’t they um, just walk around me?  I’m not that important.  I’m not being disrespectful or obnoxious, right?  Or am I?  I ended up turning with my face to the back wall because I was so concerned about everyone else and what they might think of me that I had to physically turn myself around to block it out!  Isn’t this insane?  And also, it reveals to me that I’m not willing to hold my own space, to claim my spot on the dance floor.  I had a realization that I really was being run by my need to look good (or rather, not look bad!), my need to be approved of, my need to be liked….and…get this….by people I didn’t even know!  By people who probably weren’t even watching me!  (But what if they were? Oh shut up you stupid little voice!)  So what if they were!  It’s crowded in my head sometimes, I tell you….

And sometimes it’s not.  Like when I’m connected and just dancing….

And yet, in that instance, I was paralyzed.  Yes, during my practice session, I did a little of this and a little of that, but I stopped myself from really feeling anything, really dancing full-out.  For instance, I was touched by this one song, “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw and wanted (inside) to dance really big and expansive.  But did I?  No.  It kinda makes me want to cry, this editing, this blocking.  Why do I do this to myself?  Actually, who even cares?  I do it now and it doesn’t serve me.

It’s time to change.

And I mean that on a lot of different levels.

And life is going to change…tomorrow.  I’m moving houses which will mean a new environment and a fresh opportunity to claim and organize my new living space.  Also, lots is going on “behind the scenes” for me emotionally, though dancing and other means.  I’m having a lot of time to reflect, for introspection, especially during my long commute to work, and I’ve come to a few decisions about who I want to become in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, physically and mentally.

Remember that whole thing about being a broken record?  Well, I’ve become one to myself.  I’m sick of hearing myself say the same stupid things to myself about myself all the time.  So it’s time to take action.  A wise friend once told me, “If you want to change, you have to change.”  Well, I want some changes, so I guess I must make the changes necessary to create them.

It’s way past time for me to stop the insanity, be who I am meant to be, and just let that be enough.  It’s time to let my emotions shine though my dancing and to get out of my own way.  It’s time for me to claim my space on the dance floor and to stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking.  It’s time to really commit to creating the body I deserve and desire through choices that serve me each and every day.  It’s time to stop squandering my days as if they are not numbered.  It’s time to live a life I love, love the life I live, and love myself.  It’s time to create myself anew.

And, you know what?

It’s time to melt the damn ice!

I Didn’t Know Hair-Pulling Was Part Of The Deal

So yesterday when I showed up for my lesson I started trying to do Spiral turns. I need to figure out how to do them properly and on balance because there are about 3 of them in my Rumba routine. I barely seem to be able to hold on to them most times, and other times I have to step out of the position so I don’t fall.

It’s weird, because in American Rumba we do Rumba Walks and end the move with a Spiral and I have gotten that one down. It is usually very smooth and easy. But without just that little bit of help from Ivan’s hand, I seem to lose my center on the ones in the showcase routine.

One of my biggest problems, I think, is forgetting to settle. This is where the old ballet training and muscle memory bite me in the ass. It is so ingrained in me to try and hold my hips square and not to let them drop that I’m always trying to hold positions that are very difficult to hold and stay on balance in. The trick is that they are beautiful lines and I should hit them first, but then immediately begin to settle on to the standing leg. I try to hold them too long and get stuck.

The other biggest problem is that I don’t completely commit to one leg or the other before moving. I try to get to where I’m going without completing each step in between. This sometimes means my body weight is distributed between both legs making it impossible for either one to move. Once again, movements become slurred, late, sloppy.

The final biggest problem is that I don’t use my supporting leg to propel me onto the standing leg. I try to power myself using only one limb instead of both, leaving the leg I just moved from relaxed and useless. Especially on the Spiral turn, I need to use my supporting leg like the kick-stand of a bike and continue to place pressure on it to help myself turn.

So I have these three issues to contend with and then on the Sprial turns I also end up leaning one way or the other, forwards or backwards or to the side. I’m not keeping my spine straight and collapse my upper body or have my weight on my heels instead of the balls of my feet.

There is a fix for this and Ivan has it. It’s called pulling my hair.

So I’m practicing the Spiral turns and falling over and Ivan comes up and pulls my hair upwards by the roots in an attempt to get me to straighten my spine and stand tall. It didn’t hurt at all. I don’t know how he did that but it was painless. And, I got the point. But I just didn’t know that signing up for ballroom lessons might entail my instructor pulling on my burnette locks.

We worked on getting the Sprial turn into my muscle memory so I’ll be able to do it comfortably at the showcase and I do believe it is getting better. Then we worked on the open hip twist step again, me counting all my steps, reviewed the proper way to do a crossover, and the importance of counting my entire routine in every dance.

Actually, I’m very inspired by Ghada, also know as “Legs.” She started her own blog ( about her personal ballroom journey and loaded a video of her practicing at her gym. She does everything by herself, including a ronde’ kick and a slow leg extension, which takes an incredible amount of control and strength. I should be doing this too.

Really, I should. Because when it comes down to it, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I need to be dancing my own body. I need to not be relying on Ivan. I should be able to do all my routines by myself as if I were dancing with someone. Then when that someone steps into the picture, it will be easier. We will be two pieces completely self-contained, yet completely connected, moving in unison yet independently.

Even though I think I know what I’m doing, I don’t always know what I’m doing on what count. It’s this weird paradox though. I’m supposed to dance the music but I also have to be on the right count.

Let me explain.

Ivan wanted to practice our showcase Rumba once before we ended the lesson. As usual, he had me dance my solo part in the beginning. I did it, and since I’ve repeated it enough times, I don’t count every beat but rather feel the movement, listen to the music, and create the drama of the story being danced. Ivan complimented me on this part of the dance saying that it was so “easy to watch.” And that he wants me to dance the entire 4 minutes the same way.

Only one problem… I’m not counting. I’m just dancing. So it’s like, dance the emotional story but don’t also forget to count. My brain is a little bit fried just thinking about that!

In any case, my dancer is coming out and Ivan sees it. He told me that it is a piece that many ballroom dancers and competitors are missing and it’s great that I have it.

It was kind of like that song from “A Chorus Line,” called, “Dance Ten, Looks Three.” You know the one I’m talking about, right? The one where one of the auditioning dancers explains how she never used to get jobs and so after one audition she stole her feedback card and saw that they had marked her a ten for dance ability, but a three for looks. Now her solution was to get a boob job. Voila! She began to get jobs left and right.

But for me, it was like “Fat one, good things five.” You see, after Ivan told me that I was doing well with the emoting/storytelling part of dancing he told me, “Stefanie how many times you gotta tell me you fat. Yes, I know this. Okay, so you fat. But it like one thing. You have like five other things that is good. The drama, the balance, the rhythm, da da da da da. The fat only the one thing.”

I have a few thoughts about this. One, it was really hard to stand next to Marietta on Monday this week because my body contrasted so greatly with hers. Two, I can focus on the one thing (the fat) or I can focus on all the other wonderful things I bring to my dancing. I know which one makes me feel better about myself. Three, I’m working on changing the fat picture. I’m on the right track for this so if nothing else it’s going to improve. Four, I’m really stuck on the fact that I’m fat. Good thing Ivan isn’t as fixated on it as I am.

In any case, we finished our lesson and Marietta walked in the door. They were going to practice for the Vegas Open where they will be competing tomorrow. And guess what? Me, and Ivonne, and most likely Katie, are all going to drive out to cheer them on! It is going to be so much fun, I can hardly wait. You better believe I’ll have some photos and video and writing to share about that little adventure.

But my dancing wasn’t done yet! Toni now does group classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Imperial Ballroom Dance Center over closer to my area. I drove there and had a semi-private lesson. It was just me, and Chuck, and Toni. We worked on American Rhythm Rumba and I got to practice my Rumba Walks, following, Spiral turns, Spot turns, balance, and timing. It was really fun. And Chuck was enamored with Toni. She really is a fantastic teacher and over the course of the lesson we were able to improve the step she was teaching us considerably. He told her, “You do that so great, I don’t want anyone else to ever teach me how to do anything ever again!” It was adorable, and I was there to be a witness….he really did say it just like that!

It wasn’t a very sweaty day and I didn’t do much cardio, but after the past few weeks of stress, it was just what I needed to get the share the joy of dancing with other people who love it as well.

Ballroom dancing has brought much adventure, joy, friendship, and opportuinties to evolve into my life. I just didn’t know hair-pulling was part of the deal. But even if it is, I’ll gladly accept the price. It’s worth it!

A Grain Of Rice Among Sand

I get to dance the Latin Rumba.

I get to dance the Latin Rumba!

I get to dance the Latin Rumba with a treasured friend!

I get to dance the Latin Rumba with Ivan, and he’s a freakin’ nationally ranked professional dancer!

I love the Rumba. I just do. And I’m not just doing the basic steps. No. We are doing a routine. A routine that could be an open routine. We are doing tricks and things I never imagined possible, at least not in my current body. But I’m doing them right now, just the same.

But I have to say, the spins and drops are eye-catching and all, but it is the simple stuff, the basic stuff, that really lights my fire.

Some of my favorite moves are are when we get the connection just right doing a fan. Then, there is this other move we do where I spin and then put my knee up and hug onto Ivan. He told me today that it’s not a move that he’d think to do with just anyone. Because I am, he told me, not just his student, but a partner. It’s just dependant on how the student shows up. And I’m showing up as more than just a student.

I feel like I’ve graduated – passed some invisible line where things have changed. I’ve entered into a new realm where nothing will ever be the same. Just doing the steps isn’t enough. I am on my way to inhabiting the movement. I’m not doing it, I’m being it.

Amidst the innumerable moments of practice, and screwing up, and sweating, and laboring, there are also a few magical moments speckled in between, as a grain of rice nestled amidst all the sand on a beach.  Finding these rice grains, these moments of absolute perfection, is a little bit of a miracle.  It is like the sun aligns just right over my head for one instant, and then the crystallized moment dissolves, as salt into water.  One moment it was a fully formed entity, the next, it fades away into the void.  Like that part in Indiana Jones where he holds up the staff with the jewel in it, the sun is at the right place for a moment, and the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant is revealed.

In these moments, my link to God/The Source/The Universe/My Higher Self is revealed.

As I say, dance for me is a spiritual practice, a walking meditation.  I am revealing myself to myself.

There is no grasping or seeking for the grains of rice.  That is the magic of it.  There was a time when I’d have relentlessly pursued the perfection (like the Borg Queen from Start Trek).  The moments feel so good that would be easy to do.  But now, I simply appreciate them when they organically show up.

I remember the first time I felt this “flow.”  I was with my first dance teacher, Matt.  After hours and hours of practicing the same movements over and over we did it again (something in the Foxtrot, I think) and it was as if I wasn’t in my body “doing” the movement.  I was expanded beyond the boundaries of my flesh, still connected to it yet more than just the body or the brain.  I was whole and complete.  For one microsecond, the world stood still.  Then, as quickly as a soap bubble pops, it was gone.

But I am not sad that the moment is gone.  I am grateful I got to experience it.  I am grateful that the possibility exists to experience more of them, even if they are as rare as grain of rice upon the sand.