Just Call Me Stefan



It all started because I was fortunate enough to be at a studio that offered coaching and group classes with the famous Shirley Ballas.  I mean, my dancing may not be at the forefront of my concerns at the moment but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to learn from a living legend.

Thursday we covered Rumba and Friday night was Cha Cha.  It was strictly from the book, I mean the book…The International Dance Teachers’ Association (IDTA) Technique book.  The one that breaks down each step into its components and describes how each piece can be strung together to create the step.

For instance, did you know there are 7 types of Rumba walks?  There is a forward walk, backward walk, checked forward walk, forward walk turning, delayed forward walk knee either straight or compressed and a delayed back walk.  We also learned how to do Alemanas 3 ways and the 9 ways to chasse’.  We strung together moves to make a basic practice choreography including a checked forward walk, open hip twist, fan, hockey stick, Alemana, sliding doors, cucaracha, spiral turn, and a hockey stick back to the beginning.

But here’s the kicker, she had us switch from leader to follower, so boys danced the girl part and girls dance the boy part.  That sure put a new spin on things!

It became clear to me that one of the areas in which my training is supremely lacking is in the knowledge of the counterparts of the steps I’ve been practicing for so many years.  It’s an interesting situation because I believe kids trained in Europe learn both parts from the get-go, whereas in the US with our Pro/Am situation, most students rarely if ever learn the opposite steps.  I felt quite inept and almost as though I’m a 12-year-old in my development as a female/follower dancing while a 2-year-old as a male/leader dancing.

There were parts of the class where I was utterly lost, especially when she had us doing gold level figures as the opposite part than we usually dance.  Heck, I was even lost as the female part for some of them, too!

I’ve often thought it would be good to learn the “boy” steps for a deeper level of understanding and mastery of the material but it never seemed to be a priority, especially when preparing for competitions.  Well, that has changed.

On my next lesson after the workshops I told Kristijan that I wanted to learn the boy parts.  I told him it was obvious my education was lacking and incomplete in that area and I felt that having a better understanding of what my partner is doing would ultimately make me a better and more aware partner.  He was happy to oblige and now we’ve had 3 lessons where I’ve been learning about all that my leaders have been providing as well as getting a new perspective on the lead and follow energy dynamic.

The best part is that I am having so much fun with it.  Each lesson has come with insights and breakthroughs.  I’m being challenged to move my body differently than it is accustomed to by habit, which also results in using what feels like a different and new part of my brain.  It occurs to me as fresh and new and a process of exploration and discovery.  It’s just what had been missing in my dancing as a girl.  I was stuck in a rut, feeling like I was at the mercy of all the years of muscle memory and dancing like a robot rather than truly being present.

I am learning about how the man has been responsible for the space we occupy, not only in how he holds a frame for me, but also in how he generates facing the different walls of the room appropriately.  These are things I’ve taken for granted because I’ve never had to be the one to create them.  In addition, I got to experience the opposite piece of the energy flow I normally experience as a follower.  What I mean by this is that normally I am attuned to be a “catcher” of the impulse given to me by the leader.  I’ve only ever experienced one side of the current or loop.  Now that I’m practicing being the leader, I’m the one generating the initial impulse that I send or “throw” to the follower.  I see how the follower absorbs it, is responsible for moving it through his body, and then sending it back to me transformed.  It is like an infinity loop and now my experience of it has been expanded.  I have greater appreciation for my leaders and gratitude for all they have been doing all along that I was so unconscious about.

Playing around with this role reversal has opened up many possibilities in my dancing and I’m loving doing it.  My goal is for our showcase in October to dance a piece where I am the leader for a large portion of the choreography.

And what’s even cooler, as Kristijan coaches me to be a better leader, when we switch back to our traditional roles, I can feel a marked and improved difference in how he leads me.  It’s as if in coaching me he is coaching himself and thus providing and even higher level of leadership.

In sum, just call me Stefan.  I recommend giving this experiment a try to anyone who is interested in elevating their dancing. So far it’s been amazing.

The Choice Is Mine: Guerra O Paz (War Or Peace)

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Allegre Studio

Private Lesson with Ivan

Have you ever had a dance lesson where you wonder, “Am I doing anything right?”

Today started out like this for me.  Ivan had it on his mind to do cardio today – after all the holiday eating and lack of exercise, he wanted to work on getting through dances one after another.  I reluctantly agreed, it’s for the best.  I need to work on my stamina like no kidding but I’m still dealing with a lingering cold I got while on a cruise in New Zealand, over a month ago.  It has been waxing and waning, but since I also have asthma, it tends to linger.  As if breathing wasn’t already difficult enough when I’m healthy!

So we start with Cha Cha, then Samba, Rumba, Bolero, Swing.  We are dancing, dancing, dancing.  I am getting exhausted, coughing, gasping for breath, and sucking on my inhaler.  At least my lips didn’t turn blue this time, so I think my blood was getting plenty oxygenated.

During a Samba, Ivan is really getting into it.  He is being a little forceful, but I can tell its just because he’s excited, and wants to move.  Perhaps he was trying to help me out, since I was struggling and feeling sluggish, he was inadvertently trying to transfer some of his energy to me.  But it is exhausting to be wrestling with one another.

I am trying so hard.  I am giving it all I have today, even if it is inadequate.  I’m working, working, working.  And you can see it in the tension I’m holding in my body, especially the shoulders.  Now, it’s not news to me that I hold my stress in my shoulders, but the process is so automatic, so ingrained, that my clavicle raises up to my ears and I won’t even realize it.  My shoulders are so taut that they feel like those of a stone statue, and you can imagine just how flexible and moveable a stone statue is.  I’m tense, I’m tight, I’m restricting freedom of movement.  I am hitting every step so hard because I am used to it being difficult.  Strangely enough, I’m comfortable with the stress, the striving, the forcing, the difficulty.

But where is the softness?  Where is the breath?  Where is the easy joy in my dancing?

I’m huffing and puffing, focusing on this detail or the other, disapproving of how I look in the mirror…I’m doing all these exercises in my brain, but am I really dancing?  Better yet, am I dancing with my partner?

What the hell am I doing?

What am I practicing here?

This is supposed to be a dance lesson, not an exercise in self-disapproval.

I’m blocking the flow.  It’s so easy to do.  And it doesn’t help when every other moment, my instructor is telling me about something else I need to correct, fix, or otherwise improve.  My fingers, my arm, my balance, my back foot.  Point the toes, look at me, finish your movement, and on and on and on.

Yes, these are all worthy details, but focusing on them, I can’t see the forest through the trees.  Not that I mind all the instruction – I so desire to be a great dancer, I snarf each nugget of wisdom like a starving anteater.

But luckily I have a teacher who is, in my eyes, pretty enlightened, even if he doesn’t realize it about himself.  At some point in the lesson, I ask,

“Ivan!  Am I doing anything right?”

This brings him to awareness.

“Don’t asking about this.  I used to ask Shirley (Shirley Ballas, one of his coaches) the same thing.  She always looking at Marieta, Marieta, never me.  She never say anything to me.  I finally ask her and she saying, ‘Why are you asking a silly question? If I have a problem with you, I will tell you.’ Don’t asking this question.  There is always something, always something to do or fix.  And you like me – never good enough, always want to be better.  Plus you are a competitive person and smart.  I see you doing something and then on to the next thing and the next.  It’s my fault, I see you doing something, I know you are smart, and I tell you more and more.  It’s no good.”

I’m a bit perplexed.  I want him to instruct me to become better, don’t I?  But I realize, Ivan can only give me so much.  I must be responsible for my own dancing.  He could cajole me until I die but I must take in the feedback and incorporate it.  Indeed, only I can incorporate it into my own body.

Also, for me dancing isn’t just about perfecting some steps.  At some point, I have to look within myself to find my identity as a dancer.  Ivan can share technique, styling, and steps, but he can’t put my essence into the movement, nor my conviction, nor my emotion.  That must come from within me.  The miracle is that this piece is already perfect inside me and all other dancers.  It cannot be taught or learned or even improved upon.  Only my clarity as a channel for expression can be improved.  This is made cleaner by training my body and my mind so that I can control them – so that they aren’t controlling or limiting me – via what Zen calls “Monkey Mind” and also the physical limitations and restrictions created by excess tension, weight, and stress.

“It’s my fault.  I the teacher.  I not letting you relax.  I see you trying so hard.  We forget to relax.”

The lesson takes a U-turn.

“Ok, now you gotta relax.  I no caring about arm styling.  Don’t show me nothing.  Just relax.”

We begin doing the Rumba.  We danced non-stop for probably 5 minutes.  Without the tension, it feels like I’m not “doing” anything.  This can’t be right….dancing is supposed to be hard, right?

“Ah, you breathing!  You alive!  You smiling because it so natural.  You could dance like this forever and ever.  You tired, but only a little bit.”

We are connecting softly, gently, sometimes only by one finger.  It is too easy.  I feel sloppy.

But it also feels like slipping under warm flannel sheets.  I do a fan and the luxurious ease of it makes me smile.  I wish I could bottle up that feeling – tranquil as floating upon a pool’s surface.

“See, when you feeling like you doing nothing, that is when you doing it right.  I feel, I feel, what the word….paz.”

I know a bit of Spanish and Ivan does too.


“Ya.  Paz.  Freedom.  Like the opposite of guerra.”

Guerra means war in Spanish.

Ivan demonstrates physically what he means.  We are dancing in “paz,” flowing gently, connected, easy, only takes a finger to lead and follow.  Then he grabs on and starts pushing me around – guerra – we are fighting one another.  So much energy is lost and I am exhausted almost immediately with just a few steps.

“Stefanie, we are like Christmas trees.”

Huh?  Did I miss part of the conversation?  Just stick with me.  You gotta love Ivan’s metaphors.  He does pretty darn well for someone with English as fifth language.

“The tree is very nice, very nice all by itself.  All the pointing toes, and arms, they nice, they decoration, they the balls you put on the tree.  But the tree is nice already.  You no put all the balls on at once and cover the tree.  You put them on one by one.   We got to remember we are nice trees.  Now when we dancing, you gonna, little by little, add the decoration, the arms, the toes, when you feel ready.  Maybe just do a little movement.  But better you practice now, relaxed.  It more important to being relaxed, to be breathing.”

He’s a guru in disguise.  The encounter makes me question how I’ve been approaching my lessons.

Have I unwittingly been choosing war over peace?  Yes, I see that I have been choosing to be at war with who I am, how I look, how I dance, and even in how I connect with my dancing partner.  I’ve been making it such hard work, pushing against, resisting what I think should be different that it is.  (Yes, I’ve been “shoulding” on myself at every turn).  Why am I so committed to being at war?

But today proves that peace is a possibility as well.  And you know what, it feels so much better.

So from here on out, I have a choice as I approach my dancing: war or peace.  I think I will try it out tonight when I go to those killer group lessons at Imperial Studio.  Instead of expecting it to be hard, difficult, exhausting (which they will be), I can accept this is part of the experience and then focus on breathing through whatever comes my way.  I can practice being relaxed as I attempt each step.  I can peacefully embrace the practice, as physically demanding as it may be, while exuding calm, controlled, expressive movement.

I’ll let you know how it goes….I’ve been practicing being at war for a very long time.

But the time has come to try something different, a better way of being.  I’m on the hunt to find myself as a dancer and she’s not going to have the opportunity to show up through stress, disapproval, and tension.  She will ooze out of me when I quit restricting, blocking, forcing.  You see, I think I’ve finally decided that I have the movement in me because in my core I know that I know that I know I am a dancer.  I am simply working on bringing it to the surface consistently.  I am nursing my body back to health so that it can be an optimal instrument for expression.

So this is where I am right now, today…certainly not in optimal shape.  But as Ivan says, “It’s okay.”  I am evolving every day.  I am becoming.  But I have to remember to not get so caught up in the process and start a war with myself.  Instead, I can choose to be at peace and remember that I am a lovely tree, first and foremost.  The tree is already great underneath all the ornamentation.  My inner dancer is already fully formed.  She’s just finding her way to the surface after being buried alive.

I think I want to greet her with compassion, kindness, love, peace, and uninhibited freedom.  Again, I’ll let you know how it goes.  But I’m grateful that I now have a choice where before I had only an unconscious habit.  Life is full of miracles, if you have eyes to see them.  I guess I put on the right glasses this morning.  I wonder which pair will I pick tomorrow.