Ernie Miller

When I was five and I lived in Aurora, Colorado, I had a black vinyl dance bag.  I use the term loosely, because the “bag” was actually a rectangular cardboard box covered in ink-black shiny vinyl imprinted with a pink pair of ballet toe shoes in Sous-sou.

 

Two to three times a week I made a sojourn from my home on the Army base to the doors of Ernie Miller’s dance studio to practice ballet and tap.  Again, I use the term “practice” loosely.   At the age of five through eight, I mostly flailed grossly.  And yet at the end of each dance lesson I was reward with a Dum Dum sucker, being the adorable “little peanut” I was.

Every year the studio would have a recital.  Every year Ernie and his wife would dance the very last dance in the show.  It was a lovely and vulnerable and authentic moment.  So much so that it made quite an impression on me in a time in my life when I don’t remember much detail.  It was that  special.

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The deal is, Ernie and his wife and his beautiful daughters who taught in the studio WERE the studio.

Of course there were physical walls, and spring-loaded wood floors, and barres fastened securely to the walls.  But the studio was Ernie.  He created it.  He carved out the space for it to exist.  And he and his family populated it.  They created the tone.  They created the atmosphere.  They created the philosophy.  They lived it and breathed life into it.

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So now fast forward 30 years.  I am an adult.  I’ve rediscovered dancing through the medium of ballroom.  I’ve been through three  instructors and now I’m on my fourth.  I’ve recently left my most favorite instructor (thus far) who moved me forward exponentially.  I’m now with this crazy Bosnian who is so very ORDINARY.

He emphasizes proper alignment of the bones and the body over anything flashy.  He promotes repetition, repetition, repetition of any and all steps, done properly, 10,000 times.  He is not teaching me any new figures or choreography whatsoever.  He’s simply going deeper into the most basic work.

So here I am, being serious and all about my dancing.  I don’t have much interest in being a social dancer.  I don’t care much to dance with people who are less experienced than I.

And yet, I’m invited to the annual EuroRhythm Luau.  With all manner of enthusiams!  Not only from Damir, but also from his wife.  Truth is, my hubby was out of town so what else was I going to do Friday night?  I figured there were worse ways to spend time and bought a ticket to attend what I thought would most likely be a hokey stupid party.

And so after work I took a break then got out my hair dryer and straightener.  I put on mascara and a comfortable outfit.  I got myself ready and drove over to the studio.

At first, it definitely seemed super hokey!  And then, after about 2 minutes, it seemed awesome.  It seemed like home.

It struck me as shockingly as if I had stuck my fingers into a socket – I have lived this before.  I have lived this as a five-year-old in Ernie Miller’s Studio.

It was family.  As humble as it might be, as hokey as it could be, who the hell cares.  There was joy in that space.  There were families present with grandparents and grandchildren.

And this studio, that I am now a part of, is Damir and his family.  He’s so very clear about his role as the leader of it.  He knows absolutely that he sets the tone, the rules. He knows beyond a doubt that he is the one that creates and holds the space.

I’m not going to lie.  The physical space of EuroRhythm is tiny!  It seems humble.  From the outside it is just a part of a strip mall.  On the inside there is nothing flashy.

And you know what, for me it melts away.  It’s not what I notice.  I walk into this space and I am embraced as I am, where I am, who I am in this moment.  I notice that I feel comfortable, I feel that it is safe and supported.  I know that I am surrounded by greatness, and that greatness is eagerly, generously shared with all those who walk through the doors; it’s shared with all those who seek the wisdom being offered.

I was just so singularly struck by this feeling of familiarity Friday night.  I knew that I knew this space.  It recalled and referenced my past experiences with Ernie Miller.  And wow, how very grateful I am about it all.

I got a great start with Ernie.  My mother to this day will profess the influence he and his daughters had on me in terms of molding me and shaping me to be the dancer I am today.  What a blessing and advantage I had being able to dance at such a young age.  I am especially grateful to my mother and my father for making that possible for me.

And Damir is just like Ernie.  He IS the studio.  His family IS the studio.  He sets the tone.  He creates the atmosphere.  And I’m just left agog.  What an amazing human being I have come to interact with.  He has come from a war-torn country, experienced unspeakable traumas, I’m sure, he became a world-class dancer, he immigrated, he created his own studio, and best of all, he is a JOYFUL and GIVING human being.  He has arrived on the other side of all these negative circumstances and chosen to be a compassionate, loving, generous, passionate, kind, caring, gentle, expert human being and dance coach.   He has created a home for all of us who chose to accept his brand of study and excellence.

Damir, and the results he creates, looking both at the students of his I know and his studio, are seemingly humble, simple, and, even, dare I say, boring!  And yet, they are also captivating, impeccable, and embodying excellence.   He has a quiet sort of “shouting” to the world.  And his results speak loud and clear for those with eyes to see, for those who have the clarity of mind  to understand.

So you know what?  I am so happy I went Friday.  I realized that I will never miss a party for the studio again if I can help it!  I realized that it’s about family.  And I realized, on a whole new level, what a special and excepetional human being Damir is.  God bless him for creating this space.

I am come home.

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Topical Series: Deciding Whether To Do A Dance Camp

Me and Ron Montez

Me and Ron Montez

Although I’ve only attended one dance camp thus far in my ballroom “career,” I discovered some useful information that might help someone who is interested in a dance camp to decide whether or not to do it.  Choosing to do a dance camp, like participating in a competition, requires planning, money, time off work, maybe even a babysitter, and perhaps travel.  It’s a significant committment so it is a significant decision to make.  Here are my thoughts on some things to consider when deciding if a dance camp a good choice for you.

Overall I thought it was a good value.  Of course every dance camp is going to be different, but using my experience as an example, the deluxe package cost $475.  This included all the classes offered, a welcome dinner and dance mixer, and a gourmet dinner with a champagne toast and party on New Year’s Eve.  Considering private lessons cost around $75-$130 each, and I got 17 group classes led by professional dancers and adjudicators, plus two lectures, I consider this a damn good deal.  I did a lot of dancing, was able to video the choreography presented, ask questions, and even eat a bit, and all for a small fraction of what a competition usually costs.  Even if you add in the hotel (which I only opted to stay at on New Year’s Eve, I commuted the other days), gas costs, and food, it still works out well.

One major advantage of attending a dance camp, especially for competitive dancers, is face time with judges.  Not only do you get to be seen so your face is familiar, but you can also ask direct questions and have actual interactions with people who may judge you at future competitions.  You can also pick their brains for what they look for in competitive dancers.  They tend to naturally share their preferences in dancing while teaching which can also give you insight on dance styling and choreographic choices. This is not as significant a factor for those who do not compete.

One possible disadvantage of a dance camp is that they may be fluid, meaning that the schedule advertised when you sign up for the camp may not be exactly what is delivered.  For instance, when I looked at the website for this dance camp, Decho Kraev and Bree Watson were listed as teaching many of the classes.  Since they are the current American Rhythm champions, I’m sure many people were looking forward to getting to learn from this particular couple.  When I arrived at the camp and got my package, the class schedule listed different instructors.  I, personally, didn’t really mind so very much.  I got to learn from Linda Dean and Radomir Pashev, and I really enjoyed their classes and felt I got great value from what they shared.  But I could see how someone could be upset by this, especially if part of why he or she chose to attend was to learn from a particular professional, judge, or couple.

There was also one other change, which I was very happy about, and it wasn’t even listed on the schedule.  When it came time for the Night Club Two Step (not a dance I’m interested in) Rado decided to do Samba instead.  Anyways, for type A individuals this could be crazy-making, but for me, I was glad about it.

Another benefit of attending a dance camp is that the instructors are also available for private lessons.  I didn’t take advantage of this during my stint, but opportunities to learn from the experts, or have them create some choreography for you, or to work on a particular troublesome step don’t happen all the time, especially if you have an independent instructor and no home studio where coaches may visit regularly.  In any case, attending a dance camp is one great way to make contact with paragons of the ballroom dance world.

As is usually the case in ballroom dancing, there were double the amount of women than men at the camp.  Only a few of the females chose to learn the leader choreography.  This meant that for much of the time in class many female students were without a partner and the men were always dancing as a duo.  And, to make matters worse, there was little to no formal rotation set up, made doubly confusing when some of the couples danced exclusively with one another, not rotating at all.  Personally, I sometimes prefer to dance by myself so I can discover my own balance and so I know that I understand what I am doing.  I didn’t mind the times when I was partner-less.  However, by the end of the camp I was exhausted by actually dancing with partners.  Half of them were uninterested in dancing with me (or seemed that way), one felt the need to correct me and was a total joy-suck.  I don’t even care how good or unskilled a dancer is, but I do mind very much when they have a bad attitude.  I was exhausted by having to interact with some of these fellow students, and just like in social dancing situations, it is a crap shoot as to who will be available to dance with.  In fact, one of my friends was also troubled by the interactions she had with some of the males and opted to not partner at all by the end of the camp because the experience was so uncomfortable, and in her case, she felt flat-out disrespected.

The majority of dancers at the camp were social dancers.  Only a very few of us were competitive students.  Obviously we had different goals and intentions with our dancing.  It would have been more valuable for me from my perspective to have more of an opportunity to dance with other competitive students.  I did get to dance with a few darling men with happy, fun personalities, and one who was excellent in all aspects, but of course I couldn’t always dance with them even though I might have wanted to.  This might be more likely at a dance camp that occurs before or after a competition so I might have to check one of those dance camps out.  But anyways, I think I might have enjoyed the camp more and maybe even gotten more value out of it if I had a friend or amateur partner to do it with.  It’s not really something you’d do with your pro partner and I found the partnering situation to be less than stellar.

Because there was such a mix in the level of expertise, skill level, and intention of the dancing, the teachers had to address broad topics and gear their classes toward general information. They did offer two tracks of classes: Beginner/Intermediate and Intermediate/Advanced. Basically this equated to one class for baby beginners and one class for everyone else. It was up to each individual to place themselves in an appropriate level, and upon registration the lady did say that a person could switch classes within the first ten minutes if it was either too easy or too difficult.

I kind of think the intermediate business is just there to make us feel better! I’m not sure what the distinction between intermediate and beginner or intermediate and advanced is, exactly. I wonder if any dance camps require a person to “test into” a level…like in dance classes in college you can’t just sign up for advanced ballet. You must audition and an assessment of your skill level is made to determine if it is an appropriate placement, or prerequisite classes must first be completed successfully to gain entry into higher level classes. Probably impractical to do at a dance camp, but it’s a thought. And I wonder what a truly advanced class would look like – probably like Inna’s class…but I think a class like that, especially for social dancers, could be pretty shocking/intimidating if a person walked into it expecting a group class like is usually presented…not as strenuous, and filled with lots of interesting steps but less of the basics. Camp organizers have to aim to please their attendees so knowing who is attending, their level, and if they are social or competitive could help in the design of classes and tracks/levels. Like I would have loved if there were beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels (or bronze, silver, gold) in both social and competitive categories, but that would sure take a lot of staff and resources, unless the camp was specifically geared toward one type of student.

In any case, at this dance camp, during most classes a series of steps were taught and the students learned a little choreography.  I am more interested in the technique behind the steps than the steps themselves so I wanted more of that type of information – how to correctly execute the steps rather than the steps themselves.  I can always learn more steps so adding more to my repertoire was fine and good but not all that exciting to me because the chances of me actually using these little choreographies in the future are slim to none.  If I was a social dancer only, or danced socially more often, or had an amateur partner, it might have created more value for me.

One disadvantage of this camp was that because it was held in a hotel, the floors were jointed and there were no mirrors. I missed having a mirror to compare my lines to those of the professional demonstrating the steps. But having it at a different venue like a dance studio might not have been as convenient and certainly would not have had all the amenities present. I wish that mirrors could have been brought in just like the floor is.

One of the best parts of the dance camp was simply spending time with my ballroom friends and making new ones.  I had some awesome and deep conversations and laughed a ton.  I’d recommend having a partner in crime to go with if possible.

Overall, I really enjoyed going to the dance camp and feel like I did learn a lot.  Just putting myself out there and participating was a big win.  And because I showed up cool things happened – I got to dance a swing step “down and dirty” with Radomir, I got to do a mambo deal with Ron and a group of people as he spontaneously got out on the dance floor on New Year’s Eve and began calling out moves, I got to win a merengue mixer contest, I got to laugh a ton, learn a ton, watch a professional show, and toast the new year.  Well, anyways, I hope this gave you some insight into what you might want to think about when considering a dance camp.  If you have any other burning questions, please do ask and I will do my best to answer.

Stuff I Learned At Ron Montez Dance Camp

Now, it really isn’t possible to share everything I learned at dance camp.  Partly because a dance camp is experiential in nature, just like a competition, there is a lot of learning that happens by actually being present and having the experiences – a person can’t really learn how to dance (or ride a bike or paint in watercolor) by only reading about it.

I did, however, discover some nuggets that I thought were pretty interesting.  So this post is a conglomeration of information miscellany that doesn’t warrant separate posts.  Hopefully you will discover something new that adds value to your dancing.

That being said, I would share that doing this dance camp was a good choice overall.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in doing one to give it a shot.  I feel that the more a person can expose themselves to dancing, different perspectives about the dancing, and different dance instructors, the better.  A dance camp is one way to experience a variety of input from a variety of dance professionals in a short amount of time.

Now perhaps you already know some of these ballroom details.  And it’s also possible that I’d already heard these things in the past.  But there is so much to learn in ballroom, I generally can’t absorb all that is presented to me.  I have to hear things multiple times, and sometimes even hear the concepts described in a different way from a different instructor to develop a new awareness and understanding.  So for what it’s worth, here goes!

1)  In ballroom your knees always work together.  By “ballroom” I mean the Smooth or Standard dances and by “work together” I mean that both knees are bent or straight at the same time.  Conversely, in the Latin and Rhythm dances knees will often be performing opposite actions, one being bent and one being straight.

2) A Fall-away is the opposite of a Promenade.  Who knew?

3) Strictly speaking, in Rhythm Cha Cha there are no locks, only backward and forward chasses with the feet passing one another.

4)  There are 3 types of backward breaks in Bolero (video of Linda Dean demonstrating the 3 types below)

5)  Arm movement should come from the center of the chest, the sternum.

6)  There is no need for releve’ in the Bolero basic (this surprised me!) and in fact some judges prefer it be absent

7)  Always, always, always start a Bolero on a slow

8)  You can do Rumba timing in Bolero if it is on purpose and only lasts for two bars of music

9)  Everything in ballroom is a freakin’ optical illusion!  Don’t take big steps but do create big movement

10) Keep your nose over your toes!

11) Partners don’t actually connect via the back and hand in the ballroom frame, rather they connect upward through the arms

12)  The Samba is the “Brazilian Waltz” because just like a Waltz, every 2nd step is on the ball of the foot

13)  There is a difference between American Samba and International Samba!  It has to do with the timing.  In American Samba it is counted 1 & 2, or half beat, half beat, whole beat – the timing is pretty even.  In International Samba the counts are broken into fourths – the movement is less evenly spaced with 1/4th a beat, 3/4ths a beat, 3/4ths a beat, 1/4th a beat, whole beat, counted 1 ah 2, 3 ah 4.  International Samba appears to move more quickly and then slowly as movement is drawn out longer, then the next move is made quicker to make up the difference and to stay on the beat.

14) In swing you are supposed to emphasize the even counts

15) The “and” or “ah” count in Samba represents the time to do the Samba bounce action

16) Sharp leg extensions that occur when a dancer is at the lowest point of their movement (think foot flat on the floor, knee bent) is a Kick.  A Flick, on the other hand, is performed when a dancer is at their highest point of action (think on tippy toes with legs straight).  (Kind of like the difference between stalagmites and stalagtites!)

And there you have it.  Random but informative (hopefully)

Down And Dirty!

Okay folks, I’m tired and there is so much to say about the last two days of Dance Camp and the New Year.  I promise another, more detailed post will be forthcoming with multiple pictures, dance tips, and maybe even some video.

But there is one experience I am burning to share!  It was just too cool and makes me giggle so here goes….

First off, here is a photo of me an my new instructor:

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JUST KIDDING! 

Do you honestly think I’d EVER want to dance with anyone other than Ivan.  Exactly.   You are right.  Not gonna happen in this lifetime. 

But over the last weekend, Radomir was one of the excellent instructors at the dance camp and I honestly really enjoyed his sessions.  He is a technically excellent dancer, extremely disciplined and pristine in his movement, but he is also a pretty darn good teacher and communicator.  He brought a gentle warmth and humor to his classes while at the same time explaining the mechanics of steps.  In any case, he’s kind of a big deal and as an instructor and professional competitor, I, being a student, of course look up to him. 

Well, in the East Coast Swing class he taught, he introduced this one twisting move.  Imagine doing the actual “Twist” like from the song of the same name by the Beatles.  The extreme twisting action of the upper half of the body and the lower half.

In any case, after he had showed us this move in a series of steps of choreography, he stopped the class and told us he wanted it not to be so prissy, but rather “down and really dirty.” I think he expounded upon this even more but I couldn’t hear what he said because we were all laughing with embarrassment so heartily. Once he realized how he had come across, he started laughing too, but still the intention behind the move was there. He did want us to get low and feel the sultry, earthy quality inherent in the movement.

Now here is where it get’s really interesting. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Let’s show them how it’s done!”

OMG! LOL!

So he invited me to demonstrate to the class how to do this twist action “Down and Dirty” but first he explained the incorrect way of doing it…He began to panomime the same actions in a very repressed, shall I say “English-stiff-upper-lip” fashion and invited me to play along. I did and we performed the step stiffly and unemotively. He likened it to one of those middle-class gentry English dances done in the countryside at the turn of the century. We raised our hands and circled one another as if we were doing a courtship dance in the movie “A Knight’s Tale.”

But then we went for it! We twisted and we got low and we shook our katukus’ (katukasi???) Well, we shook our behinds like no kidding and it was awesome and he even gave me a high five when we finished.

You know, I think for me this was the best moment in the camp. It was just so cool to get to go to “the head of the class” with a professional like Rado and totally rock it. I danced with him a few other times for brief moments in other classes and always screwed up at least a little bit. But still, this kind of made up for it. It may sound silly, for me it meant that I had the ability to excute this move, so much so, that even being the biggest girl in the class, I was the one to demonstrate it to others.  I felt acknowledged and I also got to share my enjoyment of doing that particular move.

In any case, that’s my short story! I want to say Happy New Year and that I’m looking forward to what 2013 will bring.  I’m grateful to still be dancing and blogging. I wish you all the very best during our next orbit around the sun and I just wanted to share this little tidbit even if I don’t have the energy and patience just now to fill you in on all the other cool things that happened at Dance camp over the last two days.

Cheers!

Love, Stef