Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dancing from the Floor Up

I hardly know where to begin, Brandon and I have been through so much with our dancing and improved so significantly since we started this blog, and frankly the dancing has taken priority over it because we've been so focused. Still, we determined to do our best to make periodic updates, and my personal goal is at least one post per week.

In summary, we've had the opportunity to take lessons from some world-renowned coaches an average of about once per month. We know just how blessed we've been to have these opportunities, and we owe most of it to our own coaches Simeon and Kora for fostering a relationship with these great teachers and giving us the chance to learn from them. Although these lessons generally cost more than we're used to, we find that it is more than worth it because we get so much out of them.

We've had lessons with Paul Holmes, who completely did our foxtrot choreography and redid most of our tango, and even a bit of our quickstep. Brandon frequently sighs over Paul's ability to just put me in the right place all the time and make me look amazing while he does it. He's definitely kind of a wizard with the ladies, all right.

And then there was Anna Mikhed (my favorite lady dancer and a bit of a dance idol for me), whom we managed to schedule a lesson with when we heard she was in town for a competition (by in town I mean BC, Canada, but close enough!). We remind each other often during practice of the "Anna Principles" as we like to call them, because she broke down the elements of frame and movement in such a clear way that I think we really needed. I particularly have to remind myself of the "necklace" concept on a daily basis. She's the one who presented the revolutionary idea that rather than pressing your shoulder blades down and back as we're always told (and ending up looking like a chicken in the arms), you hang your shoulders forward, and then rotate them back in place. Keeping my shoulders forward and down has actually helped my neck and arm breaking problems tremendously, when I remember to do it.

And of course we mustn't forget Glenn Weiss, who has a way of looking at our dancing, nailing the problems on the head, and telling us in simple terms how to fix them. He's like the dance doctor. We're really excited for his visit next week when we will again have a coaching session with him. I also think it makes Brandon particularly happy to know that Glenn has also been Victor Fung's coach for many years, as Brandon really identifies with Victor's dancing in a lot of ways.

Then we have our regular weekly lessons with Simeon and Kora, which have been a lot more enjoyable lately in that we've able to take more time breaking down how our various figures actually work, versus trying to cram and put together choreography as we had to do at the beginning.

As far as competitions go, we have quite a few more under our belt by this point. We began our partnership with Quest for the Best in late September with barely memorized routines and danced novice. We finished about middle of the pack, and still laugh about a particularly horrible corner in the waltz, and the crash in quickstep. But you've got to start somewhere, right? Then came NW Regionals at the end of October. I don't know about Brandon, but I was stunned when we won the Novice division and placed second in pre-championship. We more than qualified for USA Dance Nationals in LA to represent the NW, which is where we're headed in about two weeks! Watching those videos now is painful though; we've improved so much and I still wonder how we won. And then there was Grand Ball in Canada, where we danced pre-champ only and barely missed the final. That was right after I injured my knee, and I really shouldn't have been dancing. The dancing was not good; we both knew it, but at least we got to meet Anna Mikhed. For me, that was worth it. Then there was City Lights Ball in San Jose, where we danced better than before and placed well too. That was just a fun competition also because of all the dancing greats who are always there judging and participating. That was followed by Quest for the Best round two, where we danced and won both novice and pre-championship levels, though the turn out was so light we were uncontested in pre-champ and had only two couples against us in novice. Oh well. Finally, we went to BYU in Utah and danced for the NDCA National Championships, placing 2nd overall in novice out of over 70 couples and 4th in pre-champ out of 45. I'll never forget the moment our number "193" flashed up on the leader board for the pre-championship national final, and then there came Brandon running towards me with a big smile on his face. "We made it; we're national finalists!" I didn't really care about anything else after that, I was so happy. But in the end we actually won waltz in novice and took second in pre-champ in that dance. For some reason that dance is much better for us than the others. Anyways, to go from dancing gold and feeling like a poser in open competition to actually making the national pre-champ final in six months...that was one of the best feelings. At the same time, we're both keenly aware of how much we still need to improve the dancing.

So, lately, Brandon and I have been having a number of light bulb moments in our approach to dancing and practice that seem to have come in quick succession. One came from a video of a Jonathan Wilkins lecture Brandon watched, and this principle solves so many problems in our dancing it's unbelievable. It is that, you either rotate your body or rotate your foot, but not both at the same time. Essentially, you can either rotate your frame (CBM) and step under your shoulder, or you can keep everything square and pivot on your foot. Well, we do both a lot, and end up pulling each other over, fighting, or losing control. Or we do the wrong one for the type of turn we're doing.

Also, we've been watching a lot of video tutorials by Marcus and Karen Hilton (dance legends, and 9-time world champs) about various figures that we dance. These have been unbelievably helpful. We've noticed a common thread though in their philosophy and approach to most of the steps. They dance from the knees and feet, and use floor pressure to achieve almost everything. They don't think about the rotations or the energy originating from anywhere else, not the hips, not the frame, nor even the core. Rather, the core stays strong and stable and toward the partner, but the feet pushing in the floor at various angles and the bending of the knees in response to that drives most of the figures and rotations. Wow. So in the end, while you might achieve the same movement in the hips, frame, or other parts, it all comes straight up from the floor and blossoms into this beautiful shape on top. We tried dancing one of our heavily rotated and shaped sections in our quickstep the other day (affectionately known as the "rolly-pollies") and tried dancing it just from the feet and knees versus the frame as we used to (yuck), or the hips as we've been often told to do. I couldn't get over the difference. For the first time we felt together and connected in our cores, and even the shapes seemed so much larger and expansive, plus, I felt stable and balanced. Amazing. Then last night, Karen said something about this chase in tango I'm working on and how the lady has to make the rotation by pushing off the inside edge of the standing leg...and somehow that miraculously solved the problem I had been having. So now...I'm thinking about how I can control my head and my shapes and everything I'm doing just from the feet. That way the whole body is responding and is moving consistently, and not just the isolated part that I want to produce an effect.

It's the philosopher in me, I think, that is loving this amazing feeling we're getting that we are getting closer and closer to the root cause of many of these figures, the real place from which the energy originates. It's the metaphysics of dancing. So often, we try to replicate an effect because we don't know the cause; that's when you get that dancing that looks random and elicits the "What are they even doing?" reaction. I'm really excited about all of this, and could go on and on in detail about various sections we've had breakthroughs on, but this post would get out of control, so I will leave it here for now. Now it's just matter of getting our bodies physically caught up with all the mental breakthroughs.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Chin up!

Tonight, we had a lesson with Kora, our first since before Grand Ball over a month ago now. Since we've already worked on quickstep for the past two lessons and are saving up tango for a visiting coach coming into town next week, we decided it had to be foxtrot. We've worked on waltz a lot already.

This was a productive lesson. I, for one, was thrilled to have a lesson just focused on making our execution better, versus putting together choreography. It's a great feeling when you finish the lesson dancing better than when you started. We only made it through the first short side of our choreography, but it was enough to affect most of our routine since we repeat a lot of the same figures and movements throughout.

First off, Kora had us work on getting into frame in a good position in relation to each other. Essentially, we need to stop fighting over space. Anna Mikhed told us the same thing. So as we get into frame, Brandon needs to stop looking at me and keep his head and side left, while I need to do the same, though I need to focus my gaze more up, rather than more left, and risk pulling the partnership down on that side. This made a big difference right away. I don't know about Brandon, but I felt like I had a lot more space and breathing room.

Then Brandon worked with Kora on some directional issues, and finally, Kora reviewed some head turning issues with me. I either turn my head too late or too fast, and I need to think more about timing the head with the body. That sounds obvious and simple, but it's really not. What helped me the most today was to think about looking up and drawing peripheral circles with the top of my head. My tendency is rather to pull the chin in as I try to keep my back line straight, but as a result it looks strained and sometimes broken. One thing I'll need to practice more but which is a new way for me to think about what my head does is to think of it as tracking with my moving foot. I had never really thought of it in those terms before.

Finally, perhaps the greatest improvement on my side was the revelation that my nose/chin should be chasing my wrist as I dance natural turning figures going forward. It's very counter-intuitive, because as a lady you're always thinking about being left and out, rather than forward, which you would think would kill the extension. But no, I actually found myself making it around on some of those figures that I have been struggling with for quite some time. Yay for progress! At the end of our practice session following our lesson, we tried to dance a run-around in waltz using the new principle, and it felt ever so much easier. Brandon was quite impressed by how he didn't have to pull me back from the brink to get into promenade at the end. I'm looking forward to implementing this new concept more in all of my dancing.

After the lesson, we practiced quickstep a bit. I'm starting to enjoy it more, finally, perhaps because we have some fun choreography now and I'm more comfortable that we will be sticking with it for longer period. I also think I danced my best "pepper-pot" to date tonight. It was light, staccato, and fast...exactly what we want. I wish I could do that consistently though.

All in all, a good lesson and practice session. We're slated to dance rounds tomorrow, so we'll have to see how that goes. And tomorrow, I start physical therapy for my knee! I'm really looking forward to leaning what I can do to help myself get stronger again after my recent knee injury, since it continues to inhibit my dancing quite a bit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Questionable Quickstep

The other night was perhaps our fifth consecutive night of quickstep practice.  You might think that because we have been working on it so much, we harbor some fondness towards the dance.

But no.  At this point, our quickstep is highly questionable. 

I have my suspicions as to why quickstep inevitably falls apart.  Being tall, it can be difficult to maintain control over long limbs in such a bouncy dance.  More fundmentally, our general skepticism of quickstep is problematic.   I feel silly hopping around the floor, which compels me to either give into the cheesiness of quickstep, or dance through the routine like a tango.  I am not sure which is worse.

Both Sarah and I look for deeper meaning in the things we do (especially Sarah, the philosophy major and general skeptic).  If we were to simply accept quickstep for what it is, in all of its springy glory, then perhaps we would be onto something. 

The weirdest aspect to me personally is how, a couple of years ago, tango and quickstep were my strongest dances.  As a youth dancer, I despised foxtrot (although admittedly in large part due to how much all the “good” dancers enjoyed foxtrot).   Now, dancing with Sarah, foxtrot is one of my favorite dances. I can’t help but wonder if, in my growing up, I have “traded” my affinity for quickstep with foxtrot.  To those who understand these two dances, this might make sense.  Still, it is very puzzling to me.

Nonetheless, by the end of the practice, I felt optimistic for quickstep.  Once we can infuse the power, stronger frame, and better position we have been working on in the other dances into quickstep, we will have made leaps and bounds in our competitive goals (Unlike Sarah, I love puns, and most of mine will be intended).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Quickstep, I know you're in there.

Tonight we worked on quickstep, first in a lesson with Simeon, and then just practice. Brandon and I basically share the same attitude about quickstep. It's just not our dance...yet. Part of it we like to blame on being tall, but there's not doubt that it doesn't come as naturally as waltz or foxtrot, for example. Unfortunately our marks tend to reflect that too, so we've been resolved to put some serious effort into it. I could tell that tonight might end up being a bit of a frustrating practice just given that it was dedicated to quickstep, but actually, now that it's over, I'm rather happy with what we got through today. We now have our choreography lined up (whether we can dance it is another matter), but I have a certain security in knowing that we have a whole routine to work on and won't be learning new choreo one week before our next competition. Yes, this has happened before. 

Since I began dancing I've always had this kind of tenuous relationship with quickstep. Back when I was in silver level and training for pro-am competition, one lesson I just stopped and blurted out to my teacher, "I just don't get quickstep!" When he asked what I meant, I tried to explain. All of the other dances I can feel inside me in a way, and I feel like I have a generally good sense of what the feel should be even if I don't always execute on it. But quickstep...syllabus quickstep seemed pointless to me. Why would anyone want to shuffle around a ballroom floor going sort of fast but not amazingly fast, and smooth, but not very smooth, all the while pretending like this is the most happy thing that ever happened? It made no sense. Now open quickstep I could kind of understand; you're running, leaping, hopping, skipping around the floor with a bubbly exuberance that I rarely feel but could maybe make myself feel if I was dancing it. So now, here I am, a newly minted open level dancer, trying to figure out  my relationship with this new beast that is open quickstep. And I'm still having trouble.

By the way, an interesting side note. I just realized that the four dances we have so far correspond rather well to the four temperaments. Not surprisingly, my best dance is currently waltz. So we have waltz as the melancholic, tango as the choleric (duh), foxtrot as the phlegmatic, and quickstep as the sanguine. It works remarkably well! Although it makes me wonder why I'm not better at tango these days.

Tonight though, I figured a few things out with quickstep. One is, the faces help. You probably want to know what the faces are. Brandon teases me about them all the time, but he shouldn't talk since I've seen him make his own rather ghastly faces on the competition floor. But then again, he has some nice ones too, and a general aura of being that cute guy that everyone wants to mark well. Anyways, I like to make faces as I'm dancing, and I don't really make them on purpose, but they kind of spring from the mood of what we're doing and the figure and just what it feels like I should be doing. A healthy dose of that "feeling" I'm sure comes from watching countless videos of top pros executing certain figures with certain expressions, but it's gotten to the point where I've kind of absorbed some of it by osmosis. But now they're deep enough ingrained I don't feel like I can dance certain figures and do certain things like stay on balance without the requisite face. I know, it's weird, but it would really throw me off if I had to do a serious faced hover, or a depressed eight quick run face in quickstep. No indeed. In the hover develope I'm levitating with joy, and in the quick run I'm just so excited and can't wait to see what comes next. A smiling tango would be the beginning of the end. Tonight we were practicing straight up promenade runs for the first time (think quickstep meets jousting) and they went surprisingly well, and the open-mouth-charging-at-you-all-canons-firing face was there for sure, helping out the cause. 

Another thing that helps is just overall lightness of foot. Simeon was getting on Brandon's case for tangoizing the quickstep figures we were working on, and I think I need to work on that in general too. We're always working so hard in the other dances on being heavy and grounded and using lots of floor pressure, but in quickstep it's important to look like one is dancing on bubbles. If I think about champagne bubbles and cotton candy while dancing quickstep, that helps too. 

So anyways, I'm actually kind of excited about quickstep now. I like the new bit of choreography that we added at the end, more than a little inspired by what happens between 0:50-1:05  in this video. 

It's hard to go wrong with Anna Mikhed. 

Highly Questionable

I'd like to preface everything by pronouncing this blog and the contents herein, in the words of my partner, "highly questionable." Why? Because this same pronouncement is made about our dancing, by that same young gentleman, roughly five times a day. Nevertheless, I'd ask you to consider whether this is not the best attitude to have about one's dancing, and in fact, about life in general.

Think about it this way. The moment to we stop questioning ourselves and asking why, the moment that we take our own abilities for granted, that is the moment when we stop growing. To make any sort of progress, in one's dancing or in any pursuit, requires a certain humility and a consciousness of one's own limitations, and tireless inquest into the reasons why things are the way they are, and why my dancing doesn't look like it should, or feel like it should, or move like it should.

So I think that, all things considered, Brandon and I are on the same page here. (Pun so not intentional.) We know roughly where we are with our dancing, and we know, perhaps more clearly, where we want to be. And for us, those two items are matching up relatively well between us these days. Both being of introspective natures, we found that a lot of our dance training has spilled over into hours of mental reflection, some in depth conversations, and personal study, as we try to determine what exactly it will take for us to achieve these goals of ours, both together as a partnership and individually as dancers.

I'd like to make a comment about the subtitle of this blog. It came to me rather suddenly as a random and silly idea as Brandon and I were attempting to christen it. I explained to Brandon that I have always felt like the world in general is just too clunky. Mostly it's people: people when they dance, people in their interactions, people in their movement. There is so much good and beauty in this world, and if there was just some way for us to tread more lightly, rather than to stomp through this life, how much more of that beauty we would see. I suppose I ought to give specific examples to illustrate this rather outlandish assessment, but I just don't think I have any top of mind, unless it is ladies in clunky heels making as much noise as possible in a quite church on a stone floor. In any case, we'd like to think that this idea applies to our quest to become better dancers. We've noticed a sad lack in the rank and file of competitive dancers of a true expression of what dancing is all about. The two bodies moving as one, flowing across the floor to the strains of beautiful music, creating harmonious lines and shapes and a unified picture, something about this ideal is so often just not there. Many dancers seem too focused on "getting marked" to care whether their dancing is graceful and really beautiful. And although Brandon and I are both pretty competitive ourselves, for us competition is kind of a means to an end, the end being real, beautiful and powerful dancing.

Our goal, with our dancing and with this blog, is to try to bring back some of the beauty and grace that has lost it's rightful place in ballroom dancing. Highly questionable? I think so. Let's just say we have our work more than cut out for us.