Saturday, October 20, 2012

Of Ponds and Chins

People in my town don't ballroom dance (Sorry, Grand Rapids, but most dancers out there don't even know what a Fallaway Reverse & Slip Pivot is...). Instead, people swing and people salsa. But when somebody gets a little crazy with the music and plays a waltz or a tango, the dance floor becomes my home court. I still have a good time (typically), but it's tough to really enjoy a waltz when everybody is box-stepping off time and against the line of dance. Yeah, I get my choice of partner, and a little recognition, but it would be nicer to dance a respectable natural turn uninterrupted.

Big fish, small pond - it's a give and take.

So, I started travelling. I moved to a bigger pond. There, I found more people that actually enjoyed ballroom dancing the way I did. And then there's the whole culture of the collegiate competition circuit - if you want to get better, work harder and dance more. And everybody is coming pretty much from the same place:

I'm in college for 3-6 years, and I want to learn something that's new and fun.

So sure, people develop tastes - some people get obsessed and become great quickly; others chill in Bronze and compete on weekends that they and their partner are free. And despite the wide spectrum of personalities and goals ("I just want to meet girls", "I need an excuse to exercise", "this is fun and I'll do it my whole life", etc.), there's still a pretty universal camaraderie among the college crowd.
  • Sure, let's have an afterparty. 
  • Check out this video on youtube. 
  • Let's all go to the social. 
  • Let's all do a fundraiser. 
  • Let's carpool and then crash on a couch.
  • Let's reserve the studio from 10 pm to 12 am then get a drink afterwards.
It's a blast, for sure -


- and I never though that I, of all people, would ever say this -

what if it's a little too much fun?

Ok, imma have to explain that one. I mean, what if somebody wanted to get a little more...serious about dancing? What if ballroom dance became more than a hobby or pastime, and became more of a lifestyle? What if that's not a means to an end - when the switch happens from:
"Oh, I'll learn how to dance in order to meet people."  


"I only want to meet people who dance."

"My partner isn't free tonight. Guess I'll play a video game/go to the pub/watch a movie."


"My partner isn't free tonight. Guess I'll go practice alone/find somebody else/watch pros on youtube."

I may not be quite so crazy as that, but I'm getting there. I feel like a clingy boyfriend, and ballroom dance is my girl. I spend all my money on dance, I think about dancing throughout the day, when I am forced to take a break from dance (sprained ankle, etc), I still try to show up at places where I know where ballroom dance will be and "accidentally run into" it, and try to gauge if ballroom misses me as much as I miss it.

....kinda sad how accurate that last paragraph was....

More to the point, I was wondering if there was anybody else in the college pond who wanted to treat ballroom dance as more than a friend.

If you look at the general flow of the volume of ballroom of dancers, it will go something like this. Let's say there is a competition with 100 competing couples (remembering couples can dance two levels):
    35 will dance Newcomer
  • 50 will dance Bronze
  • 30 will dance Silver
  • 15 will dance Gold
  • 8 will dance Novice
  • 3 will dance Prechamp
  • Every once in a while, there may be 1-2 couples that make it to Champ
I'm over-simplifying it, but not many people want to (or are willing to) make the push past the bronze hump, then the syllabus-to-open hump. So, where does everyone go, and why?

Well, for one, the "while I'm in college" constraint typically makes it difficult for college couples to get to champ - unless you start in Freshman Undergrad and stay through your masters (or you're Alex Rowan), it'll be tough to go the distance in the allotted time. But even then, the steady stream of open dancers seems to trickle off rather rapidly...but why? Where do they all go?

They go to the a bigger pond - the Adult Amateur category.

Imagine, instead of the pyramidic picture I painted of how dancers struggle to make it to the top, there are more people in Champ than Novice because they've won Prechamp too many times and it would now be cherry-picking. Yeah. Imagine walking into the ballroom and out of the several hundred dancers there, only about 5% are wearing dresses that cost less than $1K. Earlier this year, I danced a prechamp standard round at Michcomp - ONE guy wore a tailsuit. At the MAC in January, I was one of 2 or 3 out of 40 that DIDN'T wear tails. But the wardrobe and distribution wasn't even the most jarring difference.

It was the chins.
[the wha...?]


Everybody had their head held high, dancing or not. And nobody talked to anyone other than their partners and coaches, save for the few sets of college "teams" (meaning 4-5 couples out of a team of 50+) that came as a group. Everyone was there on business - "this is the result of the work I have done. I am here to dance my best, and hopefully it's enough to get me into nationals. I am here for the dancing and for the ribbon." And that was it. No "dude, let's chill," or "can you teach me that," or anything like that. It was all....COLD. Oh, sure, a few "I love your dress" comments, and a couple "You guys were great" compliments, and the occasional, "Oh! I haven't seen you since X!" introduction. But mostly, people came alone and kept to themselves.


[To be fair, I was getting plenty of unorthodox attention from the Ballroom Addict video]

But everybody was in the zone the whole weekend. And as much as I tried to behave, I still ended up losing my cool and nerding out, simply because here are people that "GET IT". That joke about Fallaway Reverse and Slip Pivot? Everybody gets it - they all went through it. Punchline about a line figure? It's now funny.

Since then, I've mostly stuck to the bigger pond. I'm sure there are more out there. My partner and I are just starting to dance Champ - I imagine we're in for a bit of a culture shock. I wonder what the differences are between the amateur, pro-am, and professional scenes? I suppose there's a newfound respect for higher level dancers. Nobody "gets lucky" anymore - with the exception of some politics, everyone is exactly as good as the work they've put in. And I'm excited to see how my work stack up.

But for now, CHINS.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Jogging might be a better idea than dance practice

I like getting better. At anything. Who doesn't? Whether I'm getting faster at my job, or ranking up in a video game, or parallel parking like a boss, it feels good to improve.

This is especially true when the task is competitive in nature. When you are working toward a goal, testing your progress against others with the same goal is the only true measure of your progress. The thing is, it doesn't necessarily come down to your effort versus my effort - if it were that simple, skill could be quantified in hours, and we might as well go home as soon as we're up against someone who's been doing our task a little longer. It's also about knowing what to practice, where to get help, and how to respond to successes and failures along the way.

Dancing is no exception. And I suppose I'm mostly speaking in terms of competitive dancers, though I've met a few rather serious social dancers. Like anything else, you get back what you put in - however, "what you put in" refers to more than just time and energy. If you practice 10 hours a week, trying to duplicate what professionals are doing on YouTube, you will look like a dancer who spends 10 hours a week practicing what they saw on YouTube. If you take 3 hours of lessons with world-class coaches, practice on your own for 3 hours drilling basics, and only frame up with your parter for 3 hours to talk about connection and to dance rounds, you will look like a dancer who...well, you get the idea. 10 hours of unfocussed effort is not going to give you the same result as 9 hours of effective training.

However, where that focus goes is a tough question. I seem to come across two different schools of thought when it comes to practicing ballroom dancing, though I'm sure it translates to other skills.

First, I meet dancers that are focused on impressing. Flashier moves. Bigger shapes. More difficult footwork. Have a couple of amazing moments, and they're sure to want more. I used to belong to this group - gotta have a few go-to steps I could do well, and spam 'em. Focus on the strengths, and play to them. I have trouble with shapes? Then I'll do faster moves. My footwork is poor? I'll do the easier steps and more lines.

Thing is, there's only so much you can do like this before it catches up to you. Sorry, but the biggest frame in prechamp standard will probably get smoked if they're taking bronze-sized steps.

Second, there are the dancers that are attached to the cleanup. Learn every step in every syllabus. Learn all of the technique on this figure before moving on. "I have one section that doesn't feel right - let's work on it until it feels right." This route requires patience, but ends up being very rewarding in the long run. The hard stuff is easy once you've got the basic down solid.

And yet, where's the fun in that? And what if the problem you're stopping to fix isn't really the root cause?

I belonged to this group at one point as well. I spent weeks "fixing" my frame to make a single section of one routine feel a little smoother, only to find out much later that my footwork was wrong, making it nearly impossible to step without distorting myself (and my partner). Quick fix on the placement, and it was all good in the frame. And all that time was wasted - anything that I had improved upon was overshadowed by the time it took to get out of the bad-footwork habit I was solidifying.

Now I certainly can't suggests that either of these routes is the way to go - as you probably guessed, I prefer a mix of the two. In competition, you may only get a judge's attention for 3 seconds, and you need to make sure that you don't give them a reason not to mark you. You have to keep things clean. But just being clean isn't enough to make you stand out - you need to keep learning new concepts as well. In fact, sometimes the new stuff inadvertently fixes the problem spots - I had a big problem with timing in the Slow Foxtrot, but learning better swing helped fix that little mess.

Bottom line, if you show up to practice just to power-through your choreography 10 times, you might as well do it once and go jogging instead. Because unless you're actively working on something, then you're only doing you and your a partner a favor on the memory/endurance side. Instead, try fixing a bad habit you've internalized, or adding some technique you've learned but haven't internalized yet.

And remember, like most skills, identifying what to do next is easier with professional help. And knowing is half the battle.