Friday, February 24, 2012

2012 American Style Congress: The Day's End and Overall Thoughts

First off, as promised, the part that upset me towards the end of the Rhythm section. Here are the empirical facts. I submitted a question (yes, for those of you there, the anonymous question was in fact me), where I asked the following: "Is it ever technically correct to step forward on a press line in the rumba/cha cha basic, or should you get to a flat foot as soon as you arrive?" The question was met with some hostility not only from members of the panel but also coaches in the audience, and after some belittling (John DePalma noted that "the panel wants to know if whoever asked this question missed every lecture today"), the only answer that was given was "No" without specifying what part of the question that "No" was aimed at.

Some disclaimers from me: my understanding of a press line is that you step forward onto the ball of your foot but you're still split weight, which I thought was in keeping with Bob Powers' talk on how to transfer your weight. This is how I was taught, what was drilled into my body, during my private lessons with an Arthur Murray a year and a half ago, and it's the technique that I've been developing ever since. In the rumba and cha, I step forward in a press line, then use the "and" count to lower the heel and straighten the leg. If this is just blatantly incorrect according to every coach that ever existed in Rhythm and I was led astray by a rogue teacher, then that's fine. I'm totally willing to accept that.

I posed the question after Bob Powers' talk because it was a point I needed clarification on. Taliat Tarsinov sort of answered it in his talk after I had submitted the question (by saying that it's a legitimate option), but at that point I couldn't take the question back.

I could have accepted being told I was wrong if it had come with an explanation of why it was wrong and what a better way of looking at it would have been. But what really hurt was that I'm a student. I've only been dancing for two and a half years, and I came to this Congress to learn from the best of the best who've been at it for far longer than I have. I posed that question because I needed clarification, but all I got in return was hostility and a brusque "No" from professionals who I had hoped would help me, and now I'm even more confused than before. What was the "No" for, whether it's ever technically correct or whether you should arrive on a flat foot as soon as you get there? What's wrong about arriving on a press line with split weight if you follow it up with a lowering of the heel and a straightening of the leg after that delayed hip action? I came away from that question and answer session feeling confused, belittled and a bit stupid, and to make it worse, all because of professional dancers that I looked up to. Not a great feeling.

After that, a question was posed about who teaches the SAM technique, at which point Sam Sodano, the leading proponent of the technique, took the floor, explaining how unfair it was to ask the panel that question when he was the one who came up with the methodology. He was a bit heavy-handed in his answer, to the point where he made it almost sound like "you're either with me or against me." It was just a bit much, especially when the intention behind the creation of the technique was so good (to help unify a style that was previously rather scattershot and looked down upon). Again, perhaps I came in biased because of the discussion on the Facebook group, but any interest I might have had in his technique, he kind of scared away with his forceful response.


Aside from these two points, the day overall was fantastic. It reaffirmed my love for Smooth and Rhythm and my identity as an American dancer, and it made me eager not only to get back into the studio and work on my own growth as a dancer, but also to help share what I learned and inspire interest and excitement in my fellow collegiate amateur ballroom dancers. That's why I wrote these blogs, to help share some of the things that I know will help me in my own journey as a ballroom dancer, with all of this amazing advice from folks at the absolute top of their games.

If I know you in person, I'll see you at the studio or on the competition floor, hopefully as a better dancer and partner for all of the amazing advice I received from my idols today. Thank you to all of the wonderful lecturers and demonstrators -- I hope to make you proud as a dancer someday.

2012 American Style Congress: Rhythm

On to the Rhythm portion of the day. I'll be honest -- I was kind of worried heading into it after hearing some not-so-kind views about the Congress on Rhythm last year, including that there was no unified view of what Rhythm should be and that all the talks were more confusing than helpful. I'm glad to say that those expectations weren't met, and every talk came with a healthy dose of "This is our style and the way we see it -- take it or leave it, make sure to find out what works for you." It echoes a sentiment that Tomas Mielnicki stated in his talk in the Smooth section when he was talking about the coachings he and JT got from Toni Redpath and Eddie Simon -- it was never "You MUST do it this way." It was always "Here's the technique -- use it to your own advantage if you'd like to." Most of the talks spoke to what I personally believe Rhythm technique should be, though my few instances of dissent will be duly noted below. As with my post on Smooth, all opinions unless otherwise stated herein are mine and mine alone.

Ricky Bentzen and Albina Habrle kicked things off with a talk on their belief of what basic Rhythm rumba technique is. It's a given that when you step, you land on a flexed leg. This allows for better expression of and rhythm through the body. However, when you land, you don't send your energy down into the floor -- that causes your upper body posture to break and creates ugly lines. Rather, the energy of the upper body drives in the opposite direction from the lifted hip of the leg you left behind, so that energy travels across the floor, rather than down into the floor and stopping you cold. Hearing it explained that way was eye-opening. I know that whenever I dance Rhythm, I place such an emphasis on the groundedness and the earthy quality of every dance that I send my energy into the floor; I really do dig. Albina helped me see, though, that by doing that, I'm missing a really great opportunity to project outward and to keep my posture up, which is always an ongoing battle for me. All in all, what Albina and Ricky want Rhythm couples to do is to make sure that every routine is readable (if the music were turned off, could the judges tell that you're dancing a rumba, or would they confuse it with the bolero? the cha cha?), and you have to stay true to the style -- if you're going to step onto a straight leg à la Latin, make sure you're doing it for a reason, like you're about to turn or you're creating a deliberate line (i.e., don't bring Latin technique into Rhythm just because that's what you know and that's what you resort to).

Next up were Peter and Alexandra Perzhu, who tackled my personal favorite Rhythm dance, the swing. They spoke of the importance of Cuban motion throughout the basic, where the bending and the straightening of the legs really help the hip to swing in the way that it's supposed to. Also, it's important that in the rock step, the heel barely kisses the floor -- you should never be backweighted on that rock step, which is a problem I see all over the place in swing. There are two major kinds of chasses in swing: the progressive (side, together, side), and in place (very small step, together, side). The former has a half, half, whole timing, and the latter has a three quarter, quarter, one timing. (That last bit is arguable to me, but I love the Perzhus so much that I'm willing to let it slide.)

They demonstrated a basic amalgamation that consisted of progressive basics to four kick ball changes to sailor shuffles to toe swivels and then chicken walks. Then, like their colleagues in the Smooth portion, they showed how they could build upon those basics into a high-level competitive routine, using the momentum of the progressive basics to go into pivots, separating into side by side, and so on. It was truly great to watch (and now I have a great new pattern to try out involving syncopated sailor shuffles!).

Then, Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine and Liana Churilova built upon their lecture last year, where they talked about technique, with a lecture this year on rhythmicality, musicality, and personality. Rhythmicality involves using the body to display the different rhythms of the music, whether you're vibrating, shimmying, using staccato actions, impulse actions -- the list goes on and on. With musicality, you can be clean and precise in your moves, but unless you're phrasing correctly and working with the music you're given, it's not going to be very effective. Personality involves three different directions of focus: inward, towards the partner, and towards your audience. Through the combination of the three, your dancing can become connected, beautiful, and worth watching.

After a short break, Cher Rutherford took the floor to discuss the bolero with an assist from Rufus Dustin and Lori Woods-Gay. First off, HOLY CRAP. Talk about legends. Second off, the talk was wonderfully detailed, going through the technical specifics of the bolero basics. It is one of the three rumbas (guaracha [or box], son [like International rumba], and bolero), with a speed of 24 measures per minute. The first myth that was debunked was that there is rise and fall in bolero. You are supposed to place the foot first, and then elevate above the standing foot. If the elevation, which comes from body rise, results in foot rise, so be it, but "rise and fall" leads to a fallacy that you have to arrive on a toe, which results in a lack of balance and stability for your partner. The bolero incorporates the lowering, bending action of the waltz, the groundedness of the tango, and the softness of the son-style rumba.

There are four basic actions that you can incorporate into a bolero basic: a checked action (with a contra-check action when you are going forward), a drifting action, a whisk-like action, and a Cuban action. It's impossible to demonstrate each through text, so yet another shameless plug for the DVD, but combining all four throughout a piece of bolero choreography can truly enhance it and give it layers and fun dynamics to play with.

She went on to talk about different types of basic actions: open breaks (further broken down into a backward open break with checked action, a forward open break with drift action, and a point break), crossover breaks and fifth position breaks (with the four types of basic action mentioned above), cross-body leads (from closed hold, from a modified wider closed hold, and from an open hold), and the right side pass (from an open hold with a pivot for the lady).

The living legends theme continued with 12-time National Rhythm champions Bob Powers and Julia Gorchokova, who gave my favorite talk of the Rhythm section, where they broke down fundamental Rhythm action into 6 easy (?) steps:

1. Steps are initiated with a body action (namely in the back). The isometric compression prepares you for your eventual step. Rhythm is in the body, not in just moving a foot from step to step.
2. Step onto a flexed leg, but do not change height. It's a very similar concept to what Albina said above about the upper body stretching in opposition to the hip you're leaving behind; otherwise, you're digging into the floor and stopping your flow of energy.
3. Split your weight and then shift to the new standing leg. Some coaches advocate for transferring your weight 100% when you arrive on the leg; however, splitting and then transferring is what worked best for Bob and Julia.
4. Work a compressed figure 8. If you think of your hips moving in that constant track around, it creates a seamless movement, like the second hand of a real Rolex watch (unlike the second hand of a fake Rolex watch, which ticks instead of moving continuously).
5. Maintain delayed hip action. "The hip moves back in relation to the body, but forward in relation to space ... The energy is created in the hip of the standing leg and remains there until we hit two straight legs, at which time the moving leg now becomes the standing leg." Check out that principle in action on the DVD, or ask me if you see me in person and I'll try to present my horribly deficient, bastardized version of it (I daresay I'm not quite as good as Bob Powers or Julia Gorchakova).
6. At some point, you do hit two straight legs.

I have a minor quibble, but that will be addressed in my third blog.

Then Bill Sparks spoke about Structured Actional Movement (or SAM technique) with assists by Jason and Sveta Daly and another couple whose names I didn't quite catch. I'll be completely honest. I had the same problem that I had when I attended a cha cha talk by Bill at IDB last summer. He's extremely intelligent and a great dancer, but to be quite frank, I got very lost in all the big words that he used, to the point where even the demonstrations of the SAM technique by the very able couples couldn't help me out. From what I could understand, the essentials are that on a step or weight transfer, the weight is caught in the knee of the moving leg and the hip and the ball of the foot left behind. There are three kinds of hip lifts, including vertical, foot driven, and knee driven. At the point of a leg straightening, it becomes the new standing leg. The top exhibits rotation in relation to all this action that's going on in the bottom. All of this is coming from my notes, which are just about as scattered and confused as my memories of the talk. Even given all that, though, the technique doesn't quite sound like my cup of tea, though power and no offense to anyone whom it helps. Perhaps I came into the talk a bit biased after reading through the conversation about it on the Strictly Rhythm group on Facebook. Either way, not quite my favorite talk.

Finally, Taliat Tarsinov lectured on the general impression about the American Rhythm style and some spectators' problems with certain kinds of choreography, and he illustrated with a surprise assist from Jose DeCamps and Joanna Zacharewicz. Not going to lie, I pretty much died of excitement when John DePalma announced their names. It was my first time watching them dance live after watching nearly every Youtube video of them and professing that that's exactly the kind of dancer I want to become. I may or may not have teared up a little at their bolero, but that's coming later. Taliat talked about how he got into Rhythm and then had a small digression on the three different types of weight transfers: progressive, which helps you move; delayed, which creates a flexibility and elasticity throughout the body; and checked, which helps you change direction.

Then he tackled the general problems with modern choreography for the rumba, swing, and bolero. For the rumba, it's meant to be a stationary dance, which allows for expressive, elastic body motion, but many couples turn it into a traveling dance, aiming to cover the whole floor and using grand lines rather than staying true to the original character of the dance. Then in swing, couples aren't using enough actual swing (metronomic, pendular, and rotational) and the in-and-out elasticity of the partnership, where the space expands and contracts (as in the sugar push). Then, in bolero, it becomes very lifted and line-y, instead of grounded, where you exhibit elevation rather than rise and fall. All three dances were demonstrated by Jose and Joanna, whereupon I cried tears of joy and died of happiness.

The day ended with a question and answer session. First up, does a Latin background hinder or help a dancer that's trying to learn Rhythm? The general answer seemed to be that ANY dance background, whether it be Latin, ballet, folk, jazz, anything, can be a help, as long as you're willing to learn something new and figure out how you can use your previous training to inform it, rather than fall back on your previous training in lieu of learning something new. Then came an easy question where Peter and Alexandra Perzhu were asked whether they think their ideas about the swing are in line with current judges' opinions ("Yes. Yeah."). Next, Bob Powers and Bill Sparks demonstrated the evolution of the arms on crossover breaks, and Bob fielded a question about how the ribcage moves with regard to their theory about basic movement (answer: you can't move bones, ribcage = back, therefore it works great with their ideology). The last question was directed at Eddie Simon, who was asked about body rise versus foot rise in the bolero. Cf. my ditty on Cher Rutherford up above.

I skipped over two questions, one involving footwork on the forward break in rumba/cha cha and another involving the SAM technique, but that's the subject of my next and final post on the American Style Congress. I will say that I was feeling pretty fantastic about the entire day, learning new things that I really want to try out, just like I did with the Smooth section, but the way these last two questions I'll talk about were handled put a really sour taste in my mouth. Stay tuned for that.

2012 American Style Congress: Smooth

Okay, it's been a while, but I'm not going to make any promises this time around about keeping up the blog. I have no illusions that I'm lousy at keeping that promise. But I just attended an event that's going to spawn not one, not two, but three separate blog posts, all related to the Second Annual American Style Congress, which took place today as part of the NY Dance Festival. On the whole, it was a fantastic experience filled with lots of information that I felt was too important not to share, especially with my fellow collegiate amateur ballroom competitors. There was one part that really upset me, but that'll take up the entirety of the third blog post. Disclaimer: all opinions included herein, unless otherwise stated, are mine and mine alone.

For this first post, I'll be talking about the Smooth portion of the Congress. Overall, it was exhilarating. Seeing my idols, these folks who I've spent hours (no joke) watching on Youtube and being inspired by, right there in front of me talking about their philosophies about dance, technique, collaboration, and choreography and demonstrating their prowess was beyond mind-boggling. It truly affirmed my love for Smooth as a style, and it made me want to work that much harder to get to Open level (sorry, Nicole!).

First up was Mayo Alanen and Michelle Officer, who were tasked with talking about the Viennese Waltz and how to create choreography. The inspiration can come from literally anywhere, whether it's a visual (Mayo draws inspiration from Youtube videos and Gene Kelly) or some other external stimulus or some kind of internal idea. The challenge becomes communicating that inspiration to your partner, whether you do it verbally, you show it by yourself, or you sing it ("I was thinking of something like thHhhIIIIsssss, and then whoosh with a spinny HAAAA after that!"). The most important part is to allow your partner to express himself or herself, even if you feel instantly that you won't like their idea. Who's to say you won't have your mind changed?

Choreography has to fit within the character of the dance. If it's the waltz, do you have the requisite rise and fall? If it's tango, are your actions staccato? Also, choreography can be a blend of the best of the Standard, Latin, and Showcase styles, not to mention others like jazz, ballet, etc. Mayo and Michelle went on to demonstrate a simple pattern (the reverse turn with a drag hesitation) in its simplest, purest, closed-hold form, but then went on to demonstrate how many different ways the same pattern could be danced. The lady could break hold with her left hand and extend her arm; you could do it with an underarm turn; a double underarm turn; the lady could extend both arms; you could do it in shadow; shadow with a free turn; shadow with a samba roll action; side by side and apart. Any number of possibilities in Smooth.

The last little element is musicality. Light, breezy, airy music lends itself to happiness and articulation through the body upward. Songs heavy in cello and darker elements may be more conducive to action through the lower extremities and more weighty movement. You're not dancing in a vacuum -- you have to listen to what you're given in a competition.

Next up was Mazen Hamza and Izabella Jundzill, who were tasked with using the tango to illustrate their talk: Make It, Master It, Make It Matter. They started similarly, using a simple left turn with a rollout to fan position (what I call flare position). You have to understand the fundamental actions that you're working with in order to truly make it your own. Through a process that my mind is still blown from having witnessed, that simple left turn with a rollout to fan eventually became two steps of a left turn with an outside change of direction to a same foot lunge to a telespin followed by two swivels to a double underarm turn to fan. I know, right?

So much for "Make It." In terms of "Master It," it starts with yourself -- being aware of your own balance, your own posture, your own footwork and what you need to do. Without that awareness, partnering is impossible. Once you have that awareness, though, you can use it to test the waters, as it were -- if you're a leader, throw something out there and see what response you get. Let it dictate what follows. It's kind of hard to explain in words what Mazen and Izabella showed through the movement of their bodies, so here's a shameless plug for you to go buy the DVD to see it for yourself.

Play with space. It can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal, up from under, down from above, whatever you desire. But playing with that space and those dynamics AND playing with the connection between partners (using equal but opposite forces) while clearly communicating what you want to do and how you're going to do it will create something great. But what you create also has to matter not only to you yourself and to your partner but also to an audience -- otherwise, what's the point of competing and performing?

Slawek Sochacki and Marzena Stachura talked about creating different dynamics within choreography and using improvisation as a tool (though not the only tool!) to help create. Choreography should be level-appropriate, able to be performed with musicality, show the character of the dance, and play to the strengths of the dancer. Basics are also extremely important, perhaps augmented by alternative holds, but there nonetheless. Plus, every dance should tell a story.

They were highly influenced in their training by Laban Movement Technique, a graph of which they reproduced and showed to us. The Theatre major in me absolutely freaking loved this part of their talk, because the abandon and carefree quality with which they moved their bodies reminded me of every single acting class I ever took at Holy Cross. A version of the chart is here, though some differences include that within space, "indirect" was "flexible (inward)," and "strong" was "heavy," though the concept of each is the same. Mixing and matching different combinations of each (Is your open twinkle sustained and direct? Light and free? Heavy and bound?) not only in the same routine but sometimes even in the same move from round to round can create different and exciting dynamics. You should never dance the same routine from round to round. First off, you're never dancing to the same song, and the music should dictate the way you move. Secondly, you'll burn out if you do the same thing over, and over, and over again. That's how, Marzena says, you can be inspired every single time, even when you're dancing 30-40 competitions a year.

Charles and Jean Penatello gave a history lesson about how the American Smooth style came about, including some humorous anecdotes about the way the style used to be danced (toe leads on every forward step, including in tango!). From 1971 to 1984, there was no distinction between Smooth and Rhythm -- there was only American Style, and it consisted of Foxtrot, Swing, Bolero, and Mambo. Then in 1984, the split happened -- Smooth became a four-dance event with WTFV as we know it, and Rhythm came into being as a four-dance event with CSwBM (Rumba wasn't added until 1985). Since 1986, there has been an ongoing discussion about adding a fifth dance to Smooth to even it out with the rest of the styles, though if this conversation's been going on for 16+ years, I'm not holding my breath for a fifth to be added any time soon. The most likely candidate is the Peabody, a truly American style dance so named after a gentleman who was so portly that you couldn't dance it in closed hold -- the dance is characterized by a constant switching from left to right side offset position. The dance also goes down LOD, as opposed to Quickstep, which tends to aim for the corners. The talk was capped by a live demonstration of the Peabody, which brought the house down.

Nick and Lena Kosovich focused on three main points that every couple should work on: fundamentals / technique, actions, and effort. Technique goes without saying: heel leads, frame, posture, and so on. Actions get further broken down into:

- bending (every part of your body -- fingers, hands, elbows, upper body, and so on. Also, lowering, but lower only to the extent that the hip of your supporting leg stays neutral -- any further than that, your tush sticks out, you break your posture, and you don't make it to the next round)
- stretching (two points moving in opposition on a straight line. Make sure to establish what the two points are. Even in a closed hold alone, you have a stretch from the skull to the tailbone, from elbow to elbow.)
- contracting (two points moving towards each other on a straight line. Every stretch has to have an accompanying contraction back to neutral, even if another stretch or an even deeper contraction follows. Otherwise, your dancing becomes stiff and much more difficult.)
- twisting (juxtaposed forces turning against each other. Even in your frame, you have that torque in your hands, arms, elbows, like a ballet dancer. Also, twisting / preparing is a requisite for a turn.)
- turning
- traveling
- balancing (on, off, or counter against your partner)

Effort is very much along the same lines of the way Slawek and Marzena explained the Laban technique. Together, all of these elements lend themselves to a dynamic, exciting performance.

I'll be honest, I don't have any notes from Michael Mead's talk, but from what I remember, he was tasked with talking about where Smooth has been and where we're going, which he edited to ask where do we want to go. He emphasized the importance of storytelling and compared the evolution of the Smooth style to the evolution of movies. We may have CGI and 3D and all these amazing technological advances, but the fact of the matter is that The Artist, a black and white silent film, has 10 Academy Award nominations and is up for Best Picture against much more contemporary films because the storytelling is sound and clear. He also made a funny quip about using Microsoft Kinects in the future to take away the need for dancers to travel or worry about floorcraft -- in the future, dancers will be able to compete from the comfort of their own homes! (Let's hope it never comes to that.)

In arguably my favorite lecture of the morning, JT Thomas and Tomas Mielnicki talked about how to find your own style on the dance floor. JT likened style to those tessellated pictures: the audience gets an overall impression or picture that is created of smaller, individual choices. They went on to discuss what used to be held as the two main groups of Smooth dancers: shapers and the verticals. The former include David Hamilton and Olga Foraponova and Michael Mead and Toni Redpath, and the latter include Eddie Simon and Michelle Officer and Nick and Lena Kosovich. All four couples competed within the same style but had their own little quirks that made them unique on the floor -- David, Olga, Michael, and Toni created shapes and used physics and weight transfers to create mind-boggingly athletic and beautiful pictures; Eddie and Michelle were very Broadway and in-your-face entertainers, while Nick and Lena were the masters of subtlety, sharing an intimate moment on the dance floor that they shared with their audience.

Elements that can help you find your style include emotion, which Tomas maintains helps technique, a sentiment I can't agree with enough. He spoke about thinking about a sunset whenever he goes into promenade in the waltz, which is a beautiful idea that I'll never be able to get out of my head whenever I dance the waltz from now on. Athleticism and the abilities of your own body can be a help too, as well as creating a story and exhibiting the character of the dance (I'm sensing a theme here).

To sum up, JT compared the process of finding your own style to preparing to get married:

- something old: work your basics hard, but don't get bored by them.
- something new: don't be afraid to put yourself out there and try something brand new -- escape from your comfort zone and you may be excited by the results.
- something borrowed: find a good coach you like and steal all the knowledge you possibly can from them.
- something TRUE (not blue): stay true to yourself and your partnership! don't do something just because you can -- do it because it supports the music and it's something you believe in.

To conclude, there was a question and answer session with some really great discussion. First up, Michelle Officer was asked how the lady can help the gentlemen with those underarm turns and communicate what she's doing and what she needs clearly. It starts, Michelle answered, with the individual, working on turns, creating your own sense of velocity and balance, because only then can you partner and figure that out together. Knowing what you want and how you're going to get there is the first step towards communicating that to your partner. Next was a question about whether a basic dance (along the lines of the latest World Latin Championships, where every round included a dance drawn from a hat that was to be syllabus-only) should be included as a fifth dance for the Smooth style. The question was met with a pretty powerfully resounding yes from most of the panel (with dissent from Mazen, who feared that a mandatory basic dance would impinge upon the artistic creativity of the couples competing -- JT countered by opining that it was in dancing basic syllabus routines that the real creativity and artistry of a couple showed through, much like in ice dancing).

Then, a question was posed to Mayo and Michelle, who last year had advocated for dropping the modifier "American" from the style to help increase its worldwide appeal. The question asked how they felt about Peabody, a quintessentially American dance, being added as a fifth dance, especially in light of their views about the "American" modifier, to which Michelle responded that she loves the dance and would love to see it added, though there may be problems in temporal disparity: W, T, F, and V have all evolved since they were introduced, but Peabody is still a bit of a period piece. Could we find contemporary music and update the syllabus and create choreography that would bring it out of the 1920s? Mayo and Marzena also chatted about how Smooth is gaining worldwide appeal, from countries in Asia that have requested a show from Mayo and Michelle to Slawek and Marzena teaching Smooth workshops in their native Poland. Whatever the style ends up being called, as long as it is inclusive of all of its dancers, dances, and wonderfulness, it will be in a good place.


So that's my recap of the Smooth section of the morning. You can bet I'm going to take all of this into the studio and try my hardest to play with it all. Smooth just became a whole new level of exciting for me!

Stay tuned for my post on the Rhythm section of the day.