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.)
- 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.