Help Support Vincent and Daisy!

I found out recently that a fellow ballroom dancer, Vincent, has been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor.  The collegiate (and formerly collegiate) ballroom community is very tight-knit and many dance friends have been super supportive of Vincent and his fiancee Daisy during this difficult time.  One of their friends started a crowdfunding campaign to help Vincent and Daisy with medical costs that are not covered by insurance, which has quickly surpassed its initial goal in just a matter of hours!  This is just proof of how  dancers are so generous and take care of one another!

Even if you don’t know them personally, you might have been a customer of theirs or seen them vend as VE Dance, as they have been travelling quite a bit to different dance competitions and events.

Their situation especially hits home for me, as I had a good friend and suitemate in college, Lauren, who lost her fight with cancer at a young age.  Like anyone else, I have known too many people who have had to deal with cancer – some won their fight, others did not, and others are still living with illness.  Any support – monetary, emotional, physical, whatever – is so meaningful to anyone fighting this tough battle.

Please, please consider donating, or passing on this link to others if you cannot do so at this time: Indiegogo: Medical funding for Vincent and Daisy.

Relatedly, Beata, a world champion dancer, is also fighting against cancer, and a page has been set up for her support as well: Partner with Beata.

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Post-MAC Update

So it’s been a week, but I haven’t had any time to get my thoughts down on this competition/trip (grad school craziness).  All-in-all, it was amazing!!!  The worst parts were the two 10-ish-hour drives, but with friends, good music, and podcasts, it’s manageable.  Just not something I want to do all the time.  (Of course, I’m traveling to the DC area for the USA Dance Midatlantic NQE in three weekends, but never mind that…).

Anyway.  Staying in the competition hotel was a fantastic idea and now I totally understand why the pro-am folks almost always do that, even if they’re local.  So, so convenient to just run up to your room to change or chill or whatever, rather than find a corner in a crowded ballroom to stash your stuff, have to change in a bathroom stall, etc.  I wish that the MAC was in its traditional venue of Manhattan Center in Midtown, which has a nice regal feel to it, but the hotel was fine (other than the staff seeming to not give a crap about anything, but that’s a separate issue).  Driving there was relatively easy.

On Friday, I had absolutely no events to dance until Masters of Syllabus (MoS) Standard in the late afternoon/evening, and it was great, because I had severe lack of sleep.  So I was just around, cheering people on, and trying to be generally helpful.  We hadn’t practiced syllabus stuff almost at all prior to the comp, so MoS was a lot of lead-follow (which started out a little clunky) and trying to resist doing open moves.  I didn’t feel like wearing one of my costumes, so just stuck with this purple syllabus outfit I have (made by Dance America, love it!) and some bling, which was an approach that one of my friends also took.  I heard from her that someone from the judges’ area or thereabouts approved of our simpler approach, which is nice to know  Mostly, I was just lazy and didn’t feel like dealing with all that volume/floatage.  We got to the final out of a first round and ended up placing 5th, so clearly attire does not matter if it’s classy and your dancing speaks for itself. Woot!  Similarly, the champ Latin winner had an unstoned black dress and just some classy stoned accessories, including this awesome ear cuff thing.  Not that I’m that cool, just drawing a similarity there.  Interestingly, every single champ Latin finalist was wearing black or white.  Mostly black.

MAC Champ Latin Finalists

Saturday was full full full of dancing.  I think I danced at least 50 individual dances in all.  I was exhausted by the end of the day, but it was a really “on” day.  Jesse and I made quarters for novice and prechamp standard, and missed the semi for novice by a single mark.  Big improvement over last year’s MAC and woot, qualifying for Nationals.  We also had our best round ever during the prechamp first round, and importantly made it through quickstep without effing it up!  It’s a common issue.  I now know a lot of people in these events, so that was really nice seeing good friends from undergrad and bumping into other ballroom friends (sometimes literally, on the floor).

The BF (who hadn’t danced rhythm in five years) and I finaled in silver rhythm, and it was pretty fun. Then, smooth! Jesse and I finaled in prechamp from a quarter, and then danced champ.  This was our first time really dancing champ smooth (last competition, we were the only couple), so we freaked out when we found out we had made the final from the semi of 12.  I literally screamed a little, and if you know me, I am not a particularly excitable person (except when it comes to cute animals and food).  I was close to dead from exhaustion by that point, and joked to Jesse that we could just stand there in the final and not dance, because we’d get 7th anyway.  But we ended up placing 5th, which was, again, unexpected and fantastic.  Mayo Alanen was generous enough to sponsor scholarships for those two smooth events, so that’s always a nice bonus.  He seems super nice and I’d love to have a lesson with him at some point.  The winners and many finalists (I think) are his students, so I think the money will just go back to him in some form, but it’s nice nonetheless.

Saw some spectacular champ standard dancers, and the whole thing ended with some slightly controversial results.  The winner was a couple with better dramatic, athletic, WDSF-style shaping, but worse floorcraft, while my (and many others’) favorites took second – they were more balanced, I think.  The 2nd place guy looked familiar and his name rang a bell, so I thought he was one half of a youth 10-dance couple I had loved from a few years back. It turns out that he is that other guy’s brother!  Ridiculously talented families, man.

Sunday was a fun day in the city, watching the Broadway musical If/Then starring Idina Menzel from the 9th row (!!!), eating lots of good food (highly recommend Cook Shop and Stanton Social Club), and doing a moderate amount of touristy walking around stuff in the cold rain.  Overall, fantastic weekend, and I was sad to go back to my normal boring life.

I was really happy with our dancing, but being the way I am, am always looking to improve.  A few major things now – shaping/huge steps in standard, extending shapes and polishing transitions during smooth, and some posture stuff.  Looking forward to a couple of lessons this week!

Edited to Add: Also, so many of the Midwestern dancers who traveled to this competition killed it! I identify as more East Coast, but have come to adopt this area of the country.  I think the East Coast has a better reputation for good dancers, but the Midwest people proved to everyone that there’s some fantastic dancing there as well :).  Also! MAC has the best team match.  Where else are you going to see Robotic Hustle and 3-person Argentine Tango?

Commence OSB Freakout!

Just kidding, it’s already been happening for the past couple of weeks.  And OSB, I mean Ohio Star Ball, one of the biggest ballroom competitions/galas/shindigs/extravaganzas in the United States.  Very technically, I am competing this weekend in the US National Collegiate Dancesport Championships, one of the few collegiate-only comps, that happens to share a space with the Ohio Star Ball, which has amateur, pro-am, and professional competitors.

Anyway, it’s a big to-do, and also my regular partner’s and my first and only competition this academic year.  And we’re doing champ smooth for the first time (admittedly, by ourselves, but that’s a different sort of scary.) Pressure’s on, but I’m also trying to remind myself to just have fun.  And to try and survive quickstep.  Oh yeah, and I am also leading bronze and silver Latin for the first time, which is another source of excitement and terror. Will I spontaneously fall back into the follower’s version of the jive basic or do what I’m actually supposed to do as a lead? Will I blank out and do ten thousand New Yorkers on default mode? We shall see.  I forgot how boring bronze is, with the limited number of things you can do.  But I guess that will be working in my favor.  Also, it’s been a while since I’ve had to be a part of an event that has like 6+ heats. Oy.

Also, this year, PBS is filming the pro events as part of America’s Ballroom Challenge again! Exciting stuff, as this was cancelled a few years back.  Maybe it’ll lure the world champions out to OSB? Fingers crossed.  I’m also looking forward to checking out all the sparkly stuff, since a bazillion vendors come to prey on our vanity and love of shiny things (well, and to make a living, of course).

Here are a few awesome showdances from years past for your enjoyment. Sorry if they’re repeats.  Also, holy low resolution!

Teaching Psychology and Teaching Dance

This past year or so, I’ve gotten a decent amount of experience in teaching, both in the area of social psychology and in dance.  In fact, it’s easy to mix up the two when people ask me, “How is teaching going?” and I have to clarify what they’re asking about.  I’m on my third semester of teaching introduction to social psychology (in various forms) and in my second semester of teaching dance at a beginner level (specifically the beginner class last spring and the intermediate class right now).

It’s really interesting to me, seeing the parallels between an academic course and a dance class.  Certainly many differences (hopefully no one is falling asleep during dance class, but you do see that happen now and again!), but also some common themes and similarities.  For one, attendance drops off after the first class.  The first day of the semester (also known as reading-the-syllabus day) is when you’ll actually see all of your students in one place, at least until exams roll around and suddenly students you don’t recognize at all show up to take the final.  “Hmmm, I’ve never seen you before.  I guess you’re in my class, or taking this exam for fun?” Similarly, the very first day of dance class tends to also be the biggest, as people are trying things out and seeing if this is something they want to do, seeing if they’re in the right level, etc.  After that, class size shrinks noticeably, which can be somewhat discouraging, but at least it means the people who are coming actually want to be there!  Another similarity is the lack of facial feedback you get from people.  So many blank stares.  Give me smiles, confusion, something to work with!

The other major parallel between the two is how when teaching, you have to boil down everything you know to the core ideas and essentials.  If I were to throw every nuance I know at people new to some concept, it would just go way over their heads and confuse them.  It’s tempting to just give a big ol’ information dump because we want people to know a lot right away, but it’s better for everyone to keep things simple.  I have all this knowledge and want to share it with you!  But I have to hold back consciously.  For example, for every dance, we just have to start with the basic steps, described in only basic terms.  We’re just working on getting people to have some semblance of a frame/connection and putting their feet in the approximately correct places.  Adding in nuances of posture, proper body contact/connection, hip action, rotation, swing, sway, and so on, would just be too much for someone just starting out.  Once they get the basic idea, then we can add these technical ideas on top, one layer at a time.

In social psychology, it would be lovely if I could discuss ideas on a higher level with my students, but they clearly do not have the knowledge base and understanding that I do, given that I have about 6 additional years of focused experience.  We instead just have to focus on essential concepts and theories.  We can’t get into advanced technical models with mediation and moderation, which would just make no sense to most students (I didn’t know what mediation was until grad school, and you probably don’t either, and that is fine!  In a nutshell, it means X caused Y through Z.  Like, making a powerful pose with your body leads to increased volume of speaking because it increased confidence. I just made that up, but it sounds plausible, right?)  What are the most important ideas for this topic, and how best can I convey them to my students?  How do I make some topic interesting, easy to digest, and personally relevant to them?  Real-life examples seem to be the best way to illustrate concepts, I’ve found.  Particularly in funny videos.  Students LOVE videos.  Cognitive dissonance is a fun topic, but since it’s been around for a long time, there have been more detailed breakdowns of when it does and doesn’t happen, and apparently some of the “classic” cognitive dissonance study effects aren’t so easy to achieve, as one of my colleagues has found.  But we can’t go into all these details yet.  We just have to communicate the basic theory and how people discovered it, first.

Another thing involved with all types of teaching is learning to be really patient. Really, really, really, really patient. Sometimes, even if you tell people the same things over and over, it will just take them a lot of time to listen, understand, and be able to use what you’ve told them from the beginning.  In the social psychology writing class, I give them what I perceive to be simple instructions about how to include citations.  But to those who are not used to in-text citations and APA (American Psychological Association) format/standards for scientific writing, they forget to cite, or try to cite but do it completely wrongly, and might continue to do so for multiple papers, despite multiple corrections.  Another writing example is passive voice.  We teach students to favor active voice over passive voice (for example, “I did this” rather than “something was done to me”), but it’s another concept that takes a while to sink in and become a habit.  Some students still mix up correlation and causation, even though it’s a basic, super essential idea in science.  Basically, just because one variable correlates with (or predicts) another variable, it does not mean that it causes it!  See here for some good examples.

In dancing, we might repeatedly tell newer dancers to turn their feet in/out, keep their elbows up, not look at their partners/their feet/the floor, stand up straight, straighten their legs (or keep them flexed) and so on and so forth, but everyone develops some bad habit of some kind (or ten, or twenty).  Or they incorporate it once, but then go back to whatever incorrect thing they were doing before.  But I have to keep in mind that dancing is really, really hard (well, at least for most people, superstars aside)!  Learning the basic change step/natural turn/change step/reverse turn pattern in international waltz made no sense to me whatsoever when I first started.  It took a while!  Similarly, the now-basic-seeming fan in international rumba and cha cha was totally confusing at first, but relatively easy now, with years of dance education and experience.  Given all these difficulties, it is all the more rewarding when students have that “Aha!” moment and really get some new move or concept.  Or correct some issue that they’ve been struggling with.  Or within a few months, take dance more seriously, practice a lot, educate themselves, and improve vastly.  That’s such a fantastic thing to witness, whether I had a small or bigger role to play in the improvement.

Probably the best aspect of teaching things I love is being able to share that love with others.  I love social psychology and I love dance, and it’s fantastic to help other people fall in love with them as well (or minimum, develop some level of appreciation for them).  One difficulty in that process for me is communicating that very thing – I am generally a very mellow person and it’s rare for me to convey outward excitement about things, even if I feel that way about them internally. (Exceptions: food when I’m hungry and getting to sleep more. Also shiny pretty things.)  Sometimes it feels forced to show that enthusiasm more on the outside, but it’s something I’d like to work on.

Identity and Dance

A popular measure about the self and identity that social psychologists use is the”Who am I?” or “I am…” list.  People fill out 10 to 20 blanks, answering “I am __________”, however way they want to.  I am a graduate student. I am a woman.  I am a mother.  I am an athlete.  I am a husband.  I am a dancer.  I am hardworking.  I am lazy.  I am uncoordinated.  I am young.  I am old.  I am American.   People can use roles, titles, descriptive adjectives, just about anything they like.  How does this relate to ballroom?  A post on Dance Forums reminded me about the power of identity.  What does it mean to be a dancer?  Knowing a few steps?  Having some certain level of expertise?  Dancing often?  It can mean whatever you want it to mean, but claiming the identity of “dancer” can be powerful.  Perhaps it is integral to the transition between a novice who struggles through a few basic steps to someone who exudes confidence and ease on the floor.  Maybe two people can be equally skilled, but one confidently claims the identity of “dancer,” giving them this extra spark or power or “that special something”.  It could be that someone’s deeply-felt anxiety while on the floor prevents him or her from claiming the identity of dancer.  What is the core difference among “I know some dance steps” to “I dance” to “I am a dancer”?  Depends on whom you ask, but it can be very meaningful no matter how you define it.

More than a dancer, someone can also be a partner.  A lead. A follow.  A friend.  A classmate.  A teammate.  A student.  A teacher.  A spectator.  A fan.  All these identities can be active in the ballroom dancing world, and the majority of them have to do with the interpersonal connections you can make through dance, which highlights how social human beings are.  It’s an old cliché that human beings are social animals, but so many of our identities are tied to how we relate to other people.  As a dancesport athlete, you compete against other people, but also have friendly (or not-so-friendly) rivalries with those competitors.  As a teammate, you feel like part of a cohesive group that supports its members.  A teacher needs a student and a student needs a teacher, in order to even have those specific roles – they’re dependent on each other for these identities.  As a dancer, one needs an audience, right?  Not necessarily so; people can be beautiful dancers in the privacy of their own rooms, but dance is so often a performance art, one that is shared with others.  One that evokes emotions in others, through expression of music – a shared, collective experience.

Ballroom dancing has become part of my identity through the years.  I’m not sure when it happened exactly (probably sometime during my second year in undergrad), but I am so happy it did.  It’s become an integral part of my life and I think I will dance in some capacity for the rest of my life, as long as I can physically do it.  Ballroom is just about the only hobby I have time for now, and that’s fine by me.  Many of my closest friends are ballroom dancers, and so is my boyfriend.  Without dance, my social world be drastically different.  So, I’m happy and proud to assert that I am a ballroom dancer.  It’s one identity I embrace wholeheartedly.

Why ballroom is so addicting/awesome/fantastic

1. It’s so fun! There’s so many different dances to learn.  Learning one dance helps you pick up the next, but they all have different moves, quirks, personalities, and characters.

2. The people are awesome.  Most ballroom dancers are the nicest people you’ll meet. You make lots of new friends who share the same obsession with you. (And sometimes you’ll find that your ballroom friends…are all your friends, period. Whoops.)

3. You get to wear pretty clothes.  And sparklies. So many sparklies!

4. You can always get better. I think this is why dancesport appeals to competitive personalities – they strive for constant improvement, in pursuit of perfection.

5. On the flip side, even proclaimed non-dancers with two left feet can learn ballroom with some time and effort.  Most ballroomers I know didn’t even start dancing until college or later, yet can improve very quickly if they put the effort into it.

6. Ballroom originated as a social activity, so that aspect is always there, particularly if you enjoy social dancing.

7. Youtube. Can’t get enough ballroom in real life? It’s ALL OVER youtube. You can spend hours and hour watching dancing and becoming inspired.

8. It’s an expressive art. You get to express yourself and different aspects of your personality in ways that you don’t often get to do in everyday life.

9. (This probably only came up later in my thoughts because I’m not a heterosexual man…) You get to meet girls! Lots of professional male dancers admit that this is why they started ballroom dancing.  It’s true that joining a ballroom club or studio can get you dates with attractive women (so long as you’re a gentleman, of course), but over time, for a lot of these guys, it’s the dancing itself that keeps them coming back.  Besides, how else would you have women literally lining up to spend time (even if it’s just 2 minutes) with you?

10. It’s an escape from the stresses and worries of every day life. Have a ton of midterms and papers due right around a competition weekend? You run off to the competition and just forget about all that.