The New York Public Library Archives just released the oldest dance videos in existence — and they’re beautiful!
There’s this ballroom competitor who lives in the southeast, and shall remain nameless, whom I have competed against. She’s actually an age bracket above me, but you all know how that works. I read up a bit on her, ’cause she’s very, very rich, so that’s not too difficult — ye old world wide web is generous that way. Here are some things that I read about her — “serious enough to drive several times a week to ********* for all-day coaching and practice” and after a few hours of practice, the instructor’s forehead has sweat accumulating on it but she appears “salon fresh, in a form-fitting black dance dress and strappy red heels” and she got feedback from judges and interviewed several professionals before choosing her current partner and when they dance it is magical, etc., etc.
I’ve seen her dance at several competitions — she is a good dancer and very beautiful.
Let me tell you about my lesson time experience. I approach the studio and already I can feel my core temperature beginning to rise — it’s like my body already knows what’s coming. I enter the studio — almost always in black, ’cause I know how sweaty I will be and don’t want huge damp patches showing on my clothes — and I sit down in the chair to put on my dance shoes. They are scuffed and starting to get a little beat up even though they’re only a couple months old now. They are natural color. I have very particular callouses on my feet that I obsess about when getting a pedicure that I don’t want them to reduce. I double check to see if I need to replace my heel tips and the condition of the leather on the balls of my shoes — to brush or not to brush. (Depending on the shoes I’m practicing in I may have to tape my fourth toes because the new straps rub them too much right now. I try to avoid blisters as much as possible.) My hair is always pulled back into a ponytail of some kind. I do not look fresh and fabulous with sweat-laden strands of hair whipping around the room, sending flecks off into the studio and sometimes landing on my teacher’s person. I do wear earrings, but they are carefully chosen as ones that won’t stick to my sweaty neck when I’m doing those spiral turns.
Upon entering and putting on shoes, I usually exchange greetings with other dance instructors and students. I spend a minute or so talking with my secondary teacher while I wait for my main teacher to get my notebook and get a drink/snack and whatever else he does in-between lesson times. My teacher comes over and gives me a high-five greeting while tossing my notebook on the table, and then says, “let’s go.” He walks quickly to the floor — often the back practice room — and he’s about 10 feet ahead of me. I do some shoulder rolls and flex my legs and ankles as I trail behind. My teacher turns on some music and I wait for him in the middle of the floor. He then comes to meet me and our opening conversation generally produces some version of this:
Him: “How are you?”
Me: “Good. Doing fine. How are you?”
Me: “Wow, perfect. That’s amazing. I wish I could have a perfect day.”
Him: “Of course, perfect. Nothing bad happened. I’m working. It’s good.”
Me: “I do not think perfect means to you what it means to me.”
Him: “OK. Let’s dance. I have great lesson plan for today. You remember such and such move from last time we practice cha cha?”
Me: “Ummm… maybe … ”
And then he takes my hand and off we go. We dance for about 10 seconds; he stops to fix something. Then he goes deeper into the technique behind why it needs to look that way. That leads to a series of drills — over and over. He steps away and says, “Again and again and again.” Not even into the lesson five minutes and I feel my forehead getting sweaty. Ten minutes in and I can feel the sweat on the back of my neck forming.
Him: “Again. What wrong? I see lot of emotions running on your face?” (remember, he’s Ukrainian)
Me: “I’m just frustrated. I want to get it.”
Him: “Good. It mean you care and want to get better.” And his voice gets a little gentler but the message is always the same. “Again. More, more.”
More stretch. Higher on toes. Hips further back. Bigger steps. Tighter steps. Faster turn. Tucked abs. More, more, more. Push yourself to the furthest you can.
And now my whole body is quite warm. The more I move my abs, the hotter I get. I know by this point of the lesson my very fair-skinned face is starting to fade into pink. I wipe the sweat off my face with my sleeve. And we jump back in and keep going. And sometimes my bad ankle is groaning. But we continue. I don’t have to look in the mirrors that line the walls of studio to know that I look like I came out of a sauna, not a salon. We dance in front of those mirrors together — side by side — and I try to match his precision and timing. And all I can see is the beauty of matched work or the awkwardness of my body shapes or lines compared to his and I try harder and harder.
We pause and sometimes he might turn on music to try dancing together. And I take that moment to wipe my face and neck. A couple of deep breaths and rotating the ankle. There might even be sweat starting to roll down my back. We try again and I mess up. He patiently starts again and sometimes, not often, I get it. Then he might crack a joke or take a moment to dance like a robot or mock me in some way. And that makes me laugh and the frustrating tension of trying to please and do well melts away quickly. In this relaxing moment we try again — and often a forward step is made.
And then, repeat above until the lesson is done. We sit down at the table and I start to take off my dance shoes. The arches of my feet are so grateful to be released. He writes down what we went over that day and makes a few general comments about what happened. On days I do better than average, he says things like, “It was good lesson today. We make progress. Good job.” Sometimes, he says, “You dance badly.” Often, I get a mini pep-talk of how I need to practice every day, etc. We then confirm the next lesson time and say goodbye and high-five.
I carefully put my shoes away. Somehow, I’ve created a little ritual with them. I have no idea when I started doing this, but I do it every time. I cannot put away my shoes without wrapping the straps around the arch of the shoe very carefully and tucking the end in tightly. Who knows why, but I can’t not do it. I gather my stuff — purse, shoe bag, sometimes my dance costumes — and walk to my car. I sit in the driver’s seat and immediately turn the A/C on. I don’t have to look in the mirror to know that my face resembles a watermelon in color. Speaking of watermelon, a nice, cold, juicy slice would be really nice right about then. I drive home and end up drinking about 15 oz of water. 🙂 Walking thru my front door, I drop my dance shoes off in the basket and go to the couch. I apply some essential oil blends to my knees, calves and ankle — always a good choice.
My shower is upstairs. By this point I’ve cooled off and my face is now just slightly flushed. My hair is still soaked from sweat and my dance clothes are ready to join the wash pile. For some reason, I always crawl up the steps to my second floor like I’m that girl crawling out the well in the horror flick “Grudge.” I don’t know if I’m being overly dramatic or just lazy, but I find myself doing this often after lesson times. It’s kinda fun.
So … I don’t have strappy red shoes to practice in, there’s nothing about my look that could be connected to a beauty salon, and my teacher would never refer to my dancing with him as magical. But, oh friends, it was lovely and I can’t wait to do it all over again!
So the last couple of weeks have felt like I’m in dance overdrive during lesson times. I am not one of the natural born talents — I fall into the work-your-butt-off category for improvement. I’m OK with this … I mean, if you don’t have a lot of natural talent then no one has high expectations, right? 🙂
“Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life.” ― Irving Stone
Tonight at our studio social dance I met a lady who has apparently been at our studio for many months and I’ve never seen her before. She sat beside me and I introduced myself. She started to talk about the cost of ballroom dancing and how she wishes she could compete and take more lessons but that it seemed impossible. She said that dancing was on her bucket list, etc. She then said something very interesting to me: “I wish I would have started this a long time ago when I was able to do something with it.” I said, “What would you have done with it?” She said, “You know, I would’ve been able to really get good.” I asked her if she couldn’t do that now and she said, “No, I think my time has passed.” (This made me sad.)
She then went on to tell me that she’s going to take a break from lessons for the rest of the summer and then maybe pick them up in the fall. I could tell that nothing I could say would change her mind. She wanted to be a good dancer — “she loves dancing so much,” but she didn’t want to put any work into doing it. She had lots of excuses for everything that I tried to say about dancing and what to do to improve. She said she wanted to dance like me, but … excuses.
Dancing ain’t easy, ladies and gents. Well, it is if you don’t care or aren’t serious about it. I remember when I first started to take lessons, I saw other students dancing and I assumed I could pick it up and be on their level in the not-too-distant future. Must have been smokin’ something! When your teacher continues to re-teach you the basics (several different times), you begin to understand the depth that must be achieved to even begin to understand this craft. The longer I dance, the more I realize how many layers go into mastering even the simplest steps. My teacher’s mantra is how important it is for me to learn the basics well. You would think the “basics” would be something anyone could get … but, to do them effortlessly, with passion and control … well, that is for the masters.
I watched my teacher showing me what a certain step should look like in cha cha last night during my lesson. And all I could see was how effortless he looked when moving. Every muscle in his body was completely engaged and yet relaxed. He turned to me and says, “See, like that.” I just stood there blinking at him and thinking, “That was so beautiful, how could I ever be able to do that myself?” He then walked about six feet away from me — too far to catch me, too far to help me — and said, “Do it.” I jokingly said, “Can you come a little closer?” He just shook his head and gave me the look that says, “Do it now. I don’t care if you fall. Do it anyway.” And I did it. Again and again and again and again. And he corrected small things and I did it again and again. And again he corrected things. And my lower back was hurting and my bum ankle was calling to me and yet we did it over and over. And finally by the end of the lesson, he says, “Well, one of those attempts is starting to resemble what I want.”
And I was so pleased! I was so absolutely happy that one of those many tries was beginning to look different — more correct. That’s success. At least, to me, that’s success — because it means progress. And it has taken me a long time to get to this point. Years. Many hours of drills. It all adds up. Good technique is freedom. Freedom from fear of messing up. Freedom of confidence with how your body responds to your partner and the music. Freedom from self-consciousness. Freedom from insecurities. Freedom to relax into the move and just let it be. And this is what I want: Freedom. Freedom to dance. Freedom to create that unique moment on the floor between me, my partner and the music.
On my way out the door tonight, my teacher stops me and says, “You better be practicing before our lesson tomorrow night!” He then starts to do paso doble shaping and I’m laughing — those shapes are so horribly difficult for me right now. I know exactly what’s going to go down in the lesson. My secondary teacher is standing there as well (I have a lesson with him in the afternoon), and he says, “Yes, we will be adding that to the jive tomorrow too.” Oh. Groan. All I can do is laugh. But you better believe I’ll be there. And I’ll push thru and do what they ask over and over and I’ll try to keep my frustrations and inner turmoil in check — because I don’t want to be older and wistfully saying to someone, “I wish I would’ve disciplined myself when I was younger so I could dance really well. It’s too late for someone like me. I just can’t do it.”
“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.” ― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in Texas, the youngest of ten children, David Alvarez fell in love with dance at a young age. He claims to have been a very shy child, although you would never believe that now with his generous and open personality, and he naturally wanted to do everything his older siblings did — and they loved to dance. More than anything, he wanted to be popular and out-going like his older siblings and he attributed that to their success in social dancing. He begged them to teach him to dance and exchanged doing chores for them teaching him different moves. At the age of 13, after many appeals to his sister, he was finally taken to his first dance — and was rejected all night long. His sister’s friends kept saying, “Later … not now … maybe another one.” And David found himself watching all the action on the floor from the sidelines. Walking home that night, he made a promise to himself that he would do whatever it took to be the man all the women would want to dance with. And that’s exactly what he did. He practiced and worked and practiced and disciplined himself to master the art of dancing and eventually the tables were turned … his sister’s friends complained that they never got a chance to dance with him at the dances. It wasn’t long before David was competing in Spanish Cumbia.
“I love being with people. I love teaching them. I love us moving together and learning something every single day and having a great time! That’s my life.”
When it came time for college, David moved to Corpus Christie, Texas, and began his studies. But, he kept on dancing — it was a huge part of who he was. While out social dancing, he met some friends who asked him if he had ever considered ballroom dancing. He laughingly recalls, “I said, ‘Ummm, isn’t ballroom dancing for old people?'” But then one day, like many teachers here in the States, he saw an ad in the paper looking for ballroom dance instructor trainees for Corpus Christie Dance Center. David entered the studio unsure what to expect and he saw a couple dancing the bolero — he was awestruck — he had never seen this dance before, but said, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen — what is it? I HAVE to learn that.” And so, he ended up enrolled in the instructor training program. It was an intense program that ran 9-5, Monday thru Friday, for several weeks. At the conclusion, he was one of two (there were 20 at the beginning) trainees who made it through to get their certification. His first ballroom dance was a foxtrot … he said he felt like he was all awkwardness and was one the worst ones on the floor. The instructors were serious and hard on them and David was always afraid he would get cut each week. But he survived and flourished. He went on to teach there for a year and a half, but was encouraged by his boss to move to Nashville to join a Fred Astaire Dance Studio so he could advance his career. Although loathe to leave his close-nit family, he says it was one of the best decisions he ever made. He worked hard and won many awards and met dance people from all around the world. This led him to move to Hawaii to an Arthur Murray Dance Studio for the next three years. There he really found his “aloha” spirit. With a natural affinity of connecting with people and making them feel good on the dance floor, the business side of dancing became the obvious next step. He began a relationship with another dance teacher who lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., and they decided to open a studio together — and thus the birth of the Santa Barbara Dance Center.
It’s easy to see that David’s dance career is full of successes, but they only came because of years of hard work. Talking to him, you can’t help but feel that his high energy and love for people saturates his whole life. His passion for dancing is obvious on the floor. About four years ago, he was approached by Hildy Wynn, another ballroom competitor and a Hollywood insider, at a dance competition who was impressed with how he and his student really shone on the competition floor. She mentioned how she thought that the ballroom world could make a good reality TV show. David off-handedly said, “Oh, sure, sure, I’d be happy to be involved, just let me know.”
And so she did. Ms. Wynn came up with storylines, found a production company who was interested, researched the market, and was eventually approached by Ryan Seacrest’s production company. And thus, the pilot was begun. The original concept for the show was to follow David and his students, but after multiple interviews and camera tests, the pool had to be expanded greatly to find students and teachers who would work well on TV. Eventually, after much searching, they found enough storylines to create a pilot.
An agent from A&E heard about the project while she was visiting Ryan Seacrest’s production company, fell in love with the concept, and wanted to buy it immediately before it had even been shot. Word got out and all of the sudden several networks became involved and thus ensued a bidding war. Eventually, the highest bid went to A&E. And then pre-production for “Montecito” began.
(I saw a link for the show the night before it was released online and was intrigued. I watched all six episodes and even wrote a blog post on it. There was so much talk about it amongst my dancing friends, both in the studio and online, that I wanted to find out more. And that’s how this blog post came about — David generously agreed to speak with me about his career and the show … and I wanted to share it with you all.)
So … let’s talk about the show and what’s up with some of the characters now:
We all know a reality show is not “really” what happens. We know the “characters” in the show have to be chosen because they aren’t camera shy and that storylines can be created around them. And that’s exactly what happened for “Montecito.” The producers decided that all the students needed to be dancing with a different teacher, and so instead of David dancing with four of his students, they were split up. I was surprised to learn that Erika Wilson’s instructor was cut at the last moment and Rumen Atanasov was brought in to be her instructor — the power of the camera: they seemed to have great dancing chemistry — well, chemistry. However, I’m happy to report that Erika and her boyfriend are doing fantastic and the drama surrounding her and Rumen was just for TV.
During production, the cast had no idea from day to day whom they would be shooting with or what they were supposed to be discussing. The director would give them a couple lines of subject matter and then the cameras started to roll. Of course, the show gets cut to make the moments seem as dramatic as possible. The cast members didn’t know what others were saying in different scenes and saw the final product with the rest of us. Interestingly, David said that although there were some harsh things that were said on the show by some cast members, they are all friends in real life. But, they also admitted they would really say all those things in real life; they were just cut in such a way to leave out the big picture. 🙂 It’s all for the drama.
I had wondered why there didn’t seem to be as much footage shown on the competition floor, but David explained that because of the nature of comps, they only had the one chance to get a shot … that doesn’t lend itself to make good TV. They seemed to show the “bump” into each other on the dance floor by two rival couples over and over again. Anyone who has danced knows that this happens often and no one gets upset unless it happens repeatedly by the same couple. (Who hasn’t been smacked or stepped on at some point on the floor?)
Good news: Jamie and Bonnie are MARRIED! I was rooting for that couple for sure. Bonnie’s persona came across as pretty harsh in a couple of episodes. She was shown saying strict things to students and nothing else — which Bonnie said she would say, but then she would add lots of nice things that would get cut. This didn’t bother me at all since my teacher is super strict and I appreciate his honesty (and he says nice things as well). Bonnie was one of my favorites on the show anyway. Congrats to both of them! When I talked to David, he said that Jamie and Bonnie are working to move to Santa Barbara to join his studio for real — not just for the show. (Aren’t they adorable?!) 🙂
David’s take on the real heart and purpose of the show: “The majority was true. Arlene did want to come back. (Arlene was a former student of David’s who decided to return to the ballroom scene after a 10-year hiatus.) I didn’t have time for her. That’s true. Patti and Arlene are great friends. Everything was real, but it was magnified times thirty. Everyone is saying that these things never happen. (The different storylines put forth by the producers.) But it does happen, I know people personally who have done these things. For some people it hit right home and they were not positive about what they saw on the show. I think they’re probably seeing themselves in the mirror and saying, that’s me. It is just television, but these are issues that happen in the ballroom and you need to learn from them and not be like that. Learn not to do these things. It is a little show, a little smidgeon of the dance world. But there’s a lot of that can be learned from the show. It actually is pretty entertaining. It’s a production. We don’t have to agree with all the issues, but the issues do exist.”
There were 5 or 6 different ballroom reality shows that were going to be produced after people had heard that “Montecito” was being filmed. But all of them bombed. Because of that, A&E decided not to air the show and turned it into a digital series. If the show can get a following, a second season would be ordered. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the publicity they had hoped for. If a second season does happen, the show would probably be pared down to a few key cast members and their stories would be developed more. I think it would probably be more interesting because the cast members understand more about how the process works and might be more comfortable to show their personalities. Also, there would probably be more focus on competitions.
Speaking of competitions, David Alvarez was able to buy the Hawaii Star Ball this past year. I was under the impression that he had bought it because of encouragement from Ryan Seacrest, but that’s not the case. David knew the owners of the comp when he lived in Hawaii and had long ago expressed interest in buying it if it ever came up for sale. David plans on making it a destination competition — not just where competitors show up and dance on the floor and leave, but that they get to enjoy some of the beauty of the Islands. If you can, you should get yourself out there on September 23-26. Sounds like it’s going to be magical. Plus you’ll get to enjoy David’s “aloha” spirit. (If the show continues, it will make for some great episodes on the Islands to go to this comp — don’t you think?)
To summarize, I wish all of you could meet David. He is energetic, warm, caring and you can’t help but feel his passion for dancing and helping students achieve great things on the dance floor. I hope another season gets produced and we can see more of him shining through. There were some fabricated scenarios and conversations that were filmed, but on the whole they are real people doing something that they love. All of us can see a bit ourselves in these people and we can learn a lot from them. But, most of all, it is entertaining … you can enjoy it at face value as well! Support our fellow dancers and hopefully we can watch the show develop into something that resembles our world even more!
To quote one of my fellow bloggers: “The absurdity and surrealism of this pastime helps make this worth doing.” 😉 We know we love it.
Much thanks to David Alvarez for the interview and pictures for this post!! He had this parting advice for competitors: “I feel that a lot of students, when they go to competitions, feel that if “I don’t win, I’m not good enough.” But, everyone out there is working hard. Don’t ever give up. You will get there one day! Your time will come. You never know how long the first place students have been dancing. Sometimes students say, ‘I work so hard and I don’t even place — not even in the top three.’ But, DON’T give up. Never forget your love for dancing, have fun with it. These are judges giving their opinions. Some judges might be thinking, ‘Next time, they’re almost ready.’ So, never, never, ever give up!”
We’ve all seen videos of those really amazing kid dancers … but, watch these kids get introduced to the world of ballroom dancing who probably never would have if not for a few dedicated ballroom enthusiasts! Check out the links below.
Have you? Cause if you haven’t, you should check it out! Here’s a clip from YouTube and a quote below from ballet legend Wayne Sleep — the creative force behind it: (If you don’t want to watch the show, at least read up on Wayne Sleep … he’s incredibly inspiring!)
“Have tenacity. Don’t be put off when somebody who isn’t even authorized to tell you to stop what you’re doing … whether it’s in dance, or whatever aspect of the arts … that you want to do. If somebody keeps telling you that you can’t do that, you’re not clever enough or bright enough … ignore them, still go for it! You might not be. But something else will come out of it. Another passage to somewhere else. Because if you stop, you’re going nowhere very fast. So just keep going and don’t listen to the bullies out there!” — Wayne Sleep
Yep, the old teach flew back in town today, which means I have a lesson tomorrow. Did I work on jive while he was gone? Did I sew a practice piece for my showcase outfit? Nope. Do I have time to do either of those things before tomorrow. Nope. Hehe. I do have an explanation, mind you. My lessons with Teach #2 started with the intention of getting to jive … but, somehow, we got sidetracked. We began warming up with Intl. Rumba and that led to details on arm styling, which led to the correct height on toes, which led to details on strong spiral turns, which led to details about contra-body movement, and before you know it … there is no time left for kicks and flicks. But, in all fairness, I learned SO much, I don’t think Teach 1 will mind. And he’s not really the kind of personality to get ruffled. He is as steady as they come. It just means I’ve put it off for a few days … but, those kicks and flicks will find me soon enough.
As for sewing the practice piece, I ended up helping some friends move and my neighbor decided to help me rip the old bushes out in front of my house and replant some new flowering ones and that just kicked me in high gear to work on the outside of my place. And there went all my extra time. Oh well.
Speaking of my showcase, my teacher sometimes makes fun of me at this certain point where I’m kicking my leg up. He says I remind him of this video: (I’m not flattered, but did laugh watching it. You gotta go about 1 minute in for the good stuff.)
Oh well, at least we can laugh at ourselves. Although there’s a couple of months left before the showcase, I feel like we’re making tons of progress. My teacher even said he thinks it’s a fun routine. It’s kind of interpretive at certain points as it doesn’t always have a regular beat — which is so cool to me. It means it’ll probably never look the exact same every time! This is what I’ve wanted to get to in my showcases! Yay 🙂 I imagine we’ll go back to working on regular dance stuff for part of lessons starting next week. Working on showcase choreography is so much fun to me — even more than social dance! (shhh … don’t tell anyone)
This summer I’ve been trying to work on beautifying my life in all kinds of areas. Since my schedule is different because of school not in session, I wanted to get cracking on personal discipline. And beauty is hard to come by without discipline. Myself. My home. My mind. My skills. My soul. I’m trying to make conscious choices to do these things. It isn’t easy at all, especially since you don’t see immediate results for a lot … but I’m determined. Just one step at a time.
“Do you not realise that dance is the pure act of metamorphosis?”