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Becoming a Warrior with Andrew Burnell

23 Jun

Professional acrobat teaches salsera tumbling and parkour. Results TBD.


Andrew Burnell and his dynasty co-creator, Amanda Drawdy.

Andrew Burnell and his dynasty co-creator, Amanda Drawdy.

I always wanted to take gymnastics. My sister took gymnastics lessons when we were younger and the only Olympic events I ever watched on T.V. were gymnastics. My mom told me I would break my leg tumbling and never be able to dance again, so I never got to try handsprings and all that cool stuff.

In April, my partner La Quinn and I were asked to perform with Daft Concept at an event. Daft Concept, directed by Amanda Drawdy (a former international ballerina with more than twenty years of performing experience), is a hot and high-powered dance performance company. La Quinn and I were excited about the opportunity. I met Amanda’s boyfriend—and other half of my favorite power couple—Andrew Burnell, someone I had known of for a while, but had yet to meet in person.

“I’m so sad I missed your tumbling workshop at Dancefx a month or two ago,” I told Andrew after he introduced himself. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to tumble.”

“I can teach you,” Andrew said. Which is how I ended up spending an afternoon with him and three of his advanced tumblers at Only Imagine in Goose Creek.

These eleven-year-old girls kicked my ass. Without thinking twice, they would run into a series of aerials, handsprings, and God knows what else.

I stuck with cartwheels.

After my introductory session, I was hooked. I signed up to train one-on-one with Andrew twice a week, and little did I know that tumbling training would equal all kinds of adventures like…well, let me just illustrate a few of my favorites.

When you and I go to a playground, we see a playground. Metal bars. Swings. Slides. Fun stuff.

When Andrew Burnell goes to a playground, it suddenly becomes the set of American Ninja Warrior.

Instead of sitting in a swing to enjoy a swing set, YOU become the swing and have to swing from bar to bar.

A picnic table stops being a shady spot to enjoy a glass of lemonade after some hardcore playing. It becomes a surface on which to do handstands and off of which to cartwheel.

The railing surrounding the playground is not meant to keep children from wandering into the street. It is a surface over which to vault yourself. Multiple times. I am not so successful at that part and have bruises all over my legs and arms to prove just how many times I haven’t exactly made it over the railing.

Andrew, who I believe to be a reincarnation of Mr. T or Samuel L. Jackson, peppers training sessions with fun axioms like “The danger is real, but fear is a choice,” and “Treat a child like a child, and he will remain such. Treat a child like a warrior, and one day, he will become a warrior.”

I can’t get away with much when I train with Andrew. I get this a lot:

“Georgia. That was terrible. Ten push-ups and do it again.”

It sounds crazy that I pay this man to yell at me and force me to do terrifying and painful things, like jumping off of high surfaces and doing backbends with 25 pound weights on my shins, but it feels good.

Like I’m really accomplishing something. We’ve been training together for more than two months now, and I can see a huge difference. I’m stronger. I’m more fearless. I feel tougher. Even though we’re only at the very beginning basics of tumbling (cartwheels, forward and back rolls, handstands, walkovers), I can tell I’m building a strong foundation and one day will be able to, like Andrew, effortlessly flip off of a picnic table.

Until that day though, I’ll stick with forward rolls on the ground.

Me, post an Andrew Burnell workout.

Me, post an Andrew Burnell workout.

Andrew Burnell started tumbling when he was 6 years old and since then, has trained with gymnasts, cheerleaders, acrobats and street performers. He is a former high-level tumbler who has been performing professionally as an acrobat for three years. He is the director of acrobatics at Only Imagine dance studio, lead acrobat and stunt coordinator of the supercrew Daft Concept, and the tumbling instructor for Summerville Dance Academy. Burnell is also a personal trainer and owns a company called Rebound that provides health related services from nutrition to personal training. He is also trained in Parkour and free running and is in the process of writing three novels.

He is always available for privates and personal training sessions, and can be found on Instagram @SoFarSoFly or on Facebook.


I auditioned for a reality T.V. show because #YOLO

26 Jan

It’s 8 am. A few beleaguered New York City government employees scrape snow off the gray sidewalks and there’s a light, freezing rain. Hundreds of people line up outside of a building on 34th Street, snaking down an entire city block.

One of the security guards marshaling the crowd says he’s been there since 5:30, when the first hopefuls began to arrive.

It’s not a new iPhone or Halo release, not a chance to meet the president or be on “Good Morning America.” It’s the first round of auditions for a reality television dance program on a major T.V. network.

And I was there. Because YOLO?

Eerily enough, the experience reminded me of “The Hunger Games.” Hundreds of tributes from District 8 (which, according to The Hunger Games wiki, is New York), gathered for the reaping. The tributes had to be between the ages of 18 and 30, and the auditions would pit “stage dancers” against “street dancers,” where a certain number of each type of dancer would advance to the next round.

Like “The Hunger Games,” the selection process seemed arbitrary and random, less a test of skill and more the random selection of a fraction of dancers from the 500-plus assembled.

I believe the first part of the audition was seeing who was willing to stand outside for two hours in the freezing, wet misery of a New York City winter morning. I passed.

I formed an alliance with two other tributes—a magenta-haired student named Kelli and a hardened, three-time survivor of the Games, Matt.

Matt, a professional dancer from outside of Boston, had auditioned for the show three times before and had made it to the elimination rounds in Vegas during one of the earlier seasons.

“I’m a ballet dancer, but I actually get paid more often to do hip-hop,” Matt informed me and Kelli. “But I’m not going to do hip-hop here! We’re in New York!”

He had a point.

Kelli and I bombarded Matt with questions, and he explained the process. First, you went in and got signed in. Then you were taken into an auditorium with everyone else, and ten people at a time would go on stage to improv. Anyone who made it through the improv round today would come back tomorrow and do their solo in front of the judges.

Matt was a champ, answering everything we threw at him.

“Did you tell your job what you were doing when you went to Vegas?” I asked him.

“I was working for three studios at the time, and I told two of them and they were cool with it, and the third wasn’t, so I quit that job,” Matt said. He said that he had to sign all kinds of waivers for the T.V. show, swearing secrecy and that he wouldn’t post about the elimination rounds on social media.

“Did you get paid while you were in Vegas? Do the contestants on the show get paid?” I asked.

“Nope. But almost all of the top 20 get contracts no matter what. Sometimes they’re with Broadway or something and they’re actually better gigs than the winner gets,” Matt explained.

How the contestants could afford to work for free for that long was beyond me, but I guess people will do anything to get on T.V. And since I was at an audition for the show, I can’t really talk.

By the time we inched our way to the front of the line, were I.D.-ed, given wristbands, had our bags searched, and were patted down, I had lost all feeling in my feet. The security guards checking our bags said that no glass bottles were allowed inside—I wanted to ask what incident had happened in the past that led to the creation of that rule, but decided I probably didn’t want to know.

We were in the arena—a giant, ornate auditorium on the seventh floor of the building. There were about 500 people in the auditorium talking excitedly to each other, stretching, warming up, adjusting their hair, speculating about how many people from today would make it through.

Inside the Arena.

Inside the Arena.

At about 10:30 am, an imposing British man took the stage, welcoming everyone and giving his spiel:

“We are not looking for America’s best dancer. We are looking for America’s favorite dancer. Wow us with your personality and your technique. We are only going to let 70 people through today. We must be tough about who we let through.”

Two former contestants on the show, who were met with thunderous applause and cheering, joined him. The former contestants said what they were looking for in a dancer—someone with a lot of heart, someone they connected with—and the first 10 dancers were called to the stage. I wondered if the former contestants would be the mentors for the tributes that were reaped today, sharing their prior knowledge of the Games.

Ten dancers from their respective disciplines—street hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, ballet, ballroom, etc.—were called to the stage at a time, the British man played a song, and the dancers danced one at a time, with the British man calling “Next,” every 30 seconds or so.

In some cohorts, everybody was cut, dismissed with a “Thank you for coming today.” In others, one or two were asked to stick around for another improv round. A few lucky people were given a ticket asking them to come back the next day to dance in front of the celebrity judges.

Matt went before us, and we watched him breathlessly, cheering when it was his turn to dance. All smiles and great lines, I thought Matt was surely a shoe-in, but he was cut too.

It was hard to not sing “Another One Bites the Dust,” after each group.

The number of tributes—uh, dancers—slowly diminished every hour. Kelli and I were finally placed in a group of ten and told to prepare. We had about five minutes to stretch and get ready to go on stage before we were there, each taking our place on a numbered piece of masking tape. I felt like Katniss in her glass tube, about to be shot up into the arena. The only similarity between her and me though was that we both wore Spandex.

The floor was uneven, light wooden parquet, and I had already seen a handful of people slip and fall. I had no idea what song they were going to play, since it had changed for each group that took the stage.

“We Found Love in A Hopeless Place,” by Rihanna started and the girl and guy in front of me each danced for their thirty seconds. I danced for mine, trying to put as much personality in as I could. I felt like I couldn’t remember how to dance. I was having a hard time bridging the gap between the music entering my brain and my body coming up with steps to do to it and I was not warmed up enough, lacking adequate time or space to prepare.

Kelli went two people after me, and I cheered for her, even though I was onstage. After everyone danced, we were asked to line up.

“Number five, have you auditioned for us before?” the British man asked Kelli.

“No,” she replied.

He handed her a ticket. “Congratulations. The rest of you may go.”

I hugged and congratulated a shell-shocked, near tearful Kelli.

“You’re going to rock! Don’t forget all of your stuff!” I said, making sure she didn’t forget her backpack in her euphoria. I grabbed my bag, boots, and coat, and followed the rest of the group out of the auditorium.

One of the guys who had been in my group sat down on the carpet outside of the auditorium, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m so over this. I’ve done this four times,” he told me.

I hugged him. “You did great. It doesn’t mean that you can’t dance.”

One of the other guys in the group, a tall black guy who had been cheering for his friends as they went up on stage before him, calling one of the girls his “niece,” shrugged. “I danced the best I could and had fun. That’s all that matters.”

I had to agree with him. It was a total blast, all Hunger Games similarities aside. The odds of being chosen to even advance to the next round were slim, but now I can say I auditioned for the show. And I had a ton of fun doing it. It’s rare to spend a day surrounded with such an eclectic assembly of dancers, and even rarer to see the amount of positivity and support among the different dancers that I saw on Saturday.

It seemed that, for the most part, everyone at the audition had the same mindset—we are all here because we love to dance, and being catty and cutting other people down isn’t going to give you any better chance of advancing to the next round. It wasn’t the tribute versus tribute bloodbath of The Hunger Games at all.

It was a day of free entertainment, networking with other people in my field, and getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at part of what goes into a reality t.v. show. I would do it again in a heartbeat and can safely check the experience off my bucket list.

The audition tour will continue in Districts 3, 6, 8, and 9—I mean, other large metropolises in the United States— and I’ll definitely be watching when the show airs this season, at least enough to catch Kelli’s audition with the judges.

May the odds ever be in her favor.

Winthrop’s Pearls

14 Aug

This is a “#TBT” post that I want to include in another book of essays that’s in the early stages of development, “Escape From the Ballet Farm, and other stories of an occasional ballerina.”

I own three nice pieces of jewelry.

A diamond set in gold on a delicate gold chain, a gift from my Oma. A necklace from Tiffany’s that I bought myself as an almost graduation gift/congratulations on your new job before I started working for Insight Cuba.
And a pair of pearl earrings on gold posts that, while I’ve lost the original backs, I still keep safely stored in the box in which they were given to me.

In high school, I danced for four years in the Mobile Ballet Company. The artistic director, Winthrop Corey, gives his graduating high school girls pearl earrings as a gift at the end of their senior year. I have no idea when or how the tradition began, but I just remember the moment—during my final bow with Mobile Ballet.

The group of girls that I graduated with from the ballet was tight knit. Although most of us went to different schools, we had become close through the hours we spent in classes and rehearsals. Though it sounds like the sappy conclusion to a cheesy dance movie, I think we really did get over the petty jealousies and competitive cattiness that prevents so many dancers in companies from ever really being friends.

I’m not sure at which point in our sophomore or junior years of high school that we all recognized our strengths— that a certain one of us was always going to get one type of role, while another would always get a different one, and it was better to just be cool about it than get upset. Once we figured that out, we could all be friends. We could all hang out together outside of class and rehearsal. (Yes, a few of us went to see the “Twilight” movie on opening night and ran, actually screaming, into the theater. I can’t say I’m proud).

There were five of us—Caroline, Margot, Shannon, Natalie, and myself—and our honorary sixth, Blair, who, while a year below us in school, was undoubtedly a member of our group.

This is a picture of a picture, obviously.  Back row: Natalie, Shannon, Margot, Caroline. Front row: Me, Blair.

This is a picture of a picture, obviously.
Back row: Natalie, Shannon, Margot, Caroline.
Front row: Me, Blair.

We were Nutcracker snowflakes together, Giselle wilis, La Bayadere shades, white swans, brides of Dracula, and peasant people. Endless, endless gaggles of cheerful, poorly pantomiming peasant people.

Margot, second from left, me second from right, and Natalie far right. Why are peasants wearing taffeta? I never got that.

Margot, second from left, me second from right, and Natalie far right.
Why are peasants wearing taffeta? I never got that.

I think dancing in a company, particularly in a ballet company, is like being in the Marines. You are bonded for life by sharing an extremely grueling, and at times, painful, experience. Bloody feet, ruptured blisters, bursitis, shin splints, general achiness—yep, we had it all.

The last piece we danced together was the “Grand Pas De Quatre” for the Mobile Ballet School’s annual showcase. If you’re not familiar with ballet, the “Grand Pas De Quatre” is one of those legendary and storied pieces that I believe is now performed as a satire on diva-tude. It was created for four giants of ballet in the Romantic era—Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Lucille Grahn.

Supposedly, it was full of snide cat-fighting and the divas all trying to one-up each other—whether by wearing prettier pearls on stage or performing the most virtuosic steps.

It seemed a fitting way for us to go. The version of the piece that Mr. Corey set on us wasn’t as silly or exaggerated as some stagings that I’ve seen, but he explained the story to us and we had a chance to act really, really snobby and prissy onstage. Margot, Shannon, Caroline, and I danced the roles of the respective divas, and Natalie had a chance to shine in an adorable pas de trois that was old timey beach themed (by an early 20th century British choreographer, can’t remember who!).

At the end of the showcase, we all wore white tutus and went onstage to take our last bow. Mr. Corey strode out of the stage right wing, as he always did, and handed us each our pearls, wrapped in tissue paper and a plastic bag, with a note on his embossed stationary.

I don’t remember if we cried, I’m sure we did. I’m sure we had that moment where we actually felt like those Romantic-era divas, being showered with applause and jewels.

Now, every time I wear my pearls, I’m reminded somehow of Mobile Ballet. It was my reason for getting out of bed every day in tenth grade. I was so miserable in school, so unhappy with everything, that I couldn’t wait to hop in the Prius with my mom and make the 50-minute drive to the studio for class and rehearsals. I would sob on the way home from the studio, dreading another day in high school hell. Looking back, I’m sure that’s pretty typical behavior for a 14-year-old girl, but it was dramatic at the time.

My last Nutcracker with Mobile Ballet. Caroline is far left, Blair is third from left, Margot is the lady in the middle, Shannon is in pink, and I'm there second from right. The dude, Bobbie, actually WAS a marine. He always drew on abs with eye shadow and eyeliner, which entertained us to no end.

My last Nutcracker with Mobile Ballet. Caroline is far left, Blair is third from left, Margot is the lady in the middle, Shannon is in pink, and I’m there second from right. The dude, Bobbie, actually WAS a marine. He always drew on abs with eye shadow and eyeliner, which entertained us to no end.

Wearing the pearls reminds me of how my mom amazingly drove me every day to class and rehearsals, spending an hour and a half in transit four or five days a week, occupying herself while I took class. She was incredible and I can never thank her enough for the sacrifice of her time to get me to the ballet.

I’ll wear the pearls for days at a time, reflecting on a big decision I made my junior year: to go to boarding school at the Alabama School of Math and Science so that I could be only 15 minutes away from ballet, rather than 50. I didn’t have my drivers license, so a few days a week, I would ride with transportation that the school arranged, other days a family friend, Chris, who was in college in the area, would pick me up and drive me to and from class. I would sink into the plushy seats of his rattling Monte Carlo and he’d chauffer me to class. Afterward, we would go to Smoothie King, where we had a bizarre ritual of sniffing a large container of what appeared to be horse pills, but were really “natural supplements,” that were sitting on the counter. He would bust into Smoothie King, loudly announcing that he was my sister’s friend and that he wasn’t a pervert or kidnapper. Nobody ever seemed concerned that he was in the first place though.

My pearls make me think of my favorite ballet teacher, Syndey Adams, a talented and energetic woman who took my solid training and technique and turned it into dancing, turned me into a smart and capable dancer who would get compliments from teachers all over the country (and even in Cuba) about my ability to learn and retain combinations. I think of other teachers, Zoe, Kimberly, Paige, Anne, Lori—women who corrected me, supported me, and some of whom are still friends today.

Mobile Ballet was my home for several years. Like all homes, I know there were flaws and that our family, made up of humans too, wasn’t perfect. But while I was there, it was a place for me to learn and grow, to be a part of something bigger than myself, and hell—they even gave me a pair of pearl earrings to remember it all by.

Salsa in Cuba: Just let it come to you

14 Jul

The reason that I decided to study abroad in Cuba in the spring of 2012 was because a friend casually said “You know Georgia, you could go salsa dancing every single day if you went to Cuba.” I’ve been to Cuba five times and a big question when I get back is always “Did you dance salsa a lot?”

My answer is always “Yes, but dancing just kind of happens in Cuba. You don’t really actively seek it out.” The best way to illustrate this point is a comparison of two nights out in Havana during the last trip I took.

The first one was a Wednesday night. I was meeting up with a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year. The only plan we had was for him to pick me up when he arrived in Havana from Matanzas. Around 10 pm, Ariel and two of his friends showed up outside the house I was staying in, yelling from the street up to the third floor where I was staying, a lo Cubano.

            I ran downstairs, happily embraced Ariel, met his friends, and gave Ariel the gifts I had brought him. He asked what I wanted to do and he suggested we go see Interactivo, a music project I’d heard a lot about. They were playing at a venue, Bertolt Brecht, that I like in the Vedado neighborhood. We bought a few beers and sipped them as we walked from Centro to Vedado (which, FYI, is about an hour walk). We arrived at the spot, paid our $2 CUC cover, and went in.

As soon as we walked in the door, I ran into my friend Andres (“El Fino”) and some of his friends from his dance workshop at the Teatro Nacional that I had unsuccessfully attempted to join earlier that week. Our group was ready to gozar. The band was rocking—there were probably at least eight or ten musicians on stage playing a groovy fusion of traditional Cuban music, rap, hip-hop, rock, and funk. Though there were a good number of tourists there, it was mostly a local crowd, and the whole place was pulsating with people dancing casino (which is pretty much Salsa). One of Fino’s friends, a dancer in a local troupe, grabbed me and seemed surprised that I could keep up. At one point, the music turned to an African rumba-style song—extremely percussive and intense, and I’m right in front of the band, sandwiched between El Fino and his professional dancer friend, following along to the almost-primal rumba movements. Dancing in a club in Havana in between two good-looking mulato men—had I died and gone to heaven?

The next evening, I went to 1830, a restaurant/club overlooking Havana Harbor that has Casino (read: Salsa) nights twice a week. I had been to 1830 before and enjoyed it, even though it’s definitely more of a spot for older Canadian women to come and learn to dance with young, black professional dance instructors. (Yeah, it’s a little weird). There are a lot of really good dancers at 1830, but a good deal of them will try to hustle you into taking lessons with them if you’re a tourist. I met El Fino and his dancer friend from Chile at 1830. I had to beg El Fino to let me pay his cover in exchange for him accompanying me—he didn’t want to go because, though a $3 CUC cover is hardly anything for tourists, it’s a little steep for a lot of Cubans (especially following the $2 CUC cover Fino had paid the night before at Brecht). We had a good time dancing, doing a silly line dance, and watching a performance at midnight, but it certainly felt more forced than the night before.

For the most part, the only Cubans at 1830 were professional dancers trying to get clients or accompanying their foreign students. There wasn’t the same sense of abandon and organic energy that I felt the night before. It was fun, but it was too orchestrated. You went to 1830 specifically to dance casino, versus going to see the band at Brecht, where you went to see an amazing group of musicians and it inevitably erupted into a dance party. But that wasn’t really the REASON for going.

I think my big takeaway from this was what I’ve always known about spending time in Cuba—you have to just go with the flow. You can’t expect too much to happen exactly as planned or on a specific itinerary. Let the experiences come to you, whether it’s dancing Casino, seeing a great band, or enjoying a long walk from Centro to Vedado with a best friend.

People who have traveled to Cuba and danced, what do you think? Is my assessment accurate, or is this just one side of the story? People who have traveled in other countries, do you agree with just letting experiences come to you

A Place Which We Call The Twilight Zone…

14 May

I’ve been in Havana for a week and one of my most pressing goals for this trip was to see my old ballet teacher, Daniel. Some of you may remember my other posts about him—I’m not sure if I mentioned this or not, but once Daniel realized he would never make me cry in his class, we became great friends, and I couldn’t wait to see him and catch up.Image

I went by the ballet school yesterday and was directed to find him in the main Ballet Nacional building, where I asked the gap-toothed lady at the front desk where he was. She looked at me like I was crazy and carrying some kind of communicable disease.

“You know…Daniel? He teaches the international students?”

I tried every combination of words I could think of to get the message across, but she kept giving me a very terrified look and adamantly insisting she had no idea who I was talking about. I understand the terrified look accompanying talking about Daniel, but since she didn’t seem to know him, I was a little confused.

I felt a bit deflated, so I decided to just sit outside of the building and wait for him to come out. A minute later, my former landlady, Jessie, a gorgeous principal dancer in the Ballet Nacional ran out, gave me a huge hug and kiss and I asked her where he was. She kindly led me through the crowds of dancers stretching and talking in the breezy courtyard and pointed me upstairs. I stole a peek at the dancers rehearsing a scene from the upcoming performance of “Coppelia” and made my way to the back studio, a narrow pink hallway of a room that seemed to have plywood for floors. Daniel was sitting in a chair at the front yelling at his only student for the day, a Colombian guy who was doing a complicated series of petite allegro.

I stood for a minute and he turned and looked at me. He took ten seconds to process that it was me and smiled.

“No kidding!” he wrapped me up in a huge hug and then pointed to the stairwell. “Sit. We have to talk.”

I took a seat and watched him put the boy through his paces.

“Mejor!” he shouted at the Colombian, “When you first came, I thought you were a disaster and I wanted to kill myself, but you’ve gotten better.”

I suppressed a laugh and watched the last 15 minutes of class. At one point, Daniel was explaining the physics of a pirouette and was telling the boy to not wind up too much with his arms. To prove his point, he stood up, prepped the turn, and proceeded to execute an octo-pirouette, turning eight times before neatly finishing the turn.

Show off.

The class finished soon thereafter and Daniel turned his attention to me. I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of my life right now and then asked about his.

“ I am so happy now!” he exclaimed, “I have made many changes in my life to be much happier.”

“Such as?”

“I am separated from my wife!” he announced triumphantly, with the type of smile that usually accompanies an announcement like “I won the lottery” or “My favorite team won the playoffs,” not “I’m getting divorced.”

“But it’s not an official divorce yet. It’s very difficult to get divorced here in Cuba.”

I called bullshit on that. I’ve heard that it costs something like 90 Cuban pesos to get married and 45 to get divorced and that it’s just a matter of getting some papers signed or something.

“Well, it would be easy, but I have to get a piece of paper first that proves I was married. And the problem is that I can’t get the paper because the office is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 12:30, and that’s when I have to work.”

It was such a typical Cuban problem—offices being open during erratic and inconvenient hours and a pile of bureaucracy that prevents him from sending an emissary to pick up one piece of paper.

“People will ask me ‘How long have you been married?’ and I will say ‘Fifty years,’ and they’ll say ‘Oh that’s great’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, but I haven’t seen my wife in forty years,’” Daniel said and began cackling.

I knew he was a writer as well and asked him about his work. He’s written five novels, has a few of them published, and is working on another one. He proceeded to explain the premise of his books and I swear they are a Cuban version of “The Twilight Zone.”

In his books, people live in “The City,” and have supernatural abilities or find strange things happening to them. “The City” is a character in itself and is a metaphor for God or the Universe (OR THE TWILIGHT ZONE!). It’s neither good nor bad, but everywhere, and functions according to certain rules. He spent a good 15 minutes explaining the premise of one of his stories wherein a man discovers that he is a character in a novel and can hear the voice of the author writing out his story. The character goes to the tundra and leaves behind his world to go to “reality” and find the author of his story. When the character find the author, the author tells the character that reality is just what you make it to be, and that the author is a character himself in someone else’s story.

It was all very meta and Twilight Zone-y. After talking for an hour, I told Daniel to wait a minute while I went to grab my friend Grace, a fellow American ballet student. When we came back upstairs to the studio, Daniel was shirtless in front of the mirror doing Tai Chi to Madonna music.

“I always wanted to be a ninja. But I got stuck with ballet,” he said while gracefully moving through a Tai Chi sequence. “Also Madonna is very good for Tai Chi.”

Grace and I couldn’t handle Daniel anymore, so we bid him adios and went on our way for lunch, until, a few drinks later, we called Daniel and convinced him to come to lunch with us. It started raining and we were stuck in a bar with Daniel for a few hours talking about his relationships, but that’s a story for another post…


Steve the Exterminator

11 Apr

    A vital component of living in Downtown Charleston is adequate and regular pest control. Otherwise, your living space will be overrun with “palmetto bugs” and other less-than-savory visitors.

            This morning was our scheduled quarterly fumigation, and Steve the Exterminator visited our apartment at 8 am. In Nike running shorts and, what I later realized, a backward t-shirt, I greeted Steve and chatted with him while he went about his work and I made the transition from zombie to human being with my morning caffeine hit.

            I’m pretty sure I had a brush with genius in talking to Steve.

            For starters, believe it or not, pest control guys make a pretty decent living. He said he can make anywhere from $500 to $2,000 in a days work, since he does a lot of commercial accounts, like office buildings and restaurants, and has a good reputation.

            But more interesting than the economics of pest control were Steve’s comments about how he occupies his brain.

            “I was watching that Enterprise show and they did that cloaking thing, and I was thinking about how you could do that with your clothes,” he said, as he stood against the mantlepiece. “You’d just need some clothes that had some fiber optics that could blend in with the background.”

            True Steve, that’s one way to do it. I’m pretty sure the US military already has something like that in operation.

            He said he likes to do math in his spare time, and will occasionally call up a brother-in-law if he gets caught up on a complicated physics equation.

            “That guy is like Sheldon from that Bang T.V. show my wife likes to walk,” he told me, “He’s still sour because I beat him in chess a few weeks ago. He said it was like a fifth-grader beating a college professor.”

            Probably my favorite part of our exchange was him talking about how he studies the bugs themselves.

            “I’ve got a pile of books about insects and microbes and all that stuff. My wife calls my pile of books the command center.”

            I just imagined Steve, a little taller than me with salt-and-pepper hair, in a wing-backed chair plotting his attack against household pests. It was like a real-life Ender’s Game. Him trying to get inside the Buggers’ heads so he could defeat them and defend humankind from certain xenocide. Getting inside the enemy’s head so he could completely annihilate it.

            Steve also spent a good deal of our conversation trying to convince me to get into pest control, because the money is good and having a college degree doesn’t really mean anything in this day and age. I have been considering a bit of a career transition, and I’m sure Steve would be willing to mentor me in commercial bug extermination…

Mambo Dinamico dancers have GREAT hair

4 Apr

One of my favorite Southeastern Latin dance groups is Mambo Dinamico, under the direction of Norberto “Betto” Herrera, based in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.


Where a lot of Latin dance performance groups are technically brilliant, they tend to do the same type of routines with the same type of music and more or less identical costumes. Mambo Dinamico combines fantastic dancers with creative and interesting choreography for something that is, well, dynamic.

When I told him how much I loved his choreography, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh well, you know, we get bored.”


I met Betto in 2010 at the Hotlanta Salsa Congress, my first Salsa congress EVER, and have subsequently run into him at other Southeastern congresses over the years. When I attended the Charlotte Salsa Invitational in February, I took a body movement workshop with him and his partner Adriana Dwyer, where they clearly and concisely broke down a series of body isolations. I found out that both of them were “actual” teachers outside of being dance teachers and was curious about how being a dance teacher and schoolteacher paralleled.

Betto has thirteen years of teaching dance under his belt, and is in his second year as a schoolteacher.

In the studio and in the classroom, it’s all about engagement.


“Stick to the curriculum and keep [it] fun and entertaining. Give more attention to those who need it, and challenges to those that are more advanced,” says Betto.

He doesn’t crack dirty jokes with his first graders the way he does with his dance students, but otherwise, his teaching style is the same across both avenues.

“I try to explain things like they are first graders during my dance lessons. It helps people understand and feel the movement better, one piece at a time,” he says.


Adriana, a lifelong dancer, is in her third year of teaching elementary Spanish and soon to be in her fifth year of teaching dance.

For her, the similarities between teaching dance and teaching school are how the lessons are structured.


“Lessons [are structured] in a way that doesn’t make your student jump from one level of knowledge to another. For example, you couldn’t teach a back handspring without first teaching them how to do a “bridge,” she points out.

Whether she’s teaching a cha-cha or a conjugation, it’s all about teaching something that is relevant and targeted to the student’s age group in an effort to reach everyone.

Adriana and Betto both bring dance into their classrooms at every chance, whether it’s making them actually get up and move or exposing them to different styles of dance and cultures. Where were these two when I was in elementary school?!

ImageAll photos of Adrian and Betto courtesy of Betto Herrera.