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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.

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Once a ballerina…

24 Sep

No matter where you end up in life, if you were once a ballerina, you’ll always be a ballerina.

I'm on the right, probably 8 or 9 years old in Bay Shore Ballet's production of "Peter and the Wolf."

I’m on the right, probably 8 or 9 years old in Bay Shore Ballet’s production of “Peter and the Wolf.”

I know a lot of women who were serious about dance, especially ballet, growing up and in high school—a handful who went pro, and many others who gave up ballet for one reason or another. But I’ve realized that they’re all still ballerinas somehow.

I’m still a ballerina in my head, even though I haven’t worn a tutu in years and my pointe shoes sit abandoned in my dance bag. But I remain that ballerina because of all of the important lessons I learned from my 16-plus years of ballet, and continue to learn from taking class when I can.

Me in Mobile Ballet's production of "Dracula" in 2009.

Me in Mobile Ballet’s production of “Dracula” in 2009.

You learn that failure is imminent

But you do it anyways. The likelihood that you will execute every turn perfectly or hit every balance is highly unlikely. Every step you take in a ballet class has the potential to fail, but ballerinas just go for it regardless. If they let fear of failure hold them back, they would never get anywhere. And more importantly, ballerinas learn from their failures and quickly apply what they learned. If they fall out of a turn, they make subtle shifts and changes almost instantaneously so that the next time they turn, it will be a little closer to perfect—they may get an extra rotation or hit a more graceful landing.

Although my performance was "Strings and Salsa," I couldn't resist doing some ballet.

Although my performance was “Strings and Salsa,” I couldn’t resist doing some ballet.

You are your greatest obstacle

While there is a lot of competition between other dancers in ballet, ballerinas understand that at the end of the day, you are your biggest competitor. Ballet class is an exercise in not letting yourself stand in your own way. It’s fighting against whatever physical limitations you believe you have, and learning to overcome them. I always respect and learn from other dancers I’m taking class with, but realize that to ever make any progress, I have to stop comparing myself with them and take responsibility for myself alone.

Me as a peasant girl in Mobile Ballet's production of "Giselle." One thing I don't miss about ballet is always being a peasant girl.

Me as a peasant girl in Mobile Ballet’s production of “Giselle.” One thing I don’t miss about ballet is always being a peasant girl.

You learn to fly

Jumping, leaping, balancing, even turning– you learn to defy gravity, if  just for a split second. There is nothing more satisfying than a grand allegro, soaring through the air seemingly weightless, solely because you propelled yourself there. Your success, your flight, your upward motion is entirely because you put in all of the work.

This is the most satisfying feeling in the world.

This is the most satisfying feeling in the world.

As you get stronger, it gets harder

One of my favorite teachers said that she was teaching a little girl recently and my teacher told the little girl, “You know, as you get stronger, ballet gets harder.” The little girl replied, “That’s mean!”

The cute story illustrated a point that I think is what makes ballet dancers “steel magnolias” (to mix metaphors): as you get stronger, it gets harder. The difference though, is that you can handle it, precisely because you are stronger.

When you’re a younger ballerina, you work to develop the necessary strength to go en pointe. Then ballet gets harder—you have to realign your entire center of gravity to balance on a narrow inch or two, suffer blisters, battle tendonitis, etc.

You get comfortable en pointe and then begin to learn variations and choreography. It gets harder. You need more stamina, more strength. But you can do it, because you’re stronger.

This concept applies so beautifully in life as well as in ballet, and is why I truly believe that once you’re a ballerina, you’re always a ballerina. You go through experiences—whether a bad breakup, a horrible boss, or a debilitating injury— and you get stronger mentally and spiritually. However, the stronger you get, the tougher your problems become. They seem more “real”—the stakes are higher, the consequences more dire. Earlier in life, you weren’t strong enough to handle them—the muscles in your ankles weren’t developed enough to wear pointe shoes without injury, so to speak. But you get stronger in direct proportion to the difficulty of the situation. And you learn how to do it all so gracefully. Ballerinas realize that it will only continue to get harder… the choreography grows increasingly complex or more stamina is required to last through a three-hour ballet…but at the same time, you will continue to get stronger.

Hell, if it were easy, it’d be football.

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Avoiding a Salsa Wardrobe Malfunction (or “CYA”)

29 Aug

 I think dancers, on the whole, have little or no shame. In social dancing, you’re used to getting all up in someone else’s business (especially if you dance bachata or kizomba). If you’ve been in the performing world, you’re used to making quick costume changes, stripping down in front of people you don’t necessarily know well.

But there is a time and a place to show a little shame. Ladies, this post is dedicated to you. I’ve seen (and been involved in) a handful of Salsa Wardrobe Malfunctions, and I’ve developed some quick and dirty tips to avoid them.

CYA:

            Please. No one wants to see that. If you think you’re going to be dancing a lot of sensual bachata and getting low, do not wear a short, tight dress with minimal undergarments. It’s not cute and it’s not classy. Consider investing in a pair of spankies (or volleyball shorts or dance shorts or spandex or whatever you want to call them) to wear under certain garments. Leggings can be hot and dressed up—same with shorts. If you choose a dress or a skirt, TEST DRIVE IT IN A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT FIRST.

It didn't work for JWOWW, do you really think it will work for you?

It didn’t work for JWOWW, do you really think it will work for you?

Do several basics, cross body leads, spins, and other steps you know you’ll be repeating multiple times in the dressing room, in front of your mirror, or in front of a friend you trust. This is important because it leads me to my next point.

 

FASHION TAPE IS NOT SWEAT PROOF

Don’t try to tape your clothes down! You will sweat through fashion tape.

Let me repeat that. You will sweat through fashion tape. Short skirts, flowy low cut tops, strapless dresses etc., are all fine and dandy, but don’t rely on fashion or double-sided tape to help you keep them in place.

Strapless tops and Salsa dancing do not mix. Ladies, we aren’t trying to recreate an episode of “Girls Gone Wild” here. Your strapless top may feel like it fits tightly enough that you won’t have any issues, but do you really want to spend the whole night tugging on it and making sure you aren’t hanging out?

 

This is a worst-case-scenario. But still possible!

This is a worst-case-scenario. But still possible!

SAVE MAXI DRESSES AND SKIRTS FOR BRUNCH THE NEXT DAY

Your heels WILL get caught on a maxi dress or skirt and you will fall on your face. You may be tempted to wear a long skirt and use it as a prop (a la some kind of ethnic dancing), but I believe there is a reason all ethnic dancing like that is done barefoot. I have also found that wearing pants that have aren’t boot or skinny cut can be risky. I’ve (almost) wiped out from getting my heel caught in the bottom of my pants.

 

This dress is stunning and many maxi dresses are….but you will hit the pavement if you try Salsa dancing in them.

This dress is stunning and many maxi dresses are….but you will hit the pavement if you try Salsa dancing in them.

SPEAKING OF SHOES…

If you are unaccustomed to wearing high heels, why would you go out and buy a pair of three-inch high dance shoes? Make sure you can handle whichever shoes you invest in, and keep a pair of flats that you can dance in handy. If you’re breaking in a new pair of shoes, do it slowly. Wear them for an hour or two at a time only for the first few weeks you have them, and then switch to your broken-in shoes or trusty flats.

Gaga can do this. We non-aliens cannot.

Gaga can do this. We non-aliens cannot.

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT WARDROBE RULE OF ALL

Pick clothes that are most flattering for YOUR body type. You know that cut or style that is absolutely dynamite on you? The one that gives you the utmost confidence and that only YOU can rock? Wear clothes like THAT to Salsa (as long as you can dance easily and comfortably in them). It sounds silly, but choose colors that complement your skin tone and hair. It’s all about feeling GOOD about yourself and confident in your own skin. Don’t chase trends—select styles that are classically and authentically YOU.

 

Feel good, dance well! Go get 'em.

Feel good, dance well! Go get ’em.

What’s your best tip for avoiding a Salsa Wardrobe Malfunction? Comment here! And guys, I’d love your perspective too.

The language of Salsa: A conversation between two equals

20 Aug

I’ve had some interesting conversations with several people over the last few weeks regarding the leading and following dynamic in Salsa dancing, so I want to address it here. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the interplay of two dancers on the floor that need to be cleared up.

A good friend of mine said he got this comment on the dance floor: “This isn’t 1950—guys don’t control girls.”

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No, guys don’t control girls in Salsa dancing. Follows (typically ladies, though not always) control themselves. The lead protects and respects the follow’s space, inviting the follow to engage in the dialogue of the dance. The lead communicates clearly what step comes next. The lead isn’t domineering or controlling in a way that puts the follow down—instead, the lead is the canvas on which the follow can do the painting. Both are integral to creating a piece of art.

Following is a skill that must be acquired, just as is leading. Follows, listen to me: you aren’t losing your autonomy and blindly following the leader. You are so in control of your own body that you can respond appropriately to the cues that the lead gives you. It’s about being observant, aware, responsive, and confident.

Let’s think about it like this: If you’re having a conversation with someone and they ask you a question, usually you’re in control of your thoughts and your mouth enough that you can respond almost immediately.

screenshot 4

You ask, I answer. You talk, I listen. I say something, you respond. Salsa dancing is a conversation, a poem in motion, a connection. Good leads and good follows know that the dance is not about just one person—it’s two people coming together to work as a unit. What you do affects me, what I do affects you. It’s the ultimate exercise in cause and effect, in what you give is what you get. And it’s supposed to be fun.

In a weird way, I see following like being on the show “Jeopardy.” Contestants on “Jeopardy” are ready for anything that Alex Trebek throws at them. Being a follow in Salsa is kind of the same thing—you are so incredibly prepared that you can respond to anything at a moment’s notice. You have no idea what’s coming a minute from now—but whatever it is, you are prepped. You’re aware enough of where your feet are that you can place them where they should go as soon as you get a cue from your lead.

For me, there’s a sense of empowerment in that feeling. There’s an “in the moment-ness” that comes only from following. It’s you, your partner, and the music. You have to be fully alert and focused on just those three things, or you will get confused, miss the cues, stumble. I love dancing with leads who are so much better than I could ever dream to be. It’s hard, it’s scary, but it totally clears my mind and turns the dance into a moving meditation. And then I learn. How to respond faster. How to pay closer attention. How to be more in control of myself.

I think about two particularly memorable leads I’ve danced with in the last few months. I danced with my friend Michael from Augusta at Orlando Salsa Congress. Throughout the entire dance, I felt like a princess. I was floating on a cloud. He was smooth, confident, compassionate, and fun. He’s a fantastic dancer in his own right, but the dance wasn’t about him or about me. It was about us enjoying the music and the dance for a few minutes. I missed plenty of steps, but that was because I would stop paying attention to what I was doing for a moment.

Another phenomenal lead is my friend Bader from Kuwait. He was in Charleston for a few weeks for work and came out dancing. He’s a seasoned pro—he’s been dancing and teaching for at least two decades and I am certain has seen it all at this point. He’s strong, but not forceful, confident but not cocky, and makes you feel like you are the best and only dancer in the room.

screenshot 3

I want to mention a few caveats to this whole leading/following dynamic discussion: Some people simply do not have good chemistry dancing with one another. Two amazing dancers may come together and have a sort of “blah” dance. It’s the same way that there are some people you can talk to for hours on end and others with whom you struggle to make small talk.

Leading and following are also not gender specific. I know some ladies who are incredible leads (Yaenette and Briana, what’s up) and some gents who can follow (and style) better than many ladies. Often, the best dancers can do both.

So, at the end of the day, Salsa dancing (or any social dancing) is about engaging someone in a meaningful connection, however fleeting. And if that’s not equalizing and empowering (and enjoyable), I don’t know what is.

Respect that…bow down b*******. JUST KIDDING!!!! That totally defeats the purpose of the whole post. I just couldn't resist!

Respect that…bow down b******….
JUST KIDDING!!!! That totally defeats the purpose of the whole post. I just couldn’t resist!

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

What makes a professional dancer?

10 Jul

I get asked on a fairly regular basis if I am a professional dancer, and I’m never sure how to respond. A few months ago, I posted something on Facebook asking for people’s opinion about what makes a professional dancer. The input was interesting and has been percolating as a blog post for while.

What level of training is required to be considered a professional?

A good friend of mine who is a professional musician argued that your professional status (in any field) is determined by the level of education obtained. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t have a degree but just has been “practicing a lot.” In the dance world, however, it’s not as cut-and-dried. You don’t necessarily need a degree or certification in dance to be a professional dancer.

Your training speaks for itself when you’re dancing— however I do think that professional dancer should have a solid resume of several years of taking classes at studios or schools and some amount of performing experience. But there’s no magic or across-the-board formula—it’s not “Ten years of ballet here, four years of jazz here, five years of hip-hop here, three years of performing here” and POOF, you qualify as a pro. Again, training speaks for itself and you can always spot a well-trained dancer in any style of dance.

Should dance be your primary source of income if you are calling yourself a professional dancer?

No matter what your field is, it seems like the way of the world is such now that very few people have one primary source of income, and the dance world is no different. It’s not uncommon for people to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or have a few side hustles. The dance world is hard to be fully financially supported in. Many companies don’t have a large enough budget to pay their performers full-time salaries. I know plenty of dancers and dance teachers who spend every day driving from one studio to another teaching classes to piece together an income.

One of my best friends lives in San Francisco and said she’s had to adapt her definition of a professional dancer given the cost of living in the Bay Area. She said she knows incredible dancers who perform with first-class choreographers and companies, but still have to supplement their income with other jobs.

As someone who auditioned for professional ballet companies and was met only with the prospect of unpaid apprenticeships that might one day turn into a contract, I can’t imagine trying to be in a company full-time and trying to work enough to pay my bills. Would you consider unpaid apprentices in a professional company ‘professional dancers’?

A rose by any other name

At the end of the day, does it really matter what label you put on yourself? I think about one of my friends Betto at Mambo Dinamico—he’s a great teacher, choreographer, and performer—definitely a consummate professional, but he has a day job as well. His primary source of income is not dancing but he’s still a pro.

I struggle to define myself as a dancer—I have more than sixteen years of ballet training and performing, as well as experience training and performing in contemporary, modern, ballroom, and of course Salsa. I’ve taught dance for five years in various incarnations and spend a LOT of time every week dancing. I’ve been paid to dance and paid to teach and yet I don’t consider myself a professional because it’s not a full-time thing. I think if I had decided to not go to college and dance straight out of high school, I could have been a professional ballerina, but that wasn’t the life that I wanted. I often think that if I lived in a bigger city with more access to instructors, studios, and performance teams, I could “go pro” with Salsa, but the life that I want (at least for now) is in Charleston, and I had to make a choice.

I know several people who are the same way—could have gone to the top as dancers, but decided that school, having a family, or living in a certain area was more important to their ultimate life goal. Being a professional dancer is not an easy life by any means—I’m proud and excited for friends and colleagues I know who are “making it,” but I also know how much work, dedication, and sacrifice it took to get there.

No matter how you define yourself, make sure to always act professional (Thanks Megrez Mosher, professional aerialist, for that tip!). Whether you’re freelancing or just taking classes, act right. Show up early or on time, dress appropriately, and respect whoever is running the show.

I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment and let’s continue this conversation!