I’m Lightning On My Feet

This past weekend I attended an event that was being billed as a “Cha-Cha Master Class” – though they said it was open to all levels of dancers, and you only needed to know the basics of Cha-Cha to get by. I will admit, I had real reservations about the class before I signed up to go. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned like every other week, Cha-Cha is not at the top of my list of dances that I like, nor do I feel like it is anywhere near the top of the list of dances that I am good at. A lot of the time when I am at social dances, if I don’t have a Cha-Cha routine that I need to work on, or even if I do have one and Sparkledancer is not around to work on the routine with, I’ve been known to actively avoid being out on the floor during a Cha-Cha if possible.

So… why do I have this strong dislike for Cha-Cha, you ask?

Let’s take a trip back through time, back to the early days of when I started taking dance lessons. It had only been a short while since I had first walked into the Land of the Loft, and I had just gotten to the point of starting to make sense of some of the material covered in the newcomer-level group classes. There were so many dance styles being thrown at me all at once, I was really struggling to keep them all straight. I could attend the classes and learn to follow patterns that were taught during that class, but I still wasn’t feeling good about improvising and leading things that were outside of the imparted order of figures shown to us. Back then, the instructors used to play this fun game on me where someone would put on a piece of music and they would ask me to guess what dance style went along with that music, and then dance what steps I remembered for that dance style. Invariably, unless the song was obviously in a three count (and then obviously a Waltz), I would default to dancing Hustle for pretty much everything else, since I remembered a fair number of the Hustle figures from classes. That’s how far back in my dance career we’re going for this flashback.

In the midst of that time period, one of the teachers was going around and recommending that all the students, no matter what level they currently danced, should go to her Latin dance technique class that she were holding on Saturday mornings. Since I am easily persuaded into doing things, I ended up going to the class once. The class was being taught by someone whom I’ll refer to as Lady Natasha. She had learned to dance in the cold, northern climes on the other side of the world, and spoke with such a heavy accent that sometimes it was hard to understand what she was talking about. She taught classes in much the same way that I imagined that the dances had been taught to her in her native land – strict repetition with harsh criticism for those who weren’t doing the steps right. When I went to her Latin class that Saturday, she had us go through Cha-Cha, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now. Specifically, we focused on two figures: the basic and ShakeItOff1the cross-body lead. Most of our time in that class was spent on just stepping through the chasses over, and over, and over – being criticized for not keeping my legs straight, or not transferring my weight and bending the correct knee in the middle… really technical things that I struggled to wrap my head around since I had come into the class without really having done much Cha-Cha in the first place. This also happened to be one of the earliest classes I ever took with Sparkledancer, since she remembers going through this same thing, and we have talked anecdotally about this class since then.

That experience really turned me off of Cha-Cha in a big way. I think the problem was that I was way too early in my dance career to take the criticism that one invariably needs to go through when you learn proper dance technique. For the longest time after that, I was terrified of doing Cha-Cha because I thought I was doing the chasses, which are such a critical part of that dance style, wrong. When I decided to make the leap into doing competitions, the Cha-Cha routines that I was taught were the ones I struggled with learning the most, and it usually came down to grinding them into memory, practicing to fast-paced music until I felt like I could perform them all up to speed without messing up. I never had the best technique, since I was more worried about just making it through the heat as opposed to actually making it look like Cha-Cha.

With that hanging over my head, walking into something that they referred to as a “master class” for Cha-Cha seemed like a terrible idea at first. I had that critical sense of doom watching over my shoulder, whispering in my ear that this was going to end poorly and waiting for me to mess up like I did way back during that first Cha-Cha technique ShakeItOff2class. This workshop started out in much the same way the class did – Lady Lovelylocks was teaching, and began by having us slowly work through the side-to-side chasses which are so critical to making Cha-Cha look like Cha-Cha. We spent half of the workshop on just these basic figures. The main difference between what we were doing and what I had done in the past involved the together step in the middle of the chasse. Lady Natasha told us that we would take the first side step on a straight leg, then bring the outside leg into the standing leg with a bent knee, then straighten that leg and bend the other knee while transferring your weight to the other foot, then take the next side step onto a straight leg. I remember that because that weird transition of switching legs in the middle messed me up all the time, so I never really practiced it and then forgot about doing it most of the time. However, Lady Lovelylocks (or anyone else I’ve ever seen doing Cha-Cha, for that matter) never did that weird transition in the middle of the chasse. She would take a side step on a straight leg, bring the outside leg toward the standing leg with a bent knee, and then just push off with the outside leg without transferring weight in the middle. Doing it like that this past weekend, I could handle things pretty well.

For the second half of the workshop she taught everyone an open choreography bit that we could work on that would really push us to get all of the technique down as we slowly upped the tempo of the music we were dancing to. I started out in the back of the room behind everyone, because I have long arms and I wanted to have room around myself to use them without accidentally smacking someone. After about half an hour of learning the choreography, Lady Lovelylocks split the class into two groups so that each group ShakeItOff3could perform for the other. As I got placed in group A, we got to go first. Lady Lovelylocks told me as we took to the floor that I should move up to the front half of the room instead of standing behind everyone, because I knew the choreography better than everyone and then the rest of my group could watch me. With that remark, my sense of impending doom about the class retreated to sit in the back of the room for the rest of the day. I can’t say that I did everything perfectly while standing in front with everyone watching me, but I did my best, and that’s really all that matters. Hooray for me!

There were a couple of pointers that Lady Lovelylocks gave me during the workshop that I am really going to have to work on. First, I have long legs, so naturally I have a long stride and I tend to take big steps when I really shouldn’t. You would think that I would be really good at doing Smooth dances then, but when I actually am trying to take large steps, I’m always told they aren’t large enough. Anyhow… she caught me taking big steps during the class and told me that if I really wanted to do Cha-Cha accurately and up to speed, then I would have to actively work on making my steps much smaller (apparently it’s not good enough to just do one or the other, for some reason). She also told me that when doing moves like New Yorkers or spot turns, I needed to really work on holding myself still until the very last possible moment, then to move quickly and crisply when I rotate my body. She demonstrated this to me by holding on to my hands to keep me in place and then forcibly rotating me when she wanted me to turn to the side (why is it that tiny women seem to like pushing me around so much?).
After leaving the class, I was feeling better about Cha-Cha. I even went to an event later that night and wrote “Cha-Cha Master” on my name tag so that everyone would know I made it all the way through the class. Most people… didn’t get it (obviously it wasn’t a dance event. Why don’t non-dance people understand?!).

I was proud of my new title.
I was proud of my new title.

Other than that, it has been a quiet week. There was a lot of Mambo done, and I think that we are almost finished with that routine now. We have also outlined the pieces that will eventually make up our Bolero routine, though there is no order to the figures yet. We are so close to having a complete set of routines again, it’s scary. Does that mean we’ll have to start looking at what competitions are coming up so that we have something to work toward? At the rate things are going, I think soon we’ll be shifting to a lot of technical work to improve the look of our dancing before going back out to the competition floor. I’ll do my best to feel ready for competing again by early next year, since we are so close to the end of the year at this point. The year has flown by with so much dancing being done!

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