Here We Are, Under The Seven Stars

Last Saturday for me started out earlier than I would have liked at the Endless Dance Hall for some dancing. My drive out to the studio turned out to be rather calm, either because everyone else in the area was still in bed (like I wished I was) or because they were all in some store or another spending money on all the dealz (yes, with a ‘z’) that were being given out on commercial goods. I like to think I was having more fun, even if I was putting in a lot of work.

I was a little worried that I would show up at the Endless Dance Hall and find that the door was still locked at the early hour. Lucky for me I wasn’t the first person to arrive, so I managed to get right in. Inside I found that Indiana was holding some kind of morning workshop session with her children’s group, so there were actually quite a few bodies milling about on the dance floor, plus one kid sleeping on some chairs in the back of the room. I have no idea how he was comfortable there. Sparkledancer was also hanging out on a chair in the back of the room – she wasn’t asleep though, she was just putting on her dance shoes.

Dropping my stuff on a chair next to her, I put on my own shoes so that we could get moving while we waited for Lord Dormamu to arrive. Sparkledancer and I stretched out a bit and then started dancing through some basic exercises in practice hold to get warmed up. Once Lord Dormamu got there and we were able to get started, we managed to get a lot of work done. Most of our time was spent looking at the Waltz, but we also briefly touched on one point in the Tango, and at the end we talked about several points in the Foxtrot.

Keeping these notes chronological, I’m going to start with the Waltz. What were the super interesting points to remember from that day? Let’s see… well, foremost in my mind, we talked about the Whisk again, still trying to perfect the look of the figure. This time, Lord Dormamu took a different tact to see if it would improve what he was seeing. We had been ending the previous Reverse Turn facing diagonal wall before executing the Whisk. He thought that part of the issue might be that to get all the way behind me in Promenade Position, Sparkledancer has to move quite a bit if we start at that angle. He wanted to see what it would look like if we ended the Reverse Turn facing wall instead.

That small change made the figure much easier to execute for Sparkledancer, and also made the figure look much better to Lord Dormamu’s eyes while he was watching from the outside. Hopefully this is the final piece that we need to get our Whisks to be the top of the class, and we can avoid talking about the figure again for at least a little while. That would make me happy.

Continuing on after the Whisk, we talked about the end of the next figure, which is a Chasse from Promenade Position – and the beginning of the figure after that, which is a Natural Turn. Lord Dormamu wanted me to be keenly aware of keeping the last step and the first step of those two figures moving in a straight line toward diagonal wall. For some reason that day I was moving a bit to my left while doing the two figures I guess; I didn’t feel it, but that’s what Lord Dormamu said that he saw, so he told me to make sure to fix it.

That was the only specific points of figures that we looked at. The other notes that he wanted us to continue to work on are more general, and should be implemented throughout the entire dance. To start with, he wanted me to really work on thinking about keeping my upper body still while moving and focus on only moving with my legs. One of the things that he said that he noticed during the competition that he judged us in was that sometimes he could see my upper body moving before I took steps. He thought that this needed to go away, obviously. If I think about it, this is a simple fix (it’s all isometrics, baby). I just need to make sure that I do the same thing without thinking from now on.

Our lowering action between figures needs to be more distinct as well. We have taken lowering while moving a bit too far, which prevents us from lowering as much as we could because the movement gets in the way. For figures where we close our feet at the end, he wants to see us specifically stop as our feet close and begin to lower straight down while preparing the leg, then continue to lower like we were as we start moving. This should help make the lowering more dramatic and more controlled.

Finally, in any of the figures where I have started to play with the timing to stretch out the moment when we are risen to our highest point, we need to work on making the steps coming out of that moment more controlled. Holding that rise for those few extra moments impacts the steps that come after, making them a bit faster out of necessity. From the outside, Lord Dormamu said that it sometimes looks like the steps are out of control and off-balance. I never feel like I am off-balance since I can hold myself up at any point if we were to stop, but because they look like they are off-balance it becomes a problem. So we need to fix the way they look for anyone who might be watching.

The next thing that Lord Dormamu wanted to talk about was Sparkledancer. The two of them went off on the subject, sort of talking around me, but I managed to glean some of what they were saying by listening. Basically he wants her to work on being bigger – stretching her frame wider, while at the same time creating more volume by pulling away if she is able. Trying to make the full picture of our frame as huge as possible. I was brought back into the conversation when he wanted to have her practice getting into position with me so that he could manipulate her limbs.

One specific point that he wanted her to work on was to already be in her frame position while coming toward me to get into frame, rather than coming into frame first and then bending herself into the right position. The two of them went through this exercise a few times using me as a dance dummy. When they finished working out the basics, he told her to keep practicing the action on her own time during practice with me.

At that point, because I was curious, I asked if there was anything that she needed to do differently when looking at getting into or holding her super huge frame in Tango, since the frame in Tango is slightly different. He thought about it for a moment, and then said that the same idea should apply for getting into that frame, but holding the frame once we start dancing should have a subtle change. During the times we are moving in a Tango, he wanted Sparkledancer to work on keeping the frame as big as she could possibly hold comfortably still, but any time that we stopped and held in place briefly he wanted to see her work on expanding the frame just a bit more.

We only danced through a couple of figures in the Tango for a few minutes to try this, and then we moved on. Just a very brief note to work on later in practice, I guess.

By this point we were already starting to run over our allotted time, but Lord Dormamu still wanted to look at a few items in the Foxtrot. He had us dance through the routine once so that he could see how we have been doing with practice before talking through anything with us. The first thing he tells us after we finish that is that Foxtrot is still our best dance, no question about it. That’s always a nice thing to hear!

But we didn’t get any time to pat ourselves on the back after that comment. The first thing that he mentioned he wanted me to do was to shorten up my steps even more when I am going into figures that have a Heel Turn for Sparkledancer. I have been working on this quite a bit, and I thought that I was already taking pretty small steps, but he wanted to see it become even smaller still. The primary focus of these figures should be the rotation and not traveling, he told me. If I take too big of a step, I overwhelm the action that Sparkledancer is doing in her Heel Turn, so the steps need to become shorter until we get to the Feather Finish.

The only other thing of note that we talked about in the lesson was the Closed Impetus with Feather Finish. Lord Dormamu wanted to see me angling my steps more going into the figure. At the end of the preceding Natural Turn he told me that I should think of taking my last step with my right leg on a bit of a diagonal toward center, and then do the same going in the opposite direction toward the wall when taking my first step going into the Closed Impetus. The step that I was taking looked like it was going straight behind me, even though I felt like I was stepping off on an angle, so he wants me to make it look more like how I think it feels.

Tuesday night was a bit of a surprise for me. Near the end of the normal workday, I got a message from Lord Dormamu. He wanted to tell me that a friend of his was coming into town unexpectedly that evening, and he wanted me to be out at the Endless Dance Hall in a few hours so that I could take a coaching lesson with him. I had a bunch of stuff that I had planned to finish up at work that night, so I told him that I didn’t think that I would be able to get there by the time that he wanted me to be there. Lord Dormamu replied that he wanted me to try my best to make it there.

All the men at my office have to wear a shirt and tie. For serious.

Turns out that this ‘friend’ of his was actually the guy who coached him for a couple of decades, during the times when he won all sorts of National, International and World titles with his professional partner, so he thought that it would be good for me to get some perspective on how I dance from this guy. No pressure, right? Oh yeah, did I mention that this guy was also a multi-time National, International and World Champion himself, on top of coaching Lord Dormamu to win the same kinds of titles? Well, suddenly being at work and missing out on this opportunity seemed like a dumb idea! So I pushed back all the tasks that I could and got out of the office as soon as possible to make it out to the Endless Dance Hall. Luckily I managed to get a hold of Sparkledancer and coordinate with her so that we got to the studio at roughly the same time.

When Lord Dormamu told me that this guy had been his coach for decades, I expected to be meeting up with some super old guy… but it turned out that this coach only looked to be a handful of years older than me. The best part about this lesson though was that the perspective that this guy gave me on how he would recommend that I do certain techniques was extremely interesting, and there are points that actually make my life much easier. I am a big fan of techniques that make my dance life easier!

The funny part of working with this coach though, was that whenever this coach gave me technical points that differed from what Lord Dormamu has told me to do in the past, I would tell him about what Lord Dormamu had told me to do in those spots. Then he would look at me with a twinkle in his eye and say “Don’t worry about that. Do it my way and I’ll tell [Lord Dormamu] all about it.” I guess that is one of the perks of working with the coach of your coach…

Lord Dormamu met with us when I got to the studio to introduce the coach to Sparkledancer and I, and before he wandered off he said that we should start out with showing off our Waltz. After he took off, we went over to an empty corner of the ballroom and began to dance. There was a group class going on near the far wall of the studio, so I ended up altering the routine slightly to accommodate the lack of space – cutting out the Chasse from Promenade Position after the Outside Change. Sparkledancer and I made it three-quarters of the way around the room before the coach called out to us to stop and make our way back over to where he was standing.

The first thing that he asked me when in range was about the missing Chasse from Promenade Position. I told him my reasoning for removing the figure (i.e. to keep from plowing into someone in the group class). He told me that I should never do that. The connection that I had made when going right from an Outside Change into a Natural Turn looked awkward in his eyes. His recommendation was to keep the Chasse from Promenade Position in the routine, but to take much smaller steps to fit everything in the space available.

But the meat of what he wanted to talk with me about (most of the coaching session was spent going over things I did) was my frame. What he saw when Sparkledancer and I were dancing was a lot of movement of my right elbow, which was breaking the look that we wanted to achieve. His interpretation of what was causing the issues with my elbow was that I was trying to contort it in a way that was impossible, and the act of attempting to keep it in an impossible position was making my arm break whenever I did actions that shifted my partner within the sphere of my right arm.

As I’m sure you know, since I’ve mentioned it many times, Sparkledancer is a bit shorter than me. We are a good match in height, which is why we are still Amateur partners to this day, but she is several inches shorter than I am. So if I get into frame trying to hold my elbows at the same level as my shoulder line, and then try to get into frame with Sparkledancer, the only outcome to keep my arms there successfully while her left arm goes over top of mine is to either A) hold Sparkledancer off the ground for the entire dance, or B) lower myself down further to the floor so that I am shorter than her.

Neither of those options is really a good choice, so I have to do something else. He told me that I shouldn’t be worrying about keeping my own elbows level with my shoulders to create a straight line going across, but rather I should focus on keeping Sparkledancer’s elbows in line with her shoulders to show off that straight line. That means that my right elbow needs to come down so that it fits underneath her arm, and then I only pull it upward to help lock her arm in place. Once my right arm is in position, my left elbow should be brought down so that it is in line with my right. And both elbows need to come forward away from my body more to give her the room to bend away from me.

This position actually feels much better for me… and really doesn’t fight against my muscularity. Before, when trying to keep my elbows level, I would be working so hard that oftentimes I would end up flexing my trapezius muscles, which makes it look like I’m shrugging and gives the illusion that my neck is shorter than it really is. With my elbows held lower, my shoulder muscles are more relaxed. Hey – maybe this means that I can go back to doing my shoulder workouts with heavier weights again! I have cut a good 20+ pounds off the weights that I have been using when working my shoulders to try to help them look more flat while holding my arms up, but if I can lower my elbows a bit and relax my shoulders at the same time maybe that isn’t going to be a problem anymore. Hooray!

Anyway… the coach suggested that to work on this new position, I should start practicing with Sparkledancer to get into frame differently. He wanted her to get into her position for frame first as the music started, and then have me come toward her and fit my arms to wherever her arms are before we start dancing. Sort of the opposite process that most couples do when they get on the floor to compete. This ensures that my right elbow is always at the right height to dance with her, and then I just match the height of my left elbow to follow suit.

He also recommended that I keep my right arm much more solidly in place when in frame with my partner. It seems counterintuitive – if I am holding her more tightly, you would think that she won’t be able to shape away from me as much and create volume, right? From his experience however, he says that ladies have always been able to work off of him more when he gives them a tighter, solid hold to provide them stability, as opposed to letting the right arm be relaxed and move with them while they stretch.

To practice this, he went and got two paper towels from the bathroom. One was put under my right hand, and the other on top of my right elbow – the two points he wanted me to press toward her with. Sparkledancer and I then had to dance together with me pressing the paper towels into her so that they didn’t fall out of place. I’ve done a similar exercise in the past with paper and my feet to teach me to keep them on the floor, but never using my arm before. Luckily, I passed the test.

We also spent some time talking about where the movement when we dance comes from. At one point the coach asked me where it was that I thought the movement of our figures originated. I immediately replied that it started with my standing leg, since that is the concept that has been drilled into me for years and years. He just smiled at me and said that he used to think that was the case too, but in later years his view changed. Nowadays he believes that the movement should always originate with my ribcage rather than my legs.

If you think about it, he told me, how in the world does your partner know that you are going to be taking a step forward for a Natural Turn? She isn’t connected to my leg, so if I am originating the movement from down there then I am already trying to go forward before she knows what’s going on, and her body will block me for a brief moment until she catches on. However, if the first thing that she feels is my chest starting to move, she should begin to move herself out of my way immediately, so now when I drive with my standing leg I meet almost no resistance. It’s an interesting theory, and I think that I’ve heard something similar from someone in the past, but I can’t for the life of me remember who that was. If I was more enterprising, I would go back through my notes and find it, but… maybe I’ll do that later.

Finally we talked about the lowering in the Waltz, which is something that Lord Dormamu worked with us on when we saw him over the weekend but we hadn’t gotten to spend a ton of practice time on before this coaching session. The coach knew that this was a work in progress, but he wanted to mention it to us anyway. When he asked me what it was that made the Waltz distinct from all the other International Standard dances, I told him it was the rise and fall action. He nodded at me, but then told me that it was actually more important to think of it as ‘fall and rise’ instead. It is actually the lowering that is the important part – if we can get that correct, it will keep all the other pieces like the footwork and using our legs correct, and the rise will happen naturally as we move through the figures.

With all this information swimming around in our minds, we were starting to run through the routine again from the beginning to see if we could apply everything. As we did so, Lord Dormamu returned from wherever it was he had been hiding so that he could see our progress. With Lord Dormamu watching, the coach had us run through pieces of the Waltz, but then unexpectedly he told us to try to apply everything he just talked about and do our Tango routine instead.

Doing that unexpectedly… actually went really, really well. When Sparkledancer and I got to the first corner, the coach was telling Lord Dormamu that the two of us were really good dancers. When we got near the second corner and I did the Progressive Link so that I could go into the Natural Twist Turn, the coach had me stop where I was and hold still so that the two of them could marvel at how good we looked. The coach made Lord Dormamu run over to the other side of the room and get his phone so that they could take a picture of us and show us how good it looked, because it made both of them so happy.

Overall the coaching was good… as you can probably tell by all the notes I just made about it. It was much more useful to me than those coaching sessions I’ve been talked into in the past that are all done to play the dance politics game. If Lord Dormamu tells me that this guy is coming into town in the future, I will definitely clear my schedule to work with him again.

I’m going to leave things here for today. I wanted to talk about so much else that I also did this week, but I think that would be too much for my brain to process. This post got to be super, super long. So, until next time friends!

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