Like A Madman Laughing At The Rain

Last weekend pretty much exhausted me. There were so many things going on that just built on all the crazy things that I dealt with during the week prior – by the time Sunday afternoon finally rolled around and I had a chance to sit down and just reflect on everything that happened, I never got up again. There are definitely a number of lessons learned that I will have to make note of to remember for next time.

So last weekend there was a ‘small’ competition that I was planning on dancing in. As I mentioned last week, I was also working behind the scenes to help run the competition as well. Because there were so few volunteers that had any idea of what was supposed to be happening, I ended up taking on a much larger role than I anticipated, and ended up being at the competition much of the day. That pretty much killed all my other dance plans for that day.

The organizers of the competition ended up spending all their time catering to the every whim and desire of the judging panel, so someone else had to step in to run the front desk once they disappeared to deal with judgely requests. Guess who that ended up being? It was a good thing that I had looked over a lot about the competition before I got there, because running the front desk would have been impossible if I hadn’t done so. That was made even more clear when I had to have another volunteer step in to sit at the front desk while I was trying to dance. That volunteer didn’t find out the information beforehand, and I didn’t have a lot of time to show him everything before I went to dance, so his shift did not go quite so well.

Getting a system online to check in the competitors as they came in was a hassle. Dealing with all the heat change requests from the competitors was crazy. I mean, it was a one-day competition… how did so many of them sign up for the wrong heats? There weren’t that many options to choose from! Helping people who didn’t know the area figure out where to park, trying to collect money from spectators when I wasn’t given enough change to break bills, directing people to the changing rooms or practice floor – there were so many things to do!

The biggest lesson that I learned on Saturday though was that if I am going to be involved with helping at a competition at the kind of level I took on for this one, then I cannot also be signed up to dance in the competition as well. Sparkledancer (who also got talked into volunteering at the event) and I had planned on ending our volunteer shifts and grabbing lunch at a certain time, then coming back to change into our competition outfits and warm up before our rounds began. I assumed it would be an easy hand off and then I could worry about dancing exclusively.

The volunteer who came in to sit at the front desk when I left did not know much about what he was doing before he showed up, and then didn’t seem to pick up what I was trying to tell him quickly, so it took me a long time to step away from the desk. I tried to walk away several times, but then someone would show up at the front desk with a question that my replacement didn’t know, so he would call me over to get my help. Even though I did manage to run out and eat something really fast, I was still running behind schedule by the time Sparkledancer and I got back. When I tried to go to the practice room and warm up, the volunteer from the front desk still kept coming to find me so I could help answer questions. My warm-up ended up being questionable.

I will admit it now, the stress of that situation did not help me dance my best that day. Also, it didn’t help that just before my first Quickstep round of the day the volunteer from the front desk came into the ballroom with a panicked look on his face. When he made eye contact with me as I was standing out on the dance floor, I could see his shoulders droop because I obviously wasn’t going to be able to answer his question at that moment. That really distracted my from dancing that particular Quickstep, let me tell you.

So next time, if I am asked to help run any competition, I am going to have to make a choice to either dance or to volunteer. Doing both was a bad idea, and my results were a clear indication of that. If this had been a two-day competition, and I could have danced on one day and volunteered the other, that probably would have been fine I suppose. But doing both on the same day is a terrible idea.

Sparkledancer actually got a more fun volunteer shift than I did. After we got done dancing, I ended up heading back to the front desk to take over again and relieve the other volunteer from duty. He seemed quite relieved by me returning. Sparkledancer though, she got to take over the second shift as Deck Captain. That was apparently where all the fun was happening, since she got to run around and herd all the competitors into place.

The most fun thing that she told me that she got to do, which I am actually jealous of, was send competitors over to the Invigilator. Because the organizers have been trying to turn this small event into a much bigger deal, they were required to have an Invigilator on hand to keep an eye on all the dancers. The guy that they chose really knew his stuff, and was calling out a lot of competitors to talk with them about their choreography. Since this was a small event, he wasn’t disqualifying most of the competitors who did something wrong, just telling them what he saw and letting them know that they would need to make changes before the next competition they did.

With all the activity in the ballroom, many of the competitors did not hear their numbers being called to go see the Invigilator, so Sparkledancer would track them down and let them know. I guess she started calling it ‘The Desk of Shame’ and everyone thought that was pretty funny, so for the rest of the day that is how people in the ballroom referred to it. “Uh oh, competitor #xxx got called to the Desk of Shame!” Hilarious. The competitors at this event were mostly young adults, so they had a good time ribbing each other about getting called out like that.

Overall I think that the competition went really well from an event standpoint. There were no major issues that weren’t able to be overcome, all the competitors that I talked to seemed to be having a really good time, and there were no major delays that held up the schedule. Actually the event ran fast so there were times we ended up putting in short breaks to keep the rounds running close to their originally scheduled times, plus they extended the dinner break to make sure the evening session started when planned. I had work stuff to take care of, so I didn’t get to go help at the evening session, but from what I heard later everything went smoothly.

Sunday was a different matter though… while Saturday was spent volunteering, Sunday I was put to work. My coach Lord Dormamu knew pretty much everyone that was running this competition, so he pulled some strings and set up coaching sessions on Sunday with some of the judges for Sparkledancer and I. Yes, judges… I had coaching from three different people in the space of three hours. This wasn’t physically exhausting for me, but it was mentally exhausting because of how much information these judges tried to give me in the space of three hours.

I have a hard time actually describing how I feel about doing these lessons with the judges on Sunday. There was a lot of information, which is always a good thing. Some of the information was conflicting between the judges, which was a bad thing. Some of the information conflicted with things that Lord Dormamu tells me I should be doing, which is an even worse thing. One of the judges told me that he would be judging at the next competition that I have on my calendar, so it was probably good to meet with him in this manner… but so much of what he told me was contrary to information that has been beaten into my head over the last two years that I don’t feel like paying for that coaching session was really worthwhile!

Let’s take these in order. The first judge that Sparkledancer and I worked with was one of the female judges. She spent a lot of time talking with Sparkledancer about changes she could make to improve the way that she was dancing, but the judge also had some comments for me. Most of what she told me revolved around how she thought that I should be holding my frame and posture to help Sparkledancer, which of course was different from what other coaches have recommended to me about how I should hold my frame and posture. I’m starting to wonder if there really is a correct way to hold myself if all of these coaches and judges offer such different (and sometimes conflicting) suggestions…

She told me that, despite all the work that Lord Dormamu has had me do on improving the flexibility of my back so that I can move around with it bowed slightly, I needed to focus on keeping my spine straight up and down. That would mean that all the volume between my head and Sparkledancer’s would have to be created by Sparkledancer bending away over my right arm, as opposed to me helping out by bending my own upper body away from her at the same time.

The judge also told Sparkledancer that she likes to see the Follower in closer proximity to the Leader. In order for Sparkledancer to actually get any closer to me, however, this requires assistance from me. I was told that I needed to actually bring in my stomach to give her space. This is actually a weird sensation for me – I am so used to keeping my abdominal muscles engaged while moving my body around. The problem is, through years of hard abdominal work with heavy weights, my abdominal muscles are rather prominent. When I flex them, they stand out slightly more than my hip line.

To bring my core in so that it is slightly concave, I actually need to keep the muscles in my stomach as loose as possible while pulling my belly button back toward my spine.  This is a lot harder than it sounds, and it also made it difficult for me to breathe like I would like. I actually mentioned this to the judge – many years ago in my youth, I took voice lessons because I did a lot of singing. My voice teacher really drilled the concept into me of breathing from my diaphragm, so much so that even to this day that is how I tend to breath.

When attempting to make my stomach concave to give Sparkledancer room, it makes it really hard to breathe diaphragmatically. The judge told me that I need to forget about all of that while dancing, because dancing is not singing. What a weird sensation! I can’t say that I like breathing while using just the top part of my lungs, because it feels like I am missing out by not taking deeper breaths. If this is a technique that Lord Dormamu tells me I need to keep, it will definitely take me a while to get used to.

The last concept that this particular judge talked about quite a bit during this lesson was about making sure that both partners moved around a shared axis when dancing. I don’t quite remember what we did while working together that brought it up, but she threw it out there once while talking with Sparkledancer, and the idea seemed to help, so from that point on while we were dancing down the floor she would remind Sparkledancer and I to think about our shared axis in order to keep our movement together.

After that came a lesson with a second judge, and this one… this is the coaching session that I have a lot of questions about. He gave Sparkledancer and I a lot of points that were not only contradictory with things that Lord Dormamu tells me to do all the time and contradictory with things that the first judge told me I should be doing, but there were also things that he said which contradicted statements that he told us earlier in the same lesson!

You would think that I could just chalk this up as one of those political coaching sessions, allowing me to get my name and face out in front of a judge for possible future use, but this judge told Sparkledancer and I that he would be judging the next competition that I was planning to dance in. Because of that, I’m not entirely sure if it is safe to just think of this as political. There were points that he specifically told me that he looks at when watching dancers. If I know that is what he is looking for, and he is judging my rounds, how much of an effort should I make to implement those ideas for him? Especially if those ideas run contrary to the teachings of my primary coach? That is an idea I have been struggling with all week.

After dancing down the floor once for him (we started with a Waltz, since I didn’t have any other plans on what to work on with him), he told Sparkledancer and I that while we seemed to dance well technically, we were boring to watch because we weren’t doing a whole lot of anything artistically. He said that he thought working on dance technique was useless, because it was really the artistic component of moving with the music that was the key to being a good dancer.

On top of that, he told me that I look too stiff while I am dancing. That my arms seemed to be up too high and appeared to be locked in place too much. He wanted to see me much more relaxed while I was moving around as I danced. So much so that I no longer had a straight line between my elbows because they were drooping down. The term that he used more than once while talking to Sparkledancer and I was “loosey-goosey” to describe how he wanted my frame to be.

I struggled with this. I have been told for so long to hold myself straight and keep my arms out strongly, so relaxing and letting them droop did not make me happy. When he would ask me to demonstrate some figures with him, every time he got into dance position with me if he felt like my arms were too stiff he would pull away from me and make noises like an offended southern belle. It was a strange thing for me to deal with.

Another item that he brought up was about leading and following. He asked both Sparkledancer and I who it was that we thought was leading while we danced. Since I thought that this was a trick question, I said that it had to be the Follower that was leading. Sparkledancer told him that she thought I was the one leading, since I was the one that decided on which figures we were using as we moved down the floor. The judge countered that if the two of us were merely dancing routines given to us by our choreographer, was I really leading her at all? She told him that there would be times that I would have to break routine because of other couples on the floor, so she thought that I was in fact leading in order to avoid collision.

The judge chuckled smugly, as if we were ignorant children and he was going to be helping us out by giving us the right answer. He told us that I was essentially right that it was the Follower who was leading in this situation. But it was really because Sparkledancer was slightly shorter than me, so it was actually her stride that I would have to be working with as I took steps. If I am matching her stride, she is, in essence, setting the pace for our dance. I guess that makes sense, but did he really have to be so weird about it?

Even though he made a big deal about asking who the real Leader was, he still made a point of telling me how terrible my lead was. The odd thing about that was that his course of action to fix my lead was to ask me to use my arms more. This goes against everything that I have been told for years about how the lead for my dancing should be coming from my body, and my arms are really only moving because my body is moving. The judge told me multiple times that the ability to connect the desires of my brain with the reaction of my arms was what sets humans apart from the animals, so in order to lead properly I needed to use my arms to tell the Follower what to do.

Use them without using my body, that is. We spent several minutes dancing without body contact with him telling me to push with my arms to initiate the movement slightly before I moved the rest of my body. But my touch had to be really light. If I was pushing with anything more than the touch of a feather, I got the same ‘offended southern belle’ noises that he had been making earlier in the lesson. Those noises really irritated me…

That was really the point that made me question why I was taking this coaching session in the first place. Comments like that really make me wonder if I am just wasting my time and money working with this person, since all the other lessons that I take and all my practice time is spent focusing on doing the opposite of what he is asking of me. If this judge doesn’t care about technique, or wants me to start using my arms to lead instead of using my body like all the other coaches I work with regularly ask me to do, is there really any way for me to make him happy?

Do I just ignore his marks if he is judging me at a competition, because he has now basically told me that he is looking for me to dance so dramatically differently than other coaches? I know that when I ask three different coaches to tell me how to correctly do a dance technique, I run the risk of getting five different answers back… but this judge was a bit extreme in his ideas even for my open-minded view on how I should be dancing. I guess I just need to make note of what he told me and wait until I can get a clear interpretation from my regular coach before trying to build any of his advice into the way that I move.

The third person I worked with that day was much better to work with, but I was in such a bad head space after being told how terrible I was that I didn’t have much fun taking this coaching session. It wasn’t actually a judge I worked with during this hour, but rather the Invigilator. Looking back on what he said later in the day, I can see that he had a very interesting take on the way he sees things. It would be nice to potentially work with him again at a different time in the future when I would be more able to appreciate his approach in the moment, rather than after the fact.

He actually commented on how I lead my partner almost immediately after we started working together. Can you guess what it was that he told me I should be working on? If you guessed that it was working on leading from my body, step on down and claim your prize! So now I have yet another coach that I can add to the list of people telling me that it’s supposed to come from the body. This really made me feel like the previous coaching session was just a waste of my time…

The Invigilator went so far as to show me an exercise I can use to improve how I lead from my body. He stepped off the floor and came back with the large trash can that was sitting on the side of the dance floor. This trash can was on wheels, so he said it would work perfectly for me. What he wanted me to do was to place my hands flat together just in front of the right side of my body (where my partner should be connected), and hold just the tips of my fingers against the center of the trashcan. Then, without moving my arms, I was supposed to direct the trash can to move in a figure eight using just the movement of my body to push the trash can where it was supposed to go. This was a lot harder than you would think that it should be.

We spent some time on Foxtrot, applying this same concept to doing Feathers and Three Steps down the floor. When we got to the end, we did Back Feather into the Backward Three Step from the Reverse Wave. These felt pretty good to me, since I got to take my arms out of the equation once more and focus on doing the steps the way I had been trained to do them correctly. It was actually a nice way to wrap things up.

Overall, there was a lot of information given to me on Sunday – much more than I actually wrote down. I don’t know how much of the information will have an impact on my dancing; that’s for my primary coach to decide. I just hope that some of it is useful, or else I will feel really bad about how much money I spent on Sunday. It was a lot of money if I am just going to throw out most of what I was told. Playing the dance politics game is not a lot of fun.

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