So I’m less than a week out from my next competition, which is the biggest competition I’ve gone to in a while, and do you know what happened? I got a text message from my coach over the weekend telling me that a visiting coach is coming into town and he has booked time on the guy’s schedule for Sparkledancer and I to meet with him. You know, a week out from competition… when I should be spending my time just running through everything rather than trying to cram more new knowledge into my head. No big deal, right?
Normally I don’t question my coach when he tells me to do these things, but as I finished up the coaching session on Monday night and walked out to my car to begin my drive home, I was having a bit of an existential crisis. I walked into the Endless Dance Hall that night thinking that this would be a coaching session much like the ones I had a few weeks ago, where I would just be meeting with this guy to make sure that he knows my name and would recognize my face in the future the next time he judges me somewhere.
It turns out that this guy is someone who my coach actually trusts with his students, who has deep philosophical knowledge about ballroom dancing that is useful. On top of that, he is also on the judging panel for the competition that I am going to this coming weekend. So… yeah, that meant that I couldn’t just write off everything he said like my coach told me to do with all the things the other judges told me when we finished up. At least, I didn’t think that I could. I’m really not sure anymore what is important to take away from these meetings.
My coach Lord Dormamu was there with us the entire time, teaching some of his other students on the opposite side of the room. When we got started, he gave the visiting coach a rundown of what we had been doing lately, and asked him to take a look at the way that I hold my frame while keeping my chest out, and Sparkledancer’s volume (which are the two major points he told Sparkledancer and I to focus on) to see if he had any other recommendations he could give us to improve those areas before going into the competition next weekend.
The visiting coach put on some music and had us dance through all of our routines in no particular order for ninety seconds each. When Sparkledancer and I finished and we all met back up in the middle of the room, the coach turned to Sparkledancer and told her that he already knew how he could help her create more space to look bigger, but it was actually going to be me that was going to have to change something to make that happen.
Can you guess what it was that he wanted me to change to help her out?
Yup, he wanted me to make an adjustment to my frame. Remember how I said something along the lines once about how you could ask ten coaches what the correct way to hold your frame was and you would get fifteen different answers back? This was another of those moments.
Specifically what I was doing with my right arm is what he wanted to have me change. Lord Dormamu has worked and adjusted me quite a bit, and somehow in all of that adjustment my right hand has ended up sitting just below the top of Sparkledancer’s left shoulder. This makes it easier for me to keep my right elbow up, which is a trouble point that Lord Dormamu is always concerned with when he watches me dance. There have been minor adjustments to where my hand has been placed over the 2+ years that I have been dancing competitively like this, but the hand has always ended up in roughly this place through that entire time.
However, this coach says that keeping my arm and hand up that high on her shoulder is actually preventing Sparkledancer from creating the space that she is being asked to create. Because keeping her legs under her forces her to keep her lower spine straight, the only option she has to create space is to bend herself up and over my right hand/arm. If I am keeping my hand up so high, the coach told me I am making it impossible for her to do that. Sure, that makes sense.
Also, he was worried that during any turning figures we do I might instinctively tighten my right arm as I rotate. Because my hand is near the top of her shoulder, if this action would unintentionally press inward with any force in my right hand I pretty much guarantee that I am going to fold Sparkledancer’s left shoulder toward my chest. The coach pointed out that while Sparkledancer may be strong, no matter how much she might try to fight against my right hand to keep her upper body away from me she would be no match for the strength in my arm.
His recommendation was to have me hold my right arm out straight, let her get into position with me, and then close my right hand to her body lower, so that my palm is basically against her lat muscle and my fingers are resting underneath her rear deltoid. Just dancing around like this doing some basic steps from our Waltz routine made life so much easier for Sparkledancer, and she was surprised how much of a strain that took off of her. That is a major point in favor of this change.
Sparkledancer excitedly asked if there would be a similar change to how I hold her for Tango, since that frame is slightly different. The coach told me that the idea is the same, except that once I close my right hand to her I would rotate my spine to bring my right side forward, allowing my right hand to slide toward her spine in the process. Other than that, everything else remains the same.
However… I had to stop and ask about this. In order to make the change he wanted, I am basically rotating my forearm to turn my palm upward. Rotating my arm like this naturally brings my right elbow down so that it looks (in my peripheral vision at least) like my right elbow is way below my left elbow. I can’t bring my right elbow up higher while my forearm is rotated like this without a painful sensation in my shoulder, which tells me that I shouldn’t be doing that. This coach told me that while he can see the elbow being down when standing at a distance, it isn’t as bad as I was making it seem.
I still wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea, since I have been yelled at so much to keep my elbow up and putting my arm in this position was guaranteeing that I wouldn’t be able to do that. He told me that when he is judging dancers in a competition, his first judgement is based on how the dancer’s spine looks. If the spine is straight, then he will move on to look at the arms. For me, he said, it is easy for him to see that my spine is straight and my shoulder and arm are naturally sitting in the position that he had asked me to be in, so he wouldn’t think twice about my right elbow being slightly lower than my left one. Especially considering that Sparkledancer is shorter than me, so my arm has to be down slightly to fit under her arm.
If I was forcing my arm to do something out of the ordinary, he would be able to see that my right shoulder wouldn’t be laying flat. He moved my arm around to demonstrate how the shoulder (especially one with as much muscle as mine) would stick up in funny places if I tried to make the arm do something that was against my anatomy. So this coach thought that the placement of my elbow in relation to the new placement of my hand wasn’t a problem. If he ends up judging any of my rounds at the competition this coming weekend, he has all but guaranteed that he wouldn’t mark me down for that.
That helped me feel pretty OK about everything by the time we finished up that coaching session. As I was about to head back over to where my street shoes were so that I could take off my dance shoes, I heard Lord Dormamu call my name. He waved me over and told me to grab Sparkledancer and hang out for a few minutes. He was almost finished teaching the other couple that he was working with, and when they were done he was going to have both of us run rounds (both of us will be going to the same competition next weekend).
Running those rounds was what made me stop feeling good about everything…
The coach I had worked with was sitting along the edge of the floor, Lord Dormamu was up at the front running the music for us, and I was on the floor with this other random couple who danced at a super high level. That part didn’t bother me so much, because even though they were much higher level and were doing all the fancy moves while flying around the floor, I was easily twice the size of the other guy. I caught eyes with him before we started in an attempt to give him a sense of camaraderie, but I think he might have interpreted me wrong because he stayed waaaaaaaaaaaaay the hell away from me after that. Did I scare him?
The issue I had was with Lord Dormamu yelling things across the room at the two of us during these rounds. As you might imagine, the thing he yelled to me the most was about bringing up my right elbow, which I physically could not do since I was holding it in the position that the other coach (who was also watching us dance this whole time!) had told me was going to be fine. That twenty minutes spent running rounds while getting yelled at to do something that I could not physically do really kind of… broke me.
After we finished, I said goodbye to everyone and walked out into the rain to head to my car. The rain felt kind of fitting at that moment. I was really questioning whether dancing competitively like this – working with so many high-level coaches who all tell me different things, playing the dance politics game to help garner favor in my results, paying so much time and treasure for this experience – was really something I wanted to do.
Full disclosure for a moment: I am not a competitive person by nature. Really, I actually have very little interest in competition against other people. I like challenging myself, but only against my own results. Like working out – I keep notes on what I do when I exercise, especially for weightlifting sets. Pushing myself to lift heavier or do one more rep (when I can do it safely) feels right for me. But I don’t go around bragging about my results when I do it, I just do it because I like the sense of improvement that I get from hitting a new level.
Stacking myself against other people like I have been doing when I go to all these dance competitions isn’t something I would normally choose to do. On my drive home that night, I began to wonder seriously if I have just been going along with what Lord Dormamu has been telling me to do since he thinks that I have whatever quality it is that a competitive dancer needs. And that’s great… except for the part where I wouldn’t normally choose to compete at all, which is a quality that I’m guessing a competitive dancer shouldn’t have. How much am I actually enjoying all this stress that Lord Dormamu’s demands and expectations are putting on me?
I never resolved that question that night. When I got home, I zoned out and did something mindless to forget about the evening. But I couldn’t just ignore those thoughts forever – especially since I was scheduled to meet up with Lord Dormamu and Sparkledancer again on Wednesday night for one final session with him before the competition this weekend.
Wednesday’s session made me feel a lot better about dance life than the ending of the session on Monday night did. There were three points that Lord Dormamu told Sparkledancer and I that he wanted us to focus on for this particular competition: keeping my chest out, keeping our topline calm the entire time that we move, and maximizing the amount of volume that Sparkledancer creates. Everything else he said was best left to muscle memory at this point in time.
Lord Dormamu also gave the two of us a promise that night. Once this competition is over he said, we will finally start work on moving up to the next proficiency level. After being bored out of my mind working on the same things over and over again for almost two-and-a-half years, we are finally going to get new routines, with new figures and techniques to challenge myself with. This certainly has sparked my interest. Maybe boredom is the reason that I was feeling so bad about how the night ended on Monday night – I have gotten so disinterested in doing the same steps in practice over and over again that I just don’t feel any drive to do those steps any more.
So in the end, once this weekend is over I will probably spend some time sitting at the ‘think about my life choices’ table to seriously consider how I really feel about competitive dancing at this level. I don’t think anything will change, but since these thoughts came into my mind I have to spend some time addressing them. After all, this is a really expensive (really, really, really expensive) hobby to be doing if I am not 100% committed to it.
Will the promise of getting new routines to work on reignite my drive and bring back the fun of dancing? Or will I find it to be the same kind of slog that I am in now, which just feels like work on many days when I go out to dance? I’ll figure that out in time.
First thing’s first – this weekend’s competition. Wish me luck!