DanceStory (pt II) – The Competition

In late December 2009, I signed up to private lessons at Society Hill Dance Academy. For the first few weeks it was an informal affair: I made suggestions about what I wished to learn, and I got what I wanted. It was here that things could have gone on in a meandering and relaxed way, where I gradually built up my technique, repetoire and appreciation of social dancing.

They could have, honest.

I loved dancing socially – it was exciting and fun and made me feel good. I couldn’t ask anything more from social ballroom dancing. Alas, but that type of dancing was never my exclusive goal. When I plotted the evolution of my dancing career, I was pretty sure that I would end up needing a more specific progression path. Some of the “old hands” at the studio had been overheard encouraging their fellow students about the merits of competiting: how fun it was. Alas, but fun was never my exclusive goal either.

About a month after my private lessons started, I made an explicit request to take part in a DanceSport Competition to be held in Manhattan over the 4th July weekend. The request came out of the blue, even for me, none of the staff had pressurised or even suggested that I do such a thing. Yet I made the declaration, and it was taken seriously. I was told I would be competing in International Latin and American Smooth styles of dance, and that was me all set.

I can’t tell you whether it was a smart or stupid decision. I convinced myself early on that it wasn’t a question of an instrinic “right” or “wrong” choice, it was up to me to make it right. The situation stood as follows. I’d only just taken up ballroom dancing, a sport I’d never tried before. It was 6 months before the competition. I had a lot of ground to cover.

The next six months were comprised of a number of obstacles in varying shapes and forms. Obstacles that did their damndest to jeopardise my belief that I’d Done The Right Thing.

  • Financial Barriers. The sum of money required to get me through 6 months of tuition, 4 lessons per week and the entries was the biggest lump of money I’ve ever had to depart with in such a small space of time. It wasn’t an unthinkable/impossible total…but it had to be delivered in a timeline that I wasn’t too happy about. I made international money transfers. I went back to the UK in March, mainly to see family and friends, but also because I wanted to source some of my funds left lying in a Scottish savings account. I didn’t feel guilty about the spending of these reserves – I’d been saving saving saving since I was 7 or 8, and had never used the money I’d earned. Heck, if not now then when? Trying to sort out the money was deeply stressful at times, I had not cut back on travelling and other things I enjoyed, simply because I couldn’t afford it any more. Was dancing really worth the sums of money I’d paid for it?
  • Tiredness & Time Barriers. As I mentioned in Part I of the DanceStory, I’d started out at the Manayunk branch of my dance studio. It was a 10min stroll from my front door, and that made dance easily accessible. After a short while my instructor was permenantly transferred to the center city branch of the studio. I was a carless person who didn’t drive: public transportation seemed to be the only option. The trains were never perfectly-matched to my lessons (naturally). If I wanted to be on time I would have to sprint out the front door after I came in from work, and loiter downtown for the best part of 40min. On the way back I was similarly inconvenienced: except I would have to wait nearly an hour for my SEPTA train home. As you can imagine, I quickly grew very tired and harried. It almost felt like I was drunk in the lessons – I lacked cognitive function because I was so drained. The solution I came up with? Cycle down to the lessons instead. Perversely enough, it was took up less of my time, the activity energised me and it saved me a lot of money. Exhaustion still plagued me, but in far smaller quantities than before.
  • The Physiological Handicap. By the time I was evolving through puberty, my main modes of exercise were highly cardiovascular and strength-driven. I was a runner, I cycled everywhere, I did weights at the gym. By the time I was 20, my body had a high capacity for stamina, and my over-toned legs were the envy of non-cyclists everywhere. Not only was I taking up a sport I’d never tried before…I was taking up a type of exercise I’d never tried before, one which my body had been trained AGAINST. I lacked flexibility and core stability. Running fast for extended periods of time tightens your hips into a knotty muscular mass: International Latin requires non-stop hip action. I took up Pilates, I tried my hardest at the movements. They still felt unnatural, and it took me an age to get a handle on them.
  • Self-esteem deflators. I knew from the beginning that it would be tough getting to a good level in competitive dancing that would bring me success. I knew from early on that Manhattan was a tough gig: it would be a high standard, featuring the type of people who had danced since they were 5 and competed since they were 6. What chance did I have against them? How can I go into my lessons knowing that no matter how much progress I make, it still won’t be good enough to bring recognisable achievement? That was something I kind-of had to battle out with myself over the months: I had to allow myself to recognise my own personal achievements and be satisfied in how far I came.

Eventually, it happened. I did the Manhattan DanceSport Championships 2010. I was stressed like hell before my first set of heats in American Smooth, but I went out there and danced to what I believed was my best ability. When it came to the International Latin heats a few days later I felt a lot calmer, and again tried my best. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of Pro-Am entrants into the “young adult newcomer” end of the spectrum:  I came last in everything, but it was lucky that some of my heats had only 1 or 2 people in them. Thus I can say I got 4 first places…but you and me know the truth of that, right? It’s what they say about how 90% of success is showing up.  I’ll take credit for showing up.

In the end, despite not doing all that well, I can safely say that I Made The Right Choice in choosing to compete in Manhattan.

  • The focus it gave my life.Having this one target, one single goal. For 6 months I worked towards that goal, focussed upon it in everything I did. My life developed intense focus and purpose; last seen when I locked myself in my flat over the Easter Break of 2009 to learn all the chemistry I’d failed to absorb during the course of the Chem 3 year. I’d rather obtain focus and meaning from Cha-Cha than Statistical Thermodynamics. I would certainly look towards further “projects” of a similar nature in the future.

    In action at the Manhattan DanceSport Championships with my partner and instructor, the lovely Nik.

  • It expanded my horizons. I’d always seen myself as a stereotypical nerdy scientist who never really cared about their appearance and lacked feminine qualities. I blew that out of the water entirely. When I went out dancing I would wear nice clothes and high heels. At the competition I wore a beautiful ballgown, makeup and had a professional-looking hairstyle. I danced better than most 6 month-old dancers do, I’m sure – I looked amazing. On wider “horizons” it demonstrated to me that I can take up a sport, work at that sport for 6 months solid, then go to a competition and do well enough to make people proud of me.
  • It Did me Good. It at least got me moving my exercise away from intense cardiovascular stuff and towards flexibility, core stability and injury-reduction. There’s a large handicap that in all honesty I’ve still to overcome, but I can truly see the benefits of putting the effort in to make it happen.
  • It helped me understand what I want out of dance. I was never going to be satisfied with such dancing socially. I needed a more concrete set of goals and targets, and competitive dancing allowed me that. It made me a far, far better dancer by pushing me towards that goal. Heck, I’ve got to accept that since I only took up DanceSport when I was 20, I’ll almost certainly NEVER be a winner at competitive dance. And do you know what? I don’t want to be. That would involve me sacrificing my personality and love of dance: my soul, in effect. I would like to compete again, because of all the good stuff that ensued. It made me realise that my dancing ability only matters on an personal level: if I can be recognised as

    Also in Manhattan, this time in the International Latin heats. The costume has a story of it's own...

    “a fun person to dance with at parties” or someone who always puts on an entertaining show in their spotlight performances, then that matters more to me that what some judges think about my rise-and-fall in relation to some other chick.

  • The overall competition experience was a positive one. I made some new friends, I strengthened several friendships significantly. There was “good chat” between the dancing, some comic, some intelligent.  There exist pretty cool photographs of the event that I will put on my bedroom wall back in Edinburgh, the kind that will make me smile when I’m in a rough mood.  You can’t ask more than to possess several photographs inwhich I look like a competent dancer…

The second part in my DanceStory is over. The advice, support, humour and time put in by a great number of people have made this segment have the happy ending it has: the people who instructed me, the people who kept me company, the people who lent their skills and talents into helping me. I can only hope I communicated my gratitude sufficiently.

The way I see it, the story could now go in three different directions.

The first is that when I return to Edinburgh I resume all my old habits. I do the East District Cross-Country Leagues, I go Debating every other weekend and spend my evenings at flat parties or the theatre. Or I just try some random new activities that come up, and devote myself to them with all my heart, then move on after 6 months to another project. Either way, my DanceStory dwindles out.

The second is that when I return to Edinburgh I discard all my old habits. I get in with the university DanceSport team, find myself a stable DancePartner. Next thing you know I’m taking my lessons at one of those Russian “DanceSport Factories” (the type of dance studio where they care more about improving your dancing than massaging your ego or taking your money) and train like a dog, dance like a bitch until I start winning stuff. That’s when my DanceStory becomes my LifeStory.

The third option is that when I return to Edinburgh I resume my old habits and fit them in with the new. I take Pilates classes a few mornings per week instead of hillrunning around Arthur’s Seat. Some weekends I debate, others I’m on the university dance circuit.  Some nights I go to Swing nights, other times I go to review a play or partaay until 3am in the morning. When a new activity comes along I try and balance it in to my life, and try to have the broadest and most balanced experience possible. My DanceStory takes a smaller but more permenent place in my life

As yet, the DanceStory could go in any of those three directions. Secretly, what I hope for is #3, because then I will always be able to get and hold on to what I ask for, without giving up on good stuff. Look out for DanceStory (pt 3) folks, I fully intend to write it.


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