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MEMOIRS OF A BALLROOM DANCE TEACHER

Can I let you in on a secret?

My dance students don’t know, the dance world doesn’t know and I am anxious about divulging this classified secret scorecard I have kept close to my chest. Here goes ….. I am incredibly insecure when I attend a ballroom competition. Most people would never know; of course as a professional dancer I have learned to manage this irrational rollercoaster of emotions I experience as I don a tuxedo, positively reinforcing students and then dancing an exhausting 500 heats at a coveted ballroom extravaganza.


Why do I feel battered by Bravado?


Despite a strong centre and pulled up posture I reluctantly walk into a hotel where most competitions are held. A brood of tall, lean and markedly clean cut professional dancers sashay across the lobby, very often with a bravado of European exoticism and allure and of course an obligatory silk robe tied at all the right places - god, they look so perfectly put together and already I have the impression that they will eat me alive to the rhythm of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow - of course earning top marks in the process.


I squeeze past the troves of costume bags where I observe delicate feathers trying to escape their zippered prisons. I hop-scotch over the MIA rhinestones that are finding their way back to their owners and quickly check in. Without making any sudden movements or direct eye contact, I rush an uptempo waltz all the way to my hotel room and …… BREATHE!




Typically, when I arrive at a competition I am already exhausted from last minute coaching, reassuring, fortifying, and attempting to inspire all my students. At this point in the week I already feel a tornado has thrown me around and spit me back out and all that is left is a disheveled scarecrow of a man, especially next to the suave savants of ballroom - it’s real life “Dancing with the Stars” - on steroids!


As the adrenaline subsides, the fight or flight response releases me. I breathe and slowly pacify myself to sleep with the mantra “There’s no place like home”.

Wizard of Oz, which, coincidentally, is the film I am lecturing on this week as part of the ‘DanceScape’ series provides a lot of insight into how to cope with the stress of a ballroom competition, whether you are a student, professional, amateur, senior or youth. Known as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” by the Library of Congress, the lessons for ballroom dancing and life in general are all there for us to harness and embrace, enabling our “troubles (to) melt like lemon drops”.




Why do I feel intimidated? What do I need to say to myself?


There are times when I’m quite sure that Derek Hough’s and Baryshnikov’s mutant dancing lovechild is staring at me with a critical look of distaste. “Am I I not being rhythmical enough?” “Am I making that movement awkward?” Spiraling even further down, “I think I don’t even know what I’m doing!”

Yes, this is a real ordeal that all dancers face, amateur or pro, teacher or student, we all deal with the very same insecurities and intimidations. Even those immaculate dancers, poised to be the next top model of Vogue. Even the Wizard himself confessed, “Frightened? Child, you’re talking to a man who’s laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe… I was petrified”. When these irrational thoughts run rampant, threatening to undermine my abilities, I remind myself of the Wizard’s words. Remembering that behind that lush green and golden facade we are only human and despite what we perceive as “almighty” may, in fact, be another dancer feeling all the same feelings you do.


Related post: Adam dances to Somewhere Over the Rainbow



Even the Wizard himself confessed, “Frightened? Child, you’re talking to a man who’s laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe… I was petrified”.


When insecurity breeds foolishness, remember the Scarecrow.


Perhaps you have thought about competing as an amateur dancer or maybe your goals are a little less risky (or sparkly) and you just want to attend your first dance class. The most common remark I receive from secretly curious students-to-be is “you are wasting your time, I have two left feet”, in many cases students believe they have 11 left feet, which, of course, we know is not possible even in the land of Oz. I have found in my experience that whatever they have been told in the past or believe themselves to be is most probably misinformation. As a dance teacher it is very difficult to correct this belief especially if it is a deeply ingrained habitual narrative a new dancer creates for themselves. The hurdle is completely cognitive for the dance student who has fallen “victim of disorganized thinking” (Wizard of Oz) There is no physiological condition where both legs are wired to be left - what they are saying when they tell me this is “I don’t want to look stupid”. This rhetoric reminds me of the beloved Scarecrow who confides by telling us, “If anyone treads on my toes or sticks a pin into me, it doesn’t matter, for I can’t feel it. But I do not want people to call me a fool”.

The overriding emotion when starting to dance is the fear of the perceived lens that others will see you through; it’s a smokey mirror and sometimes it takes a lot of Windex to see through it clearly. No one thinks you’re foolish, except you!


At the end of the Scarecrow’s journey he learns a valuable lesson and overcomes his fear of looking foolish along with the unique self actualization of his friends Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. The triple threat quartet realize that all they needed to do was believe they had the power within themselves all along, “(they) just had to learn it for (themselves)” which is so beautifully said by Glinda the Good Witch. It always bemuses me that Glinda didn’t let them in on this little secret earlier, however, sometimes we need to journey to find this out for ourselves, plus the greatest film of all time then may have been incredibly short!

I am so happy that L. Frank Baum created these wonderful colorful characters for his children’s books in the early 20th century. Each character possessing real human flaws that we can all relate to even a century later- even a dance teacher like me. Baum’s literary life lessons for both children and adults as well as the iconic story of the Wizard of Oz has seamlessly sewn itself into the fabric of American culture and is why this is hailed as the American Fairytale. It is estimated that over a billion people globally have been touched by, watched or experienced the magic of Oz in some way. I like to think that I educate through the vein of Baum’s powerful and wise words and recycle these important lessons for my Chance to Dance youth students.



I am the director of a 501(c)3 non-profit, ‘The Studio 878 Trust’ and run the chance2dance program - we provide financial assistance to youths that are unable to pay for the cost of dance lessons. Another secret and a very important one for me is that it’s not just about the dancing, it’s about the extraordinary life lessons we see our students from diverse backgrounds learning through dance. They find self-confidence and realize that they were always courageous, they learn of their innate ability to think deeply about movement and its meaning and they mature through the program with a heart and passion for dance and for life. For all the youths in the chance2dance program I have always said the studio should feel safe enough to be a home - I hope they always know (and I suspect they do) that “there is no place like home” and with 3 heel clicks (or cha-cha-cha) we are there with them every kick-ball-change of the way on their own unique yellow brick road.


Thank you for your gift, L. Frank Baum.

And thank you for realizing your gifts, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion (and Toto, too).



With love,

– Adam


Owner/Director of Ballroom dance school AdaminChatham INC

Director of Studio 878 Trust 501(c)3 and chance2dance program




#dancecapecod #wizardofoz #ballroomdance

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Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Being a ballroom dance teacher has never been more difficult - for me I have become an online host, technical support, therapist, motivational speaker, accountant, loan specialist, innovator, a dance think tank and health and safety specialist. Never in a million years did I imagine that when I took my first dance steps in America I would be now tackling all these hurdles as a teacher, dance partner and studio owner.


However, adapting to change and the ever evolving dance industry catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic I am surprisingly reenergised, refocused and dancing my promenade chasse in new creative directions. No matter the difficult challenge that is presented to us (similar feeling to a beginner asking to learn a samba roll) we all “gotta dance” or at the very least have safe access to it.




Challenges and changes


The last 8 months have been tougher than an old school ballet teacher - relentless, unimpressed and constantly challenging. For many, in particular my senior dance students who many live by themselves this isolating experience has been a stark reminder of the fragility of life. A constant rhetoric, almost viral in nature that I am hearing from my senior dance students is the fear that they will unable to dance again or find it impossible to make up for lost time.


Being a vehement believer that dance can solve the world’s problems (Trump and Biden entering a tap jam could be so effective) and being passionately community conscious I knew that I had to deliver dance in an innovative way to students - that’s when ‘DanceScape’ was created. The DanceScape lecture series has enabled me to connect to existing students and those further afield new to me safely via zoom twice a week every Wednesday and Friday at noon EST while gingerly, yet methodically increasing in-person teaching - I forgot I also feel like a clinical field scientist with my thermometer gun in hand. Students and community members log on twice a week for an hour each time and we discuss the world the through the lens of a dancer.


Being a vehement believer that dance can solve the world’s problems (Trump and Biden entering a tap jam could be so effective) and being passionately community conscious I knew that I had to deliver dance in an innovative way to students.

Each week the group is instructed to watch a film that features dance ranging from classic MGM Hollywood musicals to foreign art house films, from Ballet to Ballroom, from biographic to fantastical. Discussing and exploring the breadth of dance on film has enabled our online dance family to reflect on its meaning personally and collectively as a group. For this growing collective community it has been a binding, enlightening and cathartic journey - especially right now when many of us feel like we may not have a voice or platform. I am guessing the choreographers, directors, producers, dancers and actors never thought that when they were busting their moves for the silver screen in Tinsel Town that their performances were to mean so much for us today and in many cases completely evolved from its original intent.


This past week, I assigned the group to watch ‘Gotta Dance’ - a Dori Berinstein 2008 documentary that "chronicles the debut of the New Jersey Nets' first-ever senior hip-hop dance team, 12 women and 1 man - all dance team newbies, from auditions through to performance” (1) available through YouTube TV. Side note to myself: be cautious when selecting films via YouTube TV unless you want to be tech support for the week.



While grabbing an hour to myself I started to go on a journey with these senior dancers documenting the highs and lows of a professional senior hip-hop dancer (yes, it really does exist). Funny enough, I recognized these ladies - reminiscent conversations of aging bodies and minds, difficulty in remembering choreography, excitement in performing with youthful joy and exuberance - although a different dance style and scene this documentary reflected my world. Documentary filmmaker Berinstein might as well have been documenting my regular Monday to Friday schedule. The film’s backstage talks of the choreographer and dance captain not sure if the team were ready to perform an hour before they were scheduled to be on court - any ballroom teacher recognises this feeling a week before competition, but through prayer and perhaps a few extra lessons and by some miraculous Terpsichorean intervention the dance student steps up to the plate and executes with pizazz and vigour - often at times with a little too much! Nonetheless, they succeed and overcome because they ‘gotta dance’.


The beauty and strength of an aging dancer


After discussing the taboo concept of the aging dancer with my senior female dance students and weekly special guest Edie Ollwerther (original senior New Jersey Nets dance team member) this week, I am constantly impressed with their strength and perseverance, yes, of course there are gripes but c’mon, what dancer doesn’t? Despite me thinking of them as fragile and “young” students of dance, I sometimes forget that this is a generation that was born into the smog and aftermath of World War II, played while hydrogen bombs were being constructed and crack cocaine was introduced to our communities, saw both the Vietnam and Korean war start and end, were thrust into the fight for the civil rights act and succeeded and learned to cope with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. These strong ladies of dance that I teach know how to fight, they know how to persevere and no ailing body part or temporary dance deprived scenario is going to get them down. Their age provides wisdom, experience and grit and this week I was reminded of that and if my female senior ladies want to dance they will, very much like those tenacious senior hip-hop dancers from ‘Gotta Dance’.

This is a generation that was born into the smog and aftermath of World War II, played while hydrogen bombs were being constructed and crack cocaine was introduced to our communities, saw both the Vietnam and Korean war start and end, were thrust into the fight for the civil rights act and succeeded and learned to cope with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.


Sorry senior ladies - I often don’t give you enough credit for your perseverance and thank you for that reminder that we all gotta dance! - no matter what is thrown at us!


Stay tuned for the next instalment of ‘Memoirs of a Ballroom Dance Teacher’ - I will be pondering bravado, insecurity and intimidation in the world of dance with some help from my friends Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.


With love,

– Adam


Owner/Director of Ballroom dance school AdaminChatham INC

Director of Studio 878 Trust 501(c)3 and chance2dance program


If you are interested in being part of our discussion group please contact Adam Spencer at adamjspencer@hotmail.com or 508-514-0809.



References

1 "The Story". Dramatic Forces. Retrieved 10 December 2015.

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