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I dreamed of Dancing with the Stars, but all I got was this lousy box.

Spilling my secrets once again - Dancing with the Stars is my guilty pleasure, a dirty little secret I must hide at all costs. I keep it to myself because many high brow dance aficionados, especially those in academia, consider it common, even sub-standard, purely designed for mindless entertainment. Although I understand their disdain of the genre which mixes reality television and ballroom dance presented in a whirlwind of glitz, glam, and glitter with contrived over the top sets and scenery, I can’t help but find within that facade some totally unadulterated escapist enjoyment.

My gripe with Dancing with the Stars is from an educator’s point of view. Let me explain: one of my wonderful and dedicated 75 year old dance students who is, of course, an avid fan of the show comes in on Tuesday morning declaring that she “watched couple XYZ do this move last night on DWTS and want’s to do it,” not only does she want to do it, she wants to do it now. SHOCK SHOCK HORROR! Not only has this student been dancing for a mere 6 months…. at a rate of one lesson per week, she has only been exposed to the basics of 3 or 4 of the major dances and now, thanks to DWTS she expects to execute an exotic salsa move that incorporates flip flopping around my neck several times, swiveling around my waist with legs akimbo and landing with pizazz in a full stretched split between my legs. Uft!

Of course, my student believes this is a possibility because she is dancing with a professional (me) and the “non-professional” from DWTS was able to do it - and do it within a week to boot. Did I mention that DWTS neglected to let my student know that this 21 year old contestant has just come out of performing arts school, danced everyday since she was 3, is probably in the best dancing shape of her life, created an Instagram account and all of a sudden has ended up on this reality dance show and somehow I feel like this has just made my dance teaching just a little harder, both physically and psychologically. I give the dance teacher speech about wanting to feel confident in the basics and progressing to the more advanced choreography in time, but I instantly see despair and frustration in the brows and the eyes of my lovely student. My unfortunate innate response to a student’s disappointment is to find a way to make them happy. I give her the example of a pastiched but somewhat less demanding experience of the coveted move from DWTS. I see her face relax into a smile and I know she is happy, at least until next Tuesday morning.

Throughout the rest of the lesson, I subconsciously sew a narrative, placing emphasis on the importance of the basics. Hopefully it perforated the rhinestone roadblock that Dancing with the Stars had created for me. Uft!

Typically when a new dance student takes their first steps on the ballroom floor, those steps will be in the configuration of a box, the simplest and most versatile pattern known to dance teachers. The coveted box step is the gateway to learning a host of exciting rhythms and styles for the eager dance student. Interestingly, it is the basic element of nearly all the American styles of ballroom dance or “dance sport” as it is also known. Though it is basic, don’t ever discount its value as it will follow you like a shadow all the way through to the professional and even world champion level.

A professional competitor spends months rehearsing an “open routine”, which includes many basics but also incorporates variations, embellishments, and/or bastardizations taking the dance beyond recognition of the traditional dance for competitive purposes. Increasing complexity is generally done with the intention to enhance the beauty and expression of the dance. However, after months of coaching, and with great excitement and anticipation to strut their well rehearsed and polished stuff before the judges, the couple may suddenly be brought down to earth hearing the words “Let’s take it back to the basics, shall we?”

The laborious beginner box step, once again seems to be stepping all over your DWTS dreams.

Just as Martha Graham worked on contractions her entire life and Misty Copeland probably never goes through a day without plies, these basics are the foundation of the art of dance. It’s almost like coming home to learn something new about the house you grew up in and know so well. However, the grand vision of advancing in ballroom with dreams of triple spirals, standing footspins and never ending pot stirrers is hugely overshadowed by the realization that the box is basically with you forevermore and you will dedicate a significant part of your professional and student life to. Who knew?

However, does there come a point in a dancer’s life when a Rumba box step is pretty much as refined, efficient and effective as it will ever be? Is there a point to exerting seemingly unrewarded effort to learn to perfect minutiae that perhaps not even a seasoned professional would notice? Not alone the average person!

There must be a unique technical threshold that exists for each dancer and beyond that what makes the difference and most effective impact is the subjectivity and interpretation of the steps, also known as the art of dance.

And I believe, that whether you are beginner, a knowledgeable couple competing, professionals currently competing, or commercially employed professional dancers, there does come a time when, although you still do your plies or box steps every damn day, the importance of being a great technician is diminished and the impact of what you hold sacred and express from your heart is paramount and this is what makes the dancer a GREAT dancer as opposed to a technically proficient dancer.

So, yes practice that basic again, again and again, but never forget to infuse YOURSELF into the dance with reckless abandonment and emotion. You may not be ready for crazy lifts, just yet, so give that box your unique flavour and twist it upside down and squeeze the dancing juice out of it. You may even find out that it turns out to be more effective than a flashy move from DWTS because this is about you and not them.

At the end of the day, it’s your own box you are creating, no one else’s. Dance like that!

Thank you Dancing with the Stars. Uft!


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