The past several weeks have been, like always, a whirlwind experience. Back over Feb 14-16, I flew down to Atlanta for Enter The Blues. It served as a rare opportunity for Julie and I to compete together in the Strictly competition. While I did my Boston residency to teach and train with Julie, the opportunity to actually throw down was most welcome. The dancing, the people, the food were all so wonderful and memorable, but I must admit that the competitions were the highlight of the weekend for me.
In addition to the Strictly competition, Julie and I were paired for the Invitational Jack & Jill competition. I thought we danced well and had a great deal of fun. I was proud of what we shared with each other and the audience. There was a great moment when I was in a deep lunge and Julie cut across me and started climbing on my body. I could see it in her movement, she said with her whole body, "Here comes the competition monster -- I'm going to crawl on top of you and it's going to look amazing." Several audience members said that we had excellent dance chemistry and were shocked to learn that we rarely have the opportunity to dance or practice together.
Lastly, it was a compliment to even be part of the Invitational. Most of the other competitors were other national or international instructors, some of whom were teaching at this weekend. All of them are dancers whom I admire.
The Strictly competition, by contrast, did not go so swimmingly. The all-skate felt fine, but I realized at the end that there were several elements I had been working on in my dance that completely fled my body in the rush of adrenaline upon stepping out onto the floor. The biggest piece was to make the dance look less flat, even if the music didn't have a big dynamic range. Much to my chagrin, our first spotlight felt way too short and did not go anywhere in particular. Missed opportunity #2. The second spotlight allowed us to redeem ourselves with a super strong entrance, middle, and finish. In my mind, we were batting 1 for 3.
The results left me feeling mixed, insecure. A strong finish is good, but we definitely did not dance our best on the first two rounds. Hanging over my head was the knowledge that I was working with the inimitable Julie Brown, a person whom I deeply respect and admire as a dancer (and teacher, and person, but those are beside the point here). Julie has that magic touch that when she competes, she wins -- or at least places consistently. I wanted very much to showcase Julie's talents, provide the base to make her shine, while still sharing my own dance. After that mixed performance, I thought perhaps I didn't pull it off this time. Which doesn't mean I'm a bad dancer, but it does mean that I squandered the opportunity. My language (viewed in retrospect) betrays a belief that I was accountable for the shortcomings of the dance. I realize this is unfair to myself, that it takes two to Tango -- err, Blues. I think this comes from a firm belief in Julie's talents as a competitor. It is not unreasonable to posit that Julie is a more experienced and capable competitor, making my performance the limiting reagent in the chemical process that we call dance competitions. But with some encouragement from Rachel (and also kudos to me for asking for support in the first place, which I normally don't do -- go learning!), I returned to good spirits for the last few hours of the late night and had a wonderful time dancing.
Sunday rolls around, with my time split between being with my computer work to chip away at my enormous work backlog and being with my friends and having a rollicking good time. I competed in the solo prelims and, thanks to a visit from the muse, got tapped for finals. This result was a big moment for me, as there were many dancers in the prelims whom I look to for inspiration in solo dancing. I bet I won over the judges when, while dancing to Brother Yusef's uptempo song where he references the Humpty Dumpty story, I acted it out the story, replete with a tumble to simulate the fall, followed by some dancing on my butt (a move I incidentally lifted from my Congolese dance teacher Goga). Definitely the winner right there. (At least the audience loved it, and I was having a good time.) For the finals, I managed to quiet my nerves enough to enjoy the dances and the movement. I felt good, I felt in my body, I felt confident. I did not feel like I ran out of material (which often happens in solo), nor that I dipped into other solo stylings that are not Blues (which also happens). My positive perception was reflected back by the praise lauded by friends, saying I looked like I was really embodying the music and dancing through the body.
By this point, I had let go of the competition results. I was happy with how the solo went, and I was proud to be in the invitational, and glad to make finals in the strictly. After one makes finals, getting placement can be a total crapshoot -- judges scoring can be all over the place. So I try not to worry about it as much.
But once Megan begins announcing the winners for the Invitational Jack & Jill, my heart leaps into my throat with anticipation and my knees weaken.
3rd place goes to Shawn Hershey and Rachel Stirling. I am happy for them. I update my chances of placing to be lower, because I loved what they did.
"And in 2nd place…" I don't remember a thing after the word "Andrew" leaves Megan's mouth. I vaguely recall jumping up and down and being really excited.
2nd place in the Invitational! Alright! Yes! An exciting moment, a high placement in a lineup of 8 couples most of whom are national-grade instructors -- including those teaching at Enter The Blues that weekend. I was beaming with pride.
They eventually get to the Strictly competition. I am fully amped. I have no idea what to expect. 3rd place goes to Brian and Laura. After 2nd place is awarded to John and Shoshi, I don't even hazard a breath. Dare I hope? It's all or nothing now. And first place goes to...
"Andrew Smith & Julie Brown!"
I think I screamed with excitement. I could not contain myself. Catching Julie in my arms, I spun her around in the air for several rotations, jumping up and down and laughing and yelling. I was shocked, humbled, honored, and at a complete and utter loss. It really happened! After a very long dry spell of no competition wins -- and as mentioned in previous posts, even not making it to finals (Enter The Blues 2013, Nocturne, Rose City Blues 2013) -- I had at long last taken the gold.
I was overwhelmed with joy, unable to stop smiling even though my face hurt.
After some intense but brief celebrations, Megan moves on to announce the Solo competition winners.
When my name got called for 2nd place, I couldn't bring myself to get to my feet. It was all too much. I placed?! I dragged my body out to the center, where Shawn (3rd place) greeted me with a hug down on the floor and then pulled me to my feet.
For the first time in my dance career, I received three placements in one weekend -- a Jack & Jill, Strictly, and Solo. To top that with taking first place in one and second in the others was just more than I could handle.
I simply couldn't dance. Ever person I greeted, I would start squealing and wiggling and jumping. Much of the rest of the night was spent in this fashion: up high on cloud nine.
Luckily I captured the Strictly and Solo on camera, and some of the J&J was covered.
Invitational Jack & Jill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KhNacQtbBs
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Two weeks after the fact, a stupid grin breaks across my face whenever I recall this event. The peer validation was certainly timely, even if it wasn't needed. Following Rose City Blues and my ego-crushing failure to make it to J&J finals, I spent a lot of time letting go of the outcome. I let go of my desire to be the best dancer out there. (Tess, if you ever read this I can already imagine you shaking your head and spouting objections as me as any good friend would.) Some people just have natural talent as dancers and performers. Rose City Blues was an indication to me that perhaps I was not one of those people. I was good, for sure, very good. But not at that stratospheric level of dance excellence occupied by (in my opinion) folks like Dan Repsch, Jenny Sowden, or Julie Brown. Here was a healthy dose of reality: my passion lies in teaching anyway, so why put so much focus on competition anyway? Put my energy and time into developing my teaching craft.
Still, I can't help but want to work on my dancing. I may never achieve the same dancer demi-god status of Dan and Jenny, but that should not stop me from striving to climb Mount Olympus. Regardless of the end state, the journey is worthwhile and prompts growth. And once I got back from Europe, I did a lot of work on my dancing craft. I wanted so much to push the envelope of my dancing. Concepts of conversational dance first developed with Nicole Trissell back in September were finally integrating deeply in my dance, coming naturally. I spent a week training with Barry & Catherine & -topher, danced my heart out for DFX, and spent weekends training with Julie and Flouer. I picked up Insanity again to regain whole-body strength. Watching practice videos of myself, I saw the result of my hard work, the incorporation of elements I've been training for many months. I remember how I was dancing back in September, and now my dancing has vastly grown and improved.
For all that effort, it is of course wonderful to receive positive reinforcement from your peers. Social acceptance is not far up the Maslow's hierarchy of needs; turns out it does a great deal of good for me. It's not desparately needed, but boy it sure does feel good. To have your respected colleagues say, "Yes, we like what you're doing." We all want to receive respect in our craft.
The timing of the boost was impeccable. Usually I am only proud of competition results if I feel like I've been working hard at it before then. This event came at the tail end of a long span of concerted training, and just before a long stretch of focusing on teaching (Boston workshop, Rain City Blues, then Europe) when I won't get to do more development. It reassured me that I am finding a balance between developing my dance and teaching, and the dancing seems to be going well.
I think we benefit from these bursts of support and affirmation. Art is a tricksy thing. As dance teachers, it's easy to fall into ruts where we feel stale, incapable of getting hired, imposters. Even while I'm about to embark on a such an epic tour of Europe filled mostly with teaching, I'm already looking to the late summer and fall, and concerned about not getting tapped for gigs. I worry that I am spending too much time in Europe and that I'm viewed as outdated, not on the circuit by US organizers and instructors. It's hard to not look at peers and ask, "What are they doing or bringing that I am not? Is that a gap that I can close?" (Yes, I realize it's silly. No one said insecurity was logical.)
So these moments are diamonds that we stash away and hold in our hearts, to draw out and shine a light upon to combat the dark thoughts with a prismatic beam.
Progressing through the next four months, I will keep holding on to this diamond, use it to reinforce that I am on a good path and have it inspire me to always push forward.