So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Top 4

Working Wednesday night and now I’m watching this episode a day late with high expectations. No idea who might be the winner and last week really reset the preferences I started the season with.

Top 4 Group: Contemporary I think this routine was danced well but suffered from some sizable flaws. Neat concept but the pairings definitely showed an imbalance in a lot of ways and I think the choreography didn’t work to blend the dancers as partners/a group. Very stilted in ways so nobody ended looking that great when all was said and done. The good thing was that you could see real differences and size dancers up against one another. Valerie being more human and Jessica being more ethereal; Ricky being more extroverted and Zack being more introverted. I didn’t care for the musical break in the middle because they all danced it like a separate routine rather than just changing emotional keys. A rocky start.

Valerie & Ricky: African Jazz I may not be the authority on this style but I think it was very good as far as energy and attack. They had different reactions over the course of the routine. Ricky started very tight and wasn’t really finishing his lines. Valerie started with a natural looseness and extension that really gels with African jazz. Over time, Ricky really found a groove and exploded while Valerie lost a lot of steam — which I don’t really mind because it’s narratively appropriate.

Jessica & Zack: Broadway A signature tango song! “Hernando’s Hideaway” is such a classic and I’m in love. Apart from the song I… Didn’t love this. Neither of them really lived up to their characters in my opinion. Jessica didn’t have the maturity for a vixen and I could see the effort but Zack wasn’t bringing all the swagger the role required. They definitely tried very hard and coped with the tricks and choreography well but it lacked the smoothness, the ease, the embodiment that is as much acting as dancing. Faster actions suited them both better because what really failed the routine were the quiet, transitional moments.

Valerie & Zack: Contemporary Why couldn’t they just say she was blind? ‘Cause they sure laid it on real thick with the cane. The dancing was good overall — really fluid and smooth. I think Valerie for once didn’t have an enormous range emotionally which made some things a touch comical to be completely honest. Zack had an easier job that he did beautifully when there was something to do. Some guys on this show do great as forklifts just moving and supporting and orchestrating which is a real valuable skill. I don’t think Zack is one of those guys — he’s more of someone who demonstrates content well. He’s either center stage or completely absent.

Jessica & Ricky: Jazz This show has a rough relationship was jazz routines that don’t have storylines. Jazz doesn’t really translate without an idea behind it. They danced really beautifully with a lot of energy but the moments where the lost sync really stood out like sore thumbs. Ray Leeper kinda just shot Jessica in the foot for the second week in a row. Needed a more deliberate masculine/feminine vibe to really sell it. Edit: I completely forgot about this routine and was only reminded it existed while proofreading. That says something.

What? Jason Mraz? Huh? I mean… Sure, I guess.

Valerie & Jessica: Bollywood For once Jessica wasn’t the plainest girl to walk the earth. She actually really sparkled in an unexpected way. I think Valerie definitely showed a strong musicality and embodiment of the style. When dancing through a lens of joy, Valerie can really pop. That said, I think she slid back a little bit character acting. Be a little selfish, Valerie! You don’t have to let someone else be the star! Especially in a routine about “Bollywood divas”. The catfight would be called for.

Zack & Ricky: Hip Hop Big night for these two as far as partnering. And Ricky keeps getting lifted by everybody! Something tells me he likes it. It’s funny to me to imagine this is the same couple from the opening group routine… just on the weekends. But this was really excellently danced by both of them. Really, hard-hitting. Astoundingly in sync. My eyes kept bouncing back and forth. Ricky probably had more interesting material but Zack made his parts more sharp and powerful.

Valerie & Aaron Tap Absolutely amazing. Could not take my eyes off if this. Wish there was an entire show of these two. Some of the best dancing Valerie has ever done in this stage. So musical and precise and expressive. She has definitely shown an enormous range tonight as well as throughout the whole season. I think she’s got a special kind of charisma — she makes you zoom in and focus on her rather than expanding out and filling up a space. She’s a star.

Ricky’s solo wasn’t as great as last week but still excellent. Ricky needs more calibration — less black/white, fast/slow, big/small. More variety will give him so much more nuance. Luckily, this isn’t a big nuance show.

Ricky & Katherine: Contemporary There was a lot to like about this routine but in the feeling of finales this routine made me wonder if we’ve ever seen Ricky have to be overtly sexy? Because this routine was platonic and a little cold to me. Sometimes Ricky was somewhat frantic to me which I think pulled me out of it but is actually an appropriate for the feeling and the moment when you think about it.

Valerie’s solo had a clever song behind it but took a while to get started. Seemed a little generic, honestly. Femininity sits really well on Valerie and I wish she’d play that up a little more instead of slumping down into tomboy territory.

Zack & Aaron: Tap My first thought seeing this is: that looked so hard! Which is a good and bad thing. They had so much to do and were so challenged but you could see the work they put it in. It was so interesting but a little more light and shade wouldn’t have killed them. The routine itself showed ability and work ethic that you couldn’t find in many (any?) others.

Jessica’s solo was eh. Not her best. If that was a ‘dance for your life’ solo, she’d probably be dead. Jessica needs to either lean into her ethereal, quiet strengths or push herself in entirely the different direction and go really weird ’cause otherwise she’s just the plainest of the plain.

Jessica & Robert: Contemporary Contemporary? I thought she was a jazz dancer. Oh, she already had jazz tonight. But this was excellent. Jessica got to play to her strengths and brought a real depth that made this routine pop. Really mesmerizing and cohesive from moment to moment. She really overtook Robert and stole that show. Christina Applegate might be proven right.

Zack’s solo was an excellent demonstration of tap and Zack’s ability as an entertainer. There’s something special about what he does.

Sooooo… No ballroom tonight? Ouch. Why’d I even bother recapping? Because this show is rad and deserves the attention of all dancers everywhere. Let’s hope someone appreciates the two Emmys they won and renews them for season 12 so I can recap a whole season and not just the last two. Can’t wait for the results! Go everybody!

Advertisements

Hustle (n Flow)

Thanks to my affiliation with the Richmond Village Beacon and the Richmond District Neighborhood Center, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wonderful class of a large group of enthusiastic students across a diverse array of styles. In the beginning, we would switch styles each week and have a little crash course from beginning to intermediate in the space of two hours. Oftentimes I would be asked why we would change styles so frequently and the answer was this: if you go to a ballroom party, there are many styles to dance. Most ballrooms include at least 10 styles at their parties — usually more. Smooth, Rhythm and Social/Nightclub are all fair game and you’re expected to get out there and dance each and every one. I always suggest leaders know a handful of basics and at least one fancier, more intricate “power move” to keep things interesting. Followers have a much more difficult time as they don’t know what leaders might throw at them. The best course of action for a follower is to try and experience as many different techniques and elements as she can in order to follow even the most advanced leader — provided he was leading correctly. It’s a luxury to only have to work on and practice one or two styles — and that luxury really puts enormous limitations on social dancers who are too precious about the few styles they do. My classes are intended to train that versatility into dancers; to change direction on a dime and fall in love with whatever style you’re asked to dance. With all that in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to briefly* explain what’s great and worth remembering about these styles to help organize your mind around the tasks at hand with the second-hand knowledge I’ve accrued and my own experiences.

*As if I’ve ever been brief in my life…


Hustle

When I first think of hustle, I think of sitting outside of MacArthur BART station in Emeryville, on my way to the Allegro Ballroom. I was a BDTC student enrolled in the Nightclub quarter and today we were starting to learn hustle. It occurred to me that of the years I’d spent researching and studying ballroom dances, of the 17 BDTC styles I couldn’t quite paint a picture in my mind of what hustle looked like. Was it fast? Slow? Smooth? Sharp? I’d maybe seen hustle once or twice on television but it hadn’t made much or any of an impression on me. It was a strange feeling to walk into class as a blank slate for once — terrified that I’d be spending the next two hours line dancing.

Julie Lowe began taking us through some exercises and the syllabus figures. My first thought had nothing to do with hustle itself. A month into dancing and things were getting a lot easier! I was picking this up so much faster and more comfortably. My mind could interpret Julie’s direction and relay it to my body. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start! By the end of the night, there was a definite breakthrough. Dancing the alternating underarm turns with a friendly Southern gal named Allie who was a much better dancer than me, Julie stopped the class to point us out. We had gotten it! &1: we broke back! 23: we slickly changed places, tracing our hands across our partner’s back to regain the connection quickly and efficiently. Never before had Julie allowed me to demonstrate anything! My goal until then had truly been to go completely unnoticed and now to have people watching our success felt so intoxicating! It was here that I began my love affair with hustle that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve come to know hustle in numerous forms and more advanced levels. Most commonly, hustle is seen with three timing options (all NDCA approved!). I started learning hustle as syncopated hustle: &123 timing with a syncopated break on &1. Later on, I learned four step hustle with the even timing of 1234, removing the syncopation and typically starting with a forward break to build the compression needed for slower breaks. The last and probably least common in this area is 12&3 timing. It sort of bridges the gap between syncopated and four step, starting with a forward four step break and leading into a syncopated back break. It’s a useful timing to know for social dancing but I honestly get more use from the other two. It’s main purpose in my hustle is to bridge the gap from syncopated to four step as needed.

The technique of hustle is fairly simple — as with most social dances, the tricky part is calibrating your hustle to your song and variant. What’s most often forgotten is that hustle comes out of latin social dances (mambo, specifically). A big pet peeve of mine is seeing hustle danced more like a swing dance than a latin dance which leads to a more clunky, disjointed style. In order to dance hustle to its fullest potential, we must include the latin separation at the waist that we’d use in any more traditionally latin dance. This is to let the moving leg swing freely out from underneath the body rather than moving as one entire piece, incorrectly pulling the upper body with the moving foot. The pelvis must move freely to not disturb the connection while also being quite attractive and rhythmical.

Additionally, the other major factor in the creation of hustle was ballet. The last remaining partner dancers in New York it seemed were the latin salsa/mambo community. Also alive and kicking in NYC were ballet and modern dance communities such as the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies. As disco music began to gain a foothold in the social dance scene, the dancers of New York were unsure of what to do to this new sound. The result combined latin breaks and the forward poise and turning capacity of ballet dancers in an entirely new partner dance. After years of solo dancing, this new ‘touch’ dance where partners regained contact caught fire and became hustle. Although things may have changed over the following 40-odd years with the influences of contemporary ballroom dancing, international latin, DiscoFox, west coast swing and other styles, it’s very helpful to keep these two core factors in mind.

While salsa has remained a staple, many of us don’t have any concept of how ballet might affect this style. The points worth remembering are the turnout in your feet, extreme forward poise onto the balls of the feet and the long, vertical style of turns. Unlike other styles, your weight pretty much never shifts anywhere near your heels and it is a cardinal sin to drop your heel on back rocks. As for turns, you will find that they are almost always pivots rather than walk-turn or spiraling actions that are commonly seen in other dances. As far as hip action, we try to avoid breaking our body laterally in a figure-eight type action as we would in more common Cuban dances. Instead, the straightened knee and risen heel creates a strong hip lift action that will result in a longer body line and strong compression in the lat muscles. Additionally, although it may seem a little strange, there isn’t another dance that has the same combination of freedom and elegance as hustle. You must move so fluidly and gracefully across the slot while constantly changing positions and rocking that you really need a balletic stretch to your body and core. Forget about speed and just try to make yourself look long and graceful and your hustle will improve tenfold.

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you love hustle like I know I do. Practice and enjoy!

So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Top 6

Before I even started dancing, I watched SYTYCD. I was in such awe of the dancers, the stage, the production and Cat Deeley. It was where I first connected to ballroom as a style more than that, wanting to be a ballroom dancer. My first season was season 3 with such awesome ballroom representation in Lacey, Anya, Pasha and Faina who collectively demonstrated that ballroom is a difficult style but it makes you into one hell of a dancer. Chelsie Hightower knocked it out of the park in season 4 and I was committed to ballroom. Since then, the more I’ve danced and choreographed the more I see the cracks in SYTYCD ballroom but I’m still in love with the SYTYCD spirit. I’ve never wanted to be on it (cause I’d do horribly) but I always wanted to be a guest judge. And seeing as the ratings aren’t doing great, I’ve decided to do some blogging my thoughts like the mightygodking blogs I used to love and get that judging experience I always wanted.

Top 6 Group: Hip Hop Fun, cool way to start the show. Maybe not the most high energy way to start so I was a little underwhelmed. Also seemed a little bit of a ripoff from last week’s crew performance. (And a repeat of the black light costumes on a blue background making it impossible to see.) Everyone was very much in sync and musical but… It made me miss some of the stronger hip hop folks. Rudy? Emilio? Teddy? Tanisha? Probably would’ve raised the bar. Really a routine created to be filmed, I can’t imagine this was all that great in person.

Valerie & Ricky: Broadway I liked this routine. This might be the best I’ve seem them together. That said, I hate these two as a partnership. Valerie with other folks can have a real leading lady quality. Ricky is always Ricky. And that’s not a bad thing but when dancing a duet, you’ve got to sort of melt into one another and he just doesn’t. The consummate team player that is Ms Rockey dims her light to character actor-status for the presence that is RICKY. But the time apart has lifted her up and simmered him to a much more placid pair. This was lovely.

Jessica & Casey: Disco This warmed my heart. Possibly the best disco in a long, long time. I appreciate Doriana’s restraint—no, I’m serious. She’s done much more, much worse. The hustle elements were well done, the lifts were smartly done. Jessica really shined here as a strong, feminine dancer and Casey did a beautiful job as a man in a partner dance routine in that he supported, complimented and basically disappeared. That’s our lot in life, guys—we’re not the pretty half of the partnership. And that’s ok.

Ricky’s solo totally lived up to that music and became part of it. I’m not a huge Ricky fan but he got me with this.

Jacque & Zack: Foxtrot Ouch. This was a rough one. They tried. Oh god, did they try. This was basically a ballroom-influenced broadway routine that was an odd mish-mash. Not a great representation of American Smooth foxtrot in the creation of different positions and the transitions between. Zack 100% outdanced Jacque and I honestly think she limited him in his efforts. The shapes and lines were alright but the actual ballroom content was too reliant on inaccurate techniques. Sit down into your hipbones and let that absorb the shock of moving across your feet.

Jessica’s solo had feeling but it wasn’t smart or clever. I feel like musically and choreographically she missed some opportunities to make it really sparkle and so it never really became anything more than Jessica on a stage with music. But even that is really astounding, just not incredible.

Valerie and t*Witch: Hip Hop Not the kind of wedding dance I do (I can recommend someone though) but this was great. It was danced excellently and there’s that leading lady quality in Valerie again. I think the actual routine never really exploded like I wanted. Could’ve been a lot more production-wise but the actual dancing tore the roof off the place. Valerie benefits from having a very universal appeal and not taking herself to seriously while clearly committing to what she does 100%. That’s the kind of dancer we should aspire to be.

Casey’s solo was alright. It started really strong but lost my interest. Casey has a real star quality when he’s being choreographed but I don’t think he’s got that same instinct when he’s got a stage to himself and he’s demonstrating his abilities. Which is understandable—he’s got a lot to offer and it’s very hard to edit all that down into something concise. Essentially, he needs to mature.

Valerie’s solo really showed what good tapping is about. Musical. Personality. All-American sweetness…. Why’s she done so early? An hour of more show with no Valerie? Conspiracy?

Jacque and Will: Contemporary Truly excellent. Sean Cheeseman is a genius. This might be Jacque’s Courtney Galiano The Garden moment if she doesn’t go home later tonight. So smooth and sweet and clear. Mature but at ease and approachable and not overwhelmed by the props and production. Definitely a routine that translates live and on screen. Perfection. Jacque at her best reminds us why she’s gotten so far.

Zack’s solo blew me away. Such showmanship, such star quality. Zack has what a lot of winners of this show have: they are empowered when they dance. Zack just standing there is fine but when he dances, he’s electrified. All of a sudden he’s all charm and personality and appeal. He’s what you wanna see when people dance; he’s a superhero.

Jessica and Ade: Jazz Jessica’s only 18? Who knew? I didn’t really care for this. Reminds me of Mark Kanemura’s routines last year but not as… soulful? Maybe this was just soulless. It definitely showed a different side of Jessica but not really Jessica’s strong suits—she’s got elegance and grace and this went in a different direction. I think she brought her A-game to it and it deserves commendations but the choreography kind of cut her off at the knees.

Jacque’s solo really delighted me. I wish she had more than 30 seconds cause I’d like to see where that would’ve gone. More than anything, that was a smart solo; she made ballet really approachable and warm. A little sexy, a little nostalgic, a lot of personality and class. Jacque has done a solid job of branding herself.

Ricky and Anya: Cha Cha This was a lot of production and a lot of Anya and a little Ricky. He did pretty good considering. They tried to butch him up a little and he had some solid sex appeal but he wasn’t grounded all the way through like I would’ve liked. The crossover and grapevine section showed some real weakness as far as separation and isolation. But all and all the show came together to really sell this number to me. And to those of you who know my theory about ballroom girls on this show: See?!

Casey and MacKenzie: Contemporary I always forget who Mackenzie is so I’ve been really surprised when she gets announced as an All-Star. The middle section of this was a knockout but on the whole I was a little let down. It seemed like an exercise in beautiful contemporary dancing but I didn’t connect with it emotionally. The dancing itself was phenomenal but it didn’t necessarily have the heart it should have. I think the issue was more the music and lighting not the dancers and choreography. Someone on YouTube will remix this to get the right feeling and I’ll be destroyed but damn, they tried and that effort should be applauded.

Zack and Fik-shun: Hip Hop Really cool concept, beautifully attempted. I think some of the details could’ve been a little stronger but I don’t think anyone could’ve embodied this like Zack. This did show, I feel, that Zack may not be the best chameleon but that may just be because Fik-shun is so great at that. But Zack brings such quality and personality to all styles, he really is infinitely versatile in a very professional way.

ANNNNNNND….

Jacque and Casey are going home. Poor kids. For Jacque in particular because that contemporary dance could’ve took her to the finish line in other seasons and a different format. But it also seemed kind of right given their presence in the bottom thus far. They did great and really lifted the quality of this season. I mean this as a compliment: they deserved to be there and fought hard and unlike some other seasons, weren’t just the last two to be eliminated. They moved themselves up by doing their best.

Finale’s gonna be a battle royale. See you there, y’all!

Origin Story

I get asked a lot how I started ballroom dancing. I don’t have the easy story of my parents forcing me when I was young or being one of those competitive children with the clip-in teeth. My love of dance isn’t one that I grew into; it was one of those deep, true, fall-flat-on-your-face loves that hit me like a ton of bricks. More often than not, I’ll answer “I don’t even know” or “it’s a long story.” To wit:

A San Francisco-native, I fell in love with ballroom dancing from afar while in high school. I was fond of Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance (mostly Chelsie Hightower, come to think of it) but the real turning point came when my school had it’s annual Project Week — where teachers would take a group of students to focus on a certain topic — and there was a Project that included salsa dancing. I was too scared to actually dance so I chose another Project and was miserable the whole time. But my curiosity was piqued and by night I would take to wikipedia and youtube to study up on what is the art and sport that is ballroom dancing.

Luckily, I graduated from the wiki school of dance and after about two years of being fascinated, I resolved to actually try to learn to dance. Just as lucky, it seemed like the universe was pushing me in that direction. It was 2009 and US economy was as shaky as Katherine Hepburn near the end. I had graduated high school and enrolled at SF State University at the insistence of everyone around me — but I knew it wasn’t my time. And then I got lucky. Cutbacks caused my SFSU classes to get cancelled and AP tests taken before I graduated received passing grades and college credit. I was ahead of the college game that I didn’t want to play. A refund was issued and I had to figure out what to do with my time for at least the next year.

The answer was The Ballroom Dance Teacher’s College. The BDTC is a local institution and the brainchild of ballroom luminary Diane Jarmolow. It has produced a number of highly respected and knowledgable teachers. At 17, I have it on good authority that I was the youngest participant ever. For someone who had never danced before, this was very much jumping into the deep end. Over eight months with superlative master teachers Melissa Saphir and Julie Lowe I learned 17 dances to the full bronze level. It was so difficult for me in the beginning because I had loved ballroom dancing so much — learned so many facts and techniques from books and videos but I was not a dancer yet. It came with time (and plenty of patience from Julie and Melissa) that I started to understand and adapt. Things began to come more easily as my brain and my body adjusted to the rigors of ballroom dancing. Looking back, it has been so helpful to me to have had such a hard time in the beginning because I remember how it feels to take your first class and just be a mess. If you’re strong enough to push through that, you’re already a great dancer.

Since the BDTC, I’ve been working steadily as a teacher throughout the Bay Area. I’ve been a staff teacher at studios in San Francisco and Oakland, teaching all four competitive styles up to open gold level and classes of over one hundred participants. I have prepared students for competitions; choreographed for showcases and teams. I’ve had a lot of successes and my share of stumbles along the way but even as a teacher, my primary job is to never stop learning.  I am proud to say that I’m still the kid who studied ballroom for hours on end because I found it so beautiful and fascinating. My goal is to share that love with other people.