From the moment I started watching Dancing with the Stars, I imagined what it would be like to gracefully waltz across the floor, do a sultry Tango or be the matador’s object of desire in the racy Paso Doble.
I’d always wondered if someone like me with two left feet and no rhythm could learn to dance other than in her dreams. I clung to my lame excuses until I interviewed Jerry Rice who told me how stepping out of his comfort zone and trading his football cleats for ballroom dance shoes was one of the best things he’d ever done.
When each of them told me what a life-changing experience Dancing with the Stars had been for them, I knew it was time to discard my self-limiting beliefs that I was too old, too out of shape, too inhibited and too klutzy. I was ready to give in to total abandon and embrace this new adventure.
I knew that like anything in life, there were different levels of professionalism. I knew that if I was going to undertake this artful pursuit, I wanted to learn from the best in Las Vegas. I wanted to find my own Derek Hough, Mark Ballas or Maksim Chmerkovskiy.
After doing some research and talking with professional dancers, one name kept coming up – Sergei Shapoval.
With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I called Sergei’s Dance Studio. As soon as I heard Sergei’s accent I had visions of precision-trained Russians winning Olympic Gold time after time for their exquisitely breathtaking performances in pair skating and ice dancing.
“I’m not sure I can learn to dance,” I confessed over the phone. “Yes you can,” Sergei reassured me. He invited me to come and take a complimentary lesson, and after I made the appointment, I knew there was no turning back.
LIFE LESSON: Grab hold of opportunities that stretch you beyond what you think are capable of. Be willing to bedazzle yourself. The feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone can be scarey, but also exhilarating.
When I walked into the studio my heart was fluttering with anticipation. In the background the legendary 1940s chanteuse, Edith Piaf, was singing the hauntingly beautiful “La Vie en Rose,” and I was transported back to a time and place where elegance and romance were the order of the day.
The first thing Sergei asked was if I preferred Ballroom, which consists of the Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, Fox Trot and Tango; or Latin dancing, which consists of the Cha Cha, Mambo, Samba, Rumba, Jive and Paso Doble.
He explained that the Waltz started with the peasants in Austria in the 17th century. Initially it was condemned because it was the first time a man put his hand around a lady’s waist and they danced close together. But by the 1800s, the people of Paris had fallen in love with the Waltz and what was once considered a crude and vulgar dance came to be regarded as elegant and refined. This was heady stuff!
After the Waltz, Sergei introduced me to the Tango, a dance that originated with the gauchos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early 1900s. It became a hit in the United States when Rudolph Valentino brought it to Hollywood in 1921. The Tango was forged from raw emotion and tells a story of lust, betrayal, loss and pain. It has been performed in films such as Evita and True Lies, but the most memorable Tango was done by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.
Sergei also showed me the Cha Cha and by the time we were done, I was mentally invigorated and physically spent. “That was quite a workout,” I said.”
“Just enough to whet your appetite,” he teased. “Wait until we get serious.”
After a couple of private lessons, I realized how much I was enjoying myself. I’d seen the movie, Shall We Dance, but now I understood how Richard Gere felt when he stepped off the train out of his mundane and ordinary life into the strange exhilarating world of ballroom dance with instructor, Jennifer Lopez.
Each teacher has his or her own unique style and when you are learning to dance there should be a feeling of compatibility and trust between student and teacher. I definitely had that with Sergei. I loved how he layered each technique one upon the other. He helped me to understand the movements rather than just memorize them. At first I only focused on new dance steps, but as I got better, Sergei refined the way I tilted my head, making sure my fingers were graceful, my wrists straight, elbows bent, shoulders relaxed, chest raised, pelvis tucked, knees soft, legs flexible, and feet balanced.
Dance is bigger than the physical body. When you extend your arm, it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingers, because you’re dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing spirit.
— Judith Jamison
When I had a difficult time understanding the proper posture, Sergei used an analogy to help me. “Your body is like the stem of a martini glass that stays perfectly straight. Then just as the martini glass fans out, you must arch your back over my hand and tilt your head back ever so slightly like the olive that peers over the glass.”
As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
No matter how hard Sergei pushed me to improve, he was always patient. “Lead with your heel, not your toe,” he must have said a dozen times. And when I wasn’t sure if the next step I was supposed to take was forward or back, he explained that, “the small amount of pressure my hand exerts on your back will tell you which way I want you to move. Don’t rush. Wait for me.”
One day after class, Sergei suggested that I register for a dance competition that was two months away. “You’d compete as a newcomer and I think you’d do well,” he reassured me.
I thought about how many times in life we get a chance to push the envelope beyond what we think we are capable of, to do something daring, pedal to the metal, full throttle. I mean it wouldn’t be as white-lightening frightening as being on Dancing with the Stars, but it would close. “Okay,” I blurted out before I could change my mind.
I thought I would only be doing the Waltz. It was only later that I learned I’d also be doing the Tango, the Viennese Waltz and the Fox Trot. Sergei had entered me in four competitions or “heats” as they are called, and if I made it to the semi-finals and finals, I could be dancing as many as 30 times! With a new sense of urgency, I increased the frequency of my classes.
Each time I went, Sergei took things up a notch. On days when I got discouraged thinking I was backsliding he’d say, “You are too hard on yourself. You learned something new, so as bad as you think you are today, you’re better than you were yesterday.”
Mixed in with the hard work was always a lot of laughter. “Stand up straight,” he’d remind me as he hunched his shoulders imitating my poor posture. It took time to sink into my subconscious, but eventually I’d catch myself slouching and automatically stand or sit up straighter.
There were so many things to remember. “Don’t lean on me,” he’d say, encouraging me to be an equal partner who carried her own weight, not someone he had to prop up. When I kept turning my torso the wrong way or my footwork was sloppy, Sergei would hand me a yellow broomstick. I dreaded when he ordered me to “Do it by yourself,” because you can’t hide your mistakes when you’re dancing with a stick across the room. But it was great discipline and when Sergei held out his hand inviting me to dance with him again, I knew I’d improved.
I became a woman obsessed. The more intense the lesson, the more I loved it. I would wake up in the middle of the night and trace dance patterns with my feet under the covers.
Miraculously all these bits of information started to come together like pieces of a puzzle until one day we danced for what seemed like an eternity, though it was probably only a minute. When we stopped, Sergei said, “Well done,” and I beamed, feeling that I’d earned that praise.
The day I mastered the fast footwork of the Viennese Waltz and Sergei twirled me backwards around the room, I relinquished the belief that I had two left feet.
The last dance I learned was the smooth and sauntering Fox Trot, brought into vogue in 1913 by the vaudeville actor Harry Fox in the “Zigfield Follies.” I felt a wave of nostalgia as we danced to Bobby Darrin’s 1960s hit “Beyond the Sea.” To this day, the Fox Trot remains the most popular wedding dance.
The night before the competition I barely slept. I found out that the Holiday Dance Classic is the third largest competition in the U.S. where more than 11,000 dancers of all levels who come from around the world to compete.
After only dancing in the privacy of Sergei’s Dance Studio, I was about to step onto a crowded dance floor with spectators watching, judges judging, video cameras taping and photographers clicking. To say I was nervous was an understatement.
I understand what Priscilla Presley meant when she said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never performed live on stage, let alone in front of 23 million people! It was a horrifying feeling (laugh). Now I understand what stage fright means. You don’t want to go first or second because it’s too soon, but you want to get it over with. When the announcer says, ‘Here are Priscilla Presley and her partner, Louis Van Amstel, it’s like a force pushes you out there. You’re on auto pilot and your greatest nightmare is that your brain will go blank and your feet won’t know what to do.”
When they announced the Newcomer Bronze Division, Sergei and I walked hand-in-hand onto the dance floor with 17 other couples. Suddenly the music started and my heart was pounding as he put his arm around my waist and I placed my hand in his. It was a fantasy come true. My feet started doing what they’d been trained to do and the 90 seconds that I managed to follow his lead seemed like an eternity. When the music ended, we only had 30 seconds before the next dance, barely enough time to recover.
By the end of the night, with much thanks to Sergei, I’d was awarded first place for the Tango, second place for the Fox Trot and third place for the Waltz.
My dance routines were elementary compared with the ones they do on Dancing with the Stars. Thankfully I didn’t injure myself like the sexy, French actor, Gilles Marini, who told me how he tore his rotator cuff and broke his clavicle the first day of rehearsal.
“I have a high threshold for pain, but my eyes were tearing.,” he said. “Everyone said that I was done. Don’t tell me that! We rehearsed eight or nine hours a day. No one else did that. I had great doubt I could dance, but I visualized it. If your brain agrees with your body, you can do it. Every move was calculated, because if you do one wrong step you won’t get a 10. You can’t count steps; it must become second nature. I have an army mentality, so I did exactly what my partner Cheryl told me to do. We rehearsed all week, but it didn’t come together until the night before the show. Monday night the adrenalin was like I was surfing the biggest wave. I was breathing in the energy from the audience. I would close my eyes and feel that they wanted me to do well. The experience was worth the pain and after the show was over I had surgery.”
I agree with Gilles. It was all worth it. Like Jerry, Apolo, Jane, Gilles and Priscilla, ballroom dancing changed my life forever. I’ve received so many gifts beyond the ten pounds that I lost. Each dance has become a familiar friend. The Waltz made me more aware of my posture. It gave me a sense of calmness and a greater appreciation of beauty and grace. The Tango let me experience my sultry side. The Viennese Waltz offered me dazzling flights of fancy and greater confidence in myself. And the Fox Trot brought more lightness and laughter into my life.
LIFE LESSON: Best of all, I discovered that I am an adventurous woman who loves to embrace new challenges and that I can succeed at anything I put my mind to.
I am grateful to all the participants on Dancing with the Stars who show us every season, how to stretch beyond our comfort zone. Most of all, I will be forever grateful to my friend and dance partner, Sergei Shapoval, for his hard work, dedication and steadfast belief in me.
“Think of the magic of that foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle, and the dance is a celebration of that miracle.”
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