My goal is to perform with a Cuban dance company. Last week was my first rehearsal.

We spent an hour and a half on less than 25 seconds of the choreography. By the end, I was completely drenched in sweat and dying for about three gallons of water. (And a massage.) (And someone to carry me home.)

It was my first day rehearsing with Yeni, the lead dancer and choreographer of Proyecto Rueda de Casino. If you’ve gone out salsa dancing in Havana recently, you’ve seen this dance company. They perform at Mil Ocho three times per week – the iconic salsa spot right at the end of the Malecon. They always perform a variety of styles and they bring a ton of energy to the crowd (they even lead everyone in “line dances” at the end of the performance to get everyone dancing).

About two weeks ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask the director Rodolfo if I could study with them, with the goal of performing with the group at Mil Ocho. He said yes! I’m starting with private sessions with Yeni to learn the choreography before getting integrated with the group.

Here are the highlights from my first rehearsal, plus video below:

  • Early on in our practice, Rodolfo advised that we needed to perfect each phrase before moving on to the next. I needed to do the movements as I would in a performance – bigger, with more energy – so that I would learn them that way from the beginning. Often when I first learn choreography, I don’t do it full out, as I’m focusing on the very basics of the technique. But he was right, it’s better to build the muscle memory of how you’ll be performing from the very start, as it can be harder to add in later.
  • I was hoping and half expecting that we would start with some salsa choreography that would be just salsa steps. Instead we started with a phrase that we’ll be dancing without partners that incorporated son, cha cha, three orisha movements (Elegua, Chango, Ogun), and rumba Columbia. It was actually perfectly Cuban and is what entices me and challenges me here – the dancing is so layered and rich, pulling from a diverse array of inter-related styles. To be able to develop that kind of mastery of movement is why I’m here.
  • “Poco a poco” and “sin miedo” are always the mantras I hear from my dance teachers that I need to remember: “little by little” and “without fear”. You can’t learn everything perfectly at first, it takes time to develop, but you also have to dance it as openly and passionately as you can from the start.
  • Good dancers make everything look so EASY. You can never tell how much work it takes to perfect the steps – and in fact great dancers make it seem like YOU could easily hop up there and do it! But it takes so much work. When I watched my post-game video (me and Yeni dancing the choreo together), I was pleasantly surprised: I looked better than I thought for my first class. You might not have guessed that I would learn a step and then forget it, then have to repeat it, then get it again, and then lose it again with the music, or when I tried it by myself. It looked fairly fluid, although with very obvious spots for cleaning. That gave me a bit of hope.
  • I’m going to have to practice at home – a lot. If I want to progress to the point where I can actually perform with the group before I leave in two months to renew my visa, which is my goal, I need to have everything I’ve learned down perfectly so I can move on to the next steps.
  • Living here is very good for my body and very tough on my body. It’s good because I walk everywhere – including up five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!). But it’s tough because I walk everywhere, including five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!)– then add in hours of dancing, oppressive heat and humidity, and dealing with muscle weakness and tension built up over 20 years or so – this all makes me very prone to exhaustion and muscle pulls, stiffness and soreness. So….
    • I have to take really, really good care of my body and be realistic about what I can handle. I’ve decided to budget for weekly massages and continue to work on my self-discipline with daily stretching and foam rolling every day. Otherwise, I’m going to get injured.
    • Also, I’ll miss out on good dancing opportunities if I’m not selective about how I spend my time. For example, I was having some soreness in my hip starting last Friday. I went out in heels on Sunday night and drank a bit too much. On Monday, I was too tired to wake up early and go to the immigration office to renew my visa, so I put it off another day. Then I took two hours of salsa and reggaeton classes, which put more pressure on my legs. And I went out dancing that night until about midnight. On Tuesday, I got up at 6:30 to go to the immigration office, which involved a lot of walking, and then I had my first dance rehearsal. By the time I got home, my legs were screaming and my feet were so sore I didn’t want to stand for more than a minute. My body was completely exhausted and I wound up missing out on going to one of my favorite dance spots to see a singer on his last night for a while before he goes on tour. Lesson learned.

So, here’s the video of the choreography with my teacher. I’m laughing at the end because the last steps were the ones I kept messing up over and over and over again, so I was happy that I finally got them!

rehearsal video screenshot** This is on my Facebook page because I was having some issues uploading to YouTube. I also couldn’t get the screenshot to link for some reason. Click here!

So thankful to have this opportunity to grow as a dancer! More updates to come on how rehearsals go and if I’m able to reach my goal of performing with the dance company by July.

The Power of Performance

Sometimes when I watch a dance performance, it’s like eye candy. Everything is bright and colorful and visually stimulating.

Sometimes it feels analytical. I’m impressed and intrigued as I observe the technique and skills of the dancers.

Other times, there is an energy that’s infectious, and I feel a light, joyful or peaceful connection with the dancer.

But something rare happened this weekend at Kosmos Dance Camp. Each night, our amazing teachers perform their style of dance. This year, the Global Street Dance teacher Rashad Pridgen performed a solo. As soon as he started, I felt like I had been pulled into a tractor beam. I was frozen, mesmerized.

He danced to Gregory Porter’s “1960 What?”, and with each movement it felt as though he was inflating a bubble around us that pulsed with the emotions of the dance and the music. We were experiencing it with him, not just watching. It was so emotional and captivating.

Rashad teaching Global Street Dance at Kosmos Dance Camp, 2014

Rashad masterfully fuses a variety of styles of street dance, many of which I’m not familiar enough with to name. But I guess it doesn’t really matter. His dancing was terrific, yes, but it was the soul behind that reverberated through all of us. (As I was watching, I started thinking, “this audience is going to go CRAZY when he is done” – and we did, all jumping out of our seats, clapping and hollering.)

I thought about going up to him after the performance to thank him and tell him how captivating he was, but I felt a little shy and I knew it would be hard to find the right words to express how his dance affected me. I’m sure he knew though. The energy and connection between all of us was palpable. It reminded me of what incredibly powerful creatures we are when we express ourselves through music and dance.

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What about you? Have you ever watched a dance performance that felt like a powerful shared experience that you’ll always remember? Tell me about it in the comments!

Dance Camp!

Just finished packing before heading out to carpool with some friends to Kosmos Dance Camp….and found this in my old posts! A draft of an unfinished post after last year’s dance camp. Maybe this year I’ll actually publish a complete post after attending, but for now, here’s a little peek into the experience and why it’s one of the best times of the year for me.

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A few days ago, I was laughing, talking and dancing with new girlfriends, living together sleepaway camp style in a 10-bunk bed cabin in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

After taking classes with some of the best teachers in the Bay Area, we’d eat dinner, get cleaned up and spend the night watching performances and dancing to live music.

It was amazing. It was Kosmos Dance Camp.

Another world

For four days, you’re immersed in a world of dancers and musicians – everyone filled with joy at the opportunity to dance and play all day every day.

You get up in the morning, go to breakfast together, and then dance to your heart’s content. Want to take every class that’s offered that day? (That’d be seven hours of dancing.) Go for it! Want to take it easy? Take a few classes, hang out at the pool and take a nap.

Whatever you decide, you’ll be surrounded with people feeling joyful, open and adventurous, exploring everything from Bollywood, Afro-Peruvian and Afro House Hop to Reggaeton Fusion, Salsa Reuda and Contemporary.

Beauty is a Performance Art

The video of my Reggaeton Fusion performance workshop last spring finally got edited. But watching myself made me feel so bad, I wound up crying.

So, this post is not what I thought it would be.

My intention was to write about my experience participating in the workshop and then give you the big reveal of the performance! I thought I’d feel so proud and so excited to share it with people. I thought, “They’ll be so impressed to see me dancing like this!”

I thought this would be one of many posts in which I’d celebrate the joys of dance and the thrill of performing.

Instead, I felt ugly, and couldn’t seem to stop fixating on my body not looking the way I wanted it to. It hurt that the way I felt actually dancing on stage (vibrant, sexy, joyful) didn’t seem to come through in a tangible way through the way I looked. I thought all of the women dancing around me looked beautiful and capable of making hot, sexy facial expressions, and I just looked like a dork trying to be sexy.

I felt ashamed for feeling any of this. For being so insecure and superficial and egotistical and hypocritical that a part of me wanted to put a video out there to be praised and to look “hot”. Even though I believe that dance is for everyone, that it is our birthright, and that no one should ever feel ashamed about embodying dance in their own unique way.

My reaction was so at odds with my experience during and after the performance workshop, which has been one so positive, so challenging and so joyful:

  • I loved being challenged by a tough teacher who fused different styles of dance and music with a theatrical performance. She treated us like real dancers – always pushing us to be better – and it was FUN.
  • I also learned how to take her direction and not take it personally. My teacher is super fiery and intense and for the longest time I created so much emotional drama around our interactions. I learned how to let it go and accept the information she was giving me, and I felt like a better dancer because of it.
  • I met THE MOST AMAZING WOMEN. I feel so blessed to have connected with the women in this workshop, who are all smart, talented, funny, kind and interesting women. I’ve developed some wonderful friendships that make me SO happy every day. (I love you, Freakitonas!!)
  • I loved performing! I loved the feeling of terror backstage before our first performance when my mind went black and try as I might I could not form a single complete thought. I had to just breathe. I loved walking out on the stage and knowing exactly what to do, letting my body take over. I loved sending my energy out to the audience, looking into their eyes, hearing them cheer and clap, and feeling our energies feeding off each other.

That’s what I felt. THAT was real.

And that’s why I’m posting the video. Because regardless of how I think I look or how you think I look, I know how I felt. I know what I learned. And I know that I can’t let these old painful patterns of not feeling good enough or pretty enough to BE MYSELF to continue to hold power over me for the rest of my life.

My husband said something tonight while we were talking through this that really stuck with me, so I’m gonna steal it:

Beauty is a performance art.

Beauty is not a flat image. It’s a feeling that we experience with ALL of our senses. It’s pleasing to the eyes, yes, but there’s an energy to it too. There’s a beauty to strength, perseverance, vulnerability, courage, sensuality, compassion and joy.

So I will practice being a “beautiful” dancer by that definition. That’s something I think I could be really proud to share with you.

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(See video below or click through if you’re receiving this post via e-mail.)

Dance Diary #1: How to Be a Beginner (video)

A new feature on Follow My Lead – dance diary videos!

In between producing webisodes in which I’ll try out new dance styles, I also wanted to have a way to talk to you on a regular basis about dance ideas and tips that come up during my day-to-day dance experiences. I’ll still be writing blog posts, but I also want to have video posts as well.

So, here’s my first dance diary video. It was inspired by a recent beginner hip hop class I took with a friend of mine. After class, we talked about typical frustrations that we’ve faced when taking beginner classes in styles we’re not familiar with. As much as we both get a great deal of joy out of dancing, we’ve also had our share of annoyed/frustrated/angry dance experiences.

If you’ve ever felt the same, here’s some encouragement for getting through your next beginner dance experience: