The Two Realms of Dance
Being away from the competition dance floor for a while has given me the break I have so desperately desired but never dared to take. I always believed I was responsible for teaching, choreographing and coaching new people and young minds into what they wanted most. I would forsake my time during the week, teaching later and later into the night because there was one more lesson that wanted my knowledge. I would have no weekend because there were many people coming to the studio for a social dance party those nights, and the fridge needed to be restocked with alcohol, or the coffee machine needed milk and coffee to be ordered. That was simply one of the issues that kept me from truly realising what really mattered to me as a dancer.
I choose the word ‘dancer’ very carefully as I am a firm believer that there is a massive difference between that, and a competitor. I have always thought that, but its only been in the last 5 or 6 years that I have seen the distance get bigger and bigger between the two.
As a dancer, we are taught from a very young age to create an imaginary world around us. We were encouraged to be an elephant, a lake, an airplane. We were taught that the dance floor was our canvas, the music our paint and our bodies the actual brush. We flew around the dance floor creating moving pictures using the music, and burning images of motion in people’s minds. So whenever we heard a new piece of music or a new top 40s track, we flew into action creating choreography that we felt the music was creating of itself. (see previous post)
Today I still look up at the speaker’s in any given dance space and see the music pouring out of them like a waterfall of colour which I then follow along the floor as it creates paths for me to dance along. If you have ever heard the phrase “follow the yellow brick road” you will understand what I see as I dance along the multi-coloured floor. This type of training created a sense of wonderment and happiness. We were rewarded with praise and laughter. We did not seek material objects in those days because the reaction of the audience gave us something far beyond anything physical could give us. Their energy. We would rather receive applause than a trophy. We looked for gratitude above medals.
Fast forward to the present day and age of competition and we are looking at a completely new animal. Competition beckons us to recreate the same performance round after round after round. The judges stand around the dance floor like guard dogs making sure that every aspect of the particular dance style is adhered to. Performing at this level is soul destroying for a real dancer who has been trained to bring a different performance for every piece of music. The competitors are stuck in a pattern of movement which they have rehearsed time and time again. This is essential for their partners. This is the only way a dance partnership can develop and grow and know each other off by heart. (Partner dance competitions in the ballroom fields have all competitors on the floor at the same time sharing one piece of music. They are given a Rumba or a Jive and they must perform their own routines to the music chosen for them at random by the event organisers)
Through practicing the same techniques and the same choreography time after time no matter what the music says, the partners develop a knowledge and muscle memory which allows them to seem like they are flowing with each other effortlessly. This is a heart-wrenching process for a real dancer as they must ignore everything the music is telling them to do, and only focus on what they have been programmed to dance like. Imagine driving in your car or being in a club and being forced to listen to a track you don’t really like. It won’t make you feel like dancing. It won’t get you fired up or motivated. Now imagine having your favourite playlist being pumped out and every track is a winner in your mind. These songs inspire you to dance. This is what the competition ballroom and Latin American competitors have to face every time they compete.
For the competitive realm, this is essential because if either of the partners does anything different, or moves in a way unexpected then the partnership is affected and breakdown occurs. This is the realm of competition and is fiercer than its ever been. The competitors are more health conscious than they have ever been and the dance knowledge is at its highest level. In this realm, there can only be one winner. In this paradigm, there will always be someone at the top and many at the bottom.
Many people from around the world train every day. They spend their hard earned money for studio time, dance lesson’s with champion’s, costumes and travel. They all seek the gratification of being that number one. They all strive day in day out to be the best at their chosen fields. At the end of the day, there can be only one winner and so when that winner or winning couple is crowned, there is a little bit of celebration. At the highest levels of world competition, the margin between first and second place is extremely small. These are the Gods of dance and they always know how to put on a show. At the lower end of the scale, the competition is not so pretty.
The other competitors look like they are congratulating the winner. Some will do it whole heartedly but most will go home bitter and twisted. They will have gotten their nose out of joint and will be holding grudges. They will go back to their studios and coaches and teachers. They will analyse and criticise and create stories about how it really should have been. These stories will then be substantiated by their friends and by the viewing public who will also tell the losing competitors that they got ripped off or that the judges don’t know what they are doing etc, etc.
The dance industry is a very small world and so the slightest whisper of a scandal and it vibrates its way around the whole scene, sometimes in as short a time as a day. When word spreads that this couple and that couple who came second or third, think this way and that, it simply adds fuel to the already blazing inferno of resentment between couples. Please don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of friendships formed and camaraderie created.
There are plenty of people who love the game and love the people in it. For the most part though, it’s a massive slog. It’s a massive drain of effort and finances and at the end of the day, the kids who compete in this environment come away sad and hurt rather than joyful and hopeful for the future. I mean really how do you tell an 11-year-old that what he or she is doing is not as good as the couple next to them? This couple will come away from the experience with a negative spin on the days to come and will eventually be reduced to a soul destroyed shell of a person that could have been saved, encouraged and rewarded in other ways. These individuals should have been pushed and told “yes you have something” rather than, “No the others are better”. Unfortunately, these individual dance kids are pushed to believe that if they do this or that then they will have a fighting chance.
Even when someone wins the trophy, they are already thinking of how to keep it. They know very well that next year, they will have to defend their title and could face the possibility of losing it. These thoughts are always in a competitors head. They are constantly pushing them forward and making them train harder and harder because a true competitor knows very well that the others are training just as hard.
There are many different ways that this industry could evolve and grow. There are many ideas, which have been out there for years, that could take our beautiful Ballroom industry into the future, and triple it in size much like the Jazz, Ballet, hip hop and other dance industries have done. I believe that children should not in any way be exposed to competition in the world of dance until they are at an age they can comprehend what the words, objective and subjective are really referring to.
Please once again, don’t get me wrong, I believe competition is healthy. It gets people fired up, it makes people strive for more and allows them to dig deep inside themselves to find out who they really are and what they are capable of under pressure. As the world rotates and the universe continues to expand so does our need to grow and develop and create more in our lives. Competition is one way that humans have moved forward and created this amazing civilisation over the years. The problem is that when you have an art form being portrayed as a sport then you have the messages being blurred and miscommunication occurs on a constant basis. You see, normal competition is based on measuring which team has the most points or who or what comes first across the line to determine the winner. Anything that can be measured and is transparent to the naked eye and understood by to the spectator is welcomed as a competitive sport.
Art is not like that. Art is measured through somebodies opinion. Dance is a physical representation or channeling of music. Music is simply someone’s view of life, values, standards and their opinion in the form of sound. Now we have a problem. We have a group of judges, who are simply people, who cast their opinion upon a group of dancers, who are other people, and who simply are giving their opinion of what they believe the music is saying or communicating to them. In turn, these dancers become translators, interpreters and channel the music through them to achieve a result. How can anyone say that one person’s view or opinion is right or wrong? It is simply how they see the music played out. It is what they feel the music is saying or communicating to them. They are simply telling the audience, the truth that sits inside them.
The difference between the realm of creativity and the realm of competition is great. The chasm of ideas that the two sides hold dear is vast. For me it’s clear. Even though I occasionally compete these days, I always hold dear that the truth must come out on the dance floor. I train just as hard as anyone else and look forward to the thrill of competition. I always look forward to performing the dances at my highest level and hopefully inspiring people along the way. I look forward to the results and wherever I am placed with my partner, accept that placing gracefully. These days I am well aware of defeat. These days I take myself onto the floor knowing that I could lose. These days I am grateful just to dance and have the opportunity to perform.
People ask me all the time what my greatest moment has been through my dance career? Was it when you came second in the Singapore International Dance Championships? Is it when you partnered Kimberley Davis on the hit tv show Dancing with the Stars? Or is it when you came 4th at the Blackpool World Dance Festival and beat out 88 other countries? I smile gently and say, actually, my greatest moment comes time and time again, when I meet guys and girls who come up to me and say “hey Paul, remember me? You were our Debutant Ball teacher” or “hey Paul, remember me? you took us for a cha cha cha class in grade six”
To have people be touched moved and inspired by my work and to have it create such impact in their life is truly an honour. When these kids remind me of the impact I have had on them, through creating a world around them in dance that has stayed with them for this long, I feel I have done my job. I feel that the creativity inside me has been transferred to them in one way or another. These kids who are now grown ups remind me of the lessons I was taught as a child.
Dance the truth that lives in your heart. Give of yourself which lives in your highest plain. Love unconditionally and give wholeheartedly. This is where dance lives. This is where creativity flows. This is where life begins and ends. Release yourself from the bounds of people’s perceptions and opinions. Allow your soul to waver like the flame of a candle. Breath and move and create and enjoy. No one can tell you your wrong. No one can tell you, you can’t. You are the only one standing in your own way.
To finish off, I’m sure that it would be really cool to say the words ” dance like nobody is watching”. For me, it’s the absolute opposite. “Dance like everyone is watching, so that you can show them all who you truly are”.