Dancing with Starlite, Part 1 (of many)

Last November, Deb made an unusual request for her Christmas present: She wanted dancing lessons. Who was I to say no? As Christmas presents go, it was expensive, so we made it a present for both of us. But I am getting ahead of myself. This whole thing really started out perfectly.

My ex-co-worker Elena is an avid amateur salsa dancer. I asked her in mid-November (after a bit of procrastinating) where to go to learn to dance. I was lucky I knew her and knew she liked to dance, because her answer was unequivocal: Starlite Dance Club in Sunnyvale. This was convenient for us since I work in Sunnyvale about 8 minutes away from Starlite. Anyway, I looked into Starlite and found out that their Medal Ball was coming up on December 2nd, 2007.

At the time I didn’t know what a Medal Ball was, but it seemed like it would be a great place to see lots of different dance styles and pick what we’d like to learn. It was great, but there was a lot that was a bit mystifying: There seemed to be a ranking system for students (B, S, G, with numbers) and we were not really clear on what was going on (other than the obvious: Lots of dancing!). We went back in the first week of 2008 to get our free lesson/evaluation and to sign up. We were ranked relatively high for absolute beginners, which surprised me.

After taking our tuition money, they assigned us to our teacher: Gita. We started pretty much immediately but I had a lot of travel in January through March so it was hard to get 2 lessons a week on the same days each week. We finally settled into a routine sometime in March and eventually started to take advantage of some of the other dancing opportunities at Starlite: Thursday and Friday parties, free practice time on weekends, etc. What surprised me was how much I liked it. That’s probably not a strong enough statement.

Since we moved to the Bay Area in 1995, Deb (and I) have grown to like the Sunday afternoon show on KCSM FM 91.1 (out of San Mateo, CA) where they play Latin Jazz. They stream all their shows online through the iTunes “Radio” function if you want to check it out. So we knew we wanted to learn Latin dancing, and to start we decided to learn Rumba and Cha-Cha after discussing this with Gita.

First, though, we had to learn the basics: How to stand; How to walk using ball-flat action; How to maintain a frame (closed position); How to move (from our center); etc. Then as we got a bit more coordinated, we were able to try dancing the simplest patterns to music. For many of the early lessons, it didn’t seem like we were learning to dance, but pretty soon we were actually dancing!

At first, we could hardly move through the most basic patterns: Literally there is a “basic” pattern for each dance, and it’s how you learn to match the rhythm. But when you are first learning, you have to “dance” while your teacher is counting out the rhythm. Now, 6 months later, we are having a hard time remembering that we were initially overwhelmed by music. There was so much to remember it was really hard to do all that while maintaining the synchronization with the rhythm.

Moreover, for each pattern I was learning to lead it, which means I have to think ahead and decide what pattern to do next and give the follower a clue of what to do next — and this has to be done via subtle hand motions, not talking or eye clues. Whew! At first, when we started to “dance” for 10-15 seconds at a time, it was crazy…very unstable! After a good start we’d lose it and crumble like a house of cards (luckily, we never fell over). We were in a steady routine, and after a while Gita suggested that we might want to consider testing for the Bronze-1 level in each dance at Medal Ball in June. In fact, she thought we could squeeze in Salsa, too (we vetoed that…Salsa is so different that at first we felt that learning it would destabilize our work in Rumba and Cha-Cha; we’ll get to Salsa soon enough).

Finally, we were starting to get some visibility into the ranking system for students. There are many levels: Bronze-1 through -4, then Silver-1 through -4. There are Gold levels, too, but I don’t know how many. Once you get to Silver you can apparently compete in dance events as an amateur. I have no idea if that is something I’ll ever want to do. Right now, the ranking system just serves to organize our learning and provide concrete proof points so we can see our progress.

Well, after a bit more work, we started to believe we’d be ready for the Medal Ball on 15-June-2008. In fact, we wanted to have our patterns down so well that we’d be confident going in — after all, this was a very public demonstration and we didn’t want to look silly (or make Gita look bad!). This strategy worked great, since Gita had taught us more than we needed to know for each dance; rather than just knowing the three required patterns for Bronze-1, she taught us 5 or 6, so we’d feel like we were (if anything) over-prepared. In fact, with all the practice of the same patterns, over and over again in the last 2-3 weeks before Medal Ball, we were getting really bored and anxious to learn something new.

So Gita gave us arm styling. This is not a requirement for Bronze-1, but it was something new. In the end, we did really well. We passed our formal exam with Paige on the Friday before Medal Ball, and then we danced really well on Sunday. I felt like we danced ok, but we came in the next day and talked to the dance judge and he gave us a 93 on our Cha-Cha and a 98 on our Rumba. That 98 was the second-highest score of the day, and he judged 75 or so heats with on average 3 couples, so he judged about 200 performances that day, at all levels. Wow! Each couple is judged compared to the standard for the level at which they are being tested…you aren’t competing with other couples. He gave us lots of pointers to help us improve for the Bronze-2 test, but it was too much to take in at the time.

So we left that experience feeling pretty good about our dancing. Oh boy, did we have a lot to learn!

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