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Ohio Star Ball - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2004-11-22 18:04
Ohio Star Ball
Public
I arrived in Columbus at 5 a.m. on a redeye and took an overpriced cab from the airport to the run-down hotel I had found on Orbitz to get a few hours of sleep before we competed in the Ohio Star Ball. That afternoon, my partner and I danced the first and quarter-final rounds of the adult amateur standard competition. We danced well, even though we didn't make it to the semi-final rounds which were scheduled for that evening. After dancing, I spent a few hours wandering through the three rooms full of vendors (what a plethora!) and doing some work on my laptop, relieved to get away from my dance partner, who is especially uptight at dance competitions. In the evening I returned to the competition as a spectator, but bowed out of the post-competition dance party after just a few dances to work out some issues with D. over IM until 4 in the morning.

We didn't dance very well in the college competition on Saturday. We were scheduled to dance at 4:30 so I was warmed up and ready at that point, but we didn't go on until after 6, when my muscles were cold again. We should have won, but placed third, with a couple who hadn't made it to the quarterfinals the day before placing first. (They embarrassedly offered to switch ribbons after the results were announced.) But the Saturday night session was incredible. In addition to the usual competitive rounds, the competition included a professional Standard and Latin "showdance" competition that I'll describe below, frequent performances, and lots of general dancing (which, paradoxically, is not often present at ballroom dance competitions). The evening started with an hour of general dancing; there were several ten-minute general dancing interludes between events; and after the competition ended, many competitors and spectators went to a social dance downstairs that lasted past 4 a.m. (which is about when I left). It was great to be able to dance with so many good dancers, and I think all competitions should include this for decompression and enjoyment. (What are we doing all of this for, anyway?)

The highlight of the Saturday evening show was Victor Fung and Anna Mikhed dancing a tango to Beethoven's fifth during the professional Standard "showdance" competition. (Usually all competitors, both amateur and professional, just dance one and a half minutes of each dance, all on the floor at the same time, to arbitrarily-chosen music. In this competition, there was an additional event for professional Standard and Latin finalists where they performed on their own to music of their choice. I assume they were judged by their musicality, their innovativeness in choreography and staging, and their skill as performers, things not readily assessed in the traditional competition.) I was feeling pretty crappy before that because of our poor showing at the college competition and my general disillusionment with the whole ballroom dancing culture, but Victor and Anna's performance made me forget all of that. They started before their music did with a dramatic entrance, simulating (in classic tango style) a lovers' tiff. Unfortunately, the DJ had issues finding the right music (as he had with several other showdances), so they had to stand in their dramatic pose for several minutes while he sorted things out. They kept the audience from losing interest by goofing around, pretending to feel each other up, and responding to the audience's laughter. As for their dancing, if you have seen high-level competitive tango and have heard Beethoven's fifth (the famous da-da-da-DUHHH one), you can imagine the dramatic effect these would have together. I don't think I could do it justice with mere words. They deservedly received a standing ovation and first place in the showdance competition (third in the other competition).

Some of the other showdances were also memorable. One couple, dressed in tiger-prints, danced a tango to an African drum base. Other couples, including our coaches, performed more traditional show-dances with a cursory opening and lift tacked on the beginning and end of their usual routine. The more innovative, non-traditional performances were definitely favored by judges, though.

Several of the Latin showdances were more like modern dance than Latin. The winning couple were dressed in silver unitards and were attached at the waist by a length of stretchy silver material, which was wound many times around each of them. The connection between them was through this material rather than from arms. They would spin to release more of the silver material and change their distance, dancing from one foot to twenty feet away from one another. (Sometimes they'd both spin at the same time, just maintaining the amount of cloth between them.) This couple also received a standing ovation. The couple who placed third did very little Latin movement at all; quite a bit of their routine was on the floor. (I think the piece was a rumba, but I'm not sure.)

There were other performances as well. Three couples announced their retirement from competitive ballroom dancing, with one doing a show. (It's customary to do this when transitioning from competing and performing to teaching and judging.) All of the winners in the Junior, Youth, and Under-21 categories in first Standard then Latin did an honor dance together. (The Junior category was split into five divisions with the youngest competitors no more than six years old! I often have mixed feelings about kids under twelve or so starting ballroom dance, and especially dancing Latin which is overtly sexual, but the youngest couple looked like they were having fun.) Later, the winners of the Junior pro-am competition, an eight year old girl and her teacher, danced a rumba honor dance. At first I was apprehensive - the dance of love, between an eight year old and an adult man? - but they danced it very tastefully, with the teacher just presenting his student and letting her dance to the audience.

These performances are definitely my favorite part of ballroom dancing, and what I think the point of competitive ballroom dancing really is. Many ballroom dancers take themselves and the sport so seriously, so it was refreshing to see performances that were playful and showed that the performers actually enjoyed dancing (the shock!). Without these, it's easy for me to become cynical about ballroom dancing, especially since my partner appears to have completely bought into the more insidious aspects of the culture.


I love to dance and love to perform, but I really don't like dealing with politics such as kissing up to certain coaches or high-level couples, name-dropping to prove you're part of the "in" group, or trying to look and act like a "professional" both on and off the competition floor (tan skin, coiffed platinum blonde hair, push-up bra, lots of makeup, designer clothing, skinny frame, etc.). The sexism abrades the feminist in me, and the shallow glamor undermines my desire to be unassuming and utilitarian. (I saw more fur in the audience on Saturday night than I have perhaps in my whole life; even with my nice conference-garb slacks and my sequined top I felt very underdressed.) I hate feeling like an outsider, but sitting in the bandstand with Russian being spoken and yelled all around me, I can't help but feel like I'm cut off from others in a world very different from the one with which I usually identify.

It's telling that I have a hard time explaining ballroom dance competitions to others. Social dancing is understandable, but many of the customs at ballroom competitions just don't make sense to the uninitiated. There is something bizarre about many couples dancing their own predetermined routines on the floor at once, unsynchronized and more or less ignoring each other (except to avoid colliding), to arbitrary music. Moreover, while it consumes the life or many who are involved, it serves little external function: the culture is insular and sustains only itself. When I tell people I ballroom dance, they often reply with "Oh, I saw that on public television once ... that's where the women wear the garish makeup and costumes, right?" Other styles of dance are more interchangeable - for example, if you know ballet, you can pick up jazz and modern, and most professional dancers can dance many styles - but from what I know, good ballroom dancers don't (and maybe can't?) just pick up other types of dance.

Anyway, I enjoyed the Saturday night of the Ohio Star Ball more than I have any other competitions and even many other dance performances - it reminded me of some of the things I love most about ballroom dancing.
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Jeff
lbchewie
2004-11-23 16:50 (UTC)
(no subject)
Your disillusionment at the Ohio State Ball sounds painfully familiar with my youth while I competed with the piano. While I'm sure that nothing I experienced was to the degree nor of such a grand scale as what you encountered this weekend, I remembered that what used to be an enjoyable activity for me shifted its focus from developing a skill and having fun with it to rather trying to outplace my competition. My instructor could be an extremely domineering perfectionist, and while I'm certain that there were scores of more disagreeable masters to work with, she had extremely high expectations which required a ridiculous amount of dedication for her young students.

This was somewhat damaging for someone like me who's also a perfectionist. Whenever I walked off stage knowing I had made a mistake, I would feel absolutely miserable, and my parents were usually the first to express their disapproval with their feigned-supportive "If you had only practiced more, things would have been better." They certainly had a case, because I wasn't as diligent as perhaps the other competitors, but my talent usually far surpassed those so that it would be extremely rare if I didn't place within the top three when I didn't studiously practice until a few weeks before the event. (I hope I'm not coming across as arrogant - when talking with my competitors, I found out that without exception, they were practicing on average 4 hours each day! Yikes!)

Highly skilled musicians also form their own insular culture, while again I haven't gone as far as have in Ballroom. I was generally the only Caucasian entry, or if there were another, (usually) he was quite bad. Nobody would speak Chinese, but rather a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, or Korean. While my instructor made efforts to assemble all of her very gifted students, it was very difficult to communicate across cultural barriers. I only met one person who would come close to qualifying as a friend, but she was also 4 years older, which at the time was no insignificant detail. I never noticed any strong sexism, but perhaps I was too young to really notice, though I somehow doubt that - perhaps just being a male didn't put me into direct contact with much which may have gone on. (I've known of a couple female pianists being violated during their lessons..., which if you read down in my journal, I was outraged.) Yet, cultural stereotypes were very prevalent, and it seemed to be that only Asian, Russian, and Eastern Europeans are the only people with pianistic talent. Long Beach doesn't have a strong Russian or Eastern European community, as I think is the case with most of Southern California, but there were plenty of Asians. It was very clear that I was a minority.

However, as often the case, despite all the exaggerations and the high probability of error in using them to characterize a single person, there is a bit of truth in them. It seems that just who I am goes against mainstream American culture. The things that I value most are rarely shared among my peers. The fact that I'm passionate about classical music as opposed to the latest top 40 songs, or that I take education very seriously whereas college is predominantly marketed as a "tool leading to a high-paying job." The fact where I don't feel compelled to participate in consumer culture without becoming a person who joins the other extreme and protests day-and-night against it. This list can go on for quite a while. In my case, I think Berkeley's been partially helpful in finding an alignment between myself and others, but it takes a while to open up and feel secure when I've felt out of place for so long. Pardon my digression.

You're right, though. The enjoyment of any sort of activity seems to be threatened when it's placed in a competitive setting. I'm very happy that the showcases were able to lift your spirits because I have plenty of first-hand experience with self-doubt and alienation from an activity that I have enormous potential, as do you. It would be a tragedy for it lessen your involvement with Ballroom dancing, but it's difficult to find the inspiration to continue all the time. We just keep looking for the things that make the event fun...
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-11-23 21:40 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks for the response! I did a few graded violin concerts (even though I was much better at piano, my piano teacher just didn't do that stuff), but never got really involved with it. The only piano competition I was involved in was preparing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for the concerto night tryouts as a senior in high school. (I've been wanting to get that song back up to snuff for a long time, but I'm too out of practice now.)

Assaulted during piano lessons? That's terrible!

It seems that just who I am goes against mainstream American culture.

In high school, I consciously went against norms. My friends and I were outliers already, as liberal atheists (for the most part) in a Mormon-heavy Salt Lake City school, and it was so fun to be outspoken about feminism or gay rights and shake up the viewpoints of the conservatives in our classes. (My friend gooeyduck and I often had classes together and especially enjoyed doing this.) My views and actions became habits when I came to Berkeley, where many of them were the norm (though not as much a norm in science or engineering, which is more conservative or even apolitical than the rest of campus), so now the person I feel most comfortable being happens to go against the grain of mainstream America in many ways. I usually get positive feedback from it, though, rather than negative. (In fact, I get negative feedback from my friends for "buying in" to the ballroom culture as much as it looks like I have.)
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Jeff
lbchewie
2004-11-24 03:01 (UTC)
(no subject)
Rhapsody in Blue is a wonderful piece, though I never studied it. My regular instructor was very adamant about learning "the Three B's" ("Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms." - not her term, but rather my Music History professor's whom I had last Spring.) Oh, I should throw in some Mozart and Chopin, although I never liked most of Mozart's sonatas and thus rarely competed in the annual Mozart Festivals, going against the grain of all her other students. Anything that wasn't classical in nature, she abhored teaching, or so it seemed at the time.

When I lost interest in performing sometime during my freshman year of high school, I did very little except to casually develop my ear by working out popular songs on the radio. However, my high school required that I take an art elective, and while AP Music Theory would have fulfilled the requirement, my counselor strongly discouraged me from enrolling. (She's an absolutely miserable human being, but that's a story for another time.) Instead, I enrolled in an Advanced Piano class.

The only thing I really got out of the course, besides fiddling *a lot* on their weighted keyboards was that I had the unique opportunity to compose and record what I wrote (I had my own laptop at the time). I sloppily learned Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu - the last piece my old teacher assigned before I quit. As you might imagine, there was no real instruction in a class with one teacher and thirty students. Anyways, when I had "learned" the Chopin, I asked for another piece to play, and she'd recommended the Rhapsody. For some reason, I never worked through it... My senior year in high school was one with marked resignation and unwillingness to work towards almost anything in life. (I already knew I had to go through LBCC to get to Berkeley, so I knew I didn't even have to try...) However, it's odd that we both encountered the piece about the same time.

I'm shocked how little time it took to work through the Maple Leaf Rag and the first Arabesque. I'll probably ask my original teacher to hear the Debussy while I'm away on Winter Break.

The next few pieces I'm that I'm considering are Chopin's Nocturne in E-major... it's just the middle part that gives me trouble for now, but I'm already rather familiar with the piece. If I were to be a good pianist and invest the effort, I could probably finish that within a week... easily. I'm also wanting to continue on Chopin's Nocturne in C minor (Op. 48, No. 1 - I think). That went by the wayside because of the poor timing of a wrist injury, and then my move up here.

My goal at this point is to build a complete classical repetoire of music that every trained pianist should know, and I'm always up for new suggestions...

Ironically, I stopped studying piano the first time just as I became skilled enough to take on concert-worthy literature.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-11-24 03:15 (UTC)
(no subject)
Before Rhapsody, I liked to play almost exclusively Romantic and Impressionistic pieces (Beethoven to Ravel, roughly), with a few others (Mozart, Joplin, some Bach) thrown in. If you want to photocopy any of my Debussy or Chopin stuff, I especially have a lot of that. :~)
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Kris
anemone
2004-11-23 21:57 (UTC)
(no subject)
I didn't have any intelligent comments, but I found this entry interesting.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-11-23 22:46 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks for letting me know. :~)
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Kris
anemone
2004-11-24 00:24 (UTC)
(no subject)
I guess I find it interesting because the whole subcommunity thing is a sorta odd human thing that happens all over.

Sometimes, we get into groups that don't really have an outside reason for existing. People spend an awful lot of time and effort on these groups for undefinable benefits. It's like humans seek out the sort of exclusivity or something.

But you see this group forming at many levels--classes develop a culture. And my 2nd level manager was saying that projects develop a culture, too, that's hard to change.

So, you're like an antropologist studying the Ballroom dancers by trying to blend in. I mean, I know that's not what you think of yourself as, but it's just interesting to see the inside of a group from your half-inside half-outside perspective.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-11-24 03:11 (UTC)
(no subject)
So, you're like an antropologist studying the Ballroom dancers by trying to blend in.

Speaking of which, I'm taking a qualitative research methods class, and actually did one of the field exercises on ballroom dancing - specifically, on the body language between teachers and students (and pros and amateurs in general). My teacher actually liked it so much he circulated it to other professors and students in my department!

Maybe I *should* do more formal research on ballroom dancing ... there's a competitor at Stanford who is also a psychology doctoral student and is doing a project on dance partnerships; if she can do it, maybe I could too. (She gets some competitions subsidized for the project as well. :~)) I even have ideas for technological systems for ballroom dance competitions, such as wireless-enabled judges' scoring tablets and a redesign of the widely-used usability nightmare known as CompManager, so I could even tie it to HCI.
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Kris
anemone
2004-11-24 03:16 (UTC)
(no subject)
I've never heard of the CompManager, but if it's anything like the web site---please, for the love of god do the redesign!!

;)
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shallwedance_
shallwedance_
2004-11-27 20:27 (UTC)
(no subject)
I don't have much to add. But, as you've probably guessed, I've only become aware of certain interpersonal issues and idiosyncrasies of ballroom this semester. In times like these, it's a good thing to remind ourselves why we keep dancing (or whatever activity it may be). I'm glad you found yours again.

BTW, do you have a link to above referred psychology research?
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-12-03 18:53 (UTC)
(no subject)
I don't think she has anything online about it ... in fact, she doesn't have a website either. :~) From what I know, the research is a work in progress, so she probably hasn't published anything yet. I can point her out at a future competition.
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