The Comeback Kid. She enjoys a triumph against all odds to win and win big. Winning medium, this time, would be OK, too. That was the plan. Aim high, right? Shoot for the moon and hit the stars, etc. That was not to be the outcome for me at the U.S. Dance Championships in Orlando in early September. And, therein lies the lesson. All sorts of lessons, actually. The road to USDC 2015 was paved with good intentions, hard work, excellent instruction and unanticipated obstruction. The kind of roadblocks that only mustache-twirling villains can devise in their super-secret lairs high on a … no, well, more likely just in a dingy little room somewhere that a troll can feel at ease, chuckling and imagining my bitter tears.
THE GOOD: My very experienced, talented instructor, Ian, is creative, disciplined and fun to work with, even under stress and through injury. He is also the perfect height and wingspan to partner me on the ballroom floor, which ain’t easy to find. My own work ethic cranks along quite nicely. I enjoy practicing dance and cross-training. My competition dresses show well, which is an important part of the overall picture in judging. There’s very little time to be seen per dance, in a crowd. You must catch the judges’ eyes and then deliver with beautiful movement and precise technique.
THE BAD: Oy, half floors in competition! If you do not get whacked or crashed into at least once with a half floor in American Smooth or International Standard, it will be a miracle. Does anybody like half floors? Anybody? My choreography was designed for full floors. My Smooth choreography was quite new to me. I’d only put it on the comp floor in August at the Capital Dancesport Championships. The full-floor version was pretty locked into muscle memory by early September at USDC. The week before, we saw the just-released heat sheets and found we’d be dancing mostly on half-floors for Smooth and only on half floors for Standard. How about learning new choreography for Standard in two hours. (Not exactly my strong suit — yet.)
At USDC, I had some focus issues in early rounds of Smooth but settled in for some decent placements. Not happy-making but not terribly upsetting either. I came to put my game out there and see what the others danced like, not having competed in Smooth for two years. Smooth has changed a LOT in that time, getting much more expressive and “Broadway” even at Silver level in pro-am.
I felt much more solid and confident in my Standard, even though 2015 has been my first year dancing Gold level, beginning competitions in June. The field was a little weird at USDC. There weren’t all that many dancers entered in Gold Standard in my age group. Open Gold, by contrast, had a glut of dancers. I walked onto the floor confident and ready to go. Zero nerves. I had only individual heats, as there were neither Championships nor Scholarships for Gold, only for Open Gold. But something happened. Something at a cellular level. My legs felt like lead from the first dance. I could not slow down my feet to keep time well. The muscles in my feet would not respond.
For the next five weeks, my legs got weaker and even showed basic coordination issues. My hands and feet burned. My blood pressure shot up and I could get winded after minimal movement. Series of medical tests ruled out the heinous stuff that makes legs stop working but tests never really provided resolution. “Virus,” was the official, shoulder-shrugging answer. “It’s what we say when we don’t know what caused it or how long it will last or what will make it eventually– who knows when– go away.” A bizarre germ got between me and my dream. Bad. Could have been worse but bad nonetheless.
Saboteur. Saboteurs? I’ll use the singular to keep things simple and the gender feminine so as not to have to he/she my way through these paragraphs. I may never know who tried to have me thrown out of pro-am ballroom in August, two weeks before Capital and three weeks before USDC. It’s an anonymous process. If someone lies to the governing board of the National Dance Council of America, that someone never has to answer to the council or to the accused. If someone goes out of her way to harm you, she has only her conscience to deal with later. Assuming she has one.
An email from NDCA arrived completely out of the blue, like a car wreck with no warning. BAM! Basically, it said: According to someone who has reported details of your activities, you’ve taught ballroom, therefore you cannot be an amateur. You will not compete as an amateur and “will be removed from the ballroom” if you attempt to do so. Bodily force? In hindsight, I can admire this as a kind of badassery seldom promised, much less seen in the world of rhinestones and spray tans.
First, the NDCA rules do change with a fair amount of frequency and my understanding of the rules — which I reviewed with my employer– was that as long as I did not compete as a pro, I maintained my amateur status. For seven months of one year, I taught group classes and individual lessons to beginners, social dancers and wedding couples. My own time to practice and especially to cross-train took a nose-dive. During this, I was not competing at all. I stopped working on a studio staff because the extremely long commute was not conducive to family life, which was going through a demanding period anyway. Back in my home city, I taught ballroom to a grand total of five absolute beginners in group class. Wanting to bring my own dance game back up to speed, I started training to compete again, as the “am” in pro-am. I mentioned my occasional teaching of beginners to multiple pros and none of them indicated this was a problem for my status. Turns out the rules had changed. I didn’t know. But someone watching me in competition made it her business to find out, to explore the rules, to gather “evidence.” And someone — let’s call her Dance Troll or D.T. for short– wanted to harm me. That was mind-blowing! I had never consciously harmed or even been rude to anyone in the Wonderful World of Ballroom. D.T. clearly held something against me personally to go to all this trouble, to care at all! Who am I in the big scheme of the approximately 3000 women competing as amateurs in pro-am? I’m nobody, actually. My comeback is, for now, only in my mind. I have many, many steps to dance before I arrive at my desired destination. What do I desire? To be UNDENIABLE.
I had to explain my side to the NDCA in an appeals process that had no deadlines built in. Fortunately, the process was helmed by someone who seemed to understand a speedy answer would be both efficient and kind. I had already pre-paid all the entry fees and travel expenses for Capital and USDC — expenses that probably would not be reimbursed if I was not allowed to compete as initially threatened. Two days before I was to dance at Capital, the council accepted my appeal, ruling it an honest mistake on my part. It was a fantastic relief to be able to dance! It was also hard to get back on track, as the head game had messed with my focus pretty severely and made me feel vulnerable to sneak attack, a very unfamiliar and unsettling feeling that wouldn’t just go away. My new understanding of the rules also meant I would have to push back by several years my plan to open a combination ballroom and yoga studio in my home city. My very livelihood was re-arranged. All cards thrown in the air and to the winds. To continue developing as a dancer, I could not dance and teach. An ugly-spirited troll made sure of that. Did I shake this off by the time I arrived in Orlando? Not completely, no. So, as a mindf**k, the attack by D.T. had some success. Maybe it was even part of my immune system going into a tailspin. My legs are now back to about 90% power and getting stronger daily, thank goodness.
The darkest hour is just before the dawn! I have learned so much about myself, the dance world and human nature from this process of re-entering competition. My comeback from relative obscurity through obscurity toward ultimate success will continue. The show must and will go on!