Last weekend, I had the pleasure of competing at Embassy Ball, an international ballroom dance competition featuring some of the best dancers in the world. Set in Irvine, this competition is one of the most prestigious of the year. In fact, Embassy was the first ballroom dance competition I ever competed in, two years ago, so one could understand why this competition means so much to me.
The last time I competed was a year-and-a-half ago, at SF Open 2016. I left for college thereafter and took a break from competitive dancing, as the transition to UCLA’s academic rigor and college life in general demanded most of my time and energy.
I had the time of my life being back on the floor! I missed everything about competing and performing– waiting anxiously in the on-deck area, butterflies in my stomach and muscles shaking, taking deep breaths, sipping water, keeping my body warm and running the choreography through my head; feeling the adrenaline rush when stepping onto the floor into the glaring white lights of the ballroom; basking in the high of performing for the masses and enjoying myself and my dancing. On the dance floor, I feel completely in my element.
It’s interesting– a lot of performers can be quite shy and reticent offstage, in daily life. I know I was–and still can be– quite introverted at times. In the spotlight of the stage, though, performers completely transform, breaking free from their shells and finding a home amidst the cheers of the crowd and passionate energy felt by everyone in the room. There is something about performing that is absolutely magical, and despite the nerves, pressure and vulnerability that comes with life on the stage, I simply can’t imagine living a life secluded in the safety of the sidelines.
My partner/teacher, Giulio, and I competed Sunday at around 1:00pm. We danced our cha cha, samba and rumba single dances, in the Open Gold and Open Advanced categories. So, six dances in total. By the way, the competition makes a fortune out of single dances alone– they charge about $40 per dance– so I ended up paying $240 just to dance, plus a $50 late fee for registration. Expenses aside, I truly enjoyed being on the floor again.
The first round was a good warmup. I hadn’t competed in a while, so it took a bit of time to re-familiarize myself with the competitive environment. Thankfully, my partner Giulio and I had no major mishaps. I didn’t forget my choreography, like I had done in SF Open 2016– I still get nightmares from my train wreck of a jive, during which my mind blanked, resulting in a total meltdown on the floor.
The second round was a lot better. Right before we went on, my stomach started cramping up, for whatever strange reason. So distracted I was by the pain that I forgot to be nervous! More relaxed on the floor, then, I danced a lot more fluidly and enjoyed every second of performing.
The competition was over much too soon. During my final bow to the audience, I tried to take a mental snapshot of everything around me– the bright lights, the warm smiles of the spectators, the scrutinizing eyes of the judges, the booming music. I loved it all.
Before competitions, especially high-stakes ones, I usually psych myself out by mulling over all the “what-ifs” and “what-could-go-wrongs”. In gymnastics, especially, when I had titles to defend and expectations to meet, I felt the pressure immensely. I’ve always been a nervous competitor. In my youth, there were times when I couldn’t eat or sleep in the days leading up to competition day. In retrospect, that may have been my anxiety talking, as none of my teammates ever seemed to go through as much stress as I did.
I’m proud of myself, however, for being able to relax during this competition and focus solely on the joy of performing. Even the night before the competition, I wasn’t nervous at all, which was a sure sign of growth! I was simply excited to get back out on the dance floor, doing what I love– performing.
That night was the Open Professional Latin event, featuring reigning world-champions Riccardo and Yulia and legendary Blackpool finalists Ina and Troels, among many other beautiful couples. This was my first time seeing Yulia dance live. On video, she’s amazing. In person, though, she’s unreal. Each time she and Riccardo passed by our table in the audience, my eyes literally welled up with tears of joy and excitement. Her body is PERFECT– long legs, chiseled muscle tone, incredible foot arch and turnout. There’s no one else like her.
Before the event began, I spotted Donnie Burns, the KING of the ballroom dance world. He’s like, the President of the United States in the ballroom dance world. Anyway, he walked down from the judges’ table and stood near where I was seated, getting ready to judge the professional Latin event. Usually, I have no problem approaching people and asking for pictures. With him, though, I was awestruck to the point of paralysis. I didn’t have the courage to ask him for a picture, until I saw a lady go up to him and do the same. Only then did I get up from my seat and trudge my way over to him, in a trance. Shyly, I asked Donnie if I could take a picture with him. His demeanor was serious; he seemed to be getting “in the zone” before judging. However, he kindly replied, in his British accent, “Yes, of course.” And we took a selfie! Afterwards, I told him that I remembered him as one of the judges judging my dancing earlier that day. His reply blew me away. He said, “Yes, I remember– you were the girl in the red dress.” Like, how the heck did he remember me?!?! I then told him, “You’re amazing”, to which he replied, “So are you”!
I still cannot believe Donnie called me “amazing”. Granted, that word was probably rolled off the tongue to match the moment, void of any true substance. Still, it felt nice to have a ballroom legend dispense positive feedback on my dancing. It gave me motivation to one day live up to his words.
All-in-all, I am very pleased with my performance at Embassy this year. It was never about the results. It was about rediscovering my love of dance after a long plateau period, during which I almost gave up dancing completely. It was about reuniting with my inner performer, which had lain dormant for what felt like an eternity. I liken my relationship to dance to that of a camper and his bonfire. When he first sets the kindling ablaze, the flame burns slowly at first, then grows brighter. As time goes on, the flame starts to die. Each time the camper feeds the fire, the flame grows bright once more. Sometimes, he may neglect his little bonfire until it is but a mere spark, threatening to extinguish at the breath of the slightest breeze. It is in those moments where the camper must find something– anything– to reignite the fire. In dance, I will have ups and downs– periods of brightly-burning passion and fire and moments of downtrodden darkness. In the lowest points, I need to find inspiration to continue dance, be it through switching teachers, going to a competition or finding a new song to dance to. I have to ask myself, “What is it about dancing that I love?” For one, I definitely enjoy performing and sharing the joy I feel when dancing with others. Watching the professionals dance last Sunday night showed me that the potential for growth in Latin-American dance is limitless. I want to see how far I can go in the pursuit of mastery of this beautiful art.
Next week is the USDC national championships. Boy, do I wish I could compete there. The comp is in Florida, though, and I’ve already spent a good fortune on Embassy, so I’ll be working long hours at the childcare center to pay back my parents. I’m still coming down from the high of Embassy– usually, it takes me a couple days to float back down from cloud 9, following a successful performance. I don’t know when my next competition will be, as I’m headed back to UCLA at the end of this month. There’s the Autumn Dance Classic in mid-October, in San Francisco. I could easily fly back home from school for a weekend to compete, barring the possibility of coinciding midterms or paper deadlines. There’s Hollywood Dancesport Championships, which is situated quite close to UCLA. Everything’s up in the air right now. One thing I know for certain, though, is that I will continue dancing my way through college, difficult as it may be to balance with academics. Of course, it can be done. Call me an optimist or a naive dreamer, but I truly believe that anything in life is possible, if one has the will and drive to do it. Of course, reality beckons at times, with limited financial resources and monumental sacrifices that must be made in the pursuit of your lofty goals. But, if you do anything in your power to surpass such odds and pour your heart and soul into the pursuit of your passion, therein is where the victory and meaning lies. It is the sole act of trying your hardest and growing in the process that matters most. Even if you don’t reach your anticipated destination at the end of the day, you have still achieved success, for you can go to bed with a clear conscience, without a doubt that you’ve left no stone unturned.