It’s 8:41am on this beautiful Friday morning as I write. I’m feeling dazed as I write… You see, this morning, at 7:45am, I had the most amazing experience of leading a 30-minute Latin dance warmup with the UCLA Gymnastics team!
I was invited by the mother of UCLA Gymnastics, Valorie Kondos-Field– colloquially known as “Miss Val”– to give the team a little intro to Latin dance. Miss Val and I had met towards the end of spring quarter last year, when I accosted her in the dining hall. I knew all about Miss Val from pop culture– there was a Netflix movie made about her and the UCLA gymnastics team– and I immediately recognized her upon seeing her at Bruin Plate that fateful morning.
At the time, I was going through my big internal struggle of whether or not to pursue a dance career, against the will of my parents and society. I had already planned on leaving UCLA to focus on dancing back home, in the Bay Area, but was facing some doubt in my decision. I knew Miss Val had been a ballerina in her youth, so I figured that she of all people would understand my dilemma. And so was born my friendship with Miss Val– legendary coach and inspiring human being.
This past quarter, I ran into Miss Val a few more times at John Wooden Center, our university’s main gym. Last week, I texted her, offering to teach the girls some Latin dancing, if she would have me. Little did I know that she would actually accept my offer, and have me show the team– featuring former Olympians Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross– some of my moves!
I was at UCSB for a dance competition when I received Miss Val’s text. My two friends at UCSB who were with me at the time, bore witness to my utter elation upon hearing the news. I was both beyond excited and understandably anxious to teach the UCLA gymnasts how to dance Latin. Look at it from my perspective– I’m probably the biggest fan of UCLA gymnastics in this school (and UCLA’s a pretty big school). There are OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALISTS on the team– Maddie Kocian, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber (the assistant coach). These are girls I’ve long-admired on the television screen. I’d cheer them on from afar as they competed on the world’s greatest stage, longing more than anything to meet them in person… get an autograph… take a picture. And today, I got to do more than that. I got to be their TEACHER. How crazy is that, to have the tables turn the way they did?
I arrived at the gym at 7:45am. The girls were filing in and began doing some warm-up stretches. I chatted with my friends on the team, Anna and Grace (they are identical twins), whilst doing some stretching of my own. Then walked in Miss Val, along with the assistant coach, Chris. Upon seeing Miss Val, I ran up to her and gave her a big hug! I also introduced myself to Chris, who has the bluest eyes ever. Lol.
The girls then lined up single file, facing their coaches. Miss Val made some announcements, during which time I used the restroom. I came back to Miss Val finishing up her spiel. She then said, “Alright ladies, it’s Friday– LATIN DAY!” She pointed over to me– a cue for me to introduce myself to the team. I was nervous, but I delivered my introductory spiel in a relatively calm manner. Judging from their slightly perplexed faces, I suppose the girls had never had a Latin dance warmup before, which made me all the more excited to introduce the beautiful art of Latin dance to these incredible athletes.
We started with a little warmup of neck, chest and hip isolations, as well as some light stretching, to Justin Bieber’s rendition of “Despacito”. After warmup, I taught the girls some basics of salsa, followed by a three minute song to dance to. I then moved on to samba, and did the same– taught the basic steps, then played a song. The last dance of the day was cha cha. Too soon, my 30 minutes of instruction was over.
I didn’t know what took over me when it was time to start dancing… but it was as if all shyness disappeared, replaced by sheer confidence and excitment. No longer did I feel intimidated by the fact that I was teaching some of my greatest gymnastics idols how to dance… As time wore on, I grew more and more at ease with my role as an instructor, and my enthusiasm for dance seemed to spread to the girls, who were laughing and having fun. I repeatedly told the girls to be “sexy” and to not be afraid to “touch [themselves]” and “play with [their] arms/hair”. At one point, during the salsa side basic, I turned around, told the girls to “keep going” while I went around and made some corrections. I walked up to Madison Kocian, 2016 Rio Olympian, and said, “Ready, Maddie?”; then I proceeded to dance the salsa basic in front of her, to show her how it was done. Cheeks flushed, eyes bright up and smile on her face, Maddie looked so happy while dancing– something so out of her element. As did the rest of the girls on the team! Some struggled, while others picked up more quickly… but dance is very different from gymnastics. Gymnastics is a sport of precision and perfection. Dance is all about freedom and creative expression. Latin dance, in particular, is about getting in touch with one’s inner sexuality and femininity. I remember transitioning from gymnastics to Latin, and being freaked out by the idea of touching my body and being “sexy”. Now, almost 3 years later, I wear my sexiness loud and proud, and I’ve grown much, much more confident in the way I carry myself.
I suppose my confidence projected today during the workshop, as Chris, the assistant coach, remarked to me, “You’re amazing! It’s your confidence I admire most about you.” At the end of the warmup, Miss Val told the other girls, “Look at Belicia. She’s only a second year. She came in here today with so much passion for her craft, and completely took charge. No shyness whatsoever.” If only they knew how nervous I was to conduct this warmup, beforehand. Lol.
Overall, this experience was tremendously formative. You see, lately I’ve been questioning many parts of my identity, asking myself whether my past actions and public persona was the true Belicia, or simply the manic-depressive illness talking. I know that, in times of mania, people tend to be unusually confident, charming, charismatic, talkative and socially uninhibited. For most of high school, I suffered from low self-esteem and extreme shyness. I worked hard to overcome my social anxiety and began to open up during senior year of high school. My confidence continued to grow as I transitioned to college– making friends became easier than ever, and my social inhibition shed rapidly. Upon receiving my manic-depressive illness diagnosis, however, I question how much of that increase in social confidence was genuine, and how much of it was my manic self talking.
Today, I was able to lead a group with confidence, without the aid of my illness. That’s a huge step in a positive direction towards gaining genuine self-confidence. I feel more motivated than ever to continue to challenge myself– not only socially, but in every facet of life– to prove to myself that I CAN be successful without the help of my hypomanias.
That’s all for today, friends! Enjoy your night, and I look forward to chatting with y’all soon!