Interview: Elizabeth Thomson and Nicholas Barkley, From Boots to Bling

In my continued effort to bring you stories from other ballroom dancers besides me, I’m happy to introduce you to an American Smooth amateur couple, Elizabeth Thomson and Nicholas Barkley. They have backgrounds that you would not expect to find in ballroom and share an important message. This month, we get to learn how they got started in ballroom and formed their new partnership.

Elizabeth and Nicholas had exposure to dance long before they started taking ballroom lessons. However, before strapping on their ballroom shoes, they both served their country in different branches of the military. Their initial motivations for learning dance differed, but their shared passion and drive for this art/sport made for a strong and promising partnership.

NicholasandLizSFOpen2017

I’ve decided to go a little non-traditional ballroom (because the tattoo isn’t enough) and let Elizabeth lead in telling us how she came to be a competitive ballroom dancer.

Elizabeth: I’ve known what ballroom dancing was since I was a kid. I remember watching the competitions on TV (back when they used to do that) and being mesmerized by how elegant it was. It wasn’t something I ever imagined doing because it was such a glamorous sport and, frankly, I thought I was too much of a tomboy to be able to pull something like that off. Ballroom dancing didn’t come into my life until much, much later…and it was more of an accident than anything else.

Following September 11th, I joined the Army and served in combat as a medic. When I returned home, I struggled with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for several years. Eventually, I hit rock bottom and I knew that if something didn’t change, I would become another PTSD statistic. I didn’t really know where to start so I began trying different things that I used to enjoy. Lindy Hop was something I was good at and really enjoyed, so I searched for dance studios that offered lessons. I went in for a Lindy Hop lesson at a local studio and ended up walking out with a package of ballroom lessons…not Lindy Hop, lol. What started off as a form of therapy ended up becoming a full-fledged passion and a big part of my life.

I didn’t always like Smooth. In fact, I kind of avoided it. Partly because I didn’t think I could pull off the gracefulness of it and partly because I was more interested in the spunk, power, and sass of International Latin. I felt it (Latin) suited my spicy, Mexican personality. Smooth kind of snuck up on me and grew on me quickly. The more I learned about it and experienced its dynamics, the more I fell in love with the style. Now, I can’t see myself doing anything else.

Since ballroom dancing was more of a therapy for me, I spent a few years doing social dancing and nothing more. Eventually, I realized that I was somewhat decent and was curious to see how I would do and what it would be like to compete. I competed briefly in Latin before I switched to Smooth, but I didn’t have the same dedication to it as Smooth. At my first few competitions, I was nervous and intimidated by the experience, but I was also really surprised by how much support I received from fellow competitors and the pros. I found that this combination of exhilaration, support, and success in competition was very addicting and brought me a lot of enjoyment.

Nicholas: I was introduced to dance in general through my high school swing club. I’m not going to lie, I joined for a girl. Never got the girl but it worked out because now I live for dance. After high school, I went into the United States Marine Corps as an infantry rifleman. Did a tour as a presidential guard for the Bush’s and Obama’s. Then I deployed to Asia and Afghanistan, followed by some downtime while I was waiting for my contract to end. After returning home, I took on ballroom dancing as a way to be constructive and process the storm of emotions that came from my military service and losing my father. Ballroom dancing gave me a path forward in life and now it is my life.

I started out as a social dancer. Then I went to Emerald Ball to cheer on some student friends from my studio and it looked awesome. I went to another competition and watched the Pro Latin and Pro Smooth events, right then I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I loved Latin and Standard, so I started competing in 10-dance. I knew down the road though, I would end up doing Smooth, but doing 10-dance first would help make me a very competitive Smooth dancer. I still love all three styles, but I must admit Smooth and Latin are about neck and neck for me. Each style strengthens me for the other.

Like the majority of us, Elizabeth and Nicholas started as pro-am dancers competing with their teachers. The idea of an amateur partner was first presented to Elizabeth by her coach. Nicholas started looking for an amateur partner as a way to dance for less because you can split the costs of coachings and competitions. He also saw working with an amateur partner as a growing experience that would make him a better dancer than just learning from a pro.

Elizabeth: It was suggested to me by my primary coach that working with an amateur partner would help me grow as a dancer, get more exposure on the competition floor, and prepare me for a professional competition in the future.

Nicholas: You are learning together, growing as a couple. In my mind, it’s just another step towards becoming a pro.

The support system of coaches and family that surrounded them helped bring Elizabeth and Nicholas together. They found out that they had a lot more in common than just a love of ballroom.

Elizabeth: About nine months before I met Nicholas, I was living in Orange County and actively looking for a partner. I found a really great guy who was interested in competing with me. So we did. But it was difficult because it was a long distance partnership and I was also in the process of moving. I realized that it wasn’t the right time for me to dance am/am and I decided to focus on pro/am for at least a year or two.

I actually wasn’t looking for a partner when Nicholas found me (well…come to think of it…I think Rachel (Nicholas’ coach) and my mom should probably get most of the credit for this partnership). I had only lived in the Bay Area for a couple of months when my mom told me that someone on Facebook was looking for an amateur Smooth partner for her student and that she gave her my information. Shortly after, Rachel contacted me and told me about Nicholas. I was a bit reluctant to try to start another long distance partnership, especially because I was still getting settled into my new home, I had just started a new job, and I was already part way into my pro/am season.

Later that year, Nicholas and I finally got to meet for the first time at the Holiday Classic in Las Vegas, where we also competed in pro/am against each other for the first time. We talked a little bit and ended up becoming Facebook friends. A couple of months later, through the magic of Facebook, I discovered that Nicholas and I had quite a bit in common. Not only did we have very similar backgrounds but, most importantly, we had the same drive and dance goals. So we decided to give it a shot.

Nicholas: I was looking for an amateur partner for Smooth, Latin, maybe even 10-dance. I met Elizabeth through us competing against each other several times.  Then finding out we are both veterans kind of solidified and really brought us together. We both wanted to show that we are more than just warfighters and that we can transition from warfighting to something completely outside of the box. We want to show other veterans that they can follow their dreams no matter what they are. [As an example] I have another mate from the Marine Corps who started a Black Metal band called Sicarius, and they are doing very well and are very dedicated. We want people to pursue passions, and for those suffering from and trying to battle PTSD, and honestly any real anxiety or depressive issues, to try a new outlet such as dance, music, the gym, sports, art, welding…anything to express themselves and help themselves and those around them.

Obviously, going from a pro/am to an am/am partnership includes some major changes. Elizabeth and Nicholas shared their thoughts on the transition.

Elizabeth: In pro/am, we get so used to relying on our professionals for everything. In am/am, we have more responsibility in the partnership. We don’t have the professional to get us through mix-ups on the floor. So, in a sense, I feel like there’s much more accountability and responsibility.

Nicholas: A lot of things you have to feel together and talk and figure out. You don’t have that pro to tell you [what to do] every second. Luckily, our teachers come from the same school of thought and same coaches, so there really wasn’t a huge bridge to gap. Part of it is really just learning to trust yourselves and your abilities and know that you can do it and you are that good, and there is nothing that you cannot do on the floor. Just knowing that everything is an uphill battle makes it more worthwhile.

With Elizabeth living in the Bay Area and Nicholas down in Orange County, logistics are a little more challenging for their partnership. Elizabeth already mentioned that her first amateur partnership didn’t work out because of the long-distance factor. She told me that it isn’t so bad this time around, though they both wish they could practice together more. I asked Elizabeth and Nicholas to share how they manage the practice time when they are together and apart.

Take note if you struggle with organizing your own practice! Nicholas shares some valuable specifics from their practice structure that anyone can use.

Elizabeth: We tend to get together at least 2-3 weekends a month. Usually, when we see each other, we have coachings and practice.  When we’re on our own, we each have different things (“homework”), given to us by our coach, that we’re supposed to work on. Our coach is aware of the distance situation so she’s really helpful with outlining our solo practices and our practices when we’re together. We have a structure for our practices, and it varies depending on if we have an upcoming competition or not. My individual practice schedule varies depending on my work schedule. Sometimes I am able to practice 2-3 times a week and other times I’m able to practice 4-5 times a week (practice time goes anywhere from 1-2 hours).

Nicholas: [The long distance arrangement] is going as well as can be. Flights are really cheap through Jet Blue, and we try and rotate weekends the best we can. Obviously, we would get to practice together every day if we lived closer, but we really try and do the best we can with the limited time together.

There are certain things that we practice solo, such as warming up with different exercises prescribed by our coaches, and then picking certain things to practice, spending a set amount of time on each thing and each section. I definitely try to practice most days, even if it’s a short amount of time. If you get a chance, read Dance to Your Maximum by Maximiliaan Winkelhuis. He has some really good guidelines and strategies.

[When they do get together] We try to get a couple hours in [to practice] in the morning and then we usually go to the gym for cardio and more dancing in the multipurpose room or studio, then of course eating good healthy food, brainstorming and organizing everything that is coming up. We always start with warming up and doing some connection exercises and solo exercises. Then we do a couple of no-contact foot rounds, then a connection round and of course a slow round to stretch everything out and feel really connected and grounded. Then we break down the biggest areas we feel need the most attention, or what we are told need the most attention. If you asked us, it all needs attention. All of our trips, we have at least one coaching or sometimes multiple coachings, depending on the week and availability.

In March 2017, Elizabeth and Nicholas had their first experience competing as an am-am couple at the Vegas Open.

Elizabeth: I had a lot of fun dancing with Nicholas at Vegas Open! The only thing that I was worried about was dancing on the floor with other amateur couples for the first time. I wasn’t sure how well we would be able to adapt to sudden floor craft changes, but our first competition went really well. I couldn’t have asked for better. The whole competition process went very smoothly (no pun intended) and I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to dance with such a supportive and encouraging partner.

Nicholas: Vegas Open was our first comp, and we completed our goal, which was to not shed blood (i.e., we survived with no scratches, bumps, bruises, wrecks, big mess ups, or collisions). Floor crafting was the other big focus. We had a nine-couple semifinal, and thankfully no issues in that aspect. At that point, we had only been dancing together since September, so 6 months, and we went against all of the Brigham Young University finalists so we had a blast. Since then, we have danced at the San Francisco Open and did Solo rounds, which was a new experience but a good one performing for the whole ballroom alone.

FYI, for those who aren’t aware, Brigham Young University has a very large and well-known ballroom dance program and produces a LOT of very talented dancers. I imagine competing against a group of BYU dancers would be challenging and inspiring!

For those of us still searching for a dance partner, Elizabeth and Nicholas offer a few tips.

Elizabeth: I think that it’s quite similar to finding a partner in life. It’s good to put the word out but don’t force anything. I believe that people come into our lives when we’re ready for them. And while you’re waiting, focus on your own dancing. As we all know, there’s never a shortage of technique to learn.

Nicholas: Just keep putting yourself out there and talk to your competitors, even if they are a different level. Have your teacher talk to other pros about their students if they are looking. Comps and team matches are the best meeting grounds.

I want to thank Elizabeth and Nicholas for taking the time to share their story with us! They’ll be coming back next month to talk more about how ballroom has helped them overcome their struggles with PTSD. I hope you’ll join me.

Until then, happy dancing!

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