I’ve always loved movies about underdogs. Those characters who come from difficult circumstances and have a dream that goes seemingly beyond their means. They don’t quite fit in, but their passion drives them forward anyway. They struggle, suffer defeats, come close to giving up, and ultimately rise to victory. I love a good underdog story because I can relate. I’ve always been a bit awkward, never quite fitting in but also not really wanting to.
When I found ballroom, I finally found a place where I wanted to fit in. This world was where I felt I belonged. I wanted to be accepted, but at the same time, I couldn’t change who I was to make it happen. I wanted to become a great ballroom dancer, but at the same time, I couldn’t change my circumstances. That made for a difficult road, albeit an interesting one. I certainly have gotten some good blog posts out of it!
Thinking about it now, I realize I’ve always tended to question things. Standards would be presented to me (“this is how things are done”), I would accept what felt right to me and question what didn’t. If the explanation made sense, I would accept it too. If not, I wouldn’t. It was no different for me as a pro-am competitor. I understood and accepted that I would wear a bright and flashy ballroom costume and an absurd amount of makeup. I didn’t accept that I also needed to spray tan. I didn’t accept that I couldn’t show my tattoos. I begrudgingly accepted the high financial price I would have to pay in order to participate.
It took awhile for me to find a balance between wanting to belong and needing to be myself. It also took a long time for me to accept that I am not less of a ballroom dancer because I have less money than most dancers. Honestly, it still bothers me sometimes. To this day, my financial means allow me one to two lessons per week and about 12 entries at competitions. Before the blue dress I currently compete in, I wore the same pink dress to every competition from the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2018. I loved that dress (still have it), and I also couldn’t afford another one or see the reason why I should spend additional money when the budget was so tight. I’m not blind to the fact that other dancers at my competitions have likely spent thousands of dollars on their dresses. I’m aware that I’ll never be in the running for one of those “top” awards because I can’t afford the high number of entries required.
It doesn’t matter.
Seriously, it doesn’t matter. I used to think it did. I used to think that I would never reach the levels that other dancers had because I couldn’t afford 4 or 5 lessons a week or the additional coachings. I couldn’t afford the $6,000 dresses or the 100 entries. I told myself, “screw ’em, I’ll do it anyway.” But deep down, I still felt like I fell short.
I have a bit of stubbornness in me, so even when I felt like I wouldn’t be able to make it, I still worked to prove my demons wrong. “Oh, I can’t do this because I don’t have as much money as others? Watch me.”
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know that Embassy Ball 2017 was a catalyst to wanting to prove my internal haters wrong. 5th place? I don’t think so.
I got to work. I couldn’t afford the usual ways of improving my dancing via extra lessons or coachings, so I took my own path. I got so good at practicing on my own, I published a book about it. People noticed and commented on how quickly I was improving. I doubled down on practice. I placed 1st and 2nd at competitions again.
Then that time of year came around again – Embassy Ball. This was the ultimate test. Would I redeem myself from my 5th place?
As I arrived at the hotel where the competition was being held, I was feeling capable. Yes, I was nervous, but I knew how to handle it. I knew what I needed to do to warm myself up mentally and physically, so when it came time to dance, I would be ready. I arrived about two hours before my first round, so I had plenty of time to chat with people, including some of my followers I hadn’t yet met in person, watch some of the dancing, and get myself in the zone.
Besides the scholarship where I would compete once again for a world title, I had entered two rounds of single dances (12 dances total). Teacher was dancing with two other students and would not be available to warm up with me, so I was left to my own devices.
Once it was time to dance, despite the butterflies in my stomach, I felt calm and confident. As we walked out onto the floor, I felt happy to be there and ready to just dance for me because that was what brought me joy. It didn’t matter who else was on the floor with me, or who was judging. I was there to dance for myself. This performance at Embassy Ball was for me.
The dancing felt amazing, and somehow I knew it would. I felt grounded, balanced and strong in my body. I felt calm and confident enough in my mind to let that inner dancer loose. She took over and I entered a state of bliss. Everything just clicked.
The second round of single dances was a tad different. Everything still felt amazing, but I could tell I had given everything I had in the first round and bliss was like 95% there. My results reflected it. In the first round, I had a clean sweep of 1st places in all dances. In the second round, I placed 2nd in the waltz and Viennese waltz, and 1st in the tango and foxtrot. It was also a completely different panel of judges. I got my results from the 1st round before I danced my 2nd round, and so I was interested to see how the new set of judges would rank me. It’s possible this shift in focus from myself to the judges also turned the bliss state down a notch.
But no matter, the round I really came for was coming up. Not for about 7 hours though, so I went home and hung out with my dogs for awhile. It was really nice that I lived so close and was able to go home to rest before the scholarship rounds. Although my Gromit didn’t understand why he couldn’t lick my face like he usually did when I would come home (don’t touch the makeup!).
Back at the hotel in the evening, I went through my rituals again to mentally and physically prepare myself. Everything was coming down to these semi and final rounds, and yet I wasn’t freaking out. I felt ready. I worked my ass off over the past year, and I was ready to show everyone and myself what I could do.
The semifinal was a bit crowded with 11 couples on the floor. I barely noticed except for when I had to duck to avoid getting hit in the head and alter my arm styling to avoid whacking someone else. Once again, I was in the zone and feeling freakin’ awesome.
I was 99.9% sure I would make the final, but I still had to go see our number posted on the finals board for myself. I asked Teacher for any last minute coaching/feedback and he said just keep doing what I’m doing.
That final round was more dancing heaven. I’m not sure if I can explain it fully, but something shifted during my dancing at Embassy. Someone who watched me commented that I danced with “wild abandon” and another said my dancing was “smooth like butter.” Both fit what I felt. Everything clicked. I felt sure in my body and I didn’t care about pleasing anyone but myself. This performance was 100% for me, and I was worthy of a fantastic performance.
We didn’t have to wait long for the awards presentation. This was the moment of truth. I had butterflies in my stomach, but something deep down made me feel certain I placed first. Ridiculous, right? How could I know? I can’t explain it, but every time one of those demons popped up and whispered “just to be safe, prepare yourself for 6th so you’re not caught off guard” or after they announced 5th place, “ok, great, we’ve officially placed higher than last year, so we’re ok with 4th”, I responded, “no, we won. I know we won.”
When they called someone else’s number for 2nd place, Teacher hugged me and told me he was so proud of me. I can’t quite describe how I felt. It was some sort of wonderful mixture of joy, relief, validation, triumph, and maybe a dash of shock. I fought back tears as we walked up to accept my first place and take our place on the top podium. I kept telling myself, “don’t cry, you still have to take pictures!”
The story ended so perfectly, it was like a fairy tale. I was Cinderella, but instead of a fairy godmother, I had a year of hard work supporting me, and instead of winning the heart of a prince, I won a World Champion title. It wasn’t an easy road, but it never is in a good story.
Three days later and I’m still smiling about it. I worked so freakin’ hard over the past year to improve my dancing, and I succeeded. To have that hard work then validated at the competition that caused such grief just a year ago was, like I said, storybook perfect.
The moral of the story? Solo practice works! If you had your doubts, I hope a World Champion title has convinced you. I went from placing 5th out of 7 couples to 1st out of 11 couples in one year. I’m not sure what more proof I can give you that the Solo Practice Guide is legitimate and effective.
I’m going to get into “what’s next” in a separate blog post since this one is getting kind of long. Before I go, I have to express my deepest gratitude to Teacher, my dance partner. You can’t learn ballroom by solo practice alone, and he worked hard to make sure the few lessons I had with him were quality and gave me whatever I needed to take into my practice time. I have to cut down to one lesson a week for the rest of the year, so it will be even more critical that we make the most out of our 45 minutes together as I move into the next chapter of my dance journey. I’m not worried though. I know I am a strong and capable dancer, and I can’t wait to see where we go next!
P.S. – Videos of the semifinal and final rounds of the Closed Silver A Championships are available on my YouTube channel. Enjoy!