Inner Strength + Outer Support: An Interview with Briana Suakjian

I’m super excited to introduce today’s guest to you all because she has had a huge direct impact on my dance journey. Please welcome to the blog, Briana Suakjian! She is the wife and pro dance partner of Kris Suakjian (a.k.a. Teacher!), and together they own and manage the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Laguna Hills, California. They took over their new studio literally weeks before the pandemic shut everything down. Despite possibly setting a record for worst timing ever (or perhaps the best, more on that later), Briana and Kris have successfully built a warm and welcoming dance home for their students. And yes, I may be just a bit biased.

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Learning to Trust My Power

Can you relate to this?

You’re working on a piece of choreography with your teacher. They tell you you’re doing fine but you’re holding back, you need to let go of your doubts and just go for it. Finally, you do! Your teacher is thrilled, and you’re happy and surprised. And then you freak out internally because this expression of power and confidence in yourself caught you off guard. Like a rubber band being stretched long and then snapping back to its original size, you have this urge to retreat back to a safer, smaller space where you feel less vulnerable.

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Back in the Studio

Happy Monday, dancers! I like to call today 50% off Chocolate Day. I used to go to the drug store every February 15 to stock up on discounted heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Now I don’t go to any stores! And my diet is considerably healthier these days, so we’ll leave the February 15th tradition with my younger self.

I got to spend part of my Valentine’s Day at the dance studio. It’s the first time I’ve been there for at least a month. I took an 11-day cross country trip and quarantined before and after. If you’re curious, you can read what it’s like to fly during a pandemic. It’s crazy how much more time and effort a trip requires these days, if you’re doing everything you can to stay safe.

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Is My Dance Journey Over?

As we reach the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., I know many dancers have one question on their mind: Is my dance journey over?

Some have been extremely lucky and privileged to be able to continue dancing and even compete through this pandemic. They experienced a couple months’ break in their dance schedule, which used to seem like a lot but in our current reality, hardly anything. I’ve been lucky to be able to take one in-person private lesson almost every week since July. I even got to perform in a virtual showcase.

Others have not danced in a year or longer. No lessons, no showcases, no competitions. Through an extremely stressful period of our lives, they have lost their primary source of mental and emotional relief. And after a year, they can’t help but wonder – is this it? Am I done dancing?

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You Keep Falling Because You Don’t Believe You Can Fly

Way back in 2015, when The Girl with the Tree Tattoo blog was still in the Newcomer division, I wrote an article for another dance website about partnering. I listed trust as one of three key factors for a successful dance partnership. Trust is a funny thing. It is like a house of cards, built up slowly over time, but one wrong move can make the entire structure collapse. It’s very fragile, and at the same time, holds very strong influence over us. We are willing to give so much of ourselves to those we trust without question.

In ballroom dancing, you have to trust your partner. You have to trust in their ability to dance and lead or follow (depending on your role). On a more emotional level, you have to trust them to respect you as you allow them into your personal space. The physical contact required for ballroom dancing (another key factor) can make you feel extremely vulnerable. It takes trust to ease that feeling and make you feel comfortable enough to dance well.

Ballroom dancing also requires trust in yourself.

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It’s Ok to Stumble. Just Keep Dancing.

Before I jump into today’s topic, I want to say Happy New Year, dancers! I hope your New Year’s celebrations were fun and safe.

My first lesson after the first pandemic lockdown started with a solo dance. I hadn’t danced in a studio for 3.5 months and the first thing Teacher and I did was dance Open Waltz apart. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see how much of the routine I remembered.

For the last couple years, Teacher has made me dance a solo dance or even an entire solo round at the beginning of almost every lesson, especially when we were getting close to a competition. I hated it. I got so embarrassed when I would lose my balance or forget my steps. It fed into my self-doubt and anxiety around my abilities as a dancer. But over time, it was also incredibly effective at improving my dancing.

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Resetting My Dance Journey

We’re down to the final week of 2020! Which means this is the last week to get your discount on the book bundles at Practice Ballroom Dance. Just sayin’.

I’ve got my bottle of bubbly and bayberry candle ready to go for December 31. For those unfamiliar, they say a bayberry candle burned to the socket brings health to the home and wealth to the pocket. My simple New Year’s Eve plans are not due to the pandemic by the way. I just prefer slippers to high heels.

A new challenge to kick off 2021 is also in the works! More details are below.

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Reflecting on the Year of WTF is Happening

I had the opportunity to apply some upgraded technique to my Open Waltz routine this week. Well, maybe I should say I learned that I needed to apply less. I have a tendency to do too much because I think I’m not doing enough. This week, I learned I was rotating way too much in a slip pivot, which then put me at the wrong angle for my heel pull, which then threw me off for the steps coming out of the heel pull. All that was corrected beautifully when I just stopped trying to do so much. Less was more.

Life continues to be really weird, so it was nice to have a moment when things actually made sense.

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Six Years Ago, I Thought My Competition Days Were Over

I don’t think I belong here.

That thought echoed in my head as I watched the pro-am American Rhythm session at the 2014 Holiday Dance Classic, held at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. It was my second competition as a pro-am ballroom student. I was there to dance American Smooth at the Bronze level. Smooth wasn’t until the next day, but Teacher was competing with other students in Rhythm and I wanted to show my support.

All morning, I watched ladies on the floor, dancing in rhinestones, feathers and fringe. During one of his breaks, Teacher pointed out students who seemed to be at almost every competition. I learned that some pro-am students were wealthy enough to fly themselves and their teachers around the country all year, dancing hundreds of entries at one competition after another.

And then there was me.

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