Feeling the pressure of DWTS!

By January 4, 2012General

Michelle Hopkins' first article about her DWTRS effort. Click to view larger version.

Wendy and I have long been fans of the various dance television shows, recognizing the incredible skill and effort required to take someone with no background in ballroom dancing and making them look good in just days or weeks.

Dancing With the Stars, as you are no doubt aware, pairs up a teacher with someone who has no dance background at all. The stars work with the pro for a few weeks, then the pressure mounts as they begin to choreograph routines and work to make them polished enough for a live presentation in just days.

I was approached last fall by Andy Wong of the Grand Ballroom, where we do most of our teaching, asking if I’d be interested in volunteering my time for a fund raiser called “Dancing With the Richmond Stars.” Based on the same premise as the popular TV show, the event would require me to train a non-dancer and have her ready for a live performance in just a couple of months. I thought it was not only a great cause, but an exciting challenge. After getting approval from DanceSport BC and the Canadian DanceSport Federation, I waited to meet my celebrity partner.

Shortly before Christmas I met with my “star” for the first time. Michelle Hopkins is a reporter for the Richmond News. I learned that she would be chronicling her adventures in the newspaper (read her first article). Learning more about her interest in the event, we talked about dancing and looked at photos and videos. I asked whether she would prefer to do a Standard ballroom dance or a Latin dance. “Cha Cha,” she exclaimed without a moment’s hesitation.

We began working on Cha Cha basics, and I was impressed with how fast she catches on. But learning so much in such a short time frame is not easy. There’s a big challenge ahead of us that will require hard work and dedication.

Michelle wrote an article about her adventure after the second lesson. I didn’t get a chance to see what she was writing ahead of time. It’s a great article and demonstrates her skill as a prolific writer. But it highlights that I need to learn more about what people really hear when you teach. For example, I instructed Michelle not to add artificial extra hip movement — hips will move automatically with the right leg action. Hip movement is something most beginners think they have to do, so they thrust their hips this way and that creating unattractive distortions. In the article that became a command to “hardly move the hips.” Close, but not exactly the message I intended to get across. The article also talks about being told to “shuffle” the feet, and I’m confident I never used that word at any time. These are great lessons for me that what people hear isn’t always what you said, so as teachers we need to be careful with all our words.

I began to think about the choreography and gained a new appreciation for what the television professionals have to do every week. I would find it quite easy to choreograph a competition routine for Newcomer, Bronze or Silver level dancers, where we have a syllabus rulebook to act as a guide. I would even be able to choreograph an open routine for an accomplished couple. But having to choreograph an open-style routine for someone who has never learned the basic steps is much harder than I had ever imagined.

I’m glad to report that Michelle is doing very well and I’m confident that she’ll look awesome by the time the event happens on March 3. The Cha Cha routine will begin with some dramatic open-level moves that are basic steps but dressed up with timing changes and other details to look a little more fancy than they really are. This will start the routine off with an exciting kick. Then we’ll switch to closed hold where Michelle can enjoy the security of being physically connected to her dance partner. We’ll end with more open steps to give a dramatic finish. I believe this will show off her skills, give her a little freedom to dance on her own, and push the look of the routine higher all at the same time. We’ll see if my intuition was right in a few weeks, but we can always modify things as we work on them.

At this time, we’re still pondering the song we’ll use. It’s a good start and a very exciting challenge. Wendy, of course, is helping to train Michelle to live up to the challenge ahead. We’ll be watching DWTS with even greater interest from now on, and with a new appreciation of how much work and pressure that really is. Stay tuned for more.

About George Pytlik

George Pytlik is a is a professionally certified ballroom dance instructor teaching group classes and private lessons with his wife Wendy in the Greater Vancouver area of BC, Canada.

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