Daniela Novak lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia. She is a former champion and now a trainer, coach and adjudicator.
Daniela and her husband Fredi Novak created Fredidance Team and they run the Fredidance Club in Slovenia which is where most of the Slovenian champions come from.
This article was originally published on Facebook.
The weekend of 22nd and 23rd September was a very busy one for the organizers of three World Championships and one Grand Slam event in Beijing.
World Championship Youth Latin is the one I am going to write some comments about.
The whole event was organized on the highest level looking from any perspective possible. What gave me the biggest pleasure was the fact that what matters to dancers the most: the venue, the floor and especially the music were all very good!
I expected to enjoy the whole event and I did.
I am not going to comment on particular dancers or dance couples, even though I made some notes during the first rounds. What I would like to comment is connected mostly to issues that I feel are not addressed enough and it is starting to influence the direction of development of Latin dancing.
It is very easy to recognize two distinctive directions in which our youth is guided by their teachers. The first one is the traditional way of studying basic technical skills first (which of course is an ongoing, never ending trip for a dancer) and then develop a choreography that the dancers will be able to execute well, keeping in mind that what we, the teachers, expect from them is to move with technical accuracy, developing partnering skills and learning to add personal interpretation of the required technical ability along the way to mature into an original dancer- the artist.
The other direction deals mainly with the question: what do we have to do or how do we have to dance to win this comp, this championship...Kids are taught to copy what the teacher wants them to do. Usually the teachers of these dancers are young professionals or amateurs, still active or in first years (decade) of their teaching careers, very full of energy, with a strong desire to be as successful (or more) with their teaching as they were as dancers. Most young dancers like a teacher who doesn't explain much and who shows them the movement instead, so they can copy it.
Since I am now in Beijing writing this report, what enters my mind is, how good the Chinese are at copying things. Some years ago I took one of my favorite designer jackets that became a bit too tight to be copied by a tailor in Shenzhen. The copy looked 100% exactly as the original at first glance. But when I wore it for the first time, I realized, it doesn't FEEL the same as the original. I only wore it once! I had another jacket made then, and that one was a copy from a picture from a fashion magazine. It was an evening jacket to be worn with a long skirt and had a very delicate gold trimming. When I got it, the trimming was anything but delicate and it was done in bright yellow. I couldn't wear it at all and I couldn't even complain, because it was exactly how it appeared on the picture I gave them. Of course I only realized that later. The color of the trimming looked yellow, but the person doing it obviously didn't have enough fashion SENSE or KNOWLEDGE to realize it should've been gold!
Teaching only by copying can never produce artists. Copying as one of the teaching methods is ok, especially for very young dancers or for dancers at their earlier stages of development. What bothers me when I look at the youth couples today is the fact that I am able to tell by looking at them, who is their teacher or their dance idol that they try to copy. The worst aspect of this is, when they copy (without realizing!!!) also their idols' or teachers' faults.
One of the common problems that I see a lot is the boys' lifted and open chests which have absolutely no connection to the center. Dancers with this fault mainly come from the same group and are already being copied by younger ones. Why? Because they are not punished for their obvious fault and their competition results don't reflect their posture problem!
The far -from- perfect postures are nowadays in WDSF Latin competitions a common sight even in the finals! (To be honest, the last night's winner is a perfect example, but he was only one of many. There were boys in semi and quarter finals with very bad body positions.)Who could explain to me, what the judges were looking for, if the most basic requirement for a good connection between two bodies doesn't exist? If somebody's posture clearly shows that there is no connection between someone's feet, center and upper body, how can you expect any quality of movement, any quality in partnering department, any quality in musical and rhythmical interpretation? Done correctly, by understanding the basic mechanical principles, the posture CAN be the most powerful statement, but to achieve and maintain it throughout the performance, the dancer has to do some studying as well.
What I see nowadays is that often dancers are rewarded for their innate talent, choreography (which has to be the fastest possible and with as many tricks as possible), the level of stamina and the personal charisma, which is often artificially inflated to such extent, that to any subtle soul among the judges (and I DO hope we still have some of those!) screams much too loud!
There is also a strong influence of the Eastern European folk dances in which the men show off in front of the women by executing difficult stunts and compete among themselves, while women just have to look beautiful and desirable. I see this as an undesired development in Latin basically because in these folk dances men and women usually don't dance with each other while in Latin they should. I am not against influences from other dance forms and especially not if there is influence coming from folk dances, which can bring more variety among dance couples representing different parts of the world, as long as there is still the respect for the basic idea of ballroom dancing, which should be to dance WITH each other.
In the classical ballet school they know exactly what the students have to learn first and what kind of exercises they need to repeat daily and for how long, before the student is ready for more complex ones. Perfecting the body position is the most important task for the students in the early years of training and it is never really finished. Latin dancers are too easily satisfied with their posture and because they are not punished for a problem in that area, they don't work on it enough.
Of course the girls are not immune to that problem either. The only difference is that their arch of the lower back is usually not the result of opening the chest too much, but the wrong idea, that they are more "sexy" if they create stronger curve of the spine or in many cases, they just have week awareness of the center. The consequence is the same: no connection between the spine and the supporting foot (center-foot connection ) and as a result, less accuracy in the foot to foot transition, problems in coordinating and timing of the rest of the body activity, partnering problems etc.
I also see many girls who have been trained to exaggerate the pointing of their feet, straightening their knees and using arm and hand gestures all the time to decorate themselves. Especially in the department of using the arms, there are far too many clones on the floor. How we are using free arms and hand gesturing should be one of the most private and personal ways of expressing our unique feel for the movement. I would never ask a dancer to repeat after me and use the arm the way I would do it. I have used exercises to give dancers some basic 'vocabulary' and understanding how to feel the most natural reaction of the arm to the action used in the body, but after that, it is their job to explore the possibilities. Many dancers trained through copying their teacher might shorten the time they need to make their performance presentable and looking quite good at first sight ( like my Chinese designer jacket copy), but when we look closer, we can spot the difference between the originals and the fakes. The reason why I am so against this kind of teaching is, that it doesn't allow the dancer to develop his or her unique style.
Contrary to the importance of the usage of extremities in ballet, I have always considered Latin dance technique to be mostly about the body actions, but watching the WC youth I think that the body action is the most neglected issue, especially among girls. The boys dance (unfortunately mostly by themselves) and the girls try to look beautiful by putting more attention to creating beautiful shapes, forgetting to dance their bodies. The attention is on the free leg instead of the standing leg. The attention is on the free arm instead of the connecting arm. It is more and more about what happens on the outside and not enough of understanding about what is happening on the inside of the body.
Everything that I mentioned above is not meant to criticize the young dancers. They are somewhere in the process of their development and it is only natural that they all have more to learn. My thoughts and comments were meant to remind teachers and especially the adjudicators that they should have stricter expectations regarding basic mechanical principles, starting from the degree of perfection the dancers are achieving regarding their posture, because that's what influences everything else.