Greetings From Coney Island, U.K. II

Broke down and exchanged $40 more for pounds, so I have more money to spend at the trendy little internet cafe, which also serves delectable mochas, coincidentally. I have lots more time to kill as well since the last comp of the festival — the Pro Standard — doesn’t begin until 4 p.m. and I’ve thoroughly roamed — and bought out — all of the festival merchandise stands.

Last night was the pro Invitational Exhibitions comp, which, strangely, wasn’t all that impressive to me. Maybe it’s because it was one of the two events (together with the pro Latin) that I’d been looking forward to. It’s only invitational, so the Blackpool dance committee has to invite the couples, and they only invited 7, and, for some reason, everyone limits their performance piece to about 3 minutes, so the event was over practically before it even began. Definitely Hanna Karttunen and Victor DaSilva from South Africa, who won, were spectacular with their lifts and gravity-defying tricks (they do this one where he lies on his back and rests his body weight on his forearms and holds her body in a lift with his feet), but I don’t know — maybe I’ve seen too much ballet, where the dancers perform just as, if not more, physically demanding pieces and go on for longer. And I think with these exhibitions, they’re more about theatrical, death-defying tricks preceded by drum rolls than about artistry and beauty and with a story-line, like ballet. Maybe I’m just too much of a ballet head to have a lot of appreciation — which is a shame for me since this is the kind of ballroom dancing I most want to do. Oh well, I can seek to be original, right, and do ballroom/ballet — if Pasha and Luis will let me…

Very excited today though because I found a quaint cobble-stoned street with a few benches in the sun, and, because it’s my first day here that it’s been ‘nice’ — meaning not 40 degrees below, I sat outside. A local guy passing by said to me, ‘Dancing are ye?’ Even though I spent a semester in London as an undergraduate, I don’t seem to be able to understand the accents here very well, so I had to ask him to repeat himself. When I finally got it, I smiled and shook my head no. But it made me feel really good because I feel like I’ve gained a good 20 pounds here — eating greasy bacon, sausage, fried eggs, and baked beans every morning at my B&B (using as my excuse that it’d be too rude to the landlady to not finish my plate!), and I’ve developed the nasty but delicious habit of whenever I travel to Europe, sampling every single kind of chocolate that we don’t have in N.Y. — a magnificient way to ‘experience another culture’!! Anyway, after the guy passed by, the proprietor of a flower shop across the street called out to me, ‘You do look like a dancer. Lemme guess, Polish, right?’ I said no, American, laughing. He said, ‘Oh, oh, sorry,’ like he’d just made a huge blunder. It’s so weird to me though, because every time I come to Europe, I have this weird experience of people either asking me really slowly if I can speak English (as a young guy here did trying to sell his festival ticket to me on my first night), or people just start speaking Russian, or Spanish, to me. I don’t know how I could look both Eastern European and Spanish, but clearly (and cooly), I must not look American!

Back to dance… So, I have new favorites here — Latin semi-finalist Yulia Zagoruychenko, whom Mika knows and introduced me to and is very sweet in addition to being, I think, the greatest Samba dancer here. She and Maxim performed their routine from Ohio again during one of the lectures / demonstrations the top coaches and dancers give during the first two days of the festival. It’s called the Congress. This year, Len Goodman, judge of ‘Dancing With the Stars’ in the US and ‘Stricly Come Dancing’ in the UK gave one on tango (interspersed, I might add, with many dirty British-style, Benny Goodman-esque jokes — who know he had this personality?!). Also, the American team coaches gave one on what it’s like to teach in the world’s fast-food capital where teachers are expected to impart the basics of every extant ballroom dance in a single one-hour lesson (mainly geared toward Eastern Europeans considering emigrating but also funny for everyone); Latin’s top dancers Carmen and Bryan Watson gave a very funny one on how not to try to play-act actually being a bull and matodor during Paso but just dancing the dance; America’s top standard couple, Katusha and Jonathan (whom I’ve decided looks like Ralph Fiennes) gave a very polite one on the Viennese Waltz; legendary dancer and now coach Shirley Ballas gave one on the similarities and differences between Latin and Ballroom — specifically tango versus Paso, and foxtrot versus samba (I hadn’t realized how many similarities there actually were…), and the Congress ended with the most celebrated Latin couple in the world, Donnie Burns and Gaynor Fairweather, now nearly 50 though Gaynor honestly looks in her late 20s — who gave a somewhat tear-jerking but funny lecture on what Blackpool, now celebrating its 80th birthday, has meant to them over the many years they competed — a perfect lecture for a first-time Blackpool-goer. There were many more lectures, but too many for me to mention here — but for a newcomer to Blackpool, the pre-competition lectures were essential to the dance festival experience.

And my other new favorite is Sergei Surkov, a Latin dancer from Poland who placed 7th overall with his partner. I had the fortune of seeing him dance up very close, as he did both his early-round cha cha and rhumba right in the corner where I was sitting. He’s absolutely gorgeous — looks a lot like Keanu Reeves — and he moves incredibly well and makes amazing lines. I know Mika would think I’m silly for not thinking of these dancers more as couples, but I don’t yet. I still see them individually, the way I do most ballet dancers. Maybe that will change as I grow more experienced in ballroom.

Okay, the two computers in the internet cafe are very very in demand on a Friday, so I must get going. It’s been a really wonderful time for me here. I’ve learned so much and seen so much and this trip has been so worth it. But, I am getting extremely ballroomed out and am very ready to come home. Tomorrow morning I fly home, and tomorrow evening I will see yet more dance — Marcelo Gomes, my love!, and Julie Kent fly on a pumpkin in the ABT’s Cinderella…

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