Very exciting (but very tiring) weekend, nearly all of which was spent at this, the biggest and best of all local (ie: Mid-Atlantic region) competitions! Thanks to the retirements of the two top couples in American Smooth and American Rhythm, we now have two new champions in those divisions. Above are the new champs of Smooth, Eulia Baranovsky and Steven Doughtery. Below are the newly crowned King and Queen of Rhythm, Joanna Zacharewicz and Jose DeCamps.
So often with Ballroom competitions, the same people win over and over and over again, making the dancing itself always spectacular but the results a complete bore if not outright annoyance (if your favorite happens not to be the one who ad nauseam places first). So this year’s dual retirements (Ben and Shalene Ermis in Smooth, and now permanent DANCING WITH THE STARS fixtures Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko in Rhythm), made for a couple of very nail-bitingly intense nights all the way up to the 1:00 a.m. trophy presentations.
Above is, awww, my personal faves for Rhythm, second-place couple Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine and his new partner, Julia Gorchakova. Actually, Rhythm this year was a particularly loony soap opera. Ever since I first began coming to this competition, three years ago now, I’ve noticed the Rhythm championship is by far the most raucous of all four categories. Especially during the last of the Rhythm dances, Mambo, when the crowd is just going wild screaming and cheering on their favorite couples so loudly, you can hardly hear the music.
(If you know nothing of Ballroom, and actually care to know :), let me just briefly lay out the blueprint of an American competition: There are four main categories (each of which includes separate competitions for professionals, amateurs, and pro/ams, where students compete with their teachers — the kind I used to do when I still had a bank account ):
1) American Smooth (couples compete in 4 dances: Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, and Viennese Waltz);
2) American Rhythm (5 dances: Cha Cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero, and Mambo);
3) International Standard (5 dances: Waltz, Slowfox, Viennese Waltz, Tango, and Quickstep); and
4) International Latin (5 dances: Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble, and Jive).
So, back to the Rhythm drama. The crowd favorite has been, for a long time, this couple (pictured below in last year’s National competition: Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine and Joanna Zacharewicz):
For whatever reason, and I don’t want to get into gossip over who initiated and why, they broke up. And with that break-up, fan loyalties were torn asunder, oh no! Emmanuel teamed up with former, longtime Rhythm champion Julia Gorchakova, who, with her former partner, retired a couple of years ago but apparently came out of retirement just for him. And Joanna managed to snag the very cute and rather celebrity-esque, Jose DeCamps, who formerly danced with probably the most famous of the DWTS pro dancers, Cheryl Burke. I haven’t seen Jose before and I’m thinking he retired after Cheryl began her TV stint, and likewise emerged from retirement for Joanna, but I’m not completely sure; he may just have been partnerless.
Well, my heart was with Emmanuel, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but I just have to say I can completely see why Jose has the fan base he does. He just exudes safe, strong, warm Latin guy, kinda like a certain favorite ballet dancer
But my loyalties must remain with Emmanuel! Before he left my old studio, I took a few lessons with him, and he was one of the best, most technique-focused teachers I’ve ever had. I wrote about this before (but it was before anyone ever read my blog ), but he used to do this thing where he’d start us out with a completely boring salsa basic. I guess just having seen so much ballet, I’m always trying to “fly” as he calls it; I have no connection with the floor basically. It looks like ballet dancers are connecting with the air, not the ground, especially the ballerinas, so that was my aim of course. “Woman! The only reason you’re still upright is because you’re so light!” he’d cry out in his Haitian accent when I’d try a double spin and nearly fall. “All dancers know where the floor is at all times; even ballet dancers,” he’d rant on. Then, he’d close his eyes take me into a closed hold (guy’s right hand on girl’s back shoulder blade, girl’s left hand on top of his shoulder and free hands clasped together) and tell me to visualize myself connecting with the floor. And the freaky thing is, he’d have this uncanny way of being able to tell how well I was mentally connecting to the floor just by feeling my frame. He could honestly tell, with his eyes closed, whether my mind as wandering (thinking, for ex., ‘can’t we do something beyond a stupid salsa basic’), or whether I was concentrating on the floor beneath my feet. And he was always right on the mark about where my mind was. Weird. Anyway, in addition to being an excellent teacher, he’s a genuinely nice guy. He always goes out of his way to say hello to me at all the big competitions, even though he is really a kind of “star” in the ballroom world, and he’d always tell me I did well in a showcase (though I knew it wasn’t true!) Oh, and he’s also an amazingly awesome dancer! Focused on technique though he is in his own lessons, he really puts on a show like no one else. His choreography is so mad fun, his style so wild, he and Joanna were often called upon to perform showdances, for example, on last year’s America’s Ballroom Challenge, and last season’s DWTS.
And what a riotious show-down it was Sunday night! Both Jose and Joanna and Emmanuel and Julia really danced their hearts out. As my friend pointed out to me, the judges’ faces kept seesawing between the two, stopping to focus on absolutely no one else on the floor. “How are they going to decide who comes in third, fourth, and fifth?” she said.
The fun / intensity / melodrama — however you prefer to see it — of this competition is that it’s the biggest in the area, and one in which all of the top couples compete. Many see it as a forecast of what’s going to happen — who’s going to take tops — at Nationals in Florida, coming up in September.
No surprises in International-Style.
Andrei Gavriline and Elena Kruychkova won in International Latin.
And the always glorious Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova in Standard. My favorite Standard couple has long been Victor Fung and Anna Mikhed, below.
But, actually, the more I see of Jonathan and Katusha, the more I hear Jonathan lecture on the art of Ballroom dance at Blackpool and the way his love of the sport / art really shines through, and the more I really watch them closely and realize their technical brilliance, the more he really is growing on me. I think sometimes, Englishmen can seem distant and aloof at first. But he really does seem to appreciate his fans and the applause they get, weaker than that received by Victor and Anna. And his dimpled Ralph Fiennes smile is starting to be a familiar staple of my whole ballroom experience, an essential part of that world that just whisks me away whenever I go to these big competitions. And the more I see them dance, I do see why, though Victor and Anna are the king and queen of charm, the more I understand why Jonathan and Katusha are number one in the country for several years in a row now and practically number one in the world. Some of the things they do, while not so flashy, are very difficult. I love it when he takes her out to the center of the floor during Waltz and they’ll do reverse turns for over a minute. Those are not only absolutely beautiful, but so hard to sustain that momentum and maintain that precise footwork for so long — far longer than the other couples — without getting dizzy, especially for the woman since you really have no way of spotting, and you’re just turning and turning and turning.
Okay, Latin, the other melodrama, this one never-ending:
Above is the eternally second-place couple, Max Kozhnevnikov and the absolutely divine Yulia Zagorouychenko, by far the crowd favorite, which, believe me, becomes all too obvious with the loud, rather nasty boos of disappointment when Max and Yulia are called runners-up. I always feel sorry for Andrei and Elena when that happens, because the crowd is booing, by extension, their winning. Funny thing is: while the U.S. judges continuously mark Andrei and Elena number one, the World judges repeatedly place Max and Yulia well above Andrei and Elena. In fact, Max and Yulia made finals at Blackpool this year. The U.S. judges insist Andrei and Elena’s technique is perfect and will say no more. But the World judges insist otherwise, showing, excuse me, but how full of absolute dog crap ballroom judges can be.
Anyway, for me, my ideal partership (of the American couples anyway) would actually be Andrei with Yulia. I’ve honestly never seen anyone (of the Americans anyway) move the way Andrei does. He is a tall thin man who just flies across that floor seemingly at lightening speed, light as a feather, and his hips, legs, and feet just a blur. He used to give privates at my studio, and before I knew who he was, I saw him show a student a backwards three Cha chas– a very rudimentary, first-level step. I’d never seen anyone do a basic step like that. My heart dropped. I realized then good dancing is not about fancy steps, but about the way the basics are executed. I remember thinking, wow, this guy should compete. Stupid. Then, I saw him on the cover of Dancesport mag and realized, dur, he’s the national champion. My problem with his partnership with Elena (his wife) is that, a former gynmast, she’s so teeny tiny; he must be nearly a foot taller. Not only do they look a bit odd together, but sometimes it throws them off. Last year at the Ohio Star Ball (aka: “America’s Ballroom Challenge” in its televised incarnation), they lost a normally easily-maintained connection, likely because his arm was just too high to hold her properly.
And Yulia! Yulia Zagorouychenko is probably my favorite of all female Latin dancers, excepting Karina Smirnoff who (also now a mainstay on DWTS), hasn’t competed in a while. Not to sound silly, but to me, Yulia is like the Alessandra Ferri of Latin — she’s a true artist. She moves in wholly unique ways, creating shapes with her body that are completely her own. She’ll go nearly on pointe in those open-toed sandals in Rumba, thrusting her hips foreward and rounding her shoulder blades so that she looks, cooly, like a cobra or something. I worry that she’s going to get serious bone spurs on her toes by the time she’s in her thirties with that on pointe on a hard-wood floor in open-toed shoes, but right now it looks absolutely gorgeous. I feel that sometimes Max, as much of a little cutie as he is, and as creative as he is with their choreography, just doesn’t really share her artistic brilliance.
So, it’s funny because, well, at one point on Saturday night, the two couples were dancing very closely to one another. I think the dance was Rhumba. I was focused on the couple right in front of me, another favorite, the breathtaking Delyan Terziev and Boriana Deltcheva, when all of a sudden the crowd began going wild. I looked further out onto the floor to see that Andrei and Max had exchanged partners– particularly cute, and demonstrating very good sportsmanship given the rivalry. Max went to dip Elena and she jumped up and wrapped both legs around his back. Lifts are strictly forbidden in non-showcase competition, but of course it was a moment of goofiness, and therefore, forgiven. Silly as she was trying to be, I was amazed at how good they actually looked together; their small bodies were a perfect match for each other. And then I looked at Andrei and Yulia — he was doing this crazy dip with her and it looked so amazingly stunning. Then she stood up and placed her arms around his neck. She’s a lot taller than Elena and they looked absolutely gorgeous together. Powerhouse couple that would be!
Anyway, here are some more highlights:
Delyan and Boriana, as I mentioned above, one of my favorites artistically. They’re a tall, thin, long-limbed couple and their Rhumba looks almost Balletic. She looks like an inky black spider!
They’re at the same level as my dear beloved Pasha and Anya (who didn’t compete, as they are a little busy with something else at the moment!!!), the two usually duke it out for fourth or fifth place — way too low for both couples. Strange how I always seem to champion the underdogs…
A Smooth couple I like, J.T. Damalas and Tomasz Mielnicki. They always dance with a lot of pizazz, and always do a very sexy foxtrot. I think they placed third. She makes her own dresses, and she usually comes up with something just bedazzling. How gorgeous is that color!!! (Sorry for all the zombie-looking eyes, by the way. I need a new camera!)
Matt and Karen Hauer, a sweet, newlywed Rhythm couple. They started off their Mambo routine very cutely: he took one look at her and broke into a series of small jumps, as if to say how wowed he was at her. She watched in amusement, then he grabbed her hand and they took off.
Another shot of Jose DeCamps and Joanna Zacharewicz in Rhythm. Jose really is a charmer.
Katusha’s little sister, Anna Demidova and her partner, Igor Mikushov, who placed first in Amateur Standard. They competed in Blackpool as well, and placed very high there too. Promising future those two.
The always lovely (and very photogenic) Anna Trebunskaya (if name sounds familiar, she too has danced with stars; that sports star Jerry Rice, to be exact). She has a new partner, Pasha Barsuk (oh no, another “Pasha and Anna”!!) and they did very well for a new partnership, placing 5th in Latin. Good for her
One last thing: the throng of spectators was absolutely huge, as you can kind of see here with onlookers anxiously awaiting Victor and Anna’s slowfox. Latin was about ten times worse than Standard though; you really could hardly move on Saturday night, and I’m sure the crowd standing, of necessity since there was nowhere else to go, around the exit, was a borderline fire hazzard. Blackpool was crazy packed this year too. Attendees at ballroom competitions used to consist mainly of friends and family (and the few students) of the competitors, a crowd that could easily fit at the several tables encircling the dance floor. But the more popular dancesport is becoming, the more of a spectator sport it really is. I think they’re going to need to find a new venue for some of those more popular competitions and put up some serious risers. At least for Latin…
Anyway, here are more photos in the album. It’s not finished yet, as I have yet to match some names with faces, and some names are horrifically misspelled, so please bear with me until the weekend when I have more time for fix-ups.