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It was a sticky, humid day at the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but this did not stop Puerto Rican bomba y plena musicians Viento de Agua from giving a dynamic performance that had the audience on its feet dancing.

Here is a video I made of Viento de Agua performing a plena. I did not catch the name of the song, so if anyone knows what it is, please comment. Plena is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music that we were told has its roots in the sound of a train. You can certainly here this underlying “chugging” sound in the music. Plena is one of the many caribbean styles that lends its rhythms and styles to salsa and merengue. It is characterized by the use of percussion instruments and vocal harmonies to form the rhythm and tune.

The second half of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs July 1-9 on the National Mall. The three featured themes this year are:

  • Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture
  • Wales/Cymru

and my personal favorite…

  • Las Americas: Un Mundo Musical / Music in Latino Culture

We dancers know that dancing is a good way to forget your troubles for a time; but what about dancing making you forget to catch your cross-country bus home? According to the AP, 83-year-old Mussa Muhammad was so elated after attending the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., that after becoming separated from his group, he “‘just danced and danced with a couple of young women he met along the way.” His fellow travelers waited for him for five hours before heading back to South Bend, Indiana. Luckily, the resourceful Muhammad found his way back on a Greyhound bus, ” still wearing the black-and-white suit with red dots that he wore to the inauguration.”

Speaking of forgetting stuff… The other day, the song Just Dance by Lady Gaga came on the radio and for the first time I really listened to the lyrics. The bouncy tune and cheerful refrain belie the disturbing lyrics about a girl who is so wasted that she has no idea who she’s with, where she is, or where her personal belongings and clothes went. Then the different guys who sing at the bridges want to take advantage of her disorientation by having their way with her. This song is definitely good evidence against binge drinking in clubs. Then again, I’d never seen the video, either…

I am not usually big on new year’s resolutions, but 2008 was kind of a long tough year so I’m welcoming the chance to turn over a new leaf. Instead of calling it my list of resolutions, I’m going to call it my 2009 Action Plan. Making vague promises to myself (i.e., gotta lose that weight and make it to the gym more) only sets me up for failure.

2008 was hard on many fronts. For one, it was a difficult year for the world. We had so many natural and human disasters. Senseless wars dragged on and death tolls continued to mount. Certain toxic elements in my workplace made it hard for me to be there many days. Then there was the presidential campaign, which lasted two years. I threw myself into a lot of projects and commitments in 2008. Three dance performance commitments– two of them incredibly time intensive, a whole lot of travel (mostly for work), and a full-time volunteer commitment on top of my more-than-full-time job for three months this fall. All of these thigns were worthwhile and important, but sometimes I sacrificed myself along the way. When you’re that busy and invested in something, you tend not to focus on your own needs very much.

This year is already off to an auspicious start. The toxic element is out of the way at work and I feel a thousand times better. Our political climate is changing– we have a new President that for the first time in a decade I feel I can claim as ‘my’ president. I invested a lot of my own time and emotional energy in getting him elected and feel personally invested in his success. It is so nice to feel hope for my country’s future. And thank god the campaign is over; we also have a nice newly proportioned Congress to show for it.

2009 will be a year in which I nurture myself; and that in turn will make me a better friend and spouse.

In 2009, I will limit my performance commitments to two. That’s one less than 2008, and it will give me some more space to pay attention to my own development. I will also have more flexibility with my time.

In 2009, I will live a more spontaneously. When I am moved to buy a ticket or take a trip, I will, budget permitting. I have a lot of extra vacation to use this year, so time is not an issue. I will take a trip to NYC before the end of the Spring.

I will make the time to spend more time with my husband and my friends. We will welcome more people into our home (mission accomplished– we had our first dinner party in at least a year or two on New Years Eve). To do this, I’ll have to learn to say no to some commitments that I might otherwise have taken on.

Each time I am moved to say something negative, complaining, or nagging, I will count to three before I open my mouth.

Oh, and one final boring one (because it’s something I’ve actually been able to stick to): I will floss every day.

So that’s my list. No mention of diet and exercise, because if I really stay true to the above, the rest will follow.

What about your 2009 Action Plan?

…is taking an impromptu Sunday road trip to the beach with my friends from said dance class. Dance has given me so much more than itself.

Bodies of water—pools, lakes, the sea—aren’t just for swimming and splashing around. They are also great places to dance and improve your ability to move in different ways. The resistance provided by the water, the buoyancy of your body in the water, and the additional lift provided by the waves of the sea can all be used to your advantage.

I’ve been doing my barre exercises in the pool this summer. Not only is it relaxing and enjoyable, it’s helped me improve muscular strength and extension. In the water, you have to move more slowly, and therefore articulate each movement more carefully. The resistance provided by the water, when done on a regular basis, helps to strengthen and tone your muscles in a different way than when on dry land. Your center is more important than even, because you must keep it even tighter to stay upright in the water. To do your barre sequence in the pool, stand in the shallow end with the edge at barre height, to rest your hand and proceed with your same sequence as usual.

I’ve been told that extension is less a matter of flexibility than of strength and center. Being in the water really drove this point home for me. I am able to extend my leg a good foot higher in the water simply because the buoyancy of it did all the work for me, floating my leg up much higher than I am normally able to keep it on my own strength.

Another area I’ve been able to work on is jumps and leaps, a big area of weakness for me. The gravity-defying properties of water are a big assist and have helped me to improve my technique and build confidence. With gravity, it’s basically impossible to “articulate” a leap, so if this is an area of weakness for you, the slowness and lift of water can help you get down to the mechanics of getting off the ground. Even more fun than a swimming pool is at the beach. Timing your jumps or leaps with the waves will carry you higher and farther.

Sometimes when you’re on vacation, you don’t have the chance to go to class, but with a little resourcefulness (and water), you can keep on dancing. As the summer comes to a close, here’s one more reason (as if you needed one) to head to the pool or the beach while you still can.

My favorite DC event starts today. The 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival starts today and ends July 6 on the National Mall. Each year, the festival showcases three cultures and the individuals that keep their folkways alive. Traditional crafts, foodways, social and economic traditions, music, and of course, dance are demonstrated by those that practice them on a daily basis.

This year’s themes are Bhutan, NASA (how is that a culture?….I guess I’ll find out), and Texas. I’ll be particularly interested in learnining about traditional Bhutanese dance, and checking out the Tejano music and dance. The close proximity of my office to the festival all gives me the opportunity to try out the food on my lunch break.

The festival’s schedule is available here. If you are in DC or within driving distance, this is worth the trip! A number of videos are available here if you can’t make it down or want to preview the festival and each theme.

I find that I’m often apologizing for not having posted in a while. My general goal is to post at least three times a week and to stay up-to-date with a core group of dance blogs on my feed. But that can’t always happen. I travel quite a bit for my job, and two thirds of the places I go are small and rural towns. Internet access can be iffy there and my days are so long that there’s no time for writing.

Then there’s the fact that I tend to be more inspired to write when I am surrounded by dance. I seek out dance opportunities on the road when I can (more on that later), but I am missing out on my normal classes on rehearsals. I was on an airplane during the last episode of Step It Up and Dance and anyway, it seems most hotels I stay in do not carry Bravo tv in their lineup.

Then there is my at-home routine. Missed classes mean that I’m constantly struggling to get my body back into top dance shape, and missed rehearsals can mean missed performance and casting opportunities. My family and friends are important to me, and being away so much means that I may miss additional classes and practices to spend quality time with them.

If you are like me, just trying to balance (as the subtitle of this blog says) a passion for dance with real life, I’ve put together a list of some of my own strategies for balancing your traveling lifestyle with your love for dance.  Even if you don’t travel too much, some of these things can apply to you whenever you travel.

  1. Take care of your body. Just about every hotel these days has a gym, and if they don’t they usually have an agreement with a local gym. Going for a run on the treadmill will help you maintain cardiovascular endurance, and it also helps me be wide awake for those early morning meetings. As for stretching, I try to do short yoga sequence before bed, maintaining flexibility and centering me before bed. I’m not so good about working out at home, but I find that the close proximity of the hotel gym (or a yoga studio: see my post Keeping Balance on the Road) motivates me to work out every day.
  2. Travel can be a minefield of junk food– acknowledge it and do what you can to minimize the damage. I was going to entitle this one “watch what you eat” but I wanted to practice what I preach. Sometimes it can be impossible to avoid eating fatty simple carbs when that is your only option, and the cookie tray/candy dish that comes out mid-afternoon can be hard to resist. Acknowledge that this is a challenge and try to load up on fruit and other healthy options when the opportunity arises. Even in the most rural haven of fried food, there is usually a salad and a vegetable side dish on the menu. If you don’t follow this one, at least you’re working out every day at the gym! It behooves all of us to eat healthy for a variety of reasons, but mine is seeing my bloated, lethargic self wearing nothing but a spandex leotard in the floor-to-ceiling mirror at the next ballet class.
  3. Take advantage of the alone time to practice. Usually all I want to do when I get back to my room is conk out on the bed and turn on the boob tube, but taking even just 10 minutes to go over some complicated steps or practice a barre sequence can make a big difference and will make you feel like you did something. I hardly ever have time to practice at home. Even if I’m alone at home, I feel guilty about laundry or dishes (or writing in my blog!) but you don’t have those pressures in the hotel room. Take advantage of this precious time.
  4. Go to class. Although I said 2/3 of the time I’m in small, rural towns, I didn’t mention that the other 1/3 I go to large cities. Chances are, any city with a population over 100,000 is going to have some opportunities for dance. Do your research before you leave so you can schedule appropriately. For classes, a google search for “[city name] adult dance classes” will pull up some local dance schools offering evening classes for adults. Make sure you call ahead to make sure they take students on a drop-in basis, and that classes will be offered the dates you’re there. It is often hard to make this work, but doing your research in advance will at least keep your options open. It is also great for your development to study with different instructors in different cities.
  5. Social dancers: this is your golden opportunity! If you are a social dancer– salsa, swing, etc, travel may be one of the very best things for your growth and confidence as a dancer. Most large cities have at least one opportunity each night of the week for social dancing. Here again, google is your friend (i.e., “detroit salsa”). My strategy when I walk in the door is to ask the organizers where the serious dancers hang out. More often than not, they will introduce you to the best dancers, who in turn will be excited to dance with someone outside of the same old group. Living in a city with a large a vibrant salsa scene (DC), it is fun and confidence-boosting for me to travel to smaller cities where I can be a big fish in a small pond. Every city has its own distinct style of social dancing, and exposing yourself to new styles and new partners will help you improve by leaps and bounds. See my account of Salsa in Seattle for an example of this.
  6. About 4 and 5: bring some extra cash and a shot of courage. Getting out there to find classes and clubs in an unfamiliar city is not always easy. It may entail a pricey cab ride and you have no idea once you get there if it was worth the trip (see The $52 cha cha cha). Obviously, have your wits about you and ask around about the neighborhoods you are going to to make sure it is a safe place to go on your own. But don’t let being alone be your only excuse. Chances are, if you show up and put yourself out there, you are going to be glad you did.

Happy Trails!

Mr. P and I have been coming to South Beach for a couple of years now, and there is one person we always know we’ll see on the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall– a middle-aged man with crazy hair, a large fanny pack, a short-sleeved button down men’s shirt, and flowered skirt, wearing psychadelic platform shoes and dancing his heart out to various tunes of the ’60s and ’70s blaring out of a little boom box. He twirls, steps, flutters his hands, and poses. He engages passersby in friendly conversation and collects money on a little foil square from his amused audience. I always enjoy watching this man– more for his sass and enthusiasm than his technical ability, per se, but he does have a couple moves I’d like to borrow if a time machine were to whisk me away to a ’70s disco.

Here is a video of Lincoln Road’s dancing man in action:

Like most street performers, he’s always just been part of the scenery and local flavor. Although I may pause to watch him longer than your average passerby, since I get such a kick out of his dancing, I’ve never really given much thought to who he might be or what made him tick.

Last night, as we sat at a table enjoying our ice cream from Gelateria Parmalat (best gelato outside of Italy if you’re ever in the area), the dancing man set up shop in the plaza right in front of us. He meticulously cleaned the entire area around him, throwing away bits of trash, speaking with various individuals who were crowding his “stage”, and laying out his foil square, on which he arranged a few quarters in a geometric pattern. The aforementioned foil square doesn’t look like much, perhaps just a loose piece of trash, and several pedestrians and bikers who went right over it were treated to diva-like dismissive hand gestures and a few sharp words.

Finally, the tape went into the tape deck, and through the static, the ’70s came alive again. His hips started to sway, the skirt swishing around him. The sway turned into a couple twirls, then some dainty-fingered hand gestures, and a sassy prancing step around the foil square.

Easily distractible, the dancing man will interrupt himself mid-dance to engage passing tourists and locals in conversation. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him dancing for more than 10-15 seconds without stopping. Later, when we went to give him our donation, we found out that the banter consists of an endless stream of retro music and movie trivia. He seemed very friendly and into himself and his persona, but I still have no sense about what makes him tick.

A google search for “lincoln rd dancing man” soon pulled up this interview from Miami Beach 411, Meet Mitchell Chonin: Lincoln Road Dancer, Performance Artist. I learned that Mr. Chonin, as we now know him, has been dancing on South Beach since the ’80s. A Miami native, he claims to have been elected both valedictorian and prom queen of his high school class in the mid-’70s. By day, he works as a registered dietitian. He believes in his talent and aspires to be on American Idol. I pray that he never makes it onto any of those reality shows because I know they would love to have someone like him for the “ripping people to shreds” portion, and anyway, I’d love for him to keep on dancing in South Beach, where he brings a huge smile to my face every time I see him dance.

Only a fool would voluntarily go to Chicago in the middle of January (and before I get any haters, I grew up in an even colder place, so I know what I’m talking about). I spent the last 24 hours in Chicago and although my visit there was by no means voluntary, my consolation prize was some salsa tourism.

Was it worth the $20 in cab rides, $10 cover, $2 mandatory coat check, and $20 bar minimum (which the bartender sweetly informed me of after handing me my $7 drink), having to wait an hour for the DJ, which didn’t start until 10:30 (on a Tuesday night?!), and then dragging my tired self out of bed at the crack of dawn the next morning to give a presentation whose sole purpose was to deliver some bad news? The verdict’s still out on that one, but let’s rewind, shall we… Read the rest of this entry »

I think the catharsis I got from writing three posts age really did help. There was a really nice post on kk’s blog today about it, which made me feel like I have a kindred spirit in this.

I felt pretty darn good at rehearsal on Friday and there were a ton of new faces in my modern dance class today so the teacher slowed things way down and really got into the technique of things. It made me feel super proficient for once– it’s all relative.

We are now at t-6 on the Miami countdown! This is not before having to go to Chicago for one night (study in contrasts, I tell ya), but I’m planning to hit up a salsa club while I’m there, and there is nothing like salsa travel to reinvigorate me.

It really does help put all this into perspective.

South Beach, Miami, FL (c) paul79uf

from flickr user paul79uf 

I ♥ NY

This was the idyllic scene I breakfasted in the other morning at my Grandma’s house. She lives in Connecticut, close to NYC, and gets the Times. Never in a million years would I open the Washington Post and see a full-page, beautifully written article about dance such as this and other great coverage of the arts. Also, isn’t the coffee mug a perfect concidence?

Century Ballroom websiteWhen I was in Seattle, I had to check out the local salsa scene. Thanks to a tip from fluvial, I learned that the Century Ballroom is the best place to go on Saturday nights. A description of the place said it was more elegant. I was a bit worried because all I had for dancing attire was jeans and a cute top. Luckily, the definition of “elegant” in the Pacific Northwest is exactly what I had packed!

There’s always the fear when you go out alone to an unknown place in a new city that the scene will be cliquish or there will not be enough partners. Not to worry. Before I even had a chance to finish buckling up the Salma Hayeks, I was in business. There’s nothing like saying to the world “I bring special shoes to dance my salsa in,” to communicate that you are a serious dancer.

A big thank-you to the salseros of Seattle, because I hardly made it off the dance floor the whole night!

I was trying to get a feel for the local style and after a couple dances it was clear to me that Seattle salseros are big on connection. I have never had so many strong, immediate dance connections with so many different partners in one night. There was one very notable exception– a tall guy, er, prick in a striped button-down shirt who looked everywhere but at me for the entire song and seemed incredibly bored– possibly the worst connection ever in the history of my life and not for my lack of trying. But I digress…

Pretty much every other guy that I danced with, regardless of their level or technical ability, seemed really into trying to be the best leader he could be. I’m guessing that whomever is teaching most of the dancers in Seattle emphasizes connection, and to that teacher I say, “well done!” It was incredibly refreshing. There were few dancers who did fancy turn patters or inventive moves or whatnot (or dance on 2– only one person I danced with knew how to dance on 2), but who cares when you have a good connection.

As for the venue, the Century Ballroom is gorgeous. It is an old-style ballroom in a historic building with beautiful, perfect-for-dancing-on wood floors, a balcony around three sides of the room, tables and chairs lining the edge of the large dance floor and a small stage in front. The size was perfect, not overwhelming. The lighting was good, and the cover and drinks quite reasonably priced. Just as I was thinking how lucky Seattle is to have a venue like the Century Ballroom, the owner made an announcement that the building had been bought and their future is up in the air. She said they may be forced out or they may have to pay much higher rent, which would of course affect the prices at the door and the bar. It is such a pity because that same building houses other dance and arts organizations, such as the Velocity dance center where I took a modern dance class the following day.

The night I was there, there were two performances of companies who were about to go to the San Francisco Salsa Congress. The names of the groups escape me, but I enjoyed their performances. I thought they were sharp, very much in-synch, and technically talented. You may know how I feel about club performances– a pesky interruption to social dancing, which is why I came– but the interruption was brief, I enjoyed the performances and I actually welcomed the rest.

Related: Pictures from my Seattle Trip


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