By Vicky Youcha
Boulder Swing Dance sat down with our very own Laura Montesano to hear about here experiences at the California Balboa Classic (Cal Bal) in late January. Cal Bal is one of the premiere Balboa events featuring top notch instructors and dancers from all around the world. Laura, who is normally a follower, signed up for the intensive crash course as a lead.
Q: Why did you sign up as a lead?
I started doing bal in July when Heather Ballew and Amy Dalton started teaching it in Boulder on Tuesday nights…and I fell in love with it. So much that I actually ended up going to Chicago in September for a balboa event, then October was Rocky Bal here in Denver, then in November I went to Nashville for Music City Shuffle (another bal event). You could say I caught the bal bug.
Amy told me about Cal Bal, and mentioned that it might sell out for follows and she was right, it did-BEFORE I registered. Silly me, I was taking my time to sign up because I had gone to Lindy Focus after Christmas and thought that leaving town again for another dance event was just crazy…and it kind of is, but it’s dancing! So, Heather suggested taking the crash course as a leader. It would improve my skills as a follower and I could attend the entire event. I was intrigued. Maybe it would be fun to experience the other side of the dance and see what it's like. I FINALLY registered for the event, and am SOOOOOO glad that I DID!!!
Q: What surprised you initially?
Well, when we started the first class of the weekend, doing the basic upholds and downholds, I was surprised at how good I felt. I WAS familiar with the dance so just switching the direction of the feet to start felt OK. But then as things progressed, there were moments where I thought my head might explode ;P
At the halfway mark, when we started leading simple turns and come arounds, I felt like I needed to practice at least 100 more times before these things felt even slightly natural. But other things felt easier to lead, like ad libs–going forward and back across the dance floor.
It was surprising and quite encouraging when I would lead somebody and they would give me a look like, “Wow, we're dancing!” and then say something like, “This isn't the first time you've done this dance, is it?” So that was cool.
Also, when my male lead friends heard that I was taking the lead track, they all wanted me to lead them, they seemed excited to experience following.
Q: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the weekend?
I would give the crash course at least a 9. I was thrilled with it. I thought all of the instructors were incredible, and encouraging. And actually there were 3 other women leading in the class as well.
Oh, and in one of the classes, the instructors talked about how in their community, everybody learns to lead and follow because it makes you a better dancer faster, and you never have to sit out a dance-because everybody knows both parts. They also talked a lot about different body shapes and sizes and how to find a connection that works with each person.
I appreciated that they discussed the things that could potentially be awkward–especially in a first time crash course–such as where to look when dancing with a very tall man or woman, or if two women of similar height are dancing together–what to do about the chest to chest connection. They made it a fun and comfortable atmosphere for experimenting with different connections with different people.
Q: Are you glad you signed up to lead?
ABSOLUTELY! It was a great experience and it forced me to pay attention more closely to specific moves within the dance.
Q: What’s the most important thing you learned?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is patience. Patience with your partner and patience with yourself. And kindness–kindness to your partner and kindness to yourself. These two things go a very long way. When people are learning, it can be a very sensitive process. I spoke with a lot of leads about their experiences during the event and mostly everyone had good experiences. That's why we all keep coming back for more. But every once in a while, especially when the lead is working out a new move with somebody that they don't know that well, even the most well-intended words may be heard differently by the receiver of the “feedback.” So yeah, patience and kindness are quite key.
Q: How was learning new moves as lead, different than as a follow?
As a person who typically follows, it felt VERY different leading (obviously). It's funny, during classes I've had in the past, as follow, I remember watching my lead friends execute the target new move in the air with their hands (without a partner) as they were listening to the instructor explain it. I always watched this with a smile, witnessing how they learn and integrate new material. I found myself doing this exact thing once I was leading–and it IS helpful.
Q: Were there any awkward moments?
Awkward moments? I have to say, I really don't recall any, as it was a very supportive and encouraging environment—and since there were 4 women learning to lead in my group, I never felt “singled out,” or anything like that.
Q: Would you recommend a crash course?
I would ABSOLUTELY recommend the crash course format for people who want to learn Bal.
Q: Any advice?
Be patient with yourself, and practice. As Mickey Fortanasce said, “...it's gonna be bad for a while until it's good,”–or something like that. But stick with it–it's SO worth it!