Meet the Boulder Swing Dance Teachers - Interview with Heather Ballew

By Vicky Youcha

We sat down with Heather to learn more about her dancing and teaching.

How/when did you get started dancing?

I started with country line dancing and two-step. I learned East Coast Swing in 1996 after I saw Swing Kids and heard about some friends going out swing dancing. I took my first lindy hop classes a few years later in 1999.

New dancers are often discouraged after their first couple of lessons. Do you remember how long it took you to feel like you were really dancing?

By the time I learned lindy hop I had learned the basics of several dances, including some ballroom, salsa, east coast swing, and country two-step and found them all relatively easy at the basic level. I remember lindy hop really challenging me. It was the first dance that I had to actually count in my head while dancing. In fact, I remember eight months into dancing that I was still counting through the whole dance. Today, I still count when I add new stylings or do anything unusual.

Another thing I remember as a beginner was getting really dizzy in classes because we were doing swingouts over and over. I remember that once, while taking a weekend workshop for the first time, I had a dream where I was spinning and spinning and it was the first time I remember waking up and knowing that I had been dancing in my dreams. Believe it or not, something clicked for me during that dream. It was like my brain was catching up to everything that I was learning. After that, lindy hop felt like dancing.

When did you start teaching?

I started assisting a local teacher, Victor Ward, in his classes sometime around 2003 and I assisted another teacher, Jonny Callahan, soon thereafter. Both leaders were some of my favorites to watch when I was a rank beginner so it was a huge honor to get to teach with them. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near their level and I knew I wanted to teach and learn more so I went to a local ballroom dance studio and signed up to be a teacher. A lot of dance studios will take novice dancers and train them on the job. I thought this would give me a more well-rounded education than just learning lindy hop mechanics and it would also give me some training on how to teach (something that didn’t exist in the lindy hop community at that time). I left the ballroom studio two years later but I am really grateful for my time there. It was definitely a good decision for me to do that.

Dance weekends, private lessons, special dance workshops–what’s most helpful for a beginning and/or intermediate dancer?

Oh boy. This one is tough because everyone is different. For me, personally, dance weekends were the best thing for getting better. Taking classes all day and then practicing for hours immediately after for three or more days straight was a great way to get better fast. That said, I’m an extrovert so being around people all day and all night for a whole weekend are fine for me. I think when you are a beginner or intermediate it helps to go into a workshop (or really any class) with the mentality that I may not remember any of this right now and may not use it yet but I’m starting to train my body to do new things. If I learn a similar thing further down the road - and you will if you keep going-it will be easier the second time around and even easier the third time around. I always feel like I really get something the third or fourth time that I learn something. In particular, I think follows can be really dismissive of learning new moves. I hear a lot of follows complain that they don’t want to learn moves because they don’t know if those things will be led on them. But the more things that you train yourself to follow, the better partner you will be and the more people you will successfully be able to follow. I think it’s always useful for me to learn new moves as a follow, even if they aren’t used on me until years later.

As for private lessons, I don’t personally recommend them for most beginners. I think a lot of beginners and non-dancers like the idea of private lessons because they feel shy about dancing in a group but, actually, I personally feel way more exposed and on-the-spot in a private lesson. In a private lesson you are one-on-one with a more advanced dancer evaluating what you are doing at almost every moment. If you want new moves, it’s often harder to pick those up in a private lesson because, with only one teacher, you can’t clearly see an example of what to do. I think most beginners are better off just doing and getting their bodies used to moving. After you have been dancing for a few months is a good time to get some detailed feedback about what details you could improve to look or feel better.

Other advice for new dancers?

I remember about six months into dancing a lot that I felt pretty lonely. I wasn’t spending time with my usual, non-dancing friends as much anymore and I hadn’t emotionally connected with the dancers all that much yet. In particular, I was meeting mostly men when I was out dancing and was around lots of other women but wasn’t meeting or connecting with them. While I love and appreciate my male friends and need them too, I really missed my female connections. Luckily a few of the people that I met early on started to make attempts to do things outside of the dance and invited me along. We did a golf series together, went to dinner and wine tastings, camping, and did other fun things along with continuing to dance together. We also started traveling to dance events in a group. We road-tripped to California, to Las Vegas, and to Utah and we still have awesome memories of that time when we were all new together, now 16 years ago (and the pictures are pretty funny now). Learning to lead has also been great for me over the years. I get to spend time at the dance with my lady friends and my male friends and it’s a great way to share ideas and learn new things.

Do you have a regular dance partner? How important is that when you’re learning?

Yes and no. I have had multiple dance partners over the years and have always maintained separate dance partnerships for lindy hop and for balboa. My balboa partner for many years now has been Javier Johnson. Javier lives in Hartford, Connecticut so it’s really hard for us to practice regularly. He is a fantastic dancer and human, though, so I am thrilled to dance with him any chance that I get, even if we are unrehearsed. Javier and I both have limited time off of work so sometimes we get hired with different people or attend events without one another and compete with other people. I am currently between lindy hop partnerships.

At home Krister and I dance together a lot and he helps me a ton. He is so creative and enthusiastic about trying new things. He also gives great feedback and is willing to take feedback as well. He is a perfect partner–particularly for teaching and growing as a dancer. He doesn’t want to compete so I compete with other people, which I think is good for us.

When you are learning it is really nice to be able to try things out with someone who doesn’t mind if you make mistakes. If you can find a regular practice partner I think it’s great–although if social dancing is your goal, trying things out with more than one person is really helpful. I know a lot of dancers get fixated on the idea that they need someone as good or even better than themselves to practice or to grow. I don’t think that’s true and I think that kind of mentality can limit your options and lead to disappointment. Dancing ability is a bit like a pyramid. The higher in level one gets, the fewer people there are at that level and the more people there generally are who want to partner with that person. There are a lot of intermediate dancers who would make great partners. I also think that there are ways to practice solo and improve, as a lead or as a follow, without a partner. To me the ideal situation, especially early on, is to work in groups. If you can find a good practice group that works together well you can accomplish as much or more than with a single partner and you can have a lot of fun. One caveat: If your eventual goal is to compete or perform, having a dedicated partner is the way to go–but you must make sure that your partner shares your goals and work ethic.

What do you do for fun when you’re not dancing?

I love new experiences–traveling, tasting different or crazy food combinations, and learning about other cultures. I love to be active. If I had more time I would do parkour or gymnastics or learn silks or trapeze. Learning other dance styles is a constant joy for me–like tango, tap, and belly dance. I also love to sing.

Here's some pics of Heather dancing at our Monday night dances!