Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Face it; You Are Your Face!

When I was an undergraduate student, to make a few extra bucks, I worked in two research labs: one that used mice as experimental animals and another that utilized rats.  We were always joking that the lab professors in charge took on an uncanny resemblance to the rodents they experimented on?  Truly the similarity was unmistakable for both.

As a student of 68 years of life, I have witnessed humans travelling life’s journey and its inevitable physical transformation.  No matter what good looks from good genes and God are bestowed to one in youth, no one can escape the effect of time.  To me, its eerie how often ones life experiences are shown naked on your face - transforming it to reveal the sum of these experiences, your highs, your lows, your loves, your hates, who you are and who you are not, the time you spend happy and the time you spend sad, angry, overwhelmed or just helpless or hapless. 

It is not overnight but rather like the ocean, which slowly but methodically smoothens the rough surfaces of the seashore. But instead of smoothing over rough edges and sharp protrusions, human life and living creates scars, etches creases, weathers and hardens skin, and fissures flow like tributaries from life’s indelible brandings. 

Indeed for better or worse, life methodically and relentlessly drains, thins, weakens and drags one’s most exposed and vulnerable surface from the trillion repetitive frowns, gasps, smiles, cries, laughs, writhes, squirms, grimaces, twitches and retractions - movements that taken together, represent the totality of ones living history as reflected from the standpoint of facial movement. 

But there is no telling whether what is inside….the inside you….mirrors what is now exposed for the world to see.  Does the real you reflect the past or can one reverse the angry and unhappy lines for one with a happier motif?   Maybe life was harder in youth, and now its time to loosen up?  Maybe the sins of the past have been forgiven, and a kinder, happier you is now ever-present. Maybe you were once privileged and lucky in life and now things have gotten ugly.  Maybe you are one of the unlucky ones with cancer in later life and life itself has become a chore, painful, or alternately in others, a blessing to cherish every remaining day of their lives.

So you have an advantage when you want to get to know someone who has revealed their life in time through their face….you can discover their history.  Young people have less history. 

But still, you can never be sure that what you see in its outward manifestation reflects what is currently inside…..and that is true whether you are young or old, whether you skin is weathered or pristine, whether you mother is a saint or a scoundrel, whether you are a peasant or a prince.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Big White 2015 - Overcoming One's Fears

Conquering the T-bar

Yes, that feels good!

Its beautiful up there

A little help from my friend Sandy, and all pics thanks to her functional iphone

I love skiing but I’m not much of a skier.  Similar to my dance life, my ski skills were developed as an adult, rather than being ingrained and established with proper technique and muscle memory as a child or adolescent.  So I can navigate down the mountain of greens and blues with relative ease, but don’t count on me winning any prizes for technique.  It’s not a pretty site, flailing and jerking from side to side hunched over like the old decrepit man I’m always working to disguise on the dance floor.  This is in contrast to the hundreds of beautiful skiers of all body types; fat, small, tall, young, and old who can glide effortlessly, gracefully carving prefect semicircles in the snow, looking nonchalant as they whisk by the plebian riffraff of slow, crusty, bumpy, tentative cadaver like skier want-to-bees losing the fight with the mountain they are reluctantly descending. 

Still I have my moments when the snow is perfect and the runs are groomed and clear of tracts before the mob of skiers push the snow into obstructive piles of hard mounds and boulders, exposing the underlying slick rock-hard white ice beneath the powder that flings you off of your feet sliding in a free-for-all. Yes, there are moments when the snow is perfect and I can look like a reasonable skier. Problem is the snow is seldom perfect for long, and thus I can never really relax on the mountain unless I descend into my la-la-land white out brain trance. 

This happens at the end of the day, or at the end of the week when the brain is fully saturated with and mesmerized by the pervasive white-out snow cover, the whitish/ grey overcast skies, the cloudy mist and palpable fog unpredictably obscuring your vision and balance, and by the intricate pattern of lace like figures of the snow-covered camouflaged trees.  These prerequisites lead to falling victim to, and being engulfed in the ubiquitous whiteness of the surrounding moment, which insidiously seeps into your being while transforming you into an inanimate glob of flesh, releasing an out-of-body experience, numb to your surroundings and those alarming signals that protect you from harm and injury.  You are bobbing down the mountain without a care, dazed and anesthetized, a prime candidate for a disastrous fall!

But wait a minute, I’m not sure what possessed me to descend into this diatribe of self-deprecation, but the actual intent of this writing was to describe overcoming ones fears.  Having skied for roughly 20 years, the only real ski vessel that I feared prior to this BIG WHITE trip was the T-bar.  Being scarred by a previous experience on a T-bar – when the T-bar was jolting me nearly off of the bar through uneven snow, and the path up the mountain was un-groomed, making navigating the path toward the end all the more treacherous.  Finally, there was no descent or decline at the end of the T-bar allowing for a clean exit.  Thus, as I released the stupid death bar from my freezing butt, it suddenly recoiled sending me a parting farewell jolt while torpedoing me to the ground, demanding that I never to return in its presence.

I thought I was scarred for life but this year, my ski buddies encouraged me to set my fears aside and give it another chance.  The T-bar takes you up to the top of BIG WHITE with a fabulous view of the world.  And I’ve been missing that view and a beautifully fluid long run that seems to last forever appropriately called the Sun Run.   OK, am I a man or a mouse?

With the unwavering confidence of my ski friends, encouragement and hand holding…literally, I found that the T-bar was not even a slightly worrisome feat.  Once accomplished, you could not stop me from returning back again and again.  

What is the lesson to be gained?  Not all T-bars are the alike?  That’s obvious or maybe not so obvious to me at least. 

But I think the important message for me is that while we live mostly within ourselves, we need others to bring out the best (and maybe even the worst).  Left alone to bask in the world we have created limits our possibilities.  We live in the confinement of our imagination, likes and dislikes, fears and preferences.  Others have their own world and experiences that can be shared with us as long as we are brave enough to be engaged with other humans.  We each can contribute to the others expanding world of possibilities.  You don’t have to give up your humanity to allow others access to your world.  It may bring you closer to the heavens as the T-bar lifted me to arguably the most beautiful view from Big White and the most memorable ski run of the week. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Heritage Classic Dancesport Championships – 2015


What a truly great competition!  My most all time favorite comp; this year was no exception, delightfully punctuated by the appearance of special friends and North Carolina family members greeting us for a Monday and Saturday night treat.  And I have pictures to prove it! 

The Venue:

Always attending to detail, the competition was meticulous in its execution thanks to the sweat and tears of the organizer couple Hillary; the venue pristine and cozily nestled in the womb of the Grove Park Inn, itself a palace of magnificence and grandeur. The lobby is so large that the front desk, concierge, and hotel services desks and lobby bar were all insignificant, while the two fireplaces located on the smaller ends of the rectangular room sparkled and crackled with life.  Indeed, the colossal lobby fireplaces were an inviting temptation, large enough to concomitantly envelope and consume more folks then can fit into a large SUV should that be the intended function, which hopefully it was not.  Nevertheless, the fireplaces were uncomfortably magnetic; the powerful flames drawing one closer and closer, mesmerizing and alluring. Only the rush of pain from the intense heat would halt the march of death, jolting one back to reality, escaping safely from the hypnotic trance of the dancing flames.  Unbeknownst, the fireplace was the perfect and powerful metaphor for my life in ballroom dancing, especially my week at the Heritage Classic, 2015. 

The hotel lobby was made for a giant, ceilings so high they take tall scaffoldings to reach, widely crafted warm wooden pillars and walls constructed from large cubes of immovable grey stone insuring a sense of permanence, a far contrast from the plastic and toothpick construction of our modern day world.  The rest of the Grove Park Inn followed suit with one beautiful magnificence after another including the competition ballroom. Located in the outskirts of Asheville, it is protected by trees, quiet and privacy, a perfectly site for the hustle and bustle and raw nerves of a major dance completion.

Why Am I Alone?

Why it is so difficult for more students from Divino Ritmo Dance Studio to attend this event bewilders my imagination.  To be sure, other students….as many as five or six…. have come in the past as this is at least my 5th straight Heritage Classic competition…see other postings! The venue, the level of competition, the perfectly executed schedule of events, the friendly and regal North Carolinians, the engaging organizers, the varied ballroom venders selling dance jewelry and clothes, the food at the Grove Park Inn, the beautifully adorned and colorful dining room with dance floor, the jazzy ensemble of musicians playing upbeat dance music during dinner, the classy and charming town of Asheville, its restaurants, the Biltmore Estates, etc, etc, all make for a powerful allure.  Travelling from Hawaii on Delta directly to Atlanta and the short puddle jumper to Asheville is an easy itinerary to travel.  Perhaps it’s the time zone disparity and jet lag from Hawaii to the east coast, perhaps it is the urban legend of the ghost inhabiting the interior stonewalls of the Grove Park Inn, perhaps it is no rational reason but rather the fear of the unknown? 

But I wouldn’t miss this competition for the world, and as I boarded the plane from Asheville to Atlanta on our way returning home, I could not rid myself of the residual taste of the most delicious cauliflower casserole consumed the night before that prompted second helpings for both Yanna (my dance teacher) and myself.  It is worth returning back next year to Ashville just for this reason!   

Da Pain in Da Feet; OR The Pain of Defeat:

Nothing materialized as planned.  I was expecting to do well in Bronze and to struggle with Silver heats in Standard, but do better in Silver Smooth. In fact, the only dance style I did well in … the single dance events….. was in Rhythm.  I encountered known competitors in Silver Smooth that I have never beaten except for the Holiday Classic 2013 (see posting), who greeted me at the door.  With many more competitions under their belt, they had remarkably improved even from the baseline of our most recent encounter.  I had no chance against them as I observed their refined skills and lost every heat prompting me to comment graciously and sincerely in feedback.  There is no shame in losing to a “more worthy” competitor.  Still it felt like it was a 1, 2 punch as they took turns in reducing me to dance rubble on the competition floor like a tag-team wrestling match beating down an opponent already mangled, bruised, contracted and barely alive.

In silver standard, I was venturing on unchartered territory as I unwittingly convinced Yanna that my time had come to venture into silver.  But as fate would have it, my skills were contested against a more experienced Gold level dancer who I have admired for years as a dancer with advanced skills and gracious presence.  Just to feel that I could be on the same dance floor with him made me feel good; I had NO expectation that I would take a single heat, and I didn’t.

In Bronze Latin, I won some and lost some but I was more or less beaten by one worthy opponent who I have taken in the past.  Well, no one comes back thinking they can repeat the scoring of the past as every student is striving to improve from competition to competition. Still I was a bit surprised, as much as he was glowing and beaming in delight….at least until the final confrontation….see below.

Yes, nothing occurred as “planned” as conceived by my feeble mind.  It was pretty much a difficult week with some exceptions.  Having gone through some awful months of painful injuries of my feet….with every possible diagnostic entity identified in my medical records, pain in every conceivable location, redness and swelling, jutting bunions aggravated by braces placed to support every foot joint, I was expecting some pain and foot limitation that just didn’t materialize thanks to good luck, prior strengthening exercises and Celebrex. 

Instead of the pain in my feet, it was the pain of defeat that commanded the week of horror at the Heritage Classic 2015.   But I am upbeat because there were unexpected moments of success to be jubilant about that I will recount below starting with the story of Dr. Outrageous.

Dr. Outrageous:

Well, I am a mature 68- year old who dances for fun and to improve his dance skills.  Yeah, right.  In Bronze Latin, I followed the path of splitting dance heats with the worthy opponent mentioned above, until the fateful 3 Dance Scholarship that I was competing in, pitted against this gentleman and two or three other ladies.  I was in a good mood thinking I had nothing to lose and expecting to come in last based on the supposition that ladies are difficult to beat and my previous failure to command the gentlemen single dance events.  I danced my cha cha and rumba and was generally pleased.  But I messed up on my samba in the final moments when I could not accommodate to a certain change in direction that clearly I should have been able to do.  Storming off the dance floor, glowing with anger, cursing, flailing and assailing myself for my miserable mistake, all I wanted to do was get the fu…. out of there and return to my room, and burry my head under my pillow and disappear from life.

Yanna, in her wisdom, said NOTHING, realizing the futility of any words when such anger was being displayed, but TOLD me I could NOT leave the ballroom until the awards were presented.  My stomach burned with acid, every moment felt like an eternity waiting for conformation of my miserable performance. When it came, as the names were announced from last to first, as certain as I was that I would be last, the names were ticked off until mine was announced.  I somehow took FIRST place in this 3 Dance event! My stomach went from acidy to more acidy, and I somehow had to reverse my self-loathing physiology to accept the miracle of the year, which was not easy to do without some forthcoming afternoon coctail.  

Nothing was Standard!

There were other moments of joy.  Besides the Latin 3 Dance Scholarship trophy, I won a best silver solo trophy award that arguably was the best solo performance of the competition, at least according to Yanna and the many comments from the audience.

But the other moments of joy came when dancing Standard.  Clearly my most challenging dance form, Yanna is constantly asking me when I will start moving during my lessons as I am famous for making tiny wimpy steps and going nowhere.  We have worked on Standard over the past few months, but there was no indication that any improvements were forthcoming.  With new Silver routines, I was expecting to be tentative and unconvincing and had little expectation for myself. 

Again, I was proven wrong……as I was 100% wrong with every preconceived expectation! My Standard dance heats were increasingly fluid, confident, and comfortable.  The Silver heats were performed with increasing precision and a far cry from the miserable performance displayed in the City Lights competition a month earlier.  The open events were even more enjoyable and I really felt the joy of dancing as the day progressed moving to the last of the last heats.  And my performance reflected my joy.

I had no expectation for the Semifinal 3 Dance Scholarship Silver Ballroom event, competing in a field of 2 other men and 6 ladies.  Indeed, I have not had much of a record of success even in the Bronze category, and the gentlemen that I was competing against this day included the one that cleaned the floor with me in Smooth two days prior and the one that was defeating me in Latin.  I was calm and circumspect, and just tried to have fun.  I was rewarded by making the cut to the final as the only male student, defeating one of the ladies and displacing both men.  Apparently this was to be as far as I would go in this event. Nevertheless, I felt like I had accented my week of hard work with a visible success, leaving on a high note, dancing in my most difficult of dances, and floating off the dance floor on a cloud.

Final Dance Thoughts:

Ballroom dance competing is a lot of hard work sprinkled with moments of fun and enjoyment.  There are a hundreds of things to order in your body, you need to remain alert and navigate properly, remain confident when avoiding collisions or even when colliding with other dancers, and somehow you must EXPRESS the joy of dancing in your execution of the dance.  There are many mechanical dance professionals that cannot rise to the level of dance expression that is required to be the best of the best. 

But what I experienced on Saturday afternoon were fleeting moments of comfort and fluidity and joy in dancing my standard dance heats that were pure delight.  Not consumed by any concerns about frame, dance routine steps, navigation strategies and contingencies, I became lost in the moment, no longer driving (or more accurately dragging) Yanna on the dance floor following some preconceived cutout path of movement, but rather being commanded by the music, flowing effortlessly and synchronously in harmony with my dance teacher.  A moment here and a moment there, but I think this is what good dancers must experience every day and the reason why they come back the next.  It is an experience that must be experienced, pure and magical and one worthy of the hard work and effort and expense that one needs to commit before a taste of dance heaven is revealed.

Appropriate Thank You’s…..

I want to thank Yanna for being TIRELESSLY patient with me and to admit that I am an unworthy student but have the best dance teacher I could ever imagine.

I want to thank Mark and Anna for dinner on Monday night and your continued friendship as well as attending the wonderful Friday night performances at the Heritage.

I also want to especially thank my sister-in-law, Frankie Lou, another North Carolina native as well as Rita and Grace (daughter in law and granddaughter) who trekked for hours to share Saturday night with me at the Heritage and the Grove Park Inn.  To Frankie Lou, I can never repay you for what you have done for me, your unselfish and endearing love of family including for my wife, your sister and the common sadness we share in having lost our spouses that we live with each and every day. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

It Was a Happy Valentine's Day at the Aloha Dancesport Center

Rolando Sanchez and the Brown Sound Orchestra performing at the
Aloha Dancesport Center with guest singer.

Damn, they were good!
Yanna and birthday boy Lucas.  How old did you say you were, Lucas?
I woke up at 2:30 this morning with aching feet and hobbled to the bathroom to do what most old men do at least once in the middle of the night, thanks to that enlarging prostate gland.  There was more than just pain in my feet; also in my legs and hips, shocking me since I have been so pain free these last few months.  Nevertheless, I returned back to bed contented that the pain I was experiencing was worth it.  Indeed I had a great time two nights before at the Divino Ritmo Dance Studio’s Valentine and Lucas Jaime Birthday Dance party.   I danced almost non-stop for three+ hours after practicing at Honolulu Club for two. But before I hit the bed, I popped a Celebrex realizing that the pain I was experiencing would otherwise linger for days and sabotage my dance practice and lesson schedule.

It was truly a wonderful evening held at arguably the best dance studio in Hawaii, a live band (Rolando Sanchez) – see below, just enough but not too many people there to dance with and to fill but not crowd the ballroom, a pot luck food amalgamation that was very good and plentiful, a little unexpected entertainment from what was advertised as a belly dance (who am I to know; I’m only Middle Eastern), and lots of happy faces enjoying the evening sipping on wine (some of us were gulping) and other refreshments.

What blows my mind (as this stupid saying goes) and baffles me beyond reason is how nonchalant the Hawaii dance community is about dance venues at a time when there is VIRTUALLY nothing to compare to the Divino Ritmo Aloha Dancesport Center (ADC).  In fact, to me there is really nowhere to go to dance that is anywhere close to providing the proper atmosphere as the ADC. 

The Elks Club? – open humidity runs through your clothes and underwear drowning your flesh and filtering sweat and salt into your veins as you travel the unforgiving grooved tiled dance floor.  And I’m told we can’t even get in any more if you are not a member unless you go through many more hoops…all of which is totally not worth it.

The palladium? – Speaking of unforgiving floor…hardwood on concrete….How can anyone dance weekend after weekend in that train station sized ballroom or whatever you want to call it? – it was not designed as a dance venue!…..metal chairs on the perimeter, cliquish groups fortified in protective zones, substandard sound system not made to command this huge open expanse with meaningful sound and melody, and generally not the comfortable environment that is relaxed and friendly - that you would find in a smaller, more intimate venue.  

Hotels? Like at Ala Moana Hotel – Rumors – I have spent some years of my life dancing salsa during the hey day of Rumors Thursday night venue.  In fact, I was usually the first one there, practicing with my former dance partner Joan.  But now its on again, off again, and the dance floor, while suited for salsa and the salsa crowd or the rowdy Friday night dance crowd more interested in chatting and gawking than dancing, it cannot claim itself as a full service dance venue, at least it doesn’t work for ballroom. 

And I refuse to say too much about the Pacific Beach Hotel because of the near impossible situation with parking that seems to greet me like a migraine every time I attempt an outing. Even when successful, having to contend with an overworked and musty ballroom wreaking from overuse is no joy. With exception, other hotels are better but not much better.  And to get better, you have to spend a lot more than a few bucks to gain entrance.  There is no free lunch!

Restaurants?  Like Sistina – again, sort of good for Salsa but nothing else.  And you have to wait until late for the restaurant food eating folks to end their part of the evening before you get a chance to show off your dance moves.

So what’s so special about the ADC.  Well, I must admit a lack of equipoise on the subject.  After all, I am a student of one of the owners so take my statements in any way you like.  Consider my opinion tainted and biased. To me, it is the unmitigated truth.

The studio is huge, new, and newly floored with beautiful Danish wood that is cushioned to the point that you can see the wood give way as you navigate the dance floor – just look in the mirror – the bending of the wood beneath your feet is plainly visible even for an old poorly sighted guy like me.  Is this important?  Maybe not to 20 year olds, but you can’t continue to dance on a hardwood dance floor that feels like concrete without consequences.  It’s the same principle as running.  Pretty soon the treads on your tires… hip, knee, ankle and feet joints get a beating and from there, it’s down hill.  Braces and ice, ibuprofen and swollen joints, reduced mobility and knee replacement and your days are numbered.  My advice; keep dancing on immovable floors at your own risk.  For me it’s not worth it!  The dance floor at the ADC is spectacular; that’s where you should be dancing!

Those who didn't come to the Valentine party should be RED with envy
The ADC is new, with a great lighting arrangement, a warm combination of wall colors that feels happy and light, the bathrooms and kitchen you would be proud to have at your home, clean and neat, and the most important things is the studio ballroom size.  Size matters!!!  You can really dance ballroom in the ADC with over 4,000 square feet in the larger of the ballroom, realizing that the second ballroom (which itself is quite large) can act as a buffer for many combined activities, as for example to serve food, so that you are not reducing the usable dance floor space for anything other than the essentials.  The sound system is also quite wonderful.  It fills the air with a perfect balance of base and treble, magically commanding those sitting to get up, find a partner and dance. 

The event last Saturday was also special because there was a live band…..Rolando Sanchez & the Brown Sound Orchestra – 6 in all. Now I can’t say I was looking forward to Rolando.  He is after all getting on in age and I’ve heard him before a million times as I started my nighttime avocation dancing salsa at venues he starred in.  And the “nightclub” at the Kahala Mall was the greatest part of it; I loved going there on weekends, it was still my favorite place until the ADC.

But instead of the playing dead old songs of past, the musical selection was mostly new, brilliantly play, overall simply outstanding.  Not all what I expected, not all salsa or merengue but lots of varied music that was quite lovely.  I remember once in the evening when I thought they were on break because the music sounded so atypical - thinking it was the DJ playing some cd, when I turned my head, I was shocked to see Rolando’s band at the helm!

Its tough, but someone's got to do it!
Well, you can imagine I had a great night, and it wasn’t just the wine.  I brought Emi to share the evening with, and she was kind enough to free me up to fill the void of not having enough men there to satisfy the dance hunger of some of the ladies who were present. To be sure, there were just too many lovely and friendly women to dance with.  I tried my best but I can’t do it by myself.  I need help, please please come to the next dance party, and relieve me of this serious burden.  And if you come to the one on March 21st, you will be able to witness the music of Rolando Sanchez & the Brown Sound Orchestra at the ADC who I’m told has accepted the invitation for a repeat performance.  Would not miss that one for the world!