No Experience Necessary

"What to do?", the question I kept asking myself.

The sweltering days of the summer of 1987 were a time of an exorbitant amount of personal anxiety and concern. I'd just graduated high school, and had absolutely no plans for college. It's not as if my guidance counsellor at school didn't try to chat with me about it, I'd just not be particularly interested in what prospects I expected to encounter when he did When I did thing about it, I could never conceive of myself as a laborer (not that there is anything wrong with it), nor some business administrator (as I came to realize, office politics is just not my thing). Being in the Arts? I'd had some good experience with it and wasn't bad at it. I'd won a few awards for my work already. I was also musically inclined and performed often in show choir and my school's theater and I'd gotten a bit of notoriety for that. Certainly, my life was proving out that I was very artistically inclined. Nothing, however, seemed to fit my needs as to what I was going to do with my life.

This really began to cause me a lot of concern. I didn't seem to fit into any particular mold I was immediately aware of and it left me spinning my compass. Not having some idea of a direction in life doesn't sit well with parents either, mine being no different. Typically hispanic anxiety for all of us. Lots of arguments, disagreements, lots of stress, and understandably so. Who wants to see their child exit school with absolutely no real orientation to the real world and living in it, let alone doing it successfully? So, the boil was high-on for finding me a career path so I could make my own way in the world - but if anything, and the point of consternation and frustration for all of us, I knew I'd have to find my own.

Love is strange

Mickey & Sylvia, 1955

"What do I want to be?" is really a crap question as "what to do?". From my limited scope of life, there was really nothing available for me to look at and see as a direction that could or would include what I felt more confident were my strengths and interests. There was no real line of work I could see that would need a synthesis of my already existing abilities. I was also mistakenly under the impression of the fact I was quite an asthmatic child growing up and really couldn't do anything physically demanding (thinking it would be an "entire life" disability). Neither I, nor my parents, viewed I would have anything athletic in my future.

Of the things I knew I could do, what really just rose to the top was that I liked dance - despite the physical limitation of asthma. I liked dance because, from my experiences in show choir and how I was responded to, this is how I preferred people to see me - living, doing and creating in the moment. With the other arts I could do, all a person would see is a static version what I produced and I was hidden behind the scenes. I can say this now in retrospect, but I really desired to have the world I live in actually see who I really was. (My condition to myself was I wanted to be successful as "me", not trying to be what I thought people would accept - been my "problem" my whole life.) I also had no clue then that dance would ultimately be my career and salvation.


In those years, the idea of a career path in dance was hard to see. To begin, I wasn't particularly formally trained. In fact, the only body coordination I've ever had was taking self-defense with Tae Kwon Do (karate) and a short wrestling attempt. I wasn't particularly a sports guy. Yet, despite that, I wasn't afraid of going into show choir or musicals and was always made the lead dancer in productions. Being the lead wasn't anything I tried to be, but that's how it always went, and it turned out valuable to the directors, and well-received by the audience. I found something I could do that was valuable to others. That pretty much should have been that, one might think.

The thing is that the world is not particularly kind to the arts. It can actually be down-right savage. "Starving artists" was, I guess, a sort of societal shaming that frowned on artistic careers for the more "lucrative" white collar work of administration in education or business, and movies nor TV really helped that for all the stories of struggling artists and their misery. Couple that with constant marketing drum-beat that the only way to success was to get into and graduate from college. Sure enough, the aesthetic fields were the fastest way to get nowhere in life unless you were one of the lucky few, so I was coming to believe.

Then there is being a child of the Seventies, particularly in as decimated a city as Youngstown, Ohio. I come to find later in my life that I understand what Maslow meant by "core human drives". In the hispanic culture I grew up in, people were mainly focused on the more fundamental problems of existence, the usual suspects of housing, food, safety and security, etc. and precious little value for persons strong in the arts. The more successful of us had steady work in blue collar labor and their most basic needs were thus handled. However, there is one thing that our culture had, despite their hyper-focus on their physiologies, we danced. We satisfied our needs for belongingness and love, as well as our esteem through the vehicle of dance and I can recall many a weekend of my parents dragging me along to a dance at the local halls and with my now educated eye, realize I saw firsthand the value of this in our hispanic culture. But you didn't make a living at it.

Finally, again, I was a child of the Seventies era, in hispanic USA in a collapsed city of the (no longer) Steel Valley. Through innumerable examples I was exposed to, on television and the people passing through my life, a career in dance, in the arts, was feminine - sports was masculine. If you were a "man", you kept your reputation as being a man, intact. This is how you had "self esteem" - and you didn't do it by being a dancer. Here was stigma associated with males learning dance - if you were to be viewed as masculine, it was just something you didn't do. (Like crying, it's not a piece of the human experience. If you did it, you were feminine and "real" men don't cry.) It was/is a beautifully laid in, cultural and societal piece of misinformation that probably prevented so many potentially talented individuals from ever even considering a career in the arts, so much so, it really makes me wonder if there isn't some insidious basis to this being installed into our society at large.

Yet, despite that, there were small cracks breaking through that wall. Famous NFL player, Lynn Swan, was known to take ballet lessons to improve his ability to maneuver on the field. Boxers were taking dance to improve their footwork in the ring. I was becoming aware of practical aspects to formal dance training, the fact that dance is MOVEMENT and must be kinetically sound to be effective - but only today do I actually see it as that. Over 30 years ago, I just wasn't smart enough to put that together.

So, dance never particularly presented itself as a viable career choice. Factually, none of the arts really did. I think at this point, you can understand why.

Love is strange

In the waning months of the summer of 1987, needing the great escape from the pressing concerns, anxiety and depression of what to do with the rest of my life, I took my girlfriend to see a movie that was getting a lot of word of mouth. It was a romantic movie (which I'm not particularly a fan of) but I really didn't have anything better to do, so what the heck? (I wonder now, whose idea was it to see it, I'm fairly certain it wasn't mine.) The movie was called "Dirty Dancing".

I was enthralled.

I got introduced to "Johnny", who was by all accounts, a pretty masculine character throughout the movie, being a dance teacher. Better yet, on the big screen, ballroom dancing looked really cool (and it's not like I've never seen Fred Astaire, but really, who would speak to your 1987 young impressionable eyes more?) I saw for the first time, a complete synthesis of so much of my interests and aspirations, of things I knew I could do, of things I knew that I could become and the value in it to others. I was immediately swept away by my imagination and how much I could see myself in Patrick's shoes doing what he was doing. I could do THIS!

It's funny how and where inspiration can come about. Often times, you never even know you're looking for it. It's interesting how art (in this case a well made movie) can transcend, move beyond or reach behind your ears past years of fixed ideas about things as they are and change your perspective of the past, present and future. It truly is a beauty of the human experience. My personal universe was so completely set in despair-mode with no set direction on my personal compass, yet through the experience of the story of the movie, came out the other side as a person with a very definite "north" reading and the driving urge to get there. Those movie tickets were probably the best money I've ever spent and ultimately was the impetus to the love of a lifetime. To recall a phrase and song from the movie, Dirty Dancing, "love is strange".

No Experience Necessary

Well, I would now like to thank the Youngstown Vindicator, our hometown newspaper. Not that I was looking for it, but the next important element of my journey was found through scanningthose want ads one warm summer afternoon. The title of this particular advertisement was "Dance Instructors Wanted", followed by the words I'll never forget... "no experience necessary"! What the what?!? Can this be coincidence? I think not! Someone was not only looking for their new Johnny, they will train me, just like Johnny was! I jumped right on it.

When I called, I found I was going to be in a training class with 3 or 4 others for a few weeks, maybe a month. If I made it through the classes, I'd be offered a job as an instructor. Cool, let's go. At the end of those classes, I was literally the only person left standing, everyone else having dropped out. I asked about it to the studio owner (who also ran the class). He'd said that often times, people just show up for free dance lessons and shortly drop out after. I, on the other hand, had made it. So would begin my first month of learning what was called the beginning social level of ballroom dance in the 6 key dances (colloquially referred to as the "social six"), at 40 hours a week for a month. As there were 4 sub-levels to Bronze, I would be tested out of each level a week. I would get a starting pay of $25 a week, and it would increase $25 a week for each level I tested out of. So, I promptly worked and studied like crazy and did it in a month and began my professional career on a guaranteed salary of $100 a week.

Thus begins my journey into the world of not only ballroom dance, but competitive dance and ultimately studio ownership. Perhaps the telling of this ending of my beginning in dance seems anti-climactic. That's only because it was. The romanticism I'd had at the outset quickly diminished once I came to the "business" side of the dance industry, which in the last 10 years, I see is probably the norm in any industry (to this day, I don't know how people manage it). I don't mean to say there is anything wrong with business. I do mean to say there is something to being accountable to yourself and, as you will see, being accountable to others.

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Humble beginnings
 

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Saturday, 24 February 2024