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Ballet for Ballroom

An Interview with Pavi Versalles

By Julie Johnston

Sheer Dance: Where are you currently teaching and dancing?

Pavi: I'm a studio instructor at Dancers Studio and Legacy Dance Studio. I am also an event coordinator at Midpointe Event Center, St. Paul, Minnesota.

SD: How long have you been dancing?

PV: I have nineteen years of training under my belt.

SD: In what style of dance?

PV: I started off with ballet. Pretty strictly Russian Vaganova training, Balanchine American style, and then I moved into modern work. I moved to New York for awhile and studied at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. We did Martha Graham, Horton, and lots of intense modern styles. So I received lots of ballet and modern training.

SD: What classes do you teach?

PV: At Dancers Studio, I teach beginning Salsa and Ballet for Ballroom. At Legacy I teach Ballet Levels One, Two, and Three out of five levels for ages 8–18 years old.

SD: So what is your Ballet for Ballroom class, and how can it benefit a ballroom dancer?

PV: It's structured differently than a regular classical ballet class. I like to focus a lot on the same major focused ideas, but structure it differently so it's transferable to ballroom. I work on a lot of opposition—energy going up, going down—so the dancers can really feel their posture, understand their sense of how being really grounded allows you to have so much length, and all that energy going up that we are used to seeing. It transfers, and it's very clear to the audience if you are very grounded, because that is where the upward movement starts. I focus a lot on core and center strength in my class. This is very important in ballroom dancing as well. Your arms are an extension of your back. I focus on directly finding strength in your back, and expressing that strength throughout your upper body with ease.

SD: Ease meaning ease of movement?

PV: Yes. I like to really take the time to move from the top to the bottom as we start the class. Get every piece of the body introduced to just moving in general. It's a very different coordination than most people are used to from their ballroom training. Even the basics of ballet, like just turning out, use very different muscles, the length that it takes, the motion of going down to get up. I focus on those things a lot because they are key fundamental pieces. Then from there, once people have taken two to three classes, they start realizing, "Wow, this is completely different from what I do in my ballroom, and yet it's exactly the same."

SD: Would you define for me what the term opposition means for the beginning dancer?

PV: Of course. Much of the time what our eye sees, the direction that we see our body moving, is generally where we think we need to move our body, where we think we need to focus our motion. Although yes, we are going to naturally do that, we have to remind ourselves that if we are using all of this motion moving to the right, that oppositely our left side has different things that need to be engaged that we don't always focus on. We don't always focus on that opposite side, but when we do, it makes what's happening on the other side so much stronger. When we are utilizing all of this motion going upward, we need to focus on what is happening in our feet, in the ground, that opposite side is what is actually making it happen.

SD: What areas can a ballroom dancer see improvement in by taking your class?

PV: Upper body, that ease that we are always going for, movement quality in your upper body. The opposition comes in there where it needs to be strong, but it needs to look easy. Learning how to utilize those little muscles in your upper body that are hard to get in tune with. As far as lower body, being grounded is going to be another key piece of your upper body movement. Having the strength and the power in your legs, and finding your core allow you to move with that ease. Utilizing those muscles, finding a different way to feel those muscles, and transferring that into your ballroom.

SD: Is this a class offered elsewhere or is it unique to Dancers Studio?

PV: It's a class I developed here at Dancers Studio. I didn't just decide I was going to create it, it just made sense. When I first started working here I had no previous ballroom training whatsoever. I would just watch a lot, and I would notice so many things that the dancers were doing, and there are so many things as I'm watching that could be better, and parallels that I noticed. But as someone who has trained in ballet, I thought, "Wow, if only they could learn these barre exercises they could easily transfer them into their ballroom work." The first part that caught my eye was how ballet class is structured, where you always start at the barre, and then you move to the center, and barre exercises allow you to move freely in the center. You don't have that in ballroom. And I thought if they had this pre-ballroom class, it would be what the barre is in a ballet class. They would have this Ballet for Ballroom class where they learn some fundamental movement, and then once they move to the center work, their ballroom work, those muscles would be arranged, they would be ready to go. They'd be warmed up, and have already been using them. It structurally made sense. So I kept watching and it just fell together. I watched videos but mostly watched live. I watched how ballroom dancers carried themselves, which is so similar, even the terminology has many parallels. Then as I was training with Troy Lerum (another Dancers Studio instructor), who has lots of outside training, I began to see that he utilizes that too. And anyone who sees him can tell he trains in a different way than most people do. He has amazing posture, he has core strength, the way he glides around the floor is easy for him. It all comes from what seems to be his technical training.

SD: Who would be the ideal student who would benefit from taking this class?

PV: I have beginners take the class. I've had other instructors take it. They all get a ton out of it. So regardless of your level, there is so much you can learn, and you can be so much more in tune with your body. Regardless of your level, whether or not you have ever taken a ballet or ballroom class before, or even if you are competing nationally, there is something about that structured training that helps a great deal. Olympic athletes, and amateurs do their best when cross-training to keep their body in shape, and get their body used to this movement. It's great to get those muscles moving. I'm so glad we've been able to move the class before ballroom classes, because you're warmed up, and ready to go for your ballroom class. It's great for beginners to get a sense of movement in general. It's great for people who have been training a long time, are competing or taking dance seriously because it works as another form of cross-training. It's interesting in class to watch those familiar with training as they struggle because despite their training, the process for them may not make sense either. They're used to just going to the dance floor and getting it, knowing exactly what's going on, and it's a whole different arena for them. They can be, "Wow, I'm using these muscles I'm shocked I even have," and you have more to rely on once you are on the dance floor waltzing or quickstepping.

SD: So this is going to complement a ballroom dancer's ballroom skills?

PV: Yes. I also in class like to focus on hip mobility because in ballet you use turn out, and the more you can turn out, the more you can turn in. Regardless of whether you are trying to utilize that turn out, or finding some middle-ground, it's going to strengthen your muscles. So I like to work on hip flexibility, mobility, and lots of leg stretching. We do lunges, and things that keep you feeling that length. I don't want to do anything static where we hold and press something. I'm constantly reminding people that a line extends forever. So even if your leg is tendu front, your toes are on the floor, but you don't want to think about your line ending at that toe. You want to think of constant movement, so it's never enough. There's always that stretch, whether it's your legs or your upper body. I tell people to imagine there are lasers coming out of your toes and your hands, and this line is never just sitting, there is always somewhere it is going. It's constantly in motion even if you are standing still. I like to focus on mobility in the upper back and neck as well because in ballroom you want to be able to move portions of your body separately from where another may need to go. Being able to isolate with ease, and without tensing up, and keeping an openness, is another area I focus on.

SD: I heard in a class recently that those of us who spend time sitting with desk jobs end up with a great deal of tension in the hip flexors. What you have just said, will your class work on things brought on by daily work like that?

PV: Definitely. Even if you are taking the class and are a new ballroom student, you will notice a difference for sure. In everyday life, you don't think about it, but just sitting you will tense up. So to have the freedom and to start learning to relax, you will be able to move your legs more. Once you start learning to not hold your hips so tightly, you increase motion, and it becomes a whole new ballgame. You are able to move without it being static, and tense, and really let each step flow into the next one. I focus on the end of one step being the beginning of the next step, and a huge part of that comes from your hips.

SD: So someone doesn't even need to be interested in wanting to learn ballet to benefit from this class?

PV: It's structured around a barre, but it's not to make you a prima ballerina; it's to make you a good ballroom dancer. You may as well try it. There is nothing to lose, and people that aren't even interested in ballet give amazing feedback on how it helps. I specifically have it structured to be around a ballroom dancer's needs. The ballet barre just happens to be an amazing tool for that training. I make my own rendition of the barre, structured to improve you as a ballroom dancer. Because of that, we may not do things from a typical ballet class because we have different goals here.

SD: What is the demographic of ages that attends your class?

PV: I've had teenagers and people in their eighties. There is a wide range. I've had people who have previously trained as ballet dancers, and are working their way into the ballroom world. I've had people who have only trained in ballroom, and want to improve. They may have no idea what they are coming in for, and afterward, they are so satisfied with all of their movement. They feel good about themselves; they feel ready for their next class. It helps people move along quickly, too. It prepares you, and keeps you connected with your dancing self.

SD: Can someone attend who is not a student of Dancers Studio?

PV: Absolutely, we have had that as well. It's a drop-in class, so don't be afraid if you've never taken a class before. It's great for everyone; anyone can get something out of it. There are so many ideas that I reinforce, it's going to help you if you're a beginner in ballroom to learn more quickly, because you'll have so much knowledge going into your private lesson or group class that you wouldn't have previously that prepares you.

For more information on this Ballet for Ballroom class, you can contact Dancers Studio at (651) 641-0777.

If you have, or are an instructor with a unique background that aids in your ballroom instruction, Sheer Dance would love to interview you. Please send us your name, brief details of your unique background and phone number to info@sheerdance.com.