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Life Before and After the Collegiate Circuit

An Interview of Karen Maldonado

By Uzo Wamuo

Weeks have passed since the opening and the conclusion of this year’s Twin Cities Open (TCO). With that, spectators and dancers alike have gone back to their usual routines and daily lives with the memories of a great week of ballroom dancing. For many competitors, this is their second or fifth year competing at TCO. While for others, it is their very first year participating. Karen Maldonado is an amateur ballroom dance competitor who first started off at the collegiate level, but decided to try Professional/ Amateur events with her coach Mariusz Olszewski at TCO this year.

Sheer Dance: Why did you want to start doing pro/am?

Karen Maldonado: This summer has been a big transition for me. A big part of it was the fact that my previous dance partner moved away and I started dancing with a new one. But what really spurred this decision was the fact that I knew if I wanted to keep learning and doing so at a fast pace, I would have to change the way I currently did things. So it started as an experiment.

I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it because it was also the first time I was dancing open-level routines. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and also prove to my coach that I was worth his time. I also wanted to show that even though I come a collegiate team background, I got a solid education in dancing and competing and was ready to enter another aspect of the ballroom community.

SD: How was it competing Pro/Am at TCO for the first time?

KM: It was a lot more nerve-wracking that I was expecting it to be. I have been competing for a while now as an amateur and at the collegiate level, and I have been nervous for many of my heats. However, this time I was nervous for days before the competition (mostly because I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it around the floor in one piece). I knew what I had to do to get ready dress-, hair- and make-up-wise, but this time I was more focused on the dancing and how I was going to compete with my coach. The day of the competition, I made sure I had a lot of fun but warming up was very stressful because I was expecting results at the end of the day. I also knew that if I didn't do well, I would be disappointed in myself. But I didn't know how my coach would react. The expectation between me and my coach is very different than the relationships I have had with my amateur partners.

The ambiance of the competition was also different because my team was not there for me. Although I was with my coach and his other students and quite a few friends came to watch, I did not get the same feeling of camaraderie that I did from my old team. all. Normally I’m fussing over someone’s hair while rushing to get myself ready, but this time preparing and warming up was all about me. It was rather refreshing, actually. But it was also eye-opening: I was there for myself instead of the team.

SD: How was the atmosphere like at a TCO compared to dancing at a collegiate competition? What was your favorite part about TCO?

KM: It definitely felt different than competing at a collegiate competition. TCO definitely had a high competitive feeling compared to collegiate comps, but it was more similar to an amateur, non-collegiate competition than I thought it would be. There were fewer people and I didn’t really have the warmth of the team with me. However, it was very cool because the lights, the design of the hall, and the costumes made everything glamorous. Walking through the front of the stage during the Friday evening show, I was thinking how cool the special backstage area was and that definitely made me feel like I was the coolest person around (for a little bit). Dancing- wise I felt like I was dancing way above my level of where I actually am, since this was my first time doing open work and I was dancing with somebody incredibly talented and just trying to hang on for dear life.

SD: You have been dancing for years. What has been your favorite competition?

KM: I would have to say that my favorite competitions are the ones that I showed the most progress because for me, dancing is all about self-improvement. My absolute favorite competition of all-time was the USA Dance National Collegiate Championships in 2014. That was the time when I danced team match with my then-partner Kevin, and I remember I was constantly thinking of a past competition in 2012 which was the first time our team got to finals in team match. That image in my head can never be tarnished because it was my first year on the team, and I remember our representatives dancing beautifully and the energy was amazing! Going into team match in 2014 I did not know how to top the performance in 2012, especially since the selected representatives didn't make it to finals in 2013. I was thinking about it the whole way through the competition, and then during the event, my team made it to finals! I felt a brand new pride for our team and I wanted to bring this energy to the younger generation on my team.

I called up my coach and explained what was happening and what I wanted and sure enough, next week we were having our first lesson! My pro/am lessons with my coach took a lot of getting used to versus my am/am lessons with him. Instead of getting only half of the critique, you’re getting all 100% of the critique. And that was very daunting at first.

SD: Do you think that you will continue dancing Pro/Am and getting these experiences or do you think it will end?

KM: After dancing TCO, I definitely feel that I have become a better dancer. When I was dancing with my former partner, it felt safe. But dancing with my coach, I’m constantly getting out of my comfort zone. I’m pushed to keep dancing at a higher level. This was my first time doing any kind of open work, and it was hard! Lining up before my first event, my mind was clear, but my body super nervous. My hands were shaking and there was a striking pain in my feet even though I have been wearing my shoes for years. Still, I feel that I grew stronger from this. It was an experiment this year and I’m glad that I did it. I defiantly want to do pro/am again and compete more. I was amazed on how much I learned in a few short months, and that was just in smooth-- I have not even started on standard and rhythm. It reminds me that I still have long way to go and that there are no good short cuts. I want to continue to learn both as a pro/am dancer and as an am/am dancer since then I’m presented with both sets of challenges. I feel that I’m just the beginning of what is to come from collegiate dancers becoming amateurs and dancing pPro/aAm. That is what I loved about TCO: it got me more pumped for dancing. The big picture of TCO and my experience was the fact that I showed improvement. Surely me dancing pro/am will end sometime, but not today.