Professional ballroom dancers, Michael Eric Koptke and Chelsea Farrah, are currently ranked 3rd in the World Professional Rising Star Smooth division and top 12 in the Open to the World Smooth division. Michael and Chelsea live and teach in the San Francisco Bay Area. Together they have over 29 years of dance experience and 13 years of teaching experience. They took some time out of their busy schedules to explain the process of developing into competitive ballroom dance champions.
Joel Minden: Can you talk about your athletic background in general and your dance background, specifically?
Michael Koptke: As a kid I loved to run. I never played any team sports and had no dance training until I was 18. I was mostly into reading because I was a shy kid, but running long distance was something I did for fun as a teenager.
Chelsea Farrah: I have a classical ballet background of 13 years, training as a child with the Sacramento Ballet as well as the Joffrey Ballet School. I never really played team sports growing up because of my dance schedule. My extra training mostly consisted of Pilates and any other core strengthening classes that were offered at the dance school.
JM:Aside from the obvious emphasis on partnering, how does ballroom dance differ from other dance styles, such as ballet, modern, and jazz? What are the features of the American Smooth style?
MK: Though there is partnering in other styles of dance, ballroom dance, in general, is identified as a partner dance. Dance classes at the beginning levels of other styles focus on steps and drills for the individual dancer. While in a ballroom class, no matter what level, drills and steps are designed to partner another person. As most dancers know, there are two styles of ballroom dance: American and International. Both styles have a Latin-based and a classic ballroom-based program. The American Smooth style is unique compared to its International counterpart because of the option to open out of the “frame” or closed hold that is a constant requirement of the International ballroom style. Though both styles share the fundamental techniques, this ability to break free of the frame, so to speak, allows for many individual interpretations of the four-dance program that encompasses American Smooth.
JM:How much does training in other styles of dance impact the process of developing into a ballroom dancer? Is it useful to “cross train” in other styles?
CF: Cross training in other styles of dance is key not only to being a great ballroom dancer, but to being a great dancer, period. We think of ourselves as “students of dance,” not just specifically students of ballroom dance. We believe you cannot have a full appreciation of the style you dance if you cannot compare and contrast it to the other forms of dance. To understand movement to music, you have to have an intense interest in movement–contracting, stretching, flexing, twisting, etc. All of these actions belong to ALL styles of dance. Sudden and explosive movement vs. slow and sustained movement, highs and lows, slows and quicks–these are not specific actions of ballroom dance, but all styles of dance. Most styles have different rhythm changes, a different emphasis on what beat is considered “important.” A style is created and our bodies begin to find the similarities and the differences between the movements. This allows us as competitors to listen to the music and have the ability to express and access a greater range of artistic and physical expressions.
JM:For performing dancers in general, some dimensions of fitness (mobility, intermittent power) are more important than others (muscle mass and endurance). How do you train to develop your athletic ability?
MK: Like a runner, a dancer’s body needs to have less muscle mass than that of a bodybuilder, which typically requires more bulk. We focus on lengthening and strengthening exercises, specifically targeting our core muscles as well as increasing flexibility in our joints (i.e., shoulders, hips, etc.). We do basic push-ups, sit-ups, and variations of plank position. In the past few months we have added aerial work into our strength training. This training requires me to be able to lift my own body weight–for example, handstand push-ups against a wall, and “bench pressing” Chelsea’s body weight while lying on the floor.
CF: Stretching and flexibility have always been a main focus for me in my training. We stretch every day before practice and as of late we are putting an emphasis on joint flexibility to help avoid injury. Female ballroom dancers stand in heels for the majority of their work and practice day, so I focus a lot on contraction stretches to help my back recover. As you know, we are more like sprinters than long distance runners, so to build up our endurance we run our four-dance program multiple times a day, starting at the required time of 1:30 per dance and moving into 3:00 a dance. We vary the speed of each round, mostly staying at the required speed of each specific dance; however, we also run what we call a “slow motion” round, which is slowed down 25 to 50 percent of the original tempo. This allows us to refine our movements as well as challenge our bodies to perform under discomfort.
JM:What are your nutritional strategies to stay in shape and maintain energy for training and competition?
CF: We eat a lot! We believe that to ask your body to perform at its best, you have to give it the best. We eat 3 meals a day and snack in between. We watch our portions and are extremely careful not to overeat. We “carb-load” two hours before we compete. This gives our bodies time to digest and provides us with plenty of energy to help us get through the multiple rounds we dance that night.
JM:Performance can be anxiety provoking for any dancer. What is unique about the competition format in ballroom? Do you experience performance and evaluation concerns? If so, do you rely on any coping strategies to manage anxiety?
MK: I believe that all performance styles have their own form of pre-performance jitters. What makes ballroom unique is that we are asked to perform as well as compete. There is no strict format or required criteria like gymnastics or ice skating. This allows judges to have their own interpretation of what makes a champion, and this makes the style subjective. As a competitor, this can feel like a positive and a negative because we do not know what each judge is looking for. As a team, our strategy is to focus on dancing and performing for ourselves and each other. This helps us to release our nerves and expectations. Personally, I handle nerves by stretching in the room with Chelsea with some of our favorite music on. I also use visualization rounds of my dance routines when I am alone, so I can let go and dance freely once I am on the competition floor.
CF: I use music as motivation and inspiration. I have a playlist of songs that I use to “pump me up” as well as calm my nerves before we dance. I love my ritual of hair and make-up. The transformation process is both physical and spiritual for me. We use our stretching and warm-up time as an opportunity to connect and discuss goals for the round that evening, and then we go out on the floor and have fun! We always remind each other that we dance because we love it, not because we have to.
JM:Most dancers accept that improvement takes time, hard work, and patience. We hear sometimes that there are no shortcuts. But are there? What should the novice dancer do to improve rapidly? Can you identify one thing you know now that you wish you’d known years ago?
MK: There are no shortcuts. Hard work is ultimately what pays off. As in any other passion or hobby, the more time, energy, practice, and lessons you put into your craft, the faster you will see improvement. One thing I would like to go back and tell myself as a young dancer is to surround yourself with people who are more practiced and that you admire as dancers and as people. I emphasize that because you will be creating an environment that will support and motivate you to work hard and push through the physical and mental boundaries.
CF: Vicki Baum said, “There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them.” Dancers have the unique opportunity to push themselves both physically and mentally, and this is ultimately the greatest gift of dance. Something I was told as a young dancer, and continue to tell myself, is “patience.” Nothing about dancing well will come easily–not the technique, the choreography, the vulnerability, nothing. You have to love dancing more than you love success. Your desire to create and move and express has to outweigh your desire to “be the best.” We cannot control how our career pans out, if we get injured, lose a championship, win a championship, etc. All we can control is how we feel about ourselves when we dance and if we are proud of the product we produce.
All three amazing photos were taken by Genevieve Parker.