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Predictability of Results Aside, the Blackpool Dance Championships Are a Mecca for the Ballroom-Enthusiast

by Tonya Plank
May 30, 2008
Winter Garden Ballroom
Winter Garden Spanish Lecture Hall
Blackpool, England.
I've just returned from the Blackpool Dance Festival, the largest, most prestigious series of ballroom dancing championships in the world, held annually the last week of May in the small English seaside town of the same name. I spent the majority of the week annoyed with the results of competition after competition, feeling the judges were awarding speed over artistry, and failing to think outside the proverbial box by giving a newcomer a trophy, but, now that I am home, all I can do is long for the next international championship. I realize now the festival is not about who wins. It's about hearing your favorite dancers in the world lecture about your favorite pastime, about sauntering around the shopping pavilion with the infectious sounds of Latin CDs for sale flooding your ears, the intoxicating sights of dancing stars of competitions past showing on overhead video monitors, browsing the veritable cornucopia of dance shoes, racks full of blindingly bejeweled costumes, tables overflowing with plush, variegated fabrics; it's about having posters autographed by your favorite Ballroom couples, laughing with friends over ridiculously greasy fish 'n chips and partying into the wee hours of the morning each night after competition at the raucous Ruskin Hotel; and most importantly, it's about being moved and wowed by the greatest Latin and Ballroom dancers in the world as they dance their hearts out. The festival is, in short, about being immersed for one solid, heavenly week in nothing but DanceSport.

The festival begins the Friday before what to Americans is Memorial Day and to the U.K. is a bank holiday. This year that day was May 23rd. The main competition for that day was the Latin Rising Star, which is for partnerships that are new or dancers who are up and coming and don't yet have the status of the top professionals. This competition was the most surprising result-wise of the entire festival – the only surprising one, as it would turn out. A U.S. couple, Dmitry Kurakin and Violetta Kurakina, whom few Americans had ever before seen in the U.S. championships, took the trophy. Their dancing was solid, but I didn't see anything in particular that made them stand out. Second place was snatched by Australian couple, Julian Manderson and Melanie Hooper. Anna Trebunskaya (of Dancing With the Stars) and her newish partner, the swift-footed and appealingly impish Pavlo Barsuk, placed fourth.

Most disappointing in this competition was the placement of U.S. couple Vaidotas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte, who normally end up above the two aforementioned couples in national competitions and who danced just as well if not better than I've ever seen them. Skimelis is a large man who sexily devours the space around him and has a playful, innocuous virility reminiscent of Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Pupelyte is a tallish, long-limbed dancer with a ballerina-like physique. Normally finalists in the American competitions, they undeservedly only made the quarter-finals here and I suspect it's because in Latin, judges base way too much on speed. Shorter, smaller-framed people are naturally going to move much faster than larger people. Yet Skimelis and Pupelyte have so many other strengths: they're so creative, their routines sparkle with originality, and Skimelis is really rather actor-ly, with a fun personality. Plus, they have a certain kind of movement aesthetic precisely because of their sizes; you can better see Latin technique – the slinky pelvic action, the undulating muscles as they ripple from the shoulder blade down to the hip, on larger bodies that take their time with movement. By awarding only one thing, you're only ever going to have one type of dancer.

Saturday and Sunday were, as always, devoted to a series of about eight half-hour lectures given by the top professionals, past and present, called the Congress. Each pair of lecturers speaks about one of the dances, or is given a theme. Saturday's most interesting talk was given by Russian dancer Sergey Surkov and his Polish partner Melia, on Paso Doble. This couple caught my eye the second I saw them dance, two years ago now. He's very masculine and serious, but she exudes a kind of feminine strength that effectively counters him. He has a strong presence on the floor, but he never overpowers her; he is there primarily, as he is supposed to be, to frame her. This was the first year that they were invited to lecture and I discovered just why it is I like them so much. Their Paso Doble, they told us, was inspired by themes from the opera Carmen and from the writings of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, and, when they demonstrated excerpts from it, it nearly melted me it was so full of passion and tragedy. They're a literary, highly cultured, artistic couple who aim to tell stories with their dances, rather than focus simply on technicalities, on footwork. Plus, Surkov's form, at least in Paso, is sheer perfection; his shaping makes for the consummate powerful matador-type.

There were several noteworthy lectures on Sunday. The first was by new U.S. Latin couple Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko who lectured on Samba, their forte. Cocchi, an Italian man, a very fast, flashy mover, seemed highly personable, and Zagoruychenko, whose artistry astounds me, from the original shapes she makes using her entire body to her immense musicality, talked about her different ways of interpreting music. She listens carefully, she said, to find its hidden rhythms, its strong and soft, high and low, sharp and subtle points. She demonstrated by playing for us a piece of music, telling us how she heard each beat, then showed through movement how she interpreted each rhythm. It was mesmerizing. I realized, from hearing her speak, that what I like so much about her dancing is that there is a variety of patterns, a development of movement; it's not all one-note or all full-out. She doesn't just swing her head, shake her hips as quickly as she can, roll her pelvis about wildly non-stop, which may impress athletic-wise. Rather, she heightens the power and thrill of some of those supercharged, lightening-fast movements by juxtaposing them with slower, softer, more subtle movement. So wonderful of Ms. Zagoruychenko to let us in on one of her major artistic secrets.

The second highlight of that day was the lecture given by Dutchman Ruud Vermeij, who holds a PhD in psychotherapy and takes a more scientific approach to dance. In his talk, titled "Mind and Matter," he focused on overcoming competition or performance nerves by first accepting that you have them (rather than pretending they don't exist), then refocusing. You do this by moving and saying out loud what you're doing: "I am stretching", "I am running", "I am reaching out with my arm, rotating my hip" etc. This allows you to refocus completely. He then spoke of different kinds of movement: polyrhythmic, relating to rhythms; kinetic, relating to the movement itself; and referential, where the dancer makes a movement choice that is symbolic of something else or in reference to a general human sentiment. Brilliantly, Vermeij had several dancers illustrate the differences between kinetic and referential movement, to show us that both styles are valid. One woman danced simultaneously with two men. The first she danced with kinetically: that dance was fast and furious, wholly about movement for movement's sake. The next was referential: the man pulled her toward him passionately, she pulled away, rejecting him, he followed her, reached out and brushed her arm, wounded, she turned back to him, with pity, etc. Both movement styles, we were shown, could be thrilling.

The third highlight of Sunday was the lecture given by the incomparable Bryan Watson and Carmen, Latin champions for nearly a decade, who just retired last year, and whose presence on this year's competition floor, judging by the crowd's enormous applause for them, would sorely be missed. Watson is one of the performing arts world's great personalities. He's truly one of a kind; he can wow the crowd both with his dancing and speaking like no other. Almost as if he'd synchronized his lecture with Vermeij, he and Carmen spoke of their completely different dance styles, and how they, so oddly, came together to make one champion couple. Carmen's dancing is 90 percent drama; she is really a dramatic actress, and could enjoy a great stage career. Bryan, on the other hand, called himself a kinetic dancer, before illustrating just what that meant by doing jive kicks and Samba bachacatas at the speed of light, the likes of which I've never seen before and can't imagine ever seeing again. He was a whirl, a complete blur he was going so fast. The crowd nearly rushed the dance floor they were so ecstatic. Then Carmen performed. After demonstrating her theatrics through a snazzy Cabaret-style number, she recounted a time when Bryan accepted an outside challenge, unbeknownst to her (though she was always trying to get him to be more stylistic and less of a speed demon), to play up the dramatics for once. Though she'd always wanted this from him, instead of his hyperactive kinetics, they failed horribly. She completely forgot the routine, leading to his confusion; it was a mess. Goes to show you must respect each other, work together, and allow your different styles to complement the other. Perfect concluding lecture.

Sandwiched in between the daytime Congress lectures was the international team championship on Saturday night, May 24th. Teams from four different countries, which this year included Japan, Italy (who had by far the most vocal supporters), the U.S. and the U.K., sent their top four couples, two in Latin, two in Standard, to compete in each of the nine dances. First, one set of Latin couples from each country danced Cha Cha, then the next set of Latin couples, then on to Waltz, etc., through all nine dances. For the first time ever, in the history of Blackpool, team U.S.A. won, making this just about the most exciting event of the festival, at least to Americans. Our Latin team – Cocchi and Zagoruychenko, and Andrei Gavriline and Elena Kryuchkova, longtime U.S. national champions, far out-danced the others, which was pretty much expected since none of the other teams had top Latin couples. It was the Standard competition that brought spectators to the edge of their seats, as Italy's Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti, currently the top couple in the world, duked it out with our new partnership, Katusha Demidova and Arunas Bizokas, and the English couples, who always excel at Standard. It was thrilling. After every round, the emcee read the scores, and the three countries were just about tied in Standard. Our wonderful Latin dancers put us over the top, leading the U.S. to our very first Blackpool team victory!

The rest of the week was about the individual competitions. I was disappointed with the Latin results, not so much with the Standard. Starting off, I must say that, to me, dance is an art, not a sport. It's an art that requires great athleticism but it's an art. A sport, I believe, must be able to be measured by objective standards: a tape measure determining how far a jumper can jump, a timer how fast a runner can run. You can't judge an art the same way. And therein my Latin competition result angst lies.

Tuesday, May 27th was the Latin Amateur Finals. Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Valeryia Kozharinova are the top couple in the U.S. in this division and they are so much fun to watch. Their Cha Cha and Samba are deliciously sexy and their Paso is on fire, but it's their creative Rumba, by turns lyrical and romantic, becoming more heated and passionate, that makes them shine. When Kozharinova does a gorgeous leg-lifting developé toward Chmerkovskiy then turns, converting it into a spidery arabesque penchée over his shoulder, it's just mouth-watering. Whoever choreographed that routine deserves an award. Top though they are in the U.S., here they only made the semi-finals. The winners were, as expected, the Slovenian couple Matej Krajcer and Iwona Golczak, who were quick-footed and technically brilliant, but I felt lacked the artistry of Chmerkovskiy and Kozharinova or the personality of last year's winners (who became this year's professional Latin finalists), the highly charismatic Maurizio Vescovo and Melinda Torokgyorgy, from Hungary. As a spectator I want to be moved or wowed when I watch dance; technical perfection is necessary but on its own is boring.

Wednesday night, the 28th, was one of the biggest events, the professional Latin championship. With last year's champions, Bryan and Carmen, retired, it was widely expected (and by widely, I mean by everyone) that Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski from Poland would take home the trophy. (Another top contender was Russia's Slavik Kryklyvyy but he was between partners and didn't compete). Of course there are rarely any surprises at Blackpool, so of course Malitowski and Leunis, who have been second for two years in a row now, losing only to Kryklyvyy the prior year, won. They're another technically excellent couple, but so is everyone who makes semi-finals and above. Truly great dance is about more. Leunis is probably the best turner of all the women — she can do a sequence of lightening-fast chainê turns that may give you whiplash if you eye her too closely. But, athletically astounding though they may be, I don't find anything about their dancing as a partnership particularly original, not to mention compelling.

Far more captivating is the aforementioned Sergey Surkov and Melia with each of their dances, as I said earlier, having a definite theme and oozing with passion and at times startling intensity. Surkov and Melia placed a disappointing fourth overall, even behind Peter and Kristina Stokkebroe, from Denmark, whose dancing is, again, technically near perfect, but who frankly bore me nearly to sleep. They could really use a good coach to spice them up.

The aforementioned Vescovo and Torokgyorgy (last year's Amateur champions), were, in contrast, fascinating. Vescovo in particular has a hugely charismatic dance persona that emanates not only through his facial expressions and hand gestures but also through every settling of his hip, every tilt of his pelvis, every rise of his knee. They placed sixth overall, which one could argue is good since they're new to the professional division, but only if you count precedent over dance dynamism. Coming in second were Cocchi and Zagoruychenko, who, once again, floored me with their speed, rhythmic variation and precision.

The highlights of Thursday, the 29th, were the Amateur Standard competition and the invitation-only Exhibitions. The emcee, Marcus Hilton MBE, a former Standard champion, somewhat jokingly (though many a truth is said in jest) proclaimed the former "the second most important competition in the world", the first being what would take place Friday night: the professional Standard ballroom championship. In both Latin and Standard events, the Amateur champions oftentimes go on to become professional champions. But I think Hilton may have been declaring the Standard championships the most important of the festival partly out of disappointment that the crowd had dwindled following the end of the Latin events. There were far more empty seats and standing positions available after Wednesday. This is a sharp contrast to prior years. I think Latin is gaining in popularity worldwide. And this is a very international festival: people come from all over, including the Far East, Eastern Europe, and Australia. We almost can't all fit into the Winter Gardens. I see more and more Asians – Chinese and Japanese – couples competing each year, and they bring with them slews of national fans. I think the British will always favor Standard ballroom though. The English, and increasingly the Italians have been strongest in Standard. Italy's Paolo Bosco and Silvia Pitton took first; in second were Italy's Andrea Ghigiarelli and Sara Andracchio; and placing third were my personal favorites, an elegant German couple, Benedetto Ferruggia and Claudia Koehler.

Also taking place Thursday evening was an event I always find exciting, the exhibition championship. In this competition, which is now an officially recognized Olympic sport, each of about seven couples (who must be invited to compete by the festival's organizers) perform their own choreographed routine to a musical score of their choosing. The routine must consist of some recognizable dancing, either Latin or Standard, but must also include a variety of lifts, and the more difficult the lifts and tricks, the higher the couple's placement. South Africa has dominated this event for the past couple of years, and it did so again this year, and deservedly so, as South African pairs placed both first and second. The runners-up, Nic Dawson and Cherese Mallen, performed a spectacular lift sequence, ending when Dawson flipped Mallen around over his head, then lay the middle of her back atop his crown and spun her around and around by rotating his head. It was one of the most amazing dance feats I've ever seen and they seemed to pull it off, along with everything else, effortlessly. How she managed to maintain her form while balancing on the crown of his head, and while being spun repeatedly in the air, I'll never know. I, along with the rest of the crowd, judging by the audible gasps, was shocked the couple came in second. Placing first were Craig Smith and Natalie Woolf, who performed a lovely lyrical routine that included a few more lifts and acrobatic tricks than that of Dawson and Mallen, but that generally looked more wobbly (at one point she seemed to struggle to stay airborne, though she was successful). Perhaps, like in Olympic pair figure skating, the judges wished to reward effort at difficulty rather than a flawless, but overall less strenuous, performance.

The final competition, on Friday, the 30th, was the Brits' most popular. It's fun just to listen to the spectators, who come from all over the U.K., marvel at the bedazzling costumes, talk about past champions and who of the newbies resembles who of the oldies. We all knew the winners would likely be the couple who has won the past two championships, Italians Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti. No surprises, of course. It was, however very close between the two-times champs, the new American couple, Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, and the new English partnership of Jonathan Wilkins and Hazel Newberry. America has long admired Demidova, who used to dance with Wilkins, but it was Bizokas, who won in the Amateur category with his old partner last year, who I found breathtaking. While Demidova has flawless technique and immaculate form, Bizokas has that extra something more that's indefinable but that makes one a star. He glides, almost skates, across the dance floor with such suavity, it's as if his feet aren't really touching the ground. It's as if he's floating above it. He's so polished he shines.

Wilkins and Newberry have the most charm of the top couples in this competition. Their dancing just makes you smile and you want to root for them because they're so personable. With his cutely dimpled smile and swift-footedness, he reminds one of a Fred Astaire, while physically resembling actor Ralph Fiennes.

But neither Bizokas's gloss nor Wilkins and Newberry's sweetness could overtake the Italians, the gorgeously, richly luscious Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti, who won. They're like a full-bodied Cabernet, and watching them almost makes you tipsy. Unlike Latin, this is a competition better viewed from the balcony. From there you can better see the fullness of the couple's shaping, their fluidity, the ease with which they travel, and their floor craft. From there it was obvious just how sublime Gozzoli and Betti are. Their bodies make the perfect martini glass shape; their torsos almost look like a pair of lips slightly opened in surprise, they're at such a perfect distance from each other. And they maintain that distance, that shape, no matter how difficult their footwork, no matter how fast they're moving. When they do their breathtaking continuous pivot turns across the floor, you see this perfect circular martini-glass just spinning and spinning and spinning, never once for a second losing that visual effect. You can get lost in it. Interestingly, Gozzoli claimed in the Congress lectures that he focuses only on technique, working to perfect that. That's it; that's their secret. At first I didn't believe him; with dancing so spellbinding there had to be more. But on second thought, I think there's less room for creativity in Standard than Latin because of the closed-handhold. In Latin, because the couples can open out, even completely part from each other, they can be more original, do steps that aren't on any syllabus, add balletic, jazzy forms to their routine, whatever. And so, I begin to look more for that than I do perfect footwork or body movement. But with Standard, perfection of technique is probably about 99 percent of what you have to work on. Gozzoli and Betti showed just how absolutely thrilling that can be.

Predictably, but justly, Bizokas and Demidova placed second, and Wilkins and Newberry third. I missed former champions Timothy Howson and Joanne Bolton, who inexplicably were absent, though they were listed in the program and given a competitor number. I savor watching Howson and Bolton's Quickstep. Their specialty is the slide, where both partners sprint and jeté across the floor, then land the last jump on their heels, sliding across the floor for many feet. It's really spectacular and the crowd goes wild.

Disappointed as I was with the Latin results, the Standard seemed fair, not to mention breathtakingly beautiful. All's well that ends well.
Sergey Surkov and Melia.

Sergey Surkov and Melia.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Jonathan Wilkins and Hazel Newberry.

Jonathan Wilkins and Hazel Newberry.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko.

Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova.

Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti.

Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Michael Malitowski and Joanna Leunis.

Michael Malitowski and Joanna Leunis.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Vaidotas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte.

Vaidotas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Valeriya Kozharinova.

Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Valeriya Kozharinova.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


View of Professional Standard Ballroom Championships, from the balcony.

View of Professional Standard Ballroom Championships, from the balcony.

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank

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