Finding Her Way Back to Dance - Donna Edelstein

Samantha StoutOctober 21, 2020Ballroom Chat: Episode #27
donna edelstein ballroom chat

Donna Edelstein discusses her journey from ballet to ballroom, and how she found success as an adult in the sport. Donna and Samantha also discuss the importance of putting your own stamp on your dance style, lessons she's learned as a ballroom commentator, and what sets her competition apart from the rest.

Donna Edelstein is a former Pro-Am Champion in Standard, Latin and Smooth. She went on to become a Champion Professional dancer in Smooth and Standard. Donna is currently a coach, judge, adjudicator, invigilator and commentator, as well as the owner of The Snow Ball Dancesport Competition.

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Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

Samantha: Welcome back to another episode of Ballroom Chat. I'm your host, Samantha with Love Live Dance. Thank you once again, to Ballroom Box and The Girl with the Tree Tattoo for supporting the podcast, more on that later. Today I am joined by Donna Edelstein. She is a former Pro-Am Champion in the Smooth, Standard, and Latin categories and she went on to become a Professional Champion dancer in Smooth and Standard. She's currently an NDCA adjudicator and an invigilator. She's also a former writer for the DanceBeat Magazine, and she is a correspondent every year at Ohio Star Ball. You may see her behind the scenes interviews with some of the professional dancers and the amateur dancers as well. She's also currently the owner of the Snowball Dancesport Competition in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I got to sit down with her and talk about what brought her into the dance sport industry and where she thinks, there is opportunity for growth and change within the sport. So please help me welcome to the show, Donna Edelstein. Well, thank you, Donna so much for being a guest on today's podcast.

Donna: Thank you.

Samantha: So, for folks that maybe aren't familiar with your history, maybe aren't familiar with your background. How did you get started in the ballroom dance industry?

Donna: Well, how I got started in the industry versus how I got started in ballroom dancing is two separate things. And I'll, I'll tell you the true initiation, because I think a lot of people will find it sort of funny. I had a different career first, so I had danced my whole life. Primarily ballet. But, when the time came to make a decision about high school and the ballet studio told my parents, you know, I shouldn't go to high school and I should dance and go to YMCA high school.

And they were like, no way. So, dance got put on the back burner until in college where I was an art major. We were right next door to a place with a children's theater and I could continue taking ballet. So, I danced my whole life. But I got a job in the film business and we had a company Christmas party and the owner of the company asked me to dance.

There was dancing and it was couples dancing. I didn't even know where to put my hands. Like, I, I hadn't done that before, you know, like I was going to put my left hand around his waist and he said, you put your hand on my right arm. And I thought. Oh my gosh. So, I was married at the time. I said to my husband, we have to take some sort of, I didn't even know it was called ballroom dance. That's how, you know, I said we have to take the kind of dancing that they do, you know, at these company parties, I was 22 because that was so embarrassing. You know, he thought, I don't know how to dance a dance my whole life, you know, so my husband said, and I quote, if you find something cheap enough, I'll go.

So, I looked, I looked in the, the little course catalog that you get for your local school system. And there were four ballroom dance classes for, I don't know what it was at the time. It was in the 1980s, you know, probably $15 for all four classes. And we go, the teacher was in overalls, half the classes were in polka, but there was some Foxtrot and some swing.

And I thought, well, this is nice, you know, and now we've done that. And now I can go to a party, end of story. But then we had some friends that, we were all going to a fundraiser and they said, how about if we four couples get together and take a dance lesson, it had a 1920s theme. So, we thought, well, sounds fun.

So, all four of us go and take this dance lesson. And we figured one lesson. Now we know how to dance. It's done. You know, it's like, we've had our four lessons. We've had the one lesson. What more could you need? Right. So, we went to this fundraiser and it was, we had a good time. And the studio that we had gone to had a little coupon at the fundraiser, for a free the dance lesson.

Well, obviously free. The right price, husband agrees to go. I go, we love it. We sign up for four more lessons. We figure, Hey, we've had, you know, the four, the one, the free one, the four, done. This is a long story. I know. So, we're at the new studio and they tell us that, they're going on a little weekend trip.

There's some people that are doing a workshop. Do we want to go? So, we say, sure. Turns out that the people doing the show are Ron Montez and Liz Curtis, who were former United States, Latin champions, and they were the first couple to make the world final in Latin. I didn't even know competition ballroom dancing existed.

And Ron and Liz had just retired. So, they were like at the top of their game, you know, so well-rehearsed and yet relaxed cause their competitive career was over. And I had never seen anything like that. I didn't know it existed. I thought if you missed your chance at being a ballerina, that was it for you for dance.

And here were, you know, adults. Doing something fabulous. And I looked at that and I'm like, I need to do this. Like, I want to do this. I know I can do this. This is incredible. So that's, that was a long-winded route from not knowing where to put my hands to how I discovered the world of ballroom dance.

Samantha: Well and I think that's fantastic too, because, a theme that I've kind of discovered, interviewing several guests at this point is there is a misconception that if you don't start ballroom dancing at, you know, three, four, five years old, that you can't reach success.

And, you are, you are now, the third or fourth guest that has said, no, I didn't discover ballroom dancing until I was an adult. And, and, you know, look, look at the career now that you've achieved. So after you saw, that performance and it kind of ignited this, Oh, I can still do dance, but in a different way, was it an immediate mind shift for you of let me figure out how to do this competitively, or did you still want to figure out a way that you and your husband could dance it more socially?

Donna: Well, I really wanted to do competition dancing and to me, social dancing, if you did competition dancing, it seemed like, yeah, you'd be able to do social dancing. He was much more social dance oriented. It took me a while to figure out how to maneuver and find people that really were competitive dancers because everyone sort of, it says that that's what they, they have everything, but you know, there's different levels of it, obviously.

So if I had to weave in wind my way to find the right resources and, And you don't know because when you're new to it, everyone is better than you and everyone knows more than you do. And it’s just how it is.

Samantha: So, at some point, you find the right instructor and you find your studio space to do competitive dance.

You go on to become a Pro-Am champion in Standard, Latin, and Smooth, and then eventually a professional dancer in the Smooth and Standard categories. I have a feeling, I know the answer to this question, but I'll go ahead and ask it anyway. Why do all three styles in Pro-Am and then continue doing two, the styles and professional?

Why not specialize in one particular style?

Donna: well, commonly, when you start, people will do two complimentary styles, like smooth and rhythm or, Latin and ballroom. But, back then in Minnesota, where I lived, it was all pretty much American style.

So, I started out doing Smooth and Rhythm, but then when I got more and more serious, I actually was traveling to take lessons. every other weekend I do a seven-hour car ride to go take lessons over the weekend and then come home and practice. For two weeks and then go back. So that's sort of how I did what I did.

So, I, I immediately had switched styles when I started driving because the teacher that I went to was international style and he was British. And so, we did standard and Latin and I loved both of those. And in a way, the lack more spoke to me than the rhythm did, although I really enjoy the rhythm dances, but I liked.

I liked the elegance. I like the straight leg action. I liked everything about it. And the international ballroom reminded me a lot of ballet in terms of how codified it is. There's such a structure, every level really builds on the level before it, it, it seemed logical and it has a great feeling when you do it. so, so both of those seem to go down and then, I had a female coach that came to the studio and decided I wanted to dance with her husband. He was, they were a high, high up in the rhythm, but she had come from England and was a fabulous Latin dancer. So, I did Latin through them and found a different teacher for the ballroom.

And because I enjoyed the Latin so much, she said, well, you should try the smooth again. You know, like now that you're so into ballroom, I think I was probably doing open ballroom when I switched and added the smooth. So, it just seemed like a melding, you know, so anyhow, once you're at a competition, it's more fun to do more. I'm not meaning to say, you know, 500 entries, but just if you're there for a few days and there were less competitions, way less competitions back then you just got to dance more.

So, I, I loved that aspect. As a pro, originally the plan was to only do ballroom and I turned pro late in life. So., I didn't envision myself even being in a Latin dress, you know, too much longer. It was too much work to try and keep everything from moving independently. So, I thought, you know, ballroom is going to be the best style for longevity.

Samantha: it's interesting that you make the comparison between, the codification of ballet and the codification of standard. I know that, Rhythm is still kind of finding its footwear it's footing in the industry. It's still kind of in my mind, like jelling into what it will eventually become. Smooth is still kind of in that amorphous, like sometimes it looks very much like standard, sometimes it looks very much not at all like standard. Do you think the fact that the international styles have had a couple of decades ahead of the Americans, the American styles to kind of become what they are that lends itself to that codification. Do you think the American styles will ever reach that point or because American is a little bit more freeform in its smooth expression, would it be doing at a disservice if it was codified in the same way that standard was?

Donna: I think that smooth well, to me right now, smooth is the most exciting style. I think, couples are the most thoughtful about what they're trying to portray and, and there's a number of different portrayals. Whereas in some of the other styles, I see people copying each other more. And so, there's less, distinction sometimes.

You know, I, I hate to sound like an old person, but I think I've earned the right since I now am an old person to say, back when I first started competing, you could walk into a huge ballroom and from way at a distance, you could tell who each of the couples were on the floor, at least in the 12 or the six because they were so distinctive, in their style and their presentation and everything about them. And then, and I don't know if it's because of YouTube and how everyone gets to see everyone immediately, but there's so much more copying and, less individuality. And so, smooth I feel people are really trying to, couples and coaches are really trying to, do their version of smooth and because it's becoming so popular around the world, smooth really is becoming codified as a way of teaching it to people who are used to doing international style. And yet I think it's being taught in such a way that there can still be freedom and creativity just that's what the style is. Rhythm is a little bit like the Democrats and the Republicans, since there's such, you know, warring factions, it's trickier, you know, you have hip lift, delayed leg action, people that say you don't have to have a delayed leg action. I mean, it's very, I think couples are, pressured to, to know what to do.

You know, I think I've wandered off your original question, but you can bring me back.

Samantha: No, I, I, I think, eh, you brought up a good point, specifically when it comes to rhythm that, yeah, there's, there's a, there are definitely two camps and they feel very strongly about it. And I think, as a rhythm competitor, you need to know how to do both. and there's a little bit of gamesmanship of, do I play to the judges on the panel or do I play to my strengths as a dancer? Because if you know that you are in front of a panel that predominantly believes in a particular theme of rhythm. There's an argument to be made. Okay, well maybe I dial up or dial down what I'm doing so that it appears more aesthetically pleasing to the judges that I'm in front of. As a judge and an adjudicator, yourself do you

Donna: I want to go back to something you said, I'm sorry for interrupting.

Samantha: No,

Donna: before you even ask the question, I hope they're not changing their style for their panel. because that would be focusing in my mind on the wrong thing. So, the couples that I work with, one of the things I find is that a lot of couples are just afraid.

They're afraid, to be free. They're afraid they want to please everybody, which I did too when I was competing, but it gets you nowhere. It makes you a little bit psychotic. So, you have to discover what you believe in as a dancer and what, what technique you're going to pursue and work with coaches that that's what they teach and you just have to be firm that this is what's right for you and you're going to do the best possible presentation of it. Ultimately, I like to think that the best dancer wins regardless of the particular style that they are choosing to show. It's not always the case that that happens, but over time, at least you're going to be in the top.

You know, you might not be the champion. There's some great dancers that have never been the champion, but they've been in that number two spot for an amazing number of years or even number three or so the other thing I think people are so results focused. Obviously, people want to win. We wouldn't compete if we didn't, but it, it has to be about the dancing before it's about who was your panel? You can't control that, but you can control what you do. Now you can ask the question.

Samantha: Well, that changes the question slightly. When you are coaching couples or you're working with couples that that are maybe consistently making the finals but aren't necessarily making that top three, and they do share that they are nervous or cautious or scared of putting a brand or putting a stamp on who they are as a couple, what their style is because they don't want to shake the boat, but they also are afraid if they put a stamp, you know, they're, they're now not going to make it into the finals or they're not going to progress with the results, how do you counsel dancers to say, no, this needs to be an intrinsic motivation versus an extrinsic motivation in order for you to really progress.

Donna: That's a really good question and I'm not always successful with it because, there's one particular case I'm thinking of. And um very good dancers, very talented finalists. But what they saw as their strength, which was their strength that got them to a certain place, and I think this is true with a lot of couples, then becomes your weakness. So, if your strength was that you were energetic and, great at fast dances and built a lot of energy with the audience and that got you to where you are. But now what you need to do is be willing to, you already have that, so now what you need to be willing to do well, at least in this couple's case, is work on much more finesse and subtlety and be willing to be, still in new ways and, and show another layer of development and texture to the dancing.

Well, that's where they're scared. They're scared to leave what got them successful. And to try that next thing that is outside of the comfort level. And many times, they just, well, they will on the lesson, like, you know, you're like, Oh, this is fabulous. Let me record it and show you. And they're like, well, yeah, that does look good.

It doesn't feel like how we normally feel, but then in the comp and it's like the old, Bring back that energy. That's how I got here. So, the couple has to really want to do something different or be willing to do something different and they aren't always, and you can't make them. If that makes sense.

Samantha: Definitely. Definitely. If someone is listening to the podcast and they are just starting their ballroom dancing journey. whether it be amateur, pro-am, or professional, they're in a teaching capacity and they're going straight to pro.

What are some of the pitfalls that you have seen others fall into over the years or that you fell into over the years? that they should be aware of avoiding so that they don't get in this locked mindset of, I only want to do what is safe and what is comfortable.

Donna: Number one, find a teacher who really knows their basics and be willing to focus on basics for quite a while. Like at least your first few years of dancing, don't look at dancing with the stars and want to do every trick. And don't think that dancing open bronze is necessarily a benefit unless you have a lot of dance background and you want to, you know, use that in a particular number, but really focus on the elements that are going to be able to serve you in any style that you do later. So that would be number one.

Number two don't be in an environment where you're pressured to do something that feels wrong to you. Whether it's to spend more money than you're comfortable spending to do more events than. You feel like you're ready to. With that said, no one feels ready to compete the first time. So, so there's, there's good pressure and bad pressure. So, it's bad pressure if someone suggests that you sell your house to finance your ballroom dancing, which I've seen. That's bad. It's bad pressure if a teacher is yelling at you and making you cry, pinching you, being abusive in any way, verbally or physically, which I've heard students say, Oh, that's only cause he cares about me. It's like, no, that's because he's an idiot and you need to get out. Watch a lot of dancing. If you can see it live, watch it. nowadays we can see YouTube, watch it and see what you like, who you like, what styles they're dancing, and then just try and always gravitate to the best that you can see or be around.

Samantha: I want to figure out how to phrase this, for someone that is pulled into ballroom dancing because of the competitive nature of it, because of the sport aspect of it. You mentioned, obviously that you had a really strong foundation in ballet. I also grew up doing ballet, tap, and jazz before I even knew what ballroom dancing was. So, and you can tell me if you would agree with this or not.

I think for both of us, there is a certain amount of, I feel free when I'm dancing or I, I enjoy the artistry of it. My body feels like is meant to be in this moment when it's moving to the music. For someone who's connecting to ballroom dancing completely from the opposite end of it. That, it is a sport it's, it's a competition.

It's more of that like achievement progression model, would it behoove them to take more time before entering into their first competition? Or with a student like that, would you say like, no, let's hit the floor as soon as we can just so you can get the experience of what it's really like to be inside a ballroom when you have, you know, 20 heats, 100 heats, 200 heats, however many entries you're doing so that, you know, the rapid fire pace of it, and you kind of get the system that is a competition day before we really work on all of the technique and the basics and the form and the structure of the dance itself.

Donna: Well, generally, if somebody is interested in competing, I say, go for it and enter it as a newcomer, because you're going to be against all other new dancers, divided by age and level.

And it lets you see if you like that competition environment. So, I said earlier nobody's ever ready, you know, for their first series of competitions and there can be a period of many years where you never feel that ready because you're making changes or you have new ideas and you haven't incorporated them yet. So, it's not like you're going to be perfect when you go out there the first time. So, by all means, if somebody has the interest and the desire, let them try it. And then sometimes that's the motivating factor. For women, sometimes the motivating factor is they went to their first competition and they wore practice dress or cocktail dress, which is totally appropriate for your first time, and they bought a ballgown. And now they want to dance more because they want to wear the gown. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know, it's like for some people they're drawn to dancing because this is an other worldly experience. We go to this magical place where there's music and everyone's nice, pretty nice to each other.

And we're dancing, which feels wonderful and looks pretty. And it's a form of self-expression and it's a sport. And I mean, it's, it's a pretty addictive thing to do. So yeah, do it.

Samantha: I want to ask a follow up question to that. As a dancer or as a competitor, and then as a judge in case the answers are two different, is there a sweet spot for the number of entries for competitor? If we're talking pro-am not amateur or professional, but pro-am student competition, do you think there is a number that is too many or a number that is too few to get a really quality experience out of a competition?

Donna: Yes, I do. On the too few side back when I had students doing Pro-Am, this is what I would tell them, and it's what I believe. Unless somebody is very, very advanced in which case, they can make their own decision. But if you're newer, I would say do three levels of individual dances, meaning your freestyle dances. So do three separate Waltzes or three separate Foxtrots, whatever. And the reason is the first time you're out there, unless you're someone that can afford to compete all the time, but most people can't.

So you might be doing four competitions a year or six or eight, which still is pretty spaced out. The first time you're out there, you'll come off the floor and think, "I bet they were playing music, but I barely heard it because I was just like so excited and thinking about everything and my choreography and noticing my friends cheering for me and what have you."

And then the second time you're going to come off the floor and say they play music. And I, I was aware that they were playing music. I heard it, you know, I listened to it and I, I was sort of, dancing to the music. But the third time, because you've had those two experiences now, hopefully you're going to be calm or you're going to be able to be out there and really dance more like what you do in the studio when you're relaxed.

And then if their teacher has a place for them, then I would like to see them do one multi dance event and a scholarship to get the experience and doing dances back to back where you're marked over a few. So, to me, that's the minimum. Now I've had people enter my competition, the Snowball with a brand-new teacher, and they're like, okay, we're going to do one waltz and one foxtrot.

And that's what they ended send in. And I might call the teacher and say, are you sure? Because their student's paying a lot of money to come. That's going to be a few minutes of dancing. They don't get a do over, you know, if they were a little off and they're like, no, that's what we're going to do. It’s like, okay. And then inevitably, the student comes up to you afterwards and says, next time I'm going to do so much more. And you're like, Oh yeah,

Samantha: yeah. from a judging standpoint, do you think there's a number of too many entries?

Donna: The number that's too many as when the competitor loses, their ability to dance well, and for every competitor that's different. So, if you watch some of the Pro-Am teachers that do hundreds of entries, some of them are like machines.

They truly dance the whole time. they're giving energy to their students the whole time. They're, they're not slacking. Some do, some students who are very into seeing how much they can do compete so often that they're able to do sort of an inhumane amount, doing it pretty consistently well, whereas others you feel like you're watching, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They", when they have the marathon dance scene and people are just diminishing as time goes on. So, so if that's you don't want do it because our impression of you is, is diminishing as the dancing diminishes, not to say it's not fine to do a however much you want.

It's just, if your goal is to dance well, there's a point beyond where you can.

Samantha: Thank you again to the Ballroom Box for their continued support of the podcast. If you've not already heard, they are a quarterly subscription service made by dancers for dancers. Their fall box was absolutely wonderful and included a travel mug, makeup from Chella cosmetics, a bedazzled face mask, going a couple other goodies.

They're currently taking orders for their holiday box. So, head over to and use the offer code "BallroomChat" at checkout to save 5% and to support the podcast. Again, thank you to Ballroom Box for supporting Ballroom Chat.

I'd also like to give a big thank you to The Girl with the Tree Tattoo for also supporting the podcast. If you are interested in picking up either of her eBooks, the Dance Diaries series, or if you want to take your dancing to the next level and want her guide on how to solo practice as well as her companion journals, you can do so over at and be sure to use the code "BallroomChat" at checkout to save 10% and to support the podcast. Again, that's and the offer code is "BallroomChat" at checkout. Thank you again to The Girl with the Tree Tattoo. I want to go ahead and pivot just a little bit, and then we'll come back to, the competition that you mentioned, the Snowball. but first I want to talk a little bit about your, in front of the screen and also behind we'll say the typewriter, behind and the computer work, as a commentator and a writer. So, you're a writer for DanceBeat. Remind me, you do commentary for Ohio Star Ball. Is that through Ohio or is that through another organization?

Donna: You know, I'm going to do the commentating stuff first. So that's through Ohio and one-year Sam just said, you know, I want you to do some interviews. And I said, well, what do you mean interviews? And he's like, well, you know talk to people. You like to talk to people. And so. It was so much fun. It was no pressure.

You know, judging is pressure, especially at huge competitions because there are a lot of good people that go, you have time pressure. It's one after another, after another of maybe 40 people on the floor. When you're talking to people, I mean, that's basically like your, hi, how are you doing? What are you?

You know, it's, it's, so fun and easy, and everybody's happy pretty much to talk to you. A few people don't like to be interviewed, but for the most part, you know, people do. Whereas when you're a judge, the one you marked is happy to see you, but the other one's less happy, you know? Unless it was their first final or something.

So, it's, it's just a very nice experience all around. I get to learn about people and what they're doing. And, so individual comps will hire me, to commentate at times, or I don't even call it commentating as much as interviewing. So, you know, doing interviews, with, with their people. So, Vegas Open generally does as well.

And some others. And it's, some will have me do a combination of judging and, just questioning and others will have me there solely in that commentating role,

Samantha: any, interviews that have surprised you either in a positive light or a, or a negative light.

Donna: one that I'll always remember was, Daniel Novaco. Do you know who he is? He's a little boy that competes.

Samantha: I've heard the name.

Donna: He has amateur partners. Very advanced little boy, but this was when he was about seven or eight. And he had danced Pro-Am with his mom and he won the division. And, you know, I like kids and I like that talking to kids, but I usually talk to them like they're kids.

So, it's like, Hey, do you have a favorite dance? He says, yes, ChaCha. And I said, well, what do you like about it? And he says the emotional content, Oh, I'm not interviewing a child. Like better do this totally differently. Was just mind boggling, because I wasn't expecting that somebody that young would come out with an answer like that and he had really thought about his dancing and he, he knew what he was doing.

You know, it was, it was just very interesting to me because he was sophisticated, even though it was all packaged in a tiny body.

Samantha: Kids are always amazing to me because they, they inevitably surprise you in ways that you've never been surprised before. I feel like, yeah, it's, it's that old adage out of the mouth of babes comes the truth.

Like they are, you cannot underestimate children. They will always surprise you.

Donna: Exactly,

Samantha: Was there ever, a moment either as a judge or, just watching a competition where you wanted to ask a competitor, their inspiration for putting together a routine and didn't get the opportunity to off the floor?

Donna: No. but there's times when I wished. This is opening up a bad door. People are going to say, Oh, I wish she had not said that. There are times when I wish that people, pros, in high level comps would have asked me why I marked something, the way that I did. Because you can really, really like how couples dance and yet know, that they're probably disappointed by how you marked them and you wish you could tell them, but you're not going to go up to somebody and say, well, I would've marked you to win, but this is what I'm seeing, you know?

But you, you sort of want them to know that you really do like their dancing a lot and, and. I just remember being a pro thinking, well, this judge doesn't like me and that judge doesn't like me, and it's not true that judges don't like you in general, unless you've had some sort of a, you know, run in with somebody which I guess can happen, but would be rare.

we're actually rooting for people to do well and do what we love to see.

Samantha: Yeah. A follow-up to that because I have to ask the follow-up to that. If you are a professional dancer and you are surprised by your marks, is it allowable to ask the judge why? Or is that taboo? And is that a line that shouldn't be crossed?

Donna: It depends on, on how you ask it. It's not totally taboo. What would be unfortunate as sometimes I've heard of stories.

It's never happened to me where someone will get in the judge's face and like be sort of threatening and you know, how could you mark me like this? Because everyone else marked me, blah, blah, blah. I've never had that happen. I've heard of cases where people have said to the judge, well, what exactly is it that you don't like about my dancing?

And if that's the attitude, then probably take a lesson and they'll tell you. But if you just say, you know, generally you're a good judge for me, but I noticed, you know, tonight less so. Was there you know, something that you wished you could say to us? You know, like that opens a door, you know, and the person doesn't feel attacked and could either say, well, not really, it's just what I saw tonight. It wasn't as powerful as your usual performance, or they might have something very specific to say that they'd be willing to say.

Samantha: Gotcha.

Donna: Sometimes people would have a coach ask.

Samantha: Do you feel more comfortable talking to coaches about what you're seeing on the floor versus the competitors themselves? Or no, does that not really matter in the grand scheme of things?

Donna: To me, it doesn't make a difference. I just, as soon say it directly to someone, so it's not translated. But with that one. Oh, sorry. Now that being said, if I have a couple of going to a competition and I have a friend that's going to be there, who's not judging and would never ask a friend if they're judging, but I have some friends that are judges that also do Pro-Am.

I might say would you want, if you're going to watch, you know, the whatever style let's say rhythm, would you keep an eye on so and so, and let me know what you see? Cause I'm not there to see it live, you know, that I would want to know, like, just through someone else's eyes, what they're seeing. But if they were judging, I would not ask it cause then you're trying to get your couple more eye time and that's like inappropriate.

Samantha: Yeah. There's a can of worms back there that I want to open, but I won't, So from, a competitor's perspective, from a coaching perspective and from an adjudicator's perspective, is there value and or what is the value of the, "this is what the judges like to see" kind of lecture series is, is that beneficial to competitors? Is that Is it self-indulgent on the part of judges? What is, what is your kind of take on, on that sort of series?

Donna: Well, I think it depends on who's in the room on both sides. So, I think especially newer competitors or pros that started at studios. And went through a training program and then became pros and didn't have a background of competing coming up, for them it can be quite surprising to know that judges want to see in general that people look elegant, that they're really incorporating good basics, that, you know, posture has a huge effect. Like some of these things that we take, so for granted, because they might be thinking, Oh, the fancier, it is the better, and the more skin I show the sexier and who knows what all. So sometimes it's just catching people in the right places of coming up to hear that. I think it can also be beneficial because generally in those types of lectures, if they're at a competition, at least people have the chance to ask questions.

So like questions I've been asked are, how can you judge so fast? Like it seems the judges are, you know, not really watching at the end, which is a great question because I have some judges, like don't want to hand in their sheet, even when it's over and others of us at times, you know, you do judge very quickly.

And, and people don't understand why they feel like you're not watching. They're like, well, halfway through the song, you guys are done judging. How, how can that be right? And so, I think it's helpful for people to say, well, let's say it’s a three-couple final and one is slouching and one has pretty much all incorrect footwork and one's off time.

It doesn't take us the whole song to figure that out, you know, it's, It's not that we don't care and that we're not watching it's that we see it very quickly and we make our decision. So, I think sometimes being able to ask questions and hear the answers is helpful. I don't know, like I say, it depends on who's in the room on both sides.

Samantha: Sure. Sure. I do want to talk about the Snowball, which is the competition that you are the organizer for. Tell me a little bit about, the event itself. What makes it special? What do you find rewarding and exciting about being an organizer for the Snowball?

Donna: Well, the Snowball is a three-day event. It's a competition for pro-ams, pros, amateurs. It's in Minneapolis, Minnesota the second weekend of January. Which is cold. And so, our whole theme is around snow. It's a competitive event, but it's also a warm and fun event. my feeling is who in their right mind would come to Minnesota in the winter, unless there's a special reason to do so?

And the special reason is going to be that you're treated very well, that you have a warm and sort of nurturing environment to dance in and that it's pretty. Now with all that said, this year with COVID everything is different. You know, I, I don't know if I don't know a lot about this year. I love running the competition because I love being in that position to help people dance their best.

There are some competitions where you feel like you're herded through like, you know, animals just it's, herding somewhere. There's like just sort of bland experience and some that have a lot of identity and fun. And I like to think mine is one of the ones that have identity and fun. So, we mix things like, our nightclub is a pajama party.

It's a winter pajama party and I've had people tell me they want to learn the nightclub dances just so they can dance in pajamas. But the judges are in pajamas and competitors will say, I danced my best because the judges didn't look intimidating cause they were in, you know, robes. I think we're all trying to do things that make our events identifiable and make people want to return. And I'm really fortunate in that. My comp is about usually about 6,000 entries, which is a pretty good size. And I have many, many people that come year after year and tell me that they make friends at the comp and that's the environment that I want to nurture is like dance your best.

Be competitive. But really feel like you're making connections because dancing is about connecting

Samantha: Love that. I was talking with Maria Hansen about, the men in black competition specifically, and that your competition as well is part of that. for you as an event organizer, what do you see the benefit being of holding a men in black event?

Donna: You know, it was great. Men in black was kicked off of mine in for anyone that doesn't know men in black is for leaders. Men has become too narrow of a category, but it's for anybody in the leader position, which for the most part is men. leading is a difficult job to teach and. There's so many more aspects to it.

As a guy is coming up or as a leader is coming up, then what a follower needs to know in the beginning, because a follower's receiving a feeling and a leader is having to give that feeling and also navigate the floor. So, in the past, oftentimes leaders have been demoralized at competitions.

Particularly where they're competing against, as they see it, male pros with females, you know, students because we are judging movement across the floor and someone that does it all day as their job is going to be more proficient than someone that does it as a hobby. So, men in black really celebrates the, the teachers of leaders and the leaders themselves and, and what I've learned.

And, and it makes sense is. The leaders want to go to events where other leaders are because they want competition. a lot of the leaders excelled in sports and then found dancing and they see it as sort of another combo artistic and sports-related avenue. And they like the people that they compete against and they, they want to all go to the same places. So, it was fun for them. And then we have a special event that they can go to at nine. It was, going on rides at the Mall of America and they enjoyed doing that together. And many of the lady teachers are independent teachers. And so, it, it gives them the feeling of being a part of something in the way that a studio would have outings, they have men in black. So, it's, it was very successful.

Samantha: I'm going to ask a question and you can absolutely decide that you don't want to answer it.

Donna: okay.

Samantha: You brought up an interesting word, dilemma or word use dilemma. So, because it is called the men in black. Is the intention to create a bonding experience and a competitive experience for amateur leads in a pro and partnership, or is it to create a bonding experience for males that are competing in Pro-Am?

Because now with the, the non-gendered partnerships rule, you could conceivably have men that are following, and they would also be put in a kind of weird position where they are gentlemen, but they are competing against ladies that are following as well. So is the intention or, or is the evolution of the men in black to be for leads or is it for gentlemen or is that still to be determined later on down the line?

Donna: Well, it's a really good question you bring up. Men in black came about before the NDCA changed their language to allow same sex couples. So, the original intent of it was for male leaders. There was no other option at the time that it came out. from my perspective as an organizer and from the NDCA's perspective, anybody can choose to lead or follow regardless of gender. So, if a leader chose to be part of the men and black tour, which is for leaders, then to me, they qualify.

Samantha: So that, so the men and black tour is really lead amateur leaders. That's the qualification for it. Okay. Interesting. Interesting.

Donna: and ironically. Oh, sorry. No, it's going to say, at Snowball last year we did have some same sex couples and none of them were men. They were women. In one case, the woman's teacher had another family commitment with his son. And so, the female teacher who she also worked with, they danced together.

So, it's created more opportunities for women teachers. I think that was an unanticipated benefit of same sex.

Samantha: Yes, it is. It is a rule change that I support on. Many different levels, including the fact that it opens up the door for, female instructors to really, make a go at some of the top teacher placements just outright, rather than the top female teacher.

Like, yeah.

Donna: And in many small markets there aren't necessarily even a male dance teacher. Like the only person is a female dance teacher and. Some women are more comfortable dancing with a woman, especially if they've had some trauma in their life related to men. And if that's who they take lessons with and they want to compete now they can.

Samantha: Yep. Absolutely. Absolutely. Awesome. anything else that you wanted to talk about today? Any tips or tricks that you wanted to give our listeners that we didn't get a chance to talk about?

Donna: I guess the only thing would be believe in what you do. believe in yourself. Don't take too much to heart. It's easy to, We're in a critiqued industry. It's easy to feel hurt at times and everyone does of course but let that roll off you. Do what you do, do what you loved. You will make it.

Samantha: Thank you again to Donna for being a guest on today's episode.

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