Following the Universe's Timing - JT Thomas

Samantha StoutMay 17, 2023Ballroom Chat: Episode #66
jt thomas ballroom chat

In Episode 66 of Ballroom Chat, JT Thomas discusses her dance career, from classically trained dancer to Smooth Champion to Country dancer. JT and Samantha reflect on how timing, in life as in dance is incredibly crucial, how exploring the essence of movement can take your dancing to the next level, and how planning for failure can lead to your success. JT also explains how country ballroom created an opportunity for her to begin a new chapter after completing her Professional Ballroom career.

JT Thomas is a two-time US and World Professional Smooth Champion. She holds a BFA in Dance and is a current adjudicator and judge for ballroom dance.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Samantha: Welcome back to another episode of Ballroom Chat, the podcast dedicated to sharing the dance journey. I'm your host Samantha with Love Live Dance. Today I'm joined by JT Thomas. She is a two-time US and world champion smooth dancer. She also has a BFA in dance and has competed in American Rhythm, international Latin, and then obviously American Smooth as well.

In addition to now being a judge and an adjudicator and an amazing coach, she is also dipping her toe into the country ballroom competitive circuit. Uh, so we got a chance to talk about how her journey from ballet, tap and jazz as a child brought her through to teaching American rhythm, ultimately competing in Latin, and then finally finding her footing in the American smooth category. How she dabbled in theater, arts and cabaret, and how after the last couple of years she finally found her way into Country Ballroom and her lessons and experiences across each of those different styles over the years. Um, we talked a lot about finding the essence of dance, about preparing for failure and just how the universe works in mysterious ways some days.

So please enjoy my conversation with JT. Well, thank you JT so much for being a guest on today's podcast.

[00:01:34] JT: It's my pleasure. I'm excited to chat with you today.

[00:01:38] Samantha: So as I mentioned in the introduction, you have a BFA in dance. You are a two-time US and World Smooth Champion dancer. Um, you also dabbled in rhythm and Latin and I'm sure international ballroom at some point, theatrical. You're now doing country dance. Um, so we're gonna start off the same way that we start off with every guest, which is how did you get your start in the dance industry and where has that taken you to today?

[00:02:10] JT: Um, well it's actually kind of a funny little story. Um, so I never expected to honestly even pursue a career in dance, even though I started when I was really young and um, I was going to college at the University of Arizona and I needed an extra elective credit and I wound up taking, even though I hadn't been in proper dance classes for, um, probably four years at that time. Um, so I, but I took a ballet class because I thought, well, oh actually no, I take that back. I took, I took a modern dance class, which I thought was going to be, because I'd never done either one.

I thought it was going to be like hip hop. And I walked into the class and there was like a guy over in the corner with bells on his ankles and he was playing a drum and everybody was like, barefoot and I, am I in the wrong place? Um, so I soon discovered what modern dance actually is, and it is not at all hip hop. I really enjoyed it and had fun. And then the next semester I added a ballet class to it. And then the teacher from that class asked me if I wanted to try out for a scholarship, and I thought, you're, you're gonna pay for school? Sure, let's try that. Um, so I wound up switching my degree. I got this scholarship, um, started into dance at the University of Arizona, um, while I was there, and I was a, I think probably a junior, I was looking for a job and I saw an ad in the paper for the, you know, be a receptionist, train to dance, um, uh, train to teach.

So I, I drove to this, um, location. Honestly, I don't even remember what the name of the school was at the time. Um, sorry to not give them credit. Um, but I, I, I literally sat in the parking lot for about an hour trying to get my nerve up to go in. And while I was sitting in the parking lot, I watched a gentleman with long, curly hair.

Now mind you, this was the, this was the nineties. So, you know, styles were definitely, uh, different than they are today. But, um, he had on a royal blue, ruffly Pirate shirt, um, which was very popular in the nineties, especially in ballroom dancing. And I watched him walk into the doors and I went, that is not for me.

And I drove away. Um, and then years later, like about three or four years later, um, I graduated and had moved up to Phoenix, um, back up to Phoenix where I'm from. I went to school in Tucson. And, um, A boyfriend I was dating said, Hey, I, I really wanna be able to take you out dancing. I know you'd really enjoy it. Um, and you're kind of like, not sure where you're at right now. And I said, well, that would be great, but I don't know how to do any of that. If you wanna tour jete and do, do some like plies, we can manage that. So we wa went into a Fred Astaire and um, took an intro lesson and then we bought our package of five.

And, um, two of those lessons into it, I went to the manager and was like, I think this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. So how do I get started? And then I took an extra job to be able to, uh, do training class and, um, went through training class and started teaching. So there it is. It could have happened three years earlier in Tucson, but it wasn't quite the time yet, I guess.

[00:05:50] Samantha: Well, and I, I, I love that because I know in my own experience and in talking with other individuals in the industry, that tends to be the takeaway is like, how many times did we pass across the path that was ultimately going to take us to dance? But we weren't in the right place at the time to say yes and to walk through the door.

So, I kind of love the fact that you were gonna apply three years earlier and then decided later, like, oh no, I should have, okay, but I'm here now

[00:06:18] JT: and this seems like the right moment. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And when that door opens, you just gotta, you gotta go for it. So I did.

[00:06:27] Samantha: Definitely, definitely. So, um, when you started at Fred Astaire, you were training in American Rhythm, is that correct?

[00:06:36] JT: Yeah. I mean, like any young teacher, especially in a chain atmosphere, you, you're kind of learning a little bit of everything, um, which was exciting to me. Um, but rhythm was always like kind of where my heart was at at that time.

Um, I always wa like, I excelled more as a jazz dancer as opposed to a ballerina. Um, and so I enjoyed the music better, I liked the movement better, and, um, I. They tried to encourage me to do it a lot more smooth, and I just was not having it at the time. Um, and again, you just kind of like, that was the moment and I'm really grateful for that experience.

And, um, for the partnership I had at that time, he was actually my first teacher as well. He, he taught me and the ex-boyfriend. Um, and then we became like a year later, we became, uh, pro partners. So that was kind of also a funny little what goes around comes around. Um, but yeah, so I started in rhythm and then, um, after he, he had some, um, just some family stuff that he needed to, to work through and so we decided a very amicably to like move on.

And, um, after that, uh, I was just looking for a partner and it was, again, it was the nineties. Now we're talking more like mid to late nineties and, um, They were just starting to, uh, bring over some of the Eastern Europeans with the, um, with visas to start working in the schools. Uh, it hadn't become a, a widely spread thing yet, and so I was kind of waiting and waiting for that to possibly happen.

I had several other tryouts. Um, I had, basically, I was waiting for somebody to come to me in Arizona because that's where all my family was from. And then the moment that I just like clicked in my head and said, you know what? I just have to go wherever it needs to happen. And literally within a week, um, Linda Dean came to me and said, Hey, I know this one guy, um, in San Diego who's looking for a partner, but he wants to do Latin. Would you be open to that? And I was like, let's give it a go. So. There then started my next journey of Latin

[00:09:02] Samantha: and I, I've spoken with a lot of dancers that have gone the other way around, started in Latin and ultimately switched to rhythm. What was your experience like going from rhythm in the nineties, which I imagined was very into the Cuban leg action and then switching to straight leg Latin, all of the international style technique.

[00:09:25] JT: Um, I actually, uh, oddly found it more comfortable and, um, not to throw Linda Dean under the bus, but, and I always really appreciated that she was honest with me cuz she was not being critical in any way, but she would watch me practice. Um, she was our kind of local coach at the time and she would watch us practice rhythm and she would always be like, there's just something not right about. What I'm seeing. She's like, you're doing everything correctly. You're doing everything I'm asking for you to do. And it just still looks a little off, and I'm not sure why that is. So I started doing Latin and she came up to me, like at the first competition and she said, oh, JT, that's what it is. You needed to straighten your legs.

And I thought, okay, well, you know, I'm glad we found it. That's good.

[00:10:19] Samantha: Mm-hmm.

[00:10:20] JT: So, um, it was, it was wonderful because we had, um, I danced with Marcus Johnson, uh, Wendy Johnson and Patrick Johnson's son. And so for me, coming out of like a very secluded, uh, world, you know, only being really in chain school, uh, activity Fred Astaire at that point, um, I now was in this independent world and was going to competitions all over the place and to have the mentors in Wendy especially, um, but also Patrick to just like guide us a little bit. Um, although we were, you know, one of, at that point now all of the Eastern Europeans were coming over, so, um, at that point there were not a whole lot of, um, like truly American couples competing in it. And, you know, I can't say that we did fairly well.

I think we got, um, upper level rising star finalists at, you know, Ohio and Embassy and things like that. So we didn't do poorly, but it was just like timing was not gonna be the thing that we were ever going to excel at that point, based on the influx of who was coming over and all these people who were so amazing and, you know, had been studying that style for you know, 20 years at that point. And I was a late bloomer in ballroom. I didn't even start ballroom until I was 23. So, um, yeah, it, it was, um, it was exciting. Um, there was certainly a lot to explore and, um, to check out and to be inspired by, but, uh, but I just never, I knew it was never gonna probably go anywhere far, but I had fun doing it.

It was, it was great.

[00:12:06] Samantha: Oh, for sure.

[00:12:07] JT: And I loved all of the dances, but there were just some that were not, like Paso Doble is, it's just not me. Like, can't pull it off fiercely. I don't, I don't know why, but it, you know, it, it was never gonna be completely my thing. But I enjoyed the experience for sure. And Marcus and I had a great partnership, so, yeah, it was fun.

[00:12:29] Samantha: Well, and I think hearing that too, like knowing that you were drawn to rhythm because of the jazz background that you already had. And then when you switch to Latin saying like, okay, I do actually like arriving on a straight leg, and I like some of the pieces and the technique behind the Latin style. I feel like all of that then leads very cleanly to the discovery of American smooth. Right. On a professional level. And okay. Now, cuz I, I look at, um, I think it was, it was either Ohio or maybe it was ABC, um, from 2008, 2009, you had a long form program, um, with Thomas. Uh, that was a like, Hollywood, Broadway, Foxtrot style,"Me and My Shadow" dance. And I'm looking at that and I'm like, oh no, she's a jazz dancer.

Like, I, I can see that so clearly. And it, it makes sense that like, okay, I had to do A, B, and C in order to get to this place in my career where I feel really good. So how did you switch then from Latin to ultimately smooth?

[00:13:36] JT: Um, again, you know, the universe has definitely always set me on the path, is how I, I kind of look at it and I just, I really think that, um, it, I, I kind of wait and I let things process and kind of fall to where they will. And then when I feel like, like something has been, uh, brought up that I'm, I'm like, okay, that's the new adventure. There's where we go now. Um, and so when I was doing Latin with Marcus, we were in San Diego, um, working out of Mary Murphy's studio. And um, we, it was, it was such a fun time there and, uh, Toni and Michael were there and they had, um, At the time I got there, they were still competing.

So I mean, that was super inspirational. And Marcus and I had always kind of toyed with the idea of possibly doing smooth. And we were like, but nobody's doing that. Nobody's doing Latin and smooth. And so for me, I was clearly like, well let's, let's just switch, let's do nine dance, um, let's switch over to rhythm and um, and then we'll add smooth into the mix.

So we started studying it, but he was not about doing rhythm at that time. I think just, you know, he grew up with parents who were internationally trained for the most part. And so that's where his focus had become. And you know, I wanted to respect that. We were having fun doing it for sure, but we had started taking some, uh, regular lessons with Toni and um, just kind of learning smooth and just seeing where that led for us. And then when we decided to split, that was another moment of, okay, well now I'm just gonna open up my mindset and, you know, I have these different things under my belt. I have the experience, I could do any of it, and I like all of it. So, um, I just was kind of like, I'm putting it out there. I want a partner, but whatever that partner wants to do, if the partnership feels right, then I would do whatever style is in that forefront.

So, um, It just so happened that I found an actual smooth partner. And so then, uh, that journey began and, um, and then I never looked back. Um, I, the thing that I felt like I really connected to once I started getting into smooth, coming from the, um, the more traditional form of dance backgrounds in, uh, ballet and jazz and all of that, um, I love, which I don't think you get at least to the same degree, the storytelling that's involved in, in Smooth and how, how much the partners create emotion together, um, through the movement, through the expression where I feel like the other styles, although they're amazingly fun to dance and sure it's a, in somewhat of a journey, but it doesn't have quite the same storytelling possibilities, especially in show numbers, which, um, Like me in my shadow.

I have a lot of fun doing.

[00:16:49] Samantha: Yeah. I, I fully, I'm in lockstep with you. I fully agree. I, I enjoy dancing the other styles, but as someone who looks at it through like a theatrical lens of wanting to evoke emotion and tell a story and kind of get lost in a character or, or a story beat or a storyline. I struggle with finding those in the chacha or, um, samba, right?

I end up focusing more on, okay, how sharp can I make this? How fast can I make this? How many spins can I do in a row? Right? Like the, the athleticism in those dances, I think is what shows through and what people are drawn to. Whereas if I'm watching a waltz, like I wanna feel like my heart's getting ripped out of my chest, or like there's, you know, Disney, um, uh, birds and rabbits coming out of the forest to like surround and dance with them.

[00:17:50] JT: So, so true. That is, that is exactly right. And, and again, those the, you know, Chacha and samba, they're so much fun. And to train to physically do them well and to feel the rhythms that you can create in your body in so many different places in your body is really exciting. But it just, it, it's a different level. It's about a different emotional content for sure in smooth.

[00:18:14] Samantha: Absolutely. Yeah. Um, I saw that you did, uh, theatrical and cabaret in the same time period as smooth. Is that correct?

[00:18:23] JT: Yeah. Um, so that kind of started with my partner Tony Sheffler. So he was my first move partner and, um, we started doing the US theatrical style where, um, it's being put on the floor with other couples while you're doing lifts.

Um, not, not a lot of people I think even know that that category exists. Um, but it's, it's truly exciting to watch, especially if there's a lot of couples on the floor, sometimes a little help heart palpitations happen cause you're, um, you know, you don't know where the other couples are going to be, uh, traveling while you're in the air.

Um, so it definitely adds a whole, uh, another level of, um, of. Complexity, if you will. And it, you have to build really strong awareness and floor craft as that happens too. Um, that wasn't specifically my favorite, but it was definitely a good challenge. Um, and then just doing show numbers, I, for me, dancing is so much about, um, portraying what you feel in the music or the storytelling of the song that you happen to be, uh, working with.

And, um, so I love show dance and cabaret and theatrical because we do then get to pick a piece of music that is so meaningful to us, or, you know, whether that's a serious piece or a funny piece or whatever that is, but you know, that it grabs you and you get to express so specifically to that music. Um, and I think that's a different skill than when we actually do regular competition. Um, where we, yes, we know a rhythm, but we don't know what the, the vibe and the actual feel of that particular piece is gonna be. And that's, that's a whole nother skill that is challenging. Um, but I just, I, I love to be able to really think my teeth into a piece of music and, and hopefully express that well to the audience.

So, yeah, it's that, that's probably, even though, um, you know, I, I don't think I am physically as, um, and, and never really was physically as strong to do some of what I see out in the true cabaret and theatrical, um, elements right now. You know, with, um, it, it's insane what they can do. I think my Instagram is full of people who do that kind of thing, whether it's theatrical, cabaret, cirque du solei, like I always wanted to be the strong acrobatic type. I did not get that body. But I make do with what I had. So, um, and we had fun doing it.

[00:21:06] Samantha: Well, and I think it's important to note, like, not taking anything away from the current direction of the theater arts and cabaret, because those athletes are incredible. And if I look at like Jamie and Travis or Shane and Shannon, like, they, they are emoting and storytelling through all of the tricks and the lifts and the aerials, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that in order to tell a really compelling story. So I, I would say, I think you didn't necessarily need to have the tricks and the lifts in order to, to be a fantastic storyteller. Um,

I wanna circle back to the comment you made about lifts and aerials on a, on a competitive floor with other dancers. But before we get to that, um, so you have this amazing career in the ballroom dance world. You are now an adjudicator and a judge, and then you suddenly start doing country dance. How did that happen?

[00:22:11] JT: I'm still asking myself the same question. Um, so as you can tell, I am not a dance snob in that, I'm willing to try anything. I just, I would say that in general, I am a true lover of dance in all styles, pretty much.

I just love movement and, uh, what it does for my body and what it does for, you know, just our culture overall. Um, But, uh, and at heart, I am just a true, I am a performer. I love to practice. I love to have an audience, all of those, um, all of those things. And one of the things that I think after retiring from Smooth, um, and, and we did shows for a little while, uh, but then I had a child and that obviously like put a little damper on, um, what I was able to do at that time, you know, just, uh, time commitment wise.

So, but, but I realized that how much, like I really just missed performing. And the unfortunate thing about, uh, most genres of dance is that you have a certain cap, if you will, on um, on pro, uh, competition, at least whether, you know, whether you're a prima ballerina or an American smooth dancer or whatever.

You know, there, there are certain limitations with age that just because, you know, like people are pushing the styles all the time and it is becoming more and more athletic, especially in our ballroom world, um, that, you know, obviously youth has its advantages. Um, but, um, and, and not to say that, I mean, oh my goodness, let me just like bring up how many amazing pro-am dancers there are right now, and, uh, esp especially the women and of a certain age, you know, that are like, wow, are they pushing through and like creating amazing, you know, Amazing work on the floor, but unfortunately in our industry, once you go pro and you've done your thing, it, you can't go back and do that version again.

Um, so, you know, I never even thought twice about like getting back out on the floor as far as doing ballroom. Um, however Covid happened and, um, within that, you know, obviously our whole world changed. And, um, there is a gentleman, uh, that I had been, uh, working with in Atlanta for probably, um, on and off for about 10 years.

Um, training him, uh, he also kind of crosses over. He does some ballroom, uh, he does country, uh, country was always more of his main vibe. Um, but he would bring me in and I would work with his students and work with him, with his pro partners.

So the cool thing about the country world is they have several different categories, um, that allow for, um, you know, different ways for pros to compete. So they have the, their open couples divisions, um, that just to kind of like give people who don't know, um, it's basically like division one would be like our rising star in ballroom dancing. Um, they're typically pro couples. They teach for a living. This is kind of their thing. They're gonna bring students to competition and then they, but in country, instead of just being able to like, do whatever you want, you have to earn points by going to events and placing in, in, uh, certain placements to be able to move up more so to what happens in the amateur world, um, for us.

Especially over in Europe. So, and then they have master's division, which is like open division in, um, in ballroom, but then they also have this complete subcategory, which is kind of like what they would do in some of the chain schools. Like I know when I started with Fred Astaire, we had a novice division we had for pros.

[00:26:29] Samantha: Mm-hmm.

[00:26:30] JT: So we had a novice division. We had, um, we had something called mixed novice. Um, I've heard it called different things where like an advanced pro would dance with somebody who was not as advanced to just give them some time on the floor, uh, with somebody who had some experience. So in country they have something similar to that called Pro- pro. And that is judged, um, similar to pro am like only one of the competitors is being judged. Um, Even though both competitors also may compete with other pro partners in their respective other divisions. So there's a lot more in country, there's a lot more mixing it up. Um, you know, I'm if, if I'm in, um, division one or even lower, I may dance with, um, somebody that's in masters in the pro pro division just to get some more experience on the floors, similar to where, similar to our Pro Am system. Which I think is kind of a, a great idea and allows people to just, you know, really get the experience because you can't get competitive experience in any other way, but getting on the competitive floor.

Um, so I think it's a really nice opportunity for people to just do that together. I also love that it, you know, we get so, um, to use the word, uh, Pretty blatantly, like married to our partners in the ballroom world. And oh my gosh, God forbid that you dance even a show with somebody else if you're, you know, um, which I've always found kind of disappointing.

Like I think that we become better leaders and followers and better movers the more experience we have. We encourage our students to do it all the time.

[00:28:25] Samantha: Yep.

[00:28:26] JT: And yet, uh, as pros, we don't. And, um, I think that that definitely develops a whole different skillset. Um, you become way more aware of somebody else. So I love that they have all those opportunities in country. Um, so sorry to make a long story long. I'll get back to the question that you actually asked. Um, so out of Covid, um, this gentleman, Newell DeFreest, uh, Was coming up to Nashville and was teaching some country up here, and he said to me, Hey, would, would you ever consider like doing pro pro with me?

Um, you know, I've, I, he didn't have a partner at the time. They had split. And um, and I was like, yeah, sure, I could, I could do that. So we started practicing and then midway through it, I said to him, I'm like, well, wait a minute. Who's the one being judged? Who's being judged? Am I being judged or are you being judged because we have this, um, entirely different skillset of, he has so much more knowledge as far as country and the figures and the patterns and how that, uh, you know, what are they looking for in those genres?

Um, and then my expertise was more so as far as, you know, like connection and partnership and musicality and some of those things. And, um, He didn't, I don't think he realized how little I knew about things like Two Step and whatnot, even though that was the first dance that my ex-boyfriend and I went to go learn at Fred Astaire.

And then I didn't really learn it until about a year. Um, but he, so we, we were practicing and then, um, it was, you know, we were moving along through it. And finally he was, he had gone to another competition while we hadn't gotten on the floor yet. And he came back after that and he was like, okay, you feel free to say no, but would you con, would you consider just doing an actual pro thing with me?

Like, can we do division one? And I was like, sure. Why not? I'm enjoying this. I'm having fun. Um, I love the fact that we have that opportunity that there is something that's possible to do that. Um, You know, I could never be able to do that in the ballroom world. Um, unfortunately, I would be probably judged ridiculously within that.

Well, no, I'm, I'm being judged for my ballroom right now in country as well. So, uh, it, it, you know, there's always that thing that when you're new into something, there's that hesitancy. They wanna, you know, feel you out, see where you're at, and, and that's okay. I, I, I knew that going into it, and I'm sure it would be the same. Like when Gary McIntyre, um, and Susan came over to do, uh, American Smooth after doing so well in the country world and in West Coast, you know, people would always talk about them in that way too. So there's always that little barrier there. But, um, You know what? I wanted to dance. It was fun. It's keeping me active.

Uh, I, I can't say that I love all of the prep at this point of I'm so out of practice of going to an event and I'm like, oh my gosh, eyelashes, I need eyelashes again. And, uh, so that part has been like a real eye-opener as far as like how far out of that I I am. But it's been certainly a fun journey and, um, and I just love the learning and, um, growing again. So That's great.

[00:32:15] Samantha: Yeah. And, and I do appreciate that there's, as you said, there's kind of this division for pros that aren't really ready to say like, I am in a pro partnership and I am doing this. I just kind of wanna test the water, see how it works. Maybe have someone that's a little bit more experienced, guide me in the same way that we would have pro am competition in ballroom.

Just kind of like, put the toes in the water, feel it out. Kind of start to establish yourself as like, I did this ballroom thing, but now I'm doing the country thing. I'm learning, I'm making an effort. Okay, now let's, let's do division one and let's go full-time pro. Because I've, I've shown that I'm, I'm responsible in the country ballroom world.

[00:33:00] JT: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And I have to say like, it's, it's literally a blast. And it's a much more, um, in comparison, I would say that the events themselves are much more what I would consider socially driven. Um, these people know how to party. Um, we'll get done with our event and I'm like, oh my gosh, I'm ready for bed.

And they will at that time. So it's maybe 10 or 11 at night. And that is when they now start. There are three different rooms depending on what you wanna go do. There's a west coast room, there's a swing lecture, there's a, this, there's general dancing in the main ballroom, and people will dance until three or four o'clock in the morning, like every night.

[00:33:51] Samantha: Yeah.

[00:33:52] JT: I don't have the energy, but I am in awe all the time of just how much like. People just enjoy dancing. And I do truly love that about this, this version in the industry is just that, um, it goes back to really, especially in America where ballroom dancing started out. And I know that a ton of ballroom dancers, especially within like the whole pro vibe, most people don't like to social dance. And, um, and I think that is honestly like a bit of a shame, um, that, that we don't go back to those roots and, and social dance more often because I, I think that's why we did it to begin with. And it's become maybe so technical in such a sport now that, um, that people just don't, they don't wanna, uh, corrupt all of those skills that they've been learning, but they, you learn so many other skills when you're social dancing. Yeah. Um, and certainly when I teach, and I'm sure you do too, like, I try to always give people the tools to be able to crossover and have them not be, um, again, in, in a word, snobby as to like, well, I'm only a competitive dancer.

Because to me, at that point then you're not probably learning how to do great following or leading or, um, have amazing floor craft because you're getting this, even though you don't know exactly what's gonna be on the floor, it's still a circumstance that you can almost expect what's gonna happen. And with social dancing, you just truly never know.

[00:35:36] Samantha: No, I, it's, it's true.

[00:35:38] JT: A whole different. And I love that they really, um, train that and continue to utilize it and be social. So,

[00:35:46] Samantha: yeah, no, absolutely. I, I think, um, one of my frustrations as a teacher, and I know it's also one of my failings as a professional, is when I have students that only wanna focus on competitive dance. They don't wanna take the group classes, they don't wanna come to the social parties. They don't wanna practice on a large floor, uh, with other students. They don't wanna take lessons. If there are other people in the room, they want it to be very focused and singular. And it's like, okay, that's great, but unless we are then going out and competing week after week after week, you're not gonna get the floor time in that you need to really be competitive in this space.

Um, and I know it's something that I do a really terrible job too as a professional. I, I get done teaching and I'm like, I don't wanna stay for the social party either. So, you know, um,

[00:36:37] JT: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:36:39] Samantha: I, I feel like if you could put, if you could describe the ideal dancer. I think most of us are looking at someone who is putting in solo practice time, and then practice time with their partner, and then getting coaching and then attending group classes and attention, attending social dances, and then actually going to competitions is like, pretty far down the list because everything else makes you a better competitive dancer. But if you don't have all of that other stuff, you're kind of missing the point.

[00:37:07] JT: Absolutely. Yeah. I, I truly believe that as well. Um, I, I remember, uh, I think this was at the Smooth Summit, uh, last year after Emerald Ball. Um, and, and, uh, it was so fun. I actually, uh, for the pros, I taught a little jazz combination, um, just to like get them a little bit out of their, You know, so structured zone, um, which I think everybody had a lot of fun with. And I believe that you should cross train, um, for movement because the more you do and in those different aspects, the more aware you are of your body, the more aware you are of how you connect with other people or not. Um, how to move through the floor, how to not move through the floor, but not lose the essence of what you were trying to, um, to capture.

And, um, cross training can be exactly what you said, taking advantage of all those, um, Different opportunities within your own personal, uh, bubble or maybe take it even fully outside the realm and just try a someti, you know, a martial art or who knows roller skating. I mean, sometimes, especially as teachers, I encourage like, Hey, if you're getting frustrated with your students, it's time for you to learn something that you are not comfortable with.

And remember that just because you want to here doesn't mean it always comes out in your body. Um, and we, you know, when you do it day in and day out, you forget that at one point you probably struggled too, to find the coordination of it, to listen to your instructor in the way that they wanted you to. So trying something new, whatever that is.

Rock climbing, who knows? Um, Just something to totally take you outside of your comfort zone so you remember what learning new coordination feels like at a very base level. Um, it gets us back to, um, having some more patience for what, uh, what we're working with day in and day out. But as a, personally, as a mover, I think the more different kinds of movement you explore, the better mover you are. You know, so,

[00:39:25] Samantha: absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. The more awareness, the more things you try, the more tools you can incorporate into your toolbox and the, and the better decisions that you can make with clarity about what works for your body, what doesn't work for your body, what may eventually work for you, but is gonna take a lot of time and practice to get to. So you can say, okay, is this something that I wanna invest in or is this maybe not something that I wanna invest in because I've got all of these other tools that I can, I can use. Um, I wanted to

[00:39:54] JT: definitely choices for sure.

[00:39:57] Samantha: Yeah, I wanted to, uh, talk a little bit, you mentioned, um, that we can be a little bit snobby in the ballroom dance industry occasionally, some of us can be.

[00:40:08] JT: That's, that's any genre of dance. We tend to get very, like, protective of our own genre. I think it happens in traditional forms. I did it to ballroom dancers when I was so, like, I, I, I get it. We all do that. I think it's just protection.

[00:40:26] Samantha: No, absolutely. Um, so I'm, I'm hoping that maybe you can dispel one of my deep held biases. Um, so I have a, a, a deep seated reaction. Um, whenever a student comes to me and says, I took, I took a country swing class where they taught me how to candlestick, can you teach me more tricks because I wanna go out to the country bar and social dance, my country swing. And they are literally ripping the girls' shoulders out of socket.

They are not on beat, they don't have any discernible footwork, and they're trying to toss their partner over their head. So please tell me that that's not actually how it's being taught in actual country communities.

[00:41:16] JT: Well, um, first of all, I will say I, uh, um, and I'm not super, super knowledgeable about all of this yet, but, um, I do know that, so the, the aspect, the the, um, the path that I'm on, that competitive version is, uh, called U C W D C and you know, they've created their own path. It has its own rules, just like anything that we do with the N D C A, uh, in ballroom. But that is kind of, and I hope they don't take this, the wrong way, but to me that's kind of this hybrid between something that we do in Ballroom and what it was like maybe in a bar like country dancing that was developed in a bar.

Right. Um, because, so that's, so UCWDC that is like the hybrid because there is this whole other circuit of like bar competitions and country swing and um, what it, whatever, varieties. Cuz I've seen several that happen out there as well. Um, Un unfortunately, and I'm not trying to be snobby, um, but unfortunately that stuff does happen out at bars and not super well.

And even the ones that like are supposedly super good at it, they get it done. But like again, there's not really a whole lot of technique or safety involved in it. It's just kind of like, Hey, let's toss a girl up in the air and that's fun. And the girl's like, sure. Um, I personally am usually holding my breath while that's happening because I have also seen so many tricks happen that should not be happening.

Luckily I haven't seen any major accidents, but, um, and that's not in the UCWDC world. That's like, it's again, this whole other world of, um, kind of bar country. Um, and they have their own versions of competitions throughout that as well. Um, and it's its own particular style. I mean, when they say country swing, um, It, it, to me, it looks like something that doesn't have always a particular rhythm that is connected to it. It fluctuates all over the place because most people don't, it doesn't have like specific structure. It looks a little bit like hustle sometimes. I've seen some things now that look like kind of salsa-y or bachata-y that are thrown in.

You know, any, any dance that's being done socially, I think sooner or later, you know, they kind of merge. Um, there's only so many things you can do with two arms and two legs in a body. They only connect in so many ways. So at some point you're gonna get similarities. Um, So that whole country bar scene has definitely adopted a lot of other styles, and they've pulled again from, you know, Lindy Swing, which used to be all the tricks and stuff like that.

I mean, um, so yes, it's cringey in many ways, so I don't think that you are, um, I don't think you're, uh, distaste for that is unwarranted. Um, but mostly for me it's a matter of safety. Like, I just hope that when people are doing those things, that they are getting advice from somebody who at least understands, you know, some simple technique to make sure that nobody's getting hurt.

Um, unfortunately it's also probably being done out at bars with alcohol. So, I mean, how much can you. You can only, um, protect them so much. But, uh, I mean, I think go for it if you wanna go for it, but do it with a grain of salt that says, okay, but let me not injure myself or anyone that I'm lifting or, you know, vice versa or anyone around me.

That's the other issue is that there isn't always like an awareness of the fact that there's maybe somebody Two Stepping past you while you're throwing somebody up in the air. And, um, I but it, it is its own world and it comes with its own challenges. Well, so as a teacher I would advise you, um, You know, people are gonna come to you for a lot of different reasons, and it happens even if they're not social dancers in that way. You know, some people are very trick focused, some people are very technically focused, some people just wanna dance around for an hour or two. And all of those things are not bad things because again, it's movement. Um, but I would say that if you can teach them safety while it's happening and teach them some good techniques so that they understand, Hey, when I'm doing tricks like this, I need to be extra aware of two spines and how they work and how they connect.

Um, so that it's done. Maybe, maybe you don't have perfectly pointed toes or, you know, perfectly held centers, but hopefully there won't be injuries involved with it.

[00:46:25] Samantha: Right.

[00:46:25] JT: That, that, that would be my little, like, I can't dispel the, um, the taste for it, but just teach them to do it to the best that they can. So they don't hurt each other

[00:46:39] Samantha: for sure. Well, and I, I normally. If I work with a client and we discuss country swing, I pivot it more to, this is single time east coast swing. This is Lindy, this is Hustle. Let's talk about how we're engaging our lats and our shoulders and protecting our centers as we're moving, so we're not creating whiplash. And no, I'm not gonna teach you aerials or tricks because I don't feel comfortable teaching them safely, so I'm not gonna try and get you through them safely. Um, but I, I do think that the point that you brought up of it, you know, it's being danced typically at a bar, maybe with or without alcohol.

Kind of circles back to the comment you made, um, in the beginning about theater arts, and you're doing all of these lifts and tricks and different choreography on a combined floor with other people doing lifts and tricks at different times and not knowing each other's, um, routines. So what, what tools did you have? What training did you have? What mindset did you take into those environments so that you were protecting not only yourself, but also being aware of the dancers around you?

[00:47:54] JT: Yeah. Um, that's a great question. Um, I, I would say that overall it, uh, practicing good entries and exits from things so that exits are, and, and almost primarily always exits. Those are usually where people, I think, um, get injuries for the most part. Um, and if you have to bail on something, I mean, it's one thing that, uh, so I have a couple of professional skateboarder friends and I've gone to a few skate parks and, and watched them on the, you know, the big, um, ramps and things like that. And one thing that, that skateboarders know how to do really well is fall. Um, and it's because they fall all the time. Um, you know, we practice in, in what we do so often to try to be perfect in what we're doing. That we're, we are not practicing the fall. We don't think about that part because we, our expectation is that it shouldn't happen. But I think that if we actually practice, what does, what are the things that we're looking to do when it doesn't work, right? When we need to bail on something because somebody was coming up and we can't get there. Um, So to practice moments of exiting, um, with safety involved, whether you're the most grace, graceful thing out there, that's another thing.

Um, but again, just making sure that you, uh, you know, practice bringing the partner close to you. Um, you know, you don't just immediately fly off into, you know, a swing of the legs or the arms or something like that until you've really kind of gauged where your surroundings are at. Um, those kinds of things. Definitely. Uh, awareness of the floor around you, and then where are the partners and how do we, if it didn't work out, what's the best thing to do?

I know that, um, I had been lifted one time and it really, um, did not make it, uh, easy for me to move past. I was doing, uh, like a torch lift where you're sitting on the hand and, uh, my partner at the time had my ankle and as I was coming, uh, it was not going well and I was starting to fall down and forward and instinct for, I think the leader at that point is to, you just wanna hang on to whatever you're hanging onto. So he was hanging onto my ankle as I was falling forward. I was just, please let go of my ankle. And it definitely messed with my brain. I couldn't get over it for probably a good like year or two. Um, where it's a weird thing to think that if you just release and let the body actually come down onto you that that's the better solution.

Um, and that's why I said if we practice the falling, then those, you know, natural instincts of just hanging on are not always the, um, the most viable solution. Um, certainly not the most safe solution. So we have to practice that over and over again. And as the person being lifted, you gotta get also used to what that feels like and just supporting your body so that that person can hold on and grab you so that you're not flailing all around and creating a worse issue for yourself too.

[00:51:18] Samantha: For sure. I, I don't know how many, this was advice that I got from a coach, um, a couple years ago, and I've passed it along to all of my ProAm students. Like if we are on a dance floor and I start to fall, like I get tripped or a leg comes out, or I catch my skirt or something happens where I'm falling, do not try to catch me. Let go, let me save myself because if you, right, if your natural protective instinct is to grab a hold of me, we're both going down and it's gonna be way worse

[00:51:51] JT: in that version. It makes it worse, right? Yeah, yeah.

[00:51:56] Samantha: But yeah, I, I like the idea

[00:51:58] JT: and you never know until you get there and then you go, oh, I wish I would've done that differently.

[00:52:04] Samantha: No, for sure, for sure. But I think that idea of like practice what happens if it goes wrong, is so universal. It's not just in the scary stuff of the, of the tricks or the lifts. It's what if we get blocked on the dance floor and I can't do the next piece of my choreo? Now what happens? What happens if I take a elbow to the jaws as I'm doing a natural turn and I black out for half a second. We've seen that happen. We've heard that happen.

[00:52:35] JT: I've been there.

[00:52:37] Samantha: So, you know, how, how do you adapt, how do you change, how do you prepare yourself for the in eventuality that you hope doesn't happen?

[00:52:45] JT: So one of the things, um, I do a lot of team teaching right now with, um, uh, who was my mentor and coach for many, many years, Edward Simon. Um, and he used to, when he was training Tomas and I, uh, we would literally, he, he would create specific scenarios of, um, things to get in your way as we all do and that kind of thing. Um, and I love the way that he said this was, even if you're in a small space or you can't do the full movement, you never want to lose the essence of the dance.

You don't wanna break that character that you were trying so hard to show. I mean, it's just like anything that would happen if somebody was doing live theater and somebody forgets their line, like you improv, you figure it out on the fly. You don't like pull out your script and be like, uh, where, where was I?

So, um, and you can do beautiful things that don't necessarily, that wasn't necessarily the blueprinted plan, um, and still create a beautiful picture and have it be just a more subtle version. We get so, again, attached to being perfect and trying to do the most amazing, perfect version that sometimes the best performance is the one that has those moments where you couldn't do exactly what was planned and the spontaneity that comes out, if it's something that you're prepared for, whether it's through practice, um, where somebody has set it up for you that way, um, or, you know, through improv, uh, there's another cross-training kind of thing is what do and, and social dancing that also prepares you for those moments when you can't be perfectly big or do exactly what you planned for.

So, um, that's why that cross training is so important because you can keep the essence of the partnership and the dance happening, even if you're not doing the specific movement choice that you wanted. So yeah,

[00:54:58] Samantha: when you are so coaching or judging, um, either professionals or students, Do you look for those moments of improv? Do you want to see those moments where maybe things aren't perfect, but they're interesting and adapting? Or do you as, as a judge, do you want to see the perfection?

[00:55:23] JT: Um, I, if for anyone that knows me, they're gonna, you're, you're gonna know that I'm gonna always look for those moments of spontaneity because I wanna see that you're in the moment and you're actually enjoying what you're doing.

If you're only in that, um, like I'm looking for perfection place, those little bits of light don't shine through. They, it becomes, um, it, it, especially in what we do. I mean, if you think about our competitive stuff, we're training the, almost the exact same routine for years. It's the same thing. So if I watch you on the floor and every time I see you on the floor, it looks so specifically consistent in exactly what you're doing. I get bored and I think anybody would, and for a lot of the judges out there, and I don't even judge a lot, um, mostly because I enjoy being the cheerleader on the, on the side more so. But, um, you know, if they've seen it the same way three or four times, yes, I'm gonna say good for you, that you practiced well and you know that it's in there.

But where is the joy of the movement? It's, it's not even to the same song again, like we talked about in a show routine, it's not to the same song. So I shouldn't see exactly the same thing every time. And you know, you could be brilliant at floor craft, but you're still going to, at some point have to change something to make something else work.

And the better you are at adapting and finding beauty within the spontaneity. That's what makes things exciting. I mean, what gets put on YouTube more often? The perfect performance or the one where, you know, you get the couple that's in the middle and then the couple that was trying to go around and there was a little interaction between the, you know, each partnership and then somehow they got together. Or those are the things that people get excited about and want to see. You know, and it's the stuff that sticks in people's minds because you're like, oh my gosh, how did that even happen? We don't know. So it's the exciting part. I want, I definitely wanna see that part.

[00:57:38] Samantha: Yeah, I, I like that. I, it's like, I wanna see competitive social dancing, or I wanna see social dancing, but done competitively.

[00:57:49] JT: Right. Well, I wanna see competitive. I wanna see good technical ability that has true life to it.

[00:57:55] Samantha: Mm-hmm.

[00:57:56] JT: Yeah. That's what I wanna see.

[00:57:58] Samantha: Yeah. Absolutely. Is there something, kind of circling back to, um, your experience as a ballroom dancer now competing in country, which I have two questions. The first is, is there something that you know of yourself or has been given as feedback that I, that very easily identifies you as a ballroom dancer that is dancing country outside of obviously your reputation in the industry?

I, is there something that you can point to that's like, mm, that's something that I need to work on changing if I'm really gonna get good at this new style? And then do you see a point in your future where you would like to be known as JT Thomas, the Country Ballroom Dancing Superstar?

[00:58:47] JT: Um, I'll address that one first, if that's okay.

[00:58:50] Samantha: Yeah.

[00:58:50] JT: Um, I have no idea. You know, ultimately I took a fun journey that, um, I have no specific purposeful goal other than to get better and, um, and to have fun while I'm doing it. So, if I, if I never get a title, if I, I mean, currently I'm still in the division one, so I'm still in the Rising Star category. If I make it to Masters at some point, yay. I mean, we, we went into it knowing we already have a lot of challenges between the two of us as far as, you know, if I were practicing 10 to 15 hours a week, great. But we're lucky if we're in the same city like a day, a week. Usually it's like two weeks in between.

So the amount of practice time we get is not nearly enough to truly like, feel like I would ha would be able to earn that title because I think that it really does just take the time to put in and, um, because we know we're both kind of at this point doing it for fun. Um, he is still actively, and I encourage that he's looking for a partner at some point that he could grow more with because he is, um, you know, quite a bit younger than me. Um, and, and I encourage that and I told him that the moment that he finds that by all means go for it. Um, so if there's any partners listening to this that wanna dance country, um, but until then I'm just enjoying the journey.

The, I'd say the biggest, uh, challenge for me as far as something that I've struggled with in the, um, In the transition of, and, and this would, I would say, would speak more so to, because I focus so much on smooth for the last bit of my career, and it's what I've trained, um, others in the most, um, as well, is turning, and how they, how you think about turning in country in, in this rhythmical aspect of it and, and the closeness. So I think I counted, um, like two step in particular. Um, I think I took one little section of our two step at one point and I counted and it was like 17 turns in, in different directions in like less than half of a wall. And I was like, man, that's a lot of turns. Um, and it's done in a very specific way, um, where, you know, you should have a closed, tight, um, foot position. Um, the way that Newell describes it, it's kind of done in halfs. And I think that from what we have done, uh, from what I have trained in and smooth for so long is working to extend out that turn and really get a lot of travel and distance and, you know, sometimes shape if that's what we're looking for within it.

Where, um, you add any of that in a fast, um, piece of two step and forget it. I have definitely come across more times than not where, uh, you know, One little change of a position of the hand because it's so fast and tight and turns so much, it can just ruin the next four measures, um, because you missed one complex hand change in a, in a spin.

So the turns are definitely, uh, even though I consider myself a great turner, uh, in this, in this version, it's definitely challenging for me.

[01:02:41] Samantha: Yeah, no, I, I can absolutely appreciate that. I have dabbled in Texas two step and I mean like, put my toe in the water, tried it a little bit, and then was like, mm, maybe not at this exact juncture in time. Um, but I think the first time I socially danced it with an amazing amateur student that I have the utmost respect for, um, I think the first turn he was like, oh. I wasn't expecting you to do that. I'm like, sorry, did I do something wrong? And he's like, Nope. Just dancing it like a ballroom dancer. I'll adjust my lead. It's fine. Like, okay,

[01:03:17] JT: that's, that's always the way, right? Oh, you're a ballroom dancer happens in salsa or any specialized thing. Yes. Uh, clearly we have a different way about it, but I'm trying to adapt. It's, yeah. Yeah.

[01:03:31] Samantha: I love that. Um, well, awesome. Well, as we wrap up today, is there anything, um, that you would like folks to be aware of, um, where you're gonna be lecturing next, uh, the next kind of chapter in your, uh, career that they can kind of keep a lookout for?

[01:03:50] JT: Uh, sure. In June, um, We've got the, uh, world Mastery Camps, um, that Slawek and Marzena are hosting. Um, and that is a dance camp in Vegas. Um, also, again, world renowned coaches that are there. Um, we do all kinds of things from a performance class that the students actually, you know, work on all week and perform at the end of the camp, um, to just a, a, a variety, everything's on the table. They have Argentine tango, um, they have country there. Um, And then, uh, smooth, rhythm, Latin, standard. It's all sorts. And, um, just a week of a lot of fun. And they also are crazy about their dancing there. They do social still the wee hours and then come in for lessons all day. So, um, as far as the country stuff, um, because I'm so busy with the rest of it, uh, doing something in New Orleans in July that's coming up, um, and yeah, that, that's what I got on the horizon.

I usually can only think about two to three months in advance because other than that, it's, there's too much to think about.

[01:05:02] Samantha: Yeah, that's, that's a good problem to have though, is that you're so busy that it's like, all right, where am I this month? And that's all I can handle.

[01:05:10] JT: Definitely not complaining about it, but thank goodness for a calendar. Right?

[01:05:14] Samantha: Yeah. Yep. For sure. Well, awesome. Well, um, for our listeners or our, our viewers of the, uh, YouTube video, uh, we'll have those links down in the description. So if you wanna sign up for the Dance Mastery Camp in June in Vegas will have a link so that you can sign up for, um, your workshop and, and see your lectures.

[01:05:34] JT: Awesome. That would be great. Excellent. I'd love to see

[01:05:36] Samantha: everybody. Definitely. Well, thank you JT, so much for being a guest on today's podcast.

[01:05:43] JT: Such a pleasure. Uh, nice to getting to know you and, um, chat with you today. It's been fun.

[01:05:48] Samantha: Thank you once again to JT for being an amazing guest on today's podcast. If you want to follow along with her dance journey, or if you want to go ahead and sign up for any of those classes or lectures, she mentioned links, as always will be in the description box down below.

As always, I'm Samantha. I've been your host with Love Live Dance. You can find Ballroom chat on social media platforms at Ballroom Chat. You can also support the podcast on Patreon by searching for Ballroom Chat. You can watch the video on YouTube on the Love Live Dance Channel, and you can also listen to Ballroom Chat podcasts anywhere you find your podcasts.

If you have not yet done so, please do make sure that you have liked, subscribed, followed, shared, you know, the the normal social media things. Um, and as always, stay safe, stay positive. We hope to see you dancing very soon.