Thursday, July 24, 2008

What do you think of Dancing with the Stars?

I haven’t talked much about my Ballroom dance career yet, but since I came home from a competition last Friday with two trophies, I think now might be a good time to delve into my insider’s perspective on all things Ballroom. Just so you know, I specialize in the Latin category of Ballroom dancing, meaning I compete in Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. People actually know what that means now thanks to Dancing with the Stars, the enormously popular ABC show that’s catapulted Ballroom dancing out of its artsy niche and into the forefront of pop culture.

When people find out that I’m a real life Ballroom dancer, they often excitedly ask me “so what do you think of Dancing with the Stars!?” I always answer that I think it’s done great things to broaden the public’s awareness of Ballroom dancing and I’m very happy to see some of the world’s top ranked ballroom dancers actually get the recognition they deserve. And I’m not talking about the lollipop Mormon Julianne Hough, I mean Louis van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff, two world class professionals who have both been top competitors at Blackpool--the closest thing Ballroom has to a World Championships or an Olympic games event.

If people ask me this same question after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I feel sufficiently anonymous, sometimes I’ll tell them the rest of what I really think. As someone who actually dances competitively, I think the show is overrated and obnoxious. I don’t know any Ballroom people who can actually stomach it except for Shirley Ballas, the mother of DWTS’ Mark Ballas and a World Champion Latin dancer herself, who occasionally yells to me across the ballroom to ask if I’ve been voting for her son. I don’t have the guts to say ‘no’ to someone of that caliber, but I don’t watch the show and I most certainly haven’t voted for anything or anyone. Even after she gave me this handy LIVESTRONG-esque bracelet with Mark’s call-in number, I’m still just not into it.

The reason I hardly ever watch the show is the same as why I think it’s overrated. Lots of times people who watch the show ask me “aren’t the dance steps really trickey?” and I awkwardly reply, “the Pros, yes--the celebrities, no.” The routines they do on the show I’d categorize as Open Bronze level. Bronze means its beginner steps, but then they add what we call “open” material to the choreography with back bends, side by side work and some fancy things for the Pro to do. Branching out from elementary dance steps gets the job done of making Bronze interesting enough for TV, and the fact that they have the celebrities dancing with Pros, not other celebrities, does a lot to improve the show’s aesthetic. This teacher-student set up actually comes from the competitive Ballroom world, where it’s called Pro-Am. You pay your teacher to compete with you and, of course, you look and dance better as a result. Choosing this arrangement for the show was a very good move because otherwise these beginner celebrities would look like just like what they are, beginners. There’s no way this would pass for prime time material, so adding Pros makes the dancing actually look okay-- some would even say impressive. However, for those of us who dance Ballroom in real life, this means Dancing with the Stars is nothing more than just televised Pro-Am. And we’ve already seen enough of that.

I think the show’s obnoxious because for one, it’s unrealistic about competing and this gives people a totally distorted view of what Ballroom dancing really is. At a real competition you don’t see any of that self-indulgent, saccharine, “I felt like a princess!” nonsense. Competitors don’t sit backstage blowing kisses and playing around, we’re going through our routines and running in place to keep our heart rates up. After all, we’re professionals and we take our work seriously.

Even if the celebrities on the show prepare for their competition like we do, it doesn't matter because viewers only get to see the happy part. The producers obviously want to keep things light because you don't see much of the difficult side of rehearsals. You don’t see anyone get angry – maybe a celebrity gets their feathers a little ruffled but then they cut to the couple getting facials. Oh, how I wish it was that easy.

And as for feeling like a princess? Well, when I’m in my comp gear a princess is probably the least thing I feel like. Let me tell you, that fake tanner not only turns your skin bright orange but it also makes you smell funny. You couldn’t buy a deodorant to handle both the tanner smell and you sweating all day, not to mention that you look practically radioactive next to normal people.

You start your hair-do by pinning it into a tight, uncomfortable bun and then gluing the whole thing down with gel. Then, you make your hair solid by repetitively saturating it with hairspray and then blowing it dry. By the time you’re done, your head is a shiny bowling ball. But my favorite part of the make-up experience are the fake eyelashes, which feel like you have a delicate critter quivering atop your eyelids. Distracting? Yesss...

In reality, competitive Ballroom is far from the happy walk in the park DWTS makes it out to be. Real ballroom isn’t sentimental, it’s not romantic and it’s certainly not some magical force that takes hold and floats you around on Cloud Nine—it’s a sport. Ballroom is muscle knots, bleeding toes, tendonitis, practicing for 3 hours in 100 degree heat, bathing in your own sweat—this isn’t unleashing "feminine powers," you’re unleashing an athlete. You get angry at your body and frustrated with your inability to do things. Your coaches are strict and demanding; to them, your mistakes are unacceptable.

So why do we do this? It’s absolutely exhilarating. And not in an “I feel pretty” sort of way; it’s like training for a marathon, where the exhilaration comes from you pushing your body so hard and amazing yourself with the results. You watch your feet and legs become skin and muscle. You see your toes get boney and you notice your posture changing into that of a dancer. You learn what specific muscle fibers feel like and how to isolate and control them in a sequence, to rhythm. Remember what ol’ Teddy Roosevelt once said:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Yeah, Ballroom’s like that.

Sometimes people ask me if it’s such a big deal that the show is unrealistic. Can’t the audience have a little fun and just enjoy it? Let me first say that I am proud that Ballroom has gone mainstream and I have no problem that people watch it for the entertainment value. You know, the rhinestone dresses, the scantily clad women, good looking guys moving their hips, etc. However, when people believe Ballroom is just what they see on TV, or start think of it as entertainment and not a serious, competitive art form, that’s when we start running into problems.

Ballroom isn’t only present in a frivolous way on Dancing with the Stars. The show that started it all, America’s Ballroom Challenge on PBS is produced in much the same way. It isn’t like at a televised sporting event where the commentators are retired, but current, professionals who mostly say intelligent things. I watch basketball; those guys actually seem to know what they’re talking about. In contrast, PBS features the highly commercialized Ron Montez who’s been retired for almost 30 years now and probably can’t dance his way out of a paper bag anymore. It shows too, like on the 2008 show when one of his comments was“those are some strong walking movements.”

Beyond broadcasting, newspapers usually aren’t much of a help either. They seem to send out the reporter with close to zero background knowledge to write feature articles about the retiree-dominated social dance scene and then you get silly, insignificant pieces about how Ballroom is one of the few places where men and women can be elegant together or how dancing is saving women from their midlife crises.

If these reporters want some real stories, I suggest they look at the highly sexualized world of Youth Latin dancing. These little girls are pressured harder than anywhere I’ve seen to dance like sexually active, mature women. They do a very convincing job too, in fact I know some parents force their younger than 10 year old daughters to get breast implants in the hopes that they’ll score higher in competition. I wonder how many of them end up pregnant by their partner or on a shrink’s couch later in life because dancing has severely stunted their psychosexual growth.

Please browse these photos:

Print media definitely plays a role in people underestimating Ballroom. Yes, the dancing looks beautiful and carefree from afar, but most people have no idea how much work is involved. This is a serious sport and people will continue to treat it trivially as long as journalists keep misspelling words like "chassé" and publishing cheesy one-liners like “never underestimate the power of the mambo.”

However, it still seems that Broadcast media sets the main standard for how the public sees Ballroom dancing. Its decision to present it in such a frivolous way to earn ratings takes away from the dance industry’s hard work to promote Ballroom as an respected art form and sport. This reminds me of how even some Americans I know think of the arts as trivial. For example, I have a close family member who has never understood my dancing. I’ve been doing this for six years now, I’ve devoted huge chunks of my life to getting better and he still thinks of it as a hobby… sort of like knitting. To him, dancing could never be a real job. Is the media’s portrayal setting this idea into the minds of prime time captive audiences?

Does it harden some sort of glass ceiling that no matter how technically advanced or internationally renowned something is, it’s still not significant because it’s just art?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

L.A. city attorney sues over canceled policies

Let's just for a second turn our attention to this article in today's L.A. Times Business section. Click on the above title to read.

This is yet another case of a California health insurance company being sued for rescinding their members’ policies when those individuals become ill or needed an expensive medical procedure performed. However, we’re looking at Blue Shield, which is a nonprofit health insurance company. When I interviewed the former President of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Bruce Benton, he certainly told me the nonprofits do business the same way. I guess I was warned, but it still doesn’t make reading about a nonprofit participating in these same predatory rescission tactics any easier.

While this piece has many similarities with other articles that the media, specifically the L.A. Times, have published on this topic, there is something else about this story that stands out to me. This is the first lawsuit I’ve come across in where the health insurance application has been called into question. Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s lawsuit specifically accuses Blue Shield of making their applications intentionally confusing to increase the chances that applicants will make a mistake. This makes sense, then the insurance companies have something to call those people on if they ever “need” to. Hey, who doesn’t like to have leverage?

I’ve filled out those 22-page things multiple times in my debacle with Anthem Blue Cross. I think it’s perfectly understandable to see how a person could make a mistake, especially if English is their second language as in this L.A. Times case with the Simoes. Maybe it's just because Anthem’s turned me into a health insurance cynic, but I definitely find it plausible that Blue Shield intentionally made their applications mistake-prone. Sorry guys, that's your fault-- you’ve lost your benefit of the doubt with the state of California many times over.

Remember how Mr. Benton explained how the health insurance companies weren’t doing anything wrong? How those people with canceled policies all lied on their applications and they deserved to have their plans taken away? That the media unfairly singles them out for exercising understandable company policies? Well, I particularly like these Blue Shield quotes from the article:

  • · “This suit is a cheap political stunt that is totally without merit”
  • · “Blue Shield cancels policies rarely and that the practice is a legal and necessary tool to combat fraud….if there were no consequences for applicants who misrepresent significant medical conditions, insurance rates would skyrocket for the vast majority of Californians who complete their applications accurately.”

Where, oh where, have I heard this before?

Let’s just take a minute to give props to City Attorney Delgadillo for helping protect the millions of Californians like me dependent on Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Health Net for insurance. Private enterprises have made it clear these days that they cannot handle not being regulated, so now we must look to the courts to ensure that our rights are a priority now, and into the future. Good luck to all of us.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reverend Matt Interview

I sent last week’s posting to an old friend of mine who works as a Protestant minister at one of the largest churches on the East Coast. First, I asked him what he thought of the lack of formality in the Glendale church and if this whole “modern” worship thing is really the recipe for success that these churches hope it is.

Here’s what he had to say: Reverend Matt 1

He also added this interesting perspective on how this dichotomy of formal vs. informal that these churches are wrestling with is far from new in America.

Reverend Matt 2

Next, I asked him to respond to my talk about the nature of communion and role that behavioral expectations and community play in the overall worship experience.

Specifically, why do we have communion and what purpose does it serve for both the individual and the community? Beyond this, how important are expectations in a religious experience? In order for church-going to make sense, does the church community need to expect something from us?

Here are his answers: Reverend Matt 3

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Modern" Worship

I have a friend who is the weekly organist at a Protestant church up in Glendale, a small city in the San Fernando Valley near Burbank. In my occasional attendance this church overwhelming reminds me of how many American churches attempt to make religion hip, not stuffy, and generally more appealing to the masses. This church does it all, from Christian rock music to casual dress; this is a major relaxation of traditional means of worship. As you can imagine, this not only effects how people behave during church, but also the experience of 'going to church' and what that's supposed to signify. Seeing a worship service without rules or structure raises some important questions for me about why people come to church and what makes a person's religious experience meaningful.

First, let's talk about the dress and behavior code---or lack thereof. When I showed up for the first time in a conservative sun dress and heels I looked like a bridesmaid standing in the middle of a Burger King. People don’t dress up here, not that anyone on the West Coast does either, but because we were at church it seemed so much more out of place to see everyone wearing jeans, t-shirts and flip flops. Men kept their baseball caps on during the service and my organist friend has even seen people sit in the back and start chowing down on the fast food they brought. I guess that’s truly “have it your way.”

It also seems that quite a few church members have concluded that the service is a vocally interactive medium. Not only do members randomly interject comments during the service, but they’ll also interrupt to make social event announcements. This will happen during any part of the service, including scripture readings or even sermons, and this isn’t call and response, “can I get an Amen!”-- this is about stupid stuff like Crop Walks. I was there one Sunday when a woman chose the first gospel reading to remind people about one such Crop Walk. There’s also an older gentleman who consistently shares his “when I was a young man” stories aloud and usually does so at inopportune times, like right before a hymn is about to start. Another lady fancies herself a professional musician and has decided that my conservatory-trained friend plays the church hymns too slow. So, she’ll pipe up with “don’t drag!” right before the offertory, or yell “speed up!” or “you’re dragging” while he is playing. Of course no organist would appreciate this sort of thing, but either way their behavior makes me wonder why these people think it’s appropriate to yell out and interrupt a religious ceremony. Are these people there to worship or do they see the congregation as just a captive audience for their own 2 cents?

There’s lots of little things too that make me wonder about this church. Whomever has been selected to read scripture aloud usually hasn’t looked through the it beforehand, which you can tell by the butchering of Biblical names and fumbling through the text. Parents don’t seem to encourage their kids to stay quiet or pay attention; usually the kids are doing their own thing, running around or sitting up at the front and flipping the altar curtain back and forth. It's just odd.

This church also chooses to not sing the ritual hymns by Bach or Haydn, etc. that have stood the test of time and have been a part of worship services for centuries. Instead, their hymnal is filled with 1960’s Christian rock music. Great. So are the classical hymns really that much of a drag? I personally would take Bach any day over that mediocre hippie music, but still there’s one glaring question I have to ask: does using music from the 1960’s rather than the 1860’s really do that much to engage the masses? It’s still outdated and I feel that church music is either old, so you honor it because of its age, or it’s totally modern and brand new. 60’s music isn’t in either category, it doesn’t have either an archaic or contemporary appeal, so nobody in the congregation's going to relate to it. Sounds like a pretty good formula for indifference.

Communion here is downright weird. First of all, it’s taken every Sunday like the Catholics-- it’s not a big event every once in a while like what’s done traditionally in most Protestant churches. And, despite this place being Protestant, they do another pseudo nod to the Catholic Church by having everyone get up and stand in line for communion, just without offering wafers or wine. My first time at this church I chose not to take communion—I’m not particularly religious, I don’t even belong to this denomination and I don’t believe in communion for the fun of it. I guess this was too upfront because after the congregation had finished, the communion ladies walked over to my seat and handed me the tray. This was of course, with a “you know, we allow non-members to take communion.” That’s subtle.

Now you know I’m not religious, but I still feel communion is a very private, intimate interaction between you and God, not a social activity put on by the church where everyone gets a snack. So not only do I think it’s something to be taken very seriously, I also see it as 100% my business. If I don’t want to participate this should not be questioned. It’s obvious that I am perfectly capable of walking and if I don’t get up for communion that means I’ve chosen not to take it. Just leave it alone.

My friend the organist has had similar odd experiences there with communion. After the congregation is finished, those ladies can be counted on to come over and chat with him while he's taking communion. And they’re not saying a sacramental prayer, it’s stuff like “Oh, I really love this music.” I feel both of these instances say a lot about how this congregation sees communion. I think for them communion is less an individual practice than something that the church community does together, sort of like coffee hour or a pancake breakfast. That’s all well and good except for when you think about what communion is supposed to be: a sacred recognition and remembrance of what Jesus sacrificed. Is this a casual chit chat or a religious ceremony? You have to pick one. It cannot be both. Communion is either going to represent something meaningful or let's cut the crap, it's just Hawaiian bread and grape juice.

It seems overall that this church has chosen a “come as you are” approach. This sends a message of welcoming and acceptance, which is fundamental for a church, but what happened to the notion that before God you try to better yourself? That’s why you dress up, why you do different things at church than on other days, because you’re shedding who you are in your everyday life to become something greater, something more.

Am I too focused on the procedure of the service and not its substance? Well, the sermons are usually very good. The pastor picks thought-provoking topics, he’s very insightful and tells it like it is— being from the Midwest, I appreciate this. But he can’t do everything to make the service an actual ceremony. The church members have to be respectful and be there to worship God. What have we given up to gain membership? The idea of sacrificing tradition to boost the bottom line is hardly new, but I never expected to see churches go this far. In our efforts to get people to show up, by paring down all the procedure, tradition and rituals, have we stopped worshiping?