Introducing the 1958 Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion, Bruce Lee! Now you’ll see his films in a new light. There isn’t much of a physical resemblance, but when Jack Lawrence, FWC Cambridge University student, had a go at competitive Dancesport, he was surprised to find that his Kung Fu training gave him an unexpected edge.
“I’m standing in a decadent hall in Nottingham, surrounded by vibrant colours, excessive amounts of hair gel, wax and general ‘fabulousness’. The noise of over 700 people gathered in this illustrious ballroom pauses while the announcer calls out the numbers of those who made it to the final round of the beginners’ Jive.
Standing on the dance floor
My partner, Sarah, and I smirk at each other. After all that has happened, we had been ecstatic to simply make it to the semi finals. “Numbers 18…42…94…” alas, I can’t help but listen closely, and to our great shock, the final number called out “ 224!” is our number.
After a moment’s celebration, we hurry to the edge of the dance floor where in a few minutes we’ll be performing one last time against the other 6 couples. As I stand there, waiting to be called on, I take a moment just to enjoy my current situation; My hair is slicked back and more aerodynamic than it’s ever been, I’m wearing women’s trousers (I was told they look better than men’s), my shirt is provocatively half undone and I’m about to dance in front of hundreds of people to S club 7!’s hit, “Reach”.
How did I get here?
Rewind 8 weeks and I’m starting my third year of my degree [Physics]. I’m living with some new people, and as a fun thing to do/bonding session we decide to go to a Dancing taster session. This is run by the University Dancesport team, which we are told is one of the strongest team in the country. I’d been itching to try dancing properly for a few years, so I was quite excited.
Actually, while that’s not strictly untrue, I was more excited about the prospect of meeting women there. Whatever inspires you to move right?
Anyway, so we’re being taught some basic steps, and I start to feel the Kung Fu training kicking in. My secret power – proprioception! You want me to do 2 steps repeatedly, with no hand movements, and not imagine someone is trying to punch me in the face? Easy. 4 steps with a turn? Piece of cake.
Just as I feel I’m getting the hang of the steps, one of the members of the team comes up to me and asks for my email address, saying words to the effect of “you’re dancing really well, you should join our Beginners’ team”. Not used to positive reinforcement of any kind in a training setting, I am unsure of how to deal with this, so readily agree to (after checking that the training days didn’t clash with Kung Fu ones of course).
Fast forward a few weeks
I have been taught a routine for 4 dances – Two Ballroom: Waltz and Quickstep, and two Latin: Cha cha and Jive. I am also assigned a partner named Sarah, who has done Ballet for many years. She is a far better dancer than I, and I feel quite lucky to have been partnered with her. She is also, as far as I can tell, a human metronome who is never off-time. We’re due to enter in a Cambridge competition in a week. Practicing with Sarah seems to be going very well – she is hard-working, determined and, like me, does many other things. Sadly, while doing one of these other things – a college sporting challenge – Sarah incurred an injury.
As a result, we missed the first competition we were meant to be entered in.
Next followed a huge back and forth that lasted for weeks, with Sarah insisting that she was recovering and should remain partnered with me. The coaches on the team were wholly unconvinced and the decision was made two weeks before the competition that Sarah was unfit to dance. I was to dance with someone else. We were both quite gutted with this, but given Sarah hadn’t been dancing in nearly two weeks, the decision frustratingly made sense.
4 days before the competition at Nottingham, a plot-twist occurs.
Sarah gets the thumbs up to compete from a top-tier sports Physician. Another dancer drops out from the team due to illness. Sarah and I are re-assigned to each other. We’re both very happy about this, however, the odds are heavily stacked against us;
We haven’t danced together in weeks.
Sarah already returned her dancing shoes and kit for the competition, assuming she wasn’t going to compete. She isn’t able to replace them in time, exacerbating a height difference and making the dances harder for both of us.
As she hasn’t been in all the classes, I have to teach her parts of the routine (the martial artist eye picks up different things to a dancers one, and I possess neither).
We’re both in one of the busiest weeks of term, and manage to schedule a mere 4 hours of practice together before we compete with four different dances at the competition.
We push onwards, and after some intense cramming we find ourselves at 9:00am on a Sunday morning standing on a ballroom floor ready to compete.
After 13 hours of dancing on and off, we had a very successful day in spite of the odds. We came in the semi-finals of every dance we entered in. We made it to the finals of the Jive, where we placed 6th overall and were awarded a medal. We were up against over 60 couples, most of whom had been dancing for more than 8 weeks together. Given we weren’t even sure we’d be judged properly due to the lack of proper footwear, we were quite chuffed at the result. We also came in the finals of a team division we were entered in with others.
Take home points and things learned:
Right from the outset of the taster session, something was obvious. There were those in the room who had trained their body in some co-ordinated manner, and those that hadn’t. By doing training with the club I was very much in the former category.
1. If you’ve been training for over 6 months you may have forgotten this, but your capacity to pick up and learn movements is vastly improved by training. Seeing a movement a few times and then recreating it immediately at high speed is another skill you are implicitly training. It’s very valuable.
2. There were men and women there who had great physiques, but clearly had no connection to their feet and plodded about gracelessly. Some had exceptional physiques and were very graceful. By contrast, I noticed at the competition I attended that many of the advanced dancers weren’t as muscular or defined as I would have expected. Despite this, they could move far better than I could. Thus:
3. How you look does not define what you can do, and how you move. This may seem like a simple point which is obvious, but it truly hit home to me during the day. Despite arguably being stronger, more flexible and fitter than many there, I couldn’t move as well. This was very humbling.
4. Learn to relax the hips: One of my earliest problems with Latin dancing I encountered was that although I could get the footwork down fairly well, my hips weren’t swaying as provocatively as some. Obviously saddened by this, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out why. Turns out, years of doing your best to keep your hips level renders relaxing the hips feeling very unnatural. You’ll notice shifting all your weight on one foot, keeping both legs straight, and then relaxing one hip that your hips will dip – this had long been forgotten by my body, and it was nice to rediscover it.
5. I found evidence that some parts of Kung Fu training had been heavily ingrained in my posture. This gave me the funny problem of un-learning it to dance with more style and sass.
All in all, it was a great experience. Being a beginner again and having a totally new set of movements to try and execute in a different way I think has done me and my body the world of good.
Perhaps true flexibility isn’t simply the range of motion your body can move in, but the range of movements it can fully embody.
Also, men in dancing are easily a minority. I think I might just continue with it.”