public perception

Kizomba is a dance of the world. Until it’s not.

As the child of immigrants, I’ve often laughed at the culture clashes and distinctive behavioural patterns – My Big Fat Greek Wedding is almost an autobiography, apart from the small detail of the wrong country (Russia), and how I am still unmarried. I live in a world where race, culture, nationality are visible, identifiable, noticeable. I am not color-blind when it comes to skin: I celebrate the entire rainbow. However, North American society is not tolerant towards minorities, prejudice and bias run deep,​ systemic discrimination and white privilege are real, not debatable. Previous musings include:

The more I’ve tried to educate myself to avoid unconscious biases about minorities, the more I’ve learned about the commonly held perceptions about whites, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the weight of my white privilege and just how impossible it is for others to be color-blind when they see my skin color. #lossofinnocence #poorlittlewhitegirl


My eclectic tastes draw me equally to ballet as to African dances like kuduro/semba/kizomba. Unfortunately, not only do I have negative sensuality, but it is a well known fact: white people can’t dance. I mean, if Dave Chapelle says so, it must be true? Still, I can’t help it. The music makes me feel alive.

After one too many comments about how I can’t shake my hips like the other girls in the class, GT pulled me aside at a party and told me I should stop making such disparaging skin-based comments: it made the others uncomfortable. It was a silly stereotype, it wasn’t true, I was part of the team, not all black people can dance, just drop it Vanilla, ok? It’s in bad taste. Because I was too wrapped up in my insecurities, I didn’t listen to him. A few weeks later, following a constructive criticism during practice from Teacher, my response of “yes, well I CAN’T pop my hips any more, I’m white, I’m missing a few joints to have that kind of mobility” produced a tirade from Teacher.

I’m sick of this “white” business. There is no white, there is no black, there is just dance. You are not a white dancer. You are A dancer. Your job is to move to the music. Music doesn’t care what color your skin is. We all hear the same music, we all dance to the same music. Yes, kizomba is from Angola, but every country dances kizomba. One of the biggest kizomba festivals in the world is in Moscow. And in Sweden. And in the Netherlands. Are you going to tell me all those people can’t dance? Kizomba is a dance of the world. Stop with this stupid bullshit and get to work. I told you to pop your hips. Pop them.

Ok then.


Back when Beaut introduced me to Kizomba: “The music is so good! Except for the French Kizomba music, that stuff is crap. And there is so much of it! The French love to believe they invented Kizomba. They think it’s theirs now, they have quite the history of claiming whatever they like from other cultures.”

Walking home from dance class last week, I ran into a guy I used to kickbox with many years ago. Beautiful black guy from Europe, he always was a looker. We chatted a few minutes, catching up on each other’s life. When he found out I’d quit boxing for dancing, he was intrigued. “What kind of dancing?” Kuduro/Semba/Kizomba, with the odd moment of Salsa. “Lol, taking us over, are you? Hey, relax, I was joking. It’s cool, you have good taste at least.”

Kizomba is a dance of the world… a world in which whites have a long, violent history of cultural appropriation.


I love my school. I love how much enjoyment we derive from watching each other grow as dancers. We are all on the same journey together, regardless of our individual levels of competency. When I am with my team, I do start to believe that dancing is dancing, and kizomba/semba/kuduro is a dance of the world.

At the end of yesterday’s kuduro class we had a boys vs girls showdown. The cheering in these videos makes me so happy. (Same choreography as in this post.)

​​

Just like my boxing gym was a perfect example of what could be if tolerance, respect and acceptance were the norm instead of the exception, my dance school gives me hope that occasionally, as a species, we can set aside our differences long enough to listen to the music and enjoy a quick dance. Fun fact: my boxing gym and my dance school are in the same building. So maybe, this has nothing to do with Coach and Teacher’s leadership skills and values, and everything to do with the specific GPS coordinates of the location. The chemical mix of the cement used in the building – undetectable fumes produce abnormally peaceful & loving human behaviour?! Must be it.

“You’ve got nothing to lose”

“You’ve got nothing to lose.” My father’s excellent pun, in reaction to my announcement that I was going to Toulouse this past June.

Every time work sends me to Paris, I tack on 1-2 weekends in Europe, to explore new cities on my bucket list. So of course, when I found out back in April that work would be sending me to Paris in June, I scouted cities to turn this into a proper bday workation. Top destination: Toulouse.

Now comes the tricky part. Why Toulouse? Well, it is a popular tourist destination and it is in Southern France, a geographical region I’ve oft heard of but never visited. But also? FroMan lives in Toulouse, so why not take this opportunity to check off a new city off my list and visit my new friend from Dubai?

For months, my brain had a field day.

Creeper! Stalker! He’s gonna find you weeeeird. He’ll probably avoid seeing you. Dubai was MONTHS ago. Yes yes, he improved your dancing, you felt safe enough for a major breakthrough in vulnerability. You are entitled to be grateful for that – though he likely was acting out of kindness to a lonely, stranded, socially awkward girl – but wtv. Why are you pushing this? Some stories are only meant to last 4 days. You’re just setting yourself up for humiliating disappointment. Remember that time a guy drove up from NYC just to see you? How freaked out you were, and how much of a trainwreck that whole episode was? HE LIVED ON THE SAME CONTINENT AS YOU. Extrapolate that across the Atlantic Ocean, if you want an idea of how pathetic FroMan will find you. Don’t do this.

Fuck you, brain.

I asked myself what I would do, if it were not for my fear of judgment. The answer was easy: go to Toulouse. I wanted to see that city, and I wanted the opportunity to see the person who unwittingly played a huge role in my newfound capacity for happiness on and off the dance floor.

2 weeks before getting on the plane, I messaged FroMan to advise him of my plans to visit his city and hoped he’d be free for a coffee/drinks/supper during the 3.5 days I’d be there. He was happy to hear from me, and suggested I consider attending a dance festival in Nîmes the following weekend. Just like that, my 2nd annual bday workation in France was all set. Easy-peasy.

Was it awkward? Yeah, definitely. He said a few comments that implied that my paranoid brain wasn’t so off. I had trouble talking to him; not from an absence of things to say, but from a paralyzing fear of being judged. To infrequent blog readers and real-life acquaintances I frequently come across as a high-strung overly-emotional drama queen with an excess of sensibility that talks about her feelings too much. Which isn’t wrong, precisely. But that easily gets interpreted as vulgar and self-indulgent.

But.

I had a great time. I spent my days exploring Toulouse alone, as that was always my stated purpose of this trip: its my favorite way to discover a new city. In the evenings FroMan took me dancing (#kizombalife) and invited me to supper with his friends, with whom I had so much fun they invited me to join them for supper the next day without FroMan. By the end of my 4 days, I was sure of one thing: he is a real friend. That certainty I felt in Dubai that he is a solid person & I ought to include him in my life, for good things are sure to follow? Still true. This trip merely allowed us to play catchup: Dubai gave us the connection, but the foundations of a real friendship were laid during this trip. By the time I saw him the following weekend in Nîmes, easy familiar banter had replaced the awkward silences of Toulouse.

You’ve got nothing to lose. Had I listened to my brain, and worried too much about perception, I would have never gone on this trip. And I would never have successfully turned a brief connection & handful of happy memories into a real friendship. Good people are hard to come by. It’s worth taking a risk or two, living through some momentary discomfort, to keep them in one’s life.

Especially when they live in as beautiful places as Toulouse. #chooseyourfriendswisely

 

P.S. 2 other instructors I’d met & adored in Dubai realized their visit to Paris would overlap mine for 1.5 days. They reached out to me, hoping we could meet up. Did I think it was weird, or suspect that their kindness towards me in Dubai had been only born of pity? No. I was delighted to hear from them, and it was with mutual regret that our schedules didn’t match up. Lesson learned: embrace and foster the healthy true connections I’m lucky enough to stumble upon. Those are the best gifts from the Universe.

 

 

Mastering Parisian manners

There is a commonly held belief that Parisians are rude. So common, in fact, that the Parisian Chamber of Commerce has published a guide for Parisians on how to handle tourists of different nationalities. I am not making this up. It is called Do You Speak Touriste? In my experience, Parisians aren’t rude so much as incredibly blunt, with an endless capacity at pointing out what should have been obvious. Tact? Not their forte. But seeing as I am often at risk of an aneurism when faced with people’s lack of common sense, I rather appreciate Parisians’ approach. Furthermore, it grants me carte blanche: they can be as blunt as they chose, I will reply in kind. I find it rather freeing, frankly, since diplomacy, tact and restraint are not instinctive concepts for moi.

Exhibit A: success

On Friday, I was told by a Parisian employee at the airport to stop “talking down to him, from my high perch of condescending attitude.” I replied, curtly, that if being asked repeatedly the same question due to his inability to provide an on-topic answer was condescending attitude, he must receive a lot of it – rather than pass a comment on my communication style, could he please finally provide me with the requested information?

And then I danced a jig, bc clearly I’ve fully integrated into the Parisian lifestyle.

Exhibit B: less success

Today, I got to the Paris office before lunch, and was happily reunited with my colleagues (internal audit). I really enjoy them – good thing, too, since I find myself spending a whole lot of time with them! We went for a coffee break on our floor, for a quick chit chat and update on our lives. One of them just got married, another one was going on vacation, and me? Well, I had just been to Toulouse. I was mid-explanation/demonstration of the really cool outdoor salsa festival I’d attended, when the head of Group Tax unexpectedly walked in. He stared at me as I twirled, blinked, and sighed. “Normally, I would find anyone dancing salsa in front of internal auditors, of all ppl, slightly odd. But somehow, I do not find it surprising when it’s Vanilla. I did feel a slight earthquake earlier this morning on my floor, but said to myself – impossible, Vanilla is only arriving tomorrow. I should have known. Vanilla, you do realize that it is not standard behaviour to dance salsa at the office when in Paris? We typically adopt a more restrained demeanor. Unless… of course. This IS your more restrained demeanor.”

Defiantly, I told him of my successful moment with the Parisian airport employee. Group Tax congratulated me on my mastery of Paris manners, and then asked me if I had danced salsa throughout that interaction?

Hmph. Who would have thought that a tax guy would have a sense of humour? #ifwearegonnabedealinginstereotypes #brownsocks

3.5 inches makes all the difference

My hair is not very long. Most days, I leave it loose, wavy or straight, because it stays out of my eyes so I’ve no urgent need to style it.

At dance practice on Sunday, we practiced a move where the lady lies on the ground, the leader steps over her head, and by placing the back of his foot under her neck, kicks her upright in one swift motion. Its a tricky move. Kick, repeat, kick, repeat, kick, repeat. My partner is a new member of the squad, and he was having trouble kicking me with sufficient gusto for me to stand up. After one to many sharp remarks from Assistant Teacher, my partner gave me a very energetic kick upright… while standing on a lock of my hair.

I stopped dancing. Swore loudly, to avoid crying. Left the dance floor to hunt for bobby pins. As I rummaged through my purse, Assistant Teacher asked me what was I doing, quitting mid-song?! “We are practicing for a show, the show must go on!” Without turning around, I suggested Assistant Teacher look on the dance floor, he should see the reason why I was taking a wee break. Silence. “Oh. Ouch.”

Not the lock of hair in question, but a fairly accurate comparison of the amount of hair I lost with that dance move.

Lesson: 3.5 inches of hair is long enough to be problematic. I am NEVER leaving it untied again. #baldnessisnotmydesiredlook

Next, we practiced the kuduro routine for the show. I’d never danced kuduro in heels. Game-changer. All of my weight on my tippy toes, instead of on my heels. I wiped out twice in practice. Not exactly confidence-boosting, finding oneself flat on one’s ass, 2 hours before a show.

I survived. Below, my 2nd time on stage, first time performing all components of the choreography. You can spot where I’m wobbly, trying not to lose my balance in my 3.5 inch heels.

 

Hairloss and fear of falling on stage notwithstanding… that was SO MUCH FUN. #sufferingforonesart

3.5 inches is DEFINITELY enough to be a memorable experience.

That time I danced on stage

So.

I danced in my first show this past Friday, at the Montreal Salsa Convention (MSC).

How did this happen, you wonder? Well. Funny story.

2pm: Teacher asks me if I’d mind showing up at the studio for 6pm to help with the preps for the show. 4 couples from the Dance Squad were supposed to perform at the MSC on Friday night. I was not slated to be one of them – reasonable given my not-so-succesful run of dance practices. No prob, of course I’ll help, I was intending on coming to support my teammates anyways.

3pm: I text Teacher to say, actually, I’ve an appointment from 6-7pm, so I’ll show up a little later than initially anticipated. Much as I love the Dance Squad, I’d rather not bail on my meeting without a valid reason. Rude.

4pm: Multiple missed calls from Teacher. Pick up, Vanilla. Ok ok, but I am at work on a conference call, I’ll call you back as soon as I am free.

4:20pm: Teacher messages the Dance Squad group text, to inform everyone of the various meeting times and locations and to-dos pre-show. He lists the names of the 8 performers – surprise! Vanilla is one of them. Performers have to be at the studio for a last minute practice at 6pm. I bolt from the office, hoping that Friday traffic on a long-weekend won’t be too bad, pass by my place to grab all my dance stuff. It turns out that my body reacts to the stress of a dance show exactly the same as it does for a boxing fight: a massive, uncontrollable attack of the nervous shits, which evacuates everything from my body and then I compulsively step on the scale to check my weight. Right. I forget – I no longer have to make weight, nor do I need my mouth-guard. Time to go! I arrive at the studio only 8 minutes late.

6pm: I meet my dance partner, a guy I’ve never danced with before; a former student of Teacher who now owns his own dance school out in California. He’d flown into Montreal late Thursday night, alone – his dance partner couldn’t make it. He learned the entire choreography in two hours on Friday, but needed a partner. Vanilla, the backup plan. Vanilla, who’d never yet danced the choreography from beginning to end, and had never danced it in her 3.5″ heeled dance shoes. Vanilla, who loves a good challenge.

7pm: Our practice is over. My partner only dropped me once, I only strained his back 7 times and Teacher only yelled a handful of times. I now know the choreography, almost. Success! Time to go register, and change into our costumes.

8:30pm: Arrive at the venue. Scope out the stage – huge. Spend an hour marking the steps with my partner. Manage to do 2 walk-throughs without any significant fuck-ups. Two. That’s a lot.

10pm: Showtime. We are the third team to get on stage. I refuse to watch anything backstage, as the cheers from the 200-300 person audience are defeaning. Nope. Imma just hangout in the back, and hold my partner’s arm and stay calm. Oh look at that! We are walking on stage! Oh hey! The music is starting! Oh wow! This is fun, let me wink at the crowd! Oops, I just did a minor fuckup, oh well, sorry partner. Hey wait! Already done?! I was only getting started, let’s do that again THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN.

11pm-3am: Party with the Dance Squad, none of us able to wipe off the grin from our faces. Teacher looks on, amused and low-key proud of his newest generation of dance aficionados.

Kiz me, babe! Manuel dos Santos in the house! #msc2k17

A post shared by Montreal Salsa Convention (@msc2k17) on

 

Dancefloor drama, part III: the meltdown to end all meltdowns

Apparently, this is turning into a series.

  • Dancefloor drama, part I: I walk off the dancefloor mid-song, whilst dancing with an international artist/instructor in Dubai.
  • Dancefloor drama, part II: where my dance partner has a freakout and makes the rookie mistake of mentioning my weight… like any female, I am slightly over-sensitive about my weight. Remember this?

So. We’ve established, at length, multiple times, that I am the Queen of Meltdowns, yes?

Hahaha, y’all have no idea.

I’m under a lot of pressure at work. Big deadlines of big high-profile projects coming up rightthismomentrightnowactuallyyesterdaywhyisntthisdonealready. I’ve been late on some of my deliverables, and overall, I’m not as advanced in MY big projects for the year as I’d like to be, because I have been so caught up in my deliverables for OTHER ppl’s projects. And yes, I’ve had a few meltdowns at work too. One of which was the reason I found myself in Dubai, under orders from the CFO to take a vacation to avoid an imminent burnout. Since then, I’ve been working very hard at getting shit done and learning to control my emotions. But… apparently, I’ve aways to go until I succeed at regulated emotions.

I left work early yesterday, so as to show up on time for my weekly private with Teacher. 5 minutes after arriving at the studio, I realized I’d forgotten my laptop at work. Which, given that I still had a solid 4-5 hours of work to perform in order to meet a hard deadline for this morning, was a bit of a problem. My plan of working at home at night? Ruined.

Teacher walked in 7 minutes later (yes, he shows up 15 minutes late for privates. He is an artiste, and artistes are not bound by earthly considerations such as schedules. He always makes up for it – he is very generous with his time – but one never knows exactly when that generous time will occur) to find me weeping in a soggy mess, sitting in the middle of the dance floor. Teacher typically can handle ANY situation, no matter how fucked up. Not this situation. Teacher reacted the same way as all men do when faced with a woman crying: panicked, frozen, unsure and uncomfortable.

I continued to cry for the remaining 40 minutes of the private. Even as we were dancing, tears were streaming down my face. How to create a pleasant atmosphere 101.

Once the private was finished, Teacher started class. Students were streaming into the studio. I stood around, undecided: should I skip class and make the 45 minute treck back to the office to pick up my laptop? Should I miss my deadline? OMG I have so much work left. OMG I am the worst employee ever. OMG I am tired and why do I have so much work and I can’t face ANOTHER late night and I worked 45 hours so far this week  and it is only Wednesday and this will never end even if I meet this deadline and…

Cue THE biggest meltdown.

Ground-shattering sobs. In the middle of the lobby. The assistant teacher came to see me, giving me hugs and trying to calm my breathing. He thought somebody had died. When he heard me wail, “I forgot my laaaaaaaaptoooooooooooooooop” he managed to not laugh, almost. Gently patted my back, as I continued to cry so hard I couldn’t get enough air.

Teacher materialized in front of me.

Vanilla, I dunno what is going on, I feel bad that your personal life is clearly shit, but you GOTTA get a grip. This is my school. My reputation! Students can see you. They are not gonna think you are crying because of a work problem, they are gonna think my school actually broke your heart. Please. This is not professional. We can talk later, but GO CRY SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Which enraged me because he wasn’t wrong.

I cried all the way back to the office.

I sniffled as I worked at my desk for 2.5 hours.

I went back to dance practice and danced with my favorite ppl. Assistant Teacher waited until I successfully danced with 3 guys before approaching me – I think he was scared I’d revert to my watering-pot alter ego.

And then I went home and worked till 3am. I met my deadline.

Who says accountants are boring and bland?

Dancefloor drama, part II

Practices are going full steam with the Dance Squad. Like any high pressure environment, emotions run high, and meltdowns happen. Meltdowns are kinda my thing, I’m somewhat of an expert in that subject matter. Therefore, I am prone to empathize when witnessing others mid-meltdown. Meltdowns are so very human, usually caused by an uncontrollable rush of emotion – they have the ring of authenticity and a sniff of vulnerability. #myuncomfortablecomfortzone

The choreo is not easy, with tricks, and lifts and all kinds of fun moments that involve me shifting some/most/all of my weight onto my dance partner. Technique, both for the leader and the follower, is critical. Unfortunately, achieving the right technique requires a lot of trial and error, which results in bruises, strained backs, and occasionally the follower being dropped on the floor. To the extent either the leader or the follower doesn’t catch on to a move quickly… le owie. But it is a fairly temporary level of discomfort, one that with humor, patience and concentration, can be worked through and then bingo! Improved dancing!

Sunday’s practice was hard. I struggled with a running kick in the air, supported by my partner, and my partner struggled with a sweep and dip. We mostly managed to not snipe at each other, but were both fairly relieved to not see each other for the 48 hours between Sunday’s practice and Tuesday’s practice. At Tuesday’s practice, Teacher introduced a 3rd trick and some unusual footwork. I could see my partner’s frustration rise, as he struggled with both the mechanics of the trick and the footwork count. I recognized the signs, awfully similar to the bitchfests I’d indulge in during sparring sessions at my boxing gym – the blinding emotion that overrides any communication between brain and body, making the easiest 1-2 step impossible. The only way to get out of that state is to indulge in a brief tantrum, evacuate the pent-up feelings, reset and restart. My partner’s meltdown was imminent. I was ready. I was expecting something along the lines of:

  • “GUYS! SLOW DOWN. I can’t keep up and this is really frustrating, always messing this up. I get that we are on a tight timeline, but FFS, if y’all keep blazing ahead while I am flopping about cluelessly, that doesn’t help us as a team. WAIT FOR ME. 5 minutes to help me out won’t kill y’all. “
  • “I HATE BEING A LEAD, THIS IS COMPLICATED AS FUCK, let me be a follower for once. I’ll even wear makeup and sequins if necessary, I just want someone else to deal with this shit for once. Vanilla’s strong, let HER work on her masculine portrayal.”
  • “How on earth did y’all expect me to get sufficiently in shape, overnight, to handle these lifts? You asked me to be part of the team 2 weeks ago, why are you asking me to perform at an athletic level that I don’t currently have? No? Am I being unreasonable? I AM NEVER UNREASONABLE.”

Instead, my partner said:

I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore. I refuse to risk injury to my back, shifting around all that weight.

Bro, did you just blame this on ME and my WEIGHT? Wrong answer.

He was true to his word, and refused to finish the last 15 mins of practice. As I watched the squad finish their rehearsal, stewing in my rage and hurt, I felt angelic for not pointing out that my weight wouldn’t be an issue if he had the slightest strength in his core and posterior chain and the posture of someone his age instead of that of a geriatric myopic librarian.

Vanilla the diplomat. I surprise myself sometimes.

A good night’s sleep did a lot to restore my mood. However, I planned my outfit extra carefully in anticipation of yesterday’s dance class: one that made my waist look wee, legs for days. Mini skirt, black nylons and heels. I hate dancing in heels: all the men in dance class are 5’8-5’10, meaning that I am several inches taller than them in heels. BUT, optical warfare takes precedence over optimal dance experience, and I wanted to make sure that when everyone saw me, the fat cow that puts my partner’s health at risk, they would say to themselves, “Damn! I’d totally put out my back for the chance to dance with that hottie.”

That is exactly what happened. Everyone complimented me on my sexy appearance, including my dance partner.

How to manage artistic meltdowns 101: shut up, look fantastic, and blog about it once it is over.

For a recap of my own memorable international dancing meltdown, click here.