Arjay Centeno and Melissa Rutz are ranked among the top west coast swing dancers in the world. Placing at the top of champion-level competitions at west coast swing festivals across the country, they regularly teach nationally and internationally. Arjay and Melissa come from different but complementary backgrounds: Arjay comes from a musical background playing the violin and started his dance interests with hip hop in high school. Melissa started dancing at the age of four, with years of intensive ballet training before discovering theater arts adagio, ballroom, lindy hop, and swing. After they began their partnership in 1999, they competed in International Ballroom and Latin before discovering their shared passion for west coast swing. Now they share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the dance by teaching, performing, and competing. After a weekend of teaching workshops in Anchorage, Alaska, they sat down with me to share their thoughts on connection, musicality, and flow in west coast swing and other social dances. You can read their thoughts below.
Note: This interview was published in the spring of 2009. Arjay and Melissa are no longer teaching and competing together, but they both remain active with different partners in the national west coast swing community.
What qualities make someone an enjoyable dancer?
Melissa: For me as a follower, obviously I started at the novice level and worked my way up to a champion level. And my perception of how I like to dance and how I like to be treated on the dance floor has changed. So when I was a novice, I loved being thrown around on the floor, I loved feeling like leaders would pull me around and turn me and do all this fast-paced patterned movement and pull out all the stops.
Arjay: And then it really started to be about just communication in a simpler way, to be on the same page, to be musical… The other thing is that followers tend to try to read my mind a little too much, and that complicates things. We talk about functionality and making sense of how something works fundamentally, rather than following or even leading based on assumptions or doing something just because they think that’s what you want.
Melissa: It’s about knowing your role in the dance. Being a little bit stubborn. Not being overly helpful in a way that can hinder the motion in the dance. You’ll find a lot of followers forget their actual role in the dance, which is to travel and to keep their genuine movement going. For leaders too, they often think they have to place every step for me in the pattern. I know how to move my body. I know how to take a step. All they have to do is give me an energy to work with and a direction to move into, and I’m good to go. So if anything, a pet peeve of mine is when leaders overwork when they don’t really have to. For me the biggest misconception I find from leaders or followers is that you’re out there to be moved around the floor, but no, you’re out there to relate. It’s harder with west coast swing because the dance is always changing, so if anything now that we are dancing to more contemporary music and there are more young people involved in this dance, you get a lot of people out there looking for the “flash and trash” moves.
Arjay: I use the example of a museum guide. A guide in a museum will direct people through a particular path through the museum, not by pointing and saying go over there or come over here, but by freely showing with his or her body the direction and path that he or she expects everyone to go and not necessarily being committed to staying in a straight line. Just understanding the direction or the path, the intent. I like to define help as being where you need to be so that the other person can do their job but not overstep that. So for the follower that means not coming out early on a movement or hanging back too much. It’s being able to find a compromise that enables us to work together.
What are the biggest misconceptions you see among students learning how to dance?
Arjay: Ego in terms of some people going into it with the thought that people are watching, both in a positive and a negative way. They think, people are watching me so I can’t go out dancing because I get too self conscious. Don’t worry. It’s a game. It’s something you don’t have to concern yourself with, because just that mindset can inhibit your learning process.
Melissa: I think too this goes for a technical term people use called hijacking. It’s often misunderstood because people tend to think of that as being a follower’s thing, that the dance is leader-dominated. For Arjay and I, it’s fifty-fifty. If anything, we tend to teach it more along the lines of being more follower-dominated because she’s that object being swung. So if the leader is trying to fight against her natural movement, her rhythm, and her ability, they’re not really swing dancing. They’re just moving their partner around. Arjay and I will dance, and some people see me add something to the dance but without hindering his movement, and they say that’s hijacking. But I’m not doing anything to inhibit Arjay from leading me or from moving himself. The same thing goes for leaders. Leaders can definitely hijack a pattern too if they are too dominant and not listening to the follower.
Arjay: So a leader can be hijacking by thinking the follower is playing when they shouldn’t or doing something when they shouldn’t. But no, it’s a lead leading when he shouldn’t that’s a hijack, not making her inclusive and not allowing her movement with his styling or his lead.
Melissa: So many leaders think that they need to begin and end the pattern a certain way. And if it doesn’t work out or doesn’t end a certain way, the pattern is wrong or it’s the follower’s fault. But that’s not it at all because every follower is going to follow differently, so you have to relate to her differently.
What is connection, and how can dancers develop it?
Arjay: Take care of yourself before you can take care of another. It seems like people over-prioritize connection. They let whatever the connection is doing affect their body instead of taking care of their own body and focusing on the elements they have control over. Connection is like a variable. It fluctuates, it’s always changing throughout the dance, so you can’t try to control variables. But if I think, how do I change myself to influence the connection of change, then it becomes more useful and becomes more important. I think that if your mental awareness is closed and you’re not focused on fixing what you can to keep it open-minded, then you don’t put yourself in a position to relate to someone easily.
Melissa: It’s all about how we relate to people. Even in life, you can feel someone’s good energy or good rhythm, like you relate to them well. In beginner classes, we’ll have partners take a handhold, and we’ll have them just relax and breathe together. So even just that kind of energy, that breath, that’s really the most important part of it. People forget to breathe.
Arjay: And that also goes hand in hand with knowing what to look for. In terms of people looking for a good mental connection, it’s similar to what someone said about whether luck is calculable. Can you calculate luck? They say it’s more of a mindset. If you can put yourself in the mindset to be lucky, you will be lucky, and find a sense of connection. If you put yourself in a position to relate to someone, you will. But if you don’t, you won’t because you have a one-track mind. If you expect it to be a certain way, that assumption complicates things because you only assume that something is going to happen and aren’t open-minded to see other possibilities.
What role does technique play in connection?
Melissa: It all depends on your goal as a dancer. For me, I teach west coast swing mostly, but to be honest my main goal as a teacher is to teach good body mechanics, good technique, just being a dancer. I always thought in order to be the best partner dancer, you have to be the best individual dancer you can be. So then you can bring something to the partnership. So we’re huge on technique.
Arjay: The better you know your tool, which is your body and that mental aspect, the more you can bring to the table in terms of connection.
What is musicality?
Melissa: For me musicality is always a sticky subject. Some people teach it very specifically, more like a science. They’ll teach phrasing, the beat structure, how the music works. For me, I’ve just been dancing so long, I take it much more artistically. For me musicality comes from within.
Arjay: When I first started learning west coast swing, I was a musician and I was trying to understand and break it down scientifically. That was my first mistake. Melissa would always tell me I was off-time. And I’m a musician. I’ve been playing music for seventeen years, so I know what time is. I started to understand that it was making sense in the science of it and the math of it, but when it was coming down to the connection and introducing more of these variables and these elements that I had no control over, it didn’t make any sense. So being able to understand musicality from an emotional kind of understanding of what the music is doing…
Melissa: That’s what makes us so unique is that we prefer to work off each other’s phrasing or musicality or body movements. Some teachers will teach musicality in terms of patterns: here’s our pattern choice, this is good for this type of music and that type of music. But for us, just because we come from different backgrounds and different types of dancing, musicality is open-ended.
Arjay: What people have observed in our dancing and also how we teach is that we aren’t dancing to the music as much as we are instruments performing, or playing the music through our bodies and allowing it to channel and express how we hear the music or how we are experiencing the music as if musicians themselves were playing it.
Melissa: The best compliment I ever got in terms of my own musicality was this gentleman who came up to me after watching me in a competition and said something to the effect that I was so good with my musicality that I was able to speak the music before it even hit the speakers. You have to bring your own musicality to the music.
Arjay: I had a compliment that was similar when we danced a social song to one of this guy’s favorite pieces. He said he can sing it and knows all the words, but we made him hear it differently, because we were expressing it and performing it.
Melissa: That’s what makes west coast swing so fun.
How does a dancer develop musicality?
Melissa: If you want to be musical you can’t just go take a west coast swing class. I teach jazz, Arjay teaches hip hop… Especially for adults, it’s hard when you are not used to letting yourself go a little bit, but you’ve got to do something that gets yourself out of the box.
Arjay: And I think that sometimes it’s not so much about developing it as it is unlocking it. I think creativity is a deeper root [of musicality]. An art teacher once told me that everyone is artistic. I would say everyone is musical. And we start off that way as children, but it’s as we grow up that people tell us that we can’t, and so we don’t harvest it in that early stage. We teach finding it, not just developing it, because our students will do things that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of or Melissa wouldn’t necessarily have thought of, so they kind of find it themselves. And they realize that’s what I said about putting yourself in the mindset and being in that position. It is very vulnerable because some people like their comfort zone, but you have to look in the deepest parts of your soul and find it. So to an extent there’s a certain development, but it’s an innate part of our bodies, and it has always existed. People will tap to music all the time. My dad thinks he’s not musical, yet he’s always in the car at a stoplight tapping to the music, and I tell him that’s it, but as soon as he puts his head to it he can’t do it.
How have you experienced flow in your dancing? How can dancers develop that feeling of flow or energy on the dance floor?
Melissa: Well, going back to that sharing of energy, we find that flow together a lot. Obviously if I’m not working my body right, if it’s not mentally right for me, then those energies can be off. But considering how long we have danced together, I’d say more often than not we have that flow, that energy connection, and again it’s a sharing of energy. So there’s constant conversation and brainstorming on the floor.
Arjay: I achieve that flow too when teaching students that get it. Something clicks. You’re in a mindset, and you’re talking and discussing something, and all of a sudden it clicks.
Melissa: We teach a few basic principles – more guidelines than rules – for our students. The first thing we always teach is perpetual motion or perpetual energy. Even if you’re standing still or you’re not really physically taking large steps across the floor, you still have this sort of internal energy and rhythm that’s ready to go again. We relate it, as basic as it sounds, to a jogger jogging on their way and coming to a red light. They don’t really stop, they keep that rhythm and that energy going.
Arjay: And when students understand that those simple concepts, just like principles in life, help govern the actions that we take as we start to dance, we start to teach ourselves the learning process. As long as it stays under the umbrella of those principles, it makes it easier for people to understand which choices or decisions to make in their own learning process rather than just having us as teachers tell them “do this” or “don’t do this,” because then it becomes so many rules that people get clogged up. But when they are able to ask, “What are my values in this dance?”, or “What are my values as a dancer in general?”, “What works for my body and what doesn’t?”… When they learn more about that, more about their bodies, then they are able to achieve a more effective learning process.
Melissa: Again, we found that flow in west coast swing, and we know each of our students has found that at some point, whether it’s one dance in their life or ten dances or a thousand. That’s what keeps people coming back to learning west coast swing and wanting more.
Final question: Why west coast swing?
Melissa: West coast swing is just such an open dance. Obviously it does have a tight structure and framework, but that’s what draws you in is that once you get the framework and those guidelines to work within, it’s so open-ended. With Arjay having such an artistic background in music playing violin and me coming from ballet, being able to merge our styles and creativity and artistry together… West coast swing was just the perfect dance… You start to learn about the dance and its possibilities… We both just fell in love with it.
In addition to teaching, performing, and competing in west coast swing, Arjay and Melissa are also developing other dance interests for the future. Arjay is interested in exploring the philosophy of dance and is considering writing a manual or book on the mechanics of leading and following. Melissa has dreams of starting her own dance company and finding artistry through a mixture of dance styles. Arjay and Melissa can both be seen in Love ‘n Dancing, a movie featuring west coast swing dancing to be released in spring of 2009, and Melissa was recently featured as Christina Aguilera’s body double in her Candy Man music video.