One of the founders of the Dnipro club “Focus” Evgeniy Stepanenko works with so many senIor pairs that they could fill the category entirely at any tournament.
Representatives of the Dnipro club “Focus” have been constantly participating in the championships and cups of Ukraine, as well as international tournaments in the senior category for almost five years. And each couple has its own character, goals and priorities. Therefore, the coach has to look for a personal approach. Yevhen Stepanenko confesses that from the very beginning he did not set a goal to gather the senior group, but he does not conceal that today it something he is very proud of.
– Evgeny Olegovich, how do you remember ballroom dancing at the time when you were still an active dancer?
– I finished dancing as an athlete in 1996. Ballroom dancing at that moment only began to take shape that’s common today. There wasn’t as much information as there is now. After all, earlier it happened like this: someone went to the West, saw something, then came back and told everyone else. When the “iron curtain” collapsed, it became easier. VCRs appeared, people brought cassettes from abroad, and half the city that had something to do with dancing ran to see. This already gave a certain boost, because when you hear someone else’s story, it’s just an interpretation of another person, and when you see with your own eyes, it impacts you in a different way.
– I suppose there weren’t any seniors then.
– A lot of things haven’t happened yet. Children’s dancing was extremely popular. And there were no categories like “school”, “debut” and others, that are well-known today. Everyone immediately joined an H-class. In general, the main participants were, of course, schoolchildren, students and adults in their twenties. Most of the post-Soviet teachers, by the way, started dancing when they were students: quite late by current standards. The level of dancing skill we know today didn’t exist then.
Each tournament had its own age categories and specific rules, and there were no restrictions on the figures – everyone danced what they wanted and dressed in what they wanted. For example, I danced latinum in white trousers and a pink shirt. And I wasn’t the only one. If you ask your coaches how they were dressed when they danced latinum, you’ll be very surprised. It would look ridiculous today. The same was true not only for the outfits, but for the hairstyles as well.
As one coach told me, when twenty or more years ago our guys came to the tournament in Italy, all districts came to see Ukrainian couples. Because little girls were dressed in dresses that even adult women couldn’t afford. But time goes by, and everything changes.
– Why did you end your active career?
– At some point, I had to make a choice of what I wanted to do – either teach or dance. I chose coaching.
– When did you first think about becoming a coach?
– I guess I didn’t have any particular moment. I danced in the Lugansk ballroom dance ensemble called Prolisk. And it so happened that as soon as new people appeared in the club, I started teaching them. The coach told me: “Here’s a new boy for you, show him some variations, please”. So I got my first coaching experience when I was around 12 years old. I remember that in tenth grade, I wrote in my essay that I wanted to be a ballroom dance coach. At that time, it was unusual.
– Did the dream come true after school?
– I went to the institute and studied to become a geography and biology teacher. I have no talent for science, so I went the easiest way and chose the specialty in humanities. As it turned out, biology was very useful for further work. Being a student, I was no longer just working, but created my own club. And I began to work as a teacher of choreography in kindergarten. And what is the main job there? Preparation for the holidays like the New Year, March 8 and graduation. And every two months you teach children a couple of dancing performances. It was interesting to do for a couple of years. And then people started to tell me – why don’t you try to do ballroom dancing with the kids? There’s a hall, there are kids, and parents don’t have to take the kids anywhere – everything is during the daycare.
– What happened next?
– I came to the school I was studying at, and they offered me to start a club there. They allocated me a large room and made repairs in it. Some of the children who started learning with me in the kindergarten, moved there. Very quickly we started to participate in tournaments that were the first real battles for my students. I remember fighting with my parents for one boy. He was very talented. Parents were both medics, and mom was against the ballroom dancing, while dad was in favor. Usually it’s the other way around.
– Remember when the first adults showed up?
– It’s already a tradition: the first adults I started working with were the parents of the children I taught. They didn’t make it to the tournaments like the others, but they came to classes with their whole families. It all was quite trivial at the start. It was the club’s birthday, the kids came to the party with their parents and we had a dance together. Parents tried – “Oh, it’s so easy and pleasant. Let’s make a group for us.” This is where it all started: people enjoyed the process, the communication.
– Did you need to “switch” from children to adults morally?
– I didn’t have to regroup. I talk to kids like I do to adults, that’s the thing. Because of that, there were certain problems when working in kindergarten: it’s very difficult for me to communicate with children as less understanding creatures. They understand everything very well. Yes, maybe they absorb a little different amount of information, need more repetition and more emphasis on concentration. Children lose it much faster than adults. Otherwise, I’m more prone to focusing on each student individually. Each person is unique, and they need to be taught individually, based on the current tasks.
– In the early 2000s, you changed a place of residence
– It so happened that in 2003 I moved to Dnipro, Dnipropetrovsk back then. I didn’t have a place to work ready for me then. It was the middle of the season, and I somehow did not immediately get involved in the work in terms of dancing. I had to do various things related to construction and sales for some time. And in May 2004 I came to “Harmony” to Oleg Petrovsky. He said: “Okay, come to teach”. My acquaintance with “Harmony” began with so-called medal tests. I was offered to work as a sound engineer. After I got familiar with how everything at that school worked, our 14-year collaboration began.
– In fact, you had to start all over again?
– I taught classes at 148th school. The first year I taught students of small and middle age and then, according to the old tradition, the parents came. But really, mostly mothers joined the class: dads didn’t come. The high school students joined as well.
– And then suddenly there appeared a strong interest in ballroom dancing in the country.
– It coincided with the TV show “Dance with the Stars”. At first I had one group of 12 adults, and a couple of months later I had to open another one, and there were two groups of 20 people each. A lot of people thought it was similar to what they saw on TV – come once, learn quickly, and you are ready to put on a suit and start dancing. And that’s not true at all. A lot of people were disappointed later, but the TV played its part by promoting dancing. I remember that year, the Meteor Palace of Sports in the Dnipro during the “Shklyar Cup” was overcrowded. We sat in the sound engineer’s box, and the place around us was packed.
– From my own experience, I know that when you start ballroom dancing, you are not taught to immediately to dance waltz, tango, foxtrot, etc. At first you learn hip-hop, salsa, rock’n’roll and other dances. In your opinion, is this approach to learning justified?
– Yes, that was the concept of learning in our club. In my opinion, it makes sense. Because when people come to ballroom dances, they first need to build up individually – to develop a sense of rhythm, coordination of movements. Hip-hop and rock’n’roll develop certain muscle groups. To this day, when working with children, I practice these dances. I add some variety, so as not to discourage interest in dancing, if we talk about adults.
And only after the students have adapted physically and psychologically, they can be paired. Not everyone comes to classes in ready pairs. Dancing in other styles provides a time to think, to see who’s right for who. Changing pairs is a painful process for me: I always try to plan everything well from the start.
Besides, when it comes to adults, seniors in particular, people have a lot of life experience, habits, and personal traits. We teach children but with adults it’s more of a re-teaching process.
When it comes to some specific aspects of dancing, it’s easier to develop technique in children. Children dance more difficult things, they think less about what they do when they work on certain skills. Adults, on the contrary, think too much on the parquet. Sometimes too much.
– You have a lot of senior pairs. Did you plan to create that kind of group from the start?
– I never planned to recruit a senior group. There were adults, including seniors, who at some point said, “Let’s try dancing at the tournaments”. And we tried to. There used to be more hobby tournaments, and we took part in many of them. Seniors appeared to have the most stamina and really stood out.
I’m proud to have couples like that. And it’s not even that these couples represent the club. People work, pursue their goals, and they achieve them. After all, tournaments are tournaments, but adults end up having common interests and goals, especially couples. It would seem that they know a lot about each other, but always discover something new in themselves and their partners.
– Do you ever as a coach feel embarassed for couples that don’t achieve the results you expected?
– Embarrassed? Never. Would be better if they didn’t improve their dancing skills and lay low without ever showing up and having anyone ever see them in action? Every dancing experience at the tournament is a little victory. It doesn’t matter what place you took. In order to learn, you have to practice all the time. What’s more, we mostly learn when we do something wrong. It is important to analyze and make the right conclusions, and then you can correct errors. Plus, by participating in tournaments, you can compare yourself with others, see what they do, what to strive for.
I’ve never heard any coach I’ve talked to disrespect my pairs. There’s nothing but respect in their attitude. I’m glad they notice my couples and say, “I’ve been to the tournament, I’ve seen your couples”.
– Here comes the most burning question: Why isn’t senior dancing in Ukraine developing as actively as in the West?
– I don’t agree with the fact that senior’s dance in our country is not developing. Moreover, I see that it is progressing. There are objective indicators – for example, the performance of our couples at the international tournaments. There are just certain processes, which give the impression that something is wrong. For example, a large number of federations. If you gather all our seniors at one time in one place, you could have a very powerful tournament.
Yes, there is a problem with the fact that in the West there are a lot of pairs of seniors that were amateurs before they became senior dancers. We don’t see our amateurs become seniors after they reach a certain age. And I have my own version of why that happens. There is a very good, very strong children’s dance in Ukraine. But this is a double-edged sword. Children are squeezed out so much for the sake of maximum results, that when they become adults, they don’t want to dance as seniors anymore. They have different priorities in life. If we take European couples, they approach the adult category more calmly. Nobody forces them to exhaustion, so they continue to dance as adults, they enjoy it and transition to senior dancing naturally.
– What can we do to make senior dancing more popular?
– It’s a problem with our mentality. It is not common in Ukraine to spend leisure time like this. Our culture of leisure is slightly different. But it is changing. Or rather, we change it ourselves. First of all, it’s those senior couples who continue dancing, that can take credit for this positive change.
After all, in real life it happens like this. For example, a teenager comes to the tournament to support his friend. And he sees that there are 20 or 30 couples in the junior group. “Wow, how many guys actually dance! I can dance as well, can’t I?” he thinks and goes to the dance class. Adults have the same story. If there are no seniors at the tournament, the adults think that they are not welcome. I am in favour of having a senior category at every tournament, even if there are only one or two couples. This is very important. People need to see that there are people of their age in dancing, and it’s worth doing. A lot depends on the popularization, and I see progress. The senior category is starting to gain momentum. Even if not yet the quarterfinals, but semifinals at individual tournaments are already held. New pairs are appearing. The progrss is seen not only in the popularity of senior dancing, but also in its technique, which is directly related to the number of participants. The more people participate in tournaments, the higher the competition, the more development there is.
– But a lot of people think it’s pointless to start dancing at their age.
– Age is in our minds. A man can be a deep old man in his 20s. A 50 year-old can be young and energetic. Desire is what matters, and an effort to move towards a goal. Anything is possible. We learn all our lives. If we take the coaching aspect, I can say: what was given to seniors five years ago, and what is given now is incomparable. After all, we as coaches see what changes in dances and how they develop. Today the main trend, in my opinion, is speed. But speed without technical quality is impossible. And you try to find the best option for each couple, you focus on certain technical things, you pick up those pieces that allow this couple to look good on the ballroom floor.
In fact, a lot depends on the coaches. It is important to show the pair that their current level is not the ceiling, that there is still room for growth. Many pairs admit that a few years ago they didn’t even think that they could dance this or that figure, but today they set higher goals. I have great interest in this.
– But there is an opinion that senior dancing is not a sport, that it is out of the ordinary and has no prospects.
– Let’s imagine there’s a train called “dance sport”. We all ride this train. Someone is sleeping, someone is reading a book, someone is driving this train. Somebody’s enjoying the first class, somebody’s still in a regular car. But most importantly, we all go in the same direction and we are an integral part of this train. And the senior category in ballroom dancing is as important as any other. In my opinion, senior dancing in Ukraine has great prospects.
Photo is taken from Yevgeniy Stepanenko’s personal archive