Champions And Still Rising
Reprinted with permission from Dance Notes
The pairing of Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoryuchenko has caused much excitement in the United States, and indeed all over the world. They could very well be the United States’ first World Professional International Latin champions! And although they were high ranking Latin competitors with former partners, together they create a rare magic. Their brave effort to create the artistry they envision is happily being embraced by the dancesport community. In their first major competition they placed third, in front of two long-time finalists. Since then they have placed right behind the World Latin champions, even taking a dance from them. Riccardo and Yulia spend enormous amounts of time practicing and planning their career. They have a great work ethic with strong opinions on the direction they want their dancing to go.
How old were you when you started dancing?
Yulia: I started dancing when I was four years old with Russian folk dance. About seven years old I started doing ballroom dancing. And from that time until now I’m dancing only ballroom.
How old were you when you first competed?
Yulia: I think it was about a year after I started, so about eight years old. At eleven years old I started to teach already. I start very, very early.
Teaching at eleven!
Yulia: Yes. It was quite scary to be the teacher at this age. But I could earn some money and pay for my private lessons. And it was funny how my mom helped me to collect money, because I could not really deal with them. Too young!
Where in Russia are you from?
Yulia: It is south of Moscow. A town called Belgorod, which is right on the boarder of the Ukraine. That's why sometimes people mix me with the Ukraine nationality.
And Riccardo, how old were you when you started dancing?
Riccardo: I started dancing at six, because my parents both are dancing teachers, and they just dragged me on the floor. I started to compete quite soon; at eight years old I started to do the Italian Championships. And I won my first Italian championship the same year.
You won the first one you did?
Riccardo: Yeah. In ballroom. My heart was very much on the ballroom side until I started with my last partner, Joanna Wilkinson. Then I turned everything to Latin American, and all the results were more in Latin American.
Where in Italy are you from?
Riccardo: I come from Terni. It is a small city close to Rome. That’s where we have all the studios and everything.
How long did you dance with Joanna?
Riccardo: Ten years.
You danced for Italy?
Riccardo: For Italy. We always represented Italy.
And of course, Yulia, you most recently danced with Max. You and Riccardo started dancing together right after USDSC last year, right?
Yulia: Right after, yeah.
And your first competition was how long after that?
Riccardo: The International in England.
Yulia: We just danced together three weeks and we went to the International.
And you made the final.
Yulia: Yeah. Third place.
Third place, no less! How did that feel? Being in a brand new partnership, to jump in and place third. Did you expect that?
Yulia: Actually, I didn’t have any expectation. We didn’t really look for some kind of place; we just danced from our heart, whatever we feel at the moment.
Riccardo: No pressure.
Yulia: No pressure at all. And it was the best thing for our first competition, because we just danced what we felt. We just did it with our heart, no pressure at all. There were no other thoughts, like how we looked or whatever.
Riccardo: We didn’t know. It was our first competition, and for me it was about a one year break. I had one year off before starting to dance with Yulia. We were just happy I think to dance at that competition. It was really a challenge to be ready to dance that soon. The. International is a special place because you’re not waiting on the floor for the results; you’re waiting in the changing room. The changing room is under the floor, basically on the lower level. You come out from a gate. You come up the stairs and you just walk on the floor when they call you. And we were just waiting. Of course there was expectation to not be last. We were wishing to not be the last.
Yulia: I was just hoping. But I was happy to just be in the final with the greatest dancers.
Riccardo: When they were calling the places six, no, okay, good. Actually three of the couples left beside us were already finalists
Yulia: The fifth place was Sergei Sourkov and Agnieszka Melnicka.
Riccardo: I said, “Okay, wow, we already are in front of finalist couples and than I was thinking that soon it was our name next... there was still another four. Last year the challenge was between Sergie and Agnieszka and Andrei Skufca and Katarina Venturini. And Skufca was the world champion when I was third or fourth in amateur. Then fourth place was called Andrei and Katerina. It was like a big step for me to place in front of them. We were shocked in every way to be already in front of such a good couple like Skufca. He definitely was not happy, but we were happy! c'est la vie...
Tell me why you decided to dance together. Whose decision was that? Who approached the other first?
Yulia: I talked a lot with Max. When we finished our Nationals Max said, “Yulia, I’m like over. I feel like I would like now to do something else special.” We just talked about what could be a good partner for me, because I said, “Max, I think I can do something more. I would like to continue the competitive part.” I said, “Why not, let’s try it.” Shirley Ballas was our main coach and Riccardo...
And Riccardo what?
Riccardo: Shirley is also my girlfriend.
Yulia: I saw him dancing a lot; he’s a very great dancer. I wanted to try with him. That’s it. And after the Nationals we just called each other and made a try out. From the first day, it just clicked.
Did you talk to Shirley first and say “What do you think?” or did you just go right to Riccardo?
Yulia: No, right to Riccardo. I told Shirley I would like to.
She thought it was a good idea?
Yulia: I think so!
Riccardo: Oh definitely. We thought that Yulia was the best girl on the floor. When I was offered to have the tryout, at first I said, “Whoa, are you sure?” Because when you are one year off the floor, it’s not a small thing. You have to be ready mentally and physically. But I said, “Okay, let’s have this challenge. I would love to try to dance with her on a simple tryout.” And when we started to dance, for me it was not a question mark, it was, “I want to dance with her.”
Yulia: I also didn’t know, since he had a break, if he would like to continue dancing or not. We all had become friends also because we are very close with Shirley.
Riccardo: I was over it after I stopped dancing with Joanna. I didn’t want to come back on the floor. The only point to come back on the floor was to come back with a better girl than I was dancing with. Of course my mind was going to Yulia or somebody out there, also for size. I thought she could be the ideal girl for me. But at the time, she was dancing with Max. Of course, Max and Yulia were very good friends of ours. I never thought it could somehow become this kind of situation where I was dancing with Yulia. But I was wishing somehow, yes, for a girl like her that was not her. Why not?
It was interesting that you said that Yulia is probably one of the best in the world.
Riccardo: She is not one of the best, she is the best. She can do anything and everything. She is so beautifully made!
Max feels that Yulia is the best too.
Yulia: I guess they talk before! They decided let’s make sure she’s in a good mood!
Riccardo: That’s my opinion.
Yulia: Yeah, it’s good that they think that, because it helps me go...
Don’t be shy!
Yulia: I’m pretty negative for myself. Not negative, but... what’s the word?
Yulia: Critical. Yes. Lots of expectation for myself. I know in my vision how I should be...
Do you think that makes you a stronger dancer?
Yulia: I think so, yeah.
Are you critical of each other?
Yulia: Not yet.
Riccardo: I’m very critical of myself and she’s very critical of herself, but we support each other. We have open conversations and I accept any criticism she gives me and she accepts what I think. Everything is constructive; it never ever should be negative in any way. If we do not agree, we have to spend more time to clarify what we say. Also because I’m Italian and she’s Russian sometimes the words could be understood in a different way. For this reason, we have to be very careful how we express ourselves. Also the translation is different. Expressing yourself in your mother language is different than when you translate everything to English. But so far we don’t spend much time on talking; we want to learn about each other by moving each other, by touching each other, by dancing with each other. I think this is also the key of our good results.
You come from very different cultures and backgrounds. Because of the language obstacle, do you always speak English with each other?
Yulia: Yes, we do speak English trying at least.
Riccardo: In the past I worked in Russia, and of course the relationship between Italy and Russia is very close. Because now it is one of the main countries in the world representing dancing sport. The Italians have the majority in ballroom and they have the majority in Latin. So of course we get close to knowing each other and there is not so much difference.
Why did you decide to represent the USA? You could have gone to Russia; you could have gone to Italy.
Yulia: First of all because I am living here. I have my business already here. And this country has been very, very supportive when I was dancing with Max. So I thought I would like to represent the U.S.
Riccardo: In the world window, Americans always have a good dance spotlight. America works all together to get the best results for the nation. And you feel the support of the people, you feel appreciated that you’re dancing for this country. That’s one of the main motivations allow me to dance for U.S.A. Because even when I dance for Italy, and I had the most success for Italy, I didn’t feel so much appreciated by the country. You feel appreciated from the friends, you feel appreciated from the family, but you don’t feel the country helping you to go ahead. You have to do everything by yourself. Between Italy and U.S.A., my first opinion was dancing for U.S.A.
This is your first time, Riccardo, dancing for the U.S.A., right?
Riccardo: Yeah. It’s the first time I've danced for any foreign country. I always danced for Italy. Joanna was Australian and we chose to dance for Italy.
Did you turn pro to dance with Yulia, or had you already turned pro?
Riccardo: I danced about six months professional, the year after I won two world titles in amateur. We started in January at the UK competition, and Joanna and I ended in September in Los Angeles at the World Championship here in America.
Yulia, you’re personally still with Max?
And you’re with Shirley?
We better make it clear so the readers don’t think, “Oh, she’s not with Max anymore. She’s with Riccardo.” This is strictly a business relationship.
Riccardo: Definitely, and we want to maintain this; because I believe everything is more easy!
And it’s all about the dancing?
Riccardo: Yes. The dancing is our life and the world title is the only reason we are dancing together.
Was it difficult getting together with another high-ranking partner for either of you? Did you feel the pressure to produce?
Yulia: For me, it was the opposite. It has been more interesting.
Riccardo: Yeah, for me too. Everything was so fast. Basically, the tryout was the first day we danced together. It was not a question if it was a tryout or not.
Yulia: We keep thinking that we had a tryout before, but not at all.
Riccardo: It’s kind of destiny. We were just dancing. We were at a tryout but we were not thinking, “Let me think about it until tomorrow.” It was, “Okay, see you tomorrow at this time.” Everything was so fast. The pressure to develop something made it more exciting.
It probably made Max feel really good too that it worked for you to dance together, because he wanted to explore other things.
Yulia: I think so. He said, “Yulia, I just need a little break. I need to do something else.”
And you were supportive of that.
Yulia: Oh yeah. He’s great. He let me continue. Because you never know, some boyfriends don’t really want to see their girlfriend going somewhere dancing. It is hard. We’re traveling a lot. But I must say Max has been very supportive and I appreciate that he understands my feelings.
Does Shirley coach you,? Is she your main coach?
Yulia: I would say Shirley is our main coach.
When you go to competitions, how does it feel for Max and Shirley to watch you dance? Does it make you nervous? Does it excite you because they’re supporting you? Do you like it when they’re there or would you prefer for them to not be there?
Yulia: For me, it’s a very, very new feeling, of course, to have a boyfriend and to dance with another person. It’s a quite interesting feeling and I don’t know yet. I guess I like it. I more appreciate Max’s thoughts and help than when we danced together. But now we feel like he is some lovely person for wanting to help. It’s very interesting feelings. Even the critical sides that he gives me, it’s just a different way now. Not from the coach, but from the person who loves you, who I love.
Riccardo: He’s great because when we started to dance together we made it clear that even though we are dancing—myself and Yulia—the team is made of four; Shirley and Max are part of this team. This business is kind of a strange business, because, of course, everybody wishes you the best, but if somebody loves you, they’re supporting you in everything you are doing. I think the best thing is they are surely here with us, and sometimes they’re tough. You don’t like to hear that, but you know that it’s coming from the ones that love you and they want for you the best. That’s the most important thing. In a way, if you have your teacher supporting you and it’s a normal relationship, you can be skeptical. In this case you cannot, because that’s your girlfriend and they want for you the best and it’s the boyfriend, he loves her and wants the best. They are supporting from the beginning and we like that.
When you started your partnership, did you have a specific goal, like, “I want to look completely different than I looked with Max.” Was that something that went through your head?
Yulia: No. I didn’t think about a new look. I thought the opposite. It was interesting for me to feel how my style will come out while dancing with Riccardo. What is it going to be? How can I develop? How can I change with him? So I didn’t know. I tried with him then I start to feel, “Okay, I can do this, I can do that.” Now when I’m dancing, I feel I do have what I had before, but still I have some changes.
What kind of changes?
Yulia: I guess more in a connection definitely. We are connected with each other through the body. Not so much like visual or something. I find I can do much more with the body much more in a technical side I would say, but still keep it sensual.
Do you think it’s because there’s not a romantic connection that you can maybe explore that more?
Yulia: Possible. Possible. I don’t know. But it is definitely what I feel and I love it.
What do the two of you hope to accomplish through your partnership? What are your goals?
Riccardo: I think the most important thing is to keep alive what we already have. We have a good energy dancing together. What the people see when we are dancing is that we love to dance together and we love to dance. Of course we have still a lot of things to develop. We feel that. We are just starting to be more comfortable with each other. The images keep changing day by day. Each time we dance together, it’s not about how much we know, but how much we can feel and how much our body can adapt toward the other in different kinds of situations. Because you practice one way in this studio you practice another way in another studio, or dancing in competition, or doing a show or having a jet lag problem. It’s a different situation every time. What is great is that we have a good energy. Both of us want the best in this partnership. We want to achieve the best result, of course, the world championship. We don’t want a political situation to spoil anything we love at the moment. And we have to keep what we have as alive as possible.
Do you have a time line? Like by next year I want this, by the next year I want that.
Yulia: We kind of have in mind, of course. You always have the small goals to get to the big goal.
Riccardo: We have a kind of program, of course.
Do Shirley and Max help you come up with that, or is that something that you sat down together and said, “Let’s really think about this. What do we want to do?”
Riccardo: It’s more about what we want first. Max and Shirley are helping us in everything we need. So basically, the plan is Riccardo and Yulia. We have to decide with the time what we want to do, when we want to do it. Of course their input is always welcome. If they say they think it would be better another way, we can discuss and adjust to what we have to do. Basically in the end, what we have to decide is just between Yulia and I.
Do you ever see your careers taking you toward something like Dancing With The Stars? Something that’s still in the dancesport arena, but not traditional dancesport?
Riccardo: Well, we don’t know. We have a lot of respect for people doing Dancing With The Stars. Also we know them very well, because three of them are the kids of Shirley. I know them very well personally. And I have the best respect for them because they do an incredible job and it is very difficult. I think somehow it is even more difficult than what we have. It’s full time work. But we would like to develop in other aspects. Because that’s more show money-oriented. What we are doing is more sport. And you know the sport income is not very much. The only income we can have is doing shows or teaching a little bit. But basically when we are practicing, we don’t teach. Practicing costs us money because we rent space. We spend a lot of time. We invest our own time to develop what we have. We believe we have a lot to still give the dancing business in an original way. Not by mixing with the TV or whatever. The sport can change every day. We are not willing to change what we do. The first thing we want is the result in our sport. We want to win the world championship and from that everything can be. It doesn’t matter if it’s on TV, or it’s another place. We have had a lot of propositions to do Dancing With The Stars. I had the opportunity in Italy when I had a break from competing. Dancing With The Stars in America and Italy are two different things. In America, it’s much bigger. I would love to do it. But we want to invest our time to practice and to win the world title. We still believe that. I have 30 years of hard work and she has the same thing, since when we were born basically, in this sport.
Yulia: It would be a good idea and good thing to do when we stop dancing. But I still feel that besides the titles we can leave something to the ballroom world something special that people remember. But it will be something that people remember and want to see all the time. Something like a classic thing.
Like the names Shirley Ballas, or Donnie Burns and Gaynor Fairweather. The names that we know that have gone down in history.
Yulia: Yeah, right. What they’ve done. Some people don’t have this special kind of thing.
Riccardo: Somehow we already are doing that. After three weeks to make the final. We already made it.
Riccardo: You know it could be the first time an American could win the world championship. We want to give that to Americans. Americans give us support, and we want to give it to America. We believe in it.
America would love that!
Yulia: Oh, yeah. I think so, absolutely.
When you say you want to leave something special to the sport... what do you hope the people see in your dancing?
Yulia: I want to show the pure, natural feeling. I want to show the human being. How the human being can feel not a program of actions. It’s like they see the story; they see the movie.
Riccardo: Everything we do is for the love of dancing. Max and Yulia moved to America for dancing and I moved to America for dancing, to dance with Yulia. I changed my life. I was 24 hours with my girlfriend, basically, teaching in England and in Italy. I kind of gave up everything for this ideal title, world championship or whatever, for the love of dancing. I want people to see that we love what we do. We believe in this sport, in the system. We don’t do it because of money or political, or whatever... it’s just pure love of dancing. We had a show in Boston, at MIT University, and they were outstanding. These people love dance as much as we love to dance and they gave us more than we gave them. The feedback was incredible. We loved to visit with them.
Yulia: Of course we get energy from that. When people really appreciate and really can feel what you deliver.
Do you dance differently if it’s a show instead of a competition, or do you dance the same?
Yulia: It depends. For me it’s all the same. In a show, you kind of let it go. You can be a little bit more creative. But I’m trying to set up the same feeling. Because that’s what it should be. Competition is competition, but still . my goal is to bring something new, something special. So I have to be creative.
Do you both base yourselves here in New York?
Yulia: I live in New Jersey but I would say New York.
Do you do all your training here?
Riccardo: We also go to Los Angeles.
Yulia: Because Shirley’s there.
Do you train with anybody else besides Shirley?
Yulia: Yeah. We have a few coaches.
Riccardo: Also Max helps us a lot with the show dances. He’s great. Max is an incredible person.
Max has already hinted about possibly doing the South American show dance. How would you feel? Would that bother you if he competed?
Yulia: I don’t know if we will do it. If we do it, why not let him? It will be a good challenge for us.
Riccardo: More in the family!
Yulia: Right now it’s not about show dance; it’s more about competitive style. We’ll see. I don’t know if Max even will do the show dance competition.
What dance did you do that first day?
Riccardo: Samba straight away.
Yulia: Yeah, because usually people start with rumba.
Riccardo: We didn’t want to start to have a conflict. If you go on the personal side and say, “What do you like?” You just waste your time because you try to understand the other person, or adjust to the other person. Straightaway we started to do a samba routine.
Yulia: We actually got to do it with Max.
How many hours that first day?
Yulia: We did as much as we could. I think it was five...
Riccardo: We didn’t stop. And we didn’t really realize it was so long. At the end we looked at the watch and it was like, “Whoa! Already?!” We had fun.
How many dances did you do in those five hours?
Riccardo: Just one.
How much of that routine that you put together that first day do you still use in your competition routine?
Riccardo: We use almost the same routine.
Yulia: That’s how we created our routines, one day each dance.
Do you have a favorite dance?
Riccardo: I don't think we have a special one. I love all five dances just because they are different and each of them gives a different feeling. Now we have already won jive over Michael and Joanna in a few competitions.
Yulia: Even though we won it is not my taste of dance. Not at all.
Yulia: Even if we’re winning jive at the competitions, I still prefer the rumba. I like also cha cha and I like samba. Not really paso doble.
You like the more sensual, the more feeling dances.
Yulia: Yes, I do. But I love rhythmical dances too. I love to show rhythm in the body. Jive is more about kicking, jumping, stamina.
And Riccardo you like jive!
Riccardo: I’m very moody! I change moods.
Yulia: Me too!
Riccardo: Sometimes we feel great in one dance and I love to do that. Another day it might be another dance. It’s still interesting because we don’t know each other much, and when we are dancing we just keep exploring. Sometimes it is feeling different, and it will really activate another key. It’s difficult to say which dance is the favorite. Right now my feeling’s going more for samba, because I like that dance. But I also like doing rumba with her, or cha cha cha, or paso doble. It depends on the day.
Yulia: What did you have for breakfast, yeah? Was it cappuchino with chocolate croissant or just an omelet?
Riccardo: When she starts to know me, that’s a problem!
Yulia: No, it’s opposite! It’s getting better!
Did you miss doing the ballroom dances when you switched?
Riccardo: Missing, no, because I haven’t danced them for 12 years. Since I started to dance with Joanna, I really removed the ballroom from my brain. I went so deep in the Latin that my love is very much about what I know the most now. Sometimes I also like to dance the ballroom, but I don’t want to try again. A good dancer is 10-dance; it is not just Latin or ballroom. But to go back to ballroom, I couldn’t really imagine myself doing that.
Did you do 10-dance, Yulia?
Yulia: In my young age I started dancing both programs, which is usual for Russia, and when I was about 16 years old I stopped standard and continued to do only Latin. I felt in my heart that I belong in this style. I don’t know. But I think I’ve made the right decision. I love my Latin!
Have you missed the standard at all?
Yulia: When I look at a good level of ballroom at competitions, it feels that I miss my standard. I love watching standard; I learn so much from the style. But I’m not sure if I would like to do that instead of Latin. I’m not sure if I can open myself enough in that kind of style. So I will stay with my cha cha cha.
So we’re not going to see you two doing 10-dance then?
Riccardo: For fun. Maybe!
Yulia: Maybe for fun, yeah! I appreciate Latin a lot.
Riccardo: The freedom.
Yulia: I like the freedom, yes.
You’re so interesting to talk with too, because you relate to each other... you play off of each other very well, which is great. Do you always get along so well?
Yulia: Yeah. I’m very, very surprised because I had some feelings of what Italian people were like maybe from movies, or from other people which I met. And I didn’t think that I could have a good relationship with Riccardo. Italian, Russian—Hmm—we’ll see. I know it is going to be good passion and energy, but how are we going to get along together.
Riccardo: I think the secret of everything is the respect. As long as I give her respect and she gives me respect, everything’s working right.
And you do, obviously.
Riccardo: We have experienced other couples fighting verbally on the floor during practice or during a lesson and it’s a little uncomfortable. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s good because we balance each other. We just let the other person finish speaking and then explain.
What are you enjoying most about this partnership?
Riccardo: I don’t know. I just think that everything I’m doing is a fairy tale. For me it is a very good moment. I just love what we do.
Yulia: Absolutely. It’s kind of another level.
Riccardo: We have much respect of each other’s talent. I think she is the best, and she thinks that I am okay.
Yulia: He’s definitely an incredibly talented dancer. It’s a great, great feeling to dance with Riccardo. Absolutely.
You wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.
Riccardo: You save yourself! I think it’s great to have two good dancers because at the moment in each couple today there is one that is stronger and in ours there is no main person. There’s a male-female. I think we are both strong and have a lot to give.
Yulia: We complement each other. It’s nice.
You said that one of the big goals was to win the world title. What do you feel as a partnership, is your strength—the thing you have working for you to get to that point, and what do you think is your biggest obstacle to get to that point?
Riccardo: I don’t think there is any obstacle. Our work ethic is very strong. We want to develop. We want to do our job the best we possibly can. It just takes time, of course, because we want to develop all we do. We don’t think we are the best the way we are. And even when we achieve the world championship we will still develop. Donnie Burns won the world championship 13 times because he spent most of the time still practicing with Gaynor. I want to do the same. I worked one year to make money so I could spend the money on dancing, because I didn’t want to worry about working while I was dancing. That’s the most important thing. We want to practice and we want to be better.
Yulia: At the moment we are not teaching much. We are concentrating a lot on our dance career. I believe the more we practice, the more we can develop and improve our dancing.
Riccardo: First, we want the people to see in us a special couple. Something that is making a difference here on the floor compared to the other couples. We want to be closer to perfection in what we do; at least as much as possible if it’s perfect it’s not human. We are very determined as to what we want. And I don’t think we will find a big obstacle to get what we want. Already dancing together for me was a big challenge, and we are doing that. We enjoy doing this. I don’t think anybody can stop what we’re doing.
Riccardo and Yulia Coach’s Corner
Yulia: What I hear a lot people saying is, “Oh, I’m never going be like you! I’m never going to dance like that!” I would say it is possible at any level, any age, it is possible. You just have to love what you are doing and truly give everything for that. Then it’s always going to come back.
Riccardo: Why you steal my words?! Personally, I think what I did for ten years with Espen Salberg, who was my main teacher, was very much focused on the technique of things. I was hooked on that. I was really thinking the technical aspect of dancing was everything. But when I started to dance with Yulia, I discovered another avenue of dancing. The freedom to do what you want to because you know what is allowed and not allowed in the book, I think is the most important thing. Everybody can give something extra on the dance floor, but at the beginning of course they have to know the technical aspect. We’re still working day by day on the technical things because we want to adjust the technical things in our body or in our feeling. It’s not a gospel... it’s a book, a technical book that allows you to do some things, but you are not allowed to do other things. You have to let yourself go sometimes, and understand what you’re doing could be a mistake for some people, but for everybody it is just a free interpretation. In five years maybe we won’t even recognize what we do today. It will be different. Ten years ago dancing was different. Five years ago it was different. I think Latin American dancing basically changes the aspect every six months, because somebody else can give something else. The most important thing is to give yourself what you have to do. Suit yourself on it.