Brian & Carmen...Short Road to the Top
October 25, 2002
Talk about a winning lineup: U.S. Open Champions; European Champions four times; International Champions twice; U.K. Champions twice; German Open Champions three times and World Champions four times. In fact, in the three years they've been together, there have only been three competitions where they have not placed first.
You'd think this would go to their heads, but no. Even though they'd just won at Blackpool the day before, they graciously gave Dance Notes their time as they talked about their extraordinary partnership. We talked with them in May and in September they did win their 4th World Championship. And there is so much to look forward to from this dynamic duo.
What are your backgrounds in dancing?
Brian: I started dancing when I was five years old in South Africa. I worked my way through the youth and amateur divisions, and reached the top of the amateur events in South Africa when I was still very young. I moved to London when I was 19 and won the youth championship. I?ve been in London ever since.
Carmen: I started when I was 17 in Germany. Basically everyone thought I was already too old to dance, because 17 is quite late to start dancing. But I worked hard and I worked constant, and here I am now.
Why did you decide to start?
Carmen: I was quite involved in church and I was in a jazz dance group for a year. The teacher of that group had a brother that needed a partner. I hadn?t seen this type of dancing at all. I didn?t know it existed. Then I saw it on television and I was quite excited. At the time there was a very successful club, so I thought, ?Oh, I?ll join. I?ll have a go!? I really loved it from the minute I started dancing, so I stayed with it, and I?m still enjoying it.
How did you get together?
Carmen: I told him, ?You must dance with me!? No, we basically knew each other, because we were competing in the same circuit. We did the same shows and the same venues, and got on very well together. Then I split with my partner, and his partner decided to retire. I thought, ?He needs a good partner.? So I told him, ?Here I am!?
Brian: No! It was really a mutual decision. It was a good time and fortunately it worked.
Since you both had successful partnerships before, what did people think when you started together?
Brian: They were very excited to see it, because they couldn?t really imagine us together. We are so completely different characters, and completely different dancers from different dancing backgrounds. It was an interesting thing for them to see how it would formulate together. I think in the beginning, they built up something that wasn?t really feasible for us to produce. Obviously, it takes any partnership a little time to get together. When you take two names that are quite highly established and you put them together, you expect instant magic! Unfortunately, I don?t think we delivered that the first time.
Carmen: We?re human, after all!
Brian: I think people went away from our first competition disappointed, which was okay for us. It gave us a little breathing space to go off on our own and to actually formulate the partnership, to get common principles and to work together. Now, we actually feel the benefits of all that hard work.
Carmen: We?ve only been dancing three years together, and that?s a very short time. We have achieved a lot, success-wise, and we?re very grateful for that. But it takes a lot of time to get a partnership to work on all levels. The difficult thing was.... I wasn?t an inexperienced dancer and he wasn?t an inexperienced dancer, we were quite established people and we had our own set ways. It takes a lot of understanding and experience together...
Carmen: Brian had been dancing for 10 years in the pro final, so he had his winning formula and so did I. So now, which one is the best? We feel we are becoming a unit now, much more together. It is more exciting for us. I think that now we are showing what the people were expecting two or three years back. It takes time to build a relationship and partnership. I think that yesterday was a good reflection that it is coming much more together. It?s not only strong as individuals, but also strong as a unit, and that is great.
Since you were different, why did you decide to stay together and work everything out?
Brian: I think if two people decide to make it work, it can work no matter what.
Carmen: It was never really a problem. It was never a questions of whether we were going to stay together or not. When we decided to dance together, we were aware that we came from opposite ends of the dance spectrum. It was difficult to find a common thread, because we were very successful with what we had done before. But it was never a question that we were not going to make it, or we weren?t going to stay together. We knew it was going to be hard, but we were going to do it. There was no debate about that issue at all.
Brian: It?s like a marriage... if you want the marriage to work you give 100% to make it work. You don?t give up on it.
What do you respect most about each other?
Carmen: I have had very good partners in the past. But what I appreciate the most about Brian is that, as a human being, I found a very good match for me to do the kind of work we do. That I haven?t had in the past, and I think that is the most important thing. Of course, I also think I have the best dancer as well!
Brian: You think?!
Carmen: I KNOW! I respect him as a human and although everybody has their faults and mistakes, we get along very well on that level. We go through many roller coaster emotions; dancing is very personal. I appreciate that we are very human, and I like him as a human being.
Brian: I think the main ingredient that works in our partnership is that we probably complement one another very well. If something doesn?t work for me and it works for Carmen or vice versa, we?re able to pull each other through in many different situations. You can?t ask for anything more than to have someone that balances out your own personality,
Since you came from different backgrounds, do you train with both of your coaches?
Brian: We have three main coaches.
Carmen: We train with Peter Maxwell, Lorraine and Colin James. We?ve stayed with them and that works very well.
Brian: Because we develop our own styles of dance anyway, it doesn?t matter if we go to the same teacher, we will develop differently even though the information is the same. We needed to go back to the beginning to find out the roots of the information and then try to build it together.
How do you deal with the pressure?
Brian: Take a tablet! Every competition has another pressure and another stress level, but you learn to deal with it within yourself and in the partnership. You have to be very compromising and understanding of the whole scenario? what you?re going to do, and what your personal ambitions are for the day. If stress comes along, you just have to take it, handle it and move on. Everybody?s in the same situation, so it?s who gets out the best at the end of the day.
Do you handle it differently?
Brian: Carmen?s much more noisy and I like to be quiet!
How do you deal with that difference?
Carmen: We have an understanding. What may work for me may not work for Brian, so we have to be very fine-tuned. And we need to also understand to take the reaction from the other person, in the heat of the moment, in the right way. I will talk a lot and Brian will say, ?Oh, be quiet now.? I have to understand what he really means. I deal with things one way, and he deals with them another. Of course we have issues that we need to deal with together. But people are individuals and I don?t know any couple that deals with these issues within themselves the same way. I think that the best of each of us deals with it in their own time and space.
Do you have someone you work with to help you mentally focus, like a sports psychologist?
Brian: No. I think if you know yourself well enough, you know what your capabilities are and you know what the positives and the negatives are. The strongest thing is to know what the negatives are, because if you can deal with that, of course, anything that?s positive is not a problem.
Carmen: I think the choice of teachers that we have helps with that... they obviously don?t teach us only the cha cha lock step. It goes beyond that to finer details and maybe there is a lot of mental coaching involved as well. When they come up to us between the rounds, it?s very clear they understand our psyches. They understand how to deal with us. We?re very, very lucky that we have found teaches that cover many facets of teaching.
Brian: I?ve been with the same teachers for 15 or 16 years, so they know me as well as I know them. They have the key to my brain; they can switch me on and off in an instant. They know what makes me focus and they know what makes me step up a couple of gears, or relax, or whatever. That working relationship is very helping because it?s been there for so long.
Is there anything in particular you think about when you?re out there competing?
Carmen: You obviously know what you want to achieve dance-wise and what you are working on. So I believe the most important thing is to go on the dance floor and find enjoyment in the movement you have practiced. I don?t think it?s going to be entertaining for anybody, least of all ourselves, to go out there and show your technical exercises. It can be little things that make the performance that much more special. In general, the groundwork has been done; you know that deep down and you know you can rely on it. That?s the biggest security, so you are able to feel quite relaxed about the performance.
Brian: I have to have a very clear mind before I dance, then I can deal with anything that comes up during the performance. All the technical stuff and the practices have already been done, so there?s no point in trying to reproduce a performance. If I have a clear mind and don?t try to reproduce anything I can really have a spontaneous performance and bring that performance to life five different times, in five different rounds. That?s what I enjoy about competition.
Do you hear the crowd?
Carmen: I don?t think we rely on the crowd. It is a bonus, but it?s not an issue. If it?s not there, it doesn?t matter to us much. If a couple next to us gets the applause it doesn?t matter to us either. We?re quite focused in that sense. Of course, when they clap for you; you get a different adrenaline, a different energy from them. And it can lift you to another performance, but we?re not relying on this because the audience changes. It?s not a fixed factor, so we?d rather not rely on them too much.
Brian: Obviously, if they?re behind you and you can feel it, it lifts you to another energy level. Unfortunately, I?ve never been the flavor-of-the-month type of person and I?ve never really done the flavor-of-the-month kind of choreography. All I basically can rely on is what I know I?m good at. If the crowd can become part of that and enjoy it, I?m exceptionally happy, and if they can?t, then I?ll just have to do it for me.
So if somebody is right next to you, like Paul Killick, and they?re getting all the applause, do you notice that?
Brian: I would notice that, and it would be better for me. Then I can lift my performance by telling myself. ?I WILL SHOW THEM THAT THEY?RE NOT RIGHT!?
Has there been a particular dancer that you really admired and that you aspired to?
Brian: Without sounding big-headed, I don?t think there?s been anyone that?s totally 100% what I would like to do. And I?m quite grateful for that, because I?ve never tried to copy or reproduce someone else?s feeling. I?ve obviously admired many dancers for their different aspects, and have tried to incorporate some of their aspects in my dancing. But I?ve always strived to be myself and to find my own individuality. I?ve used some of their ingredients or spices to help me on my way with what I wanted to do. Of course, when you?re younger and you see the world champions, it?s like, ?Oh my God!? But it seems something that?s so far away.
Carmen: I feel the same. Donny Burns and Gaynor Fairweather set many examples. What I admire most about them is their love for the dancing, how much passion they had and how dedicated they were to that passion. And as Brian said, there are many aspects of different people, and they set a standard in the sense of passion and dedication to the cause.
Why do you think you continue to compete?
Brian: I do this because I really love to dance. If I go out on the floor and really enjoy my dancing, even if the judges mark me sixth, they still can?t beat me. It?s a little bit selfish in a way, but I do this for my own feeling and for the feeling of dancing with a partner to the music. I think the nicest thing about Latin American dancing is that you can be yourself on the dance floor. You?re not trying to do a particular type of role....
Carmen: You don?t have to be a swan!
Brian: I don?t have to be a dying swan one day and a prince the next day or anything like that! I can be myself and choose what I would like to put out on the floor, and it?s the same man. We both feel we can still deliver so much more. The time will come when we feel it?s time to move on and we?ll retire, but at the moment, we?re starting to instill a lot of new aspects that we?re playing with. We?re enjoying it very much, definitely.
Carmen: I must agree there.
Do you have any kind of rituals that you go through the day you compete?
Carmen: I do have rituals that I?ve accumulated throughout the years. I get ready in a certain order. And this order is the same all the time, whether I do a show or a competition. It gives me comfort or security. The food depends, normally we tend to eat something like pasta or potatoes, but we have an order we do that too.
Bran: I think any performer or artist has to be in a positive frame of mind, and achieving that is different for different people. Whatever it takes to put you in that frame of mind, that?s what you have to do. Whether it?s the way you get ready or the time you have to be at the hall or whatever.
Is there a certain place you like to compete more than another?
Brian: For me it?s Blackpool, because every year is always the same. It?s the same floor, the same band; you see the same faces sitting around the floor. They look a little bit older, but they are the same faces! The World Championships and the European Championships are in different countries every year. In a way that?s a bit difficult because you don?t know what?s lying ahead of you.
Carmen: I think it?s all your frame of mind at the time. Of course, the Blackpool venue is beautiful, and obviously you get excited about that. But sometimes you can be in the wrong frame of mind and it can be absolutely horrible. And the next time, you might be in the most awful place and your frame of mind is right, so everything is fabulous. It depends a lot on your own state of mind and your own challenges. I think Blackpool is one of the best competitions there is. But I also like the German Open and the U.S. Open. There are many different reasons.
What about the music? Blackpool music is very different from a lot of other places you dance.
Carmen: I love Blackpool music, but I like it in Blackpool. It makes the event special. The German Open has their band and that makes it very special for the German Open. So when you put Blackpool music on you think, ?Ahh, there?s Blackpool.? It wouldn?t work at the U.S. Open.
Brian: It?s the whole ethnicity, the feeling, the inspiration and everything that goes along with Blackpool. At the practice hall, a couple of weeks before the comp, the guy that plays the music will sometimes put on a Blackpool rumba or whatever. Suddenly you can feel a little butterfly coming in the stomach just imagining the scenario that?s there before you. And there is only one Blackpool and there?s Blackpool music that goes along with it. They come part and parcel.
Do you feel you dance differently, with the different kinds of music?
Brian: I think we don?t really intend to, but we do anyway. If it?s great music, then you?re very inspired, and you dance a lot better. The challenge is trying to find an inspiration to the absolute worst music that you can imagine.
Carmen: We acknowledge the different kinds of music and the mood the music gives and we try to portray it. That?s our job... to dance the music through movement. We have a very clear concept of what we?re doing, the choreography or the actions don?t change, but we still take that mood on that the music is offering to us. Either we add something or we pick certain rhythms out or whatever, but this is our job. We dance to music.
What are your goals for the future?
Brian: Our immediate goal is obviously to win the Worlds in Miami in September. But to win by doing what we feel and what we love to do the best, by setting our own standards and hopefully achieving those standards.
Carmen: Now it?s really coming together the way we would like it to be. We feel very comfortable and very confident with one another. And we know where we?re going. There is so much more to explore within that; there are so many more doors to be opened. That?s the challenge as a dancer. It?s a gift that we feel there is more to have, and we?re not finished yet. Our long-term goal is to be the fabulous dancers that we want to be.
Carmen: If you enjoy the dancing, there are not so many limits. The limits you put upon yourself often become restriction you can?t overcome. If you find an enjoyment through whatever you?ve learned and put the progress in learning, you will be a much happier dancer. That?s why we all started to dance. Because we enjoy the movement, we enjoy the music? and then we learn so much, and suddenly that enjoyment goes away.
Brian: If you enjoy and love your dancing, nobody can take that away from you. The judges, the audience, or anybody, because at the end of the day, it is for you that you dance. And if you really enjoy and believe in what you?re doing, nobody can beat you.
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