One of the great benefits of ballroom dance is the physical intimacy shared between two partners, one that can encapsulate any number of complicated dynamics. Of course, this means that when a highly contagious virus grinds the world to a halt, ballroom has a harder time recovering than most other industries. Since March, nearly every single competition, from international to collegiate, has been canceled or postponed. As of May, this included the Blackpool Dance Festival, a competition which was last canceled in World War II.
Blackpool is, unquestionably, the pinnacle of ballroom dancing, a historic event that attracts top dancers from around the world. The competition has been mythologized into the very fabric of Dancesport, the ever-elusive Blackpool final serving as the ultimate boon for a competitive couple. Simply attending the event is a privilege, especially for those who don’t reside near Blackpool’s home turf, England.
This isn’t a problem for Kyle Taylor, a Liverpool native, and Izabela Skierska, originally hailing from Warsaw. The couple was poised to take the Amateur Ballroom crown, after last year’s champions moved to the professional circuit. Kyle and Izabela won their first title at the UK Championships in January, forging a path which was meant to culminate in a Blackpool title. Though their hopes were dashed this year by the most unforeseen of circumstances, the couple keep their spirits high.
Izabela began her dancing career in Poland, with ballet, which is evident in the elegance of the classic WDC style the couple so epitomizes. For Kyle, on the other hand, dance is a family affair; his parents own the studio where he and Izabela now practice and teach. It’s this studio which allows the couple to continue practicing on their own, while other dancers are forced to find more creative means in quarantine.
The partnership was a product of circumstance — both Kyle and Izabela’s respective partners were having issues with their Visas, and with the help of mutual coaches, the two were brought together. “When I asked Izabela for the tryout, she made me wait over one week for even a reply to my question,” Kyle says with a laugh, to which Izabela quipped, “It was only because, I already knew in advance that we were going to be a match.”
It sounds like you were destined to be dancers. What do you think you would have done if you weren’t?
Izabela: Actually, for the first 10 years [of my dance career], I still was in school, I still was doing uni. I still had a plan, in case dancing didn’t work out for me the way it did. I always wanted to be a lawyer.
Kyle: Although dancing has been in my family, I’ve always been very aware that there is another life outside of the dancing world — you know, sometimes you’re in this kind of bubble. If I wasn’t dancing at all, I’ve always had a great love for animals. At one time, I very much wanted to become a vet, but with safari animals, you know, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes. And I know you’ve mentioned, you also like interior design?
Izabela: It’s something I try to look at in my free time. I like designing, even with fashion, or anything, I’m always very interested.
Do you design your own dresses?
Izabela: I do, and obviously I have also help from [my sponsor, Chrisanne Clover]. Each couple, we kind of have a designer working with us, but most of the ideas I would say, come from me.
Kyle: Authorized by me! [laughs]
You mentioned that it’s easy to get trapped in the dance bubble. How do you recommend exploring dance in an artistic way, without actually being on the dance floor?
Kyle: For many couples, I think this is a good opportunity to realize that you don’t have to just keep grinding away in the usual manner. Even for ourselves at the moment, we’ve been experimenting with some new ideas, which we would normally be too afraid to put on a competition floor. You can do this even on your own, without your partner. You can visualize your dancing in a different way, through music, or…
Izabela: I think for everyone, there’s at least one thing they’ve always wanted to try. Even simple things, the position of your arm, the position of your head, where you look when you are dancing. Even when we do compete and we can practice normally, it’s super important to think about what I want to put into practice, to put on the competition floor, to put my focus on at a certain time.
So what is it like to not have that constant pressure of the next competition? How do you not lose motivation?
Kyle: It’s a really interesting question, because it depends on your individual mentality. I think for us personally, we’re always motivated by ourselves anyway, which has been a big factor for us during this time. We’ve set goals for ourselves, and so we’ve never lacked the drive to continue improving. But I know other couples that almost rely on having regular competitions. So I do think they will have a lot of trouble.
Izabela: Because I think a lot of couples put their goal on the next competition — “I want to make the final,” or “I want to win that competition.” For us, of course, it’s a hard year because we only just won our first title, so everyone expected us to try and win more. And of course, we expected, or we hoped, we would able to do that. But it wasn’t our ultimate goal. It’s just part of the journey, because, of course, we don’t want to stop with our amateur career, we want to win pro. I think if you look a little bit farther away into your future, you realize that there is so much more you need to work on, rather than winning one title.
What are some of your short term goals?
Kyle: Well, in a perfect world, our short term goal was to win every single major championship for the next year, maybe two years, maybe more. But, I think as Izabela said, for us it’s always been about improving our dancing. Of course, we want to get the highest placings possible, but we always strive to improve our performance. I think there have been many occasions in the past when couples have had the good results, but maybe didn’t realize that their performances were slipping. That’s something we don’t want to happen to us.
Izabela: And I think because we are both such perfectionists, it’s very hard for us to be satisfied with our performances. So even when we win a competition, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a big one or a small one, I’ve never felt like I’ve done everything I could have. There’s always room for improvement.
I’ll use that as a coy segue into talking about Blackpool. What was your first Blackpool was like together?
Kyle: Our first Blackpool, the pressure was really quite high already, because there was a space in the amateur final, and we were hoping to try and make that final, along with several other couples. It wasn’t our best performance, because there were some problems with the —
Izabela: With the dress. Actually, the day was going quite well. When you really believe that you are able to achieve something, it’s so much easier. We had done everything we possibly could. Unfortunately, during the semifinal, the most important challenge for us, we didn’t perform — or I’ll say, I didn’t perform — even close to the level that I would expect. But then it happened.
Kyle: Well, I think it’s the reality of competition sometimes. You know, everyone only sees the results. But the reality was, Izabela came off the floor after the semifinal and started crying because she was so disappointed. But, you know, when we made the final and we were looking back at the video, it was a good performance. It was just how we felt. Then, of course, making the final, we just felt we were on a cloud.
It’s kind of sad to think about, but what were your hopes for this year’s Blackpool?
Kyle: Definitely the number one goal was to win. Blackpool is the absolute ultimate for us, for any dancer. We would’ve had several competitions in between our UK title and Blackpool — we would’ve had the European Championships, and a few competitions in Germany, England. So we were hoping to be on a little bit of a roll by the time Blackpool came, and we just wanted to come out of Blackpool with a very strong performance. We feel that, to be the amateur champion, you have to look ready to go directly into professional. So hopefully we can do it next year.
Your first title was this year’s UK Championships. What did you learn from that?
Izabela: I think for me, I expected the win to change how I felt, because I was a “champion” now, and the reality was, yes, it was a goal and we achieved it and I was very happy, but at the same time I still know how much more work we have to do. It’s not as if you win one competition, and then it’s easier to win the next one. It’s absolutely not. I think we have to put up the same fight for the next competition.
Kyle: I would say for any dancer, the one thing that you cannot practice or learn is confidence. I think the only way to get true confidence is with results. So at the UK, we were in a very strange position because the previous champions, of course, were no longer in the amateur section. So everyone was looking to us as the natural champions. We had to almost act like the champions, but of course the reality was, we were not the champions. We still have to to fight. So I think we were hoping to go into Blackpool with simply the champion’s confidence, which is something that you, as I say, can’t really teach.
The audience has such an impact on the dancing, and there’s a possibility that when competitions start back, some social distancing measures could be taken and there might not be a crowd. How do you think that will affect what happens on the floor?
Izabela: If I look back on our competitions, the best feeling I got was when I heard all these people around us cheering. That’s why, for example, International Championships is so amazing, UK Open is so amazing, Blackpool is so amazing — because you have a lot of people watching. So that’s why I wonder, if it’s a factor of simply the ballroom, or how important the title will be, or if it really is important to have so many people watching.
Kyle: For me, even up until a few years ago, I actually used to rely on the audience quite a lot for my performance, and I was often disappointed when the audience were not very appreciative or supportive. But in the last few years, I’ve just learned to go out there, not expect too much from the audience.
Izabela: At the same time, I believe dancing is so much about the performing for other people, putting your heart on the floor. I think without the public, there will be this special magic missing.
Why do you think some competition days are better than others? Is it preparation, or just luck?
Izabela: There have been competitions where I felt so well prepared and they didn’t go as well as I thought it would, and there were competitions where the week before, I felt very unprepared actually, and then the performance was the best of our career.
Kyle: I used to prepare for a competition with every single small detail in place, so I would know exactly which part of the music each figure was going to be taking place, which angle I was going to be on, which person in the audience I would be dancing in front of. And the reality, of course, is that it’s not a perfect world, so when these factors didn’t work in a perfect way for me, it really affected my performance. The days where I just let things happen, and I was a little bit less prepared, it actually gave us a more natural feeling together.
Izabela: I rely a lot on how I feel on the day. So I need to feel confident, and if I feel that something is not right I doubt myself quite a lot. For me to feel that I have that freedom in this space to not be perfect, it’s very important.
I think there is something about ballroom that attracts perfectionists. What advice would you give for moving past the little things?
Izabela: I mean, you can’t go wrong with the technique. That’s one thing that you can’t change. At the same time, if you can convince people that what you are the best and you really believe in it, in yourself, that’s the best solution.
Kyle: You know, if you’re having a conversation with someone, and if you do it with such conviction and such animation, the other person can easily believe what you’re saying. If I didn’t really believe in it myself, then neither would your audience, and I think it’s the same with dancing. Of course, as well as the technique should be there. But as long as you are convinced in your own performance, I think it goes a long way.
When they announced that they were gonna postpone Blackpool indefinitely, what was your reaction?
Izabela: I was actually very worried, because it didn’t bother me that much. I was actually shocked that I wasn’t even upset about it. When you see yourself in the process of achieving something that counts, Blackpool isn’t the end of the story. There’s nothing we can do about it, so all we can do is keeping working on ourselves.
Kyle: You know, in the back of the program at Blackpool, when you see the previous winners, they always have a little note saying that the competition couldn’t happen because of the Second World War. And I’ve often thought of how the champions at the time would have felt, not being able to dance. And, you know, this is in a way, a similar situation, and because it’s so much bigger than us and it’s so much bigger than dancing, you just get on with it. But I know for people in England in general, it’s more about the unknown. That’s the problem at the moment.
Izabela: And of course it’s so important to still have hope. That’s what keeps you working, because you still hope at some point it’s going to happen, it’s not all cancelled and we never going to dance again.
Besides the history, and the size of the ballroom, what is it about Blackpool that makes it such a legendary competition?
Izabela: To understand that, you have to go there and feel it. I remember when I was younger, and my teachers were talking about this competition, how amazing it was, but I couldn’t appreciate it because I’d never been there. It’s the general atmosphere. You’re surrounded by people who have a desire to be the best, to perform the best, to look the best, to sell themselves the best.
Kyle: At this competition, more than any other, anything can happen. Sometime couples have gone from the quarterfinal immediately into the final in one competition, you know, or the other way around. I think it’s the one competition where every couple knows that if you perform really special on the night, anything can happen.
Izabela: You have to go there, stand on the floor, hear the orchestra, hear the people cheering. It’s hard to compare to anything else, and it’s very, very hard to describe in words.
A lot of dancers, they’re not going to Blackpool and expecting to win anything. What advice would you give them, if they get discouraged by not having any results to show for it?
Kyle: I always use this story — when I was a junior, I went to watch the Blackpool Festival and I was watching the amateur final, and I used to look at the couples and I just thought to myself, to be at that level, in the final, you must feel amazing. But we found that since we ourselves are now in that position, we actually don’t feel different at all from the lower categories or the younger age. People may have a goal to make just one recall, and if they do that, they may actually feel better than the person who has become the champion the same night.
Izabela: At the same time, I think it really can inspire you to be a part of it, because it gives you some extra motivation for practice, some extra inspiration from another dancer, and from the experience itself.
Every kind of country responds to dancing a different way, so how do you think English audiences compare to like American audiences?
Kyle: I mean, we danced the Embassy Ball in L.A., and we found that the audience was very easygoing and outgoing. They also supported all of the dancers, they didn’t just specifically cheer on their own couples or their favorites, they really gave support to everyone on the floor, which we thought was absolutely amazing. England in general is very reserved with their audience participation. Many of the eastern European audiences, and in China, they’re very strong with their support, but only to the couples who they’re loyal to. It’s very different throughout the world, but we do love American audiences a lot.
As you mentioned, with COVID-19, there’s this fear of the unknown. How would you predict that the ballroom world will change in the wake of this pandemic?
Izabela: When we perform at a competition, we always have a chance to see if what we’re working on actually works. Without competitions, I think it’s only worrying because it doesn’t matter how much work you will put into something, you don’t really know the outcome. Even though it might be more, in an artistic way, helpful for the dancers, it can have some different impacts as well.
Kyle: The sad reality is that quite a few couples will probably stop dancing during this time, especially the ones who rely on constant competition. If they lose that drive in themselves, I think quite easily they could stop dancing and realize that there is a world out there that they enjoy more. But then likewise, I think that will give an equal opportunity to new couples to replace them and, and bring something new, bring something fresh to the dancing world.
Izabela: I can’t wait for the next competition after all this is over, simply because it will be so unpredictable, so open. There can’t be any expectations when you don’t have a competition for such a long time. Anything can happen.
You’re extremely lucky to have space to practice, but what would you recommend for partners who are separated by thousands of miles, or who can’t even leave their apartments?
Kyle: At the very start of quarantine, we ourselves actually had to be away from each other for three weeks, mainly to protect my parents, so we’ve had a little taste of that ourselves. In a way, it worked very well because I still practiced independently and so did Izabela, and because we were only focused on ourselves, on our own technique, our own performance, when we came back together, it worked. I think when you practice all the time, you’re almost…
Izabela: Focusing on each other’s faults rather than on your own. Practicing on your own, it gives you the opportunity to actually think, what can I do to make my dancing better even if I don’t have a person next to me? And it’s everything — you can improve your footwork, you can improve the strength of your legs, your body, anything. You can do this in your own house.
Kyle: Even if you take any football team, an NFL team, a basketball team — although they are part of a team, they still have to improve themselves as a player, you know? It’s the same with the dancing. Although we have contact with each other, our performance still has to be our own, and we shouldn’t just simply rely on the other person. So for the couples who are isolated, you can work on yourself, to improve the team.
What is it like to be at Blackpool, representing a country that is the “birthplace” of ballroom itself?
Kyle: I am personally very patriotic towards my country, and I always go out there, especially at an international comp, to represent my country, not just myself, or our partnership. England’s definitely had our golden era in the past, the way Italy also had their golden era, and Poland, and Russia. Desperately, I would love England to have another golden age. But I also like to be the underdog. The more the crowd cheers for their own country, it just actually works so much better for myself [laughs] because I’m so patriotic towards England.
Izabela: Of course for me, it’s a different story because I’m not really from this country. When I was dancing for Poland, I was very patriotic. But when I dance for England, I feel a big responsibility, because the dancing actually comes from here, so it’s very historical. It makes you feel somehow different. And that’s why, when you are at Blackpool, you can see people watching you and knowing you are from England, so it actually puts a little bit of responsibility on you to make sure that…
Kyle: You’re behaving yourself.
Izabela: [laughs] And you do your best on the floor.
A lot of people, especially collegiate dancers, favor the very flashy, exuberant, WDSF-style because it’s different from what they’re used to. How do you characterize your dancing, especially within the context of the WDC style — what do you think sets you apart from others?
Izabela: Maybe someone can call it boring, but for me, the point of dance is to show how effortlessly you can achieve the way you dance. So, you don’t really want to look athletic, like everything you do is stretched to the maximum and it requires so much work, because you want people to watch you and think, “How do they do it?” I know how hard it is to achieve the way we dance. It requires so much practice, so much knowledge, so much repetition.
Kyle: We are both actually from the generation where the two federations were still together. We all competed against each other in our junior and even youth categories, so we still have respect for both sides. What I’ve noticed with the younger generations these days is, they don’t have the same respect for the other federation. That’s sad, because the reality is we do dance differently, but you should take positives from both.
Izabela: When we watch videos, we always try to see something positive. No matter what you watch, you can improve yourself, so you just have to be very open minded.
Who were the dancers you looked towards for inspiration early on in your careers?
Kyle: More often I’ve found inspiration from the mentality of very successful athletes. I’ve always been motivated by the intensity that some of the top athletes have, because for me, a lot of it is mental, rather than physical or technical. There are many dancers — the greats, such as Marcus and Karen Hilton, and Mirko and Alessia, Mirko and Edita, it’s too many to even list. Each of them had something very special, and I think it’s important to try and take pieces from each couple, rather than just to go for one clear direction. I think a mix of the two styles, or a mix of many different idols, is always the best recipe.
Izabela: Even though Kyle grew up with English teachers, I was actually more WDSF for most of my dancing career, and my teachers were from the WDSF. I always got motivation from just the best dancers at the time. Even now, I can be inspired by a couple from under-21, or a couple from the quarterfinal, because I think anyone can have something special in their dancing.
Kyle: One of my idols growing up was actually David Beckham. I know that he used to stay behind after the team finished training, and he used to spend two and three hours just on his free kicks. That level of dedication and just relentless focus towards his job and his technique was so inspirational for me.
Izabela: This is actually very interesting, because when I was a child or a teenager, I never thought that dancing could be compared to athletics, I did it only as an art. The higher you get with your results, then more you realize how much your mental health, your goals, and your attitude can influence your performance, how important it is to have this champion’s mentality. Even now, it’s funny, watching the documentary about Michael Jordan — his thought process is very similar to mine. The way you think about the competition, the way you think about the preparation, the way you think, “Well, I have to suffer now, five more minutes, an hour more, a week more, because I want this goal.” It’s very important, otherwise it’s hard to stay motivated for so many years, because it’s not an easy job.
To end on a note of looking forward — in the United States, the NDCA just recently passed a rule saying same sex dancers can compete. Coming from England, the birthplace of ballroom, how you respond to this changing world?
Kyle: I would firstly say that one of the main reasons why I think dancing is popular is because it accepts all types of people from all backgrounds without any kind of prejudice. It gives people a home. In that respect, it’s great.
Izabela: I think that when you are coming onto the dance floor, it doesn’t matter who you are. That’s the beauty of it. There’s so many people who would never even speak with each other outside of the ballroom. But when they are here, they can be best friends. So the more these type of rules are coming in and allowing someone to be satisfied with what they are doing, then why not?
You mentioned ballroom doesn’t have any prejudices, and I think that’s true for the dancing itself, but when you see a dancer who might be prejudiced against because their appearance is not up to a certain judge’s standard, how do you react to that as the top couple in your field?
Izabela: It doesn’t matter how high you are, you still have some insecurities about you. I think if you are confident and you enjoy what you are doing, that’s what people want to see. They don’t want to see all this perfection, they also want to see people who are enjoying what they’re doing. And I think on any level, it makes a difference maybe how you appear on the floor, how you look, but at the same time, if you can sell what you have, that’s all you need. It’s just a part of a game.
Kyle: But of course, on the other side of that, there is still an image of ballroom dancing and of Latin dancing, the same way that there is an image of ballet and any art form in that respect. To use someone as an example, Arunas Bizokas was born with the most perfect shoulder line ever. That’s not a prejudice against other people, the fact that he has also just simply been born better. Of course, he still had to work so hard to achieve that. So image is still a factor and, as Izabela said, you can believe in what you’re doing and really sell it.
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Note: All opinions expressed by interviewees do not reflect the opinions of Waltz Tango Foxtrot as a publication.