We talked to the winners of Under21 Ballroom at 2014 Blackpool Dance Festival Michael Foskett and Nika Vlasenko who represent England. They are both very young dancers and Nika is only seventeen years old.
I would love to see more people of all levels of Ballroom to be encouraged to express in Ballroom their passion for it
Let me start with congratulations. Well done yesterday! You will now be forever listed in the Blackpool programme as winners.
I would like to ask each of you how and when you started dancing.
[Nika] I have been dancing only for 4.5 years.
And how old are you now?
[Nika] I am seventeen years old. I started in Kyiv, Ukraine in a club called "Shans" and my coaches were Roman Myrkin and Natalia Byednyagina. They were World Champions in 10 Dance. They still support us, believe in us and help us in every way. One year ago my life changed totally, I moved to UK and I still cannot believe I am here.
So you started dancing from the age of twelve. Was it competitive dancing?
[Nika] Yes. I had only two dance partners before Michael.
Did you start with 10 Dance?
And now are you concentrating on Ballroom?
[Nika] No, no, we dance both styles.
OK. And what about you Michael?
[Michael] In England we have this medal system and the organisation called ISTD. I went through the medal system in my parents dance school in Dorking, which is south of London in Surrey. So I did this between age five and ten. My parents, the former Professionals, knew the competitive system very well but I did not. When I was ten years old I told them I wanted to start competing. So I started with my first partner and within one year, with my Dad as our main coach, we became Juvenile number one in England. The same story was repeated next year in Junior. We worked our way up with the same partner. It was great, we represented England at the World Championships. Then I changed partner and went to Youth. It was very successful at the time and really amazing. I've always been 10 dancer, I really love doing both. I may have a slight bias towards Ballroom.
Especially after yesterday
[Michael] (laughing) Only just! I feel I am a 10 dancer and this is what I have always been.
How did you meet?
[Michael] I split with my partner a year and a half ago. My main coaches are in the Surrey Hills Dance Centre which is my parents John and Linda dance school. But we also are close with Karen and Marcus Hilton. I think I was there for a lesson and they asked me if I was going to look for a partner nationally or also internationally. And they told me they knew of Roman and Natalia, Nika's teachers, and they had quite a large dance school in Kyiv and potentially could have a partner for me. So they got in touch and Natalia got back saying there is potentially a girl who can dance with me. I flew to Kyiv to meet this girl and her family, who I never met before, at the airport. Because it was such a short notice my parents could not come with me. As they were my main coaches it was quite crucial for me they could see us as well. So I was there for one day and it had to be just my judgement how they try-out went.
And how was it?
[Nika] It was great but I did not expect it at all. I had a call from Natalia saying I can have a try-out with this one boy, very talented, who I have never seen before. And he will come tomorrow to Kyiv and wants a try-out with me. What??!! I really danced medium level, I was not that good. I knew of Michael and his level of dancing. For me it was totally unexpected. I was very, very worried. I had to meet him at the airport and then have a try-out but my English was very bad. It ended up being brilliant. I did not expect this at all and it just happened suddenly and changed everything for me.
[Michael] All I can say that the try-out for me, at that moment, did not come together amazingly well. But when we danced together, particularly Ballroom, it felt there was a lot of potential. It felt that if we both put our minds together and worked hard together we could do anything. It was strange, I've never had this before, but it felt all the key ingredients were there. When I went home I shown the video to my parents and they loved the look. So we said "yes" on Facebook or something (laughing).
[Nika] I think it was within one week
[Michael] Of course Nika needs a visa to come here so it was a long process. I had to go to Ukraine and, being in a full time education here, had to take time out of University. So the start of this partnership was difficult. In my free time I went there for two weeks at the time just to start getting some routines started.
When was this?
[Michael] We had the try-out in December
[Nika] In 2012
[Michael] And we kind of decided to dance together late January, or early February. I went back to Ukraine in early March. We worked quite sporadically as much as possible.
Had Nika moved to England then?
[Michael] No. at this point she hadn't. We did not really know how to plan the future logistically. I was going to Ukraine for a week to two at the time and we were trying to get some routines together for our first competition in Blackpool.
So your first competition was Blackpool?
[Michael] Yes, last year.
[Michael] We did a little piece in Dance News saying that this will be our first competition and a big stepping stone! We felt very positive about our dancing. There was nothing to lose for us as we have not been top finalists in competitions before. So we had nothing to lose. We felt very good about it and it was the right time of the year.
[Nika] It was very difficult for me to come here because my visa has been refused in March or April. I could not have come here at all and it was tough with lessons and practice. Afterwards we sent the application again and finally I got a visa.
[Michael] Student visa, no, sorry, visitor visa. So Nika could come for this one competition. It was nice for my parents, who are my coaches as well, to finally meet Nika in person and also teach us. We had our first lesson with them then. And the result at Blackpool, our first competition, was unbelievable, in the Ballroom we came 7th and we were two marks away from making the final last year. It was mind blowing! We kept saying we would love to make 48, when we made that we were saying it would be amazing to make 24. We made that and so on. When we made the semi-final we were just unbelievably happy to make it. And when we went back to the hotel and checked the results we found we were just two marks away from making the final. I guess it was a huge shock but shown us that when we work very hard we could get so high. And this first competition we very inspirational for us.
Nika, did you manage to get a more permanent visa?
[Nika] Yes, I got the student visa. I am studying now in Box Hill School in Dorking. I am studying for A-level and I've done 5 exams so far. There are 2 more to go next week.
What subjects did you chose?
[Nika] Psychology, Business and Maths
[Michael] It is helpful because I am doing the Maths degree.
[Nika] He is very clever.
[Michael] The University of Surrey. The idea is that we can both live at my family house and we have studio nearby. We can both maximise the time to have both dance practice and education. Education is still important to us at this age. So I am at the university every day and drive back and forth.
And your subject is Maths?
[Michael] Yes, and I just upgraded to do the Masters course as well. Maybe in the future I would like to do the PhD. We will see. Since doing dancing competitively, at age of ten, I have been focused at certain targets and worked towards them rather than, kind of, being a "jack of all trades". I started really enjoy the maths and science when I was going through my secondary education and at the same time competing as a Junior. And it kind of became two of my goals: to be the best in both fields, to be a dancer and to do maths.
How do your friends at the university react to the fact that you are dancing?
[Michael] They react generally very well.
Aren't they surprised?
[Michael] That's the first reaction! People are surprised when I first say that I do Maths and I am a dancer. It is not a logical combination. But they are very supportive. My director of undergraduate studies is really amazing. She lets me have all the time off I need for it and is very supportive. They always email me how I am doing if I have taken the time out. So they are really helpful to make it possible for me to combine the two. So we both have to divide the time as best as possible between our dancing and our studies. During the day Nika is at school, in the evening we come together to practise.
Do you have any plans for the next couple of months?
[Michael] At the moment, for both of us, is the exam period. Nika has two more A-levels to go and I start my second year university exams. And I have 4 of those. When we finish Blackpool we will focus on that. Then we have all summer free. We can try to take it to the next level with dancing as well.
Nika, what are your future plans after you've done your A-levels?
[Nika] I am not sure yet. I will apply to English universities or American ones and we will see (laughing). I am not sure because life changes all the time. Last year I did not expect to be here and dance with such a great partner. And to live with his family.
And win the Blackpool...
[Nika] Yes! Sometimes I am asking myself how this was possible. And who knows what will happen next year.
[Michael] I think, as it was last year and this year for us, it is very diverse and complicated. We kind of take the live as it goes. Obviously for dancing we have to plan with regards to competitions, booking lessons and so on. But we try to take it all as best as possible day by day with very simple goals to be as best dancers as possible, both individually and as a couple. And spend any free time we have getting the best education as we can. They are very simple goals and we are enjoying what we doing.
Tell me what you qualities you like in your partner?
[Michael] Nika, you go first (laughing)
[Nika] OK, first of all, he is absolutely clever. I have no idea how he knows Maths at this level. He helps me in everything both in school and in dancing. I don't have such a great experience in Ballroom. I used to dance more Latin and used to prefer Latin. Not now. Of course Michael has more experience and more knowledge and he improves our couple all the time. I believe that every day, at practice, with his help we grow and grow. Secondly, he helps me a lot with my education. Especially with maths.
[Michael] Not true
Michael, you are turning red now (laughing)!
[Nika] (laughing) It is true. But with his help I am getting better and better and I understand more. When I came here I struggled with English language and I worried all the time how I am going to speak to people. It was my first time in England as well. I've never been here before so it was all new for me, new people, new country, new language. But with his help and his support I survived (laughing) and now I really enjoy being here! But it was hard when I came here for the first time as I was without family and especially without my Mum. We were very close to each other and still are but it is harder with the distance. Michael gave me all the support and I am happy now.
Michael, it is now your turn, what do you like most about Nika?
[Michael] Of course she is beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the ballroom. Nika comes from an amazingly talented family. Her Dad is very passionate about everything he does. Her Mum, her Dad, her brother and Nika herself are so driven and energetic with life. It has been an amazing experience for me to go to Ukraine and share aspects of their lives. They are all amazingly musical, that's the first thing. Her brother plays the drums at exceptional level. Her parents both play the piano exceptionally well. The also compete at sailing competitions. They are very clever and very well educated.
It sounds like you've fallen in love with Nika's family (laughing)!
[Michael] I have! Nika is also unbelievably talented in so many ways.
Nika, it is now your turn to blush!
[Nika] Yes (laughing)
[Michael] Her musicality, dancing, all round education, sailing, and she is a beautiful girl. All these things! What I really admire as well is that all last year we have turned her life upside down and she's coped with it amazingly well. I cannot put myself in her position and say I would have dealt with it half as well! To be able to go to another country with a language I don't speak well, to put myself in this new environment, with new people, away from family... and she is two and a half years younger than me anyway... I admire her for being able to do all this. To have a courage to say yes to come to England in the first place, and then the perseverance and coping with it all. And the change in one year is unbelievable, in her English, in her dancing, in her attitude to life, everything. I could not imagine dancing with anyone else really now. Unfortunately my Ukrainian is still in infancy (laughing)
[Nika] Getting better every day!
Are you a couple in private life?
[Michael] No, we are not
OK, so not a problem to answer my next question: what don't you like in your partner?
[Michael] I should have prepared for that! What can I say after all I just said about her (laughing)
OK, let's start with an easy one: what are your faults?
[Michael] I can be very focused about one or two things. And as much as it can be very good, I can get very, perhaps, stubborn. Even blind-sighted from a broader view of things. I can get very fixated upon one thing. It could be dancing, it could be one thing we are trying to do I just get very stuck on it because I want that thing to be perfect rather than to look at general picture to keep everything balanced. It is something Nika can help me with. Sometimes it would be good to take a step back, breathe, and look at it from a different angle.
[Nika] I think the main problem with me is my mood changes. They can happen very quickly, especially in practice. I can arrive happy but in two minutes everything changes and I don't know how! And then it influences everything. I can also change from bad mood to happy!
OK Michael, why didn't you mention that?
[Michael] Because I am a nice guy! (laughing). Well, it could be good or bad, depends on how you look at it. What Nika just said is true and there is a downside, sometimes at practice it happens quite quickly. But in terms of competition, or to put up a show for the audience, that comes across as true emotions. It shows why we love doing what we do, it is not a fairy tale, there are ups and downs. We are both emotional people, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, you see what we feel and I think this is something nice to have on the floor. So I think of it as a good thing.
Who of you is more artistic?
[Michael] It depends. In general terms, it is Nika. No doubts. Like I said earlier, it is for so many reasons: the music, and she is so diverse and she is artistic in many ways. I like to think I am artistic when it comes to dancing. And perhaps maths as it can be considered artistic as well.
Nika's choice of subjects for A-level doesn't look very artistic!
[Michael] True! Nika, you need to offer an explanation.
[Nika] Why did I chose these subjects and not Arts? I am not good in Arts and painting. I tried to do it and I couldn't. I chose Maths because it is the basics. I think everybody should know maths, and for A-level it is basic maths.
[Michael] If I try to help her I start taking it to the much complicated level (laughing)
[Nika] Business – because my Dad is in business and he can help me. He explains everything to me and I would like to study Business at the university. Psychology... hmmm.... I did not have much choice. It was Physics or Psychology. Of course I decided on Psychology (laughing). It is an interesting subject but when it comes to exams it is very tough. You have to know everything in details!
I understand that you are trying to learn how to manipulate your partner! (laughing)
[Michael] That's what I am worried about! Anyway, I think her choices of A-level subjects are very mature. She is very artistic naturally and doesn't have to have it in the curriculum.
You are dancing all 10 dances. Tell me the differences between Latin and Ballroom for you.
[Michael] OK, I will start. For me there are as many parallels between Latin and Ballroom as there are differences.
OK, if so, can you group the similar ones in pairs?
[Michael] I like to think of each of them as very unique. Fundamentals in posture or how we move are identical and when I was younger I felt Ballroom and Latin should be taken together. For long time I used to see these parallels but now I started to see the differences as well. For me Ballroom was more natural. But it depends on my mood. There are days when I want to dance only Latin. We might be at a Ballroom competition and see Amateurs dancing and I feel I would love to do Samba now (laughing). I love it all. I love the contrast! On different days, different times, depending on the amazing music that we hear, my mood changes and my preferences change. It comes and goes, I don't have a particular favourite and, with emotions, it sways.
[Nika] Same for me. However, Ballroom is more elegant, more beautiful. All these dresses, the atmosphere, the music... but as Michael said, it depends on the mood. Some days I really want to dance Latin. But most of the time I think I prefer Ballroom.
[Michael] Many people see Latin as a style you can have more interpretation in. Because it is much more open. I would love to see more people of all levels of Ballroom to be encouraged to express in Ballroom their passion for it. I feel like Ballroom is treated as the one that you stay in frame and that's what you've got to hold and you don't have the opportunity to dance your own. People should be encouraged to show their passion at all levels. Whatever we've achieved I don't try to consider myself a top level but we try to make our dance as much technically better, and show as much artistry in it as we can. I would like to see that from everyone. I think in Latin people do, people feel freer in Latin at all levels. I don't see that in Ballroom. It would be beneficial for people to learn how to express Ballroom.
Do you think that Medal system put too much emphasis on technique?
[Michael] Perhaps. For me Ballroom, just as much if not more so, has the ability to be expressive.
Nika, you mentioned your mood changes, does it also happen at the competitions?
[Nika] No, I don't think so. Because I am so focused on all the other things I don't have time to think of my moods at all (laughing)!
[Michael] It is easy here at Blackpool, as whatever music the Empress Orchestra is playing you are in a mood to dance (laughing). We are very lucky that I have my parents as my main coaches so they are with me the entire time so we never really leave that focused zone. Before the competition we know what we want to work on, what we want to achieve and then round by round and dance by dance, as things develop, we have my parents to feed back. We stay very much focused during the competition.
Nika, how does your school react to your dancing?
[Nika] They are very supportive. If I need to practise or go to competitions I can take days off and work afterwards.
Are you in a boarding school?
[Michael] She had to be in a boarding school to get a visa. She cannot go to our comprehensive system.
How do you manage financially?
[Michael] Our parents are helping 100%. As we are both in full time education is entirely down to our parents. We owe everything to them. My parents are also our coaches. I always say that every success I ever had I can entirely give to them.
Nika, I guess your parents are also helping?
[Nika] Yes. It is quite costly to send me here from Ukraine but they realise it for a better future for me and they are trying to do their best to help.
[Michael] I suppose that in some few years we will be able to take this weight off their shoulders.
What kind of music you like for dancing?
[Michael] For Ballroom I like completely old school stuff, really old music, classic. Occasionally we do shows to some more modern music if we want but I like the traditional stuff. I think because I've been brought up in a dancing family we had lots of videos of previous Blackpools I always relate to that. I relate to 2003 Blackpool video which I spent my childhood watching. All of the music the Empress Orchestra play now they played ten years ago as well. That does it for me. I relate to the images and emotions I saw of my idols. But for Latin I am less so. Nika I think prefers more traditional Latin music. I like really modern, heavy bass kind of music (laughing).
It is interesting you said 2003 is old school! (laughing)
[Michael] I meant that the music they played then was from old school (laughing), from years and years ago.
Can you imagine dancing to Lady Gaga then?
[Michael] Yes, there is this this Cha Cha, "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich". I really like that.
[Nika] For me it changes all the time. With my moods. I cannot say what I prefer because it changes all the time. Today I like this song and tomorrow I say, no, no, don't like this song.
But generally, traditional or modern?
[Nika] Ballroom – traditional, Latin – mixed.
Favourite dances? And don't tell me it depends on your mood! (laughing)
[Michael] In Ballroom it is Waltz or Foxtrot. And it depends which one I feel is going the best. If it goes the best and I feel that I am happy. In Latin Samba or Jive. No, hold on, Paso... Paso Doble then.
[Nika] In Ballroom it is the Waltz, in Latin it is the Rumba. Maybe Cha Cha sometimes.
Elegant lady who is also sexy (laughing). One last question, what are you doing in your free time?
[Michael] Dancing or Maths... (laughing)
Apart from that!
[Michael] Reading Maths or Physics books
Come on, you sound like a geek
[Michael] I am what can I say! I like having weird traits like learning to solve Rubik cube fast or magic tricks. Stuff like that.
What kind of magic tricks?
[Michael] Card tricks. I had a friend at school who was in the magic circles and he taught me that. I like all these kind of things.
[Nika] It depends where I am. In Ukraine I like to spend time with my family because I miss that. Especially my brother. He is younger, he is only thirteen years old, but he is amazing, very talented drummer.
[Nika] Hopefully in the nearest future he will be the best in the world! He is the best in Ukraine now. In England I like watching films, spend time with Michael, watching videos about science or maths with him.
[Michael] I am educating her (laughing)
[Nika] About everything like geography, history.
[Michael] We have big conversations often, don't we? When we have some free time in the evening we start talking and it leads to some physics or global warming or some sort of other topic like that.
How would you solve the global warning?
[Michael] Don't have an answer to that. But it would be nice if all the high powered people realised it. The massive oil and fossil fuel companies control it so you cannot change them. They are key, aren't they? Anyway, these are the things I like to do in my free time. My favourite book I am currently reading is called Chaos by James Gleick. It is about chaos, and how people started to study chaos in the sixties and what it leads to.
All very interesting! Great to meet you and all he best for the future!
All photos by Peter Suba