Something About Melanie
Talking to Melanie
Roberts, owner of Gotta Dance L.A. is like dancing the upbeat, youthful
moves of Swing. She's animated and easygoing, which isn't surprising,
considering she's spent most of her life jivin' her way through
competitions and performances. She's the 1993-1994 U.S. Open Swing
Champion, and she's been a member of the California Swing Dance
Hall of Fame since the early 1990s. Her energy quickly becomes apparent
when she talks about her passion for the state dance of California.
"West Coast Swing is about tuning into the music," she says. "The
dance is distinguished by its love affair with syncopations and
musical interpretation. A dancer reflects what he is hearing in
the music with his body and two beats later his partner can respond
to the move. Both partners can chuckle to music."
As a teacher,
Roberts works hard to help her students understand this relationship,
and she emphasizes that "good communication skills are key" to successful
teaching. This is part of the reason why she pursued a Masters degree
in Psychology. "The mind and emotions are part of our bodies and
how we relate to our partners," she says. "Knowledge of human behavior
is helpful in teaching." Roberts' teaching partner, Archie Dawson
(who is a Hustle champion himself) points out that aspiring dancers
flock to Gotta Dance L.A. classes because "Melanie genuinely cares
about her students."
have shown me a lot of respect," says Roberts, "therefore it is
my responsibility to help and give them the best that I can with
fun and humor. Dance like life is a learning process. It's important
to enjoy the process." The enthusiastic chatter of students exiting
her class is evidence that Roberts does, indeed, promote a relaxed
style doesn't preclude demanding excellence from her students however.
Roberts is strict about adhering to the foundation and principles
of swing style. "West Coast Swing is energized by an elasticity
which is created at the end of the slot by an anchor step," she
says. "Mastery of compression and leverage is crucial, and certainly
mastery of the rhythm is important."
The basic rhythm
is a double - one step per beat of music - followed by two triple
steps. "Unlike East Coast (Swing) where there is a rock-back on
one/two, the lady steps forward into the slot on counts one and
two. And there is a pulsing movement - a slight toning of the body
- on the even numbers," explains Roberts. By burning the West Coast
rhythm into their muscle memory, dancers can freely syncopate the
steps and express the nuances of a song. Roberts prefers that her
students keep styling at a minimum until technique is tuned to perfection.
of dance is to use our bodies (our instruments) to express the music
while working with our partners," she explains. "We don't want to
do syncopations until we've learned how to use our instruments properly.
Like a musician, a beginner can't play a Mozart with mastery until
he's learned how to use his instrument properly."
to the art of dance can be partly attributed to English mother who,
finding herself on a California cattle ranch, decided to introduce
dance classes to her community. As a young adult, Roberts enrolled
in East Coast Swing classes on a whim. She says that her instructors,
Jonathan Bixby and Sylvia Sykes, "gave me a taste of swing in the
'40s." The upbeat teaching style of Bixby and Sykes made a great
impression on the young Roberts, so much so that she later adopted
it for her own studio. She was also influenced by swing icons Frankie
Manning and Steve Mitchell, who were regular guest instructors for
Bixby and Sykes.
The first professional
swing performance that Roberts attended was a shock. "When I first
saw West Coast Swing at the U.S. Opens, I was horrified," she says.
"Most of the women were dressed in micro-minis with fish nets and
G-strings!" Why did she continue swinging? "I enjoyed watching exceptional
dancers like Michelle Kinkaid, Mary Ann Nunez and Charlotte Jansen-Bott
who really related to and expressed the music through their bodies,"
she says. "West Coast Swing continues to be a favorite dance for
me because ensconced in the dance is musical interpretation and
and Jansen-Bott are renowned champions in West Coast Swing. Roberts
says that she never dreamt she would win the coveted title away
from these women. "I just wanted to be the best I could be. I was
blown away when Robert Cordoba asked me to be his dance partner!"
As a studio
owner, Roberts' focus is now firmly set on teaching the best classes
she possibly can in West and East Coast swing and Hustle. "Contributing
to people - my students - in a positive way is a top priority for
me," she says. As for any possibility of returning to dance, she
first dismisses the idea but, after some thought, confesses, "Yes,
I'd compete again. But I'd make it more of a learning process. I'd
compete with an intention to really enjoy the dance!"