This week, I have had the pleasure of interviewing a very inspirational studio owner by the name of Arwen Daniels. I feel her background story will give inspiration to many dancers as well as just people in general:
On June 10th, 2006, she had just moved back to her home town of San Diego from dancing in NYC on a work study scholarship at Broadway Dance Center for 2 years, where she also met her now husband of five years, Adam, when her life changed forever. She was driving on the 78 West in San Marcos, and was struck with a 6 pound block of concrete through the windshield, which shattered her whole face instantly, and left her clinging to life on the side of the freeway. She lost her left eye, her jaw was pulverized and wired shut, and she had an emergency tracheotomy which left her unable to speak for almost a month. She has had 10 operations at multiple hospitals from 2006-2011, and it has been about 2 1/2 years since her last surgery to repair and reconstruct her eye socket and the surrounding area. She has over 60 titanium plates and screws holding her face together, even though when people look at her, many would never guess how much trauma she has been through in her life. She was told she would probably not dance again, because her left hip bone was partially removed to fill in her cheek bones, which caused her to walk with a painful limp, and for awhile it was questionable on whether there was lingering brain damage, and if she would be on disability her whole life.
She wants people to not look at her background to take pity on her, or to applaud her for opening her own business, rather, “it is to show that our body and mind is so powerful, and we can overcome anything that is thrown (literally) at us. So, if you want to dance, DANCE! Nothing is stopping you! Go to class, seize the day, and become whatever and whoever you want to be- no excuses!”
Now for a little about her studio, Arwen Daniels Dance Academy, which is located in Solana Beach, California:
She believes her dance studio is different from other dance studios because she looks at every student that walks through her door as having the exact same potential as the most talented and gifted dancer out there today. She tries to treat each student with respect, and with the belief that they can become an advanced, competitive, and well rounded professional dancer if they meet each other half way. Also, she stays completely away from the focus on the superficial aspects of what an “ideal” dancer should look like. She promotes a positive body image no matter what shape and size her student has, and that strength and health is the most important thing to be successful. This allows her students to focus on becoming confident, well rounded young adults, rather than feeling that they must fit into a certain mold physically in order to be a competitive and advanced dancer.
When I asked Arwen about what she does to keep dancers motivated, she replied “We all have days that we don’t feel like getting off the couch, but, I always tell my dancers: “You’ll never regret coming to a dance class.” It’s true; even the worst day is still better than not coming at all, because we all can learn things about ourselves when we are going through the phases of feeling burned out that lead us to feeling passionate again. If you really love to dance, I will tell my older teen students: “Think of all the memories, the highs, the lows, and what a huge part of your life DANCE is, and then think of your life without dance in it at all…” That usually brings them back to rediscovering all the things that pulled them into being a dancer in the first place.”
She has recently learned with her teenage team of 8 dancers, that BALANCE is the key to keeping passion and interest over years of training. Training is quality, not quantity, so Arwen always gives her dancers at least two days off a week, so there is more to look forward to; not day in and day out of the same class with the same teacher for years. She believes time off in the summer and holidays also allows for reflection, and a time to recharge and re-motivate so her dancers return from breaks hungry for the next challenges.
The competition team at the studio is called the Arwen Daniels Dancers. Right now, she just has one team of 8 teens (ages 13-19), seven girls and one boy, but she is looking to establish a junior team within the next year, because she has a plethora of young talent ages 8-11 that is ready for that next step.
The awards her studio has won has been many, but she wanted to name a few that have stood out this past competitive season: She was awarded BEST CHOREOGRAPHY for the entire San Diego THUNDERSTRUCK NATIONAL DANCE COMPETITION for a contemporary group piece called “All the Rowboats” in March of 2013. She also won BEST TECHNICAL SKILL for that same dance “All the Rowboats” at SPOTLIGHT NATIONAL DANCE CUP in May of 2013. At that same competition, her talented choreographer John Fulgham won BEST CHOREOGRAPHY for his lyrical piece set on the same 8 dancers called “The Dance.” The group also came in 1st overall for “Rowboats”, 2nd overall for “The Dance” in all teen small group dances, and my third and final group piece “Rumor Has It” took 1st overall for all teen large groups (included 2 apprentice dancers). Winning OVERALL means that the particular dance’s score (usually out of 300) is the highest score out of any style and any group that weekend. A duet she choreographed entitled “Stay” on two of her senior dancers, Taylor Yu and Shaina Bauman, also took 1st overall out of all senior duets and trios at SPOTLIGHT. At SHOWSTOPPERS NATIONAL DANCE COMPETITION the teen group dances came in 1st, 2nd and 4th overall in the Advanced Division, out of almost 90 entries (“Rowboats”, “The Dance”, and “Rumor Has It” respectively). The duet “Stay” took 1st overall again in all duet/trios in the senior advanced division, but the biggest win took until day 4 of the long Memorial Weekend. Her male dancer, Taylor, who has only been dancing for 2 1/2 years, took 1st overall out of over 225 solos. They had to wait 9 hours to see if his score held up, but he emerged victorious after a back injury had sidelined him for almost two months earlier that year, scoring a 294/300. The last award that sticks out in her mind is at STARBOUND NATIONAL FINALS in Los Angeles, Ca, in June of this year. One of her girls went down with a hip flexor injury mid weekend, and another team member stepped in and did the new trio entitled “I Am” with an hour’s notice. The trio ended up getting top teen novice trio of the entire 5 day national finals competition.
In Arwen’s opinion, good dance clothing shows the dancer’s body lines, but she also doesn’t think children or teenagers need to be too exposed with wearing too little of clothing. A perfect balance to her, is tight fitting spandex shorts, bare legs, and then a form fitting tank top with a sports bra underneath so the dancer always feels comfortable first. “We are there to sweat and work, not for a fashion show or to flaunt our bodies.” During winter, she feels layers are great so the muscles are able to warm up and stay warm through the changing temperatures.
Arwen feels the biggest mistake dancers make is not committing 100% from the moment they step on stage, to when they disappear behind the wings after the dance is over. She believes every time they compete is a new opportunity to dance better and with more passion and precision than the previous performance. “Why hold back? Take risks, and do everything possible in those 3 minutes on stage to be the best dancer that you can be. Expectations should increase with every competition, and mistakes should only be made once, and then learned from immediately so the team can move forward.” She thinks genuine facial expressions are imperative on stage as well, because otherwise the story that the choreographer and dancers are trying to convey is not fully believable. “Again, COMMIT from head to toe, with every cell in body and mind.”
Finally, when I asked Arwen some advice she would give to dancer’s starting out, she replied that there is no RIGHT or WRONG age to start dance. She believes anyone can start at any age and any time, as long as the dancer WANTS to work hard and learn! Some advice Arwen gave is to take ballet and jazz technique classes, and take as many different styles as possible. Flexibility and strength is the most important thing to establish early on, because a strong and flexible dancer can be taught to do anything, and they don’t become injured often. Learn things the right way the first time, don’t “cheat” or find the easy way out on sit ups, push ups, turns, ballet barre, or anything else that can be tough and not exciting at times. There is only ONE right way to learn the technical part of dance: ballet is essential, and if you learn the right way the first time, you won’t have to re-learn how to do things when you get older over again. Keep an open mind, and soak up everything like a sponge, and above all, believe in yourself! Your own mind can be your best friend, or your worst enemy: stay POSITIVE!
I wish you and your studio the best of luck, Arwen, and thank you for sharing that inspirational story with us!
If you have experience with Arwen Daniels Dance Academy or Arwen Daniels please leave a comment below about your experience!
By Cyndi Marziani