Michelle Yiu: Cal Student By Day, Ballroom Dancer By Night

 
 

Michelle Yiu, 18 years-old, is a freshman at UC Berkeley. When she’s not attending classes or buried knee deep in chemistry homework, you can find this San Francisco native at her home dance studio in Belmont, an hour commute from campus, diligently perfecting her craft of ballroom dance. Pre-medical student by day and dancer by night, one may well ask, how does this young phenom do it all? Here is her story.

To set the stage, allow me to introduce you to the world of competitive ballroom dancing, also known as “Dancesport”, where the sparkles shine brighter, the spray tans run darker, and the extravagance of hair, makeup, and dress knows no bounds. Within competitive ballroom dance, there are two main “genres”, if you will. There’s the International style of ballroom, which consist of two subcategories: Latin and Standard. Both Standard and Latin consist of 5 dances. Cha-Cha, Samba, Rumba, Jive, and Paso Doble make up the Latin syllabus, while Standard consists of the Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, and Quickstep. With its fast paced and sexually-charged dances, Latin is known as the “spicier” style of the two, while its more modest, but just as physically demanding sister, Standard, is evocative of Disney-princess balls, with its elegance, fluidity, and grace. Then there’s the American style, which consists of Smooth and Rhythm. Smooth is comprised only of 4 dances: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz. While these Smooth dances share the same names as those of Standard, think of Smooth as an “Americanized” version of Standard. Finally, we have American Rhythm, comprised of the Cha-Cha (different from International Latin Cha-Cha), Rumba (also different from International Latin), East Coast Swing, Bolero, and Mambo. I won’t get into the technical details of each of these four styles of dance. All you need to know is that they’re there, they exist, and people of all ages compete in anywhere from one to all four styles in competitions worldwide. Competitors are grouped based on age and level. Couples take the floor and perform for the judges and the crowd. With each passing round, judges eliminate couple after couple, until only the top 6 or 7 couples (depending on the competition) are left on the floor to fight for 1st place. So, there’s your crash course of competitive ballroom dance! Now, let’s hear Michelle’s story.

 
 

Michelle began ballroom dancing at the ripe age of 4. When she first began ballroom, she was already engaged in a plethora of other hobbies, including singing, ballet, modern and jazz dance, and even kung fu! When the time came to focus on one extracurricular, she stuck with ballroom, and has never looked back since.

Michelle started out as a 10-dancer; that is, she competed in the 5 dances of International Latin and 5 dances of International Standard. When asked what her favorite Latin dance was, Michelle replied, “Rumba”, since it was the slowest of the 5 Latin dances, leaving more room for milking out movements. When asked what her favorite Standard dance was, Michelle could not choose one; however, she was quick to add that the Viennese Waltz was her “least favorite”.

The first studio Michelle trained at was Genesis DanceSport Studio in San Francisco. As a little girl, she was paired with a young boy named Miles. Her second and more serious partnership was with a boy named Peter. They danced and competed with each other for about three years, but only did local competitions. At age 9, Michelle broke up with Peter and found a new partner, Kinsley, with whom she danced with for the next seven years.

 
 

Throughout their seven-year partnership, Kinsley and Michelle found much success in both Latin and Standard, training under coaches Vaidas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte for Latin, and Tomas Atkocevicius and Aira Bubnelyte for Standard. In the Junior II category, they made the finals in two major national competitions, held in Provo, Utah, and Baltimore, Maryland. 2014 was the young couple’s “breakthrough” year. That year, they qualified for two world finals, one in International Latin, and one in 10-Dance, and represented the US at the World Dancesport Federation World Championships.

 
 

Many young ballroom dancers start off as 10-Dancers, competing in both Latin and Standard. But as time goes on, and difficulty level of the two styles increases, many couples decide to specialize in one style, while dropping the other. In December 2016, Michelle and Kinsley made the decision to switch solely to Standard, for a few reasons.

One reason was because of Michelle’s recurring foot injury. Because of the injury, she almost stopped ballroom dancing altogether. She saw physical therapists, a podiatrist, a chiropractor, and even explored alternative medical treatments like acupuncture. Eventually, she and her team of practitioners were able to come up with a treatment plan that would enable her to continue dancing. However, many of her past foot aggravations stemmed from dancing in 3-inch thin Latin heels, as compared to the lower, 2.5 inch flared heels of Standard. In addition, Michelle has naturally flat feet, which made dancing Latin more difficult, as Latin places emphasis on high foot arches that create an aesthetically-pleasing curvature. In general, Michelle “didn’t like how [she] looked” in Latin, as she knew she wasn’t born with the feet or the body lines that many Latin dancers have. This general body insecurity created a very negative mindset for Michelle, which further propelled her in her decision to choose Standard-- a style in which foot arches and body lines are still important, but not to the same degree as it is in Latin.

 
 

Another factor that drove the couple to choose Standard over Latin was the difficulty of juggling both dance styles at increasingly higher competitive levels. When they moved from the Junior II age category to Youth, the pool of dancers became much more competitive, and it was difficult to keep up amongst other Youth couples, many of whom had already chosen to specialize in one style. At one point, Michelle and Kinsley were taking 2 dance lessons a day, 6 days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday were devoted to Standard, while Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday were devoted to Latin. Friday was their only day off.

They were stretched thin within their dance life alone. Now imagine juggling 12 dance lessons a week (not including outside practice time) with regular high school. Despite the rigor of competitive dancing, Michelle attended regular school her entire life, forgoing the options of online school or homeschooling, which many dancers do to spend more time training. Michelle was in her junior year of high school when she and Kinsley decided to drop Latin and focus on Standard. She attended the Drew School, a small, private independent high school, after spending Kindergarten through 8th grade at a private Catholic school.

 
 

The last reason why Michelle decided to focus on Standard was simply because Standard “came easier” to her than Latin. It was that thrilling feeling of “swing”, characteristic of Standard dances, that Michelle loved. She just didn’t get that same feeling in Latin, where most of the dances are performed in open-position, with the two participants dancing disconnected from one another.

In June 2017, the summer before her senior year of high school, Michelle and Kinsley terminated their partnership, after having danced their last competition together at Blackpool Dance Festival-- the world’s most prestigious ballroom dance competition. She spent the rest of the summer scouting for a new partner, posting in ballroom dance partner search forums on Facebook. There are not as many ballroom dancers in America as there are in Europe, so finding a partner was difficult. There are many factors that go into finding a right-fit dance partner: height, age, body physique, skill level, proximity, and amount of resources to pay for those expensive dance lessons. In Standard, it is especially important to find a partner who matches with you physically, as all the dances are danced in hold, with the leader and follower connected.

 
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The reality is, there is no easy way of finding a dance partner. A lot of it depends on luck-- being at the right place at the right time. Most dancers rely on either word-of-mouth connections or, as was Michelle’s case, find potential dance partners through social media. She and her current partner, Artur, met on Facebook, and messaged each other to set up a tryout. Artur, originally from Kiev, Ukraine, flew to California to try out with Michelle. The two ended up being a great fit for each other. And so, during September of 2017, Artur packed his bags and moved to Northern California, where he was sponsored by Michelle’s family, who helped him obtain his O1 Visa so he could work at the dance studio.

 
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For Michelle, dancing with Artur was different from dancing with Kinsley, in many ways. At the time Artur and Michelle began dancing together, Michelle was 17 and Artur was already 20 years old, which meant they could only compete in the Under 21 age division until the end of 2017. The level above Under 21 is Amateur, which is one step below Professional. Needless to say, competing at the Amateur level was a whole new ball game. Regardless, Michelle and Artur rapidly moved up the ranks in the Amateur circuit, making the final in major competitions like Ohio Star Ball. In Utah Nationals 2017, Michelle was in the audience, watching the Amateur Standard competition. Never could she imagine that the following year, with hew new partner, she would compete in Amateur and make the semi-final round, less than a year into this new partnership. Most recently, she and Artur traveled to Paris for the Open World Championships, where they placed in the top 50 among hundreds of couples. While she would’ve liked to have made one more round at that competition, Michelle says that Paris Worlds was a “great experience”. Sometimes, what is more fulfilling for her than winning awards is finishing a competition, “happy with [our] dancing”. The next stop for Michelle and Artur is the UK Open 2019, and they leave on January 11th.

 
 

With Artur, Michelle has felt much more encouraged to continue growing, both as a dancer and as a person. She says that her current partnership is “more balanced” than her previous one. The two know what they have to work on as individuals, and are able to bring their individual strengths to the table to better the partnership.

Good communication is the basis of any successful partnership, not just in dance, but in life. Michelle admits that in her past partnership with Kinsley, she’d used to “say too much”, without gauging her partner’s response. The result was a lot of arguments and general inability to understand one another. Michelle has learned from her past, and is better able to effectively communicate with her current partner. She’s learned that “stating the positives” and using “I” statements, rather than “you” statements, are all ways to foster a healthy partnership. She and Artur are “well-matched”, and he “inspires [her] to grow a lot”. Michelle says that the tell-tale sign of a good partnership is “when you feel that both participants can help each other grow”.

 
 

In August of 2018, Michelle began her first semester at UC Berkeley. Her decision to attend Berkeley was not a straightforward one. When competitive dancers reach the age of high school matriculation, many are faced with a crossroads: to dance, or to attend university. Not many dancers do both competitive dancing and school. Some don’t have the resources. Others don’t have the time, energy, or mental strength to spread themselves so thin. Michelle, however, is no stranger to balancing school with dance. She managed to perform well throughout high school, whilst furthering her competitive dance career. When asked whether or not she would give up school to dance full-time, Michelle states, “My parents have always wanted me to continue school, but school has always been something I wanted to do myself. School is interesting.” Shyly, she adds, “And I am alright at school, I guess.”

 
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“Alright” was enough to get Michelle into UCLA, USC, and Northeastern University, in addition to UC Berkeley. A diligent student and academic, Michelle knows that to put everything into dancing, without going to school, is “really risky”. She read a story of a former ballerina who, after getting into a car accident, was rendered unable to dance ever again. Fortunately this ballerina was able to pursue another career in medicine, where she found fulfillment in helping injured dancers. To integrate her passion for dance with medicine is something Michelle would like to do in the future, which is why she is currently on the pre-medical track.

While Michelle hopes to become a physician, she knew in her heart that she was not ready to stop competitive dancing, once college began. Her parents worried that she would not be able to handle the physical and mental demands of being a full-time pre-med student at Berkeley, whilst continuing her dance training. Many arguments arose between parent and child. Her parents said that, if they were in her place, they would choose to not continue dance, and focus instead on pre-med, which alone is so demanding. Michelle also discussed her options extensively with her coaches. At the end of the day, she was determined to prove to everyone, but most importantly, herself, that she would be able to dance competitively, while in college. That it is possible to do be both a dancer and a scholar. Despite her resolve, she was still very scared, going into college, of how things would pan out. Could she handle the academic demands of being a pre-med student at Berkeley-- a school notorious for its grade deflation-- whilst keeping up with her dance training and competing?

 
 

Michelle cites meticulous planning as the key to making her situation work. She took on 15 units this past semester and focused on keeping her GPA up for medical school. She now trains 4 days a week at the studio, taking lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and doing regular practice on Sunday. She is indebted to her mother, who continues to drive her to and from the studio, and back to Berkeley, where she is currently living in the dorms.

Michelle says her first semester at Berkeley was “really hard” and “super stressful”. It was definitely a big transition coming from a small high school with a graduating class of 69 people, to a large public university of over 30,000. This past semester, Michelle would “study nonstop”, and for the first time in her life, had to really apply herself to her studies to do well. Her busy lifestyle took a huge toll on her sleep schedule. In spite of it all, she survived her first semester of college.

When asked what kept her going during those difficult 16 weeks, Michelle said, “I spent all of first semester proving that I could do it. And I believe that if I want to do it, I can.”

To take the most difficult path of balancing pre-med at Berkeley with competitive ballroom dancing is a real testament to Michelle’s character, ambition, and passion for her craft. When asked what she loved most about being a ballroom dancer, she simply replied, “I love to dance!” Between the rough transition to college life and the academic rigor of a top-tier university, dance has been Michelle’s saving grace, “a place where I can continue doing what I love to do”. She states that her years of being a student-dancer has trained her in “time management”, a skill she carries over into her days as a university student. Looking back, she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t doing dance and school. The only time Michelle took a break from dancing was when she injured her foot. During that month away from training and competing, Michelle didn’t really know what to do with all her free time. Without dance giving her life structure, Michelle found herself procrastinating and “wasting time”. Dance had always been a huge part of Michelle’s life, and without it, she was left feeling lost.  

 
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Between studying, commuting to the studio, training, and traveling to compete, Michelle has had little time to partake in on-campus extracurricular activities. Even in high school, her commitment to dance came at the cost of a social life. She says that “dance took a toll on some of my relationships with friends at [high] school”. She’d often have to turn down invitations to hang out with friends, because of training. Her goals for her spring semester at Berkeley are to keep up her studies, continue competitive dancing, join a pre-medical club, and perhaps apply to work at Berkeley’s “Suitcase Clinic”, an organization dedicated to promoting health and wellbeing in the underserved population.

 
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UC Berkeley does have a competitive collegiate ballroom dance team, where college students compete in the same four styles of dance— Latin, Standard, Smooth, and Rhythm— against students from different universities. Collegiate ballroom is a great way for beginner/intermediate level dancers, many of whom first begin ballroom in college, to challenge themselves in a fun, low-key environment. Michelle currently does not train with the collegiate team, as she does not have time, between studying, her own dance training, and competing in the Amateur circuit. She has not really considered collegiate ballroom as an option, as dancing in the collegiate circuit is quite different from the type of competitive dancing she has been doing her entire life. If Michelle were to quit competitive dancing, it would be difficult for someone like her, who’s received professional training her entire life, to transition into a program where ballroom is viewed less competitively and more as a fun hobby.

 
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When asked who her biggest supporters were throughout all her years as a competitive ballroom dancer, Michelle immediately replied, “My parents. They have given me the financial means to take lessons, compete, buy dresses… I am grateful that my mom knows how to do hair and makeup!” Indeed, the financial cost of competitive ballroom is no joke. 45-minute private lessons can range anywhere from $90 to $300, depending on who you are taking lessons from. Competition entry fees and cost of traveling amount to a staggering number. Ballroom dresses can cost thousands of dollars. Getting your competition hair and makeup professionally done tacks on another couple hundred to your already impressive bill. Michelle is truly appreciative of her parents, who have unconditionally supported her throughout her 14 years as a ballroom dancer. “My parents work so hard to give me the ability to do what I want. They tell me to just focus on school and dance, because that’s what [I] want. I am very lucky-- I’ve never had a real job, besides teaching at the studio.” Michelle’s mother, whose work situation is such that she can make her own schedule, accompanies Michelle to the studio, and stays there until Michelle is done with practice.

 
 

These past 5 months of balancing student life with dance have tested Michelle more than she’s ever been tested before. Mentally. Physically. Emotionally. This young woman is a fighter to the core, determined to carve her own path, hard as it may be. She knows what she wants and is fearless in her approach to get there. A bright future, brighter than the glitz of the ballroom, is coming her way!


Fun Facts

Birthday: Aug 31, 2000

Hobbies/passions outside of dance? Reading, hanging out with friends, taking long walks, spending time with family

Favorite color(s)? Yellow

Kinds of music you listen to? I’m currently listening to Rex Orange County; I like relaxed, slow, alternative music; I’ll listen to basically all types of music (except heavy metal and rock); Sometimes I listen to ballroom music, especially when preparing for competition

Favorite movie(s)? I don’t like horror; I enjoy rom-com’s; I like all movies that have a strong, resonant message; recently watched “Aquaman”, which was a good action movie; “On the Basis of Sex” , “Battle”, and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are good ones as well

What languages do you speak besides English? Cantonese

What are some words you’d use to describe yourself?  

  • Lucky

  • Stubborn

  • Hardworking

  • Procrastinator (if I have too much time on my hands)