We had the pleasure to speak with Evgeni Smagin and Polina Kazatchenko the morning after their victory in the British Open Professional Rising Stars Latin Championship. They were naturally delighted at this victory in their first Professional Latin event. Evgeni and Polina represent Russia. See their results.
...we are able to concentrate on the emotional side, and to try to show a little bit of a story through the dance
Congratulations on your fantastic win, we have been told by many people you were the best on the floor so it seems the public opinion was the same as the judges opinion.
[Evgeni] Thank you.
Normally we start by asking about how, when, where you started dancing, but of course we have your history Evgeni from when you danced with Rachael, so perhaps you can tell us what has happened since the ending of the partnership with her.
[Evgeni] I danced for a couple of months with Beata (Onefater) and I was planning to move to America but that did not work out as she had health problems at that time. Then I was dancing for almost a year with Elena (Arsentieva) my partner from Russia. Then it was decided that Polina and I would dance together as a couple as we were already a couple in life. So there was the decision we would be dance partners and not just life partners.
How did you meet?
[Evgeni] We knew each other for a long time from dance competitions etc., but it was a New Years Party in St. Petersburg that we started our relationship. It was a very nice New Years present.
[Polina] Yes, I became his New Years present.
So it was a very Happy New Year. (laughter). And Polina what is your history of dancing?
[Polina] I started dancing when I was 10 and I was dancing with my partner (Vladimir Filippov) for 10 years. Actually Evgeni is only my second partner. It was my father who saw an advertisement that there was a dance school so we went there to watch all the kids and I decided to go, and of course I stayed there.
You were dancing both Ballroom and Latin.
[Polina] Yes I was 10 dance dancer till I was about 16 and then I stopped Ballroom and continued dancing Latin.
And then you met this guy.
[Polina] Yes at the New Years Party. Actually when we started going out together I was still dancing with Vladimir.
Do you consider this win yesterday to be your biggest success so far?
[Evgeni] Well, together we made the British final in Amateur - this was our first year dancing together and we were 5th and of course we won some other competitions. But yes, as Professionals, this is our biggest achievement yet and it was our first competition as a Professional couple. Of course, it is very nice to start with a win and especially at British Open.
Do you find it different dancing Professional to dancing as Amateurs?
[Evgeni] Yes, it is but I cannot tell you exactly how. From yesterdays experience it was nice to have the support from the audience. All the professionals sitting on the front row were very supportive and this of course is amazing. When the crowd is going for you it is a great feeling. As an Amateur we did not have as much support. We also felt very relaxed as it was our first competition we had no pressure. We had nothing to prove, so it was "just enjoy".
Did you change your routines or your style since moving to Professional?
[Polina] Well, we did not change the entire thing, but we did make changes because it was our first competition. I think mentally we changed and that was the most important thing to do but we did not make any dramatic changes.
[Evgeni] As a dancer you cannot change the way you are. It is who you are from the beginning to the end and I do not think you can dramatically change the style of your dancing. I think it is the approach to dancing that can change. Yesterday as Professionals we were concentrating not on gaining more power but on our rhythmical and emotional approach. We were not trying for speed to be fast and to compete with the Amateur couples.
[Polina] It has always been pressure for us to dance as Amateur. When you see quite young couples and they are really going for it...
You are still a young couple (laughter)
[Polina] Yes, but I mean the new generation and it is all fast, powerful, tricks and whatever. I cannot understand it. When you are concentrating on technical things and this other couple are doing all this other stuff, it is so difficult to compare. This was always pressure, but now we are free and we are able to concentrate on the emotional side, and to try to show a little bit of a story through the dance.
When we were interviewing another couple just after they moved to Professional they told us they feel much more free and artistic. Would you agree or disagree?
[Evgeni] Yes, well, as we said you concentrate more on the story of the dance, to show its character, rather than physicality.
We know your aims for the near future: Blackpool, UK Open, Worlds but for future what ambitions do you have?
[Evgeni] We have not made any long plans or thinking about results. We are just wanting to relax, dance our best and enjoy and hope that people will enjoy what we are dancing and accept us as a new couple. We will see but for the Open Professional at Blackpool we will be very happy if we can make the semi final. [They have made the 11th place next day]
You feel the field is so strong...
[Evgeni] Yes. At the UK this year it was very strong competition from the semi final. Now it is tough competition from the Professionals.
[Polina] Yes, it is nice that it is like that.
Yes, that is how it should be the Professionals being strong. It could be one of the most exciting Latin competitions at Blackpool for years.
[Evgeni] Yes, there are a lot of new couples coming up.
[Polina] Very nice couples, nice to watch.
[Evgeni] Of course, with all these new couples you never know where everyone is going to finish and it is exciting to see.
The Ballroom will be packed for the first round this year.
[Evgeni] Yes, there will be many new couples dancing from the first round.
Evgeni, you might remember from previous interview we ask the question what is your partners biggest fault and their biggest virtue.
[Evgeni] The biggest positive aspect is her great patience because I can really blow up and build troubles out of anything
[Polina] Out of nothing.
[Evgeni] Yes out of nothing and I appreciate that Polina is very patient with me. The biggest fault ... hmm.....
Very dangerous area and especially as you are a couple in private life!
[Polina] Exactly. Careful (lots of laughter). Come on, there is a lot of things.
[Evgeni] Yes, there is a lot (outburst of laughter) but I cannot think of which one ... hmm ....
(much laughter). There are so many! Now you are in trouble
[Evgeni] I am thinking about it and I cannot say maybe it is wrong to call it a fault.
[Polina] The biggest fault for him …..
[Evgeni] No, no, start with the positive (laughter)
[Polina] The biggest fault is that sometimes he is a little bit too inside himself and then it is difficult to communicate. That I think is the worst thing that he has. The positive side (pause), now I don't know what to say (much laughter). Dancing wise what I really like about him, is also a bad thing, when he is inside himself as I said, but at the same time it makes me feel secure he knows what he is doing in life and in dancing. It is really nice when you have someone who is smart and knows the way and that is a good thing.
How much time do you spend on training. Obviously as Professionals you do other things, you teach, do shows...
[Evgeni] We live in St. Petersburg and recently we have found it very hard to push ourselves to practise on our own in the ballroom so we are trying to attend training camps and group practices as much as possible. We really find that the atmosphere helps us to practise and go through all the problems and concentrate on them. Before any competition and especially the major competitions we try to concentrate on the practice. We do some physical training like aerobics, stretching and classical training together with the practice. It is hard to fit it all together but you have to choose.
How do you prepare for a competition? Do you have many lessons or mainly practice?
[Polina] Usually before like Blackpool and International we come to London and have some lessons and try to go to practise every day. This time before Blackpool we did not spend so much time in London because we went to the training camp in Germany with Hans, Brian and Carmen and that really helped us a lot because there we had just a few lessons and then you practise. You practise your stamina and we felt really prepared for the competition and we did not have the stress like am I going to survive or am I going to die in the first dance. When you are mentally prepared for the competition that is the best and this time we really felt ready, we did not feel tired, we wanted to dance. Usually when we come to London and have lessons for a week and a half or something I can really feel tired for the competition.
[Evgeni] We went through a lot of physical stress before Blackpool and judging on yesterday’s experience it was 7 rounds, which is a lot, and it was nice to be able to keep the same pace through all the rounds and save some energy for the final. The main trouble for the dancers is that you are trying to impress everybody from the first round and then normally by the semi and final you are exhausted. So for us the main job was to keep the same pace and energy until the end of the competition and we managed to do that. We did what we have planned.
What is more important for you knowing technique, practising technique, expressing yourself and your own feelings
[Polina] I think it is very difficult to practice only mechanics or only emotions. For myself I find if I am not good enough in mechanics then I cannot be myself and feel the emotions, so it comes from one thing to the other. First we try to do everything correctly in the body, and then it comes to the emotions. You cannot train your emotions, it just happens. You cannot be dramatic and expressive if you do not have the techniques within your body.
[Evgeni] We have several teachers, I would not say many, but each teacher has its own aspect. With one teacher we will mainly work on the rhythmical approach, with the second teacher we work more on the competitive aspect, communication with each other, the character. With another teacher we work on body co-ordination. At this moment we are very happy to find the team that basically works on every aspect and therefore we do not only work on one thing but concentrate on all the necessary aspects in dancing.
When you have several teachers do you find that you are getting contradictory advice where you cannot satisfy both of the teachers?
[Evgeni] Yes, of course. Every person has its own opinion.
[Polina] I think at the moment we are happy because the team of teachers we have. They fit together and it is nice. It is not good when one teachers teaches you one thing, another something different and you cannot fit it together. This creates stress, and I find at the moment, that everything goes together very well and we feel good.
For you which do you find the more important competition Blackpool or World Championship?
[Evgeni] In my career I have not danced many World Championships. Only as Youth and then Amateur when I was dancing for England. Recently we have not danced World Championships, and now in Professionals in Russia there is Sergey Surkov and Slavik dancing. In a way, this is a good thing, because we have great dancers to compete against. For me it is an honor to win Blackpool and I have managed to win it three times as Junior, Youth and now Professional Rising Star, it is history, because Blackpool is the longest running competition.
Now you have reached the position where you are one of the few people who have achieved this level you are like partially responsible for what is happening and you are teaching and influencing other couples
So what would you like to improve in the current dancing, judging scheme?
[Evgeni] (with a laugh) Well there are a lot of things that need to be changed with the recent, let's say, political situation as we are all aware. From the dancers point of view, all I can say is that it is very frustrating. At this moment I feel many people are just lost on what they should do. What is the best decision they can make, which association to dance for, which competition to dance, should I go against the Federation decision and dance Blackpool or not? The sad thing is that the decision is not in our hands but in the hands of politicians. For me the best breakthrough would be that we all live in peace and they just let the dancers do what they want to do and enjoy their dancing because that is what it is meant for. At the moment, I find that the dancers, let's say, have no choice. I am talking about Russian and Italian dancers, there are many people who are really disappointed at not being allowed to come to Blackpool. I really hope that in the very near future they will come to some solution to have freedom for the dancers.
You yourself faced with the choice would you prefer to dance WDC Professional or with the IDSF Professional Division?
[Evgeni] Well, in Russia, the decision to ban competitions in England was in place even before the U.K. and for us it was a clear decision that we will dance the U.K. After the UK we were warned, being told if we dance one more time we will be banned and the club we are dancing for will have trouble. For me it was always a clear decision what competitions I want to dance, the three main competitions, the biggest in the world, and therefore there was not even thinking about it and it helped us in our decision to become Professionals because then we can be free from these troubles.
[Polina] I do not know why, but we did not even think to dance in the IDSF, because we believe the best professional dancers are in WDC.
[Evgeni] WDC has always been the best for Professionals.
But it could have been easy to go to the IDSF because that way it would be easier to become World Champion.
[Polina] Yes, but at the same time you know what kind of World Champion you are. You are in the middle of nowhere without good dancers around you.
[Evgeni] It is not the kind of World Champion you want to be.
[Polina] If people ask who are the World Champions of course people will say Michael Malitowski and Joanna Leunis.
[Evgeni] Of course I can understand the people who are joining IPDSC, because in Russia they give the highest IDSF judging category, you can have your own club. If you dance for WDC you find it more difficult and now they are trying to ban IDSF couples to have lessons with WDC coaches and that is just wrong.
[Polina] It is just ridiculous.
So on this case it even hurts you financially.
Evgeni and Polina: It doesn't help certainly.
[Evgeni] It is obvious there are more IDSF couples in the world and this means more work. When they are cutting the IDSF couples to work with the WDC professionals, then for some it comes to obvious decision. In Russia there is more work with IDSF.
You are fortunate that you have achieved a level where people will come to you because of your results.
[Evgeni] We are very lucky to be independent. I always felt independent about this. I have often spoken to people and I feel there is so much holding them from all sides and they cannot move anywhere. They must do what they are told and I was very fortunate to be very independent from all this and decide what I want for my own dancing.
Polina, it is as you said at the beginning he has his own mind.
[Polina] (laughing) Yes.
If you could change something about dancing what would it be?
[Evgeni] Let's talk about yesterday. Many people approached me saying the couple who were 2nd yesterday, who won the UK, they were really going for it. They were on fire and we had to fire up a little. I was asking “Why? Why should I do this?” Then they were saying “Well it's great what you do, it's calm and correct and blah, blah, blah, but just you need to give it more”. I was thinking “I have my own plan, I am going with my feelings and flow, why should I change and start to dance as they are”. I wondered if someone is going to the other couple and saying “Listen you better calm down and dance a little more calmly, concentrate on rhythm and body movement”. It's a funny thing that there are a lot of people thinking differently and you never know what is best. In the dancing I find there are a lot of, let’s say, copies, and a lot of people trying to follow the same route and they become almost identical. You have to remember though, that the copy will never be better than the original. I am very happy now that in the Professionals almost all the couples are individual. I can remember 2-3 years ago on the Amateur when it was like all the same. The final seemed to be all the same style and in Amateur we lack the personalities. I can remember in the Amateur when it used to be Franco, Ricardo, Klaus, Peter, Eugene and you had all those different styles. Right now it is only in the Professionals. But I can still see Amateur couples who can provide different styles and I hope the judges can appreciate the other styles and not just go with the same one.
It makes the judging more difficult because you are comparing apples to oranges
[Evgeni] Yes but it makes the competition more interesting.
[Evgeni] I have spoken to people who say the final was boring, they could only watch one couple. I can remember when I was younger watching the finals of Amateur and you did not know who to choose because everyone was so different and it was exciting to see. Now you look and it is all the same and you have 1 or 2 couples that you favor and you look at them.
[Polina] I agree, but I don't think it is quite so much about the style. What I would change is this new fashion bigger, faster, tricks and nothing else. I would change this, because I would rather see dancing on the floor than a circus. I would like to see beautiful movements, shapes, co-ordination and all this becomes dancing which is filling up the music, musicality, rhythm, and all together it looks harmonic and you enjoy watching this. That is dancing, and I do not think you should go just for speed. There are couples who have their own style but you do not get the impression of good dancing. Speed, physicality, power is the wrong direction for me.
When you teach couples do you need a certain level before you can start to develop the personality. Is it something that you start very early.
[Polina] Emotions come with the dancing, with the technique. First thing you need to learn is the basics, mechanics, co-ordination, rhythm and then when you put it all together you can do whatever you want.
So you have recently turned Professional and your character has changed a little bit.
You appreciate the emotional side so this is something you look for now but is it fair to assume that all the amateur field can do that or is it fair to see that half the amateur field is at a level where you can expect it.
[Polina] In Amateurs you can be very emotional and express mature dancing, and there are some couples that do it, but I feel sometimes teachers do it in the wrong way and ignore the fundamentals.
[Evgeni] It is like a kind of short cut. It is easy to teach impact choreography, sharp, good lines and that's done. The picture is there and you will be seen. At the end of the day though, I find this dancing cannot be improved, because how much faster can you get, how much sharper can you get, how much more complicated can your choreography become? You will always come back to basics, you have to in order to develop as a dancer so don't waste your time but start now.
What in your opinion when in Junior 13/14 year old doing very overtly sexy movements in Rumba for instance.
[Evgeni] Things that kids can do in our days! You only have to show them and they straight away get it, and sometimes it makes me laugh and smile to see this cute little girl moving her bum from side to side and winking at you. That is nice when the movement is right and naturally sexy, but probably what you are talking about is all this leg spreading etc, even on grown up I don't really like this.
[Polina] I think when a girl, like 13 years old, can move beautifully and rhythmically it is great, but she should still look like a child and not try to make her look older and "sexy".
[Evgeni] You have these young kids growing up as dancers and not paying attention to basic movements, and just learning spins, tricks, whatever it takes to look impressive but not paying attention to fundamentals. I am sure many professionals will agree, you should grow up as a quality dancer in long term and not trying to hit the jack pot straight away.
Fundamentals take a long time for kids and it can be boring.
[Evgeni] That is what I am saying, some just try to take a short cut
Fundamentally, it is also question at strategic level for the organisation because if you look at the market and a lot of young people are looking, what do I do, where do I go and even in dancing they can go to Salsa, they can do Argentine Tango. They can do all kinds of dancing and if you want to get more and more people in then it will be difficult to balance as to what you allow them to do so they have fun and don't go somewhere else before they can grow into dancers.
[Polina] You have to be a really good teacher, find balance between the fundamentals and other things and make it fun and interesting.
I would not make a restriction on Jive because that is a fun dance but I would make a restriction on Rumba.
[Polina] At the same time why do we need to make restrictions? If the teachers would be more clever, then they would teach in the right way and we would not have to make restrictions.
[Evgeni] As I heard IDSF were proposing giving your choreography a difficulty level and then the dancers questioned, so what for instance is more difficult to do 20 turns, splits or a rumba walk. It is a tricky question, you know.
[Polina] To dance good rumba walks is not easy at all.
[Evgeni] I think you just have to find the balance, the right balance between having the fundamentals and having the good entertainment level.
In your opinion then generally it is the responsibility of the teachers.
[Polina] I think so. Yes.
[Evgeni] Yes, to guide dancers in the right direction. Many of us dancers want to trust our teachers, to believe them. We want to follow what they say, so I think if a teacher gives you the right honest opinion or shows you the right way, then it’s an advantage.
Where are your teachers mainly based?
[Evgeni] We mainly train in England. We don't have any Russian coaches. We mainly have lessons in England or when our teachers are working abroad.
It is entirely up to you but do you want to name your coaches?
[Evgeni] Yes, why not. A big influence, my second mother almost, is Margaret Redmond, the German team Hans, Brian and Carmen, of course Graham, Lorraine, Alan and Hazel, and Michael Stilyanos.
Do you have any fitness regime, your life style, your diet?
(at this moment the expression on Evgeni's face was somewhat shocked and highly amusing and caused an outbreak of laughter)
[Polina] We, don't do anything special, we go to gym not because of the dancing but because we like it. We eat whatever we want.
(Evgeni's face once again registers shock and causes laughter)
This is not a video interview!
[Polina] Sometimes we have some strikes, "From today I am not eating bread any more" and then after 2 days "Do you have any bread?" (Laughter) "But you're not eating bread any more" (more laughter)
[Evgeni] Well, of course....
[Polina] Well, I eat whatever I want
[Evgeni] Personally, I am watching what I am eating and trying to avoid pizzas and all that stuff.
[Evgeni] Have you ever seen me eating pizzas?
[Polina] (To more laughter) Yes. It is true. We are not on diet and we never stick on a diet.
(Laughing) I can see you have a problem with definition of a diet.
[Polina] We just try to eat healthy food
[Evgeni] That is a diet, to eat healthy.
[Polina] No. Of course, we are not going to McDonalds every day.
[Evgeni] There you go, that is what I am trying to say, we avoid junk food and therefore it is a healthy diet.
[Polina] That is a different thing. There is something you don't eat because you want to lose weight, but we don't need to lose weight.
So generally you eat anything so long as it is on the list of the allowed products.
For the foreseeable future you plan to remain in St. Petersburg.
[Polina] Yes, we live there
[Evgeni] To be in St. Petersburg it is hard to say because we always travel for teaching, competing
Coming back to the point you made about it is the responsibility of the teachers to make sure the young couples do the right things and mix up the different elements the fundamentals and entertainment correctly. What can be done because a lot of the teachers, the professionals, they concentrate on their own world, their own club, their own dancing and is there a way to share this information and knowledge and as a community work together and bring up not ecessarily the level of the dancers but the level of the teaching community.
[Evgeni] We attend many of the congresses before the UK, before Blackpool, and you can see the lecturers are mainly talking about the basics, the posture, the leg action, how to use the feet, the weight and the pressure, so actually they are sharing it. From year to year they are all talking about the fundamental things. As far as I can see there is always this sharing of the importance of the fundamentals but I don't know if many people learn and follow.
Basically I was asking is there a way to share this method of teaching so that people stick with you even when you are teaching the basics. If people have a choice and there is one teacher who is all about fun and there is another teacher and he always talks about the rumba walks. This young person goes home and says “that guy is so much better because we always have fun” so is there a way to share that?
[Polina] It would be nice but I really don't think it will be possible
[Evgeni] Every teacher has their own aspect and for one teacher it is very hard to teach everything. From the mental preparation, the rhythm, the body co-ordination, the technique, so for sure all the dancers are aware of the teachers who work on certain things. Then it is the dancers choice do they go for just for entertainment, choreography or will they sometimes also attend the teachers who work on the basics and fundamentals. Some couples get carried away and think too much about the entertainment and forget the basics, but it has to be the "whole package".
At the moment it is enough to be a Professional if you declare yourself a professional and it is ridiculous really so should there be something like an examination to be passed before you can say you are a Professional.
[Evgeni] There is an examination system, an exam you have to do within 2 years of turning Professional. You have to do Ballroom and Latin exam to be able to judge.
What do you think is the big difference between Amateurs and Professionals today. In old days to be a Professional you were earning money from that activity but today all the Amateurs are teaching and earning money.
[Evgeni] I know people who do not want to turn professional, because they established their name as an Amateur and they have good work and good earnings, so they don't really have to be professionals. Even as an amateur you still get invited to competitions, shows and teaching.
So I think it is time that we come to a close now. So congratulations once again for last night and all good wishes for the Pro Latin and also for the future.