The Good Coach vs The Bad: How a master teacher tried to break me but powerful examples and truth held me strong.

As a little girl I would watch ballerinas and figure skating pairs doing beautiful acrobatic lifts and tricks. Being a daredevil it had always been my dream to be thrown or lifted into the air and soar.

I never had the chance until later in life when a friend asked me to do pair skating. For the first time I was being lifted and thrown and the feeling was exhilarating. Unfortunately, the partnering was short-lived when throat cancer took him too young.

Years later, I entered a salsa studio where Cabaret lifts are part of the routines. Suddenly my dream was very much a reality, but my body image and body type got into my head. Would I be too heavy for the guys, did I have too large of a frame?

This past year my partner and I proved that lifts and tricks aren’t about size, but about technique, and we’ve done incredible stunts even though we’re the same height.

When I was given the chance to work with the “master” of Cabaret lifts and tricks at the CT Salsa Congress, I was excited to learn better technique. We were there as a team to perform a routine that had four tricks that would be done on stage the next day.

I grabbed a man from our studio, who’d been doing tricks for about a year. At first he was concerned about his inexperience. If you look at our sizes, maybe someone would think he wasn’t strong enough, yet with the first lift we quickly proved that we were fine.

The second trick was definitely more technical. I would stand in front of him and he would sweep me around to his shoulder where I’d take a Dirty Dancing Pose like I was flying. It’s a trick I know well, but it was a new entrance.

Our first attempt, we both put so much power that it felt like he was trying to throw me to the back wall. We laughed, and started again. “Less power,” we agreed. “We got this. Just nice and controlled to the shoulder.”

The second attempt he twisted too much, and I was pulled a little too far back to keep my shape. I knew with a few adjustments we’d be doing it perfectly.

Then the “master” came to help us.

He explained a few things to my partner and then I asked if there was anything I could do differently. Immediately he became angry, telling me not to ask silly questions and to just listen.

I asked, “Should I plié on this foot?”

Once again he answered in anger to just do the trick and stop asking questions.

The third attempt was a better one, but my partner still gave a bit too much power and we stumbled.

“He’s not strong enough to handle you. Step aside,” the master said. I moved out of the way and didn’t say a word. I assumed he was looking after everyone’s safety, but then he continued speaking. “I know you don’t want to hear this but size matters and you should be in better shape, and you think I’m a jerk for saying it.”

I said nothing as the master teacher pulled a woman, probably about the same weight as me, but with a smaller frame, to do the trick with my partner. The trick didn’t go well. She didn’t understand what to do.

“Go away, you have no technique,” he said to her then pointed to me. “Come back, at least you have technique.”

I walked back to my partner in silence. Fourth try, and once again I was too far back to maintain my legs in a flyer position.

“Your lower back muscles are too weak. You’re weak. You shouldn’t be doing this trick. I know you think I’m a jerk, but you can’t do this.”

“I’m too far back on him to retain the shape,” I said, knowing that his shoulder was under my rib cage each time. “How do I stay more forward?”

“If you weren’t weak you would be fine no matter where he placed you. Do it again.”

So I did, and as my partner’s shoulder blade was nearly on my breast I did everything I could to pull my legs up. I managed it even though it was painful. Frustrated, I knew the solution, but had to remain silent.

He put me down and once again the master told me how weak, out of shape, and as he touched my lower back muscles (muscles that are rock solid), he then said, “I don’t care that you think you can do this, or that you’ve done it before, you’re not capable.”

He walked away and my partner leaned over and said, “That was incredibly rude. Why did you just take it?”

“Because no matter what he says it isn’t the truth. If he’d like to go head to head with me in athletics he can bring it on. I figure skate two hours per day, and dance two hours per night. I white water kayak and hike. And I’ve done this trick over 50 times. I know my truth. My frame may not be petite, but I’m rock solid strength.”

As soon as the class was over, two guys from my studio effortlessly did the trick with myself and the other girl.

The answer was a simple adjustment.

Though I stayed silent as “the master” tried to break me, honoring that it was his class, within I carried the strength of my favorite female salsa dancers.

The lead dancer of the World Champions, Huracan, who’s luscious curves flow so beautifully in all her dresses, whose movement is accentuated by her body type and her strength flawless when she flies in tricks.

Then there was the sexy confident woman I’d seen rehearsing that morning. She moved with power, and pure, “Here I am,” her ample backside on display in her tiny costume as she flowed over and around her partner’s body in gravity defying moves.

I looked over at Michelle Garcia and my instructor Liliana Jimenez, as Lili based Michelle in the same tricks even though Lili is shorter than Michelle. Michelle talks about being a fierce salsa dancer even though she’s considered tiny, while Liliana loves that she can pick up her very tall boyfriend and squat him, even though she also has a petite but strong frame.

These women are all examples that beauty, grace, and power, comes in all shapes and sizes.

During the whole experience, I thought about one of my favorite figure skaters, Gracie Gold. I remember meeting her when she still trained in Chicago. A bright shining star with tremendous expression in her skating, she was also a beautiful soul who encouraged all the adults at Adult Skating Championships. She didn’t care that many were already retired from their jobs and just starting, or if a person was a long standing pro, she thought it was awesome that everyone skated.

Gracie’s talent and work ethic along with her personality were set to take the world by storm, until a coach told her to lose weight because she was too fat for skating — a very untrue statement.

That one comment dragged her into a dark world of eating disorders and depression. It took away her shot at the last Olympics. She is now speaking about her ordeal and trying to help change what happens in the world of coaching.

In another instance of this kind of coaching, my chiropractor had to pull his daughter from a collegiate swim team because the coach wasn’t allowing some of the women to eat in order for them to be thinner.

The old idea that only petite women should be allowed to dance, figure skate, do fancy lifts and tricks needs to end alongside how it was once okay to sexually harass women. It’s time for these “masters” to get with the program, to stop seeing the world through the eyes of media and their old way of coaching.

It’s time for the reign of their egos to end, as women and men of all ages, ethnicities, body types and even same sex partnerships break the old stereotypes of what’s possible.

A true coach would never demolish a person for size, strength, or to make decisions from their presumptions because they “know” better after years of coaching.

In a world, where we are now speaking up about sexual misconduct, it’s also time to start speaking up about safe coaching when it comes to body images for both females and males.

Safe coaching begins with a positive approach. There are coaches who yell, who push you for more, and that’s fine, but when it becomes abusive for the sake of their egos it’s time for them to take a seat.

Author of The Lake House (S&S), founder E2T Adventures, world traveler, figure skater, white water kayaker, dancer, keynote speaker. www.e2tadventures.com

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