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Oxana Lebedew is a 2-time World Champion Latin ballroom dancer, 8-time German Professional Latin Champion, and Blackpool Dance Festival finalist. In addition to achieving immense competitive success, Oxana has been a professional on the German version of Dancing With the Stars. Her illustrious ballroom dance career has led her to perform on the world’s biggest stages and garner insights unique to artists who reach the highest levels in their craft. This is her story.
Q: How did you get into ballroom dancing? What age did you start?
A: I’ve been dancing all my life, some sort of dance because my mother was a choreographer. My father is a gymnast and gymnastics teacher. My sister is an acrobat. So we have a crazy, artistic, sporty family. My journey led to a ballroom school when I was around six or seven.
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Q: So is ballroom very popular in Kazakhstan, correct? It’s very popular in Eastern Europe in general.
A: Exactly. The reason why I started this type of dance is because I saw it on TV. Back then, it was very popular in our country. There were many competitions broadcasted from Russia. Kremlin Cup was one of my favorite competitions to watch on TV. So as a child, I fell in love watching TV, and then my mom brought me to try it, and I never went back.
Q: And you were on Dancing With The Stars, right, the Italy version?
A: I was on the German version 2016. After I stopped my competitive career, they invited me to go on Ballando con le Stelle, the Italian version of Dancing With The Stars. It was fun.
Q: Let’s talk about your earlier days of competing in ballroom. What age did you start doing this competitively?
A: I started to compete before I was actually a conscious athlete. I barely can remember how I started. But I remember that we were sharing a partner. Boys are always very rare in this type of dance, so we were two girls sharing one partner. He was older and quite experienced already. For me, I felt like a little puppy just trying to remember my steps.
Q: What age did you decide that you wanted to do this at a professional level?
A: I knew right away the moment I saw it on TV that I would like to be one of those stars shining on the floor. This passionate, fiery couple dance, it took my heart away. I tried a bit of ballet, but ballet is a little bit too melancholic for my nature. I like a bit more fiery music and the relationship between man and woman. So I knew it from the first time I ever saw it.
Q: You were dancing in the Youth division. And then you transitioned directly into Professional with your partner Franco Formica. Is that correct?
A: Yeah. He was a three-time World Champion in Amateur. He also was one of my teachers back when I was still dancing in youth. My partner [in youth] didn’t grow any more, and I was taller than him. So our partnership stopped. Franco moved to Berlin, the city where I lived since I was 12. He knew that I was alone there, and he suggested for us just to practice to stay in shape. When we danced, it felt special. He started to teach me and then we took a year of preparation before we got onto the competitive floor. And that was my way from youth to professional.
Q: How old were you when you turned pro?
A: 18. The first competition was when I was 19.
Q: That’s truly remarkable. Tell me about what went through your head when you transitioned and made such a big leap. Because usually people go through the order of Youth, Under 21, Amateur, then Professional, and you skipped under 21 and Amateur and went straight to Pro. It was a whole different game, right? Competing in the youth field versus professional.
A: Of course there was so much knowledge and so many things I learned while I started to dance with Franco. I just had so many tasks to do I guess I didn’t even realize how big the jump was. I just was thrown into the cold water, and I tried to cope with it the best I could. But as I mentioned, the partnership felt right. We had a big difference in age, nine years of difference. But still, somehow I knew I was destined to dance with him. I guess I didn’t analyze too much. Since I was little, watching Franco dance, he was always a huge idol of mine. I didn’t even like to watch women dance so much, I liked talented, skillful men, and he was definitely the star back then for me. Him making the decision to dance with me was, let’s say, not even a dream come true, because I never actually imagined this would happen. It was really incredible.
Q: And you guys had a very successful partnership together. To what do you attribute your success in dancing?
A: In our case it was his amazing background, the knowledge he carried and his vision. His vision was very clear, very strong. He tried to amplify it on me, so I just was trying to find harmony to fit in. I had a very sportive background from ballet and gymnastics, and I was able to dance by myself, but to dance with a partner, I started really to learn when we started our partnership. To become a woman, you know, this was tough. But it’s so important to learn how partnering really works, because this is the most significant thing in ballroom dancing, that you’re actually not a solo artist, but you’re a team worker. We were working a lot on connection. In general, it always takes great synergy, even if partners are different, or they have a different background, that they find a good balance.
Q: What did your training schedule look like?
A: One of my priorities in dancing with any partner is that I can trust my body. Every part of my body must be trained: stretching, strengthening, coordinating all the different mechanical actions. And then of course, connecting the right way so that we have a perfect lead and follow relationship. Franco is definitely an artist. So for him, to just go through a dance is a torture. He would always like to experience each movement each moment as if it was danced for the first time, to come in with a fresh mind and fresh vision. Each time this was important, but we still knew that we needed those camps before big competitions like Blackpool Dance Festival or Internationals at the Royal Albert Hall in London. We always joined the camps where we were forced by our teachers to dance through all five dances. We spent a whole day [dancing], and this was our profession. Besides that we were also teaching our couples and traveling a lot for some show performances. It was quite a lifestyle change for me after being in youth and school. My life changed as I became professional. We would travel 10 to 13 hours to Asia, and then with the jet lag, wake up at 8am, teach the whole day, and then practice and perform all the shows. I was exhausted and tried to do my very best. Back then I didn’t know how to control my energy, I just gave it my all and I guess with the time I adapted, and I learned how to do it more wisely.
It’s so important to talk less and to dance more. That’s my opinion, because, for example, with my partnership with Pavel, later, even during our try out, we just started to dance. I asked him, ‘Maybe we should talk first, what would you like [the partnership] to be? How do you imagine it?’ And he said, ‘No, let’s just go with the flow. Just feel me.’ And it was perfect. Sometimes couples fall into those things I call ego trips, just trying to strengthen your point. In reality, it’s anyway gonna be different. So you just have to be ready to react in the moment. Because when you’re out there, the best dancers can work intuitively and instinctively and react to their partner.
Q: Tell me about performing on the biggest stages like at Blackpool at World Championships. Did you get nervous?
A: I was always nervous. Even for a show in some city in Japan which I never heard about before. I was nervous each time before entering the floor, but I guess this adrenaline and excitement is important. It makes you grow, it challenges you. Nervousness is actually realizing that it means something to me. The comps which I was least nervous about were in Korea and Taiwan, because the audience there is so frenetic, loud, and supportive, so you forget your nervousness because they just carry you on the floor with them. But on the comps like Blackpool, with all the stars sitting in the first row watching you, watching your feet, watching your face, whatever happens, you feel like every little mistake can be seen. They maybe don’t care, but your inner voice is telling you to just try to do everything perfectly. And sometimes it’s a little bit counterproductive. It doesn’t really help when you try to be too perfect. When you feel nervous, try not to be a victim of negativity in this moment, but try to find positive aspects about being nervous. Try to see it as excitement. Let’s see this moment as an opportunity to grow and to learn something new. Welcome it into your life and experience it the best way you can without expecting too much. Be excited and happy about going on the floor and performing. It’s a gift.
I also learned that sometimes we are criticizing ourselves too much. For example, after a comp, if we do not have the result that we would like to have, or after a show you sometimes still find mistakes. Guys out there, please don’t do that. Just understand that you did the best for the moment you could under the circumstances you had. So just appreciate that gift that you were out there. We should express joy, we should express beauty and great connection with the audience and the music. See it as a blessing.
Q: What inspires you as a dancer and an artist?
A: I was always inspired by great singers. For example, I was a great fan of Amy Winehouse and how she was so authentic in her way of artistry. I used to say to Franco, ‘I wish I could dance like she sings.’ She allowed herself just to be her. I got inspired by biographies of people like Ray Charles or Edith Piaf. I love biographical movies. I recently watched the movie about Elvis Presley. It inspired me how they went out there, with the whole world watching them sing that song, and how they behaved and mastered it.
Of course, there were so many beautiful stars in our industry. When I was little, I really loved to watch Gaynor Fairweather. I saw some arm movements she did, or how her back moved in a certain light, and you remember those things forever. This also inspired me, but it was never that I tried to copy. I was just like, ‘Wow, how beautiful that is, and how it must have felt is a different thing than how it looks.’ I was more about finding out the feel of it, not just copying the picture. I never like to copy dancers. You will never do it better than the original right? So let’s, of course, get inspired and try things. How it would look on me, or how it must feel when Hanna Karttunen or Karina Smirnoff did some of their signature moves. Of course, I tried it out. I went on the floor and practiced and watched myself develop it into something which Oxana would do.
Q: Have you ever gone through any motivational plateaus in your career where you just weren’t feeling as inspired as you may normally do? If so, how do you push through those moments?
A: Sometimes you just get tired and need a refill. The best thing for dancers is to take a few days off, try to spend more time in nature, do other things which help you. For me, I always enjoyed yoga and meditation. I just felt that my spirit and my body find their balance, because emotionally, psychologically, there was always a lot of pressure from myself and others. To sometimes distance yourself from all those things and find your harmony, do the things you love. Treat yourself nicely, like going to massages. It’s very important to invest in your body and health, because we do tremendous physical work. They say dancers are athletes of God. But we also must indulge ourselves sometimes with things which will make our recovery go smoother.
The only time I felt like I really didn’t want to go on stage or compete anymore was when I found myself in the wrong partnership. You need to be with a good partner beside you who you trust, and who will bring the same amount of motivation and energy with him. We definitely need to be balanced as a couple, and then everything is fine.
Q: How can dancers maintain their bodies so that they can keep the longevity of their bodies? What are some of your thoughts on injury prevention in ballroom dancing in particular?
A: Good balance between work and rest. You need to listen to your body, you need to understand the signals it sends to you. So of course when you are inexperienced and young, you have to have a good teacher, coach, and specialists who support you in this topic and tell you how to prevent injuries. I was lucky in this, coming from a family who were always experienced. It’s very important to have good shoes, because I hear so many girls have problems with their knees, and they need to stop even their dance career sometimes because the shoes were wrong for her shape or body. I also remember Carmen Vincelj, she was one of my teachers. She was saying that you better choose a lower heel rather than exaggerating just for the sake of beauty or style. Some girls are trying to have longer legs and then they wear those crazy high heels. It can ruin your health.
Q: There’s one question I had about technique. I see videos of dancers in the younger generation doing the rumba walk, and some will settle into their hip in an over-exaggerated way. It doesn’t seem healthy. Why do they do this? And what are the potential ramifications of doing this to your hip?
A: Well, definitely, it’s not healthy. And they do it, I guess for the sake of creating a more exaggerated, fuller action to look more intense, or whatever. But I just don’t get those teachers who teach kids like this, because they don’t teach them how to align their bodies correctly and how to create balance over the foot correctly to use the floor in the right way. The rumba walk is the step which is taught and trained the most. In ballet, they do the barre, and we do the rumba walk. Breaking all the rules and just making a more extreme look is so wrong to me. Anywhere I go where I teach, I always try to tell students, ‘Yes, I know. You guys try to maybe exaggerate [hip action]. But please, respect the right alignment for the sake of the health of your body.’
Q: Speaking of body alignment, what if you’re someone who was born with a body that may not have the cleanest, most perfect lines for a Latin dancer, whatever that means? What if, for example, your knees don’t naturally hyperextend and you’re trying to force your body to be something that it cannot, or you feel this pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic? How can we as dancers learn to appreciate all aspects of our body even if they don’t necessarily conform to the “ideal” look for a ballroom dancer?
A: All right. So let’s start with the word you mentioned, like trying to force anything, it’s already for me the wrong approach. Coming back to this topic of teachers forcing their students to do bigger hip action and then they collapse or apply pressure on to the hip joint to go deeper. It is just a matter of time when it will become an injury. So I think we should never try to break it. I worked to develop overextension of my knees, and I had some tools to do it because my mom and my father showed me some exercises which are helpful. But it should always be done with a gentle, wise, correct approach and not just, ‘Okay, today I’m gonna have it suddenly done.’ No, it takes time. You need to also listen to your body because if you start to feel pain in the joint, then you should stop doing that. And hyperextension by the way, it’s not always so needed, because in Latin American dancing, it’s not about being thin and showing the perfect lines. I would say the priority is on music, rhythm, and partnering, and then the look of it is for me like a bonus. As a judge, I would never look and say, is this girl bigger or smaller? Never ever. First criteria I watch is the musicality, then the alignment, the coordination of the body, and then balance and further aspects. Unfortunately, sometimes some dancers think too superficially. We should spend more time on developing the technique. For example, Carmen never had the hyperextended shape of her leg. Still, she was a 9-time World Champion. There are other things which are important in dance.
There was a time where I was quite unhappy [with my body] and suffered with gaining weight and feeling heavy. I wish I would never spend a minute being insecure about this. I must say to all the girls out there, work on yourself to develop your skills, lose yourself in dance, spend more time on working with your partner to create some cool choreography. But don’t beat yourself up on the look or something because in the end, time goes by and you understand that it doesn’t matter whether you’re one pound more or less or whatever. After time, you understand it was just such a waste of energy.
Use the power you have. So if you’re built stronger, say a bit more athletic, use the power. Maybe it’s your thing to be dynamic, strong, stable. One famous ballet dancer from Russia said, ‘A giraffe is never gonna be an elephant.’ But they all have their beauty and of course, we’re all unique. So just find your strength in what you are given naturally, appreciate it, and don’t try to fight it. Unfortunately, so many dancers end up with eating disorders. It’s so unnecessary if you find beauty in how you are and just work on the skills.
Q: What is any other piece of advice you would give to young aspiring dancers who aspire to be as great as you?
A: They should ask themselves, why are they actually dancing, why did they choose this type of art? And what would they like to express? Just personally go into yourself and ask this question. What would I like to discover in this journey of me being a dancer? How can it make me a better person? Not all of us are made to be champions. What I understand now is that if we would just see ourselves like we were blessed to be role models for so many dancers, even without making certain results, we were still inspirational to them. Just be happy with this instead of always struggling and trying to achieve something that maybe you were not supposed to. Every experience is a lesson, you know? Ask yourself, what am I here for? Maybe you will realize, ‘Oh, it was actually someone’s idea to make me dance, and maybe I’m made for something else.’ And then you actually understand. But it’s better to understand it earlier, than to do something you don’t love.
Q: Will we be seeing you on the dance floor anytime soon?
A: The moment came in my life when I actually asked myself, do I still want to compete? I realized that my inner voice was telling me, no. I want to dance, and I also want to experience new things. I tried Dancing With The Stars. And I sometimes do performances in different types of dance. For example, I discovered flamenco and I actually started to do it when I was little, it was always part of my life. Now I’m actually happy to do it, just for myself and my soul. There is no pressure of competition. This is for the moment where I feel happy. Teaching and giving my knowledge to my students and helping any type of dancers who would like to learn how to move their bodies. I’m happy to be helpful. That’s where I see myself for the moment. I don’t know what will happen in a few years, but for now, I’m happy in this state.