At MadJam this month, Stephen White posted on the event facebook page, “Come meet me in the bar!” Robbie and I knew he and Sonya had talked about dropping in for showcases after their Euro trip. It seemed plausible! So we took the fastest elevator we could find to get to the hotel bar to see our friend.
But no one with shockingly blond hair appeared. We even stopped to listen to see if we would hear him laugh — no one could miss Stephen’s laugh and he doesn’t go more than a few minutes without laughing.
He wasn’t there. He was in France at another event. We can only imagine Stephen was laughing as he sent us an apology note. “It’s actually an old joke. I’m so sorry you went looking for me!”
No harm done — though we were slightly disappointed. Stephen’s just that guy: the one who will remember the long joke and pull it out at just the right time. The one with an antic so unexpected that you’ll show up in a hotel bar on the wrong side of the Atlantic looking for him and really rather enjoy getting let in on the fun.
He’s got unmistakable philosophy and zaniness — thoughtful and irreverent, steady and spontaneous. He’s the kind of friend you need for any part of life.
And as a west coast swing dance pro, he has been friend to many both in the USA and internationally. Just this year, he and his dance partner Sonya Desserault will be travelling more weekends than not! And it was only 13 years ago that Stephen White found west coast for the first time.
Stephen’s dance life first began in martial arts in the small town of Plataca, Florida. As he said, “I grew up next to cows, essentially,” and laughed (because Stephen, as I’ve said, is always laughing). Martial arts taught him movement and control and laid the groundwork for later exposure to dance.
By the end of high school, he’d found his way into ballroom and was teaching for local studios near Jacksonville, Florida, where he had moved to pursue the military — and then dance just happened. From there, he competed as a professional in American Rhythm.
[Side note: We don’t have time here to tell the story about his move into ballroom which is amazing and involves an unexpected encounter at a night club. Ask Stephen to tell it at Camp this year!]
When he first saw west coast swing, it was in a ballroom studio where it made zero sense to Stephen. “It was west coast but cleaned up for a studio space: over complicated and to bad music.”
When he saw WCS in the wild at the Grand Nationals in Atlanta, Stephen loved it. He could see the interpretation of music, not just the style and a beat. The flexibility and expression appealed to him.
“You had to be better at being yourself to succeed [in west coast],” Stephen noted. All the great west coast swing was done by people clearly and effectively dancing their personalities. “If you look at the entire top field, no one person looks the same. Most of the dancing matches their personality type.” And that intrigued him. “I knew I had to try it.”
From there, he started competing and moved up the levels. He had just started becoming well known in the USA circuit when he and Sonya started partnering. He had another partnership that was wrapping up. “It just worked out,” he said.
Dancing Like Stephen
Stephen and Sonya are fantastic, unforgettable dancers. Their recent 6th place performance at the US. Open Classic division was breathtaking and uniquely them. Their look keeps evolving and keeps retaining their unique tastes and storytelling abilities. They seem to dance their essential personalities, something that is at the heart of Stephen’s particular dance philosophy. “I want to help people learn to cultivate that thing that authentically works for you.”
“My biggest challenge in dance,” Stephen said, “has been connecting to the emotive side. Most of my early ballroom training involved fabricating emotion. It’s a struggle to attach emotionally into the movements.” It’s been a steep learning curve, one which required a lot of self awareness.
Finding his own way in west coast is a big part of what Stephen’s working on this last year. What he’s found is that everyone hits this ceiling of how good they can be trying to dance like everyone else. “You bottom out at a certain point, and have to reevaluate. There are so many things that might not work for you — it’s not me, it’s not for how my body works, I don’t like it, not how I hear or feel something — so many reasons.”
Committing to Grow
Now, after years of being well known (and much beloved, especially by students) in the circuit, he and Sonya are ready to up their game in new ways. “It’s really about rebranding themselves. We’re taking a serious focus on the competitive side of swing and finding ways to put energy into competition.” Now, that doesn’t mean his love of teaching has lessened. “We’re just turning the volume up on this other part of our dance lives. We aren’t getting any younger! Now is the time!”
Teaching with Impact
This April, Stephen and Sonya are hosting their first ever dance training retreat in Florida. It’ll be an intense setting where they can work with a small group and really get in there to help build dancers’ technique. They will use the material from that weekend, and the feedback from participants, to create and launch new workshops throughout the next year.
Stephen’s teaching philosophy is robust and learner focused. “It’s all about diagnosing,” he noted. You have to listen to what a student wants and then interpret that. “If someone wants to spin on one foot, they might actually be saying they want to be more. And maybe we’ll reach that goal by working on something else.” He’lll evaluate what tools are they working with, how they will that receive information, and get the result they are asking him for. “All of those things is putting a puzzle together.”
The fun part? “It’s never the same job twice. And I love that moment when the light bulb goes off!”
Come Hang Out!
Want Stephen as that friend who will never let a joke die? Who sees the individual as he teaches? Who gets the job done and plays hard? Well, you should be at Camp Westie this year! This will be Stephen’s second year with Camp Westie and he can’t wait to be back. “If you’re the kind of person who values the social interaction, the kind of person who wants to improve on the dance and get to know the community around you, if you value unique experiences, fun and sunshine and all that jazz and good vibes. This is for you. You should invest in it. I can’t say enough awesome things about it.”
Stephen, we can’t wait to see you again. We’ll be at the bar waiting for you!