We met Neil Jones and Ekaterina Sokolova next day after their winning of Amateur Latin competition at the UK Open 2012. We sat together in the lobby of the Bournemouth International Centre and had a long and interesting conversation. Neil and Ekaterina represent England. See their profile page
When we are playing with choreography, playing with ideas, we always take it back to what it originally was, what it is about, and we go back to that.
Congratulations! It is nice to have a British champion finally. You really deserved it. I remember you Neil when you were younger and I have seen you grow. Can you please tell us about yourselves?
[Ekaterina]: I started when I was six. In Russia it is very popular for kids to start all sorts of activities from the very young age. There are art schools and you learn to play piano, sing, pain, you do gymnastics or dancing. I did all these things. Then, slowly, I found myself just with piano and dancing. I lived near St Petersburg. We had good schools there. Then I dropped the piano and stayed with dancing. It was what I wanted to do. I was in St Petersburg until I started dancing with Neil.
Did you have any partners there?
[Ekaterina]: I had few partners there. I started going to the school in St Petersburg where my teachers, Radik and Eva Bagautdinov, worked.
Did you dance both styles or just Latin?
[Ekaterina]: Both styles. I only stopped Ballroom four years ago when I started dancing with Neil. I am still a pretty good Ballroom dancer! (laughing). As a Junior I had good results in both styles; we danced the Blackpool Junior and mainly around the Baltic states. But we did not have really such good results in Amateur so... I felt it was a very good chance for me when I met Neil.
[Neil]: She actually paid me (laughing) I am joking of course!
Tell us about you now, Neil
[Neil]: I started dancing when I was three. I started with ballet. It was just a local school where I lived at the time, which was Bordon in Hampshire. It was an army camp. Not far from here, maybe about hour and a half drive. I only started because my sister was already dancing there. She is a year older than me. After doing this, she went into Ballroom and Latin. I was doing judo and football. But the problem was she was coming home, every weekend, with a trophy. I was doing judo... and after a while you change a belt colour, after few stripes you get to the next one, and you have a contest maybe twice a year so... I remember when I came home with a medal, my first gold medal, and she just said: oh nice, but look at all my trophies! So I thought, oh I am going to start dancing as well. So I started dancing, first with IDTA which is medallist circuit.
How old were you then?
[Neil]: I must have been six, young Juvenile. So this is how I started. By the time I was eleven I became runners-up of the Medallist of the Year competition. The boy who won the competition decided to go out to the open circuit. So I thought to myself I am not going to stay here for another year when he is gone and have an easy win and I decided to go out to the open circuit as well. I remember my first competition when I was not out of first round. I remember coming to all these competitions when I was not out of first round and my dream was to get to the second round! I move abroad of course few times. I was living in Finland and dancing over there. It was a first trip I had...
[Ekaterina]: You were just fifteen at the time, right?
Why did you move abroad?
[Neil]: At the time my teacher was Johan Eftedal who had ties with his close friend there Jarmo Nuutinen. He said there was a girl in Finland and I should go and try. So I went there for a year. I was dancing there and competing for Finland. Things did not work out so I came back to England. I was seventeen. Then I move to Holland. And again, it was just a try out. I was having some try-outs then I found a partner and ended up living there for eight years.
And then somehow you two met...
[Neil]: Yes! I've been dancing with my former partner Nataliya. We split. I went to Russia for few try-outs then I found a partner. We were dancing together for about six months. Blackpool was our first major competition. We've done some smaller competitions before. We've mutually decided it was not, kind of, working for us. We both wanted different things. We were two different people. We've never argued or disagreed, we got on fine, but it somehow did not come together. Richard Porter said to me: I know a girl right for you, she is just as crazy as you, so you should try-out with her. He said: you don't know her, but she is good, and people either love you or hate you so you should try.
[Ekaterina]: It was like that! When I split with my partner we already had a trip booked to dance Blackpool. So I decided to go anyway. I went together with my Mum. I actually did not plan any try-outs as nobody really knew who I was, I just came to watch. But because I've been working with Karen Hardy before, and Richard Porter as well, when they found out I was coming they told me that I should have some try-out really. Karen helped me to arrange some. And Richard said to me that he knows a partner for me. He wouldn't tell me who it was! So I did not know and I was wondering all the time. He finally told me it was Neil Jones and my Mum said: oh, it is that ginger boy!
[Neil]: This is how they knew me!
[Ekaterina]: It was like everybody knew him: ginger boy! Richard said if we dance together people either are going to love us or hate us because I was just as crazy as him.
[Neil]: So, yes, it was at Blackpool. It was on the day of Professionals, we had a try-out that morning. We actually put together all the five dances at this try-out
[Ekaterina]: It was really quick!
[Neil]: And we both said to each other, I liked it, you liked it. It was on the day you were leaving...
[Ekaterina]: Yes. And Richard asked him: what did you say to her? And Neil just said: we going to speak more about it. And Richard said: call her now and say yes!
[Neil]: So I did (laughing)
[Ekaterina]: Then I came over for longer period of time. We had some routines made...
[Neil]: At one point I actually got worried when we had a try-out. It is a funny story. Katia walked up to me and Richard. We were talking between ourselves that it feels good and it could be nice and she come up and said: oh, Neil, by the way, would you be interested in having try-out with my friend?! We, kind of, looked at each other and ... you know, a bit of a shock... I said, sort of, yeah. As Katia walked away from us we looked at each other and said: maybe she actually didn't like the try-out. (laughing) We always laugh about it afterwards.
[Ekaterina]: (laughing) I wanted to be nice to my friend!
[Neil]: She always says she couldn't say “No” to her friend. She couldn't say to her: No, because I want to dance with him! We were really shocked and we still are to this day, or rather we are now joking about it still to this day!
It sounded rather like she was going to get rid of you!
[Neil]: Something like that! Anyway, this is how we started and the International was our first main competition.
[Ekaterina]: For me, and I am always saying that, it was a huge jump! Neil was in the top 24 there for long time. He was trying to get to the semi-finals and I was really happy to get to the second round! So there was a lot of pressure really. We ended up in the top 24 then and for me it was a huge success and Neil was happy because it was our first competition really. Later at the UK Open we danced the Rising Stars...
[Neil]: For me it was weird. I did not dance the Rising Stars for years.
[Ekaterina]: He was a star already! (laughing)
[Neil]: We did not dance them anymore. We decided not to do them anymore.
[Ekaterina]: We talked with Richard Porter and he said it was good to do that once. We did it and won it. The International was top 24, UK Open was semi – Neil was over the moon.
[Neil]: Of course then was Blackpool and we were straight into the final. It was incredible. I was fantastic. I remember, before the final, we stood there and did not pay that much attention. And then they said: from England... And I looked at Katia and said...
[Ekaterina]: he said: who is from England!?
[Neil]: We were thinking there was another couple from England in the semi-final and it's them in there. But then it clicked: oh, it is us! I remember, it was pure adrenaline, I felt I was walking on air! At this first final, we just had this big smile, it did not matter how tired we were.
[Ekaterina]: My Mum did not have the seating ticket and she later told me she could not even see us! She was trying to get near the floor to see us. And only by the time we dance the Rumba she managed to find a spot. It was so emotional for her as well.
You said that people either love you or hate you but I believe that you, Neil, were always liked by the audience. I remember you from the Dutch Open when the public just loved you!
[Ekaterina]: Of course he danced for Holland and he had a lot of fans. They still love him.
[Neil]: When I dance I love to perform. I love to react to the public. And through the time, they give that appreciation back. It is nice. When Richard said that people like me or hate me, he meant my style. Our style is so different to other couples. Some people may not agree with what we do or not like what we do. But I prefer that actually! I prefer that people either love us or hate us. I don't want that: they're OK.
When you are on the floor you really look like you genuinely enjoy it
[Neil]: Oh yes! Of course there are some competitions where you just... maybe it is just one of those days... not that you don't enjoy being there but it doesn't feel as good as it normally does. That's hard.
[Ekaterina]: You are trying to enjoy it...
[Neil]: But you don't always get this feeling. And you ask yourself: why now, why today! Yesterday, for me, it felt really good. Katia felt very nervous yesterday. As we got the final she was good again.
Yesterday you were naturally under pressure as you were expected to win.
[Neil]: You always are. I so much respect every couple in that final, and all the couples in the semi.
[Ekaterina]: And we are friends with them
[Neil]: I know how good they are. I know we are all different from each other. I know that some of my weaknesses or Katia's weaknesses are their strengths. And the other way round. People come to you before the competition and say: good luck, you will surely win. But: no, you don't know until the end. I am very superstitious as well. So every time when we are hearing the results she needs to stand next to me. She can't talk then, she has to hold my hand. She tries to say something, and I am like: focus! I know anything can happen. So I know you can't expect anything. I know that from the past.
Are you a couple in the private life as well? You look like one!
Do you think your private life helps you with dancing or makes it more difficult?
[Neil]: It is a mix. I have been though all the different situations before, have been in a relationship and then I haven't been in a relationship with my partner...
[Ekaterina]: You always find a way really
[Neil]: Yes. There is no right solution. In one way, when you are dancing with your girlfriend it is great because you are sharing every moment with her. You live together, you travel together, you dance together – everything is shared. On the other hand... everything is shared! So there are moments when you just want her to go away (laughing). You feel: simply leave me alone! But when your partner is not your girlfriend you have all the other problems. In one way, it is good, this is your life and this is mine, we just dance. But in the same time you've got the extra hassle with the other boyfriend or girlfriend saying: oh, why are you spending so much time together, when are you going there together? So there are pluses and minuses of both sides.
[Ekaterina]: That's exactly right. But if you really want you always find your way around the problems.
Do you try to separate your private life from dancing?
[Ekaterina]: I am a different person once I go to practice. I am in a different set of mind. Whether I love him or not wouldn't stop me from criticising him. I say to him what I want to say.
[Neil]: When we practise we don't even think about our relationship. I would never use that in the practice situation. I would never say: oh, you did not do the washing up today!
[Ekaterina]: Yes, this is our career so we always try to separate it.
[Neil]: This is business, this is dancing. Nothing to do with our relationship, it is separate.
[Ekaterina]: I think I am quite hard at the practice because this is something I care about. This is our future. This is our profession, our career.
[Neil]: When we practise it is strictly business. But we are humans and things sometimes come up, there are always going to be emotions. She may be having a bad day and she will be taking it out on me. And I don't have bad days! It is difficult. I understand this more because of the age difference I think. I've been in these situations a lot more. Sometimes she goes to bed and I actually take this one hour for myself. Katia knows a lot and does a lot. But I have been through some experiences before and she hasn't. It is good because she doesn't have to go through those problems but it is hard to persuade her!
[Ekaterina]: I often say: why?
[Neil]: I just don't want to experience it again, you know. It would have been easier if we've grown up together, dance together all our lives, experienced every moment together because the mental side would be more balanced... We actually have a mental coach and we work with her as well.
[Ekaterina]: It helps a lot with all the issues.
[Neil]: I believe everybody needs it. All sides are important, physical and mental.
[Ekaterina]: You may look at the other sports, at the runner and think, why does he need it, he just runs. But all of them have a mental coach. In dancing it is even more important because there are two people doing it together. They have to cope together and produce a good performance.
[Neil]: Our performance is about feeling as well. Mental side is important. You have a good day and a bad day. It is all up here, in your mind. You have to be very strong there.
Can you both describe your partner's strongest points?
[Neil]: She is very creative. She loves fashion, she loves design and that all goes into her dancing because she is looking at every movement she wants to produce. She asks herself: does that look creative, does that look interesting. I find it interesting to watch her. I love that about her!
[Ekaterina]: I think Neil is even more creative! When we dance, things come naturally for him. I like to follow that spirit. He often follows his natural instincts. It is always new and fresh. He always listens to music...
[Neil]: She hates that about me! She loves it and hates it!
[Ekaterina]: This is because he listens to the music and needs to feel it and then something comes out. So I never know what's going to happen! I always have to be alert. He just follows his feelings at that moment. It is great. We rehearse, of course. But on the day he just does what he feels. That's when he performs his best.
I have to ask that question! What do you dislike about your partner?
[Neil]: Her biggest problem is she doesn't believe in herself. I am very positive but I always find Katia is very negative at herself. She may win the competition but still will not believe she is good enough. She may look at somebody who did not maybe made it into the top 96 and she will be saying: oh, I wish I could dance like that girl. And you just look at her and want to say: what!? I always say to her: come on, be more positive, and believe in yourself.
She looks very shy!
[Neil]: It is good in a way because we are both very humble people. I don't like arrogant people and I don't like to be around arrogant people. Katia always says to me that I stop and talk to everybody but I think: why not! I talk to various people: dancers, people who take tickets, everybody really.
[Ekaterina]: This is what I dislike in him. You know, you feel sometimes people want to get on with their things but he stops them chatting to them!
[Neil]: I treat people like I want people to treat me! Whoever the person is, I will speak to them. I don't want them to think they are not important to me or something like that.
[Ekaterina]: He talks too much! It usually is not a problem but... oh my God, please cut his tongue!
It is great for me, at the interview.
[Neil]: Yes, she could walk away and I could speak for both of us! (laughing)
[Ekaterina]: I really sometimes wish he could just stop talking! (laughing)
[Neil]: In dancing, at this level, it is important to practice to prepare your body physically but it is equally important to be prepared mentally. So on some days I feel we need to discuss this and that and she will just be like: oh, will he shut up! But I won't leave it because I know it is important (laughing).
What are your plans for the near future?
[Neil]: We will be off to the Asian Tour. We will dance the Amateur events. We were there last year and it was fantastic. It was a real experience to do this.
[Ekaterina]: It was great to see all these different places like Tokyo. You get used to do this: arrive, dance, leave. But it was nice to do something different.
[Neil]: Yes, you get used to all the major competitions and ones before these, and some in between, but it was nice to do something else. We've never competed in Asia before.
[Ekaterina]: We tried to plan at least half a day to go and look around.
[Neil]: The next big one is Blackpool. And after that, we will see.
Are you considering turning Professional soon?
[Neil]: At the moment we are just thinking about Blackpool.
[Ekaterina]: Of course, we are preparing mentally. We know we are heading towards that but we are Amateurs now.
[Neil]: Everything we do is about the performance and quality. So we are constantly thinking what else we need to do. We are not just thinking of the next Blackpool. If and when we decide to go to the Professional we know it is another level again. Everybody is good. In the Amateurs couples are really good but Professionals are another level. It is different. We need to ask ourselves what do we still need to do to be able to get any type of results in the Professional field. It is on our mind every day. When the day comes when we say to ourselves we want to take that trip then we will do it.
Do you see the difference between the Professionals and Amateurs styles?
[Neil]: I am not sure if you could say there is a difference between the Professionals and Amateurs. They are all different within these fields. We have respect and appreciation for all of them as long as they have their own style. In the Amateurs you have very good dancers in the top 48 but they maybe haven't found yet who they are. They might be missing something or they may not have their style yet. They are going with the flow, with what everybody is doing.
[Ekaterina]: It is nice to have different styles. It is nice to watch.
[Neil]: In Professionals you can see couples who have experience and they bring their life experience to their dancing. If you look into Amateur, I am probably the oldest person in the Amateur. And I remember when I was the youngest one in there! So experience matters. Many Professionals have that. They went through their Amateur dancing, they've got life experience and they are in the Pro now. And it makes a difference.
Which aspect of dancing is more important for you: art or sport? Do you prefer doing competitions or shows?
[Neil]: This is the conversation we had with our mental coach. I always say, I am competitive. But when I compete it is not only about winning, it is also about performance or floor craft.
[Ekaterina]: It is like a game
[Neil]: Yes, it is like a game for me. I ask myself how can I play with that, how can I do this in a different way. I am not looking at things always in an artistic way. I am not thinking, when I see a performance, about the deepness of that, or what it means. For me, it is more about how can I play with the music, how can I do this and that. It is the same as for the runner – how can I break that speed record, how can I get past that. That's this game aspect in competing. When I compete I think of how can I use that music, within the boundaries what I've got to keep to, how can I stretch that, how can I play with that.
[Ekaterina]: When I go on the floor I try not to think it is competition. The thought we are being compared to other couples puts me under pressure.
[Neil]: Even if I know we are being compared this is what I want. In the end of a day they either like me or don't like me. I personally cannot do anything about that, it is done. I cannot make that judge like me, because I would have to change what I do. And I cannot do that because then I am not me! I always had that attitude, from the young age. With time, I started to realise it more and more. I am trying to help Katia to get to that set of mind. During the competition I tell her she cannot do anything now, but as soon as we get into practice straight after this competition we will be addressing these issues, we will know what we need to work on. But as soon as you get to the competition is a different kind of practice, at that moment you have to switch off and forget everything you've been taught and just dance. You have to literally just dance and if it is not in you, you cannot do anything about it. If you think of these things you cannot dance and you won't give what is really inside of you. I am a really strong believer in that. That means if you going to win, then great, but if you never win, so be it. Sometimes people take it to the extreme and it doesn't look anything like dancing, but they say: they like me or they don't. This is taking it to the extreme; you have to keep it within the boundaries of what Latin dancing is all about. So keep to the rules of Latin dancing but make your interpretation of it.
But boundaries change, they move. What do you think about that?
[Neil]: They are fine as long as you always go back to the past. The problem is sometimes like a “Chinese whispers” – you start with one word and as you go through that word keep changing until you get to the end. It is then completely different to what you have started with and it is wrong. When we are playing with choreography, playing with ideas, we always take it back to what it originally was, what it is about, and we go back to that. You can take a basic step, change it, make it your own interpretation but to make it right you have to keep something original within there. It can be the rhythm, the shaping or the lead, there is going to be something in there.
How far do you go with that? Samba is not what Samba is in Brazil or Rumba in Cuba...
[Neil]: You go back to the original rules written for the Latin dance. You take the Fan and you know the timing or the basic steps and that's it. It is not to say what the Fan would actually be danced in Cuba. This was just influence. We've done a lot with Jive, we know what we like in Jive, but in the same time we do like history of Jive with other dance forms. We like to put that in, with a little bit of twist.
[Ekaterina]: But we will still keep to the rhythm
[Neil]: Yes. We will still make sure that the whole Jive is Jive. We are not going to dance another style which is no longer Jive.
Do you create your own choreography?
[Neil]: No, we do everything with Richard Porter. Of course we do some things on our own but he is always our main coach
[Ekaterina]: He creates something and asks us about it
[Neil]: And vice versa. We always work close together.
So you prefer to work with one teacher?
[Ekaterina]: We keep a very clear structure. We have teachers who have their own areas of expertise.
[Neil]: Throughout my life I worked with different teachers and I wish I could work with all of them all the time. But it is not possible. It is no possible financially, and it is not possible within structure. If you have too many technique teachers it is going to confuse you. The main thing is you have to know what you believe in dancing. You have to find the teachers around you that will complement that who can bring that out of you.
[Ekaterina]: Who can make you stronger.
[Neil]: They need to be people who may go sometimes against what you actually want. But that also helps you.
What would be your advice to other dancers?
[Ekaterina]: Go and try various people and then choose. This is just like shopping. Pick what you like.
[Neil]: Work on technique. There are many teachers out there who can teach that. Most of them want the same thing but get there different way and you cannot go wrong. If you take one teacher you will look good. The problem is what people go to that teacher and then to another and maybe these teachers come at different directions and that confuses them. It is not teachers who are always doing a wrong thing, it is the students taking on too many teachers, too many different ideas.
[Ekaterina]: In my life I had only few teachers and sometimes I wish I could have lessons with others as it would be interesting. But we don't as this is the direction we are going for. And there is no need. That's what we chose to do and that's what we are doing. It is easier and clearer. There is no confusion.
[Neil]: That's why we have a mental coach. We have this belief that dancing is not just about technique. It is important but one part of dancing. The physical side is one part of dancing. But there are other areas and they need to be put together. Sometimes you see someone dancing and their technique is amazing and I look at them and say: wow, they are better than me in technique. But they are missing in other areas and that's why I know they won't win. There are so many areas and you have to bring them as a whole.
[Ekaterina]: You have to make it the whole package...
[Neil]: So you have to find that team behind you
[Ekaterina]: Who can complement you and work with your ideas.
Does your mental coach come from dancing world?
[Ekaterina]: No, we have found her... It was interesting for her as well as she has not work with the dancers before. She's worked with couples, teams and individuals in business and sport but not with dancers.
[Neil]: It is all about strength in the mind and re-training the mind
[Neil]: So nothing to do with dancing.
So you knew you needed somebody and you sought her out?
[Neil]: Yes. We found her and tried and it came together. But it is a long process, same as dancing. You can never expect answers on your first lesson. Some days we go there and we are thinking: what are we going to speak to her about, we feel good today. But as soon as she asks a right question things come out.
[Ekaterina]: She gets you think about things.
[Neil]: What is nice she has nothing to do about dancing so it is not all around dancing. It could be about life. When you are around dancers they don't talk that much about life. To her we have to explain what we do in the dancing, explain every part of the dancing so she understands it.
Let's not talk about dancing now. What do you do in your spare time?
[Ekaterina]: I actually hate talking about dancing! There are so many other interesting things. I am interested in fashion and design. This is what I want to do now. I finished world culture studies at the University of Culture and Arts in Russia last year in July. It is hard but I really want to find the time to do fashion and design and create things with my hands. I am good at sewing and all the manual crafts. I would like to go to some college or university here maybe to do these things. I started teaching myself drawing now to help with fashion design. That's what I want to do in the future. I am constantly absorbing things, creating things, help my friends to design dresses, do lots of things with hair. I love it, I enjoy it. But when I have time, I want to go home and see my family. I have a little niece now. She is one and a half years old.
Does your family come to the competitions to see you dancing?
[Ekaterina]: Yes, my parents come to all the major competitions to see us. Not the UK Open for some reason! They were at the International, in Paris, in Blackpool, Dutch Open... everywhere really. This is really nice.
[Neil]: They will come to the Asian Tour as well
[Ekaterina]: They like to travel and see things so they always try to combine these together. They will go to see Tokyo and us at the competition. It is great for me. We dance with Neil for three and a half years and I miss my family. In the beginning we were here half them time and in Russia half the time. I was still studying as well. But now, it is less and less.
[Neil]: We are travelling more. It is harder for her to go and see her parents.
[Ekaterina]: My family is really close so it is hard for me. My Mum says she still cannot get used to this feeling I am here. She still thinks one day I am going to come back home and stay there (laughing).
[Neil]: My world is around dance. But this is not always our dance. I love all forms of dance. I love street dance, I love everything. You can find me on the internet watching dance videos. I love music as well.
What kind of music?
[Ekaterina]: Neil is always searching for music for shows.
[Neil]: I like classical, I like Latin, jazz, hip hop, R&B. I hate with a passion the club music.
[Ekaterina]: It gives him headache!
[Neil]: When you are in the UK and you're driving Friday night you know what I mean. I love listening to BBC Radio One in the car in the morning going to the lessons to London. I love Chris Moyles, joking on the radio but on the Friday night, coming from Semley studio, the only thing you have on the Radio One is club music. I hate that beat. I like all the creative things. I don't always have time for this but I like to draw. I like to sketch things. When we got together for the first time I was away and I draw a picture and then I gave it to Katia when I came back. It was actually a picture of Katia with her favourite tulips.
[Ekaterina]: He is good!
[Neil]: When I was younger I wanted to get to animation but never had time because of the dancing. When I retire I want to get to creating theatre shows. Not being in them but creating different shows. Now when we create a show we want to create something different. It is always about the audience. The aim is to make them laugh or cry. I have a strong belief in that.
When you go to competitions, who organises things, book tickets and hotels?
[Ekaterina]: Neil does, but I keep nagging him! But he is always like: I'll do it tomorrow.
[Neil]: My New Year's resolution was to get more organised. I am really happy at the moment because I planned my whole schedule until June so I know exactly where I am and what I am doing. I also sorted out Katia's schedule. We know what lessons we have with the teachers. Everything is set and I feel good with it!
The biggest challenge is to keep with it! Ekaterina; (laughing) Yes!
[Neil]: No, no. I am really the type to keep with it. I actually like to plan things, also with practice. But Katia side-tracks if she hears it from me. If we come into practise to work on technique and she starts talking about the lead I don't want to listen. If it is not about the technique, I will not listen.
I would never say you are such an organised person. You are artistic, creative so...
[Ekaterina]: It is the only way for him because his creative mind can be very messy
[Neil]: This is something I found I have to do for myself. If I leave everything just how it feels it won't work. By having a structure gives me more ability to play. Without a structure it just becomes a mess. When we have a structure with our practice we can see the development, we can see what we are doing. Then, on the day of the competition, I know the routine, I know my stamina level, I know what I can do.
[Ekaterina]: He can then relax and play with it. When we have a target at the practice we can both focus on that. There is no argument.
[Neil]: By knowing what area we are working on at that particular time it helps us practise that and helps us not have arguments. This helps us to build out performance. When you did not practise the quality of your movement then this is all you're thinking about when you dancing the competition. When there is slow music on and you cannot dance slow because you don't know how to fill up the music you are in trouble. So you need to have that structure first and you can play with things later.
I never see you practising before going to the floor
[Neil]: During the competition we will not speak about dancing.
[Ekaterina]: It helps us. We only do the two things to think about on the day of performance.
[Neil]: So what are they?
[Ekaterina]: Connection and energy (laughing).
[Neil]: Yes, that's all this is about. I believe Katia has her own area of dance, I cannot tell her how to be a woman. She knows what she needs to do. And she can't tell me how to be a man.
[Ekaterina]: I know what I need to do and he knows what he needs to do. So on the day of performance there is no need to talk about it.
[Neil]: If we go wrong, we know what we've done wrong. If I miss a lead I know I've done that wrong. I know inside my head I've done wrong and I will not argue about it. We do not compete with each other. So she doesn't need to tell me and I don't need to tell her. The only two things we have is the energy, to make sure is that the energy of our movement is correct within the music and the connection together.
Many dancers argue. In a way your partner is always easiest to blame, isn't it
[Neil]: We are not perfect. There are off days when you just say the wrong thing at that particular time. I tend to keep to the things we say we're doing and Katia tends to side-track. If I come off the floor and say we are not connected, we need to have a better connection, she will be like: leave me alone! (laughing) But generally we are OK. We sometimes see other people, especially the worst it is when you see your friends arguing. Going wrong is not bad. Sometimes, at the competition, Katia comes off the floor and say to me: you've done that wrong. But I say: oh yeah, but it was great, wasn't it! I might actually like that piece. And it doesn't matter. If you go wrong so you go wrong. The only people who know that is us. And sometimes you may go wrong, you may slip, trip something like that. It is how you work it out in the end what matters.
Sometimes actually when the top couple goes wrong it becomes a new step!
[Neil]: I remember Stefano di Filippo few years ago, when he was dancing Samba at the practice he had this piece where he had to jump onto one leg with the other leg out. And I remember him dancing that step during practice so many times when he went off balance he hopped a few times. Within the next competition this was a new trend. So many couples were doing it because they thought it was a new step! It wasn't. It was a step what went wrong which everybody copied. If everybody is perfect and keeps to what they were supposed to do nothing will develop. There will be no change. Things got to go wrong sometimes to be interesting.
I've seen some steps in your Jive when you pretend to be lost
[Neil]: Hmmm.... Maybe I was actually lost (laughing)
[Ekaterina]: I bet he was lost!
[Neil]: Sometimes you have to joke about that. Some people tell you that they love that piece when you've done this and that. And you know this is when you went wrong. But you say: yeah, great, thanks!
I love the fact that you different. Especially that applies to Neil who is ginger. Many dancers dye their hair black.
[Neil]: I tease two dancers about that. I tease Troels and I tease Morten. Because they are both ginger. And I always say: how could you do it! When I was a Junior I dyed my hair once. I was dark. And it did not suit me. Everybody is always looking to be different. In the end of a day there is not many red hair dancers so this is something that's naturally different. It is a key thing to find something inside you which is naturally different. The way we think is different. People need to start listening to themselves a little bit more. It is difficult sometimes. When you get good results, you start believing in yourself. But you have to have this belief before. If you have belief in yourself so strong you will get results anyway.
What is more important for you: to be loved by the public or to be marked by judges?
[Neil]: Of course you want to get marked by the judges. I am not going to seat here and say I don't want to be marked by the judges because then I wouldn't be doing what I am doing. I wouldn't be competing. But at the same time you want the people to say: wow, you were amazing, I was inspired! So it is tough. If I could say to you: it is only the audience which matters to me, I would not be doing what I am doing. I would just go and do a theatre show or something like that. I would only do shows. But the fact I am being judged it is also important to me. You've got to find that balance and work within the rules. Most of the time, not always but most of the time, when the audience loves you, you get the marks.
It is a shame that some strong couples did not come to the UK Open this year
[Ekaterina]: The ones which came were strong as well...
[Neil]: I really like this competition. Of course, some people were not here, like Martino Zanibellato was not here. I missed Martino. I really respect him. We are almost the same, we've gone through together. He was actually in the final before me. When we were only in the top 24 we said to each other, as we both love the music and all the creative, when we make a final together we will do a show together. But we've never done it. And I do miss him at this competition as he is not here. There is another couple that I miss: Andrei Zaitsev. When we first made a final he was also in there. Then he stopped coming and it is a shame. Other than that I believe everybody who is strong was here.
What would you like to change in dancing?
[Ekaterina]: Is there a need to change anything?
[Neil]: If I look at judging I would not change anything. Of course, when you get good results you always like the judging system, when you get bad results you say: oh, it is the judges. But I would not change it, it is the way it is. One think I love to bits is the system at the International, at the Royal Albert Hall, the interchanging between the Latin and the Ballroom. It allows you, mentally and physically, to prepare yourself for the next dance. I believe for the audience they really get to see the best you can do in that dance. But negative side to that is, we talked about it with Troels as well, you are judged on your stamina as well. Your stamina is very important at the other competitions. But if they do it that way, people will not worry about their stamina. It is easy as you have one dance break. So that changes things. But this is part of, in a way, the game. When you coming to it, I know when I am dancing the Jive, I am not going to die in my Jive, I will give 100%, I don't care how many rounds I dance but I will push it to the end. I will use this music to the end and I will not think, even at one single time, that I am getting tired.
[Ekaterina]: I know what I would want to change: no tan!
[Neil]: I wish the natural look for Latin was red hair and white skin! Not black and dark. I struggle with that because my skin just won't take the make-up. I put it on and it comes off. People say sometimes that my dancing was great but my face looked like a map of the world! But it is part of it, the whole package. When you go out there you have to look good and you have to have a good outfit.
[Ekaterina]: Some people will spend lots of money on lessons trying to make their dancing better but when they go on the floor their dress looks terrible.
[Neil]: It looks cheap like they did not put any money into it. You've got to find balance. Why did they not spend time on make-up or buy a better make-up?
That was a very interesting and long interview. Thank you for your time!
All photos taken on the day by Peter Suba