We sat together with Martino Zanibellato and Michelle Abildtrup and had a chat with them the next day after they won the Professional Rising Star Latin at the UK Open 2013. The following day, after this interview was recorded, Martino and Michelle danced the Professional Latin where they get to the semi final. They represent Denmark. See their profile page.
The first reason why I dance is to try to express what I hear and what feelings that piece of music evokes in me
Let's start with congratulations on winning this prestigious event for Rising Stars. Such a fantastic start of your Professional career!
[Both]: Thank you!
So tell us, how you both started dancing?
[Michelle]: I started when I was two years old
That's very early!
[Michelle]: It was just a social dance school. My Mum took me there. Actually, I was not allowed as I was too young but I could not sit still and she took me there. From then I pretty much hanged on there. It was once a week, and mainly I was playing there. When I was nine or ten years old I wanted to do it more seriously. So I went to more elite school so I could compete.
Was it Ballroom and Latin at the time?
[Michelle]: I did Hip Hop and Disco and Ballroom and Latin. I've done them all. When I was fourteen I stopped the Hip Hop and Disco and concentrated only on Ballroom and Latin. At one point I split from my partner and was searching for the next one. So my teacher Lene James and Martino's teacher Caroline Smith spoke to each other and thought that try-out between me and Martino could be a good idea. And we went to dance together for eleven years!
[Martino]: I started a bit later, I was maybe twelve years old. Actually my first experience with dancing was not very good. I started and then stopped within a month. My parents were competing in Senior group and they took me to this social dance school but I did not enjoy it there because I could not find the traditional Italian dance really interesting. This is how you start in Italy but I thought it did not suit me and I could not express myself. But later the same year I went to another dance school which did competitive dancing and I liked it much more. It was more kids there and I liked the social side of it as well. At that time I was doing many things, I was playing piano, doing karate but because of dancing I decided to stop that and concentrate on dancing only. I only had three partners actually in my dance career. And Michelle is the third one.
Can you tell us how you first met?
[Michelle]: I traveled to Italy and we went to some dance school and danced. Actually there was never any doubt in my mind that it would not work because there was a good chemistry between us from the beginning. We could dance together straight away. Of course, we wanted confirmation from our teachers so we had some lessons with Martino's teacher and then Martino came to German Open where we tried again with my teacher. So we had a confirmation from both sides but for us it "clicked" straight away.
[Martino]: I think that chemistry and what we really wanted to produce with dancing was there from the start. We did not have to work on that which is very important in any new partnership.
So how old were you then?
[Michelle]: We were twenty years old. I remember that because we were considering dancing Under21 and we decided not to. But we could.
So it was your decision, not your parents'? You were mature enough to make this decision?
[Michelle]: Yes. I spoke about the quality, about dances we like and our views were very similar. We had similar opinions on what we liked in dancing and what we wanted to produce on the floor with dancing so it made sense.
[Martino]: Actually at this time my parents were pushing me a little bit to stop dancing. Because at that time I had to decide if I want to be at the University or continue as a dancer. My Mum always thought that being a lawyer is much better and reliable career than a dancer (laughing). So at that time I had to go a little bit against what my parents felt. I had support from them anyway but It was good to show them I made a right decision.
I hope they are happy now?
[Martino]: I think so (laughing)
Did you know each other before the try-out?
[Michelle]: Yes, we knew each other from the competitions. We were both traveling a lot already and danced competitions around the world. We never really spoke to each other but...
[Martino]: It was difficult not to notice Michelle because she had the whitest hair of all the dancers. (laughing)
And of course the prettiest? (laughing)
[Martino]: Of course!
What was your impression about him, Michelle?
[Michelle]: The first impression was that he was very passionate about what he wanted to do and very dedicated. If he felt something was not right he would work until he made it right! I like that about him because it showed he would never give up. You know, sometimes things don't happen as you like them to happen. But from the very beginning he gave me that impression that if he wanted something he will continue to go for it. This is something I still admire about him. He is very passionate and never gives up.
So what is wrong about him then?
[Michelle]: Sometimes he can be too critical to himself. Of course, like all the dance couples, we have our discussions and that's pretty normal...
[Martino]: It is a nice way to say we fight (laughing)
[Michelle]: ... but I think he is too hard on himself in a sense that everything has to be perfect. Sometimes it is the best day, you win, but he will still see that little thing that could be changed.
So the worst thing about your partner is that he is too hard on himself?
[Michelle]: Yes, I think it is true.
[Martino]: I can be very nasty sometimes, I think she just doesn't want to say anything. When I get a bit over critical with myself I can be a bit over critical with Michelle too.
Do you remember what your biggest fight was?
[Martino]: The biggest fights are often about very stupid things. And because they are so stupid you don't remember them
[Michelle]: I don't know. We had a few during these years! (laughing). I am sure some people who were at the practice with us can tell you more! But yes, there had been a lot of fights about stupid things but what is always good we never take these things outside of the practice room. So might have had the worst practice ever and were fighting like hell, we always managed to come out in a good mood.
[Martino]: Do you always manage to do that? Come on!
[Michelle]: I think so (laughing).
[Martino]: OK, now she is starting to tell you fibs!
[Michelle]: Actually I think we manage that quite well
[Martino]: I don't think so. She is trying to manage that very hard (laughing) but it does not happen every time.
Are you together in private life as well?
[Michelle]: Yes, we are
So you are trying to separate your private life from your dancing?
[Michelle]: Actually we are not arguing too much in private.
[Martino]: Only in dancing. We are both very stubborn people and we like things right. If we know we can do something the right way we want to be able to repeat it every time. When this is not happening we are both getting a little bit frustrated.
[Michelle]: I don't think it is so much of an issue anymore but I remember in the beginning it was ever so difficult to combine the cultures. The Italian culture and the Danish culture and the mentalities. In Denmark women are quite strong-minded and independent but in Italy, I think, man normally decides everything in the family. So there were few things that we had to sort out. But now I changed a little bit Italian way and he's is more Danish. I am still very Danish and very stubborn
[Martino]: She is very Danish in that way! (laughing)
I remember that you used to dance Ballroom as well and won the UK Open 10 Dance even. Why did you stop?
[Martino]: We danced Ballroom at the time for the 10 Dance. We both enjoyed Ballroom but we did not like 10 Dance that much. We felt we could not cope with doing 10 dances. Our time was limited and we were working very early in the morning to earn so money. We were finishing in the afternoon and then trying to find the time to go and practise all the 10 dances. It was very hard. This is why we stopped. Also, our results were not getting much better. Actually they were getting worse.
[Michelle]: We felt we could never win the 10 Dance competition and dance how we wanted to and if we did separate styles it will be much better. We never really managed to find that balance. I think we always knew in our hearts that we prefer Latin. Then we decided to, if we wanted to make good results in Latin, we should sacrifice Ballroom, practise more Latin and become better in it. After one year our results got much better. I think it was a right decision. Maybe we should have done it earlier. It is easier to see it now but at the time it was a very hard decision for us. We liked the Ballroom, especially we liked the lessons but...
It was seven or eight years ago?
Dancing is expensive so how did you manage all these years as Amateurs to finance your dancing?
[Michelle]: In the beginning it was not easy at all. We had a lot of support from our parents. We have been working a lot, cleaning houses, delivering newspapers early morning in the train station. When Martino came to Denmark he did not speak any Danish. So the only job he could take was either cleaning or delivering newspapers. So we have been doing that for years
[Martino]: We have been working in a factory as well in the nights
[Michelle]: We were hanging cloths and things like that. When we got the 4th place in the World Championships we received some support from our federation. There is an organisation called Team Denmark and they supported us at the time. So it got a little bit easier. We still had to work but it helped a lot. For the last few years when we got better results we also earn some money from the prizes and doing shows and teaching. So it is much better now. But we had been through very hard times.
[Martino]: There is no support there for the Professionals, they only support Amateurs. Now we will have to earn all the money ourselves.
[Michelle]: Yes, through shows and teaching. And we look very much forward to this new chapter in our life.
Are you planning to open your own studio?
[Michelle]: Actually, the studio we are dancing in now is where we teach as well. We travel a lot as well so we don't have plans to open our own studio. We like it as it is now. We enjoy teaching couples a lot but not so much teaching social classes. If it is possible to teach couples, that's what we prefer. We'll see how it goes.
What did you like in Michelle the most when you first met her?
[Martino]: I liked that she was very determined to succeed. She already had good results but she was very focused on getting to as high level as possible. And that determination was very important for me because it was something I needed as well at that time. I needed to believe it was a good career move. And then of course, it was that feeling when we danced. Straight away we felt that connection.
I am sure you can guess the next question. What do you dislike in her then?
[Martino]: Well, she is very stubborn person and...
[Michelle]: Wait, now he is going to produce a whole list of my faults (laughing)
[Martino]: No, really, this is her main problem. She won't admit she did something wrong until it is proved to her. It is sometimes very difficult because it is not about who is right and who is wrong but about moving forward. But sometimes Michelle is getting defensive and too protective over what she did or said. Even sometimes to the point she will try to hide something she did wrong... But that's why we have teachers and we can go to them and 90% of the time they will tell her: no, Michelle, Martino was right!
[Michelle]: That's not true (laughing)! He is lying now. Dream on!
You travel a lot so which place you went to was most interesting or the most memorable competition?
[Michelle]: It is always interesting for us to go to a new place. We have been in many places but I remember the first time we went to China or first time we went to Australia. You see different colours, different images and that makes impression on you. It is fun to meet people and see how different they are.
[Martino]: For me it is related to competitions and not results. We did not win much as Amateurs, our best result was the 2nd place at the International in 2011 and were 3rd at the World and European. I remember one time in Ostrava, at the European Championships where we had standing ovation and were perhaps 5th or something but it was very special.
[Michelle]: Sometimes you dream of becoming World Champion or winning Blackpool but when you look back you see that the best competition was not when you had the best results but when you have the best reaction from the public. You felt you fulfilled your dancing goal. Or when people come to you after the competition and congratulate you or tell you that they enjoyed it. It means a lot, you know. Now, with Facebook and emails, when you receive mails from people saying that they appreciate what we are doing and it gives them motivation to dance that means a lot to us. I think it means more than any medal.
Do you consider dancing to be more sport or art?
[Martino]: For me it is neither of the two or maybe both. For me dancing is like going to University. It is a process where you learn how to move your body to the music. It is an education for me. While you are getting this education you have also the possibility to express yourself which is something you probably cannot do in a sport but you can do in an art.
[Michelle]: I think you cannot say it is either one or the other. There is an element of sport because we do competitions but to be a good dancer you have to put yourself into the product and need to express yourself. Otherwise you will look like all the others. So it is not one or the other but a good combination.
When you go to the floor do you think of yourselves as actors on stage or trying to express your own feelings?
[Michelle]: I really don't think I am acting but I am trying to express how I am feeling at the moment. Sometimes you have a good day, wake up in the morning and it is a great day but sometimes it is not. And that's why some days you dance well and some other days it is not so good. I believe your dancing is connected to who and how you are. I feel that if you go and act it is not real. When I look at very good couples on the floor I get goose bumps because I really like what I see, I feel it is real and it affects me. I am not sure if acting would give that effect. I am trying to express myself always.
So you are the same on the floor and off the floor?
[Michelle]: We are both very different people on the floor and off the floor but in our dancing there is still part of our personalities. I don't think it is acting but a different side of us! Sometimes you are like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide (laughing).
[Martino]: Everything I do in dancing is connected to the music. It is very important for me that I express what I hear and what I feel from the music at that moment. When I do that I know I can produce the best of me. When I don't do it, I know that I am acting. So, if there is really bad piece of music, I know I need to cope with it. There is always a certain amount of acting skills you need to use when you don't like the music. When you don't like it you feel rather you don't want to be there. So you have to do something in order to look right.
[Michelle]: We did it in the past and now we still work with an actor to try to find emotions and learn how to show them. But I feel this is just a tool you use to help you to express yourself.
So is technique, music or something else the most important in dancing?
[Martino]: For me, everything starts with the music. My Father was a drum player, my brother is a guitarist and I played piano myself. We always had music in the house. This is the first reason why I dance to try to express what I hear and what feelings that piece of music evokes in me. So number one is music. Number two is partnering and connection, so it is expressing yourself and your emotion with your partner. The number three is technique which is how you can do all this. Without the right technique you will not have the possibility to express yourself though dancing the right way. So you need also to know how to do it.
[Michelle]: For us the characterisation of each dance is high on the list. But as Martino said, if you don't have the fundamentals you cannot do it. When I see couples I like them to have good base, good fundamentals and then the rest on top.
If you could, what would you change in the danceworld or in dancing nowadays?
[Martino]: I think the saddest thing is that the couples nowadays are caught in between the political fights. This is the only thing I would change. I would change that the couples are in charge and have much more say in their organisations. If this was a case many things, I think, would change.
Do you remember the film "Strictly Ballroom" from years ago? The main character wanted to dance Paso Doble in his own way, against the rules. So how it is with you, do you want to express yourself within the rules or breaking them?
[Martino]: I think I am the type of person who likes to break rules if I have the possibility (laughing). But generally I follow the rules if they are fair enough. But I am not afraid to break them if I think they are wrong!
[Michelle]: I think, in this point, I have more Danish or German mentality so if there is a rule I try to follow it. I am trying to fight that a little (laughing). If you get to a certain level it is sometimes OK to break the rules.
You did not come to Blackpool and the International last year...
[Michelle]: We did not dance the UK Open either last year.
[Martino]: Well, it was many different reasons why we did not dance in England in the last year. In the beginning of the year there was a ban from the WDSF and we felt we should respect that as we received a lot of support from the federation. Then we knew we wanted to turn Professional, we already decided that early last year, and we wanted to prepare well for it. So we, kind of, decided to stay away and get ready for this year's event.
Do you feel any different dancing Professional than Amateur?
[Michelle]: Well, we have only done one competition so it is difficult to judge! But I know what you mean. We have been preparing for it, we have changed some things, not a lot, because our view of dancing has not changed. But it still feels similar
[Martino]: We have an identity and we know what we want to show so, in that sense, it does not matter whether you dance Youth or Senior or Professional or Amateur. For us, the most important things is to get that identity across on the floor. At the moment, there has been no change in our head or in what we want to do.
[Michelle]: We have been looking forward to dancing in Professional because it is a new chapter for us, new experience and new challenge. So it feels a little bit like a new beginning somehow.
What about the teachers?
[Michelle]: We stick to the team of teacher we have. We are very happy with the people we work with and it is the same team which has been with us for many years and brought us up.
Have they convinced you to go Professional?
[Michelle]: Actually it was more our own decision.
[Martino]: Some of our teachers wanted us to stay in Amateur a bit longer
Do you have separate teachers who work on different aspects of your dancing?
[Michelle]: Yes, we have teachers who specialise in one element like choreography or some other things but we also have some who work on all the things. But what was always important for us that they are all on the same wavelength. They all believe and teach the same what we believe in. So it all fits very well together.
What would be your advice to young dancers?
[Martino]: It is difficult. The world of dancing changes and it becomes very difficult to reach to the top. So it is important the young couples find something they are really passionate about, it can be music, it can be partnering, something they feel is the main thing. And to try to express that on the floor. Then they will be recognised for something they have rather than try to be perfect in all the aspects. That would be my first advice.
[Michelle]: My first advice will be never give up. Because this dancing world is not easy and all couples on the top have had ups and downs. We also had that. I don't know anybody who had straight and easy path. When you are down, it is important to remember what your goals are and keep going. The problems come when you start to deviate from the path and go different direction trying to search for something else. This is what we have been good at times when we had bad results. We always looked at ourselves and asked ourselves what we can do better because what we do is clearly not good enough. We tried to improve that but we never gone away from what we believe and what we want to show.
[Martino]: You know, many couples split when they get even one or two bad results. This is not right.
[Michelle]: Sometimes you need to stick with your partner and just work hard. Some people are born with fabulous talents and that's great but most of people have a little bit of talent and when they work hard they can get as far as people with a lot of talent.
Do you remember any low point in your career?
[Martino]: We had a few. But you still wake up the day after and the life goes on. Sometimes it is sunny and sometimes it is raining but you just put your shoes on and go to the studio and fix your problems there.
[Michelle]: Everybody has low moments but it is all about how you cope with them
Back to your private life: who is cooking?
[Michelle]: He is. Very nice Italian food.
Who organises other things like tickets and holidays?
[Martino]: Fifty-fifty. When I book something I book it wrong. I booked a car for coming to the UK Open from Stansted and I booked it to Birmingham and not to Bournemouth! So we have lost about 80 pounds! (laughing)
[Michelle]: So I like to check him
Any particular foods you like?
[Martino]: I like to try different things. I do like Italian and my favourite food is Italian pizza. But I don't mind trying so I am not your typical Italian (laughing).
[Michelle]: We enjoy trying foods when we go to different countries. At home we cook everything: Italian, Danish and other different things. Danish food is also nice. We eat a lot of potatoes made in all different kind of ways. It is to us as pasta is to Italians.
[Martino]: They eat a lot of pork meat. They are the biggest exporter of pigs. There are more pigs than humans in Denmark.
[Michelle]: It is true actually! But if this is the only thing you know of Denmark after 11 years it is great (laughing).
Martino, do you have a Danish passport?
[Martino]: To get Danish passport you have to pass a very tough exam which Michelle probably would not be able to pass herself. And that's why I did not get it. I don't know if I ever force myself to study all these things to try to pass this exam.
[Michelle]: He can live in Denmark and does not need it really.
[Martino]: Denmark is a very wealthy country, pays very good pensions and benefits and it would be nice to have Danish passport but it is very difficult.
[Michelle]: I think at heart you will always be Italian (laughing)!
What are your plans for the future?
[Martino]: At the moment we are happy as we are. We will see how the things go. For us dancers our career is always short and you sometimes put dancing on top of other things and forget about your private life. But we will see.
If the dancing was not allowed, what would you do?
[Michelle]: You can always find a small room when you can dance! (laughing)
[Martino]: I think we always tackle the problem as it comes. We would react to it, if we needed to, but not plan for it now. We are not a very good in planning things.
What language do you speak to each other?
[Martino]: A mix. We have our own (laughing)
[Michelle]: Sometimes I say something in Italian to him and he answers in Danish. People who listen to us, they laugh. Sometimes we even mix two languages in one sentence. But generally it is a big mix of English, Danish and Italian. When we first met we spoke English to each other.
[Martino]: My English was not very good. I had French, Greek and Latin at school so I could not speak much English in the beginning. We were communicating with gestures. Then I learnt English and she learned Italian. Things got easier.
Do your families go to competitions to see you dancing?
[Michelle]: Both of us have very supportive families. Whenever is possible, work and time allowing, they like to travel and see us.
[Martino]: Your family does it more. My family is a little bit conservative and it is difficult for them to go for big trips. They are not as used to travel as Michelle's parents.
[Michelle]: But sometimes they do as well. At the latest championships in Austria both of our families were there and it is so nice.
Thank you very much and best wishes for the future!
All photos by Peter Suba