Ladies & Leadership Interview: Frances Tee of Kizomba Seattle

Introduction

I was in Seattle a month ago, and had the great pleasure of meeting Frances Tee in person for the first time. We had been in contact on Facebook for well over a year, and I have admired Frances’ organizational skills pretty much since encountering her posts online.

Frances is one of the women I had in mind when I started this series. She is passionate about kizomba, takes her learning seriously, selflessly gives of her time and risks her own money in order to bring quality outside instruction to the Seattle area. She is a fantastic teacher herself. Frances is without a doubt one of the top people supporting kizomba’s growth in the USA, yet she receives little recognition for it, proportionally speaking.

Frances is not attention hungry, but her amazing efforts make me want to sing her praises. She won’t brag, but I will do my best to help you see why you should know who Frances Tee is!

As always, what follows is my best attempt to transcribe and organize Frances’s words. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.

From ostrich ballet to casino salsa

Frances has possibly the cutest “what got me into dancing” story I have ever heard. In her teens: “I was watching Fantasia and there was the scene with the hippos, alligators, and ostriches dancing, and that hooked me into ballet. I did that throughout high school, and in college I moved over to jazz. Toward the tail end of college I went through a general ballroom session and they focused on Argentine tango.” It took a little while for Frances to get fully immersed into partner dancing, since she was playing a lot of volleyball.

In the mid-’90s, Frances was living in Boston, where swing dancing was really popular. She delved into partner dancing with lindy hop. “You could go out dancing almost every night of the week and there were lots of live bands.” In 2000, she started to explore other dances as lindy “was on a slight decline. I had already done some classes in tango, WCS, balboa, blues, and so on to get some training in other partner dances. I trained with Arthur Murray Dance Studio, but I got turned off by the rigidity of it. I still have fun with ballroom when someone knows those dances but I don’t focus in it.”

Frances moved to Seattle around 2009 and decided to try salsa, since salsa was becoming more popular” and the scene welcomed her. She got into casino salsa through casino rueda and was part of a group, and then moved to learning NY-style salsa on 2. She is still active in the Salsa community and is part of the Mambo U Dance Project headed by Ander Mintz. She also is active in the Seattle bachata community, dancing as part of Seattle Touch and working with a core group to help build and educate the bachata community in Seattle.

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Kizomba inspiration from Ana Antunes

“Ana Antunes, a native of Portugal, had moved to Seattle with her husband and little baby boy. She was super passionate about kizomba and was teaching the casino dancers. I fell in love with the music right away.” Frances paused here to admit that it was ghetto zouk that hooked her first – as it was for so many of us!

“Ana started to teach me the dance and she wanted to spread the word. She’s not a teacher and she didn’t have any dance connections.” Frances saw in this an exciting opportunity. Although she had been interested in teaching dance or some time, the salsa scene was saturated and bachata didn’t hold the same appeal. With kizomba being so new, France knew she was well placed to share her passion if she could learn well enough.

Frances and Jay Senior, another prominent member of the kizomba scene today in Seattle and a fellow salsa team member formed a practice group. “We brought in a few others, so we were 8-10 people meeting once a week, and Ana would help us whenever she could. After a while we got to a point where we felt like we needed to learn from other teachers.”

Discovering mentors and building collaboration

“I discovered this vacation thing, a Salsa Kizomba vacation in Jamaica with Petchu and Eddy. The vacation wasn’t quite what we thought it would be – more vacation and not so much dancing – but we ended up spending a lot of time with Petchu and Eddy. Eddy was knowledgeable about the music because he had done a bunch of research. Jay and I and another lady named Allison learned a lot from them. Eddy generously offered to come and teach in Seattle if I ever needed it.

“When I came home Allison and I were brainstorming how to get people to dance. Alison herself had been part of the salsa scene as it grew in Seattle and was also a key player in getting bachata rooted in Seattle. She gave me some great advice and insight. To build kizomba, regular classes need to be offered along with a place to go dance. The trick was that there weren’t enough people to support a weekly dance. I experimented with something on a Friday; it was my first event ever and I broke even – technically I made $1. More importantly, it helped show that there were enough people interested in come to dance kizomba. With Alison’s help, Hallie at the Century Ballroom was willing to take a chance on kizomba and offered us a place to teach as well as host a dance once a month. The dance is the First Friday Kizomba Social and it continues to be one of the best nights to dance kizomba in Seattle.”

After that trip to Jamaica in 2011, Frances started teaching and planned for Eddy to come teach a small group intensive workshop the following April. In the meantime, through a collaboration with Carlos Cinta and Carla Poma, Frances was able to bring Joao and Mafalda to Seattle in March of 2012. “To my surprise we had around 45 people, mainly from Seattle and a dozen from Vancouver – they’d had some exposure but there was no scene there yet. So then when Eddy came he offered to teach a drop-in general class before a dance, and that was 30-40 people, a lot from Vancouver and we had a dance with more than 60 people.”

The core group that took Eddy’s workshop classes benefited a great deal, and the program at the Century Ballroom started to grow. Frances arranged for several more top artists to come to Seattle, more than I can easily list, but including Kwenda Lima, Sara & Albir, Riquita Alta, and Oscar BA. Frances drew inspiration from her lindy hop days and organized a weekend-long dance camp, the Seattle Kizomba Semba Camp, with classes taught by Eddy, Riquita, and Oscar in the morning and afternoon -75 people divided into 2 tracks by dance level- and dancing all night long. Quite a few people you might recognize attended that camp as students, including people now teaching in Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “What was cool we all met and talked and then they all went away to do their things. So it was a lot of fun to have done that and for all these people who were pioneers in their cities to have come together and then dispersed to be active to this day.”

Stepping outside the timeline for a moment – Frances also organized an online group for teachers of kizomba in the USA and has been trying for more than a year to create an opportunity for us to come together and share ideas for improving instruction nationwide.

Sharing kizomba from Seattle to Nicaragua

Frances continued to work with Jay and Allison to build interest in kizomba. We did demos at salsa dances, swing dances, a blues and fusion dance – that was through people I already knew in those scenes, and in the culture of the dance scenes here they are very open to things like that.”

Frances started to lead so she could be a better teacher. “One of the hurdles people have is how you learn from someone and that if you’re not in that particular role then you can’t teach that role.” She does feel that leading as a woman is different: “The technique is the same, but the things you have to consider are different. Our bodies are different and the dance is super close so that has to be considered.”

Her motivation was wonderful: “I wanted to have more people to dance with, and I feel strongly that this dances teaches you so much about connection and other people. I felt like this could be a gateway dance for a lot of people. This medium, because of the hugging and connection, also allows you to learn more about yourself and how you are with other people.”

In addition to organizing on her own and teaching at Seattle events like the Seattle Salsa Festival and Seattle Bachata Kizomba Festival, Frances has had some fun opportunities to travel to teach as well. One experience stood out in her mind: “We were invited to teach and perform at the Nicaragua Salsa Festival. I couldn’t believe I was on the same stage as some of these big names in salsa. The people and the energy were great. There was this hunger for more that doesn’t exist unless you’re in the space of a new dance. Even if I couldn’t speak with most people because it was all Spanish, they were really welcoming and hospitable, and they really enjoyed themselves.”

Ultimately, Frances isn’t that aggressive about seeking opportunities to teach at large festivals, though she would definitely be happy to work at such events. “I care about what I do and I value and respect what other people do. I’ll do whatever comes my way, but I really enjoy the atmosphere of the type of event that I set up (smaller or more focused), or the atmosphere of an emerging community. Everyone’s here for the same thing, which is to enjoy the dance, and to me that’s clear: they just want to learn.” She still teaches with Jay Senior at the Century, and also works with Tein-Ju Yu who was one of her first students in Seattle.

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Leading the way as a woman

Frances has tried to tackle some of the inequality in instruction that has been normal for so long. “Having done other dances before kizomba, I have a very different view on my learning. Until someone pointed it out to me, I didn’t realize how much kizomba instruction in general is very targeted to the leaders. My first teacher was Ana, a very strong woman, but she was very adamant that it’s important to teach the lead first. I did get feedback from my events from women who said they felt like no one was teaching them. Some of the earlier instructors were saying ‘Follows, just follow.’

“For me, I try to make sure when I teach that the followers get something out of it as well. There’s stepping on your own, filling in the gap when the leader steps back, and so on. Now when we teach the beginner classes we do a role exchange: leaders and followers learn both to lead and follow. I learned it in tango, I think it’s very powerful. I find after that it creates a better sense of learning, a little more sympathetic to the other side.”

Frances has experienced some of the bias in hiring practices as well. “I always thought that you would just get invited, but a lot of it is working your connections. I think there’s a bias towards couples, obviously, and there’s a bias towards the lead being hired. I also feel that people need to be compensated for your time, and how people pay you reflects how they value you. I think that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been trying to go for that,” speaking of more frequent festival gigs.

“The other barrier for me personally is I’m not your typical bombshell instructor.” Frances is not the sort of person who will say organizers prefer to higher sexy model types. She said herself, “I’m very conscious about how people perceive me, I’m influenced by the Asian concept of the outward face being good and inoffensive all the time.”

But I invite you to compare the top female dancers you know….it’s clear to me that being a shorter Asian woman doesn’t fit that mold. Frances is a great role model for anybody who doesn’t feel like they have the ideal body type. “I believe dancing should be accessible to everyone.”

Frances is also genuinely humble. “I try not to overstep any boundaries, I don’t claim to be an expert, I do say I have a lot of experience that I can share. This is a learning process and it doesn’t stop with one person. I don’t train as hard as professional dancers do; most of my life I haven’t trained to do this 24/7. I feel more like a guide or a coach; I invite people to explore different movements. Would I like the reputation that Riquita has, or that some of the other well-known female instructors have? Yes. But I have to establish my own reputation according to my nature. For the most part I feel like if I operate true to who I am then I’ll be okay.”

I wouldn’t have her operate any other way!

Advice for Female Teachers
Actually Frances pointed out that these tips are for teachers regardless of gender:

1. Be true to yourself
“Be clear about what you want to do and why you’re doing what you’re dong. That’s what’s going to guide you in your decisions.”

2. Value yourself in a healthy way
“In the beginning you probably won’t be validated by the people you work with.”

3. You can’t do it on your own
“You still need help, whether it’s mentors or other teachers. It’s important to have someone who’s been through the same thing that you can bounce ideas off. I had Eddy, Oscar, Allison, Jay…”

4. Its nice to have a partner
“You need to have another person to show the steps. Demonstrating with your students is not always the best thing and obviously if you want to do a demo you need to have good dance chemistry. In this dance there’s a lead and follow energy. To have a woman leading, she has to imitate that masculine energy.”

As to shoes…
“I used to wear flats all the time because I needed to be more grounded. For me heels have a feminine energy, not good for leading. I’ve discovered sneaker wedges and they are awesome. They give me the extra height I need to leverage as a lead and still help me stay grounded.”

Connect with Frances online!
Add her on Facebook.
Read her personal blog.
Find out about kizomba in Seattle: http://kizombaseattle.blogspot.com/
Follow Frances on YouTube.
Join the Kizomba Seattle Meetup group.

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