A Fun Ride To The Top

Reprinted with permission from Dance Notes

Tomas Mielnicki and JT Thomas were newcomers to the field at the 2006 United States Ballroom Championships. They didn’t even make the final. But one short year later, they became the champions! 2007 was an outstanding year for this innovative couple. The year showed many shake-ups in their division; couples retired, couples split up and still others came back into the competition arena with new, equally talented partners. But being disciplined, hard working, consistent and highly intuitive got Tomas and JT to the pinnacle of the American ballroom division—2007 United States American Ballroom Champions. Was it was their willingness to take risks that catapulted them to the top? Whatever it was, Tomas and JT have their own unique way of working toward their goals and are very forthcoming in sharing their ideas and philosophies. They believe in themselves and their coaches, and are willing to do what it takes to show their very own style of dancing.

What are your dance backgrounds?

JT: I started when I was 6 or 7, doing ballet and jazz. I had a brief gap when I was a little girl because I was tired of being overlooked at the school. My mom was a single parent and wasn’t able to be at the studio all the time. They played favorites to the girls with parents who could do volunteer work all the time. It made me upset, so I quit. When I went to college I took some classes for fun, having no thoughts about actually making it a career. I wound up getting a scholarship. So I stayed in the dance department and got a B.F.A. in dance from the University of Arizona. After I graduated I was trying to decide what to do… am I going to move to New York, to LA, do the cruise ships, do commercials? The guy I was dating at the time said, “I know you’re a little sad right now because you’re not dancing full time. I’d like to take you out dancing.” I said, “I don’t know how to do that kind of dancing. If you want to do tour jetés and pirrouettes, I’d be happy to show you!” He actually suggested that we take some lessons. I was impressed and said, “Okay, sure, let’s go do it.” We went to Fred Astaire in Scottsdale, Arizona. I took three lessons and saw all it had to offer. So I walked into the manager’s office and said, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. How do I get started?” I started in training class and about three months later I was teaching.

You’re originally from Arizona?

JT: Yes.

How did you get to California?

JT: I started competing in rhythm. That didn’t work out, as partnerships do. I was looking for a new partner and I got introduced to Marcus Johnson and we decided to dance together. So I moved to San Diego for three years and danced Latin with Marcus. That partnership dissolved and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with Latin. I had started to work on smooth a little bit with Toni Redpath for fun and to learn for teaching. Once that bug got into me, I thought maybe I should try it. So I left it open… whatever partner I found—Latin or smooth, I would go with that. Then I met Tony Scheppler and we started dancing smooth together. I moved to New York, which ultimately led me to the beautiful and talented Tomas!

Tomas: My story is quite short and simple. When I was around 7 years old, I had a little trouble with my spine. I was not so great working around the back yard and doing other things for my parents. It was fun for me, but not for them. So they went to the doctor and he said they should send me to ballet or swimming, to do something with my body to get better. They sent me to ballet. I hated it in the beginning, but I did it for three years and started enjoying it. When I was around 10 years old, one of my girlfriends who knew I was doing some ballet asked me to dance ballroom with her. She had lost her partner for the ballroom and she needed a new one. So I said, “Of course, no problem.” I was so happy because I was bored with ballet and training by myself almost every day. So I started doing ballroom with her. In the beginning of course it was for fun, but when I was about 13 I started winning competitions. Then I got really, really crazy about it because I thought if something’s going really well, why not? So I started liking it a lot. When I was 15, I became Polish champion.

You’re from Poland?

Tomas: Yeah, I’m from Poland.

You were Polish champion in what style?

Tomas: In both, standard and Latin. Both of them were going very well, so I competed in both until I left the country. In the Amateur 10-dance I was the first runner-up. Actually, I made the semi-finals in the 10-dance at the World Championships. I didn’t dance professional in Poland.

JT: Didn't he say this would be short?!

Tomas: It was shorter than you, I think!

JT: I don’t think so! You’re not done yet!

Tomas: And also in the meantime I finished a law degree. I would actually like to do something with it, but for now it’s dancing, definitely. Dancing is my love. Then I came to the United States. I left Poland when I was 26.

That was hard to get a degree in law and be that highly ranked in dancing.

Tomas: Yeah, it was very hard actually. The degree took five years. And actually it’s really hard in Europe. It’s much harder than here. A friend of mine came here for one year to study law he said it’s so easy in the United States. In Europe it’s crazy. But I tried my best. It is called a master’s degree of law, but then if you want to be a judge or something, you have to do an extra three years.

Do you have to take a test too, like here?

Tomas: Yeah, and I did that also.

Can you be a lawyer here?

Tomas: No. If I want to continue here I still have to do some tests and go to school for one or two years. So you never know, maybe in the future.

JT: I just can’t picture him as a lawyer!

Tomas: I could be a special lawyer! For “special” cases!

JT: You can represent me anytime!

Why did you come to the United States?

Tomas: I came here to visit my friend, Katarzyna Kozak; she has been my very good friend for many, many years. Before she left Poland, at the competitions, she was winning her category and I was winning my category. So we know each other very well. She was always inviting me to visit her, and after I finished law school I had a little vacation. I said, “Let me try. Let me go to the U.S. Let me see what goes on there.” I had also lost my dance partner at the time. I came here to visit and I was around for two or three weeks, then I was supposed to go to Miami for a competition and then go back to Poland. But there happened to be the blackout in New York. Nobody was working for a few days, so I started talking to people and they told me, “You can make very good money, you can work as an independent. It’s very easy. There are a lot of people looking for good teachers. And if you want to find a partner it’s very easy here because if there is not somebody already here, somebody is coming from Europe all the time. Why don’t you try it here for a few more weeks and see how it goes?” They started showing me New York, which is a beautiful city. I didn’t see a lot before because my friends were working all the time. But there were those few days when they couldn’t work so they showed me more about New York. I thought, “This is a very interesting city, a lot of things going on and good energy,” which you need in your life… so I said, “Why not?” and that’s it.

What year was that?

Tomas: It was 2003.

Did you dance with anyone else before JT?

Tomas: In the United States? No. I tried out in the beginning but couldn’t find anybody, and I thought, “I have to make money because I have to support myself. My family can't support me financially. Actually I have to support them. Let me make money first.” That’s what happened. I was still looking a little bit, but I was not really ready to do anything.

How did you two get together?

JT: I saw him at the studio a few times… and he’s so charming! I was drawn to him! Actually, we did one of Ed Simon’s opening numbers for Empire together. We did like 30 seconds of some smooth. Later on... I was still dancing with Tony at the time, but Tony had told me he wanted to stop doing smooth. We had a few more commitments before the partnership ended. One was to dance at a party that Tomas was throwing in Flushing, for the Chinese community. Tony and I went to do the show and we already knew we weren’t going to dance together any more. So I was watching Tomas dance with his students, and I thought, “This guy’s not bad... he can perform, he’s obviously talented, and... he’s so charming!” When we were dancing for the show at Empire, he had said, “I don’t want to compete. I’m over that. I’ve been doing it since I was little. I’m just making money now.” So I said to him, “I know you’re not interested in competing, but would you want to just practice with me while I’m looking for a partner?” He was working on his smooth for his students, so he said, “Okay, I could practice with you.” We practiced for about a month. Being he has a European background, we practiced like, every day for a month, VERY serious. Then finally he was like, “You know, maybe I do want to do this competition thing.” I thought, “Okay! My plan worked!”

You said you wanted to practice with him, but you really wanted to dance with him?

JT: Oh, sure, yeah! And I always thought I was supposed to dance with someone really tall, because I’m kind of tall and thin. But when we started dancing together, I thought, “Wow, this is so much nicer with somebody who’s more your size.” You really can move well together. I had never felt that before because Tony was the only person I had danced smooth with. So when I danced with Tomas I thought, “He’s just built for me!”

Since you had done International all your life, what did you think of the smooth?

Tomas: I’ve done international all my life in both styles, but I was a little bit over it because it was so many years. So I was very excited about the smooth. I think smooth is a perfect situation for this case, because its basics are also international standard. It is the same kind of movement, and on top of it you’re adding Latin... the hands, the turns, the spins, the extra movement, the showing off a little bit. You have to be kind of a show-off in the Latin, more than standard. In standard, you stay in a frame. It is a perfect combination for both sides. So, if you’ve done 10-dance you actually have a perfect background to do the smooth. It’s too bad people in Europe don’t know too much about it yet. I hope we will let them know about it more because it’s really, really a great thing if somebody likes both styles, but wants to do something a little bit different.

Do you think you’re going to go over there and show that?

Tomas: Well, hopefully we will. There are a few people from Europe who are getting interested in it. They would like to do something about it, so I will try to push it. That’s my goal.

How long have you been together?

JT: Two years. We started in December two years ago. We’ve been competing for about a year and a half. We practiced for about six months before that.

How did you develop your choreography?

Tomas: Actually, that was pretty interesting, simply because Ed Simon worked with us at the beginning on just a simple silver routine, just a really, really silver basic routine, like you would do with a student.

JT: Then he would say, “Take this line and open it up, you have a week. How would you take these basics and do something interesting with them?” So that’s how it just grew. We’d work on a line and then we’d grow it a little bit with Ed's input. Then we’d do another line and we’d work on that. And that’s how it evolved.

It was your choreography then, because he had you do what you felt?

JT: Exactly. We definitely worked with Ed as like an overseer and a third eye to say, “Yeah, okay, that’s working, that’s not working. Try something different here.” But very few pieces in our routine have just been given to us as set choreography. Sometimes when that’s happened, afterward, we’re both asking each other, “Did that feel good to you?” And usually the answer is... “not really.” Working with Tomas, I know that if he feels like it comes from within him, then he can really express it and dance it well. But when it doesn’t feel right for him, he doesn’t like to dance it. I can tell there’s a block there and he doesn’t want to perform that part. We always work on making the piece our own.

Tomas: I agree. I think that’s a key to the success… that you actually make it what works for you. Not necessarily what works for other people. When I was in Europe and the coaches came to the studio, I would say, “I would like to have some new choreography.” And they would say, “Okay, you show us something.” Then I was going for it, what I felt. They would say, “That’s how you’re going to have success in your dancing, because normally people want us to make them a routine.” The key to success is to work that way, and that’s kind of a challenge. I’m always thinking, “Is this going to be okay for the people because it’s going to be different?” It may be interesting, maybe not. We try to make it interesting for us and hopefully the people who watch it will like it too. When we started, we tried to create our own, different style, and the people weren’t sure what it was exactly and where it would go. In the beginning, it was new for us also, for me especially, but then we started selling it. That’s why it comes out so well in the end, because it was ours. We have Ed, who works with us all the time, and he makes up some things for us, but most of it comes out first from us.

JT: I think we’ve been smart in who we’ve chosen to work with, and blessed, because it seems like all of our teachers work well with us. We’re both very strong-minded people and we both have a lot of creative ideas. I'm sure that can be difficult to deal with sometimes. We’re thankful that they put up with our craziness. I guess the good thing is, we don’t fight a lot, like a lot of other couples do. We don’t have time to fight. We decided life is too short. You must enjoy every moment.

Tomas: And if we fight, we’ll leave.

JT: Usually I'm the one who gets upset and I’ll say, “I’m done with you today. I’m going.” Then later one of us will apologize and we’re fine. Luckily, it’s not very often.

Tomas: Yeah, but it's better than... I see many, many couples standing in the middle of the floor screaming at each other for one hour or something.

JT: What’s the point of that?

Tomas: We sometimes get to the point that we have some difficulties. Nobody’s perfect, especially like my language sometimes is not understandable. I don’t understand half of what she’s talking about. I think I understand, but I do not really, but I think I do. So that can be complicated. If you had two American people maybe it could be easier because you know very well what you’re talking about, but we don’t know sometimes. We know each other, but we don’t know what we’re talking about.

JT: It’s the language thing. He thinks he understands and I think I’m being clear. Then when I find out what he actually thought I thought, I’m like, “I didn’t think that!” But we work through it. We realize that can be an issue and we work through it. With our coaches, there’s always a mutual respect. We’re being given information to utilize and we try to do our best; we take it back and we work through it so that we really understand it. So hopefully when we go back to that person we can show them that we actually put it to work. We always have discussions. If we don’t understand, we’ll talk it through until we do. We'll say, “This is what our thought is. This is how we’d like to see it come through. Can you help us achieve that?” Luckily, all of our coaches have been really, really amazing in helping that process and helping us to create our own style. When you’re new and you don't have a lot of information yet, you just do what you’re told as you’re learning. But hopefully, you get to a point where you become educated enough that you can actually start making some of those decisions for yourself as well. Having good coaches that help you along that path is a gift.

Did you ever have a coach that didn’t really want to help you on that path and you decided not to work with them?

JT: I don’t think so.

Tomas: Not really.

JT: You know, there are some people we work with more than others, just because of the traveling, and when they’re coming in. But nobody that we’ve ever said, “We’re not working with that person anymore.”
Tomas: I used to work like this in Poland and I’m really happy that I can work like this here. I have my main coach, main teacher, somebody who helps me know where to go, what to do, exactly. He knows very well what’s going on and he has a good eye. I’m lucky to find this person, and we found Eddie. Some couples, they go around and take from a lot of people because they don’t have a main coach. They don’t know what is good for them. It’s the same in Europe. All my friends go take lessons all over because they’re looking for a way for them and they don’t know which way is good. There are so many teachers and they don’t know really where to go. We’re lucky that we found a main coach and he gives us the way and we trust him.

And you both knew him before you got together, so you both trusted him.

JT: Yeah. He was working with Tomas coaching his students and I was working with him before with Tony. It’s through Ed that we ultimately met.

So you went very quickly to the top. You weren’t even a finalist and all of a sudden you won. What was that like for you?

JT: It’s a little crazy! I think a lot of people kind of went, “What the heck happened?” A lot of it has to do with timing, but I hope that it had to do with our hard work and us being true to what we want to show. In our first year we were basically 7th so we weren’t in the final. We were the next couple in. We were obviously working our way up and then the final just kind of collapsed for one reason or another. People retired, people split up, whatever. So it was just a great time for us to be newcomers and hopefully having some talent and lots of support. We were able to maintain the momentum. A challenge that a lot of people face is that they get kind of stuck in a place and then it’s really kind of hard to shift and move. We never got stuck because the final kind of fell apart and we just worked our way up the middle.

Tomas: Also, there were some couples splitting up but coming back with other partners, very good partners. It wasn’t that easy.

There were some couples still there and together.

JT: And they were very talented. Everybody had a style.

Tomas: The new couples that came back with new partners were also a very high level technically and had very nice styles. It was not easy at all, and we could have been last in the final, or we may not have even made it. We didn’t know. We thought we would be in this final, but we thought, “We can be first, we can be sixth. We just have to just dance well.” But I think the key to our success was what we talked about before… we made it the way we wanted it, and then we practiced almost every day, and sometimes twice a day before the championships. We worked in the morning and there were nighttime sessions very late, late, late, late with Eddie. We were really tired, but we wanted to...

JT: And we hated him at that point! We love Ed; we hate him all at the same time! He would say, “Do another round.” And we said, “We hate you! Okay.”

Tomas: So we really, really worked hard. That was how I worked in Europe. But here, for some reason, people don’t go that way very often. Sometimes you have to forget about your private life, forget about everything else and just do it. Then go back to your private life, get rest or whatever. After that kind of situation, we have a few days off to just relax and then we come back even harder to dance. So we know how to find this middle way of everything.

JT: Even down to our costumes and stuff like that… we try to be a little bit different. We’re lucky to be sponsored by LeNique. I think that was one of the things that made us stand out in the beginning, when we could have gotten lost in the pile. We had such a different look, not just dancing, but in our costuming. When we came out right after USDSC last year at Ohio, we came out in costumes that not many people would wear. He was wearing a light brown vest and I had a crazy kind of a dress. And people saw it. It made them look, hopefully, at our dancing, because the costumes were so unique that we didn’t blend in to the pack.

Tomas: LeNique has sponsored us from the beginning. It is a good sponsoring. Sometimes the sponsors just give you the costume and you have to wear it. They really work with us. They ask what we want, they go for it.

JT: They’re like our little mom and dad. They kind of nurture us. We actually do some coaching with Lena, too. They’re part of our team. We’re part of their team. It’s nice.

Another reason for our success I believe is… and we were just talking about this the other day with a competitor who was talking about her partnership. She said, “We’re both nice people, but we get together and we’re just so serious and that’s all we do. We just work.” When Tomas and I first started he was like, “We have to work and we have to work hard. If I’m going to do this, we’re going to do it right.” I stopped him and I said, “Excuse me, I’m more than happy to work hard, but we’re going to have a good time, because the minute we stop enjoying it, it’s over for me. If I’m not having a good time, I don’t want to waste my time.” During our practice sessions, sometimes Ed is just sitting there rolling his eyes like, “Are you finished yet?” Because Tomas is picking me up and twirling me around and we’re goofing off. He wears this shirt with buttons and I rip it open. We enjoy the process, and we made a commitment when we first started to enjoy the process. That helped us be able to work that hard and that fast, because we’re not miserable about it. We’re not dreading coming in here. We’re not fighting all the time. That’s really important. Whenever I train new couples I want to instill that in them. You can be serious and you can work hard, but you still need to find the joy in it. That’s why we do it.

Through the whole summer when everyone was placing everywhere, did it put pressure on you?

JT: We kind of felt like we were the ones that didn’t have pressure, and maybe that helped us. We weren’t even in the finals last year, so there’s no expectation.

Even after you beat some of the other couples once?

Tomas: We were happy to have something happening.

JT: We also knew it could go right around the other way, so you just kind of enjoy the moment. It was like, “Okay, great, we got somewhere, but...” Again, just that commitment to enjoying it and doing what we want to do, and not letting that stress interfere with that. Because as soon as you do that… there were moments, we started to think, “We beat that person; we have to beat them again.” And then you go, “You know what? No we don’t. We don’t have to.” And it might not happen. We can only do what we do and then the judges have the hard job. Our job is to go out there and do our part. They have to make the decisions. But you’re always a little nervous about it.

Standing out there waiting for the placing is the worst part, right?

JT: Yeah, you’re thinking, “Okay, what’s going to happen?”

What about right before the United States Championships?

JT: At Embassy, we won the comp, and that was the first time that Hunter and Maria had come back. All these couples that came out of the final kept coming back in, and each time one did we were like, “Okay, what’s going to happen now? Do we drop, do we rise?” At Embassy, we only won one dance. But because all these other couples came in it made the judges have to watch and have to choose. The good thing for us is that we’d been the most consistent. Somebody once told me, “You’re always going to offend somebody, but you try to be the least offensive. The couple that wins is just the least offensive.” I don’t know if that’s always true. At that comp, we didn’t actually win it by a majority; we won it by being the most consistently second. We just said, “We’ll take what we get!” Ultimately we won, so we were very happy. But, again, that leaves you going into USDSC saying, “All you can do is absolutely do your very best. We want to win it. We’re going to go out there as if we are going to win it.” But at the same time, we’re the couple that doesn’t have any pressure. We’re the couple that wasn’t even in the final last year. So, if we get third, if we get sixth, we’re still happy to be in the final.

Tomas: It was not really pressure. We were very happy with the results happening right before that. But would there have to be pressure when we were not in the final last year? The other people, they are past finalists or ex-champions or something. They have a kind of pressure.

JT: We were excited more than anything.

Tomas: We were excited. We worked hard. We had a great team. So I said to myself, “We’re going to go out and have fun.” That’s how they said we looked like, like we were having a really good time on the floor.

What about Ohio? Did you feel the pressure going out at this big comp being the newly crowned champions?

JT: I think definitely more so. Everybody said, “Are you really excited? You did all the work and now you’re the champions.” And we were saying, “Are you kidding? The work just started!” But now there is the expectation. We can’t do anything different than what we do. You try to just stay true that.

Tomas: We just worked hard again to get ready. Sometimes people say, “Oh, you are a champion, you can relax a little bit.” And I’m like, “No, now is the time to work and to show more, to show something about the style we want to do. Now actually the work starts.”

Did it change the relationship between the two of you?

Tomas: Not really.

JT: I don’t think so. We’ve always tried to present our creativity and artistry and show the relationship between us. If we enjoy our relationship and we present that out on the competition floor, hopefully the audience comes into that relationship. We’re not trying to do anything amazing, choreographically. We’re mostly trying to show our relationship, how we feel about each other, how we feel about the dancing. And through the technique, we try to get that as clear to our audience as possible.

Tomas: Right. I hear “Oh, you guys are so different looking on the floor.” I think what’s different is that for me, the dancing is about the relationship. What’s happening between two people, how we feel it...

JT: Not about the choreography.

Tomas: Every dance is different. Every dance has some story. You should make it story. I didn’t think it that much in the beginning, then it started more and more and more. We’re finding success because we started to make a story between us. And of course we work on the technique really, really hard. Actually, we’re still working, after all this time, on the basics. Then on top of this, we try to make the story.

JT: At Ohio, nobody knows this, but we were crazy people. Right before we were supposed to go on, he didn’t have his cuffs in his jacket and my shoes didn’t have holes punched. We thought we were so prepared and then all of a sudden these last minute things... we literally were getting ready until right when we walked out on the floor. So we don’t give ourselves time to necessarily stress out about the actual pressure of the competition. We’re like, “Are we together? Oh, yeah. Okay, let’s go put on a good show and see what happens!” There may be pressure, there may be people talking, but we try to stay kind of in our own little bubble and enjoy each other. We always say before we go out on the floor, “Let’s have a good time and give them a good show.” The rest is up to the judges.

Tomas and JT Coach’s Corner

Tomas: Definitely work hard on the technique of your basics. Always go basics, basics, basics, and try to find the people you want to work with who will help and direct you. Don’t look around too much. Find your team, and when it goes to the choreography, try to make up as much as you can from yourself, from inside of you, and then show it to somebody to work on it. Don’t just wait for somebody to give you something and feel you have to take it. Just make it from yourself.

JT: And on top of that... what people have to remember about ballroom is that, in addition to the technique—that’s your basis, the foundation for what you do—you have to remember why you do it. That’s the biggest thing for me. Hard work is great, but why do you do it? Do you do it just because of the work? Hopefully not. Hopefully you do it because there’s something, either inside of you that you want to express, or that you enjoy the actual feeling of moving. You have to let that show. So many people, especially new people, get so caught up in showing technique; they forget that the performance is really what sells the technique and vice versa. You have to have both parts. So you have to make sure that as much as you’re working on the technique, you also have to remember that it’s a performance. If you just go out there and do the steps and the proper technique, you’re not going to wow or dazzle anyone. It’s really a true combination of the two. You have to start with the technique and build that nice foundation, but then put the icing on the cake. I think there are a lot of people eating some dry cake out there! I want my cake to have some whipped cream frosting and some sparkly colors!