Country Boy And California Girl Make A Unique Blend-An Interview With Hunter Johnson And Maria Zee
The American ballroom division is perhaps the most unpredictable of all the professional events. The last ten years have witnessed many different champions and styles in this ever-changing battle. When all the top dancers are in attendance there are eight couples that can easily make the final six. So there are always surprises and upsets, which make it an exciting division to watch. One of the newest partnerships to join the scene is Hunter Johnson and Maria Zee. Even though they have been competing together less than two years this southern California couple is making it known that they are a team to be taken seriously. Congratulations are also in order on the recent announcement of their engagement.
How did you get started dancing?
Maria: My mom put me in ballet class when I was three, because I was shy, and it started from there. I danced ballet and jazz all my life. Got into ballroom at 18. I was a student for a year and a half and then I turned pro.
Hunter: I just wanted to take country western lessons so I could pick up some girls. The funny thing is, I never dance anymore when I go to country bars. But that?s what I originally went for. Then I saw ballroom, I took lessons at a Fred Astaire studio and they did more ballroom than country. They were having a training class for teachers, so I thought, ?I?ll take some training classes for free.? But then I realized that I liked it. I was at a good Fred Astaire. Joe Lozano and Jan Mattingly, who were U.S. Champions at the time, were there. It was a good studio to work at.
Where are you originally from?
Hunter: I?m from Houston, Texas.
Maria: I grew up in central California. Moved down to Southern California about nine years ago.
You still go to country bars?
Hunter: Yeh, but I don?t dance at all.
Do you like country music?
Hunter: I do. I?m from Texas though.
Maria: He got me used to it. I really didn?t have a choice. Actually, I like it a lot now. He?ll put on his old stuff sometimes and I?m like, oooohhh. But the new stuff is good.
How did you get started dancing together?
Hunter: We both had other partners but we were dating.
Maria: Then his partnership broke up and mine was basically breaking up. My coach, Kristi McDonald said, ?Why aren?t you dancing with him?? I said, ?I?m dating him. I don?t want to dance with him. It?ll mess it all up.? She actually was quite instrumental in at least getting us to try out. We looked at it and thought, ?Well, might as well try it.?
Hunter: I don?t think either one of us wanted to dance with and date our partners, at first.
Maria: It?s great now. It worked out. I had dated my partner years and years ago and it had been such a difficult situation, that I thought, ?I?m never going to do this again.?
Hunter: Of course she didn?t have anyone like me then!
Maria: I didn?t have the right guy! It makes it all different.
When you first tried out, did you realize it was going to be okay dancing?
Maria: I think at first our height difference was a little bit of a concern. That was something we definitely both had to get used to. I think it took us a few months actually to really feel it. We put together a show dance number for Ohio Star Ball first. So that was kind of a fancy try out. It had a little smooth and a little theatre arts. It was also right after 9/11 that we started dancing. Hunter came up with the idea on a plane one day, ?What if we did a tribute to America?? That just kind of made it an easier try out period as well. Even though there were some bumpy roads!
Hunter: Pretty bumpy at the beginning.
Maria: Thank god we were dating! We?re both very headstrong, stubborn, and neither one of us will back down, sometimes. We?ve gotten through that. The first six months were definitely a challenge. But we also did our own choreography, and we both had ideas.
Hunter: Our styles were so different going into it too. And that was a concern, but we?ve kind of meshed the two together. So it?s good because we have a different style than the other couples.
Did you have to go to any kind of sports psychologist to help you work together?
Hunter: Actually we did.
Maria: We went to a sports psychologist, James Bowman.
Hunter: Toni Redpath and Michael Mead introduced us to him. He works with all the U.S. Olympic athletes. So he?s a really top of the line sports psychologist. He?s really good. I?d recommend it to anyone, especially if you?re in a relationship.
Maria: It wasn?t the relationship, though. We went in realizing the relationship was fine. We needed to figure out exactly how we could get the dance part. Learning how to give and take without feeling like we were giving up our identity or giving up our point of view. That?s been hard for me sometimes. I?m better at it now.
Hunter: He opened up our eyes. Things we already knew, but he put it in perspective for us.
Maria: Talking to that third person can help anybody. You can say the same thing to each other, but when you go and you talk to a counselor who?s trained to deal with those types of things it?s better. He helped us to realize that this isn?t a personal thing; it?s part of our career. We need to make our career in all aspects as strong as possible. So even though at competitions we were good, our practice wasn?t that good. He put it in these terms for us, ?If you don?t practice well; you?re really helping your other competitors out.?
Hunter: He showed us how to get the best out of each practice.
Maria: We probably had been together about six months then. That?s when we needed it.
Hunter: After that there was a big difference. After we had meetings with him, I think we?ve had one argument. We were arguing every day.
Maria: We only went once, but he gave us some tools and guidelines... and we can call him. I called him a couple times. ?Help!? And usually I?d get his voicemail. By the time he called me back I?d be okay. It was knowing that I could call and talk to him.
Hunter: He?s worked with other couples too. He?s very good. I would recommend him to any professional couple.
Maria: We pay our dance coaches to help our dancing, so we?re going to pay a coach to help us do everything.
Do you do anything else besides practicing to enhance your dancing?
Maria: No, I always have the best intentions of going and working out, but once you teach and practice, you know, there?s only so much energy.
Hunter: The day?s long for her. She teaches quite a bit.
Hunter: I have a pretty good schedule. I teach two days a week full out, and I just take the rest of the week off. I travel and teach out of town a lot. Most of my coaching is in two days, but I do just as much as if it were a week. The rest of the week I can go in and practice... I have a few students, but I won?t teach more than one or two lessons the days we practice. I worked it out like that and I really like it. I can concentrate on my practicing and put 100% into it.
Maria: Usually I practice first and then I?ll go teach my lessons. We also found out that we need to practice away from where I teach. When we practice at the studio where I work everyone interrupts, everyone bothers us. I can?t stay focused because people are coming around me all the time. So we practice where Hunter teaches and that makes a huge difference.
Hunter: Whenever I?m practicing, I?m pretty intense.
Maria: You?ve got to have 150%!
Hunter: The intensity that I put into it is so much more than other couples that I see practice. I?m trying to get stuff done.
So you?re intense?
Hunter: Oh yeh.
Maria: He?s actually learning how not to be so intense. It?s a whole new world for him!
Are you intense too?
Maria: I think I?m very intense, but I?m not even close to him. Anyone that knows me sees that I?m very serious, goal oriented and intense. But I don?t even hold a torch to him!
Hunter: As the psychiatrist said, I?m redlining.
Maria: Yeh, he redlines all the time.
Hunter: You know the RPM in your car? Our coach said to me, ?Most people cruise at 3 or 4, you?re over 6 all the time.?
Maria: It?s getting better now. He has moments nowadays, but very rarely.
Are you intense about everything?
Maria: Actually no, he?s so laid back at home. At first that was the hardest thing for me. My boyfriend was this cool guy that was really laid back...
Hunter: I?m cool!
Maria: And comfortable, but my dance partner was this whole different personality. He steps on the floor and it?s like BOOM. That was a hard adjustment for me. One of the best things about him for me is he makes me relax when I go home. I go home and try to do a million and one things and he says, ?Okay, sit on the couch and let?s just sit here.?
Hunter: That?s because I?ve been sitting for three or four hours!
Maria: But that helps me to relax a lot faster than I normally would. I don?t chill out very easily. I?m always on the go. We both have that personality that we should have been able to do it yesterday. We don?t have that patience. Patience isn?t in either one of our vocabularies. I think it helps us progress quickly though, because we want to get it. We don?t want to sit there and say, ?We?ll get this in time.? When we practice? we?ve only done an hour and we?re like, ?Oh, my god, we?re exhausted, we?ve done so much!? We don?t waste time talking and getting ready.
Hunter: We get a lot done in an hour. It feels like it?s been three hours.
Do you plan what you?re going to work on between now and another competition?
Hunter: We watch our tapes and we have our lessons.
Maria: The tapes to me are very valuable.
Hunter: We have a certain thing that we hope to do at each competition.
Maria: We keep it in our minds. We don?t really sit there and say, ?Okay, let?s go through this today.? We just kind of know what we need to go through. We actually do a lot of standard. That?s actually what?s helped us the most in the last six months.
Hunter: In our style right now, I don?t think anybody in the final has been dancing less than five years together, probably even more than that. So we?re the new couple. We?ve been dancing about a year and a half. They?re so connected with each other, it?s important for us to just do our basics and get the feel of each other right now. I?m really happy to be in the place where we are after just a year dancing together.
Maria: We can?t beat that time factor. We?d like to. It frustrates us, but we can sit back and understand it.
Hunter: It?s just a matter of time.
You?ve been going back and forth a little bit with David Weiss and Valentina. How does that affect you?
Hunter: At Emerald it was a little bit of a let down for me because we?ve been dancing really well. When there are six couples out there that have been beating each other? and the judges don?t have that much time to decide.
Maria: And everyone?s really strong. We?re not getting beat by people that we don?t respect as dancers. Everyone in the final is a good dancer. So whether it comes down to the style that we choose to do versus their style, or technically getting things stronger. We just have to get everything stronger.
Hunter: All in all, we?re in the better position, because we?re the ones that have only been dancing a year together.
Maria: We?re coming up through the ranks, as opposed to worrying about having those people behind us.
Hunter: I would rather be in my position than be in the position of being beat by us. We?re growing, getting better each comp.
What do you feel you?re trying to show with your style?
Maria: Something that I see is a lack of going back to basics and having standard in there. That?s something that I didn?t really have with other partnerships that attracted me to the partnership with Hunter. He?s so focused on the standard side of it and keeping that strong. I know everyone works on it, but I don?t know that choreographically everyone puts it in there. Obviously, my training has been in ballet, so I want to use those assets too. That?s why I do smooth. To me, it?s the most challenging. I really love standard, but personally, it?s not as challenging as the smooth because it doesn?t use my assets. My assets are the fact that I?ve spent 20 years at a ballet barre and I can kick and I can back bend and I can spin. However, I like to see those things done well. One of the things that I don?t like seeing in the smooth is people trying to put things in their routines they just don?t really do well, but they see other people doing it, so they try it.
Hunter:We definitely go with our strengths. There?s stuff that I would like to do, but I know it?s just not me. We go with what we?re strong at, because we have to do that.
Maria: I don?t feel some of the younger couples take that liberty. Once you?ve danced for a long time, you feel more confident to say, ?You know I can do it this way.?
Hunter: There are so many different styles in the smooth.
Maria: The rhythm and the Latin are really good too. I did rhythm for many years, but to me the smooth is more challenging. Trying to go from open work to closed work and open back up, put a trick in and get out of it nicely. The American style needs to be a mix of that. It allows itself to be a mix of it too.
Did you compete standard?
Hunter: No. I just know the importance of good footwork, good movement and positive movement. One of the biggest problems with a lot of couples is negative movement. I?m always aware of where I?m going.
Maria: He doesn?t like to stay in one spot very long.
Hunter: It has to stay competitive. Sometimes we think, ?Oh, this is nice, but it?s not really competitive, it?s too much show.? American style is so showy as it is, but when there?s twelve couples on the floor you?ve got to almost watch how much show stuff you have in there. If it?s not moving and attracting the judges? eye, then it?s not competitive enough. We save that stuff for when we do shows. We want to make that six, and to do that you?ve got to catch the people?s eye. And how you do that is through movement.
What do you think about when you?re dancing in a competition?
Hunter: Nothing. We?re trying to be musical. I think that?s our asset. I very rarely go out there thinking of a step here and there. And people screaming our numbers? I don?t hear any of that. People always ask, ?Did you hear us?? But I?m so focused on my partnership.
Maria: I don?t hear them while I?m actually dancing. I hear it in between dances. He sometimes doesn?t even hear it in between. He doesn?t hear it until we get back home and watch the tape.
Hunter: I try to stay so focused on the energy between us, and our musicality.
Maria: I try to stay focused just on him because he also changes everything! Someone gets in our way or he wants to get around the corner. Or sometimes something feels better musically to him so he may do more pivots or less. He does things like that. I also focus on the performance. I?m a firm believer that once you actually get out on the floor your muscle memory has to take over. You can?t worry too much about it. You have to enjoy it as well.
Hunter: I think it?s about the music. Feeling the music, listening to the music. Our coaches make us work with some of the worst music there is. Brian McDonald puts really bad music on and makes us dance and really listen to it. It?s all about the music.
Maria: Listening to the music and trying to dance to it, as opposed to just dancing the choreography. That?s something that we?re really focusing on right now.
Hunter: A lot of couples start dancing before the music starts or right when it starts.
Maria: You don?t even know what it?s going to sound like.
Hunter: I let a couple beats or a measure go by to get the feel of the music.
Since you?re so intense, do you have a certain routine that you have to do the day of the competition?
Maria: I have to do my own hair.
Hunter: We do the exact same thing....
Maria: I stress out and start screaming at my hair and it makes me relax!
Hunter: She had her hair done once.
Maria: So I had all this free time and I danced so awful. All I did then was stress out about what I was going to try and do when I was dancing.
Hunter: I?m a big TV person. I get my couple hours of TV while she does her hair. We order our food. We get the same...
Maria: We have to split a club sandwich. That is our one thing. That gets us going.
Hunter: We always go down an hour before we dance. We have our routine. It seems to work for us.
Maria: I like being down there. I come down and stretch. It helps me also get the feel of the ballroom. It?s important to get yourself acclimated to the ballroom.
Hunter: I like to go in the ballroom, walk around and get the feel of the crowd.
Maria: Every ballroom feels different.
Do you have any hobbies?
Hunter: Play golf a lot. Work out. I have a nice life.
Maria: I go shopping. I?m a shopaholic.
Hunter: I play golf and she shops. There are a lot of guys in the dance business who like to play golf. We all get together at competitions and go play in different cities, so it?s nice. There?s a couple of us here in town that try to play every week or so.
Tell us about your engagement?
Maria: Well, he took me ring shopping because they had to make the ring.
Hunter: I wanted to take her to make sure she got what she wanted.
Maria: He did a good job. He didn?t surprise me totally, because he had been talking about it for a while. We were debating if he was going to save up for my ring or rims for his car. But with the rims you get four for the price of one, so I can understand the rims!
Hunter: I?m big on fixing up my vehicle too. It?s a Land Rover. That?s another hobby of mine.
Maria: His car?s pretty cool. He started with the basic car, but he?s always shopping for stuff he can add to it.
Hunter: But the rims were the last thing.
Maria: He wants me to put stuff on my car. I?m like, ?It?s a car! I like my car, but it?s a car!? It was all he could do to talk me into getting my windows tinted.
Hunter: I was saving up for rims, but we ended up getting the ring instead. I figured it was safer!
Do you have a date?
Hunter: It?s the slowest time for us; we travel every weekend.
Maria: I especially wanted a time of year that?s not rushed.
Are you going to have a big wedding?
Hunter: Probably not.
Maria: We?re probably going to go to Vegas.
Hunter: It?s simpler for everybody.
Maria: Everyone likes going to Vegas. No one?s going to complain about having to go to a wedding in Vegas.
Did you think in the beginning that you would end up getting married?
Maria: I don?t think you ever really know that. I knew I liked him a lot. Once we actually moved in together, I thought, ?You know what, he?s very easy to live with. I like coming home to him.? I?m hugely independent, so to be able to mesh with someone that I don?t feel that my personal space gets invaded is so important. I?ve always felt extremely comfortable with Hunter, and I?ve known that from the beginning. I started feeling that I didn?t like it when he wasn?t there.
Hunter: I coach out of town every week. When I travel I can tell that she?s not comfortable because she always has the computer on the bed which means she doesn?t sleep. She likes to play solitaire.
When did you decide that you wanted to marry Maria?
Maria: A week ago!
Hunter: No, I figured it out about the same time, like she said, when we moved in together. She?s good.
Maria: He?s good to me.
Hunter: Do something that?s comfortable for you and not what everyone else is doing. When I watch amateurs, and even rising star couples, they have choreography and it?s not working out for them but they keep trying. Just get rid of it. It?s not worth looking bad. In the judges? eyes, it?s who offends you the least, not really who?s the best, because a lot of couples are the same. Don?t spend so much negative time trying to fix something. Move on. Be positive in everything. Don?t be stagnant and stay with it.
Maria: In American ballroom you get to pick what you?re good at. You need to find your strengths and go with them. If something?s not your strength, don?t do it, even if everyone else is doing it. There?s nothing more that kills me, and I will be so hard on this when I start judging, than doing a bad trick or a bad line. There are so many things to pick from. I don?t think people explore enough. What do you look best doing? What are your strengths? If you?re a great turner, spin! If you?re not a great turner, don?t! You always need a base, but you have to make things your own and personalize them. Find your strengths and run with them. Don?t do things that just aren?t you. And go back to your basics. Fundamentals will take you to the next stage.
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