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University of Hawaii, Mānoa Formation Team Huddle. Photo by Michaella Villanueva.

Just Dance

By Michaella Villanueva
Contributing Author
University of Hawaii Dancer finds missing piece at Nationals!

Before flying in for the 2024 USA Dance Nationals, I had made up my mind that it would be my last ballroom competition.

I started ballroom last year through a club at my university, the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Before college, I had no experience in dancing or sports, but my life felt stagnant, and I was looking to do something that would set me in motion again.

So, every Tuesday at 6 p.m., I would go down to the athletic complex after work and learn a bit of the Cha Cha, the Swing, or the Waltz. It would take me a couple of practices to learn even the basic figures, but going to ballroom practice soon became the silver lining throughout my week.

Michaella Villanueva and Gregory Snyder after their practice in Studio 2, University of Hawaii, Mānoa. Photo by Michaella Villanueva.

I fell in love with performing. I did my first performance – a Cha Cha, Bachata, and Swing medley – at the end of the semester and, though it was riddled with mistakes, couldn’t help but smile and laugh throughout. Dancing made me feel alive.

Then we started doing competitions. Our first was the Hawaii Star Ball in the fall of last year and our second was the Aloha Ball this past February.

As some of you may have already realized, dancing is tiring. Sometimes you put in hours of work and barely see any results. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with your partner. Sometimes it is hard to rewatch the videos of yourself dancing. The comparisons I started to draw in my head followed me everywhere — to other followers, to my leads — and in all aspects, I felt like I was falling short.

The ballroom population in Hawai’i is small, so in both the Hawai’i Star Ball and the Aloha Ball, our club members competed against each other. No more than six couples were on the floor at a time, and in some cases, there were only two.

We flew to Nationals just a month after the Aloha Ball. Nationals had more than triple the amount of people on the floor that we’re used to, and because we made a long trip to be there, there was pressure to show something for it.

By Saturday morning, the pressure was starting to get to me. In fact, there was a very embarrassing moment where I started to cry while on deck for our first Standard heat. My partner had been telling me about his amazing run in Rhythm. He and his Rhythm partner made it all the way to finals, and they were amazing – I know because I watched. My Rhythm partner and I had been wiped after the first round of almost every category we entered. I spent most of my Saturday morning as part of the audience.

At that moment, I started to have this sinking feeling that I was just not meant to be on the stage. I didn’t feel like a performer. I dolled myself up that morning in bold makeup and glittery hair accessories and jewelry, but I felt like my look “out skilled” my dancing. Sometimes when I’m on the floor, I can’t even feel anything. I wonder if in those moments I’m dancing or just being led.

Michaella Villanueva and Elijah Saloma with Coaches Ravi Narayan and Synthia Sumukti. Photo by Michaella Villanueva.

When we walked onto the stage, I put on my biggest smile and started to dance. My mind was quiet and devoid of any technique. I started to move like I moved in the practice studio back at my university, and for the first time in a really long time, I just listened to the music and danced. The seconds of that heat went by before I knew it, and then we had to get ready for the next category we entered.

Every time I went on deck, I tried to remind myself, this might be my last ever dance on the stage. There was no guarantee that we would make it to the next round. But to my surprise, we made it to the next round almost every single time. Eventually, we were in the finals.

As the competitions continued, I started to feel like I was just performing again. That night at our team match, my partner and I did the Cha Cha, and I felt like I was back at my first performance smiling and laughing and enjoying being on the floor.

Team Match Team Photo. From left to right: Gregory Snyder, Yuewen Ding, Michaella Villanueva, Sydney Kim, Alex Picken, Elijah Saloma, Chris Ramirez, Andrea Siochi, Michelle Leano, and Yong-Sung Masuda.

And to my satisfaction, our team made it to the next round and placed 8th as a university overall. Cheering with the rest of the team was thrilling. It felt like pure excitement. That night was filled with love of ballroom from my teammates and college students across the country. It started to relight a spark in me that I thought was snuffed out.

Sunday was our last day of competing, and it consisted of our Smooth heats. Smooth has a special place in my heart, and I knew I didn’t want to leave any regrets on the floor.

Elijah Saloma and Michaella Villanueva sway during their American Foxtrot. Photo by Yuning Zheng.

My partner and I made it to the finals again in the categories we competed in, and this time I felt a buzz through me. Suddenly things were clicking, and even though my technique was far from perfect, I felt the missing piece – my love for ballroom – slide into place with every sway of the Waltz.

We ended up placing first in one of the categories at Nationals. As a team, we also won the Highest National Average Award, which was a moment of pure joy. All our hard work felt like it paid off. I have never felt happier than I did at that moment.

Highest National Average Victory! From left to right: Chris Ramirez, Andrea Siochi, Prita Narayan, Ravi Narayan, Synthia Sumukti, Alex Picken, Elijah Saloma, Yuewen Ding, Michaella Villanueva (author), Yong-Sung Masuda, Olive Murray, Sydney Kim, Michelle Leano, Sid Souvannavong, and Gregory Snyder. Photo by Jacqueline Siochi.

I realized that I didn’t want this competition to be my last. The anxiety to improve will probably persist, but as long as the desire to perform outpaces that, I want to be on the stage.

Editor’s Note:  I want to publicly thank University of Hawaii, Mānoa Coaches Ravi Narayan & Synthia Sumukti along with the entire Ballroom Dance Team for their contributions to American Dancer and USA Dance.  What a fabulous team!  Congratulations for your individual and team accomplishments at the 2024 Nationals!  Your dancing, smiles, freshness, and positivity inspired so many.  The future of ballroom is certainly promising in Hawaii!  Thank you and Keep Dancing!!  –– Managing Editor Rose-Ann Lynch

To read all of the University of Hawaii, Mānoa stories:  

  • Elijah Saloma – My Little Paradis in Paradise
  • Andrea Siochi – From Ballet to Ballroom
  • Christopher Ramirez – Ball Sports to Ballroom
  • Sydney Kim – Learning the Joy of Ballroom 
  • Michaella Villanueva – Just Dance
All Nationals Competitors from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa soon after their Team Match! Left to Right: Christopher Ramirez, Sydney Kim, Yong-Sung Masuda, Michelle Leano, Yuewen Ding, Elijah Saloma, Michaella Villanueva, Alexander Picken, Gregory Snyder, and Andrea Siochi.
Photo by Yuewen Ding.

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