We talked to Shaun Peacham and AJ Whitty, winners of Senior Latin at Blackpool Dance Festival in May 2016. Shaun and AJ come from Australia and are Australian champions in Senior Latin category.
I want to make something out of each step and use my body the best that I can to the music, whereas I could never think like that before [when younger]
Congratulations! I've seen you were really happy yesterday!
[AJ]: Thank you!
[Shaun]: Yes, I guess! (laughing)
Do you consider this was your best achievement so far?
[AJ]: By far!
[Shaun]: Definitely! We thought that winning our Australian title last year was the best but right now this is just absolutely amazing.
[AJ]: It truly was the hardest thing, for me personally, that I ever had to accomplish. But by far the best thing! So the minute they called out couple number 18, oh my God... That feeling.... We actually got it recorded, and we played that back many times. Because we don't want to forget that moment and how precious it was.
So was there a celebration, a party last night?
[Shaun]: There was a little gathering of few people ...
[AJ]: Yes (laughing)
[Shaun]: ... in the bar in the hotel. I might have drunk too many wines (laughing).
I know that you visit our website so you probably know that I always ask how you started dancing first. So let's start with that question: how did you get into dancing?
[Shaun]: I started dancing when I was ten years old, in a studio back in Australia. It was a tiny little studio, above a fish & chips shop, in Malvern, Victoria. My next door neighbour wanted someone to go to dance with her, so I went to a dance lesson with her. Three months later she quit, and I fell in love with Ballroom and Latin dancing. So that's how I started from there. I started competing, I used to do both styles. I was not very good in Ballroom style (laughing) but Latin was my strongest style so I just kept with that. I was on and off dancing for the next twenty years. Before I met AJ I had probably about eight dancing partners. I won some Australian titles but never have travelled to Blackpool, ever. But growing up, I was watching Blackpool videos and it was always a dream of mine to come to Blackpool. So coming this year and winning, after years and years of dancing you put together, with all your training and practising, all that came together and fell into place in that final last night. I don't know, it is still a blur. I want to watch how we actually looked like... it is an absolutely amazing feeling.
[AJ]: I am a late bloomer (laughing). I was actually a marching girl, I marched from eight years of age to about twenty. I was also a cricket girl, I enjoyed my cricket very much. One day I saw a dancing and I thought, all right, shall I give it a go (laughing). So I had my first bronze medal class when I was twenty five. I went through all the medals, and I felt that addiction already started. I guess, I got noticed by a coach, one of my coaches, and was asked to start competing. So I went from there, I felt in love with it. So I was a bit late in a game but caught up (laughing). I love that sport! Everyone's passion and dedication, it is so worth it. If you love it, and are dedicated, you can achieve anything!
How did you meet?
[Shaun]: AJ and myself have known each other for many years on and off from the dancing scene. How we started... We bumped into each other at a festival in Melbourne, had way too many drinks (both laughing) and decided then and there that we'd form a partnership and take on Blackpool! We both were on breaks from dancing...
[AJ]: I believe we were very drunk then (laughing). So it was a combination of Shaun and alcohol...
[Shaun]: I said, let's be Seniors!
[AJ]: No, no, you came to me and asked: how old are you? I said, thirty four, actually thirty five in March, and Shaun said: wanna dance? (laughing). And I was like, hmmmm..... OK, sure, why not! But I said I am going back into it only for fun. I want to dance three days, just to keep me fit, energised but those three days turned into ....
[Shaun]: ... six days (laughing)
[AJ]: And turned from fun into battles (laughing).
So dancing for fun and no commitment, turned into winning Blackpool
[Shaun]: First we won our home state Victoria championship title and we thought, maybe we are on to something. Then we started winning again and again.
[AJ]: And that thirst got stronger.
[Shaun]: The more we won, the more we wanted. So we thought, let's just go straight for that pinnacle of Ballroom and Latin dancing which is Blackpool Festival. So let's go for that.
Where are you mainly competing?
[Shaun]: Mainly in Australia. We are also going to Slovakia next week, after Blackpool, to compete.
[AJ]: We've done New Zealand as well.
[Shaun]: We'll probably do couple of Asian competitions, maybe Singapore. I suppose, now after we won this...
You are stars
[AJ]: Yeah, why not! (laughing).
[Shaun]: Yes, we will definitely start travelling a lot more.
What do you do outside of dancing?
[Shaun]: I work in telecommunications, as an Operations manager. It is busy five days a week, and sometimes I work on weekends. At work, they are very flexible, very supportive of my dancing. They are really, really good. Before we came over they had a bit of a fundraising, they put up a trivia night... it was great they did this for us.
So you are saying that your colleagues and bosses are supportive, but some people send us emails asking to be removed from the database as being seen as a dancer in some way doesn't agree with their careers...
[AJ]: Why? Wouldn't it enhance their careers? Such a shame...
What about you?
[AJ]: I am a primary school teacher. I teach little kids. This year, they are eight years of age. I just adore them. They are so beautiful. We had another fundraiser, where we did a showcase, and a lot of my students came and their families came. It was just the best. We've got such a good school community, they embrace everyone's talents. We celebrate everyone's successes. I've been teaching for now, fourteen years. I love my babies (laughing).
[Shaun]: She's going to take the trophy to school for “show and tell”
[AJ]: Yes! Before I left they recorded, they all sang a song for me Flashlight, they gave me a card. So I have been playing it over and over again.
Do they have dance classes in your school?
[AJ]: Dance is part of the Physical Education, they changed the curriculum. I do take my kids for dancing drama. We don't necessarily do Ballroom and Latin dancing but I get them moving (laughing).
What about you running Ballroom and Latin classes as extra-curricular activities?
[AJ]: It has been mentioned. So maybe now, when I've got the credentials to do it (laughing). Why not promote it at the young age.
How do you finance your dancing?
[Shaun]: When I get paid, pretty much all the money goes into dancing.
[AJ]: We've got good life partners who let us spend money on it. I know my partner understands that my dresses are phenomenally expensive.
[Shaun]: Even the men's costumes are.
[AJ]: At the end of day, I justify it, as this is what makes me happy. So what else would I spend my money on?
And if you are happy, your partner is happy.
[AJ]: Yeah, happy partner, happy life (laughing).
Who is designing your dresses?
[AJ]: Corey from Dancewear Australia designed and made the dress for Blackpool. He was fantastic. Usually June does all my dresses but for this one we chose to go with Corey because we wanted a matching set.
[Shaun]: Dancewear Australia. They did our outfits.
[AJ]: He really took in our ideas but also gave suggestions. He's been to Blackpool before, he's seen the floor and how it works. So it was a really good teamwork there.
So how do you compare the Blackpool Festival to any other competitions you danced before?
[AJ]: Oh, you can't compare.
[Shaun]: You walk into this ballroom and just the atmosphere, the history, the World's best danced there... the idols, my idols when I was growing up. Seeing Karen Hardy standing and judging, Anthony Hurley... amazing people judging.
[AJ]: I just remember, in the moment when I was dancing a Rumba, I go into the move when I look up into the sky and instead of plain roof I've got to see all the magnificent artistic work of architectures, the gold... and I was like, oh, I just wish I could stop time for one second... and the band playing.... I've never danced to live music before. I want to bottle it (laughing). I remember walking into the ballroom for the first time, Under 21,'s were dancing and I remember people clapping. It was electric.
[Shaun]: Or watching the Team Match and audience reaction.
[AJ]: People told us it would be magnificent but until you're there you cannot imagine. And Marcus Hilton on the microphone, he was sensational trying to bring the crowd alive. He was so good!
I should think he was brilliant! And a World champion in both Latin and Ballroom.
[AJ]: Yes! Incredible.
What do you like the most in dancing?
[Shaun]: I would definitely say that the movement of the body, different feeling in every dance.
[AJ]: For me, when the music comes on... and forget the first round, as this is nerves round when you just want to get through it. So not until the second round, when you want that music to take you away and you just want to be the part of that.
[Shaun]: We try to let out the dancing to be our voice of the music.
[AJ]: It is now, late into our dancing, that it is so much more enjoyable to dance. Not try to do the technical side, but put our own flavour on what we want to look like and how we want to appreciate our own dancing. It has taken us long to get to that stage.
How do you compare your dancing now to when you were younger?
[Shaun]: I am a better dancer now even if I don't think I have the same flexibility as before (laughing). But I think I am better energy-wise. I guess when you get to that stage when you are comfortable with yourself, you just love it, and I don't know when that energy comes form, but when I hear first beats of Cha Cha, down to the last beats of Jive I am full of energy. I may collapse when I walk off the floor!
[AJ]: I think that I am starting to become much more aware of what my body is doing, and I can start to appreciate each step instead of trying to get through the steps. I feel now that I want to make something out of each step and use my body the best that I can to the music, whereas I could never think like that before. It has made dancing easier instead of trying to construct something that's not real.
Now, let's move to the hardest part of the interview. Tell me what is good and what is bad in your partner?
[AJ]: Be nice (laughing)!
[Shaun]: AJ makes me laugh all the time when we are on the dance floor. Makes going to the studio and practising so much nicer. We practise six days and week and we get along with each other. We can have a laugh. We can have fun together, arguments and tears. She is an amazing person.
I can see you are trying to ear brownie points!
[AJ]: I know he is trying. OK, we had a few heated arguments. But they are very short.
OK Shaun, tell me what her faults are.
[Shaun]: I think the worst things about her is that sometimes she doubts herself. Doubts her ability.
OK, you are trying to be diplomatic! Tell me the truth!
[AJ]: Yeah (laughing)
[Shaun]: She works so hard, and sometimes she gets anxious. That's a blocker sometimes.
AJ, what will you say about him?
[AJ]: He is pretty amazing. I don't really look for his bad sides.
[Shaun]: You can go there, it is OK.
[AJ]: OK, yeah, he is not a morning person. I do not like talking to him when he is grumpy. I walk away. He can't do two things at once. He is a boy (laughing) so he can hardly concentrate on one thing at the time! Apart from that, I don't know....
You mentioned heated arguments, so what was your biggest argument about?
[AJ]: We had two major ones... but cannot remember what they were about.
[Shaun]: I think we both were not listening to each other, so it was coming out wrong for us. It just got bigger and bigger. It happened in one of our coaches, Jeremy, lessons. He stood there and did not know what to do.
[AJ]: Because we don't usually fight. It got that heated that, I remember, Shaun snapped at me. I don't like being spoken to like that. Did I snap?
[Shaun]: Your anxiety... your road block went up. And I snapped because you were not listening.
Was dancing the reason?
[AJ]: It was all about dancing.
[Shaun]: The minute we walked off the dance floor, it is all gone. We never take our arguments off the dance floor.
[AJ]: Never ever. I will admit, Shaun is the peace maker. I would put up a wall, turn my head and he would come over and give me a big smooch (laughing), give me a hug. And the minute he puts his arms around me I am melting (laughing).
So who was right at that time?
[AJ]: I was right!
[Shaun]: I was obviously wrong! (laughing)
[AJ]: You know what, when we started working on the connection, that's when arguments did start. It was very tense. And our coaches could see that. We were getting frustrated because it is all about the feeling part and we kept blaming each other.
[Shaun]: The minute we stopped blaming each other we asked ourselves how we can fix it and then we stopped arguments. And our dancing went from level A to level Z (laughing). We were amazingly lucky. The minute we stopped trying to fight each other but start talking to each other our dancing just improved, and improved.
[AJ]: But to get to that was so frustrating.
[Shaun]: It was probably good six weeks of frustration.
[AJ]: It was also about breaking old habits. Everything we thought we knew we needed to redefine. It was like starting again. Also all the information we got years ago, it is starting to make sense now. It sounds silly... You were told something ten years ago but never really understood it, and now you understand it. Oh, I paid a hundred dollars for that then (laughing). It has been a massive journey. I feel that dancing helped me to be a better person, to be more patient. I am working on it though, I know I should be more patient but...
[Shaun]: I am not saying a word (laughing)
Where do you have your lessons?
[Shaun]: We have three coaches who we work every week with. It is Michael Carey, Alarna Donovan and Jeremy Garner at Pivot Dance Studio in Airport West, in Melbourne. All three of them work on different things but all have the same meaning. It works really well. I think they talk to each other in the background and decide what they going to work on that week because they all know exactly what the other does.
[AJ]: The complement each other perfectly. There is no conflicting ideas. It works really well. It has been a very good team.
[Shaun]: They all have done a bit of choreography for us, they work on our movement, the feeling, all the aspects. Sometimes they give us a bit of choreography, and the next day we dance and they say, this is not what we gave you. And we are like, yes, we changed it (laughing). Or the other coach changed it. But it is OK.
So you change it as well?
[AJ]: Oh yes
[Shaun]: You get given a base. And then you got to make that base your own.
[AJ]: You need to try to work with your own assets, recognise what you are good in.
[Shaun]: We know our strength now, don't we? We always try to do choreography that shows our strengths and not our weaknesses.
[AJ]: That's the idea (laughing).
What is your favourite dance?
[Shaun]: Paso Doble.
[AJ]: I like getting captured in a Rumba. But to be honest, Jive is absolutely wicked. I love letting loose in a Jive.
[Shaun]: Paso Doble for me – I just absolutely love the music, I love the shapes, I love the grandness of it. I love watching the male dance the Paso.
Can you describe each of the dances in one word?
[AJ]: Samba is party
[AJ]: Cha Cha is cheeky
[AJ]: Skirt up (laughing). I may want to delete that one! Cheeky and skirt up, I cannot believe I said that (laughing).
[Shaun]: Rumba... I guess sex on the dance floor.
[AJ]: Oh, try to make love but it doesn't work out that way (laughing).
[Shaun]: Paso Doble is masculine.
[AJ]: I want to eat your head off but trying to be soft about eating his head off.
[Shaun]: And Jive is fun.
[AJ]: With Paso I want to adopt a softer approach so I really want to work on how I see Paso. That's still work in progress for me.
So what is more important for you: the competitive side of dancing, fighting the others or ability to present your ideas on the floor? Both (together): Ability to present our ideas on the floor.
[Shaun]: I would definitely never fight the other couples on the floor.
I did not mean physically fighting!
[Shaun]: When I am on the floor I focus on a music, I focus on the crowd, and I try not to focus on any of the other competitors around me. I focus on AJ and our package.
[AJ]: If I fight for the win and fight for the result I find that I am my own worst enemy. You start watching them and start to worry... I did catch myself during practice on the day we were competing looking at one couple and saying to Shaun, oh God, I hope they are Professional couple. When we danced the first round I remember watching everyone because we were in the first heat and was saying to myself, we cannot do this, we cannot do that. Then just said to each other, let's just forget about them, let's worry about us, let's change our costumes and let's get on that floor and stick with plan that we started with. The plan which was just about us, and we trusted our package. When we did that, everyone else got smaller and we got bigger in our own minds.
What was the best advice you ever heard from a teacher?
[Shaun]: There were many good advices. But one of the best ones was that you got to have a trust in yourself and understand that when you get into these higher levels you got there for a reason. And just enjoy and savour every step of the way.
[AJ]: The best thing one of my coaches said to me was dance for yourself, be calm and believe. For me, that's all it took to realise that I am my own worst enemy...
What kind of music is your favourite? Do you like Blackpool music?
[Shaun]: I love Blackpool music
[AJ]: I admit, I did not at first because I love the heavy drum beat. I love a soft Rumba with a beautiful voice in the background. I loved modern songs with a Jive. So when I first heard Blackpool music, I was like ... ohhh.... really?
[Shaun]: For the last month or so we were practicing to the Blackpool music. And it is beautiful.
[AJ]: It is, I feel classy just dancing to it. I love it. I don't want to dance to anything else now.
Other couples told me that they never liked it until they came to Blackpool.
[Shaun]: No. Until you start training to it, it is all you want to train with. The last week leading to before we came up to this competition, when I was driving a car, it was all I wanted to listen to. I was just playing Blackpool music. All I was focused on was Blackpool music, trying to find every intricate detail in that music. I wanted to hear the tambourine, the drum and trumpet, hoping that something will give me that extra feeling.
[AJ]: It feels pure. Before, I remember people saying that people clap to it, and I was thinking how you can clap to it. But now, I know, you just want to clap to it, it is just so beautiful.
[Shaun]: When the crowd started clapping to that Cha Cha and we were dancing, all I wanted to do is to stop dancing and clap with them (laughing). It gave me that extra bust, extra energy.
[AJ]: You know, yesterday wasn't easy. It was very difficult, even when we were getting to the floor for the first time. You are used to dance on a smaller floor, and having all these other couples to navigate around and three levels of audience above. You know, we are not the most experienced dancers and it took me out of my comfort zone. You need to stand up extra taller, focus your energy up to show yourself to all these people to be noticed. I felt at most vulnerable. I had no choice, either give myself fully or I hide away and die (laughing). I took the gamble and said, all right everybody, here we go! What a feeling!
Have you ever had a lesson with any of the English teachers here?
[Shaun]: We had no lessons from anyone leading up to Blackpool but will be having Johan Eftedal later in the year when he comes to Australia. I would like to have lessons with Bryan Watson or Karen Hardy, she is my idol.
[AJ]: We would have loved to have lessons while we are over here but we are a bit time-poor...
[Shaun]: It is only so much time we could take off work.
There is a myth, which you just disproved, that to win Blackpool you have to take lessons with the Blackpool judges.
[AJ]: Not true, you can put that in the interview (laughing).
Are you sponsored by anyone?
[Shaun]: Not yet. But if anyone would want to sponsor us, we would be more than happy!
[AJ]: I don't think many people knew who we were, apart from Australians.
[Shaun]: People did not know who we were and coming up to us asking, who are you, where did you come from???
[AJ]: I went for a walk this morning and I passed another dancer so we started talking about the final. He said they bombed out, and I said, oh, I had you in it, I picked you as one of the couples I was scared of. And he was, yes, we won this championship and that championship and we hoped this was our year, and he says, by the way, who are you? You came here first time and won! And I was like, yeah, we did (laughing).
And now, as Blackpool winners, you have the responsibilities. There will be a certain pressure for the next year.
[Shaun]: Oh don't worry, next year we will be first again (laughing).
[AJ]: Yes, being number one, it is harder for the next competition. More pressure. It happened before, at the Australians. So I went to the dance floor like we were number two, because number two is always hungry to get number one. Keeping number one is really, really hard. You have to work twice as hard.
Everyone is looking at you and trying to find a fault
[AJ]: That pressure never existed for us, until we won the Australian championships. We were never number one before that. That was my second meltdown, I cried because I did not know how to deal with that.
You did cry yesterday as well?
[AJ]: No, he did. I was too happy (laughing).
[Shaun]: I cried.
[AJ]: He cried a lot!
[Shaun]: I was a blabbering mess (laughing).
Do you watch old dancing videos on Youtube?
[AJ]: Yes, a lot.
Do you use internet for other things as well?
[Shaun]: I work for an internet company so I am on the internet all the time.
[AJ]: Look, I am a school teacher so internet is my best friend. I need to be one step ahead of these kids. I like to generate a really good lesson and there are so many ideas on the web.
[Shaun]: We also find ideas for our choreography on the internet or for costumes. For everything really.
What dancing websites do you visit?
[Shaun]: I like yours, I like watching our rating go up. Before we danced Blackpool we were nineteenth, but of this morning we were number ten in the world. Waiting to be number one (laughing). I constantly check that, every time we dance the comp I go on dancesprortinfo.net to check the rating.
[AJ]: You are a junkie!
[Shaun]: I know. I also like to know what other countries are doing. We have our Australian site with the judges' marks so we go there as well. We look at photos as well. Not just our dancing but also look at friends.
What would you improve on dancesportinfo.net?
[AJ]: I personally think it is not reader friendly. My eyesight is not so good and when the font is small and everything is crammed on one page it is hard for me to read.
[Shaun]: When you look on your phone.
[AJ]: OK, there is that. But there is so much going on.
[Shaun]: I think it is great when you have a big screen or on your laptop. It would be great if there was a mobile version.
[AJ]: We like your website, but just searching for faults as this is what you asked. It would be great to have an app or mobile version. I guess if you had an app Shaun would be on it 24/7 (laughing).
[Shaun]: I love that your website shows even the tiniest competition in Australia. We've been to one and it pops up on your site almost immediately.
[AJ]: It is so up to date, amazing. You are in touch with everyone.
We have a team of people who do it
[AJ]: Very efficient.
What are your plans for the future?
[Shaun]: More dancing. Next week we are planning to be in Slovakia for the Kosice Open. Then we are back to Australia and straight to another competition.
[AJ]: We've got quite a few comps coming up. Fingers crossed my boss will let me off (laughing).
Did you ever taken any of your students to the competition?
[AJ]: It may sound funny but I've never taken anybody to the competition. When we did the fundraiser and that showcase, it was the first time my own mother had seen me dance. So my Mum, my Nana, my friends, the kids I teach, had seen me then. It was such an emotional hurdle for me to get over. It was very special.
Thank you for taking time to talk to us. Good luck next week.
All images taken by Mark Gadsden.
Shaun and AJ did not make it to the Kosice Open as AJ became quite sick after the comp and they were unable to travel. So they, unfortunately, had to pull out of the Kosice Open, which was quite disappointing for them, but decided their health is more important.