She is one of the most sought after followers on the dance scene and the quality of her work is reflected in her physical appearance and style—always crowned by a perfect hairdo. But make no mistake—she will not lose color at nightfall. Katja’s tale begins with an earthy penchant for animals, and contains hidden struggles and a lot of work. Along the way, she reveals the key to happiness—and to her coiffure.
By: Annika Munter Editor: Odella Schattin Coverphoto: Nejc Balantic
Many are the followers that have tried to dissect the myth around Katja Završnik–her subtlety and finesse, her footwork and the way she adapts her dance to any type of lead and music. Katja’s advice to success is to know your body, to be in charge of your own movement and to be an active half in any couple partner dance, never just follow. “This is the only way the dance can feel good”, says Katja. As this interview is done she is stuck in Frankfurt over night, on her way home from Harlem Festival in Vilnius in May. Which is lucky to me cause I got plenty of questions and she´s got plenty of time to kill. A matter of fact; I could write a novel from her long answers.
So, the novels of Katja Završnik starts with Katjas mom saying that her daughter had “ants in her pants”. Actually; ants were all over! Katja collected them, along with other small animals—it was a hobby of hers and she carried around a plastic terrarium to collect bugs and insects. Later, in her room, she examined them with her microscope. “What to do with a kid with too much energy?” her mother wondered. Dance classes sounded about right and Katja was enrolled in her first class at the age of five. “As far as I remember, we did a lot of animal dances, and I loved it”, Katja recalls.
Her penchant for animals was alluring and for a while Katja even thought about becoming a veterinarian, until one day in school when acrobatic rock ’n’roll caught her eye. “Of course flying through the air sounded like an amazing idea to me,” Katja recalls. But her mother was a bit scared and tried to convince Katja to take up ballroom dancing instead. Luckily, Katja insisted and for about ten years she practiced acrobatic rock ’n’roll, while simultaneously attending classes in ballet, jazz dance, ballroom and gymnastics. The different styles provided her with an understanding of the fundamentals of different movements. Unfortunately, she had to quit because of kneeinjuries when she was 19 years old.
– I missed it a lot and was constantly trying to find a dance form that would allow me to express myself through movement. I tried modern and contemporary dancing but couldn’t really find myself there. One day, I got a call from my mom. She had seen swing dancing on TV and said I should go check it out.
Katja did check it out. And still is. In order to understand every move, what works and what doesn’t, she executes it until she knows how to make it work. As an artist, she is driven by emotion and connection.
– I prefer a lot of connection. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to connect with someone who prefers less connection. It is about being able to adapt to a leader. And the hardest part is being able to adapt to different leaders without losing yourself, your own style. And this is something you get by dancing a lot! Social dancing is the key to all the happiness.
Katjas first year in Herräng was in 2007, during Herräng Dance Camp’s 25th anniversary. She signed up for Lindy hop and Balboa classes two weeks in a row, not knowing what she was getting herself into. Despite feeling exhaustedafter taking classes and dancing 24/7 for two weeks straight, in crazy rainy weather, it was one of the best experiences in Katja’s dancing life.
– I don’t think I’ve ever social danced so much before and that definitely made my love for social dancing even stronger.
What did you love about it?
– I love partner dancing because of the magic that can happen between two human bodies, if they work with each other. What I love about Lindy hop is improvisation within the lead and follow concept.
The summer of 2018, is Katja’s ninth year teaching at HDC. Together with her partner Peter Loggins, she is introducing a brand new HDC track, called Ragtime and Jazz Era Dances. It is all about social dancing, leading and following. Katja can’t recommend the track enough. She reckons it would be helpful for everyone to dig into the fundamentals of social dancing—to fully understand the connection, the lead and follow aspects, before going into complicated patterns and rhythm changes.
– If your goal is to recreate or copy the look of a dance there is nothing wrong with that, but if you want to understand social dancing in its essence, which means being able to dance with anybody, then you need to learn the fundamentals of leading and following.
What made you dig into the history of swing dancing?
– Through my partnership with Peter Loggins I’ve been discovering, digging out and trying various old jazz dances. And I have to tell you, all this was, and still is a lot of fun! Peter is always interested in history so it is kind of inevitable for me to get to know all of these dances. Through his lectures and all the stories he tells, I have realized there is much more to old jazz dances than just Lindy hop and Balboa.
Does learning history make us better dancers?
– Not everyone has to become a history nerd, but it is nice to know where the dance comes from, it helps us understand why and how some things developed and what the world was like when all these dances were born, and how they evolved. I don’t know enough so I don’t dare to preach it, but having Peter aroundhelps me understand it better.
How do I dress for a typical Ragtime party?
– I’m not a fan of recreation parties and I would say, in general, wear whatever makes you represent the dance the most. If not the dance, your representation of the dance. Wear clothes that will complement your own movement. Wearing sweatpants and running shoes while dancing a waltz in a nice ballroom might not look or feel the best, the same goes for a long puffy skirt and stilettos for hip hop battle on the street. But if this is something that complements your style and it is not against the dress code of the venue, go ahead!
”Ragtime,” “Jazz age” and “swing era”–what are the similarities and differences?
– When the music changes, the dance changes too. And I guess that is the main difference. But as I always say in class, talking only about pure social dancing, of course; if you take away all the labels of all the dances, you only have two ways of leading and following on the floor. One is the push-pull idea, moving together as one body—this would be a constant compression connection that doesn’t change. The other one is creating a kind of a breathing rhythm, stretch and release. And then you have two feet, four all together, and four beats of music. There is only so much you can do really. Then it is up to you, how you want to look or which label you want to put on your dance.
What do you strive to give your students during class?
– The most important thing is that we, teachers, don’t forget why people come to dance classes. Personally, I sometimes get frustrated when students are not trying hard enough or are not interested and I have to keep reminding myself of why they are in the class. I come from a competition world, where everyone wanted to be the best and everyone was trying super hard to reach their goals. But in dance class it is different. The majority of our students are taking classes to socialize with others and of course to exercise a bit too. But socializing, in my opinion, is the main factor. And this is totally fine too. That’s why it is important to create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere while still teaching the dance. I’m not a fan of creating material and moves just for teaching. I teach what I do, and mostly I teach my idea of following and partner dancing through some movements and moves. In class, I always tell my students: leaders and followers have a very different role to learn. And yes, followers can sometimes get a bit impatient which transfers onto leaders and it can cause frustration on both sides. The best learning experience for me is not necessarily being able to do a move at the end of the class; it is understanding how the move works or doesn’t, and trying to figure it out together. Followers should always Remember: outside of class, you might never be lead into that specific move, but you can become a better follower by learning it.
What is the best advice about dancing youever got?
– This has to be my husband’s advice. With all the talent in our scene, sometimes you start underestimate yourself. It is hard to avoid questioning yourself: why are you still around and what more can you actually bring to the table? We all have crises, the first time it happenedto me, I was thinking whether I should change something or just disappear. My husband Blaž said, “They don’t like you and hire you for something you don’t do, so get out of this dark place in your head and go do what you do the best!” I always try to remember this.
Katja and her husband Blaž met dancing. Blaž is an screenwriter and movie director (Katja used to worked as a film editor too) and they both have unstable schedules and their everyday life in their home in Ljubljana, Slovenia, doesn’t happen everyday. But it always includes walking their Patterdaleterrier Rudi. When Blaž is busy working on a project, Katja walks the dog and cooks all the food and he does the same when she is travelling.
– What I love the most is when I get back home on Monday evening and fresh homemade soup is waiting for me in kitchen.
What makes you really proud?
– I love what I do more than anything. For me, the best feeling is when I see that I touched a person’s lifeby sharing my love for this dance. Sometimes I struggle with the idea of being “just a dance teacher,” and luckily I have good friends around me who stop me as soon as I start questioning myself. No, we are not alwaysjust teaching dance—sometimes we teach people how to love themselves. Sometimes we help people finding the love of their life or finding something bright at the end of a gray day. Sometimes we help people to get over their hidden struggles, even their physical barriers. Sometimes, we will never know. But for a lot of folks, it is not only a dance. And this is something that makes me super happy and proud. And as long as the sparkle is present, I will keep on doing what I love!
Finally, how often do you visit your hairdresser?
– Not oftenenough. I usually go once every 2–3 months. It is in my hometown and that’s why I am a bit limited with my visits. But I’m lucky to have a perfect haircut for my hair so it always looks freshly cut.
ABOUT: Katja Završnik
Age: 36 going on 37 in October
Work: professional dancer, teacher and choreographer
Partners: Peter Loggins and Vincenzo Fesi
Family: husband, Blaž Završnik, 34 years old, a Slovenian award winning screen writer and director. And a Patterdale terrier named Rudi, 7 years old.
Hometown: Ljubljana, Slovenia. “I can proudly say that Ljubljana has one of the best dancescenes I’ve ever visited. The main dance nightisFridayand we have a lot of good dancers so it is always fun to go out and dance in my hometown.”
A typical day: gets up around 8–9 AM, doesa bit of stretching, showers, takesher dog Rudi out for a walk and then eatsbreakfast. After that, sheusually plansher solo classes and practice sessions withher women’s dance group Kabaretika.
Ljubljana Sweet Swing Festival: Katja is part of a team that organizesthe biggest swing dance festival in Slovenija, Ljubljana Sweet Swing Festival. “Besides the big one in March, we’ve also started with a smaller event, called Sweet Jazz. The first edition was in September 2017 and after the big success, the second one will happen in September 2018. Both of them take placein Ljubljana.”