Ready for breathtaking spins? In an open-hearted interview Alice Mei celebrates her inspirational heroes, expose her insecurities and reveals what she would give her students if she had a magic wand–letting you into the mind of one of the best follows in modern times.
edited by: Odella Schattin
It´s the final days of 2016. Stockholm is dark and cold but that does not seem to worry Alice Mei. We meet in the lobby of the Clarion Hotel Sign. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hand, stifling a yawn and tells me a story from last night’s party. It was good! She has been in the capital of Sweden for five days, teaching at Snowball. Anyone familiar with her knows she likes to social dance all night–with lightening quick feet, hips like rotor blades and with an expressive library of grooves. She is a great solo dancer but appreciates the magic of cooperation more than the opportunity to shine on her own.
Alice was 19 years old the first time she danced Lindy hop. It was the first partner dance she ever tried and she loved it.
– It was surprising at first, how much fun it was. All the dancing I had done before –ballet, contemporary and jazz – was very serious, so when I saw people having fun together I thought, “Wow, is that possible? I thought we’re supposed to be sad!”
Alice started to take Lindy hop classes in her hometown Montpellier. Nina Gilkenson was a big inspiration.
– She moved her hips a lot. I thought she was really graceful and feminine.
Max Pitruzzella was Alice’s first teacher. She took his classes for a year before the two partnered to work and teach together. Max was a good teacher and Alice says she learned a lot from him though the relationship was by no means perfect. Dancing was an extended hobby at that time in Alice’s life. She was studying architecture and when she was offered an exchange program in Berlin, she moved. She split her time between dancing, studying and teaching Lindy hop with Max on the weekends, all the while struggling to keep up with it all. When the opportunity to dance full time arose, she took the leap.
Watching Alice dance is inspiring. If she could see herself through the spectator’s eye during one of her performances, I am sure she would see a blizzard of fascination. The diversity of her movements epitomizes grace, femininity and a big scoop of peppiness. Her body seems encapsulated by the ability to follow as she tunes in to her partner and the music in an almost unearthly way. Colleague and friend Remy Kouakou Kouame has called her the “no filter queen”, because of the way she speaks and dances without thinking.
– I don’t know how to hide my feelings very well, that’s why. I think as a follower it´s good, but sometimes I make bad choices. I am happy to try anyway! On the social dance floor it´s fun to have no filter; to just put something out there and see what happens. But sometimes, when I watch film clips of my dancing, I think, “Why don’t I just do a basic, a basic would be so nice!” Yeah, it definitely goes both ways.
Alice giggles. She does that a lot. She may have missed out on some joy as a hard working youngster, but seems to be catching up on all her lost laughter now. It is infectious too. I ask who inspires her today?
– I appreciate a number of people for different reasons but Frida Segerdahl is really amazing, sharp and musical and very powerful. I am always like, “Wow!” Jo Hoffberg is another inspiration; a big performer. It is fun to watch her. Naomi Uyama is steady and great too. When it comes to rhythms she is super-duper clear. I think everyone has their own thing and skill going on.
Do you ever get tired of dancing?
– No, but at times I am bored with myself. I guess I know many variations and different footwork but it seems like my body only can retain so many routines at the same time. Right now, I am doing a lot of sliding at the end of each move. I’ve got to stop that! I also tend to finish my moves on the wrong foot, and restart with a triple step. It is cool, but I kind of want my old rock-step back!
Sliding or triple-stepping on the wrong foot doesn’t seem to matter; Alice has gained a lot of attention and won many awards for her dancing. Last year, she stopped working with Thomas Blacharz. She entered The International Lindy Hop Championship 2016 with Remy and placed second in the Pro Classics and third in Strictly Lindy Hop Invitational.
– I’ve won a few competitions but I still never feel good enough.
Why do you think that is?
– I don’t know! It might have to do with how I was brought up. I saw an interview with the past actor and musician Jacques Brel, he said that we spend our adult life trying to make up for what we missed as kids–I think it’s probobly true.
How were you brought up?
– I spent four years in boarding school, aged 10–14, away from my family, cause I wanted to be a dancer. Maybe being away from them made me feel unloved. The mentality at boarding school was old school and the dance teachers were critical towards us students, everyday telling us that we were not good enough. Somehow I ended up believing it, and it has been easy to think that I´m not worthy, says Alice and continues:
– I also got that negative impression from spending time with people who did not treat me well. For example, Max was a good dancer but he didn’t treat me properly at all, and I think it was a pattern that I repeated often. Now things are different, I have a husband who tells me I´m great. Slowly I´m healing but otherwise no, I never feel good enough.
That’s so sad!
– Yes, but at least it keeps me working! I am kind of happy to never be satisfied. I think maybe the moment I feel satisfied I will stop improving. In one way it sucks but in another way it´s probably very good.
When teaching, Alice strives to give students the confidence to express themselves through the music. Her aim is to share her knowledge about timing and rhythm. If you learn that, she reckons, you hardly need to know more.
– When I started teaching, I focused mostly on technique and drills. I learned a lot but I think technique makes it easy to forget how to dance. I want students to relax to the music and have fun.
So you don’t teach technique and routines?
– Getting through to students about technique is hard. Timing and rhythm are more helpful, so I choose to focus on that. I try to help students feel responsible for their own timing, rhythm, and movements.
Alice pauses, look up at the ceiling as if an answer is written there.
– The main goal is to dance and to be in rhythm. Technique might be a way to get there, but there is a problem when students see technique as a goal instead of as a means.
Alice feels happy with herself if students feel encouraged and challenged by her classes. But the most important part of being a good teacher, she says, is to always be kind.
– It is important because people have many insecurities and it´s hard to go out there and dance with people you don’t know.
What insecurities do you have?
– Feeling judged. I am really hard on myself, and I always have the fear of not being loved. Also, it has been challenging for me to teach big classes.
Because you are scared of not being loved?
– Maybe, I´ve never connected the two. I just think some people are better entertainers than others. A while ago, I was teaching with Peter Strom, who also works as an emcee. You can tell by the way he speaks that he´s good at presenting things. That’s a good skill to have!
When you see your students dance, do you think they taking responsibility?
– Yeah, it is getting there, for sure! Usually, beginners don’t make clear decisions on how to move. It is important, but if you have timing and nice body movement, you can dance well anyway.
If you had a magic wand, what would you give followers?
– The ability to hear the swing of the music and to discover different rhythms better. And, to be clear with their intentions about the rhythm. Even the way you step is important if you want to have good timing and try different rhythmic accents.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to pass on the origin of the Lindy hop?
– I feel guilty about not doing that enough. I think we have a responsibility and I feel like I should spread the origin of the dance. But it´s not my main interest and that makes it hard. For me, it was the music that got me into Lindy hop.
You improvise bravely and encourage others to do too. Isn’t that also a way to continue on Frankie Manning’s path?
– Yeah, in a way. It´s an evolving dance and I want people to find their own way of moving. Sometimes that´s hard to achieve. Instead of finding themselves, people end up like copies of their teachers. That’s why I think teaching rhythm instead of technique is good, it’s truer to Lindy hop. Looked at from that perspective, I guess my way of dancing keeps the spirit of Lindy hop alive.
ABOUT: Alice Mei Kertzner
Home: Montpellier, France
Family: husband Peter Kertzner
Work: professional dancer. Alice has been spreading the joy of Lindy hop and authentic jazz in more than 30 countries through teaching, performing, competing and social dancing over the past 14 years.