Interview with Slovene dancer Tjaša Novak
Dear Tjaša I’m looking into archive and I see last time we spoke it was April 2017 and you’ve already been in America? Now you’ve been in Arizona for how long, and with a green card I’m guessing?
First, let me thank you for having me, such an American thing to say! Secondly, let me just state that it’s already become a little harder for me to speak my Slovenian language! Yes, it was 2017 when I made up my mind to move to America. When we had spoken, I was already on a tryout here in Arizona, of course stll without any kind of Visa or work, but with a lot of enthusiasm, which definitely came in handy when I got back home and spent the next 7 months preparing documents! Just the paperwork for my Visa had cost over $10,000, and thank God I was sponsored by the studio that
offered to hire me. I finally moved the last day of October directly on Halloween, a holiday we don’t really celebrate back home, but one I always loved seeing in American movies. On this year’s Halloween it will be three years since I moved, and because of the current situaton, I’m planning to renew my Visa for the next 3 years. Although, hopefully in the future, I will be able to get a green card.
Last time we spoke you mentioned that Germany where you used to live isn’t the best place to be if you’re trying to build a career especially in the art industry. So is America still to Dreamland? Did it give you in the time being what you thought it would?
Yeah, well Germany was a “kick in the dark” (Slovenian Phrase), but I must say I did learn a lot. America is definitely the land of opportunites, where dreams can come true because of the strong economy and the power it holds. But there are two sides of the story. Here, everybody works three times as much. It is very similar to the way my parents used to work, without a schedule, always making themselves available to dancers. So much so that I eventually started to envy how much time the dancers got to spend with my own parents, hahaha! Here, working isn’t any easier than it would
have been at home, but it is normal for everybody to work all the time. In more socialistic countries, people expect to be paid just because they showed up, and although I can definitely see the benefit of that, I think that it holds the society back. It gives you more safety than freedom, and America is all about freedom. I definitely prefer the latter, especially at my age right now. That’s also the reason why salaries are so different, even for the same career. People get paid by the amount of work they
produce, so if you work hard, you can make a lot more than your coworker. It’s possible to move up quickly on the social scale, but unfortunately, not just upward. I must say though, I’ve encountered a very interesting quality within the people here. Everybody is very supportive and happy for you if you do become successful, and are even proud to know you! Something we’re not used to in our country. I think it comes with the fact that there is enough work for everybody. Sadly me and Jordan Seawright are no longer dance partners. The decision came to an end after Jordan decided to move to Seattle, WA (over 2,000 km away from me) to continue his studies. But the partnership wasn’t ideal from the very beginning. Americans have a very different dance culture than
us, Europeans. Sweat, blood, and tears are a normal asset to our practices, and so are the long hours in the dance studio. For most Americans, those things are not necessary, because they have different, and I would say, better opportunities from birth. If I think about it, I’m appreciative of the way things are back home. That’s why we, the Europeans, are very appreciated here in the ballroom dance community. I’m currently searching for a partner from Europe. Despite the quarantine putting my tryouts on pause, a lot has been going on in regards to finding a partner, but I cannot reveal any
names just yet.
I see you are very active with your dancing on social media. What do you exactly do? Do you still compete, or you mostly teach?
Of course working is a priority, without work, there is no money, without money there is no food on the table, or investing in my dancing. My work is mainly teaching International Latin, Standard American Rhythm and Smooth; basically any type of partner dancing. Currently, until I find a professional partner for International Latin Style, which we Europeans call Latin American dancing, I’m mainly focusing on bachata! For those who don’t know, bachata comes from the Dominican Republic, and branched out into various styles like urban bachata, Dominican authentic style, and
sensual bachata. Sensual became the main style for me and my bachata partner Bain Craddock. My love for this dance grew very quickly, due to the fact that it’s a lead and follow dance, where the man (the lead) decides what to dance based on the music being played and the lady (the follow) mostly just reacts. Well, not me, hahaha! With my Ballroom knowledge, a very free spirit, and not a lot of knowledge of bachata technique at the time, I became a very unique ‘follow’. After only a couple of social events, Bain reached out to me to partner up with him. At the time, I didn’t have a competitive
Latin partner, so I accepted, and very soon realized that even when I will be back on the competitive dance floor with my International Latin Style, I will not end my partnership with Bain or appearances at the bachata events at Congresses. Bachata became my new Latin attribute, and with Bain, have shot a few videos. In almost no time, we became very popular! On the social network “TikTok”, one of our videos got over 1 million views! After hiting the 1 million mark, that same video got reposted by
the famous Prince Royce, whose song we used for it! I think I cried a little when I saw that notification! (Laughter). We got invitations to teach all over, but due to the fact that we are both not of Latin heritage, we are a bit controversial. Not everybody is too happy about two white people teaching bachata. Although most people are very appreciative to receive our knowledge and see our take on it, we have received a few nasty comments on our dancing. I never thought of myself as white coming from a place where everyone is! Living in America has definitely taught me a lot in that aspect
though. Opinions are very mixed and I feel a bit like the dance version of Eminem! Hahaha!
How did covid-19 affect your activities? The news that we get about how America is dealing with the whole situation doesn’t sound very good. How is it in Arizona? Would you give us a little insight.
The biggest fear people have here is actually the economic crisis, even more so than the virus itself. What shook me the most was the fact that the first thing people thought of buying was weapons and ammunition, and not to mention seeing people fighting over toilet paper and water. That’s why I also shot a video that I posted on Facebook, just trying to spread a little bit of positive energy. I think that many Europeans got offended, thinking that I’m not realizing the seriousness of the situation with covid-19, but the fact of the matter is, problems here in America are slightly different. My friend
witnessed an event, where somebody pulled out a gun and pointed it at the cashier in a grocery store just because he was not allowed to buy more than one package of water, which was the rule at the time, so that there would be enough for everybody. Americans believe in a kind of freedom that we are not used to: freedom from their own government. In their constitution it’s stated that they have the right to fight for it. It is normal here to carry a gun, and people are ready to fight for food and water, and apparently even for toilet paper. It really caught me off-guard when my friends offered me to move in with them for a period of time because they expected that if there will be a shortage of food and water, I would be one of the easiest targets, being a girl that lives alone. As far as finance goes, I am very pleasantly surprised that all of us who were paying taxes since 2018 got a direct deposit of $1,200 from the government. It is not a lot for those who lost work or their companies, but they could even get extra money for unemployment. America is not completely antisocialism. Our studio had extra luck and received financing, so that we were all paid throughout the tough few weeks, when there was barely any work. I applaud my bosses, who worked quickly and were able to secure that financing. Right now, approximately one fifth of the lessons are done online, which is definitely not ideal, but I think the main thing right now is making sure that everybody feels as safe as possible, and also that students get the feeling of belonging and knowing that somebody cares about them. Not everybody is dancing to become a world champion. Many people dance because of the love and the connections they form through dancing.
So how do you deal with keeping fit at home? I imagine it’s not the easiest thing to do.
Thank God we are still allowed to go outside. Even though I do have enough space at home to workout, lift weights, and such, I still like to go for a walk or hike the beautiful trails we have here in Arizona. Also practicing bachata at home or in the park helps. But I do feel we are all in for a surprise when the studios open up again, and we realize how little we were able to move and how quarantine affected our physical condition.
In our last interview you mentioned that it is just as hard to find a dance partner, as it is to find a life partner. So are you spending your down time in quarantine alone, with your dance partner or is there someone else? Yes, we are curious…
First I have to say America is very weird to me as far as relationships go. Even religion is often mixed up in the whole thing. Hahaha! Let me explain. Here, I find, that it is very normal to date multiple people at the same time and everything is very shallow. I have actually witnessed two extremes. On one side, there are people who have no problem being intimate with multiple partners, and on the other side, often due to religion, people will strive for the deeper connection with a chosen partner, but they do believe that there should be just one in your lifetime and then for all eternity, so they will
wait till marriage before becoming intimate. In general people here spend very little time with their partners, even after they get married. I feel like everybody is more independent, doing their thing, pursuing their own personal career. Everybody walks their own walk for the most part, and I still cannot wrap my mind around it. Let me finally answer your question. Even though I do live alone, I didn’t spend quarantine completely by myself. After a long time, two and a half years, I met somebody that I think has enough European blood to see a relationship more like I do, and to have
that charm and charisma I’m used to and cannot live without! It was a little shocking to both of us when we realized there is a nine year gap between us! Well if you think the difference is not that big, let me tell you that I will be the one buying beer! (Laughter). No worries, it is all legal for him to drive me around, buy weapons to protect me, and even fight for his country… typical America. (Laugh – Europeans probably didn’t get that part).
It is only normal for you to be very close to your family both of your parents are former dancers and now active coaches and judges Fredi and Daniela Novak. They visit you in America quite a bit as far as I remember. How are you dealing with the ban of flights right now? How do you keep your connections alive, what do you guys talk about? Dancing of mainly just family stuff?
Yes of course it’s not easy without your parents being present. Before the pandemic they were visiting me on regular basis, and last year during the summer months I took two weeks off for vacation, to come home to Slovenia, which for American standards is a very long vacation. Since we saw each other last time, many things have happened in our family. That’s why we talk and see each other over the camera everyday. For those readers who might not wish the best for our family I rather not give out all the details about what is going on exactly but I would like to say that positive energy is very welcome right now. As far as dancing goes, I cannot even remember when the last
time was that we talked about competitors or their results. If we’ll talk about dancing, it will mainly be about the differences between American dance studios and our European dance schools.
Fashion, design does it still intrigue you? Are you still active in that branch?
Fashion is my all time favorite hobby and a forever Plan B. Currently I’m spending quite a bit of time designing and creating a Dancewear line because of the quarantine, which I definitely missed very much. There are two collections in the making, one for practice wear for our competitive Latin dancing, and the other one, I would say, has more of a streetwear kind of feel to it that I’m creating for salsa, bachata and those more social kinds of dances. But those doors are barely just opening for me. If quarantine will be prolonged any longer I just might commit even more of my time to it, but for now I’m not in a hurry. With creative work nothing really works if you’re trying to push it. One of the reasons I’m not trying to rush is also the fact that I need a green card to be able to open my own company here in America.
Mandatory and traditional question. What are your thoughts on the current Slovenian dance scene? Are we moving in any sort of Direction and how do you feel about it?
If I’m completely honest, I don’t even know who the current Slovenian champions are. One of the reasons being that the dance world is split into two federations, the WDSF – World Dance Sport Federation and WDC – World Dance Council, which is the main organizer of events here in America. Sadly, the Slovenian Dance sport Federation isn’t very connected to it, even though our best dancers live and breathe with it. So I do follow Slovenian couples, maybe even more then Slovenians do, such as: Klemen Prašnikar with Sasha Averkieva, Damir Halužan with Anna Mashchyts and Domen Krapež with Natascha Karabey. Last time I saw them was last year in Blackpool, where I come regularly. And last, but not least, I most definitely follow Aljaž Škorjanec. It is hard not to, him being such a huge star in England now! I’ve known all of the four boys mentioned above since their first dance steps, because we all grew up together in my parents’ dance studio. Generally speaking about dancing in Slovenia, I would rather not comment too much, because I do believe I am not there enough to have a valid
opinion. I do believe that if we as a nation want to continue having those extreme results in the very peak of this artistic sport, at the same time we do need to make it possible for our young dancers to make a living from dancing. And I am talking about Euros, not units of media exposure. Haha! Organizing events, where dancers can make money, is very crucial here. All sorts of shows on television, in theaters, through Pro-Am competitions would make life easier for them. On that note, I would like to congratulate all the new organizers of competitions and those kinds of shows! I do
remember, how much work it was to organize Slovenian open! I didn’t see my dad for months, unless it was a rare occasion, such as when he was hanging from the ceiling, dealing with the festival’s lighting, hahaha! Good memories.
It’s probably hard to compare but what could we learn from the American dance system? Are there any things that would possibly work for us or is that practically impossible?
It’s hard to compare but we can definitely learn a lot from them. The Slovenian ballroom dance scene as we knew it by the end of the 90s, before I started my competitive career, changed dramatically. Everybody was dancing all the time everywhere. The invested time and money turned a huge profit which hasn’t been our reality in a long time now. The main key of scaling any product you’re trying to sell is making it available to a broader range of people. I believe these things are already changing for the better. For all the younger or newer dance teachers and coaches I do have a little advice: here in America, nothing is free, a friend will pay friend, so value your work. Especially when freelancing, you should know what your lesson is worth, and what you can make a nice living from. Only that can bring dancing on the pedestal of the Elite Sport and art where it belongs. If we would all stick to that principle alone, many of us would not need to look for work outside our homeland. Oh my God I already sound like Fredi! (Laughter) I guess that just comes with the fact that we were so successful that now all of a sudden there are more amazing trainers and coaches and new dance studios then there are new clients willing to learn.
Is there a thought of you ever coming back or are you letting time be the judge of that?
I must say I miss our beautiful Slovenia. In fact, I miss all of Europe, although I do not see a reason for coming back just yet. The plan is to stay here until I become financially independent (I did have to explain ‘financially independent’ to Slovenian readers since it’s a not very commonly used phrase nor is it appreciated in our country). My very big wish has always been to be able to spend at least two months per year in Europe. And I do believe I will be able to reach that sort of Independence easier here in the US, rather than at home. Since I answered these questions in my native Slovenian language back in May, a few things changed, and I just realized back then I compared the US versus home while now I think of it as home versus Europe. In a few recent months during the hardest time I have realized that I do feel like I belong here. Since my Visa was and still is about to expire, my work has been very reduced down to a couple percent it would have been very easy to give up and just go ‘home’. But I found myself surrounded by
amazing people that I can’t imagine living without. I found my place as a leader in the Bachata community alongside my dear partner Bain Craddock. We created a Sensual Bachata team called QuaranTeam and are now creating video content for our favorite songs and have even been featured, reposted, etc by some amazing musicians like Prince Royce, Cosimo, Grupo Extra!
I’m curious if you get a chance to hang out with any Slovenian people in your area? Do you stay in contact with the Slovenians in the dance scene… if so, what do you guys do?
(Laughter). Good question! For the first year and a half, I was in the same dance studio as Kristjan Burazer and Anja Imamovič. When I first came to visit, the atmosphere was very calm and welcoming, but things changed as soon as I moved, and the environment suddenly became more competitive. I am still with the same Studio, but they have left in the meantime. The reasons was the tension between them and the owner of the studio Damir Karaman and his wife Nina (former Bosnian champions, also my parents Fredi and Daniela Novak’s students). The separation wasn’t exactly friendly and since then we haven’t been in contact. There are actually many Ukrainians here, some of which also happen to be my parents students. Amongst them, also a very dear friend of mine, a Ukrainian girl with a Slovenian passport: former Blaž Pocajt‘s dance partner Inna Berlizyeva. Inna used to be my nanny while they were still dancing together with Blaž in our dance studio back home in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Now she lives 10 minutes away from me here in Scottsdale, Arizona after competing with Artem Plakhotnyi and becoming second runner-up national champion in the professional division here in America!
Is there a special place that you love to visit in America and why?
Nobody seems to believe me but I am completely in love with Las Vegas! Vegas is just enough crazy to make me feel normal! There are a ton of interesting people, and since it’s a destination where people go when they are on vacation, they are all way happier then you will see an average American (Laughter). I won’t get into why! In Europe, people work way less, and in the afternoons they practically have holidays, so cities always feel like people are on vacation! Amongst other things in America, cities don’t have that typical Heart Center where people hang out or at least on the West
Coast they don’t. Vegas is the closest exception and little Europe for me.
Are we going to learn anything from covid? And what would that be?
I believe this was one big opportunity for every individual to figure out what they really want in their life. Stripped from everything that we’re used to made us think of what we really miss, and why. I think the majority had the opportunity to focus on their families and rest. Us dancers had to learn how to use modern technology, and adjust our way of teaching. For me, that was a big challenge. All of those who know me already know how much I love to use my hands to teach and give a sense of how the movement is supposed to feel like. I believe that is the fastest download of information a student can have from me and also I think that that sensation is what they remember the most. I do think though that we became very appreciatove for everything that we do have. I already miss my work, my studio, my students, and of course the dancing itself.
Your rib tattoo states ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ in English ‘Through difficulties to the Stars’. Were there any recent additions?
No not really, I’m kind of done with it since I got myself into difficulties with the last one! (Laughter). I do hope the world’s difficulties end soon though!
Thank you and all the best.
Intervju s Tjašo Novak v slovenskem jeziku najdete tukaj https://www.paradaplesa.si/na-spici/tjasa-novak-americani-pac-nimajo-enake-plesne-kulture-kot-mi-evropejci/