We interviewed Gianni Caliandro and Arianna Esposito, the Italian winners of the Professional Rising Star Ballroom at the UK Open 2017. They found some time to talk to us in between dancing the morning and evening rounds of the Professional Ballroom.
I am worried dancing will go further into sport and lose the artistic element, lose the quality
Congratulations! I guess you were happy with your result yesterday?
[Gianni]: Of course!
Let me start, as with all our interviews, with a question about the beginnings of your dancing. When did you start dancing?
[Gianni]: I was eight years old and I started with Latin, in a small place in South of Italy call Veglie. It is a small town in the heel of Italy. I used to play soccer. I remember, one day I returned from the training, and my Mum looked at my bruised knees and said, you will not play football anymore, choose between music and dance. I also used to play accordion, so I said, I wanted to do both! I played accordion because my Mum told me to do it (laughing).
Do you still play accordion?
[Gianni]: Actually, I still do to practise. So anyway, I started dancing because my Mum wanted me to do it. After six months I won my first competition, even if I did not want to compete! I remember, after I got that trophy, something switched in my mind. I wanted to do another competition. I guess, I stayed because more than dancing I liked the competition. Of course, I liked music as well, and slowly, competition after competition I started liking dancing more and more. It is my life now. I cannot imagine my life without it. Event after thirty years from now, I imagine I'd be in dancing, teaching kids, helping them achieve their goals.
How many partners before you met Arianna?
[Arianna]: Many, many, many (laughing)
[Gianni]: A lot. Especially, till I was about fourteen. But basically for the last nine, ten years I had one partner. We dance together nine years. Actually, for the last sixteen years I had two partners and a very long try-out.
What do you mean long try-out?
[Gianni]: (laughing)... I had a six month partner but both of us were still looking and trying-out with other partners. So, let's say it was convenience, it was a temporary partner, we were dancing together because it was better than not dancing at all.
What about you Arianna?
[Arianna]: I started from five years old with ballet.
Where was it?
[Arianna]: In the South of Italy too. We come from the same place, we live 20 miles away from each other. But we did not know each other before. So I did ballet for four years and then started Ballroom and my first partner was my brother. I danced with him for many years, until I met Gianni.
So it wasn't many partners for you?
[Arianna]: No, absolutely! I am very picky with my partners. If there is no relationship, it is very hard for me to dance with someone. So, with my brother it was fine. Then I met Gianni and we first became boyfriend and girlfriend before I decided to dance with him. My brother was not happy at all (laughing).
I see, so you started the private relationship first?
[Gianni]: Yes, and after one week we decided to live together and dance together!
[Arianna]: Yes, very soon. Now, we dance together for nine years already.
OK, I understand you wanted to dance together because of love to each other. But how was the first time on the floor? Did you believe, from the first moment, this will be a good dancing partnership as well?
[Gianni]: It was a little difficult at the beginning. You know. The new partnership, you are not comfortable yet...
I am sorry, but you were used to partner many girls already (laughing)
[Gianni]: Well... OK, after ten days or so, you know, we moved in together so we had a chance to practise together a lot as well. We started dancing in July, and in November we had our first real competition. From then, so far, we had a couple of hundreds of competitions together (laughing).
[Arianna]: For me it was easy to dance with him. But the worst thing about Gianni is that he is very, very competitive. It is hard to manage with him, especially on the floor. I guess, this is something which helps us to achieve, and saves us many time.
[Gianni]: For me, it is what I like. I like to compete. But I don't like to practice. Actually, I think she is very competitive because she is always telling me: let's go to work (laughing).
She is very hardworking?
[Gianni]: Yes. I sometimes don't want to practice, and she is always ready to push.
Are you married?
[Gianni]: For one year and a half.
So how do you manage to separate your private life and your dancing? Is one affecting the other?
[Gianni]: We also teach, so it is not like we only practice and we spend a lot of time in the studio
[Gianni]: So, maybe not every night, but, say, two times a week we try to do something different, have some fun.
But if you have some conflict outside the dance floor, does it affect your dancing?
[Arianna]: We forget about conflicts and just practise normally. For us, dancing is also a job. We have to be able to do it. Usually, if we had some argument at home, it was about something really stupid and we don't let it affect our dance schedule. For us, it is very important.
[Gianni]: We are really serious about it, it is like a kind of contract. Also, even if we are tired, had ten lessons or something like this, we will find an hour for the practice.
[Arianna]: No matter what.
Do you have any friends outside the dancing?
[Arianna]: Unfortunately, very few. This life is very challenging, you travel a lot, you work a lot. You don't have much time to spend with friends. But we have few friends which are very close to us. Especially my brother.
The poor guy who was left without a partner...
[Gianni]: I know! But he is dancing now in Professionals.
[Arianna]: He has a partner now, he is dancing with a Japanese girl. I am very happy for them. They are very good friends of ours. We love them.
[Gianni]: There a few more who are very important to us.
What do you like to do to relax in your free time?
[Gianni]: Tennis, golf. And just ... sleeping (laughing), just lay on the sofa and watch TV and fall to sleep. But if not that, I play tennis and golf even if I am not very good.
[Arianna]: Just to do something different. Because we are always in the dance studio so it is good to go and do something different outside. We also like to be with our dog.
[Gianni]: And she is a painter
[Arianna]: Yes, I am a painter. But it is hard to find time to do it, because you have to sit and concentrate.
Do you do watercolour?
[Arianna]: Oil. I love it. I have a degree in that.
What kind of things do you paint?
[Arianna]: From few years ago I started painting dancers. But in a very simple way. Before that it was more figurative, now I use simple lines. I love it, but again, no time to do it. Maybe I will do it after I retired (laughing).
So no point of asking you what would you do if you couldn't dance.
[Arianna]: Yes, I will be a painter
[Gianni]: I will play accordion.
So you will come to the dancing competitions, one of you part of the orchestra, and the other taking pictures. Changing the subject slightly, who cooks at home?
[Gianni]: 80% of the time I cook. I like to cook when I get home. When I am tired, I like to rest with a glass of wine and some cooking.
Do you cook Italian food?
[Gianni]: Yes, most of the time. She likes Japanese food.
[Arianna]: I love it.
[Gianni]: But we have Italian most of the time. A lot of pasta. We love pasta.
What type of wine do you like?
[Gianni]: I like Negroamaro Primitivo, Montepulciano ...
[Arianna]: Southern Italian wines
[Gianni]: Yes, the red grapes from the South of Italy. My favourite is Negroamaro.
Who is driving?
[Gianni]: I drive always!
After you drunk some red? (laughing)
[Arianna]: No, no!
Who is organising tickets, hotels, flights?
[Arianna]: It is me. I usually say I want to go to that particular competition and I organise everything, all the bookings.
I guess you use internet for that. What other websites do you frequently visit?
[Arianna]: We watch YouTube a lot. We like to watch dance videos, we study the other couples, we check what they are doing. Also, we want to see videos from the other federation, because you know, these two federations dancing styles are growing apart... So we want to keep in touch with what is going on in the dance world.
[Gianni]: We also like to watch videos from the past, for inspiration.
I know from the previous conversation that you also visit dancesportinfo, our website.
[Arianna]: Oh yes, of course
What would you improve in our website?
[Arianna]: Maybe more videos, for sure, more videos.
[Gianni]: We like the interviews and photos
[Arianna]: But definitely more videos, because it is so much better to see the couples actually dance, not just still pictures.
You have mentioned you like to watch old videos? How old?
[Gianni]: Not really old, but something from the past. You know, from the times of Richard Gleave, Stephen Hillier, Michael Barr, until they retired, they were the best teachers. So we like the videos from the late 1980's to the early 2000. Dancing then was of such a good quality. I think the best quality ever. And then, for the last fifteen years, something has changed. Dancing became more athletic, more sport. I am worried it will go further into sport and lose the artistic element, lose the quality. When you check the dance videos from early 2000s, I think, you can see it was the best balance between the quality and the energy.
[Gianni]: I feel that now you can often see either too much energy, not the right energy, but there is not enough feeling, not enough quality. So that's what I like to check in the past videos. I think the best footwork was from Richard and Janet Gleave, and when Stephen Hillier and Lyndsey were dancing they put more power. And that's what we've seen in their students like Augusto Schiavo, Roberto Villa, Massimo ...
All Italian dancers...
[Gianni]: Sorry (laughing! Also Timothy, Christopher Hawkins...
[Arianna]: Yes, different style but same principle.
Now let's go back to you. What don't you like about your partner?
[Gianni]: What's not to like. She is perfect (laughing). OK, we may have an argument or even fight, but it is just a right amount of it and it helps us to improve.
[Arianna]: Come, on, you can do it! What do I need to improve?
[Gianni]: OK, like I said before. She is sometimes way too energetic, too determined to work. She told me I am a little bit lazy. She always is aware of time, she keep a tight schedule. Even today, before this interview, she was telling me to get ready early on. But I guess, it is something I need because otherwise I tend to be a bit lazy (laughing). But otherwise she is lovely!
But competing is always a lot of adrenaline, stress, pressure, nerves. So which one of you calms things down?
[Arianna]: It depends on the day. Sometimes, he is more nervous, and sometimes I am. We balance each other. Fortunately, we never both been equally down on the same day.
[Gianni]: So far! (laughing)
[Arianna]: OK, perhaps when he sees me nervous he decides it is better to calm me down!
[Gianni]: We know, that if we are both in good shape in the morning of the competition it will go well. So if one of us feels down, or tired the other one knows it is better to help. That's good. For instance, yesterday was one of these days that one of us was not feeling 100%. But with each round, we felt we were getting better and better, and more motivated. In the final we were really motivated because four years ago we also made this final, and we finished third. But we were seventh in Blackpool, few months later. So we said to each other, come one, we must win this one and then we will make the final in Blackpool! The first goal is achieved.
Good luck with Blackpool finals.
[Gianni]: We will work very hard to win. But the dream is to be top three.
OK, now it is Arianna's turn to say some critical words about you
[Arianna]: He is too precise sometimes. He wants to work step by step, figure by figure, line by line. This is what annoys me sometimes. I just want to do it and move to the next one. I want to feel right, enjoy it, and not necessarily be perfect. OK, this is the dancing. In life, he is too disorganised. This annoys me because I like to plan my day to make sure I can have everything done. But he is, like, don't worry, we can do it tomorrow.
[Gianni]: This is the lazy part in me. I don't like to stress myself, I want to take it easy.
OK, what do you like about each other most?
[Gianni]: Hmm ...
[Arianna]: Now you are thinking too long about it!
[Gianni]: OK, she is very determined you know. The real Italian girl. For instance, Arianna is thirty one years old now. And even four years ago, when we made this final, she was one of the more mature girls in the final because nowadays there are very young people at the top. I think last night, we were the oldest couple. So, she didn't listen to some people saying that maybe we were too old, it was too late to try to win the Rising Stars. No, she was not afraid to try it, and maybe to lose. I like her perseverance.
Anything good to say about Gianni?
[Arianna]: Many things! The first thing, he cooks very well. I like that he is very sweet to me. Many guys try to be "real men" and think that being gentle or sweet to their partners shows some weakness. He is three years younger than me, maybe because of that I think it is so sweet (laughing).
How did you manage to stay so slim eating the rich Italian foods, pastas and pizzas?
[Arianna]: I know that many Italian women my age already show some weight gain, but I am fortunate in that I don't like to eat that much.
[Gianni]: But sometimes she eats more than me!
[Arianna]: Yes, but not many foods. There are some foods I really like, for instance sushi. I don't know why.
Do you like to travel?
[Arianna]: I like to travel. As I said before, I like arts and I studied Arts. So I like to visit interesting places for that as well. Ideally, I would like to stay one day extra after the competition to be able to explore the area, go to museums, galleries...
Do you do it sometimes?
[Arianna]: Only sometimes. When I know we compete in some place I want to see, I put it in my schedule and organise everything. As I said earlier, I do the planning. It is a shame that when you go from one competition to the other, you move quickly and you forget the place.
[Gianni]: Yes, you do competition, practice, another competition, practice. You need to pause, take a day of break, to get some inspiration.
What kind of music do you like for dancing?
[Gianni]: It depends. I like all the music, modern and classical. We like the Empress Orchestra music, but for practice, for stamina we sometimes like some modern piece.
Do you like Blackpool music?
[Arianna]: We love it. But I believe, it is better not too overdo it. We like a change. In fact, anything you do too much of, is not good too you. If you listened or danced hundred times to the same song, you get used to it or bored with it.
[Gianni]: Ross Mitchell Band is faster music, Empress Orchestra is a little slower. So it depends what we need it for on the day.
What Latin dances do you like?
[Gianni]: I think my favourite is Samba.
[Arianna]: I like Jive! I like Quickstep and Jive for the same reason. Lots of energy, and fast and fun.
And within Ballroom?
[Arianna]: I like Quickstep.
If you could change anything you want in dancing, what would it be?
[Gianni]: I would change the colour of the men's tail suit! It is a shame all the men wear black. Why not change it, like blue, or grey.
In Latin, you can wear anything, but everybody was wearing black today in the finals!
[Gianni]: But in Ballroom there is no choice. For instance, I can imagine the velvet tail suit I could really like. But at least I would like blues and greys to be seen on the floor.
There are some people wearing grey tails.
[Gianni]: But not many, and I don't want to be the only one! I would like at least three other men do the same (laughing).
[Arianna]: I would increase the prize money you can get (laughing).
[Gianni]: Yes, it would be an amazing help. Of course, the finalists make enough money but for the rest of us it is not easy.
You also teach and your couples compete, right? So when do you feel more stress, when it is your couple dancing or yourselves?
[Gianni]: When I see my couple competing. When I compete everything depends on me. When they dance, I cannot help them, and keep noticing mistakes.
[Arianna]: Same for me!
[Gianni]: I am too critical, also to myself. When I see a couple dance, I never see what they do well but their mistakes. When I watched the video I felt better because I could see everybody was making some mistakes.
But you don't mean the "old masters"?
[Gianni]: No, absolutely not. Very hard to find a mistake there. You know, before there were couples who were absolute masters at least in one dance. William Pino was great in Quickstep, Augusto was more for Waltz, Foxtrot was Massimo, Tango was Roberto... they were like unbeatable in something. Nowadays, many people are good, but they look the same.
Why do you think that is so?
[Gianni]: I have a theory, it may sound funny. Many of these couples I were rather short and quick. They could risk to do something unusual, something fast, and it added to their style. Nowadays, you have many tall couples. They look good with lines, in dances such as Waltz but sometimes their Tango or Quickstep is missing the speed. So they are better looking in the swing dances where the length of the body helps. It is a similar principle with Latin.
Are you saying that nowadays, tall couples don't want to risk?
[Gianni]: I guess... I am talking about top Professionals here. All these people have a huge knowledge and technical skill, and maybe they don't feel they should risk something different. I would like to see more fun, more expression, more performance. Of course, it has to be within some frame. But I would like to see maybe a little less perfect technique balanced with more performance.
Do you have one particular couple, or a dancer, you admire?
[Gianni]: I have many I look up to. For instance, I feel that Arunas has the best frame and structure, there is a sense of freedom in Victor and Anastasia, and competitive factor in Andrea and Sara. There is the personification of a beautiful lady dancer like Natasha or Monica Nigro.... I feel that if all these qualities were found in one couple, they would be unstoppable.
The results of the Professional Ballroom final are recently quite predictable...
[Gianni]: I know. But if you tried to judge yourself you probably can switch the fifth with fourth, depending what you prefer, but there is no argument about the top three.
[Arianna]: Yes, they are firmly established.
How would you describe the difference between Professionals and Amateurs?
[Arianna]: OK, for sure there is an age factor (laughing). Or experience. Professionals have more experience, more knowledge.
[Gianni]: Amateurs should aspire to become Professional. Like to move from the second league to the first league. Especially in WDC. In WDSF there are way more competitions in the Amateur categories than in Pro.
Do you think that WDC should follow WDSF example and introduce new steps, for instance, new figures to the Viennese Waltz?
[Gianni]: I think that WDC should not do it. Maybe I am old fashioned but I don't want to see a Viennese Waltz routine, I want to see the pure Viennese. I think it is important to follow the 1-2-3 unbroken flow, as this is what this dance characteristic is. Probably, in the future, they will allow more... but I like it the way it is.
Why sometimes are audience and judges' opinions of certain couple so different?
[Gianni]: Let's take one of the top WDSF couples as an example. They are very good, very strong. But their routine can be seen by the conservative judges as too fancy. Audience may love them, but the judges will be looking for style over some impressive routine elements. But as I said before, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There must be a balance between style and speed. As a couple you need to put an effort but it must look effortless, stylish.
Do you think these two different approaches from these two federations can ever meet in the middle?
[Arianna]: In a distant future...
[Gianni]: Well, in the past it was like that. I would like the future to go back to what it was in the past.
[Arianna]: Perhaps these two federations could work together again, but they would probably need to come up with the new set of rules both would accept. So they both would have to change something in their ways.
Do you think the overall quality of dancing would improve if they merged?
[Gianni]: It would be better. I remember ten years ago, the numbers of dancers coming to Blackpool was much higher.
[Arianna]: It would be nice if couples did not have to choose, and were free to go wherever they want without fear of disqualification. But at the same time, you sometimes need to sacrifice the peace to bring new ideas, like in art, new movements, new figures to create something better. Like a revolution. So there are two sides to it as well.
Whose opinion is more important to you: the audience or the judges?
[Gianni]: You need judges to mark you well. In the end of the day it is a competition. Of course you want to be liked by the public as well, and we try to interact with the audience. It is hard to answer.
[Arianna]: Ideally both!
Usually the audience are people also connected to the danceworld, like parents, teachers, other competitors. Otherwise sitting through hours and hours of rounds and heats would be impossible! It was made more interesting to the general public by the creators of the Dancing with Stars, where public has the half of the votes. Would you be for or against giving half of the votes to audience?
[Gianni]: Yes. It would be good for us as well as we try to interact with the audience (laughing). We might be better off.
[Arianna]: Maybe it would be better to introduce different awards. But I don't think audience will be able to really skilfully judge the technique. So, no, I don't think it is a good idea. I wouldn't risk it, it would be too unpredictable.
What do you like more, competitions or shows? Which one would you chose if they were on the same day?
[Gianni]: I love both as I love dancing. But I guess it would depend which one can bring more money (laughing). This is our job as well, so I must be pragmatic. I would chose show. But there are some things, like Blackpool, I would not compromise.
Thank you very much for coming here. All the best for Blackpool!
All photos taken on the day by Peter Suba