With over 35 sponsored couples we realized that few know who these wonderful people really are. In our new series, Interview with the Champions, we get together with the dancers and ask them candid questions. Please enjoy our first story of Nazar and Mariko!
Nazar Batih and Mariko Cantley both began dancing at a young age. Nazar began training in both Latin and Standard at the age of five in his home country of Ukraine. He went on to become the Juvenile Ukrainian champion in both styles. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mariko began her career at age the same age, but in classical ballet. She continued with this training for 13 years until she got to Harvard University, where she decided to give ballroom a try.
Both Nazar and Mariko have university degrees. Mariko says that her degrees in history and intellectual history have helped her professional dancing career in many ways:
“I learned how to think in a really critical and structured way and that has been really helpful in my dancing because it helps you learn anything. It helped me take in new information and I know how to organize it and remember it. Also, knowing how to ask questions and what to question was a big skill that I learned in college that I feel like I use all the time.”
It has not only helped her as a professional competitor, but also as a teacher:
“The other skill that I learned was communicating. In history, you have to do a lot of presentations and write papers and not so much in performing as a dancer, but you know our other work is teaching. So it really helped me a lot being able to communicate as a teacher and being able to find new ways to explain things that are really hard to say in words to somebody and try to get them to understand what you are talking about.”
Mariko and Nazar also work with college students. Mariko says that her college experience helped her communicate to the students in a way that is relatable or in a structure that is familiar to them.
The university experience is a difficult topic to approach in the dance world. Many dancers forsake a university degree in order to begin their professional dance journey. On the flip side, there are many dancers who have to stop competing or dancing all together in order to fulfill their academic dreams. Despite these realities Nazar and Mariko have made achieved success in both spectrums. When asked if they could go back in time and choose between going to college and then dancing or skipping college and going straight in to dancing, Mariko said,
“I would definitely still go to college. Of course, there are sometimes days when I think ‘Oh, maybe I lost 4 years of time when I could have been training and competing more or whatever.’ But way more often, there were things that I learned or people that I met that ended up being really helpful in my career. Relationships that I made that have taught me a lot about how to be a great professional dancer and how to be a better competitor. Also, knowing that I had a college degree and that when I finish competing or if I hated teaching or if I was injured or anything happened to me (knock on wood) that I have another set of skills that I can use to support myself and survive. I think that it has really enabled me to think about pursuing dance the way I wanted to it and that I didn’t just have to do it in order to feed myself. If I’m dancing it’s because I really want to be dancing and to be true to that.”
Nazar echoes this sentiment,
“University was a good experience because I met a lot of different people. It was a good learning aspect, something different, not only dancing. I’m still glad that I finished university and I did it.”
However, even though he is proud to have finished university, if he had to do it all over again, Nazar says he probably wouldn’t.
“I’m still learning in dancing. It’s like the same as going to university because you are constantly learning. You never stop learning.”
Speaking of academia and dancing, it all runs in the family for Mariko. Both of her parents are college professors. Her dad is currently the Meyer Director and Professor of Cancer Biology at the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Her Mom is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School as well as a Professor in Molecular and Cell biology at Harvard. However, when it comes to dancing, even Mariko’s Mom, Vicki Sato, likes to get in on the fun. Ms. Sato dances with Nazar. When asked what it is like to dance with Mariko and her Mom, Nazar said,
“You know that saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With both of them you have to be really careful with what you say because they are both two smart cookies. Their approach and attitude to the dancing is aligned together. It’s good to dance with them. One is my partner and one is my student, which while they are similar also makes them different. Mariko does this as a professional and Vicki does it as something to enjoy and have fun with, even though she is still very competitive.”
With both of her parents being professors, one would assume that Mariko would have felt pressure from her parents about pursuing academia instead of becoming a professional dancer. However, Mariko said that was not the case,
“I think when I was really young, there was definitely an expectation that I would go to college. In all of my extended family, everyone is in an academic related field, so it was kind of like an assumption. On the other hand, my parents also always strongly believed in doing something that you really cared about and were passionate about. If you really believe in what you’re doing and you care about it, you are going to excel at it more than if you’re doing something that you’re not so into. That’s how I think they found their success. They pursued things that they were very passionate about, so they were always supportive of that. My parents love dance! So it’s fun for them to come watch competitions and it’s something that they can understand why I love it so much.”
Not only are Nazar and Mariko excellent standard dancers, they are also experienced creators. They are World Vice Champions in Classical Showdance and are the United States National Classical Showdance Champions. The inspiration behind their latest showdance routine came from one key ingredient: the music. Mariko says,
“It started with the music. We found the music and we both knew immediately that that was what we wanted to do the show to. Everything came from there. I mean, it’s an amazing song and if you listen to the lyrics, the story behind it and the message behind it is really interesting. This gave us the storyline.”
Nazar added that the song by itself already gave them something to grasp onto because of the storyline and the words. The idea to be different was something that allowed them to think outside the box to create their newest piece. He further said,
“We knew that we were attracted to the song because we wanted to do something that was not typical ballroom. It was not something that you would expect to see a ballroom dancer using and there is no obvious particular dance that you would do to it. Is it a waltz? Is it a tango? We don’t know, but that’s ok. That is our idea in dancing. Let’s do something unexpected and different or step out of the box because you see a lot of people so busy with the rules that they are afraid to do something out of their comfort zone. This piece of music gives us a chance to show other people that actually we are comfortable to step outside of our comfort zone. I believe we actually achieved that really well since that’s what we want to do with our dancing, despite the fact that it’s only a show.”
Nazar says that the difference between performing in a competition against other people versus doing a show in a competition is “In a show you can express yourself even more because you have more freedom of what you want to do.”
Besides being professional dancers, Mariko and Nazar both enjoy doing other things. Mariko enjoys reading and cooking, while Nazar likes to go fishing and they both like to hang out with their non-dancer friends. They do a lot of traveling to Italy in order to train with their coaches and biggest inspirations: William Pino and Alessandra Bucciarelli. Besides going to Italy about every other month, they travel to the UK to compete in the major three competitions: The UK, Blackpool and The International.
While they love traveling and getting to compete internationally, home is truly where their hearts are. Nazar says that “We’re both Americans and we like competing at home.” Mariko says the biggest difference between competing internationally and in the United States is
“Internationally the competition is more inspiring but also more stressful and at home in the U.S. it’s more fun but you do not get that same intensity that you do at an international level.”
In order to prep for these competitions, they do both technical practices and stamina practices. They have a trainer who helps them work-out according to what they feel they need to work on and he helps mostly with weight-work. They love to run and do a lot of cardio.
While they have had many great accomplishments, it has not been the easiest journey. Few people know this, but Nazar has Type One Diabetes. He was diagnosed in 2009 and has been competing with it ever since. Mariko says that some things that people may not expect or may not know about dancing and competing with Type One Diabetes is that
“When you have a lot of adrenaline or do a lot of physical activity for anyone it makes your body send glucose in to your blood. So for Nazar, it gets kind of complicated because he doesn’t produce insulin. That means on a competition day, it can be really unpredictable what happens with his blood sugar.”
Nazar further elaborated that,
“My blood sugar could be really high which stops me from a great performance or it could be really low. So I have to be careful about how I calculate all of my insulin intake in order to manage it. It must be balanced.”
Even in the face of this, they have found great ways to manage it. Nazar recently found an app on his phone that reads his scanning device on his arm, allowing him to check his blood sugar in between rounds. This app gives Nazar the chance to see if his blood sugar is high so he can correct it with insulin or if it is low he can have a little juice to get back in the right range. Nazar wants everyone to know that even though it is difficult to manage and compete, it is possible.
“A lot of people don’t know how difficult it is to manage it and figure out what to do on that day. However, my experience with Type One is that I would encourage people to keep doing what they’re doing in terms of physical activity. It is better for you as a Type One Diabetic to keep dancing or get some exercise. You can do it at a really high level.”
Mariko says it has taught her to be more organized and aware of her own body since Nazar has to do it so much.
This powerhouse couple loves to learn and loves to share their knowledge with others. They say their biggest advice to younger dancers who are looking to turn pro is to
“Think about what it means to you to be a professional dancer. You have to realize what it actually means to be a professional dancer. There are many ways to be one. You can compete internationally, you can teach, you can compete locally. You have to ask yourself if there is anything else you want to do besides dancing? For us, it wasn’t a choice. We wanted this more than anything else.”
You can see their most recent, winning showcase routine here: