We talked to Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagorouitchenko in Dec 2009 next day after they won the WDC Professional Latin in Disneyland, Paris. Riccardo and Yulia are the current WDC World Professional Latin vice-champions and represent USA. See their results page and over 1,200 photos in our galleries.
...through the dancing we feel free to do what we want
I am fascinated by your dancing, and I am not the only one, I first saw you at the "International" one year ago and it was a shock.
What is very interesting is who, or what was the situation, that convinced you to change partners. You were both very successful, top of the world, with your previous partners then you switched partners and together became absolute stars.
[Riccardo] (laughing) We were lucky. Well, what drove me to change partners was previously I had decided to stop dancing with Joanna. After we won the World Championship we went one year to Pro just to try but I was already willing to stop dancing with her. It was nothing personal and nothing against Joanna. Simply because I had lost dancing feeling and I was starting to feel I had nothing more to give. I stopped dancing and spent one year still in the business but looking around, teaching and so on but people were saying "why did you stop, it is such a shame at your level" and I was thinking, well everyone is saying the same thing but it is like (laughing) when you are dead everybody says what a great guy but when you are alive they say nothing. Still they said why do you not come back on the floor and just for fun I said, well, if I come back then I want to dance with Yulia. Because Yulia was already very successful with Max and no one took it seriously it was like a big joke.
Then one day after they won their national championship there was the opportunity for me to try out with Yulia. I said: really lets do it and for me, after the first time we danced together it was "yes!". For me there were no doubts and I was only not sure if I want to challenge myself to go back on the floor. (Laughing) I think though if you have this kind of partner you cannot fail but I am not a gambling person and I play things very safely most of the time but the feeling here was very real and you could feel the quality together.
I have heard many coaches saying before you dance with Yulia that she is definitely the best lady partner currently in Latin.
[Riccardo] Yes, I can say very definitely yes.
[Yulia] (laughing) Thank you. Basically, I can say that this partnership started for me because after I did last competition with Maxim and he decided to stop competitive part he said "Yulia, I have achieved everything that I ever wanted and I know I have no feeling and no inspiration to continue and I would love if you come with me to dance show, but I understand if you wish to continue and I wish you everything of the best and with the best partner". In my heart I wanted to continue to dance because I did not feel ready to stop and because I felt I could do much more and could improve much more.
At the time there was a lot of good male partners but my first choice of course was Riccardo. Also, we are very well connected because Riccardo's girlfriend, Shirley Ballas, was our main coach so I wanted to try with Riccardo. We tried just once. Immediately, after the competition, I asked Riccardo if it was possible to have a try out and he said "Yes of course" so we did it. And the first feeling, right away, was good. First time. Right away, we ...
[Riccardo in background]... clicked ...
[Yulia] Yes we could feel it and we decided right away to even do "International". So in one week we put everything together, all choreography, and then after one or two weeks we practised in Italy in Riccardo's home town and then we came out and danced International and I think it was pretty good result right away.
To me it was surprising. You are not the only couple who started again after a break but there is no comparison. You were so fantastic, it was a shock
[Riccardo] That was nice, that was nice feeling for us. [Yulia] Yes.
Can you tell us about your life story, how you started dancing, why and when you started dancing
[Yulia] I started when I was very young. 4 years old. Already I had something inside me moving, jumping and I was very good at copying and I copied people I seen on TV dancing. So my mother said Yes, OK and found somewhere some dance classes. So I did national folk dance in Russia for 4 years. At that time it was more of group classes not individual couples. So, because it was group, they wanted everybody to be the same level, same height and so on. I was very small (with a laugh) and still I am small, nobody would take me, not ballet, not ballroom dancing I was too small. Everyone had to match. Only folk dancing for solo dancing, me and a boy who was also small. That's it. After 4 years I had enough, I was already tired of folk dancing so we went for ballroom dancing. So that how it started. That's how it began. I started when I was 7 years old and then from 11 years old I started to teach the kids to earn some money and I gave this money to my parents.
I danced both styles until I was 16 years old and then I chosen Latin dancing. In Russia, for financial reasons, it was very hard for me I could not afford to do two styles and then when I was 21 I moved to America and I am still in America (laugh).
It is interesting when you look in the starting lists and see all the American couples with names that rarely are American.
[Riccardo] Oh yes, not very American. [Yulia] Yes lots of Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Ukraine not just one partner but both.
...yes and one Italian!
[Riccardo] Yes, one Italian. One stopped, but the other continued.
[Yulia] Yes, the Russian kept the Italian in America. When we started to dance together I said "Yes I would like to dance but I want to stay in America"
[Riccardo] Yes that's true.
[Yulia] And he said OK, no problem.
[Riccardo] You never know what life will bring. I started to dance very young, 6 years old, because my parents were very interested in the dancing. At first, I was just dancing and then taking lessons and competing, then parents quit work and opened a dance studio. Of course in the dance studio everything was focusing on producing the couples and I was one of the tough ones. Hard enough is the dancing but when you must also deal, on a daily basis 24 hours, with your father and your mother then it is tough. There was a lot of conflict, but now with the distance of time I can thank them for all they gave me.
At the beginning I did not want to dance with a girl... (pause)... Not that I wanted to dance with a man (much laughter). I did not want to dance with anybody. I had many try outs and I did not want to, sometimes I did not want to stand up from my chair, and then one day there was a blonde girl and I stood up for and began to chat with her and then to dance with her and I was so happy. It was the dream of my life.
I began to dance ballroom and Italian folk and I was pretty lucky because all the lessons from my parents were free. But all the time they were there, and from the emotional side it was tough and there was lots of personal conflict. In normal life there is a conflict with parents - but when you add the dancing it is really tough.
That is probably one of the reasons why, at a certain age, I stopped Ballroom and switched to dance Latin with Joanna Wilkinson. Espen Salberg moved to Italy for his fashion ideas and studying and I began to take lessons with Espen seriously. This was when I quit Ballroom completely and went seriously into the Latin and I started to love the Latin American deeply. But always there were certain things to which my father and Espen said "don't let him do whatever he likes, because he is wild". They thought I would forget everything, the timing, the steps... This is why they put me in certain positions where there is a little bit more control.
I danced with Joanna for 10 years... I did not change partners often. Yulia is only my 4th partner. First one was Barbara. I danced with her 15/16 years.
[Riccardo] Mancusso. Barbara Mancusso. Italian girl.
We danced mainly Ballroom just a little Latin. This was when I had lessons with Sammy Stopford and Barbara McColl, they were one of the first foreign teachers who came to Italy. Mainly though we dance Ballroom. I won three Italian championships in Ballroom and everyone thought of me as a Ballroom dancer never Latin. That is why most of my friends, Fabio, Simona, Mirko are coming from ballroom group. I competed against them and it is funny how the life turns. After Barbara, I danced 10 dance with another Italian girl but it was not a successful partnership. Great girl but not good partnership. Then I started with Joanna and looked to Espen for Latin American and for 10 years danced Amateur competition. We won World Championship. Then Pro for one year till I quit with her then one year break. I did two shows with Shirley Ballas but just for fun. Then I had this chance of my life to dance with Yulia and so I am still dancing.
You mention Shirley, in private life are you still with Shirley
Yulia, and you with Maxim?
This is interesting how the personal life conflict can cause the partnership to fall apart
[Riccardo] This is probably why it works so well for us. We have a private life outside of the dancing, even if they are part of the dancing.
[Yulia] My life is more about the dancing. Yes, I have a man in my life with whom I can share different things, something outside of the dancing, something else. But you can say the dancing is my boyfriend and I guess am married to the dancing (laugh) nobody else.
How would you describe dancing what it is for you?
[Riccardo] That is a very deep question
There is a question nowadays, is it the sport or the art, what do think, although I probably already know your answer. What is dancing for you?
[Yulia] Well, as I said the dancing is my life. I believe it is so close to me that nobody else is closer. Not my Mum, not Maxim, not Shirley not even Riccardo. It is something I feel and I feel so many different things, I can feel like I am fighting, like I am in love, even sexual love. That's how I live this is something like another person is with me it is so different, could be like a business partner. My dancing is something to express my feelings. I just feel this way. I know, it seems a little bit weird. I know.
[Riccardo] No. It is not weird
[Yulia] That what it is. This is what I feel, how I live. I can be so empty after a competition. Actually I have to be so empty at the start of a competition to give everything when I am dancing.
[Riccardo] Dancing basically is our life. It is difficult to describe dancing in one word. It is like Yulia said.
For people at our level dancing is everything. You can have your own relationship, you can have your own life but this is what we are feeling, what we are eating, what we are sleeping with, everything we have is in dancing. We spend 24 hours each day in this place.
Funny enough all the people involved are our friends, and, if we were to step outside the dancing I would have no friends left. There is not one who is not involved in the dancing.
The beauty of this is, it is a very strong emotion. You can feel happy, you can feel upset in a deep way. Nothing can upset you more than not to be able to perform, not be happy and produce all you feel when you are dancing. Also you can be so happy when you do achieve your result. When you achieve your result then you try to find something else to make you happy. You always look for more in the dancing business.
I believe that if I could live with dancing shoes and space to practise that would be enough. We do not chase the dollars at the moment. I know there is a lot of money involved in the dancing and maybe one day we have the time and, of course, we are going to stay in it. Because this is what we train all our life to be and this is what we like. This is more emotional feeling and the happiness and sadness than anything. We could not live without it, this feeling and strong connection with the art.
[Yulia] But still we are dancing together as a couple. Always it is very important with whom you are dancing, who is the person at your side. We are the unit, I believe it is not about the individual. The couple must be a unit and very very much a team to make it happen, the dancing, the practise, to achieve the results. I am very lucky that we found the language, Riccardo and I, our dancing language. Of course we speak a different language but its the ...
[Riccardo] ... connection ...
[Yulia] Yes, the connection. We feel it. Riccardo is a very good friend. He is supportive of me and I am supportive of him. Maybe he is better than me (laugh). I find it very important and so I am happy that we found this.
A couple of weeks ago we did an interview with Hannah, I do not know if you read this on the website, and she spoke about the problems in their partnership with Slavik. They are fantastic dancers but there was something lacking, it was not a partnership.
[Yulia] Yes, it is very important.
[Riccardo] The artist style of everyone develops in a different place. There are the individual dancers like Slavik. For me, Slavik is a star in our business, but he is an individual. He is dancing on his own even if he tries to dance with a partner. He is a great dancer on his own.
What we try to do is dancing together because that is what we believe in Latin American. That is what we try to push in what we are doing - a dancing couple not individuals.
You told us what dancing is for you how would you describe what dancing is to others. Of course it is movement to music but how would you describe it for others
[Riccardo] Well I don't know. I don't know what dancing is for other people. For us it is ...(pause)... everything. Sometimes people ask me: what must I do to become a champion. But you cannot find the phrase to express how. You have to be 100% and we have become maniacs of dancing and we are thinking about dancing 24 hours, 7 days a week. We are doing this interview now, but we are thinking that after this interview we have to practise tonight as we have a show. After the show we think of what shall we change what shall we do better. It is always a process on your mind to develop your art side. But for everyone it is different.
[Yulia] Actually, I think, for the kids, for the young generation it is a great discipline, absolutely great. If I had children... how do I say it ...(pause and laugh) actually I would tell my kids no dancing, that's what I told my niece already "No dancing please". But actually it teaches you so many things. Not just about the physique and how to be physical and strong but also the discipline. It teaches you so many things. To love the music, to love the movement, to respect other people, to communicate. It is an art also not just a sport. I believe it is a great discipline for everybody and it is something better to start from a young age.
So you think that small children should start dancing.
[Yulia] Yes in my opinion.. I would even start my kids with gymnastics at the very beginning to make the body more flexible and understand the physique of the body and then to think about the dancing.
Does it not disturb you, I know it disturbs me, to see 12/13 years old young girls dance the Rumba. They should really not know how to dance the Rumba they are too young.
[Yulia] Why not? For them it is a different approach. For us the Rumba is something deeper, for kids it is a slow music, slow movement to slow music.
You cannot teach a woman to be feminine, you cannot teach a man to be a man. It is something you feel. It is something in the genes, in the DNA something you cannot develop by image, by copying.
If you see a kid, say, 3 or 4 years old watching the TV and acting like the woman on the TV and expressing themselves in a feminine way and moving the bum and the body you laugh. I think it is the same thing for 11/12 years old and this is very important for dancing because dancing keeps them in a safe environment.
If the parents could save the situation and let them be in this society, outside the discotheque or around with same age kids with nothing else to do, then the best could be to put them into dancing and follow the kids till they can handle the situation. Even at a young age, it is a lot pressure and most of the kids are not used to have this pressure. Life is made like this, they grow early.
This is what is educational on the young generation to be a little more classic in how they do things. Perhaps conservative - lets put it like this. For some reason it has been lost. This is one of the best things for dancing.
It is like Yulia said the educational side. I remember when I was young I was already travelling the world and, at the airport I had to think of the flight arriving and connection with another one and arriving at the destination, and deal with another language - it is not easy but you grow much faster and I think it is better.
I know that you cannot imagine this and it is theoretical but what would happen if you could not dance, if dance was forbidden in the world, what would you do
[Yulia] That is always scaring me, this question, Always. I am already questioning myself if I could not dance what could I do. I don't like singing, I don't like drawing. I don't like some activities like basketball, volleyball. tennis, gymnastics. Ice skating may be a possibility but again that is the music, the movement. What was close to me and it is something about the beauty, I love the beauty of life, I feel good about this. I was thinking to be a hair stylist, to make the hair styles... (laughing)... but I'm so bad at this I find myself having big trouble with myself to make the hair style but I already wanted this together with make up. Hair stylist, make-up stylist. So, I think this is a possibility of a second choice for me.
I hope there will be no need for that
[Yulia] I hope so.
[Riccardo] Always I was interested in sport from day one. I tried music instrument - disaster. The teacher told me I did not have the ear to listen to the music.
[Yulia] Yes I was told the same.
[Riccardo] I thought "OK, whatever, it is something I did not connect with". I was not connected with the music. What always worked for me was the sport. At a young age I was selected for a football team - Roma Football Team.
You are so Italian!!
[Riccardo] It is classic, everybody must have a football in the house. I was selected and was willing to go, but because the training and the football match was arranged on same weekend as dancing competition I could not go. No way my Dad would allow me to go. Then my parents invented all the stories "you will have distorted legs" and all the troubles and problems. Anyway, I left football and continued dancing.
I was at the age when I was interested in a motorbikes and I bought a motorbike. My city is a part of Pirelli Team. At that time Valentino Rossi was a world champion 125cc. I was going behind his back to run with my motorbike. A lot of troubles because I was not such a good one, but I was selected to go with them and they asked me to spend a lot of money to buy the official bike. No way could I afford the money for the official bike - it was not meant to be. Obviously, I would stay in sport. I did University Sport and I have a diploma for Physiotherapist, never used (laughing) but its one of the papers you have just in case. Yes, sport is something that could give me a similar feeling as dancing. This is what I like, to push my body to the extreme. This is what I like about the sport side of dancing. But there is not so much art as in sport as you have to be perfect. You need perfection and perfection is not art.
Perfection is not art?
[Riccardo] No I don't think perfection is Art. Mistake is art. The little bit of nonchalance is more art than precision.
Oh, I know what you mean perfection is not just precision. A painter can be perfect not in the sense of precise but in the sense of perfect
[Riccardo] By perfection I mean scientific precision. For me Science is perfection
[Riccardo] Its the same war between Science and Religion and Art and Sport. Of course each sport has their art side but you try to emulate the same movement all over and over again in the same identical way to achieve the best result. When they throw the ball they have a mechanical aspect to follow. If you know the pattern, you will develop the best mathematic formula to achieve the best result. I don't think dancing is like that. You can train your technique, you can do as much as you can by studying the movement of other people, but at the end you put your soul into it and your soul is different to anybody else.
If your were dancing Ballroom which dance would you like to dance?
[Riccardo] (surprised) Ballroom! Smooth - American Smooth. I would not dance Ballroom now. American Smooth would give me more freedom
Because its more relaxed?
[Riccardo] Same dress, different dance, different approach.
[Yulia] Yes the freedom. You can do whatever you want (laughing)
In Latin many people say your best dance is Jive is this the dance you like the most.
[Yulia] It's the dance I like the least actually
[Riccardo] Me too. Probably that's why!! (laughing)
[Yulia] Of course, I like the character of the jive but you can express yourself less in this dance than in Samba, Cha Cha, Rumba so I prefer them, they are the most exciting.
[Riccardo] Its difficult for me to say which I prefer because each dance is different mood, different routine to put you in a different mood. I like to follow the rhythm and the music what I like the most. It's difficult for me to say, as different day I like different dance. Today I feel that Samba does not work so I prefer Paso Doble. It is like let me - wear the shoes and I will tell you which I prefer.
What do you think about the current situation in politics in Dance. Some competitions are forbidden. There was a case when WDC were forbidding professional couples to dance certain competition. The situation is tense?
[Riccardo] One of the reasons I am dancing here is because through the dancing I feel free to do what I want. Already when you are dancing there are rules, technique is a set of rules, but when you are dancing you must feel free to express yourself. For me, when there is a system which forbids you to be free and to dance certain competitions, it doesn't really work. It should not be a limitation except for what you try put in yourself. It does not need to be wild and do what we want. There are rules in the basis of dancing.
OK, when I started as an Amateur I did IDSF. When it is Pro then it is World Dance Council Professional. This is very personal it is what we believe. Beside my last Amateur Competition which was IDU World Championship I followed my career in IDSF. Like it or not, I did my career in IDSF and I found there were many obstacles on my way. Sometimes it was easy but sometimes it was very difficult like normal life. I ended my career with IDSF and my last Amateur Competition was IDU World Championship then I moved to Professional.
Now we are going to follow all the way down to WDC because this is what we believe. It does not matter if there are 30 or 40,000 federations saying We are Professional, we can run World Championships. But World Champion of what? Because if I dance on my own I can be World Champion or against 2 or 3 other couples you can be World Champion. Or you dance somewhere in what you believe and this is what we believe in the World Dance Council. People you grow with and all the way they support you. Or there is no point to compete. For me it is black and white unfortunately and all my life it has been like that.
I do not want to go too much into political situation because this is not what interests me. Fighting is going to be everywhere but, for us, there are two main competitions: Amateur and Pro. and it has always been like this
[Yulia] Since we are Professional it is easier for us but each sport has its politics and we have to deal with it.
[Riccardo] But this is also one of the reasons why I did not want to be in Italy. There is too much power involved and people thinking that if they do not get the result they want then it is politics. This is not what we believe. We believe if people put more into how we develop the dancing how to put more into the dancing, how to create something special it would be less problems.
People disappointed in their result always blame someone else...
[Riccardo] Yes of course
Well thank you very much it was a pleasure. I presume the next time I will see you dance is UK in Bournemouth in January