An Afternoon with Ballroom Champion with Yulia Zagoruychenko

An Afternoon with Yulia Zagoruychenko
Photo of Yulia Zagoruychenko by Tramaine George

Yulia Zagoruychenko is one of those artists who need only be referred to by their first name. With her partner Riccardo Cocchi, Zagoruychenko is the current world champion in the Latin style of professional ballroom dance: a title won from years of intense training, competing, and performing show dances that impress and move audiences all over the world. Watching her perform, whether live or on YouTube, you don’t have to know anything about Latin dancing to feel her charisma (not to mention awe at those legs). You’d also have no idea that she stands at only 5 feet 2 inches tall.

We caught up in New York in between her triumphant win at England’s Blackpool Dance Festival and a month-long tour in Japan. As her powerful presence in these photos shows, there may be many great dancers out there, but there can only be one Yulia.

AWT: Congratulations on winning Blackpool! How did it feel?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: This year, at the 91st Blackpool Dance Festival, it was no surprise that there would be new crowned champions. According to our ranking as six-time World Champions, it seemed like we were next in line for the title. However, in dancing there is always a small amount of uncertainty and a lot of dependent variables like preparation, quality of dancing leading up to the competition, performance on the day of, etc. Luckily, one can say that Riccardo and I had a very good day. There was good chemistry from the start, with no pressure or doubt, just lots of confidence. As a result, we were able to show our best qualities and give an extraordinary performance incomparable to any before. It is a feeling beyond what words can describe. We are thrilled and over-the-moon happy to have won this title.

AWT: Describe an average day for you. How do you keep yourself healthy and in peak condition to perform?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: Unfortunately we travel a lot, which prevents us from having consistent schedules. On an average day when we’re home we try to get 7–8 hours of rest (the best way to recover) and have a good healthy breakfast, followed by stretches and fitness. Then it’s off to the studio for 3–4 hours of practice. After that we grab a quick bite for lunch, followed by about 4–5 lessons of teaching. Often we then have fittings for our costumes and, before we know it, it’s time for dinner followed by business email correspondences.

There are no secrets to staying healthy with such a difficult schedule; We need a good amount of sleep, good food (the right balance of carbs and protein), and lots of vitamins and minerals.

AWT: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a dancer, and how did you know?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: I first started dancing at the age of four—Russian folklore ensemble dancing. I was the only member of my family involved in the art of dance. My parents saw my ability to replicate movements from TV and helped me discover my talent by taking me to classes. I began ballroom dancing at age 7, and began teaching at age 11. As a rising star in Russia, I captured my first major title at the age of 12, becoming Russian Junior National Champion. From then on, there was no turning back. I knew that I would be in this business forever.

AWT: When you watch yourself on video, do you feel that you fulfill an image that you had of your future self when you were a young, inexperienced dancer?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: I never like to watch myself in videos! However, I believe that you are your own best teacher. You are able to see what you like and what you don’t and improve on that with no bias other than your own.

AWT: In a previous interview you said of the closeness you feel with dance: “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.” How would you describe the relationship you have with your dancing and with your body?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: Dancing is very close to me because I spent my whole life with it and I feel very comfortable there. In life I am a pretty shy person, but if I am in motion I’m in a different world; I feel comfortable, powerful, expressive. And that’s what dance is about—expressing yourself through movement! Music also plays a huge role. It’s a wonderful tool that helps us move. I love all kinds of music, depending on my mood, but Latin is my favorite and my inspiration.

AWT: Ballroom is a unique form of dance in that you need a partner to do it, which can be both beautiful and challenging. What’s your philosophy on partnership?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: Ballroom dancing is not easy in large part because you are dancing with another person and are dependent on each other. Most of the time it is a beautiful feeling that you get to share your emotions with that other person, who responds to your body and vice versa. But occasionally it can be difficult and frustrating.

If you’re able to read all the other person’s signs, you know that you’re in the right partnership. Riccardo and I have a balanced relationship where we are there for one another when we need each other most. We focus very much on ourselves and try to develop as much as we can individually, because the stronger you are independently, the stronger the couple can be.

AWT: Do you take inspiration or training from other kinds of dance besides Latin?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: Yes, definitely. Any kind of art that involves movement is inspirational. Riccardo and I are constantly going to different shows to learn, understand, and get inspired. Every dancer and artist out there has individualism that we can all learn from. I have a few specific inspirations: dancers Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Diana Vishneva, Gaynor Fairweather, Donnie Burns and many more … the voices and songs of Jose Feliciano, Tina Turner, Bocelli, Christina Aguilera … the dance companies Pilobolus and Alvin Ailey. And lots more that give me incredible drive to dance.

AWT: It seems that having achieved World Champion status, there wouldn’t be much left to accomplish! What kind of goals do you hold now for your dancing?

Yulia Zagoruychenko: Am I accomplished? One can say that I am by the results and experience that back up my name. As a dancer I am everything I ever dreamed to be and have surpassed even my own expectations. Having all the titles any top dancer could wish for and being blessed to be of Russian blood makes me even more proud.

Becoming a World Champion was never the end target, but only confirmation of all my hard work, dedication, time, and sacrifice. But there is always more to learn and more to accomplish. We have to keep our minds open and push to the edge of our knowledge in order to become true unforgettable legends. I would say those would be the next steps—leaving a legacy.

This feature originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or read My Hairy Legs and Me: A Puberty Story.

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