Sheven @ Charlotte Westie Fest 2024 w/Brooklyn Lanham

Getting to know Sheven Kekoolani

I met the half-Hawaiian dance instructor, judge, emcee, and choreographer (and fellow coffee addict) at the 2024 Chicago Classic and it was lovely. Sitting in the lounge of the modern Hyatt Regency, I soon learned Sheven had a great sense of humor and was truly down to earth.

One of the first things I found out is that he started dancing West Coast Swing when a girl named Pam invited him to try a WCS class right after one of their Lindy Hop team practices.

“She was tall and gorgeous, and I didn’t know anything about West Coast Swing, so yeah, I followed her from one dance studio to the other studio,” he said, smiling.

Sheven also dances Argentine Tango, Waltz, Foxtrot, Salsa, Cha Cha, and Hip Hop--have you seen his one-arm handstand? 

Dancers not at the higher levels often romanticize what it’s like to be part of the WCS community we see on YouTube, like Sheven. But many of them are just like us. For example, he shared that he “pretty much lived out of his car the first year I travelled and worked for one of the shoe venders driving cross country.”

Frustration with not advancing quicker (Stanislav Ivanov referred to the Novice division as a “black hole”), is another similarity. Sheven said that he earned his first point in 2009 and didn’t earn his next point until 2011.

“I did almost 20 competitions during that amount of time and was not making semis or finals,” Sheven remembered, adding that he used to get dinged by judges for being too Lindy. “I wasn’t progressing at all.”

His suggestion? Have a good support team and consistent coach, try different locations, and/or get a new set of eyes on you.

“The more you do something the better,” he said. Then he added that “…breaking patterns come from doing something over and over and over again; before you can pull it off, it has to become muscle memory first.”

I asked for other competition tips.

“In general, judges like it when you’re enjoying your dance,” he said. “If you’re not happy and looking miserable, that’ll show to not just the judges but to your partner and to the people in the audience, so make sure you remember it’s dancing, it’s fun.”

Sheven also suggested following all the major DJs to help get an idea of what to expect because some post their playlists after comps.

The Austin based dancer also shared how much he enjoys lifting up his friends when he emcees.

“I guess my goal as emcee is to always be the secondary show,” he said. “I want to help my friends come out there with a lot of energy and have the crowd into whatever is happening and keep it going throughout an entire division. I want to make sure that every couple that walks out to the floor is recognized for the talent and creation that they’re able to bring. I don’t need to be the center of attention; I want everyone else to be the primary. I want to help my friends realize their dreams and goals.”

He also likes being an All Star.

“It kind of gives me this little niche role where I can announce my Champion friends while still being able to dance with my other friends in All Star,” he added.

Here’s another normalizing fact, many pros have day jobs. For example, Sheven, who used to be a teacher because he likes kids but quit because he doesn’t like parents, now works at an Amazon warehouse. Last I heard, Ben McHenry was still bartending, and Markus Smith works at a university.

I asked Sheven about working on routines with someone to know how they decide to partner. He said that he’s only ever had a few partnerships but that such decisions often happen “organically,” sometimes even on the dance floor.

“First there is the enjoyment of the dance and making sure you move well together and kind of have a similar vibe. It’s also based on how well you communicate and how well you can stand each other… This is going to be another relationship; this is somebody that you’re going to be spending hours and hours with,” Sheven said.

But don’t all high-level dancers always have fantastic connection and fantastic dances?

I was surprised when Sheven said disappointing dances happen to everyone, but he was unbothered about it occurring occasionally. Most of us have experienced the odd feeling that comes after having a fantastic dance with someone and then you’re suddenly off on the next one.

What gives?

“It depends on where your mindset is,” Sheven explained. “If you’re in practice mode for one dance but then maybe during the next dance, you’re more laid back and having fun. Maybe you practice with one person heavily and then the other one you just see at social dances, so things can happen. Your connection, your space, how you’re running your slot…I think being able to be adaptable to different styles and people is something that comes with a lot of time.”

What about not connecting with someone you connected with earlier that same night? Why are we suddenly off?

“Oh, somebody got drunk,” he quipped. I laughed, but then Sheven turned philosophical. “Maybe somebody said something as you walked off the floor. Maybe someone tells me to spin them a lot just before I walk on the floor, and it throws me off so bad I can’t think of any spinning patterns, so I don’t spin them at all. All kinds of things could happen.”

Then Sheven suggested “I would say slow it down. I compare it [the dance] to a stream where if the water is muddy you don’t continue to mix your hand in the water. Instead, you settle down, let it clear, go back to basics, and see what you can build from there.”

Speaking of mindset, Sheven suggested maintaining the same “rituals” before going out on the dance floor for a contest to help you perform your best.

“I always tell my students to do the exact same thing before any contest. It doesn’t matter if you need to go in a corner and stretch quietly, if you need to listen to a certain type of song, if it’s going and tying your shoes again or relacing them, whatever the case may be, do that same thing so that you are always in the same exact mindset,” he said. “Then it’s easier to control when you know exactly what the outcome is going to be, how high your adrenaline levels will be, etc.”

So what does Sheven do to prepare?

In addition to using Stephen White’s tip to jog around the dance floor to warm up (“anything to get your heart rate up a little bit so when you walk out onto the floor it’s already there and you’re not jumping from zero to 100”), and Bonnie Cannon and Jerome Subey's advice to pat down to wake up nerve endings and make his body more alert, his newest ritual is to just stand around with his friends and tell jokes to help him not overthink things once his feet touch the dance floor.

Relaxing is important; it helps us enjoy our dance more if nothing else. But what about relaxing your body? What about injuries?

“If I feel as though my body can’t handle it, of course I try to take off and do whatever it needs,” he started. “Yeah, I had bad shoulders and a bad back kind of going into this. But there’s always something else you can work on. So, you hurt your legs: you can start working on your arms, your hands; you hurt your back, you can start working on rolling your feet while sitting in a chair, or work on triple steps while sitting on the couch… Listen to your body because you never want to hurt yourself worse and keep yourself from dancing longer.”

His biggest tip for recovery and prevention is to drink more water.

“I can’t stress the importance of that enough and I’m probably the worst person to talk about it,” he admitted. “I’ll be out on the dance floor for hours and not drink any water and wake up the next day completely dehydrated, and that’s probably the worst feeling in the world.”

Sheven also said that his breaks include getting together with his dancing friends but with the hangout rule that they don’t talk about dancing.

“When I get together with my friends, we shoot billiards or go bowling,” he said. The most recent [hangout] I did was when I flew to Salt Lake City and they asked if I wanted to teach classes or give private lessons and I told them “No, I’m coming to hang out with you,” so we got a board game night together and that was a lot of fun.”

He connects bowling to dance: “...in the sense that you can work on performance, body, flight... the closer you are to competitive repeatable results where you’re getting strikes all the time is because you’re able to do the exact same thing with your body.”

He added that bowling helps him get all of his competitive spirit out so he has an easier time focusing on having fun when he dances.

“Yeah, you’re competing but it’s not like cutthroat or I’m going to quit if I don’t win type of thing,” he said.

Does he take lessons

“The person that I’ve been working with a lot recently is PJ Turner just because he has similar moves to what I have so he sees things in me,” Sheven said. He also likes to take classes from instructors he’s never taken before. “He tells me what he’s working on, and it helps me work on the things that I’m working on. So sometimes it’s good to go with somebody that is your direct match but sometimes you want somebody that’s your complete opposite. Sometimes you just want to shake it up and be inspired, right?”

I asked Sheven if in addition to appreciating when someone has their own style and “doesn’t just carbon copy someone else,” if anyone else inspires him.

“I have to think about that one depending on which aspect we’re talking about,” he said. “Jerome Subey won’t say no to anybody and just dances with everyone. When I think of routines I think of Gary McIntyre or Jordan Frisbee. When I think of Jack and Jills I think of Ben Morris who has such a high dance IQ it doesn’t matter who he draws, this is the person he drew, and therefore, he will make everything about the other person, It’s just amazing.”

Who does he admire but hasn’t had the chance to dance with yet?

“Tatiana Mollmann,” he said immediately. “So, Tat and I have been to hundreds of events together and have done Foxtrot, Charleston, Lindy Hop, but we’ve never done West Coast Swing… Every time I see her, I get a little shy because she’s been on the floor for like an hour, hour and a half, so I don’t want to run over and be like, “Let’s dance another.””

His other bucket list/to do items? In addition to wanting to become more flexible and eat better, Sheven would love to travel to more overseas competitions such as Budapest, the Korean Open, the French Open, and the Brazilian Open.

“This year there’s a new event in Hawaii,” he said. “I recently met the event director… To go back to Hawaii and see family there and be able to compete would be really special.”

Yes, Sheven can also hula dance.

“My dad’s Hawaiian and growing up he was in the Air Force so whenever somebody would retire, he’d have us do an entire luau,” he explained. “So I learned a lot of hula and fire knife dancing and Poi Balls from a very young age… One event asked for a hula class in 2017/2018 so I did that; somewhere between 70 and 80 dancers showed up.”

Other questions stemmed from conversations with other dancers. For instance, what do you do when someone says “No” when you ask them to dance?

Sheven said don’t take it personally.

“I’m someone that believes that if I’m hired for something I’m going to try my best to work the room and dance with every single person there because they took the time out of their day to come see me specifically,” he said. “That being said, it’s very rare I turn someone down; if I do, it’s probably because I’m going to bed, or I already have a queue going, or it’s a specific song and I want to dance with a specific person. The reasons behind someone turning you down are unknown to you so assuming the worst is not a good headspace; try to think positive.”

He added that introspection helps with understanding rejection too.

For instance, Sheven said to ask yourself if you’re putting yourself out there enough, if you’re hurting someone, if you’re too rough, if you’re falling behind the learning curve, or if you’re on time. He said to remember that everyone has their own things going on and/or they might just be shy.

“I’m going to have fun and hopefully that person wants to come along with me,” he said. “But if you feel like you’re out of place maybe just try another night or practice more. Don’t get frustrated with something that you like to do. That takes away from the hobby aspect of it. Take a break or a lesson, maybe. Don’t get me wrong, the idea that certain people get asked to dance more certainly exists, that’s something that’s just a fact of life, but if you’re not enjoying yourself then that’s another examination that needs to happen.”

What factors affect deciding which events to attend?

“I live in Texas now so do all the Texas events,” he said. “But for the most part it’s all about the support team that’s behind you. Having someone to talk to or go to dinner with… Yes, you can make friends and do the extrovert, but I’m more shy that way. For me, knowing that people will cheer for me when I’m dancing even if I’m not doing a great job, or somebody comes up after and says “That was awesome” even though I know it wasn’t? To have that support crew behind you is probably the most valuable thing you can have at an event.”

A must for Sheven when he travels is to wear one particular jacket that has 20 pockets so he can put everything in them.

“I only travel with a carryon,” he said. "It's just easier."

2000s R &B music is his sweet spot, cooking Filipino and Hawaiian food are favorites, and dance will always be in his life.

“I plan on dancing as long as I can,” he said, leaning back in his grey leather couch with a smile.