Click below for
Superstar Dancer returns
after two-year Mission in Oaxaca, Mexico
You're in the last 5 seconds of your Showcase routine at the 2002 US OPEN. You raise your partner, Heidi, high up over your head while she grabs her ankles and forms a ring with her arms and legs. Then, as she hovers there like a "human halo", you let her go and watch her "free fall" down the cylinder of your body. Amazingly, her downward motion stops at your knees on the very last beat of the song - just as you rehearsed it. As she hangs there, suspended with a huge smile on her face, you raise your arms in triumph. You've just completed the "donut drop" - one of the most difficult moves in Theatre Arts. The audience goes absolutely ballistic. They simultaneously rise to their feet and reward you with 2 minutes of non-stop, deafening applause and rabid cheering. The entire scene becomes much more than a Kodak moment. It turns into mind boggling bedlam.
After several heartfelt bows to the crowd, you eventually leave the floor, physically and emotionally spent. Then the enormity of the moment finally hits you. You and your partner have just won back-to-back US OPEN Showcase Championships! With that remarkable achievement, you've earned a special place at the very TOP of the Swing World. Everyone is enthralled by your dancing. Everyone is shaking your hand. Everyone wants a video of your routine. Simply put: You're a ROCK STAR!
Now, having worked so hard for so long and having accomplished so much, what would YOU do next? Head off to "Disney World"???
Well, not Benji Schwimmer. Instead, he made a startling decision that would significantly alter his life and stun his fans far more than even that last choreographic masterpiece he and Heidi had just performed. At the very peak of his young dance career, after having performed so many incredible moves on the dance floor, Benji made the boldest "move" of his life. He decided to completely walk away from certain fame, professional prestige, lucrative earnings, the thrill of dancing, the joy of family, his beloved partner, Heidi, and even his country in order to serve a full-time Mission helping impoverished people in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is a central requirement of his Mormon faith. For two full years there would be no visits allowed with his family or friends, no TV, no radio, and no magazines or newspapers. Most of all, no dancing. Communication was limited to only occasionally e-mails and two phone calls a year to his parents. Basically, there would be little formal contact with his previous life. Unbelievable.
* * * *
Fast forward to April 15, 2005. Benji Schwimmer has just returned to his home in Redlands, California. He brings with him a slight Mexican accent, an enriched wisdom of people and life, a renewed excitement about dance, and the challenge of catching up with all that has changed in America since he left - including things as common as the Apple Ipod. He is a completely new person in many ways. However, we suspect that once he steps back onto the dance floor, those inimitable dance skills will burst forth once again to the great delight of appreciative audiences all across America. Well, we can't wait!
We recently spoke to Benji and asked him to share some of his stories and talk about the past, present and future. He had a lot to say...
Benji: Oh yeah. It has definitely been the greatest experience of my life. So many people have helped me to get on the Mission. I couldn't thank everyone but I love you all. It has definitely been a help in the lives of many people.
USASN: Tell us what it was like being completely cut off from family and friends for two full years?
Benji: Well honestly I never felt lonely. We were always emailing one another. Family is as close as you want it to be.
USASN: How did you live without "Dance" and "Swing Music" after having been around it all your life? What did you do to compensate for this?
Benji: There are other things a lot more important than dance. But there were times where I would just wanted to dance. Luckily I had some pretty cool dreams where I would be dancing and I could feel that same ol' familiar energy that one gets while dancing. I also focused my perfectionist energies in perfecting my Spanish. There is a better energy, though, and that's when you're serving your fellow brothers. That, to me, is what I now miss more than anything after coming home.
USASN: Tell us about the town of Oaxaca and its people?
Benji: Its the poorest state in the Republic of Mexico. And also the greatest. It may be economically poor but it's the richest in culture. The people speak over 40 indigenous languages - including my favorite, Mixe, which I learned a little. There are more people that speak separate dialects than those who speak Spanish. They're an amazing people - the most loving and generous in the world.
USASN: Where did you live? What did you eat? What did you do for fun?
Benji: I lived in 5 areas - the city of Oaxaca, Puerto Angel (coast), Matias Romero (Isthmus), Salina Cruz (Isthmus/Coast) and Huajuapan de Leon (Sierra Mixteca). We rented small apartments with the basics - sometimes without running water. There is a great shortage of water in Oaxaca. I've eaten just about everything from iguana to crickets - both which I liked, surprisingly.
USASN: What was the hardest thing to get adjusted to?
Benji: To transfer my personality in English to Spanish, which I'm trying to do now, but in reverse (haha!).
USASN: Share the story about the gang in the park that harassed you and challenged you to dance - or risk your health and well-being.
Benji: Well they insulted me and my companion at the time. They were break-dancing. I said to their leader that he could only dance "2-3" - which mean not so great. So he wanted to see if I could do better. I challenged him and beat him in a minute. Then I said (as a reward for my having out-danced him) that he had to hear a message from me about God. As a result of that, one of his friends has completely changed his life and will be serving a mission in a few months, just like I did. There are others from that group who are currently making that great change as well. The Lord really protected us that day. There were enough gang members to kill my companion and I both! Haha!
USASN: Besides the obvious religious teaching you were engaged in on behalf of the Mormon faith, what are some of your most satisfying accomplishments.
Benji: Well, those were my biggest accomplishments. Nothing else compares in terms of accomplishments. But it's not a "Mormon" thing, its about people accepting Christ in their lives. To see someone change their life and be a better person, even in the slightest is the greatest satisfaction there is (for me).
USASN: What was it like when you first saw your folks after being separated for two full years?
Benji: Unbelievably exciting and nervous and weird and comfortable. I just remember hiding behind a door so they couldn't see me. I jumped out and practically knocked them down while hugging the three of them - meaning my mom, dad and sister. It was wonderful!!!
USASN: How had America changed since you left?
Benji: Oh man!!! I don't think that America has necessarily changed as much as my point of view in life has changed. People in America attend to 99.9% of things that don't hold anything of true importance, whereas the people in Mexico are a little more in-tune with what is really important. While we Americans get lost on money, jobs, fashion, technology, I find that very few ever take the time to even be with their kids. Our worries are so focused on selfish needs and I felt it immediately when I returned and passed through the Dallas airport - my first step on American soil in 2 years. The conversations and magazines were different. It was an entirely different feeling.
USASN: What message do you have for your thousands of fans across the country?
Benji: I have fans? Wow that's awesome!!! Well, I really thank all the wonderful people who have made it possible for me to reach my dreams in serving a Mission. It has changed my life for the better. I know that God lives and that people are hurting out there. They are our brothers and sisters. We need to be doing something for them.
I am now in the process of starting a non-profit charitable organization called "D.E.M.A.N.D." - "Dancers Everywhere Making A Needed Difference". Stay tuned and help us out!!! I love you guys!!!!!
July, 2006 footnote: Benji is now competing as a Top Ten Finalist on the hit Fox Television Show, "So You Think You Can Dance". To receive updates on the show, to follow Benji's dance career and to learn more about West Coast Swing, click below to join the USA Swing Net.
ŠUSA Swing Net