"I was just doing Puzzle stuff all day, trying to think of ways to make it better." - Davina Pasiewicz

📸: Patrick David - who's done a lot of dope shots for dancers in the community! Check out more of his work here! 

07 | DAVINA PASIEWICZ

2018 was the year to finally make it happen. There were so many times when it seemed like the dream wouldn’t ever come to fruition.

But hey – new year, new studio.

Puzzle Box

The Puzzle Box Dance Studio finally opened its doors at the beginning of this year, launching a wave of new opportunities for the Chicago dance community. And man…did we feel that wave. Less than a month in, The Box is home to teams such as the Puzzle League and CODA, not to mention dance classes packed for dayssss. I’m super excited for all the opportunities coming up at The Puzzle Box, and I know so many of you have already started copping those weekly, monthly (and yes, even yearly) class passes. Level up game strong.

The grand opening of the Puzzle Box was just the latest in a string of successes for the Puzzle Fam. Walking into the studio, you can see some of the awards lined up from dance competitions such as World of Dance and Prelude. Puzzle League and its training team The PieceMakers – the two teams are collectively known as the Puzzle Dynasty – have worked hard for these accolades, and the number of dancers who have been affiliated with the dynasty continues to grow tremendously. It’s sometimes hard to believe that 8 years ago, there wasn’t even a Puzzle League dance team.

Back then in 2010, ReDefinition, NonStop Dance Productions, and Dance2XS Chicago were some of the larger presences in Chicago’s urban dance scene. But yeah – no Puzzle…until a few individuals in NonStop took the first steps in creating what’s become one of the most recognizable dance teams out of Chicago.

Intro to Davina Pasiewicz. Puzzle Box Owner. Puzzle League Director. Coder. Businesswoman. General BAMF. Also one of the founding members of the Puzzle League. This interview with Davina was a great learning opportunity for me! More than anything, the interview really showcases a message of patience and consistency. I know sometimes as creatives we can get frustrated if we don't see the level of success we want right away, but talking to Davina was a great reminder that long-term success takes time, and it takes grind.

A late start?

Davina considers herself a late-starter when it comes to dance. She started her journey as a junior at Niles West High School.

Davina: “I tried to audition for my school’s dance company called Orchesis and I didn’t make it. I kept trying and then eventually I made it my junior year. That’s when I met Matt Pumanes and Andrew Phan. This was back when Andrew only was a breaker, and Matt thought body rolling was disgusting. 😂

As for me…I couldn’t dance full out for the life of me. I almost got kicked off the company because the director said that I wasn’t blending.”

One of the earliest pictures of the Puzzle League! 📸: Davina Pasiewicz

Davina considers Andrew and Matt as her connection into the larger dance community. Aside from Orchesis, Andrew and Matt were also dancing with NonStop Dance Productions, so Davina ended up coming along to NonStop workshops. Eventually, she began dancing on NonStop’s training team, and later was invited to join the competition team. Looking back, Davina can’t help but laugh at the fact she's been dancing with Andrew and Matt 5ever: “Yeah…I’ve never not danced with Andrew and Matt." The trio continued to dance with NonStop for a few years and developed a close relationship with their director, Sonya Bunge. But eventually, it was time to change course.

Davina: “Sonya’s amazing. She's like my mom. She has classes at the Puzzle Box now. Sonya basically raised us all as dancers, but we kind of outgrew her artistic direction. But she always said, ‘If you're not happy then you should go off on your own and quit.’ So that’s what we did, haha.”

John: All three of you quit at the same time?

Davina: Yeah - there was one specific instance that happened. Basically, we really wanted to do an Arthur-themed set and Sonya didn't like the idea. We decided then to go on our own and do that Arthur set. It was me, Matt, Andrew and three other people that were with us at the time where we were literally sitting in our friend's basement. I was just like, "Let's start a new group."

We told Sonya the next day that we were leaving and she was more than supportive. She said, ‘I left my studio at a certain point and you are at that point where you need to explore your own potential. Go for it.’”

John:  Wow. I wouldn’t have expected that kind of response.

Davina: Yeah - that's why Sonya’s so special.  We literally call her mom. But shortly after that, we left and made Puzzle League.  

So it began. The six dancers began discussions about the start of their new group with the mindset of just trying to be better dancers. Davina remembers at the time that their long-term goal was to be the next Dance2XS Chicago. As for the name of the new group? That took a while to come up with:

Pokemon Puzzle League

Davina: At the time we were like obsessed with Pokemon Puzzle League for the N64. We literally played it like all-day and all-night. Matt is freakishly good at that game, by the way. I'm convinced he's better than the creators.

So one night we’re literally sitting at a table and trying to think of a name. We could not think of anything for the life of us. We came up with the wackest names ever. And then like somebody at the table was like, "Does anyone wanna play Puzzle League?"

And we all looked up. "PUZZLE LEAGUEEEEE."

"Our first WOD as Puzzle League was Target-themed."

Puzzle League ended up doing Urbanite and Dance2XS Barnite at the University of Michigan. Most of the stuff they did was lowkey – a handful of smaller showcases and rehearsals. And then...

Yup. For real, for real. The first WOD set for the Puzzle League was Target-themed. 😂

Davina: Eventually we did a WOD. Our first WOD as Puzzle League and it was Target themed...

John: ...

Davina: ...

John: …like. Target?

Davina: Yeah, haha. Oh - I remember why! We originally made the set for Urbanite, and Urbanite used to have themes for the whole show. So you had to literally follow a theme and make your set out of that. We decided to do Target, so we had a whole set and we pretended like we were shopping. We had like a red polo and khaki pants. It was horrible I hope no one watches that video. 

*cue moment when I share the video* 🙃

The Puzzle League decided to open up auditions for the team after that first string of performances. Davina remembers being surprised at how many people came out for the auditions. A lot of big names, too, like Jazmyn Hayden and Chris Xayarath.

Yet despite the team’s growth in numbers, the Puzzle League actually didn’t win any competitions for a while. The team was more concentrated on just getting better and better. But then in 2012, they won for the first time. And then they kept winning.

Again.

And again.

At first, Davina and the rest of Puzzle could not believe what was happening. It was amazing and surreal. But as the bar for the team rose, Puzzle’s high energy sets added an additional element beyond trying to place with their sets.

"At a certain point it needs to be about more than winning the trophy." 

John: I remember there was a notable shift from some of Puzzle’s earlier sets (like the Beyonce set!) and Puzzle beginning to utilize dance as a platform to communicate deeper messages - about issues, about society. It seems like that was a very conscious choice. What elicited that change?

Davina: Honestly...it was me getting into politics. It was probably closer to when the presidential election was beginning to pick up for 2016.

Before the election, we had already performed the “Love is Love” set which focused on marriage equality. That was the first time that we really started thinking, “Okay, we just can't just do ‘fun’ sets every time.” Love is Love went so well and we had such a great feedback. We realized that maybe doing sets with those kinds of messages was something we should investigate further.

I was distraught over everything that was happening with the election. At the time, I was going through a coding program and everybody in my program was super socially conscious and very politically driven and I kind of had to get that way too. I just full on immersed myself. And then - Trump announced building the wall for the first time.

It was from this political environment that Puzzle League created it’s Immigration set at World of Dance Las Vegas.

Davina: I had a dream about the set. Literally the border being the red, white, and blue rope - that was a dream that I actually had. The next day I went to meet Matt and Andrew and I was like we have to change our set and we were two weeks out to Vegas."

Yup. You read that right. Two weeks away, and Davina wanted to change the set.

Davina: Andrew and Matt were definitely hesitant at first with so little time before WOD. But this is how it always goes. There’s never enough time, haha. You have to weigh what's going to make more of an impact, and what's going to mean more to us. I don't know - at a certain point it needs to be about more than winning the trophy. 

For us we had a lot of dancers that were immigrants themselves or their parents were immigrants. So when you're dancing for them as opposed to winning it just means so much more. You don't care if you don't win.

....I mean you care a little bit. 😂

But even if we had received eighth place we still would have been happy, you know? So yeah, there was definitely some hesitance at first, and I was like we have to. And we ended up doing it.

John: And the team was supportive of it more or less? 

Davina: Yeah - they were trusting. Although it definitely was like a "crap I have to stay rehearsals later" kind of moment. Hahaha...it always starts with a "so..." and the dancers go, "WE’RE CHANGING THE SET AREN’T WE?!”

John: But I think that'ss a testament to the strength your team has in trusting each other.  


Davina: I think honestly it has a lot to do with vulnerability because that was our first time doing a set quite like that. I remember talking to everyone. I was like, “this could be a total mistake but I just really feel like this is something we need to do.”

And I think being transparent about my doubts helped. Everyone ended up consoling me about a lot of the anxiety about the set. Like, “Let’s have faith in this.”

And then it went amazing. I remember the talk that we had before we got on stage. A lot of people were crying and it meant a lot. That one definitely meant a lot.

So much so that she still keeps the Vegas trophy from that day in her office.


BUILDING THE LEAGUE: PIECEMAKERS AND THE BOX

The Puzzle League performed that set in Las Vegas in 2015, which also happened to be the same year that the Puzzle League launched it’s first MasterPiece competition and unveiled its training team, The PieceMakers. (Who have made their own name for themselves as a talented group in the community.) 😁 Davina notes that the motivation for forming the team came to size:

Davina: Puzzle League got to a point where we had about 100 people coming to auditions. But we were only comfortable running the League with 30-35.

It got to the point where there are so many talented dancers in the community – ones that we had grown so close to and developed relationships over the years that we couldn't turn away like 70 people. At the same time, it wasn’t realistic for us. I remember we had one season where we had 58-60 people all on Puzzle. It was so hard to manage and it wasn't intimate. 

So yeah eventually we started talking about the possibility of a second team so we could take more people. That literally was the main reason that we started PieceMakers, hahaha! I always want to say something inspirational. Like, "we want to reach out and cultivate the community." But it was really that we loved everyone and we wanted to take everyone and that's all.

And…now in 2018, both the Puzzle League and the PieceMakers are making their home in the Puzzle Box, which is a whole journey of its own. For Puzzle, owning their own space was always a distant dream. But there were signs that maybe it was time to make that space a reality.

Davina was working at remotely full-time and had a sufficient salary. But even with the flexibility, she could not pull away from doing dance stuff and focusing on the Puzzle League. Work became a distraction to what Davina really wanted to pursue.

Davina: I had this - I don't know maybe a mid-20's crisis and I was like, "Why am I not doing what I want to be doing? Why am I constantly having to pull myself away from something that I love so much?" I was just doing Puzzle stuff all day, trying to think of ways to make it better. I started looking into taking out personal loans and finding a way to get our own space. I started looking at like different buildings and I found one for like the deal of a lifetime.

I was like, “wow we can actually afford this. We actually could do this if it was us, CODA, a couple other teams - we could afford to pay for this space.

I started pursuing it and there were a million obstacles.”

"A million obstacles" isn't too much of an overstatement. The first building Davina looked into turned out to be super sketch – it wasn’t even zoned correctly. On top of that, Davina was laid off from her job early on in 2017, which meant that she could no longer qualify for a personal loan to finance the Puzzle Box.

Simultaneously meeting obstacles in her career and the studio-building process? Davina hit financial and emotional lows. She was unemployed for half a year, with no ability to take out a personal loan for the studio. Yet, support from friends and family (shoutout to Keenan Morales ❤️) and her focus on making the Puzzle Box a reality kept her going. And then, a moment that sparked a movement that so many of us were a part of last year:

Davina: I was talking to Matt Pumanes’ brother-in-law who suggested doing a Kickstarter and finding investors. I ended up asking the community to help with donations and the Kickstarter raised $16,000 and then we got investors for $15,000. $31,000 total. 😍 💰💰💰

Everything happened for a reason. It's nuts to think about what my original plan was. I would have been so in debt from personal loans. We found had a second building and it was perfect – but then all of a sudden the second building's owners said that their current tenant wanted to renew their lease, and I was just so defeated. 

Then finally we found our current spot and this one is the best one out of all of them.

Davina says she learned two main things from all of this. 1) She’s incredibly supported. 2) Everything happens for a reason. The community came through in so many ways. Investors, donators, and even the people that helped build the space – Matt’s dad is an architect, and he drew up a few preliminary schematics in preparation for the Puzzle Box. Matt’s brother-in-law installed all the mirrors. The realtor that Davina worked for was one of her old dance teachers. In fact, if it wasn’t for the unemployment and the building space woes, the Puzzle Box may not have become that community-funded space that it is now. And unlike if she had taken personal loans to finance the studio – Davina isn’t in debt due to the support of the community.

LOOKING AHEAD

So here we are. 2018, and there’s a lot Davina is looking forward to. The Puzzle Box is up and running, and Davina is looking forward to growing the number of people that can use the space – not even for just urban choreo and freestyle dance. We're already seeing yoga, bachata, and other classes at the Puzzle Box.

Puzzle League is setting their sights on World of Dance LA this year!

As for the Puzzle League, auditions for Puzzle’s 16th season just recently concluded! (Shoutout to all the people who made Puzzle League this season!) That’s something that is also bringing a lot of fresh challenges for Davina and the rest of Puzzle League. The team is in a rebuilding season, with some members stepping away from the team to focus on life and other priorities. That’s something that Davina is in full support of, and she’s looking forward to building strong bonds with a lot of new faces and incoming members.

Of course, travel is a big part of that. The Puzzle League travels to other competitions throughout the nation as a way to educate themselves, and spread awareness of Puzzle and the messages that they communicate through dance. But this year is especially exciting as it’ll be the first time heading to Cali! #WODLA2018

Davina: It’s been a goal for us for a while, but up until now it hasn’t been financially feasible. But this year we are making it happen. We want to learn more about other communities, especially in Cali because the talent there is off the charts.

To be honest, we definitely like being a bigger fish in a smaller pond, but I think that it’s time to be uncomfortable. We’ve got a new space, and we’re excited to hone in on relationships within the team.

Knowing Puzzle League and Davina, I'm hyped as well. I can't wait to see what the Puzzle Fam will do this season! ⬛