“What do you miss most about it—about ballroom?” I asked.
“I don’t miss competing,” she said immediately. “And I guess I don’t really miss teaching, either.” She glanced at the pool, full of elementary-schoolers strengthening their swimming skills, to see how her daughter was doing. “I do miss the practice, though. It was nice to go to the studio and just work on dance for a few hours. The other thing I miss, and I get it a little bit from teaching in a different field, is seeing those aha! moments from others. It was really rewarding to see people struggle at something and then make a breakthrough. You could see it on their face.”
I’d met Katie at the University of Minnesota on several occasions and through conversation learned that she’d been a professional ballroom dancer before going back to school at the U. Further talk led me to believe that she would have a unique perspective on all things ballroom; after tracking her down at the pool, I’d like to think I guessed right. You be the judge!
Keep in mind that, due to anthropological ethics, names and pertinent information have been altered in ways that do not affect the main content of the story.
Katie got her start dancing here in good old Minneapolis. After teaching ballet at a small operation, she tried out for and got a position at a Fred Astaire dance studio and began her ballroom journey. After a few years there, while dancing at the Twin Cities Open, she was noticed by a coach who asked if she’d like to go down to Florida to try partnering with a pro he was working with. This was where her experience really took off.
“I went down there and started dancing, and I loved it! I was working for Arthur Murray Dance Studios at that time,” Katie said. She went on to explain how her days went. “I’d have to be at meetings at 10:00, which would go for a while. I’d have to grab lunch and be ready to teach at 1:00. After that, I’d work out, eat dinner, and practice.”
Things weren’t all good in the dance world, however. “I partied a lot,” she told me. There was also an ever-present pressure to lose weight. In a previous conversation I’d had with Katie, I distinctly remember her saying she smoked and took diet pills to curb her appetite. Still, she couldn’t get down to a desirable weight. Eventually she burned out.
Katie moved north and left the ballroom world behind for the birth of her daughter, Carly. “Florida was not where I wanted to raise my family,” she said. “I started working at a fitness place in Minneapolis, and one day a friend said he needed some help teaching a dance class.” She paused to laugh. “I ended up teaching that class after a few weeks, and I was back into dance!” She started her own small dance company and would teach at studios across the Twin Cities.
One thing she mentioned repeatedly was how much she liked the people of the Twin Cities dance scene. “They’re just good people!” she said on several occasions. “If I was teaching and Carly was with me, you know, people would play with her, or help out. It was really nice. The Twin Cities just have great people.”
Her next big life event came in the form of a husband and second daughter, Brittany. She told a great story about her second daughter’s birth:
“Well, the baby was several days overdue, and I was ready for her to just be out of there! So what did we do?” She laughed. “We went salsa dancing! I got my mom, her friend, and some students, and we went out dancing to see if some salsa would convince her to come out. It didn’t work, unfortunately. She did come a few days later, though. She was definitely a dance baby!”
With the addition of the third and fourth members of her family, Katie decided that dance coaching would take too much time away from her family, so she dissolved the company and went back to school. Several years later, here we were, poolside, talking about dance.
When I asked what it was like to be a professional dancer, she replied, “It’s sexy, glamorous, fun, and exciting. However, everybody wants to get to heaven; they just don’t want to die to get there.”
“I didn’t have the determination to be a championship dancer,” she told me, flat out. “To go pro, you need to be dedicated, consistent, and motivated. You need to be a self-starter. Young women, especially, take care of your bodies and personal space.”
“Oh! And don’t date your dance partners!” she said with a wry smile.
“What would you say to someone thinking of going pro?” I asked.
“Stay amateur!” she said with a laugh. “If you insist on going pro, just know how much dedication and self-motivation it takes. Dance is different when it’s your job. I think it lost some of the fun for me. I’m looking forward to returning as an amateur in the future. Have an independent source of income and just do it for fun.”
Talking with Katie, it’s clear that she misses dancing, but there are parts of her experience with ballroom that she wishes were different. No two dance experiences are the same, but it seems to me that we all go through difficulties in the journey.
“What else do you miss about it?” I asked her.
“I guess I miss seeing people change and develop. Marriages rekindled, you know? A couple would come in and you could tell the communication wasn’t there. But after a while you could see the connection change and there was more understanding on both sides of the partnership. That was great. And I also liked working with the aging women, empowering them. It’s so easy in our culture to go, as a woman, from sexy to unnoticed as we age. I liked helping women find that feeling again, and to be comfortable in their bodies as they danced.”