Right up until Dancing with the Stars, it’s probably fair to say that “professional ballroom dancer” was a thing that most Americans did not know existed. Now, twenty-seven seasons in, some professional ballroom dancers are actually celebrities. It’s amazing!
But most people still don’t know what it means to be a professional ballroom dancer, or even more particularly a ballroom competitor. On DWTS we hear, from time to time, about the competition background of the pros: Val Chmerkovskiy was a many-times-repeat national amateur champion; Tony Dovolani was a World Professional champion; Keo Motsepe was a top-ranked competitor before he joined the cast of Burn the Floor, and later came to DWTS. Ballroom competition is called DanceSport, and it is - among other things - a World Games medal event.
But DWTS is a show about something other than DanceSport. It is not about the real daily grind of working in a ballroom studio. What’s involved with that goes far beyond meeting one client for a day’s rehearsal. Even the long hours that DWTS professionals put in during their three-month series commitments don’t come close to the punishing week-in, week-out routine of teaching.
(DWTS pros have choreography challenges that go far beyond what your average ballroom professional faces, but that’s another story. Literally.)
Imagine teaching eight or ten private lessons or group classes every day, with all the paperwork and organization required to run a business (because most instructors are independent contractors, not studio employees). If the professional is an active competitor, add in all the expense of costumes, healthcare, and travel. If teaching students for competition, there is all the hassle of scheduling those events, with more travel, possibly different costumes, and of course making sure that the students are as well-prepared as possible.
The goal of the teacher isn’t just to get the student to the competition and go through the motions. It’s to make sure the student has a great experience. Yes, so the student will keep coming back for more lessons; but also because most ballroom teachers get attached to their students. They care. We see it on DWTS, in teacher-student relationships that last those three months. Imagine working with a student for three years, or thirteen, or thirty (yes, it happens).
Quite a few of the L.A. Stories feature professional dancers, some of whom are ballroom specialists. The first to make an appearance (in ‘All the Bars on Sunset’) is Dmitri, a studio owner in West Hollywood. He is a persistent character. Partly because I really like him, but also because that studio is such an essential venue for my other characters. Dmitri develops a dance partnership with Michelle, heroine of ‘Chrome.’ She has a background in theatrical dance before Dmitri starts training her for ballroom. In ‘Chrome,’ that training story runs behind Michelle’s romance with Kenji, a costume designer.
Ballroom professionals are front and center in ‘The Continental.’ My heroine Elena is a Mexican-American woman who wants to open her own studio … until she meets Tony, an Italian filmmaker. Then she goes to work for Dmitri. Again the profession is background to the love story, but I hope some of my own experience with ballroom professionals and DanceSport informs the milieu.
‘Mating Dance’ is my other novella about a professional ballroom dancer. Julia is atypical: she came into dancing in midlife, progressing from enthusiastic student to teacher to professional competitor. She is forty-six when the story begins. Her background allowed her to make that risky career choice. And her career as a teacher puts her in the right place at the right time to meet Ray, a significantly younger man who convinces her that age is just a number.
So far at least, the L.A. Stories have all been explicitly love stories. That means I am not trying to delve deep into the How of any given career. I want to provide just enough workplace detail to make the setting believable. I can foresee writing a novel one day that will focus on the daily life of pro dancers instead of on their love affairs. Till then, I predict that DanceSport will continue to provide one of the undercurrents of these love stories.