After 12 seasons, the ABC television show Dancing with the Stars has brought ballroom dancing from relative obscurity to center stage. The program features celebrities, ranging from actress Kirstie Alley to pro football star Hines Ward, who perform new dance routines for a panel of judges. But at UVA, students have known about the enjoyment and challenges of ballroom dancing for years. “It’s different from other socially acceptable forms of fun, almost a sort of alternate universe,” says Ellen Janssen (Col ’12), co-president of UVA’s Ballroom Dance Club. But she’s quick to insist that this is not your grandmother’s stuffy pastime. Instead, she says, it’s so athletically challenging that losing a toenail is expected.
“At first, it’s all about hearing the beats,” says Tuong-Anh Pham (Col ’12). Dancers learn to move to the music before learning a syllabus—the set of steps that defines a particular dance. Basic understanding of a syllabus takes months—years for competition-level mastery—but eventually, says Janssen, dance “becomes more of a free art than a guided one.”
Ballroom dancing may seem a far cry from the stereo-thumping college party, but it can’t escape today’s pop charts. “You can cha-cha to just about every song on the radio right now,” says Pham. “Lady GaGa is mostly cha-cha,” adds Janssen. “When a new song comes [out], you innately listen—it’s easy to figure out the beats.”
Figuring it all out is made much easier by an outstanding teacher. Lee Santos, club coach since 2002, is a former world-class professional ballroom dancing champion. He and his wife, Peggy, have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and danced at Madison Square Garden. “The enthusiasm I see in the new dancers as they gain confidence is infectious,” says Santos. “It’s also rewarding to see the students continue the pursuit of dance after graduation.”