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March 18, 2010 - Image 14

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The Michigan Daily, 2010-03-18

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4B - Thursday, Marchl18, 2010

The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

BALLROOM
From Page 1B

"It's kind of like speed dat-
ing, but it's speed dancing," Lian
explained. "Everybody who
needs a partner gets in the same
room and you kind of go through
everybody, talk with them for
about a minute just to see if you
can match up your interests in
terms of, like, how much you want
to practice, and commitment lev-
els and that sort of thing, and
then you can dance with them for
a little while."
Though most people join with-
out any serious convictions,
they're often captivated by how
much fun ballroom is and quickly
find themselves competing against
- and often beating - the danc-
ers who impressed them as new-
comers. Ballroom Dance Team
President and recent 'U' alum Alex
Rowan is one of the best dancers
on the team, but he has only been
dancing for two and a half years.
He joined in his junior year upon
transferring to the University.
"Someone invited me to the
Welcome Week lessons that are
hosted every fall to recruit new
members and they kind ofspark
an interest," Rowan said. "I didn't
know what ballroom dancing
was. You know, you'd heard of the
dances like the waltz ... but you've
never, like, physically done them."
Rowan is now president of one
of the best collegiate ballroom
dance teams in the country and
consistently takes first place at
national competitions.
The sport of
ballroom dance
It's Feb. 13, the night of the 10th
Annual University of Michigan
Ballroom Dance Competition, and
the bleachers at the Saline Middle
School gymnasium are full of spec-
tators and fans of ballroom. Color-
ful gowns trail serenely behind
the couples as they not only move
to the music but become a part of
it. The dancers' body language
expresses their obvious joy to be on
the floor, making the scene all the
more exquisite. The sheer beauty
of their movement makes it easy to
forget this isn't just a performance
for an audience to admire - that
the romantic and elegant imagery
is only a small part of the evening.
The competition is akin to a
large sporting event, but instead
of two large basketball players tip-
ping off to begin the game, Tchai-
kovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers"
fills the gym and eight couples
begin gracefully twirling and
floating across the dance floor. The
basketball court is dramatically lit
with large spotlights, and mem-
bers of the crowd cheer and yell
out the numbers of their favorite
competitors. The competitive air
clashing with the grace of dancing
creates a surreal experience where
the lines separating art and sports
are blurred.
"My original interest in ball-
room was because it was analo-
gous to a sport ... I was an athlete
and I saw it was a way of train-
ing your body, staying in shape,"
Rowan said. "But at its very roots
and when you really learn a deeper
side of ballroom, it has to be a form
of expression and it has to be very
personal."
Not only does ballroom improve
athletic ability, it requires an ath-
letic attitude and training ethic
that go beyond that of most other
competitive activities. While most

athletes only have to train in one
sport at any given time, these
dancers have to master 10 dif-
ferent styles of dance all at once.
Every team member must perfect
the basic steps, stylistic elements
and additional moves and tricks
for each and every dance style.
The judges first focus on key
criteria like whether the danc-
ers are in time with the music,
whether their posture is correct
and whether they're natural and at
ease on the dance floor. If these are
accounted for, the judges consider
proper footwork and stylistic ele-
ments for each dance when decid-
ing who will move onto the next
round.
In other artistic competitions
like gymnastics or figure skat-
ing, specific moves are required,
but in ballroom the dancers have
complete artistic freedom within
the confines of the dance's style.
And while figure skaters and
gymnasts go into a competition
with a well-rehearsed routine in
mind, ballroom dancers don't even
know what their music will be
before it plays as the performance
begins. Routines are formed as
they dance, with moves being sig-
naled by small physical cues from
the male. Ballroom routines are
incredibly difficult to compare and
rank, considering that no two cho-
reographies are the same.
"A lot of it, being a guy at least,
is thinking about what moves you
want to do next," Lian said. "Any-
thing we want to do, we have to let
(our partner) know through our

Ballroom routines are developed entirely on the fly in competition.

bodies, thus they have to kind of
pick up on it.
"Many times our leads might
not be perfect ... and a lot of the
times their steps are a little more
complicated than ours," he added.
Ifrecallingthebasic steps, addi-
tional moves and stylistic elements
in front of an enthusiastic crowd is
stressful or daunting, the dancers
certainly don't show it. The com-
petitors are calm, cool and col-
lected both on and off the floor at
the February competition. Rowan
and his partner, recent 'U' gradu-
ate Anastasia Alekseyev, are just as
comfortable and at ease as they are
gracefully flawless.
Of course, accidents do happen.
"I've fallen. I was doing the
Viennese Waltz with my partner,
and she stepped on some guy's foot
and ... pulled me down, and we,
like, totally crashed on the floor,"
Rowan confessed. "You fall and
you get back up and you just start
dancing again."
Making champions out
of newbies
of course, an integral part of
any team is the coaches behind it,
and when a ballroom team consist-
ing mostly of dancers with little
prior experience is as successful as
Michigan's, it's clear the instruc-
tion is spot-on. Coaches Steve and
Susan McFerran are responsible
for taking beginner dancers and
working with them until they
become top competitors. They
have been coaching the ballroom
team since its establishment in
1997.
"My mom put me in ballet, tap
and jazz classes when I was four,
and so I did that until I was about
15 years old," Susan McFerran
said. "I found out about the ball-
room dancing and disco and hustle
and all these different things, and
that's when I got into the partner
dancing."
For Steve McFerran, ballroom
was always a part of his life.
"I guess for me my parents just
told me, 'That's what you're going
to do' - I didn't really have a lot
of say in it," he said. "(My parents)
competed, and then I started in a
class and the teacher said, 'There's
a girl around your age who I think
would be good,' and we went to
competitions together."
They said that after years as
successful competitors, the move
toward coaching felt right.
"It was just sort of a natural pro-
gression ... when you get toward
the end of your career as a compet-
itor," Steve McFerran said.
"If you've been successful, peo-
ple will call you, and they want
to take lessons, and they want
to have coaching from you, and
you start judging and coaching
(it's a) thing you do after you
stop competing," Susan McFerran
explained.
Their reputation as successful
instructors, coaches and competi-
tors isn't just known in the realm
of ballroom. Along with fostering a
team that has won seven national
championships, the McFerrans
have also helped ice dancers Emily
Samuelson and Evan Bates win
the World Junior Figure Skat-
ing Championships, take third at
the U.S. National Figure Skating
Championships and qualify for the
2010 Winter Olympics in Vancou-
ver. s
"These ice dancers have to do

different ballroom dances on ice,"
Susan McFerran explained. "They
have compulsory dances, and one
year it might be like tango, then
next year it might be jive, another
year it might be waltz."
The coaches of Samuelson and
Bates, Yaroslava Nechaeva and
Yuri Chesnichenko, contacted the
McFerrans because of their exper-
tise and experience with these
dances.
"They wanted to know what a
waltz or foxtrot is really like and
so they wanted us to teach them
that," Steve McFerran explained.
"When they go to portray iton the
ice and their coaches put their cho-
reography together, they can use

things that really look like ball-
room dancing."
While they may dabble in ice
dancing, the McFerrans are com-
pletely dedicated to the success of
the Ballroom Dance Team. Susan
McFerran credits "the (coach-
ing) consistency that we've been
able to have with this team" as the
main reason Michigan is often the
best among its competitors. They
approach their instruction in a
way that allows the team members
to practice individually what they
learned in their lessons.
"We try to structure it so that
we're very specific about what (the
style) should be," Steve McFerran
explained, "so that when people
come to the classes, they leave
without any doubt about what
they're supposed to do."
Beyond the weekly instruction
the McFerrans provide, the pairs
meet to practice on their own as
much as they deem necessary,
making the dancers' commitment
to the team just as important as the
coaching.
"Most people put in between
two and six hours a week," Rowan
said. "It's completely contingent
on your own interests and what
your schedule flexibility is like.
I started putting in four hours a
week; bythe end of my first semes-
ter, I was doing, like, eight to ten
hours a week."
Finding friends on the
dance floor
The Ballroom Dance Team is
one of the largest competitive
student groups on campus, with
more than 200 active members,
but it started with only eight cou-
ples. The camaraderie among the
dancers makes the team feel much
smaller.
The students on the ballroom
team inevitably become close.
More experienced dancers help
beginners learn new steps and ask
for feedback on their own moves.
They cheer each other on at com-
petitions, hoping just as much for
the success of their fellow couples
as for themselves. They go to the
studio not just to practice, but to
relax and be with their friends and
teammates.
"(The dancers) really make a lot
of friends," Susan McFerran said.
"You really feel like you can meet
so many people. It's just really
positive."
The friendship among the team
members strengthens their danc-
ing ability as they help each other
perfectthe steps and styles.
"The way ballroom is run here
is that it's very mentor-based,"
Rowan said. "You always have
someone to help you with danc-
ing. You have just an outstanding
opportunity to learn how to ball-
room dance."
There are many reasons people
get involved with ballroom dance.
But no matter what their reason
is for joining, everyone finds the
friendships they made to be the
best part of the ballroom dance
experience.
"It's the social aspect that
makes it fun. And also, well, obvi-
ously the whole 'Dancing with the
Stars' phenomenon that's spread
throughout (the country), that's
kind of given ballroom dancing a
little jump-start," Lian said. "But
when you're in the room with,
like, a hundred other people and
you get to interact ... you're doing

something with them that's fun
- that's unique - what it really
comes down to is the relationships
you build with other people."
The dancers agree that the
experiences and opportunities
they've had with the Ballroom
Dance Team are among the best
parts of their collegiate careers.
"The fact that you're a mem-
ber of a student organization
that takes in so many Michigan
students and, like, changes their
lives in an extremely unique and
unexpected way is something I'll
always look back on," Rowan said.
"(I'll) always cherish that memory
and be proud that I was a part of
this team."

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