By Cinnamon Moore
I’ve never exactly been the graceful kind of girl.
Blessed with almost zero hand-eye coordination and a tendency for tripping on thin air, I preferred to stay away from most physical activities, including dancing. Instead, I opted for books and classwork.
But just because I wasn’t born with the natural instinct for dance didn’t stop me from envying dancers and their stunning grace. Some of my earliest childhood memories are watching “Dirty Dancing” and drooling over Baby and Johnny’s final dance scene.
As I got older, my penchant for dance never faded, and finally, at 22, I decided to take my first dance lesson.
It takes a lot to make me nervous, but as someone whose physical activity consists of going to the gym or hiking, braving something as elegant and beautiful as ballroom dance for the first time was intimidating.
After looking around at dance studios in the area for a few days and reading reviews online, I decided to take my chances with Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Durham. The reviews raved about the dance instructors and it was only a short 20-minute drive from my apartment. Not to mention, they had a deal for two beginning dance classes.
I thought if I completely flopped, at least I wouldn’t pour a lot of money into it.
A few days later, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot cursing my parents for not having forced me to take dance lessons as a kid.
“Breathe,” I told myself. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Total humiliation, stepping on toes, slipping … I shook my head. Bad thoughts wouldn’t help the situation.
Before my brain could catch up with me, I grabbed my backpack, got out of my car and walked inside. I was greeted by the smiles of two other students, both at least 70 years old.
After waiting a few moments, I could hear the dance instructors approaching from the back and took up a position near the front desk.
“Cinnamon, right?” Alyona Karchanova, one of the instructors, asked.
I smiled and nodded.
“Great,” she said. “You’ll be with Vitaliy today.”
At the sound of his name, a young man appeared to greet me, and before I knew it, I was holding his hand and being whisked away to a spot on the main dance floor.
With the main floor directly across from the entrance and in view of anyone passing by, my hopes of passing under the radar vanished. If I was terrible, it seems everyone would have a front-row seat to watch.
“Have you ever danced before?” Vitaliy Starikov asked.
“No, this is my first day,” I replied meekly.
“Wonderful,” he exclaimed. “This will be much fun.”
Moving to the United States less than year prior, Starikov’s thick Ukrainian accent, aided by his quick smile and joking personality, lent him an infectious ambiance.
With his tailored, black dress shirt complete with tie and polished shoes, he was the picture-perfect ballroom dance partner.
“OK, today we will learn a few basic dances and you can show me what you’ve got,” he said. “Do not worry, all you must do is follow my lead.”
I looked into his green eyes, put my slightly shaky hand in his and gave myself up to the music.
A few blinks later, I had learned the basics of tango, cha-cha, rumba and salsa.
And I was hooked.
The intoxication of dance
Dance, I learned, was addictive. While people begin dancing for various reasons, many who start find that they cannot and will not stop. Whether a hobby or life-long career, they’ve fallen in love with moving to the music.
Starikov began dancing at the age of 7. After hating his first dance class, his mother gave it one last attempt at convincing her son to dance by taking him to a local ballroom dance competition near their hometown.
“When I saw the yellow feathered skirts and the black suits on the men … I knew I wanted to do that,” he said. “They were so elegant and beautiful.”
Over the years, Starikov competed all over Ukraine in the standard five dances: waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot and quickstep. He admitted to almost quitting a few times, but after encouragement from his father, he pursued a master’s degree in cultural arts and choreography.
After teaching for a few years in Ukraine, Yuriy Simakov, the owner of Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Durham, offered Starikov a position as a dance instructor. At the age of 28, Starikov found himself in America.
The changing Fred Astaire
In 1998, two Ukrainian national champions became the franchisees of a Fred Astaire Dance studio on Long Island.
Since then Sasha and Olga Bylim have encouraged fellow competitors and friends to join them in the U.S.
“This franchised company presents incomparable career growth opportunities for owners and employees,” the pair told Entrepreneur Magazine in an interview in 2014.
When “Dancing with the Stars” and similar television series hit the air, demand for ballroom classes skyrocketed, leading to an increased need for dance instructors.
To meet rising demand for professionally taught instructors with degrees, many, including Kostyantyn Karchanov, an instructor at the Durham studio, heeded the Bylims’ call.
Soon, whole franchises, like the one in Durham, were operated with a full staff of professionally taught Ukrainian instructors.
It’s a lifestyle
In the world of dance, age really is just a number. Those that learn often find themselves drawn back to the dance floor or simply never leave, Starikov said.
“You see Anne, that beautiful woman in the red dress over there,” Starikov gestured. “She’s 92 years old this year. She’s been coming here for about 25 years now.”
While some of the students come simply to learn their wedding dance, most are in it for the long haul. Whether hooked by the beauty of the dance, the social scene or the atmosphere of constant learning, students of Fred Astaire are dedicated to their studio.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” said Barbara Goodman. “You don’t have to worry about it, but us old folk have to do everything we can to keep our memory sharp. Dancing is wonderful for that. They keep me on my toes here.”
Studies suggest that Goodman is right — dancing does have a positive affect on the brain.
In a 21-year study of senior citizens, led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, researchers found that the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.
Because dancing incorporates different brain functions at once, it helps increase neural connectivity. Basically, as we age, brain pathways die. The more pathways we create when we’re younger, the less likely we are to forget things when we’re older. It keeps our brains ever-improving.
Not to mention, it’s a way to exercise while having fun, which is also great for the body.
“Dance is just good for you,” Karchanov said. “It’s good for your body, your mind and your heart. When people come here, they are happy. Dance lifts your spirit.”
Not just a pretty dance
Dance is something special. It’s beautiful and elegant — but it’s more than just pretty movement.
Those who have discovered dancing have formed a community. They’ve learned to laugh through a quick slide to the right with a glance over the shoulder. They’ve learned another language.
“Dance allows you to tell a story without ever having to say a word,” Karchanov said.
A manager at the dance studio, Alyona Karchanova also came from Ukraine and graduated from Poltava University with a major in dance. While small in stature, her bright red hair and commanding presence makes her a spotlight on the dance floor.
Since coming to the U.S. in 2005, she has shared her passion and experience with her students, earning her the North Carolina Region Top Teacher Award.
She instructs her students not only in the intricacies of the dance, but also in conveying emotion through movement and the mastery of telling a story without opening their mouths.
“That is always my first lesson,” she said. “Making my students storytellers.”
So how do people get into this
The beauty of dance is that you’re never too old to start dancing. Everyone begins his or her yellow brick road a little differently.
Some, like Starikov begin at 7 with the image of elegance in their mind. Others, like Goodman, begin later in life as a hobby.
Jack Wolf had to take a couple of detours along the way.
Wolf began dancing at the age of 10 after attending a folk dance summer camp. As rock and roll and modern dance overtook the country, he fell out of the dancing arena and opted for a career in medicine.
Thirty years later, Wolf continued to feel the pull from the dancing world.
“Dancing does that to you,” he said. “It has a way of drawing you back in.”
He began his lessons anew. Wolf is now retired from medicine and instructs lessons in latin, swing, country and zydeco dancing.
“Dancing in the Triangle (area) has always been steady, but over the past 10 years or so, more and more people have been coming to learn how to dance,” he said.
Realizing the desire for a community of dance, many instructors, including Wolf and those at Fred Astaire began organizing social hours after dance lessons to introduce fellow dancers and encourage newcomers to experience a taste of the dancing world.
It’s a social thing
“I grew up in Orlando, Florida so I learned how to salsa dance in the club,” said Ruth Chen.
After moving to Chapel Hill, Chen began seeking out venues for salsa dancing. While difficult at first, over the years, more places have started hosting salsa night for those in the community, she said.
After opening their doors in 2015, Roots Bakery Bistro & Bar decided to add to their theme of Central American cultural “roots” and host a weekly salsa night. Attendees pay $5 for lessons taught by Jack Wolf, followed by social dancing where they can dance with fellow dancers from around the area.
“People who come here — obviously, they know what they’re doing, but they come here to just do what they love — salsa dance,” Chen said. “Many have the lessons before and then practice what they’ve learned with those of us who have been doing this for a while.”
The result is a community of dancers coming together to discuss dance, whether that be with words or strictly movement.
I think they’re on to something
What started out as simply a personal curiosity turned into revelation. I realized that dance really is something incredible. It’s not just good for you — it’s fun.
“When you’re doing the cha-cha you have to shake your hips like this,” Starikov said, demonstrating with exaggerated concentration — complete with pursed lips and raised chin.
Dance offers the opportunity to constantly learn, whether new choreography, new technique or entirely new dances. There’s always something else waiting around the corner.
Such a learning experience has created a learning community with a niche for everyone. No matter the age, no matter the experience, everyone is welcome in the dancing world. All you have to do is put on a pair of dance shoes and gather the courage to walk onto the dance floor.
After that, the rest is history.
Edited by Sara Salinas.