A ballroom dancer’s dream come true
On May 21, Alina and her dance partner Richard Peters comprised dance team #138 in the ballroom dance competition at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, England. A dream had evolved into a goal fulfilled. The ballroom was built in 1894 and measures 120 feet by 102 feet. It’s composed of 30,602 blocks of mahogany, oak and walnut ... and the ceiling … it is vast and magnificent.
“I got to put my foot down at the Empress Ballroom. And when I saw the level of dancing of all the others I said 'Uh-oh, there’s no way I’m going to get a trophy!'” said Alina. “I think they were seasoned competitors – and from all over the world. But my teacher and dance partner said I danced beautifully during the waltz – and I could feel it. I felt like I’d grown into the waltz. Peter said my teacher in the States had really prepared me well.”
That teacher was Christian Clayton, at his Rockland-based studio Swing & Sway. Clayton, a U.S. National Rising Star Professional Champion of the art of the dance, had moved there where he has family. Alina wasn’t aware of a dance school in the Knox County town until her 60th birthday when her son Paul and his wife Mary gave her a gift certificate for lessons there.
She hadn’t taken dancing lessons since the age of 13 when the extracurricular standard ballroom dancing classes her mother enrolled her in concluded after two years. Still, between 13 and 60, Alina kept moving, learning circle and line dancing, but these forms of dance were not the quickstep, foxtrot, waltz, tango or Viennese waltzes of her youth.
“When I saw Christian and his wife dancing at Swing & Sway it reawakened the passion for dancing that style I learned as a child. I thought ‘ I. Want. To. Do. This.’” Alina recalled.
So she began taking lessons here and there in Rockland. Then she attended a ballroom dance competition as all of the students are encouraged to do.
“I tried some dresses on. I watched the dancing. And I thought I could never do that. You know, it was that little voice we all have in our heads that tells us we can’t do anything ...”
Despite her little voice, a short time later she asked Christian if he thought she could work toward competing. Clearly he answered affirmatively!
She started where all dancers start, at the bronze level, but not the beginner bronze, where the focus is learning how to dance as a team, develop balance and rhythm. Alina and Christian worked on choreography for the five dances of all ballroom competitions. The levels beyond bronze are intermediate bronze, beginner silver, silver (Alina’s current level in which she is capable of intricate footwork), and gold. “After Blackpool, I’m heading for gold!”
Ten years ago, she invested in a blue competition dress adorned with Swarovski crystals, at a ballroom dance dressmaker’s trunk show in Burlington, Massachusetts. “And I’ve worn it 10 times.”
Her first competition was in 2009 at a professional amateur event, the Eastern Dance Sport Competition in Boston. Alina danced with Christian, as did three or four other students at various levels, which Alina saif is typical of any dance school.
“I was very, very nervous. But I just loved it, obviously it was nerve-wracking ...”
She went on to compete in others events in Boston and one in New York. Although she didn’t mention it, in 2013 Alina returned from a Boston competition with multiple medals in the beginner level – first place in 10 dances in the International Standard style and six first place and two second places in the Latin Rhythm style ( cha cha, rumba, bolero and East Coast swing)!
Because she’s from England (Nottingham in Nottinghamshire County) Alina knew Blackpool is the mecca of ballroom dance. “It all started at the Winter Garden Empress Ballroom. It is the best.” And she was determined to compete there in what would become her ninth competition.
But it wasn’t until 2016, when Blackpool created a professional amateur category, that the highly esteemed competition opened up to her. Alina told Christian of her plan to dance at the Empress Ballroom. However, he wasn’t familiar with the British ballroom dance competition standards. She sent an email to the Karen Hardy School of Dance in London asking for the information she would need for Blackpool.
Alina said the London school is known as the best school for legwork. The school also provided Alina with teacher Richard Peters of New Zealand and acceptable choreography. This past January, Alina flew to London for four days of lessons, returning with her choreography to practice with Christian in preparation for Blackpool in May.
“And, I have to say that Andy Hamblett – and the YMCA staff – were so supportive, finding space for me to rehearse footwork by myself, usually in the aerobics, yoga or Coastal Club rooms. Then, when I had to start working on the larger steps, I went to the gym.”
She took the train to Blackpool on May 20. “I looked around the Ballroom and saw the level of dancing (teams were rehearsing). They were far superior to anyone I’d seen in Boston or New York.”
And many of the superior dancers were in the 50-60 year old and 60-70 year old groups. “The only way to get a medal in Blackpool was if you were male and over 60. There’s just like three people in that age group among the amateurs. The two men in our school group they got like three medals each and a bouquet of flowers … and I was so jealous!” Alina said laughing.
“There were thousands of people. So many young dancers. I got an electric feeling as I watched some of the professional dancers, heard the Empress Orchestra playing and the audience cheering the couples on … I was surrounded by other people who shared the love of dance.
“I sat next to a lady from a small town in Russia who was just beginning lessons. We were ooohing and ahhhing and I thought how wonderful it was to be sharing that experience with someone from another part of the world who shared the same passion for dance. I feel that Blackpool has changed me. I’ve been energized. I want to go back,” she said, smiling. “… Now that I know how it’s done. And,” she added with a grin, “I can drive on the other side of the road … I am British!”