Three years ago, when I was taking a lot of notes after my ballroom dance lessons so that I'd remember what to practice at home with my broomstick, I figured that the ballroom craze, which was only dawning then, would build. I also decided that it was now or never -- time for me to write a book. And as I wrote, people would ask, "What's your book about?" I'd say, "It's a cross between Strictly Ballroom and Bridges of Madison Country, with a little Rocky thrown in." Many have also asked how I got into ballroom dancing in the first place, which makes me realize that this colorful pursuit may be all the rage, but it's still something exotic, a curiosity.
I took ballet and played a lot of sports as a young girl -- field hockey, tennis, gymnastics. My knees were bad in my teens, and when I went off to college in 1972, I had to stop all those activities. It was my mother who noticed. When I came home for Thanksgiving break, she said, "You're like a bird with a broken wing. But you can't just sit up there at college studying; you need some kind of physical activity." And she informed me that she had made a date to introduce me to Virginia Gross, the cotillion teacher from a neighboring town.
Virginia was a wisp of a lady, sixty-something, with fine hair the color of a Creamsicle with a drop of red food coloring mixed in. I remember from doing a cha-cha with her that she had remarkably firm hands. Virginia soon turned me over to a male instructor, John Adams. After I graduated, I lived at home and commuted to a job in New York; he came up from New Jersey to teach me on Sundays. Virginia got me a second-hand peach ball gown and they took me off to my very first competition, in Atlantic City. I competed with John in the most basic Pro-Am division, called Closed Bronze; I was too naïve to be nervous.
Later, during the Saturday night banquet, I saw the professionals flying around the room and the exquisite beauty of their dancing took my breath away. I was uplifted and transported to another world, a secret world, and that was that. I was hooked. From then on, I trained and competed incessantly. Two or three nights a week, I left work at 5:30 to go to the dance studio. I traveled on weekends to competitions with my new coaches and my new partner. We won mostly golds and silvers. One day, we won a competition in Rochester, and that made us New York State champions.
As you might guess, ballroom dancing was not cool back in the late '70s. It was either unheard of, or if it was heard of, it was viewed as tacky, perhaps even a bit trashy -- at best corny and marginal. But for me it was glorious! Beautiful!! My kooky avocation was my passion--and I had to kind of keep it to myself. Mom came to a competition every now and then. I don't think she'd imagined her gesture would have produced such devotion in her daughter.
These days, thanks to Dancing With the Stars and Mad, Hot Ballroom and the like, it's quite fabulous to be a ballroom dancer. Sometimes I get a kick out of all the attention I get as a ballroom diva with good timing, riding the trend. But I'll never forget the old days. When people ask me how I got into it, I don't try to sound cool or prescient. I talk about my mother, who felt bad about my knees.