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Dancing with the (Classroom) Stars

Ballroom contest: students tango with teachers

| From BU Today | By By Rich Barlow. Video by Joseph Chan
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In the video above, watch faculty compete in the Boston University Ballroom Dance Club’s first Dancing with the Professors competition. Photo by Cydney Scott

Clad in black shirt and slacks, Leo Reyzin glided through the samba with his partner, dressed and moving like a pro. The pair faced each other, right arms linked and left arms flung backward, each shooting a foot forward and then back in rhythm, hitting their marks like sharpshooters bagging quail. As his partner, in a short, backless white dress, shimmied away, Reyzin tiptoed across the floor in confidently fluid, hip-swiveling pursuit. Catching up with her, they locked hands as she slid, her back inches off the floor; he hoisted her, and they finished with a peacock strut, Reyzin collapsing in mock exhaustion.

Such exertions looked easy for Jessica Lee (COM’13), who happens to be a member of the BU Ballroom Dance Club. But Reyzin, a College of Arts & Sciences computer science associate professor, abandoned dance lessons 24 years ago, at age 11, when he started to find math more interesting than, well, anything. Yet his samba, and a waltz he did with Lee, danced all over any stereotype of the awkward computer geek; the two sufficiently impressed the 145-person audience and 3 judges—Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, Cambridge, Mass., dance instructor Helle Rusholt, and FitRec special programs coordinator Barbara Green-Glaz—to win the first-place trophy in the Dancing with the Professors competition held on May 1 and sponsored by the Ballroom Dance Club.

With eight couples (faculty paired with dance club members) each required to perform two dance routines, opportunities for mishaps abounded. But there were no humiliating tumbles à la Kirstie Alley’s on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, the show that inspired the BU contest.

“We want to be able to spread ballroom to everyone at BU,” says club treasurer Kate Tessmann (CAS’13, SED’13), who concocted the event as a publicity beacon for her group. Members used emails to deans and word of mouth to seek faculty dancers; duffers dropped out after learning how much practice would be required.

Reyzin jumped at the chance. “I’d been watching my 12-year-old son dance for the past four years and missing my own dance experience,” he says.

To become so nimble-toed, the professors—in addition to a computer scientist, they included a philosopher, a writing instructor, and a journalist—endured a grueling training marathon: at least three hours a week for three months, tutored by their student partners. While they were clearly game for trying their hand, er, foot, at dancing, their inner academic sometimes poked its head out during rehearsals, as when Erol Peköz, a School of Management associate professor, had to practice some tricky footwork with Kerri Furbush (SED’11) for their cha-cha, danced to Usher’s “More.” Speaking like a true management professor, he said, “I’m uninsured for this.”

Footwork was the least of his troubles; practicing a daunting dip with Furbush, he was advised by Tessmann, watching from the sidelines, “It’s like a death catch.”

By Sunday night, their waltz won the pair one of two runner-up slots in the competition. The other went to Judith Chaffee, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of movement, and partner Ryan Carey (ENG’12) for their swing dancing.

Later, they cleared the floor for Veronica McComb (GRS’10), a lecturer in the CAS Writing Program, and Harrison Wright (SED’11), who could have out-boogied the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy as they did a confident, heel-kicking jive to Christina Aguiliera’s “Candyman,” their legs swinging as fast and loose as gates in a Kansas twister. (McComb is not a total novice, having danced in college troupes as a Dartmouth undergraduate. She also took ballroom lessons for her wedding four years ago, “but they weren’t anywhere near the level of difficulty that I’ve been experiencing the last six weeks,” she says.)

Other professors had no experience, but that wasn’t necessarily a disadvantage. “It’s not a competition just about who’s the best dancer,” says Tessmann. “It’s about who has the best personality, who can perform the best. You might not have the best technique, but if you’re confident and you look like you know what you’re doing, it’s anyone’s game.”

Outdancing colleagues is unlikely to help one gain tenure, but it can make a helpful impression on students, who like to know that their profs aren’t afraid of a challenge, or more important, fun.

“It sounded like something I would not want to do, so I thought, well, why don’t I just do that?” said Peköz. “It’s great fun. I’m getting lessons from a real pro.” As for all the practice, the looming public dance-off was a great spur, he said, “because you realize if you don’t, you’re going to look like a fool.”

McComb said rehearsing for the competition was an excellent stress-reliever and made her feel young—“until I wake up the next morning and my entire body is sore.” The role reversal—teacher as student—appealed to Elizabeth Mehren, a College of Communication journalism professor, who danced swing and quickstep Sunday with partner Daniel O’Connell (SED’12).

“I’m around these very cool young people who are dancing,” she said of the experience. “They’re teaching me. They’re wonderful. They’re patient.” She enjoyed the training so much that she announced to her husband that they both had to take ballroom lessons, albeit to a “dead thud of silence.”

Nothing seems further removed from teaching programming and algorithms than the samba. Yet “teaching is always a performance, so putting on a show is something we do all the time,” Reyzin says. “And research requires painstaking attention to detail, which dancing does” as well.

Club president Haley Smith-Fries (CAS’12), who danced with CAS political scientist Dino Christenson, saw the contest as a way to share with others an activity that has changed her life. “I used to be terminally shy. I did not meet new people. No one ever thought that I could be a Latin dancer,” one who does sassy, hip-shaking steps like the cha-cha and swing. “I’m definitely more outgoing now because of it.”

The Ballroom Dance Club offers lessons for a fee. It also has two dozen hard core members who compete against other universities in dance competitions. The professorial competition, like the TV show that inspired it, will be back each year if the organizers have their way.

Says Tessmann: “I don’t think it will ever get stale.”

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On 24 June 2011 at 1:23 PM, Rilla Posson Tolmie (CFA’69) wrote:

How fantastic!!! Bravo to all involved! It's so exciting to watch BU's involvement in dance continue to grow over the years. How do I get tickets for next year's competition????!!!

On 20 June 2011 at 4:12 AM, Mikki Ansin (COM’74) wrote:

I want to come back for that!!!

On 20 June 2011 at 11:13 AM, Charity (STH’98) wrote:

As a former member of the Ballroom Dance Club, I just want to say "great job!" to the current members who developed this program. It looked like it was a great experience for everyone. I very much enjoyed being part of the club when I was a grad student at BU and am glad to know that the club has prospered.

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