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Dancing with the (Classroom) Stars

Ballroom contest: students tango with teachers


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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 Sunday’s Dancing with the Professors competition, 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.”

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu. Joseph Chan can be reached at joechan@bu.edu.


17 Comments on Dancing with the (Classroom) Stars

  • Kerry on 05.05.2011 at 9:20 am


    Wonderful story, great event and a pleasure to watch! Congrats to all.

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 9:37 am

    Great stuff!

    I honestly couldn’t stop smiling — that “tenure track” line in the video made me laugh out loud.

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 9:45 am

    “I think this should be required for anyone on tenure track.” haha love it!

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 11:00 am

    um, this totally surprised me… I was expecting something not as professional (I don’t know why). Great dancing and great video!

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 2:08 pm

    OMG! There’s Professor Mehren in her red poodle skirt!

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 2:17 pm

    it is wonderful, but one thing that bothers me...

    It is wonderful, but one thing that bothers me, as an alumna of both Boston University and the BU Ballroom dance club, is that this event has been done yearly, the past 4 years, by the School of Education’s Elementary Education Club in order to raise money for the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. The event is certainly a great idea, and I’m sure with competitive ballroom dancers, the event had a completely different feel than the SED version had. I’m just disappointed that BU Today chose to cover this event, which, from my quick read, seemed to be just for the benefit of the club, and not spread the word about another ongoing tradition that is raising money for students in need.

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 2:26 pm

    one word: Inappropriate!

    I’m sorry, but this completely breaks professor student bounderies. I thought beer w/professors was much, till I saw this!

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 2:41 pm

    not to get off topic, but BU has written about the trotter school before, maybe not in this capacity, but a quick google search revealed: http://www.bu.edu/today/node/5012, and a Bostonia story http://www.bu.edu/bostonia/web/trotter-school/

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 2:48 pm

    this is awkward…

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 3:28 pm

    Go Kerri and Harrison!!!! You guys are amazing!!!

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 3:46 pm


    No live band?

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 4:03 pm

    Profs and students with their hands all over each other. Boundaries, boundaries….

    The profs know this, even if the students are unaware of it. I’m really, really surprised. I wonder if the Chronicle picks up on this, I’m certain they’d have… something… to say about it.

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 5:02 pm

    Re: Boundaries

    To anyone who worries about boundaries, as a ballroom dancer, I would say that there is a huge line between looking sexy and feeling sexual. The presentation of even the most sexy-looking steps requires the kind of practice you can’t do with your mind on other things. The steps are designed to look hot, in many cases, but the people who do them are showing off their technical skill…and having fun.

    Saying they “have their hands all over each other” is like saying that a rock-climbing instructor showing a student how to put on a harness has his hands all over her. It doesn’t really make sense when it’s you, it just looks that way from the outside. Just putting that out there.

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2011 at 8:10 pm

    Congrats to Prof. Reyzin!


  • Anonymous on 05.06.2011 at 1:00 am

    I agree with the previous comment about the Dancing with the Professors event that the School of Education has been doing every year. While it is not up to this kind of standard, it’s a fun event that draws a crowd every year for our community. And the funds for the event benefit the Trotter Elementary School right next door in Dorchester. I wish BU Today and other news sources around campus looked past the showy events and tried to get some information on events that may not be right in front of their faces. As a student, I don’t always want to read about the most popular news that I can get from other sources across campus. Regardless of BU Today, congrats to these students and faculty for their hard work! It looked like a great event!

  • Anonymous on 05.06.2011 at 2:48 am

    Actually, the BU Ballroom Dance Club emailed those in charge of the SED Dancing With The Professors to see if they wanted to work together, but wasn’t emailed back until months later.

    Also, this event was started to give professors the opportunity to learn how to ballroom dance and to have fun doing something outside of their teaching schedule. Nothing about this event was inappropriate, and each of the couples were extremely professional. Is it so hard to believe that professors can befriend students in a platonic manner? And none of the professors were partnered with one of their own students, we made sure to avoid that when partnering students and professors.

  • Anonymous on 05.09.2011 at 1:43 am

    To anyone who thinks this is awkward....

    I recommend a viewing of Kate Gosselin on Dancing With The Stars…

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