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Career Make-Over

Ballroom Dancers Seek Next Big Step

Santa Ana couple trying to turn a shared passion into a living as professional competitors.

November 19, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few years ago, Kathryn Vaughn was a bored bookkeeper searching for a hobby to liven up her life. "It was so dull," recalled Vaughn, who was then living in Colorado. "All I did was eat and sit around with my family."

She took a few country-and-western dance lessons. But then her teacher introduced her to ballroom dancing. The romantic music, stylish moves and elegant costumes proved intoxicating. Vaughn realized she'd discovered not an after-work hobby but a new life.

Vaughn, now 25, began seriously training. By 1996, she'd acquired enough skills to teach ballroom dancing (also known as DanceSport). One of her students was a handsome pastry chef named Christian Clayton, now 31, who had competed in the U.S. Culinary Olympics.

Love bloomed between the two, and they made plans to become professional competitors. Last year, they entered about 25 competitions together, making it to the quarterfinals in some events.

They moved to Southern California, home to some of the nation's best ballroom-dancing instructors. And they began training with a five-time "international-style" U.S. champion, Heather Smith-Veyrasset, and three-time "American smooth" U.S. champion David Hamilton.

The Santa Ana couple's work and training schedules are grueling. They practice three to four hours a day, train with their Los Angeles coaches eight times a week, teach dance six to nine hours a day at the Londance Studio in Santa Ana and travel to as many as four competitions a month. To earn extra income, they occasionally perform at benefits.

Virtually all their income is funneled back into their dancing, Vaughn said.

Their training fees are more than $900 each month and, Vaughn said, may soon double as they increase their lessons to improve their skills. Competition expenses--air fare, hotel accommodations and entry fees, set against lost income from missed days at work--are prohibitive. Then there's costuming: Vaughn's ballroom gowns cost $1,800 to $3,000; Clayton's specially made tail coats are about $1,500.

Add to this an incredibly difficult road ahead. Though most professional couples eventually specialize in either American smooth or international-style ballroom dancing, Vaughn and Clayton have chosen to study both so they can compete domestically and abroad.

By learning international-style ballroom dancing, in which partners face one another throughout the dance and never break their embrace, Vaughn and Clayton will be able to enter competitions throughout Europe, where the style is favored.

But by studying American smooth style, a "Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers" type of dancing that permits the partners to separate--considered by some to have more "television appeal"--Vaughn and Clayton not only will be able to compete domestically, but they may pick up more exhibition work.

Smith-Veyrasset encouraged the duo to enter more East Coast competitions, despite the expense, so judges there would become familiar with them.

The most important ballroom dancing competition in the United States, the U.S. DanceSport Championships, is held each September in Miami.

At that event, the two top couples qualify to represent the U.S. in the World Professional DanceSport Championships, said Robert Tang, a Toronto-based professional ballroom dancer and chief executive of DanceScape Corp. (http://www.dancescape.com).

Competition is keener overseas, particularly in Britain, where many champion dancers have been training since they were 6 or 7 years old. The "Wimbledon" of ballroom championships is the Blackpool/British Open Championships, held in Blackpool, England, each May. Winners of this legendary competition gain instant international recognition. But no American couple has ever won it, Tang said.

Other important European competitions that Vaughn and Clayton may wish to eventually enter include the UK Open Dance Championships in Bournemouth, England; the Elsa Wells International in London; the German Open; and the Italian Open, said Eva Allen, creative director of DanceSport UK (http://www.dancesport.uk.com).

Judges will evaluate Vaughn and Clayton on their floor craft (ability to strategically move along the dance floor among other couples), footwork, technique, precision, musicality and ability to dance as one.

"It's harder than it sounds," Allen said.

Charisma is also important. "Some couples, when they walk on, have the ability to make you look at them even before they dance," Tang said.

But what appear to be elegant, gentle gatherings of couples performing to music are just as much battles as dances. To gain judges' attention, which they may have for only 15 or 20 seconds, couples might craftily maneuver close to them, launching into their best figures once they have established eye contact, noted John Lawrence Reynolds, author of "Ballroom Dancing: The Romance, Rhythm and Style" (Laurel Glen, 1998).

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