Ballroom dancers step into Pittsburgh contest

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When Gerry LaVan saw Buzz Aldrin competing on "Dancing With the Stars" it gave him the push he needed to try ballroom dancing.

 "I thought, 'This guy is 80 years old, and if he can do this, I can do this,' " said Mr. LaVan, 72, chairman of Pure Ballroom.

Four years ago, he started taking lessons at Art & Style Dance Studio on the South Side to learn how to dance socially. On Saturday he will be competing in the fourth annual Steel City Classic DanceSport amateur ballroom dancing competition in the Cathedral Room at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland.

Ballroom dancing partners show off their technique

Myra Woods and Gerry LaVan talk about their love of ballroom dancing and the upcoming Steel City Classic DanceSport competition. (Video by Sara Payne; 2/5/2014)

"The thing we like most about the Steel City Classic is it's really about the amateurs -- just plain, ordinary people who have taken lessons or just think they're good enough to go on the floor and for the next minute and 45 seconds show what they can do," Mr. LaVan said.

The Steel City Classic is organized by Pure Ballroom, a nonprofit set up by members of the studio to promote ballroom dancing, and Art & Style Dance owners Terry and Rozana Sweeney. The couple are retired professional ballroom dancers who now teach their craft to students at the studio.

"Our goal is to put Pittsburgh on the map of amateur dancing," Ms. Sweeney said.

The competition starts at 9 a.m. with beginners; advanced, or open, dancers compete in the evening. Professionals from around the country will be judging the event. Some will also be teaching workshops on Friday night.

Kelly Photopoulos, whose children dance at the studio, said open dancers will incorporate more speed and tricks, but they won't emulate what's shown on "Dancing With the Stars." Her daughter will be competing this weekend, and she says her son, who has Asperger's syndrome, has benefited from taking lessons.

Steel City Classic DanceSport
Where: Cathedral Room at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Oakland.
When: Competition begins 8 a.m. Saturday. Workshops offered Friday at 5:15, 6 and 7 p.m. in the Rangos Ballroom at Carnegie Mellon University. A dance social will follow workshops at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20 or $15 for children and students with ID at the door or online.

The most noticeable difference between a real contest and what is often seen on reality television is ballroom dance competitions have more than one couple on the floor at the same time. Spectators might find this more interesting to watch, but it can be difficult for dancers. They have about 90 seconds for each dance, and their moves can easily be disrupted while they navigate around other dancers on the floor.

"You have to be good at floor craft when you're out there and there are that many people moving," Ms. Photopoulos said. "You're doing your choreography, and they're doing different choreography, and you're all trying not to run into one another."

While the organizers want to attract more dancers to Pittsburgh, Ms. Sweeney said they also are interested in bringing more spectators to the competition. People do not have to feel obligated to come at the start of the event or stay all day.

The popularity of ballroom dancing is growing, largely because of the personal interaction it offers, Mr. LaVan said.

"I think so much of our time, effort and energy today is sitting at computers or texting, and it's strange when you're holding another person in your arms and you're dancing with them," he said. "It's really an interesting experience."

Locally, some of the people who dabble in dance as a hobby are doctors or lawyers who are trying to relieve the stress of their professions.

"They say this is their time to spend with their significant other because they don't get that usually," Ms. Sweeney said. "It's a great way to get away from everyday problems."


Sara Payne:

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