A newsmaker you should know: Dance instructor takes integral approach

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Be careful what you wish for is a caution Luanne O'Brien's husband, Joe, might now take to heart.

"My husband made me do it," says the founder of Integral Ballroom Dance Studio in Murrysville, who was working as a registered nurse when they both realized her stamina was sagging.

"I was getting so physically unhealthy," she recalled. "He dragged me to the gym. I hated it. I'd jog, and I'd cry. He suggested a dance lesson and, oh my gosh, did he regret that.

"I was never just a dance student. Once I started learning to dance, I started studying dance. I was a very quick study. Lots of positive feedback kept me going," she said.

Ms. O'Brien grew up in Penn Hills and graduated from Penn Hills High School. She received her registered nurse training at St. Francis School of Nursing and that was her profession for two decades at workplaces that included the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and family practice.

She was 41 when she first stepped onto a dance floor and, as she realized its benefits, she felt she could teach others how to use dance as part of a positive lifestyle.

"When I saw how dance helped me to get healthy, I decided there was nothing I could do in medicine any more," she said.

For two years, she offered classes to individuals and organizations, including the Highmark Wellness Program, at settings such as churches and gymnasiums. Four years ago, she opened her own studio.

"I opened it out of necessity. I was pulled in too many directions. With my own place, people can come to me and I can teach more," she said.

Integral Ballroom is a roomy, comfortable space down a driveway that leads away from busy Route 22. Two perky Maltese demurely greet guests and then quietly retire to their cushy beds when Ms. O'Brien asks them to do so.

"I am so much into animals," she said.

She added that she can't stand seeing animals hurt or suffering. "That's why I ended up vegan ... it was a gradual process."

The studio name was inspired by integral theory, a philosophic approach to life that Ms. O'Brien describes as "a whole mapping system." In simplified terms, integral theory divides the human body into regions, or quadrants, that influence the functioning of spirit, body, systems of thinking or social systems. Personal happiness and achievement derives from the successful integration of those components.

Ms. O'Brien conducts private and group lessons for all ages and has had more than 4,000 students since 2006. Most are "empty nesters who come back over and over," she said.

She teaches everything from the more traditional ballroom dances to the polka and Texas Two-Step. Sometimes students change their minds after they've tried a particular dance.

"All the women want to learn salsa until they realize it's all spinning, and then they say maybe we should try the cha-cha,'' she said.

Classes include beginners, competitors and a social class. The Friday night practice parties are really important, Ms. O'Brien said.

"If you're making the investment, you need to be on the floor. It's the safest place, here with other people who are learning how to dance."

Beginners classes are $10 per class, and there is no contract. "You pay when you come."

Ms. O'Brien is particularly proud of her role as director of "Dancing with the Celebrities of Pittsburgh," which has raised more than $250,000 for local charities since it began in 2007. The annual event typically draws more than 700 attendees, and instructors from studios all around the region volunteer their time to dance with celebrity partners.

When Pittsburgh Steeler Rashard Mendenhall participated in 2011, she joked with him.

"I said I think ballroom dancing is harder than football. I run backward in three-inch heels connected to another body. I think that's harder. He did not agree."

She added, "He was a very nice man and [it] was very, very charitable of him to participate."

She also directed the first "Dancing with the Celebrities of Greater Greensburg" in September, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Faith in Action, which pairs volunteers with elderly residents who need companionship.

In that competition at the Water Works in South Greensburg, several Westmoreland County notables were paired with experienced dancers to compete for charity in dances from disco to tango.

Ms. O'Brien travels twice a month to New York City for dance instruction with an instructor who regularly competes in the prestigious Blackpool Dance Festival in the U.K.

"He takes lessons all over the world and shares his knowledge. He's a good instructor and dancer as well. You just absorb the energy," she said.

She flies out of Pittsburgh at 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning and is back the same day to teach dance that night.

"In the dance world, professional only means earning money by teaching dance. It's not an indicator of dance prowess. There are amateur dancers who are magnificent and professional teachers who are just teachers - and they teach beautifully, and some who are both, good dancers and good teachers.

"I work hard to be both. And do that with my continuing education."

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Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published December 13, 2012 12:15 PM


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