Like any European child, Anette Desbaillets of Germany took ballroom dance classes in school. Students partnered each other, instruction was part of the curriculum and, for those gifted enough, there were opportunities to compete.
So when Desbaillets, who is divorced, moved to St. Petersburg 15 years ago and decided to rekindle her interest in partner dance, she called a local ballroom studio expecting she would be turned away without a partner.
"I told them I wanted to take lessons but I had two problems," says the statuesque (5'11" in stocking feet) blonde. "I had no partner and I needed a tall one. I was thinking it was like in Germany."
To her surprise, the voice on the phone assured her that neither concern was an issue — they could supply her with a partner, and he would be tall enough to allow her to wear heels.
What they didn't tell her was that it wasn't going to come cheap.
Unlike the system in Europe, where ballroom dance evolved as a competitive sport with an amateur structure providing the ladder to reach professional stature, the American system emphasizes partner-less amateurs dancing with professionals — and paying a pretty penny to do so.
These so-called "pro-am" partnerships (which didn't even exist in Europe until recently) have combined with a lack of credentialing for instructors, a dearth of media exposure and sometimes unscrupulous business practices of dance studios in the U.S. to make competitive ballroom dancing here an activity for the wealthy elite.
Despite the popularity of television shows like "Dancing with the Stars," which have brought a greater level of awareness and interest, learning to ballroom dance in America remains a pricey proposition.
Private lessons run from $50 to upwards of $200 an hour. For a competition like this week's Florida Dance-Sport Championships at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, a serious pro-am competitor can easily drop four or five figures on coaching, entry fees, costuming and travel.
Desbaillets takes one or two private lessons a week, does four or five competitions a year (mostly in Florida), pays for gowns, accessories, shoes and beauty services, and ultimately spends at least $30,000 a year on her hobby. That, she says, is the low end of the scale.
"Most ladies my age are spending double that," says Desbaillets, who is self-employed, with her own accounting business in St. Petersburg.
Lisa Murrell of Bradenton, a serious pro-am competitor for the past seven years, is an example of the upper end. The 34-year-old personal assistant takes six lessons a week and averages six or seven competitions a year, usually including two of the largest and most prestigious in the United States: the Ohio Star Ball and the United States Dance Championships (USDC).
Murrell, who has a trust fund that supports her dancing, estimates she spends upwards of $25,000 for a major competition like the Ohio Star Ball, and well over $100,000 a year altogether. Because she often competes in "scholarship classes" — in which amateurs can win prize money that must be applied toward lessons, or vouchers toward future competition costs — there is sometimes a little return, but it's not a significant one.
"For me, when it comes to the finances, I know it's an expensive venture and, if it wasn't for my trust, I wouldn't be able to do it," says Murrell, who plans to curtail her dance schedule after she gets married in October. "It's still really important for me to work really hard and be cautious about the number of competitions I do."
A different system
The reason for the escalated costs goes back to how the American system developed — in a very different way from the traditional European model.
For decades, ballroom dance has been a part of nearly every European child's schooling, a life skill as required as reading or writing. Amateur dancers work their way up the ranks, much as they would in any other competitive sport, often competing in high school gymnasiums on weekends. Eventually, through a combination of wins, training and exams, they can qualify to turn professional.
In the U.S., however, the model evolved from the social dance world, geared toward adults who had a greater appreciation of the art and the means to pay for a skilled partner. As a consequence, "pay to play" became the norm and competitions became money-making ventures held at five-star hotels as part of week-long packages.
To add to the disparity, in Europe, an amateur must qualify for competitions by advancing through the ranks, so that only the most talented reach the top. But in America, a fat checkbook can buy entry into almost any competition, regardless of talent.
"There you have to earn your way up," Desbaillets says. "Here you can start tomorrow and go to the Ohio Star Ball the next day; it's just a matter of money."
When Willson Barrera, a native of Colombia and former competitive dancer, first came to Sarasota, he says he tried to sustain a children's program. But though everyone applauded the idea, no one wanted to help sponsor it. Eventually he abandoned the program and turned to a more traditional business model that could support the lifestyle he wanted to achieve.
"Our system here is based on a totally different menu, which is, can everyone make some money out of the picture?" says Barrera, who recently opened a second location in Bradenton.
Because ballroom dance is not like other professional sports in America — that is to say, even its top professionals can't earn a living competing — the costs involved get passed down from professionals to their students. Their own need for top-notch coaching, new costuming for every competition and travel expenses will never be offset by the notoriously small professional purses.
"The cost is part of the business and it rolls downhill," says Molly DeMeulenaere Morgan of Sarasota, who taught and danced professionally for 10 years. "Most pros teach so they can afford to compete themselves."
Creating a new image
The unsavory reputation of some of the early American franchises — which were known to financially exploit the vulnerability of older, wealthy woman in search of attention from charming, young partners — lingers. Even now it is common practice for a studio to get prospective students in the door with a free lesson or an inexpensive package, then sell a long-term contract or a multi-level "program" once the affordable introduction is over.
Getting a student interested in pro-am competition is another way of boosting earnings because it can generate additional private lessons, per diem fees at a competition and an "upcharge" on competition packages.
Sid Pocius, a former professional competitor who opened Empire Ballroom Studio in Sarasota's Rosemary District last year, says there is nothing wrong with a dance professional earning a decent living. But without the media exposure and corporate sponsorship enjoyed by other professional sports — or by competitive ballroom dance in Europe — the cost will always fall to the amateur competitor here. Because few can afford it, the pool remains small and the cost remains high.
Pocius says there are two things that would help instruction become more affordable and valued here: Greater media exposure and more people participating.
In Europe, he says, you can watch a ballroom competition on the Eurosport Channel any day of the week and competitor standings are listed regularly in the newspaper. Here, other than the "reality" dance shows, exposure to competition is limited to a once- or twice-a-year special on PBS.
"People here are not educated, but you can't blame them," says Pocius. "They have no idea that what they see on 'Dancing with the Stars' is not the real thing. If they saw it on the news, it would begin to change."
There has been a movement for years to transform the image of ballroom dance in America from a pastime for the rich to an athletic sport on a par with ice skating, tennis or golf. An overhaul in the '90s that re-branded ballroom dance as "DanceSport," was aimed at convincing the International Olympic Committee to confer legitimacy, make dance a part of the Summer Games and help people understand and accept the training costs.
More than a decade later, however, ballroom remains on a 31-sport Olympics' waiting list and some professionals, wary that Olympic status might relegate their own competitions to the bush leagues, have begun to push back.
Another issue that detracts from the legitimacy of ballroom dance here is that there is no credentialing body for instructors in the U.S. In Europe, a skilled and successful amateur competitor must achieve competitive success and pass extensive examinations in order to command professional fees.
Here, anyone, with any level of training, can hang a shingle and charge whatever the market will bear.
"Here, the instruction can be given by anyone, but the price is always for high-quality instruction," Pocius explains. "People don't know the difference."
It falls to prospective students, who often don't understand the system, to educate themselves about the different options: franchise vs. independent studios, private vs. group lessons, competitive vs. social instruction.
Morgan, the former professional, says it's also important for students to understand that pursuing partner dance competitively requires a financial commitment similar to the costs of top-notch training in any other athletic endeavor.
"I don't think you can pay too much for something if it's something that you want and need, but you should be getting the best you can for your money," she says. "If you pay for a Rolls Royce and get bad service, that's not OK."
Finding a way to pay
Amateur dancers like Desbaillets sometimes have to get creative to pursue their competitive goals.
When she first learned that an original ballroom gown could cost upwards of $3,000 — and that a new one was expected for each major competition — Desbaillets contacted a former high school friend in Germany who was a seamstress. The gown-making and consignment business they developed (Coco's Couture, www.CoCosCouture.biz) now provides dresses for themselves and other dancers while helping with their own competition costs. (The seamstress competes with her husband as an amateur couple in Europe, albeit at considerably less than Desbaillets' expense.)
Desbaillets has also tried to find sponsors to underwrite her expenses, but she admits it's a hard sell for professionals, much less an amateur. Sponsors are promised mention in programs and logos on a dancer's clothing, baggage and accessories, but without more exposure than the normal American competition receives, there isn't much return on the investment.
Pocius says there are "good signs" that change may be on the horizon. One factor is that U.S. dancers, for the first time, currently hold world titles in almost all the international professional divisions. That may ultimately bring more legitimacy to the sport in America.
"They are Americans with Russian names, but they represent us, they live here," he says. "We're getting more exposure to good dance and that can only help."
Meanwhile, Barrera insists it's simply a matter of getting Americans to "acquire a taste" for ballroom dance and all it entails.
"Just like you have to acquire the rhythm, the etiquette, the skill, you have to acquire a taste for the cost," Barrera says.
"Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? It depends on what you believe. This is America and if it is your passion to acquire this skill, you will find a way to do it. That's what this culture is all about."