It’s hard to believe that ballroom dancing wasn’t Debra Stevens’ first love.
She stumbled upon it nine years ago, when she begrudgingly accepted taking lessons in the same way some people go on a blind date not expecting to meet the love of their life.
Stevens was auditioning for a role in the musical “Ballroom,” a Naples Players production that required eight weeks of dancing lessons. When she was cast as a dance instructor, she was required to take extra one-on-one lessons.
By the end of the training, Stevens says, she was hooked. Ballroom dancing had become much more important than her part in the musical.
Looking back, Stevens, 55, says she considers herself lucky. For the first few months of dancing lessons, she didn’t have to pay out of her pocket.
Beauty comes with a price — ballroom dancing, especially for women, can be extremely expensive. Lessons cost about $95 per hour, plus a hefty floor fee — a rental fee to have access to a studio dance floor.
But the dresses really can break the bank. They range in price between $2,800 and $6,000 because they are all custom-fitted and made. To save money, Stevens sells her used dancing dresses to finance new ones.
Four different dances make up what is called American smooth ballroom dancing: waltz, tango, fox trot and Viennese waltz. The last is a speedier, more upbeat version of a regular waltz and is every competitive dancer’s nightmare.
“Not only it’s the most difficult, but it also comes at the end, when you already are tired,” Stevens says, smoothing down her lightweight skirt.
When dancers practice, they don’t wear their competition outfits, but rather clothes that behave similarly to their dancing costumes. Stevens wears medium-heeled Mary Janes and a feathery ankle-length skirt that flaps around her when she walks.
Stevens is practicing rigorously now to perform all four dances at the Ohio Star Ball in November in Columbus, Ohio, an event that will be televised by PBS at a date to be announced.
From Nov. 17 to 22, contestants from around the world will compete in the professional-amateur category, and she will be one of them.
She’s not new to competitions, and this year alone, Stevens already has won first prize at the Manhattan Dance Sport Championship and second place at the United States Dance Sport Championship. The Ohio Star Ball, however, is her biggest endeavor yet.
Participants in the professional-amateur division don’t win a monetary prize: Finishing No. 1 at the largest ballroom dance competition in the world is considered its own prize.
Her professional dancing partner, Tomasz Mielnicki, will be at her side, twirling her to victory, both hope.
They met almost two years ago at a ballroom competition, during which a judge told Stevens she needed to dance with a pro if she wanted to advance her skills. The judge introduced her to Mielnicki, and they have been dancing together since March 2008.
“He’s precise and a perfectionist. He has been very strict with me because I pretty much had to relearn all the basics,” Stevens recalls. “He taught me everything, from walking, to turning, to posture ... all the things I needed to learn to step up a level and compete with him as a partner.
“And I’m also very grateful for the wonderful friendship we have formed on top of the professional dancing partnership.”
Stevens and Mielnicki practice every three weeks, alternating between meetings in New York City and Naples.
A marketing professional in Naples, Stevens landed a second, part-time job doing PR for a Manhattan ballroom studio. Her New York City employer pays for her plane tickets to and from Florida, a lucky break for someone who needs to practice there nearly every month.
When Stevens and Mielnicki are together, they practice for six long hours a day. When they are apart, Stevens still practices — by herself. She rehearses steps and footwork, day in and day out, in what seems like a never-ending solo dance.
It’s a strenuous, time-consuming sport, but Stevens loves it nonetheless.
“It keeps me in shape and it’s good for both the brain and the body,” she says.
Watching them moving fluidly across the floor at Dance Life studio in Bonita Springs, one can hardly imagine how demanding dancing can prove to the body.
But when Stevens and Mielnicki take a break, they’re out of breath — even though they are both in top physical condition.
Mielnicki does most of their choreography, making sure that certain key steps — like a pivot turn or a fallaway — are part of their routine and they rehearse them over and over to make sure they have them memorized.
To be the world’s best
Mielnicki, 32, was born in Wroclaw, Poland. When he was a child, his posture was so poor that the family doctor suggested he start swimming and ballet lessons to correct the problem. Little did his young patient know that he would end up becoming a professional dancer one day.
Mielnicki earned his law degree at the University of Wroclaw. But after he moved to Warsaw and started working as a lawyer, he realized that it wasn’t the profession for him. His career as a professional ballroom dancer was a much more gratifying way to make a living, and Mielnicki, now in his mid-20s, says he began practicing day-in and day-out to become the best.
Professional ballroom dancers earn their money by giving lessons and, those who are good enough, by winning monetary prices at pro competitions.
A vacation in New York City in 2003 convinced him to move to the United States, where he did become one of the best ballroom dancers around, winning the world championship in 2007 and second place in 2008.
Today he holds the U.S. national title of smooth ballroom dancing.
Although Mielnicki waves dismissively when he talks about it, his eyes twinkle with pride when he mentions his accomplishments.
The winning dance
On the big day, Stevens and Mielnicki will be judged on dancing technique, presentation and footwork. Each dance is different, and their feet move around the floor with such precision they look like puppets guided by an invisible puppeteer.
Even their faces change with each dance style. A mellow, Mona Lisa-like smile during the waltz disappears from Stevens’ face, to be replaced by a serious, almost dramatic expression, when they transition into a tango. That, too, disappears with the first notes of a fox trot.
Looking at them rehearsing, carrying themselves with such confidence, it’s hard to believe that Mielnicki once was a boy with bad posture and that Stevens knew nothing about ballroom dancing until nine years ago.
They look as though they were brought up on that dance floor.
When asked how she feels about her chances to win the Star Ball, Stevens is cautious.
“I like to think that we can make it through the eliminations and to the finals. That’s our first goal,” she says, measuring her words carefully. But after a brief pause she seems ready to dream a little bigger: “If we make it to the finals, I think we can win.”