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Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando
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An Exhilarating Weekend of Surprises and Upsets: The United States National Dancesport Championships 2007

by Tonya Plank
September 9, 2007
Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando
6300 Hollywood Way
Orlando, FL 32819
407-503-9276 or 866-360-7395
United States Dance Championships
It was one of the most momentous national professional ballroom championships in recent history. This year's competitions, held from September 5th through 9th in Orlando, Florida, saw new couples take the top title in three of the four most important contests: American Rhythm, American Smooth, and, most stunningly, International Latin.

Oftentimes ballroom dancing competitions are rather languid affairs. Not the actual dancing, of course – there's nothing more thrilling to me than watching the dancers whiz, whip and whirl each other around the floor each trying to outdo the others in speed, technical dexterity, creativity and agility; it is the results that are a bore, as the same people tend to take the same places on the winners' podium year after year after year. But this year, the retirements of two long-undefeatable champions in the American-style events – Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko in Rhythm, and Ben Ermis and Shalene Archer-Ermis in Smooth – ensured that there would be at least two new national victors.

The American Rhythm championship, the first of the four competitions, held on Thursday, the 6th, was the most exciting I've ever seen. Each finalist couple, knowing they had a genuine shot at first-place, danced their hearts out. For better or worse, this event was made all the more intriguing by the gossipy drama surrounding it. Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine and Joanna Zacharewicz, the couple that had consistently danced so well and with such fun and flavor but continuously placed behind glamorous "Dancing With The Stars" participants, Dovolani and Grinenko, had broken up during the year, each likely believing the partnership was not working well enough for first and so trying to maximize their chances for success post Dovolani/Grinenko. Thus, the main competition was between Pierre-Antoine and his new partner, former champion Julia Gorchakova, and Zacharewicz and her new partner, likewise a former champion, Jose DeCamps. Both couples danced with fast, furious fervor. Both were an absolute blast to watch, perspiration flying like gunpowder between Pierre-Antoine and DeCamps particularly during that last Mambo replete with belt-lashing kicks, straddle splits and nimble jumps from both standing and kneeling-on-the-floor positions. To me, it was an extremely close call, but I think what must have given DeCamps and Zacharewicz the edge – landing them the trophy – was DeCamps's boundless energy. A full-length, hours-long competition is extremely hard work, and it seemed to me Pierre-Antoine tired a little before DeCamps. The shocker was Pierre-Antoine and Gorchakova's third-place finish, second going to a couple everyone but the judges had seemed to forget about, the quieter but solid and polished, tried-and-true, 'ballerina-meets-salsero' partnership of Felipe and Carolina Telona, long-time top contestants.

The Smooth championships lacked the melodrama of Rhythm but included electrifying dancing as well. The jazzy, sassy Jennifer Damalas and her partner Tomas Mielnicki took the crown but not without some serious competition from such couples as dazzlingly sexy Eulia Baranovsky and Stephen Dougherty, and charming former champion Michelle Officer, whom I noticed had a lovely balletic line with beautifully pointed feet, and her new partner Konstadin Bidourov. All competitors, many new to the finalist podium, with their clever, inventive routines really spiced up a competition that I think many felt had become a bit stale.

The most intoxicating surprise, though, occurred in International Latin – a competition in which the champions for the past three years, the lightening-footed Andrei Gavriline and his tiny former gymnast partner Elena Kryuchkova, had not retired. The couple who, to the dismay of many, had seemed eternally destined for second-place, the always animated Maxim Kozhevnikov and the inimitably artistic Yulia Zagoruychenko, have continually been ranked above Gavriline and Kryuchkova by the world judges, giving them a higher world-rank. In May at this year's Blackpool, the most prestigious ballroom competition in the world, Kozhevnikov and Zagoruychenko actually made the finals, making them internationally the highest-ranking American couple and, gloriously, finally giving the U.S. a top Latin partnership. Yet, they've repeatedly been relegated to second position by the American judges, a fact their numerous and very vocal fans find inscrutable and are not shy about letting the judges know it. At competition after competition in this country, Gavriline and Kryuchkova have received embarrassingly loud boos at the announcement of their first-place finish. It's no surprise to me Kozhevnikov and Zagoruychenko have such a vast fan base: not only are they very good technically, but they dance to the spectators as well as the judges, working hard to put on a show, to make dancesport lively and entertaining, which it should be after all!

This year those fans, though ever hopeful, expected the same, ballroom competition results rarely changing as they do. After the dancing had ended, some spectators even began returning to their hotel rooms. Not me, not ever. It was nearly 2:00 a.m. and the competitors were finally called to the floor for their marks. The names and placements of the bottom four were called, leaving, as always, Kozhevnikov and Zagoruychenko and Gavriline and Kryuchkova standing. The emcee called out over the loudspeaker,

"Ladies and gentlemen, placing second IN ALL FIVE DANCES…"

The crowd began mumbling: Zagoruychenko and Kozhevnikov nearly always place first in at least one or two of the five dances — usually Samba, that dance being their forte and leading them to several South American world showdance championships – sometimes Jive as well; Gavriline and Kryuchkova usually place first in the remaining three, leaving them the winners by a small margin. So, when the announcer emphasized "ALL FIVE DANCES," something was clearly up. Everyone around me started whispering, "No, it can't be! They [Kozhevnikov and Zagoruychenko] always do well in Samba! They always place first in at least one dance! How could the judges not even give them one dance!" I knew the crowd was wrong though, I could sense the displacement coming. Though I've always keenly admired Zagoruychenko, I noticed Kozhevnikov was better than usual; he's putting a bit more movement into his upper body now in Jive as the world's top men do, and his Paso Doble was more polished; I noticed he'd stood out more than he usually does, becoming more of an equal partner to Zagoruychenko rather than simply her frame.

The announcer called the names of the runners-up: Gavriline and Kryuchkova. It actually took the crowd a few seconds to process the information. Then they went wild. I've never heard so much screaming and cheering at a ballroom competition before. I felt badly for Gavriline and Kryuchkova, as they were, for good reason, visibly upset, but Kozhevnikov and Zagoruychenko have worked tremendously hard for this day, have wanted this so badly – that hunger has showed in their faces and bodies at every competition at which I've ever seen them dance. Zagoruychenko began to cry. It was worth the cost of the entire trip just to witness this moment.

Also notable in the Latin event was the several-notch jump from sixth to third of one of my favorites, a Bulgarian couple, Delyan Terziev and Boriana Deltcheva. To me, this is one of the couples with the greatest artistry; Deltcheva resembles an inky black spider when she wraps her long limbs around Terziev during Rhumba, or a seductive, slithery snake the way her long, thin body undulates during Samba. Another fun couple relatively new to the finals was Vaidotas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte. Skimelis is a larger-boned, virile-looking man – a body-type not often found in the ballroom world – with loads of expressive energy. The way to the finals was paved for this couple by the absence of former finalists Pasha Kovalev and Anna Garnis, who are now touring with TV show "So You Think You Can Dance."

The last of the four main competitions, International Standard Ballroom, was held on the final day. Expectedly, Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova, longtime reigning champs and second in the world, took the top prize, with the charming Victor Fung and Anna Mikhed placing second. No surprises here: Wilkins and Demidova are truly world-class. If the ballroom world was not so sport-oriented and allowed for a little more artistry and expressiveness to shine through, they'd be the closest thing we have to a contemporary ballroom Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. For as long as they're dancing, I suspect they'll be virtually impossible to defeat.

Spectators and competitors alike were upset about the competition's new locale: Orlando instead of Palm Beach, where the event has previously been held. Such discord is understandable; we've lost our blissful beachfront to tourist-ridden DisneyWorld. However, I found the new resort, the Royal Pacific, perfect for this event. It was large with a variety of restaurants in different price-ranges and a plethora of relaxing nooks and crannies for quiet breaks between heats. It also had a long, lush outdoor walkway leading from the main body of the hotel down to the spectacular ballroom, and they'd lined its floor with black velvety carpet and its sides with posters of champions past. My first walk down that hallway splendidly set the mood for a monumental competition. If only they could all be this way.
Tomasz Mielnicki and J.T. Damalas

Tomasz Mielnicki and J.T. Damalas

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Max Kozhevnikov and Yulia Zagoruychenko

Max Kozhevnikov and Yulia Zagoruychenko

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Jose DeCamps and Joanna Zacharewicz

Jose DeCamps and Joanna Zacharewicz

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank


Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova

Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova

Photo © & courtesy of Tonya Plank

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