Stella Sick wanted her boys to learn to dance. She believed it could not only teach her sons athleticism and grace, but how to work with a partner and talk to members of the opposite sex. “I think dance is a necessary social grace,” says Sick. “It teaches them about music and making a one-on-one connection with a partner that I think they miss in group sports.” She signed Alexander and Jordan up for a suburban dance class when they were 6 and 5 years old. “It was my boys in a sea of pink and little girls,” Sick says. So she set out to look for another, more encouraging option.
When she came to check out Dance With Us America at the Southdale Shopping Center, she saw something that made her realize this dance studio was the right place for her sons. “I walked in and I saw boys. There were boy teachers and boy dancers and they were all working really, really hard,” Sick says. “I thought this would be a great thing for my children to see.”
Gene Bersten is a co-owner, professional dancer, and undoubtedly one of the stars of Dance with Us America. His mother, like Sick, enrolled Gene and his brother Alan in dance when they were pre-teens. “It was the worst thing ever and I hated it,” says Bersten. “I was made fun of in school and kids would ask why I was in dance and why I didn’t just quit. I told them, ‘Obviously you’ve never met my parents.’ ” He started competing at age 13 and now has several national titles and appearances on television to his credit. “Now I ask my mom, why didn’t you start me sooner in dance?”
Gene Bersten is one of those people made for the limelight. He was born in Belarus and came to the United States as a child. He has a long list of achievements in regional and national dance championships. “I actually really enjoy performing. When I first started, I was nervous all the time, “says Bersten. “But you get in the zone when you perform and the more people, the better. My family is a family of show-offs, so we like the audience.” He has appeared on competitive dance television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance? and an international dance show called Burn the Floor. “TV shows get interesting,” says Bersten. “What you see on TV isn’t always what happens live. You might be in front of an audience and they add different shots.” He has also performed with superstars as well as at regional venues including the Mall of America and the Metrodome.
Alan Bersten has competed on So You Think You Can Dance? as well as on seasons 20 and 21 of Dancing with the Stars. While regular television appearances might add a bit more gravitas to the studio, they require lengthy and often unpredictable time commitments. So, Gene manages the studio and prepares not for the camera, but for competition with his amateur dancers or with his wife, Elena, studio co-owner and a professional ballroom dancer with no lack of impressive accolades. “My brother does the TV shows and I stay here, but we have quite a few people stop by to see if he is in,” says Gene, who believes television shows make ballroom dancing more accessible to everyday people. “You can’t come in and expect it to be like the TV shows. You think it’s one thing, but it’s not. You have to come in and give it all you’ve got.”
No Judgment Zone
Dance With Us America isn’t just a place for professional dancers to polish their craft. If you step inside the studio during a weeknight lesson, instructors declare it a “no-judgment zone.” Gene, Elena and other professionals will no doubt try to entice you out onto the dance floor for a spin. You’ll see a close-knit group of people coming from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. Isaac Jensen, a runner, started taking dance lessons as a way to diversify his training regimen. “I never saw myself as a dancer,” says Jensen. “I’m an athlete and I started this as cross-training.” He drives to Edina from St. Paul weekly to attend group dance lessons. “Dancing is such a big challenge, but I really like the people here,” Jensen says.
For Zhuojing Liu, ballroom dancing packs a one-two punch. “For most of us older women, our husbands don’t dance,” jokes Liu. “So the only way we can dance is with our teacher.” And it’s a fun way to stay in shape. “I used to go to the gym, but it just felt like work,” says Liu. “Dance is what gives me the most fun and satisfaction. It’s good for the body and good for the soul.” Now Liu signs up for competitions as a way to give her dance practice more focus and motivation. She uses each competition as a way to master a new skill or learn a new style. “It motivates me to get better and to do the best I can.”
Drive to Compete
The urge to compete is contagious, and competitive dancers become a supportive family as they train for and travel to different contests. People have individual partners or they pair with the professionals on staff at Dance With Us America. “I have people coming from all over the country to take a lesson here,” says Gene. “One lady comes from Vermont, has 16 lessons in a week, and then we go to compete.”
Typically, dancers commit to a few months of private lessons to prepare for a competition. Ashley Cooper started ballroom dancing as a stress-reliever during law school. Five years and one law degree later, she finished fourth in a national pro-amateur competition in the Rising Star Latin category. “You do group classes and you want to get better, and you just get hooked,” says Cooper. “I think there’s a little prestige to it as well. Ballroom dancing isn’t something everyone does, so people are naturally intrigued.”
The road to competition for many dancers often begins with just taking a group lesson. “If a person can listen to music and repeat moves, then group lessons are a good place to begin,” says Elena. “But if they aren’t comfortable, then try private lessons.” Television shows like Dancing with the Stars give the sport more attention, even if the dancers on television often do flashier, show-dance versions of ballroom dancing. “It is a beautiful, intelligent sport,” says Elena, who has Russian roots like her husband. “You see a lot of adults here in America who participate in ballroom dancing, and more parents are pushing kids to be in the sport, too.”
Two boys who are discovering the fun of ballroom dancing are Stella Sick’s sons, Alexander and Jordan. They are now 11 and 10 years old. They both have regular partners and have started competing in local and regional competitions. “Once you try it, it’s so much better than the TV shows,” says Alexander. “It’s just fun to challenge yourself.” The fun is also in the reward too, when dancers wait with butterflies and bated breath for scores to come in after a well-executed routine. “It’s just awesome,” says Jordan. Whether they went home with a medal, a title or just the experience, they talk about it all with a smile. “Even people who don’t know how to do it try it and then have smiles on their faces because it’s just that good.”