“Who’s your favorite couple out there, ladies and gentlemen? Cheer your favorite couples on, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s the voice of John DePalma, familiar to anyone who watches America’s Ballroom Challenge on PBS—but we’re in Studio 304 on Juilliard’s third floor, and the glamorously dressed couples so skillfully gliding, dipping, and bobbing around the dance floor are … first-year drama students.
Ballroom dance has been part of the Juilliard actors’ movement training for 14 years, a one-semester class for first-year students taught by Alexander Technique teacher Jaye Dougherty (a former competitive ballroom dancer herself, and a certified ballroom teacher). “It’s very similar to acting,” she explains, “in that it’s storytelling, but with your body — so a solo is like a monologue, a dance partner is like a scene partner, a dance team is like an acting ensemble.” With the rising public awareness of the world of ballroom dance competition (thanks to TV’s Dancing With the Starsand movies such as Mad Hot Ballroom), Dougherty thought it would be fun to draw on her professional connections to give students a taste of the “real deal”—and the Juilliard Star Ball was born.
What started out as a “sweet little thing” four years ago for the class that is now about to graduate has gotten to be an even bigger event over time, Dougherty says, with decorations around the room, handmade fans passed out to attendees, and rows of cheering spectators who include students, faculty, and staff. After preliminary rounds in foxtrot, rumba, tango, and swing for three teams of three couples each, six couples proceed to the finals, followed by a presentation of awards, adhering to the structure of an actual ballroom competition.
From the very beginning, the biggest thrill of the event has been its thorough professionalism. Not only is the Juilliard Star Ball emceed by the man known in the industry as “the voice of ballroom dancing,” but the three judges include two current champion dancers—Steven Dougherty (Jaye’s husband), who has been ballroom dancing since age 13, and Eulia Baranovsky, his partner, who together hold numerous championship titles and are the 2007 World American Smooth Showdance champions—and Marianne Nicole, a former U.S. American Smooth, International Latin, and Theater Arts champion who is now a national and world adjudicator and coach.
For the drama students, the benefits of ballroom dancing (including the discipline of competition) are manifold, says Dougherty, including “things like team spirit and style and loyalty and grace and graciousness and muscle memory.” She also provides handouts on the history as well as the characteristics of each dance, “so they can get their juices flowing about the relationship, because each and every dance in ballroom tells a different story between a man and a woman.” The goal is not for the students to become dancers, she says, but to become comfortable in their bodies, to learn four or five basic steps of each dance and then “let loose, which is what actors do.” Costumes are put together by students themselves, with Dougherty’s guidance, based on photographs of ballroom dancers they admire or a look they might want for a Saturday night out (with modifications according to the regulations of ballroom dancing, which include a slicked-back “do” with no loose hair or bangs for the women).
The pros relish the event just as much as the students do, says Dougherty. “They love watching the actors—‘Oh, did you see what that one did over there, and look at the story going on over here!’—and they are completely delighted by it.” And the screams and cheers when Steve and Eulia (who have slipped out of the room to change into full competition regalia while the students were congratulating each other) finally take the floor to show them what they might aspire to are enough to bring the house down.
As for the ripple effect—some students have asked where they can continue practicing what they have learned, and ballroom dancing now gets included in the Drama Division’s annual parents’ weekend. “Last year we had 65 people in Room 306 ballroom dancing, parents and students all mixed together, and it was terrific!” recalls Dougherty. Among her class handouts is a quote from Fred Astaire: “Do it big. Do it right. And do it with style!” It’s advice the drama students have clearly taken to heart.