For dance couples, it’s a delicate balance
Romance can undo a duo in competitive ballroom dancing
Alon Gilin brushes an eyelash off Maria Shalvarova’s cheek. It’s moments after the Latin ballroom dancers have made their public debut as partners at the Toronto dance festival Fall for Dance North.
Sharing a banquette at the Sony Centre last month, they were retracing the steps (dance and otherwise) that led them to form this new duo, leaving previous competition-winning partnerships in the dust.
Since 2011, Shalvarova, 22, had danced with Danik Kutuzov, winning competitions including the Canadian Latin American Dance Championships three times. But the closeness of their ballroom partnership was ultimately its undoing. “He developed feelings for me that weren’t reciprocal,” she says.
Gilin was romantically involved with his former partner, Anastasia Trutneva, with whom he danced from the ages of 13 through 23. They fell in love off the dance floor, but “it was a very bad breakup,” says Gilin, now 26.
“I think her priorities changed and she wasn’t into the dance and I was still in it. It wasn’t clicking anymore after we broke up the relationship.”
Such is the challenge of a competitive activity that can only be done in pairs.
Also, a key to winning is conveying sexual chemistry.
While Gilin and Shalvarova are a couple in dance only, about 50 per cent of ballroom dance partnerships are romantic as well as professional, estimates Zbyszek Swirski, who runs the popular dance website DanceSportInfo.net.
But even without romance coming into it, the lifespan of ballroom partnerships has shortened. “There is much more fluctuation going on,” says Brigitt Mayer, one of the directors of the National Dance Council of Canada and a frequent ballroom judge.
“Get success right away. If it doesn’t happen right away, go to the next partner, hoping that it works better. Which is not advisable,” Mayer says.
“A dance partnership is something that needs to grow.”
Margaret Law, board member for non-profit ballroom dance association Ontario Dancesport, estimates that a new partnership might last about three years: enough time for a duo to sense how far they can go on the international ballroom circuit. Without trophies, one or both partners could develop a wandering eye.
DanceSportInfo currently has 191 listings soliciting new partners, searchable by variables such as nationality, height and age. Sites such as Swirski’s are now crucial tools that dancers use to find partners.
Once they’ve connected, the partners will co-ordinate a tryout, which could involve one partner flying to another country with no guarantee of generating heat on the dance floor. Before Gilin partnered with Shalvarova, he had dancers coming to Canada from around the world to try out with him.
“It just wasn’t feeling right,” he says. “It’s also very difficult to find the right partner at a high level.”
Word-of-mouth among coaches remains crucial to creating new partnerships, even as social media has brought the international ballroom community together.
“They work with the couples and they know what’s going on, whether they are happy or unhappy,” says Mayer.
“Today it seems people only come together because of the dancing. Often in the past you have couples that are also couples in life. They were married, got married maybe because of the dancing.”
The downside of marrying for dance is that when the magic goes out of the dance partnership it can take the spark from the romantic relationship, too.
“Usually if they are really devoted to dancing competitions, they think this is more important than family or relationships,” says Law. “If the dance partnership doesn’t work, the marriage will fall apart.”
Changing partners can be a delicate process. While Shalvarova announced a split from her partner before she tried out with Gilin, there is often an element of treachery in the transition, according to Law.
“Sometimes there are detectives going around to studios and saying, ‘I saw A was dancing with B on that floor,’ ” she says. “And that would go around and go back to A’s partner’s ear and then they split. This is the worst scenario.
“It usually happens with a little bit of hard feelings. One would like to split and the other one doesn’t. It’s almost like lovers splitting.”
But Law argues all is fair in love and in the ballroom. “It’s a sport,” she says. “It’s not a relationship. The only target is to win.” Shalvarova and Gilin will perform at the Dance Masters Dance Studio Autumn Showcase at 260 Edgeley Blvd., Unit 26, Vaughan, Ont., at 5 p.m. on Nov. 27. All tickets $10.
Alon Gilin and Maria Shalvarova are a dance couple only.
New Canadian ballroom duo Maria Shalvarova and Alon Gilin each left successful partnerships that were unravelled by romantic feelings.
Shalvarova and Gilin made their public debut as partners last month.