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 DanceS­

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.

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