U.S. National Professional Rising Star American Smooth

Jim Maranto
Jun 30, 2003

Article reprinted with Permission from Dance Beat magazine

The Emerald Ball was the perfect venue to host the U.S. National Professional Rising Star American Smooth Championship. A large, beautifully lit floor, a diverse, expert judging panel, fabulous music and a knowledgeable and appreciative capacity crowd made for the perfect environment to inspire the dancers. This competition definitely had the feel of a U.S. Title event. Costuming was extra special for this night, the couples looked fit, well coached and well rehearsed and the ones with a shot at the title were exceptionally animated and energized.

Twenty-one couples started the quarter-final and the thirteen judges had a lot of work to do narrowing these this very good field down to a final of six. It looked to me that eight couples had a legitimate shot at the final and the two couples who were close had to be disappointed. All danced well.

Not making tonight's final, but pulling quite a few marks were Charles Paragian & Amy Reichart. I was immediately drawn to their nice quality of movement in closed position and the very physical and expressive style of the lady. I think the man needs more body shaping, more strength and weight opposition to counterbalance her power. Amy should concentrate on leg action to match Charles' quality. A better balance should give them even more appeal.

Also not making the final but making an impression were Mark Short & Heather Conyer. Both Mark and Heather are very fine dancers with pleasant expression and easy movement. I would normally include them in this final, but tonight I agreed with the judges. Mark lacked his usual strong swing and Heather lacked the speed and athleticism of the other girls. A quiet performance kept them in the semi.

Now to the final - and a great final it was. It looked to me that any of four of the six could have won, but I think the judges did a great job of picking the couples dance by dance as the markings showed and the final placements I felt turned out correctly.

In sixth place tonight, happy, I'm sure, to be in this final and well deserving of their place, were Mazen Hamza & Irina (6,6,6,6). I liked this man's clean and minimalist approach to his dancing, showing good leg quality and movement and an always pleasant, easy to watch expression. Mazen is always one of the tallest men on the floor and too much activity would be way too much. This plays well with Irina. She is very flexible, powerful, and dramatic. The newness of this partnership was apparent in some poor transitions from open to closed and some inaccurate timings when they were separated. Their choreography seems to disguise their physical differences and gives a nice picture.

In fifth position were Rick Elliot & Juliet McMaine (5,5,5,5) - another new, promising partnership. Rick is an excellent ballroom dancer with good leg action, great topline and a powerful swing. Juliet brings speed, animation, and a great sense of timing, connection, and drama from her Latin background. I liked them from the first round and outside of the newness evident in some dead areas in the choreography and some "eye-balling" just to make sure they got together, they could contend very quickly. Juliet needs to work on leg action especially the lowering and on closed body connection. Rick needs to stay grounded and oppose Juliet's weight so she can go for it. Body positions rolled a bit and leg swing was not always matching, but I like the potential.

Fourth position went to Andre & Anastasia Abrashin (4,4,4,1). Perhaps they were the most physically talented and well matched couple on the floor. They gave a good athletic performance, getting stronger as the rounds progressed. They were very consistent in their level of performance and look and they have a fantastic Viennese Waltz. They are very well matched with a full use of the body displaying both strength and flexibility. Unfortunately, I think they need more work on their basic ballroom skills. Andrei gets a funny head position when in closed position and their weight is not swinging well together. Concentration on leg action and base power could make them very competitive.

Third place went to Christian Clayton & Kathryn Vaughan (3,2,3,3). This couple has shown tremendous improvement over the past eighteen months and tonight they gave a very consistent, clean performance. Christian & Kathryn produce big, beautiful lines and have a nice swing quality between them. Their approach is classic and easy to read and I find this refreshing. They let the dance work for them and don't get too clever. In keeping with this approach, they need to keep deriving more of their power from their base and allow their big top line to move freely. Christian tends to get high and tight in the shoulders. More strength in the base, stillness in the top and a stronger use of head weight to direct movements can solve this problem.

The runners-up were Jonathan & Melissa Atkinson (2,3,2,4). This couple may have had the best balance of ballroom quality, expression, fullness, flexibility and musicality, plus great physical skills - yet somehow it wasn't enough to convince the judges (or me as a spectator). Although second position in this difficult field is a great accomplishment, they lacked the power and conviction of the champions. Jonathan & Melissa need to work on more foot to foot power to strengthen the base and show the source of every movement. A difficult combination of more leg drive and attack with stillness in the man's top line would keep them from looking too light and two-dimensional on the floor.

Tonight's winners and the champions for 2003 were Troy Baeten & Irina Shalkevich (1,1,1,2). Troy & Irina gave a very committed and convincing performance combining a full fluid body action with light, quick spins and very engaging changes of rhythm and speed. They are very polished performers and stayed strong in every round. Their open work and timing was easily the best on the floor tonight. I would like to see more top line discipline and a more powerful swing. Their choreography is complex and sometimes in trying to be too clever, shape and power are sacrificed.

Congratulations to all the couples and especially to Troy & Irina on a well deserved victory.

Jim Maranto is a former U.S. Professional American Smooth Champion. He lives in Arizona and is a popular teacher and coach.