The Emerald Ball Is A Certified Gem

By Michael Fitzmaurice, Reprint form Dancing USA Magazine
Oct 01, 2000
"Go Toni!" Go Michael! shouted an enthusiastic fan, or perhaps more accurately, screamed an exuberant zealot, every time American Smooth specialists, Michael Mead and Toni Redpath, circled the dance floor at the 11th Annual Emerald Ball DanceSport Championships (May 4-8).

"Go Toni!" Go Michael! The words reverberated in my ears, causing me to wonder how such a small person (a young, impeccably groomed lady) could generate such loud noises. It reminded me of the power behind the hunger and wet diaper cries of a new born. It also reminded me of a hotly contested Chicago Bulls game in the Michael Jordan era. Never underestimate the vocal power of the devout and the devout were certainly in attendance at the Emerald Ball.

In the world of ballroom dance, as in business, entertainment or sport, some events are more important than others. These events become the focal point of the year in the profession. Results at these events provide the measurement of success and provide credentials for future endeavors. From a global perspective, no competition compares to England's Blackpool Dance Festival. From an American perspective, the Emerald Ball, despite its comparative youth, is one of the top four events of the year, and therefore, borrowing from the lexicon of tennis and golf, a "Grand Slam" event.

Organized by Wayne and Donna Eng, the 11th Annual Emerald Ball DanceSport Championships fielded over 7,100 entries, making it the second largest competition in the United States behind the Ohio Star Ball, the event made famous by the PBS program, Championship Ballroom Dancing. Each entry represents a person competing in a dance heat. Most, if not all competitors are entered in more than one dance. For example, if I wanted to compete in an American Smooth category, I would enter four heats: Waltz, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, and Tango.

Over the course of four nights and three days, the dancers participated in a total of 814 dance heats, not including a variety of semi-final and final rounds. It is like going to a track meet and watching 814 consecutive races with competition at the highest and lowest levels, powerful sprinters looking to break world records and ancient quarter-milers looking to make it to the finish line without scraping an elbow or pulling a hamstring.

Perhaps, nowhere in the world of sports do amateurs and professionals commingle to the extent they do in major DanceSport competitions. There are amateur events, pro-am events, and professional events held over the same weekend on the same dance floor. The busiest day was Saturday with 364 heats danced between 8:00 AM until shortly after midnight. Most heats are scheduled every two minutes or approximately thirty heats per hour, every hour. To many it combines dance heaven and hell.

The highlight of every DanceSport competition is the professional events held during the evenings. The Friday night program featured the Open Professional Show Dance Division. Murray Philips and Cate Caplin captured the title with a riveting, crowd pleasing performance. Saturday night the highlight events were the Professional Open American Rhythm Championship (Cha Cha, Rumba, Mambo, Bolero, Swing) and the Professional Open International Standard Championship (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Quickstep). Jonathan Wilkens and Katusha Demidova prevailed in International Standard and Dan Rutherford and Nicole Carroll dominated American Rhythm on the way to the crown.

The Rising Star categories provided some of the best moments in the evening’s competition. The brother and sister team, Igor and Svetlana Iskhakov, put on an extraordinary display of dancing in International Latin (Cha Cha, Jive, Paso Doble, Samba, Rumba). The diminutive Igor Iskhakov, resplendent in a toreador-esque outfit, spun the svelte senorita Svetlana like a whirling dervish on her knees. The acrobatic Svetlana spun with the dramatic flourish of a champion figure skater executing a Dorothy Hamil spin. I do not know if Svetlana has bionic knees or has some type of heightened sense of focus that allows people to walk barefoot on a path of burning coals or to sleep on a bed of nails. Despite this mesmerizing display of virtuosity, the Iskhakovs came in second behind the formidable duo of Tony Dovolani and Tatiana Logishev. Controversy reigned at my table.

The amateurs did not disappoint in the evening's program. They may not have the same level of technical competence or polished choreography, but there is something satisfying in watching a work in progress evolve. Two amateur couples stick out in my mind as dancers on the rise. The first couple, Takuya Aoki and Mami Okayama, ventured across the Pacific Ocean from Hakkido, Japan to test their mettle. They were probably the hardest working amateur competitors, considering the sheer volume of their entries. This couple did not want to miss a single dance heat. Give us a category and we'll compete was their motto. Watching the young couple fly around the dance floor doing the Quickstep, it seemed that every other dancer was Wile E. Coyote listening to the the Roadrunner go Beep! Beep!

Perhaps, my favorite dancer at the Emerald Ball was a youth amateur performer with dancing in his genes and a huge smile on his face. Benji Schwimmer, the apple not falling far from the tree of Swing King Buddy Schwimmer, and his partner Heidi Groskrevtz, knocked my socks off. Nobody had more fun on the dance floor! These two teenagers oozed energy, winning the Youth Latin 5 Dance and placing sixth in the Amateur Open International Latin Championship.

Sunday night was a black-tie affair, adding a heightened sense of importance to the evening's activities. The ballroom at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton was packed to capacity and the crowd was giddy with anticipation. Three nights, three days and 800 heats later, the final session of the Emerald Ball had arrived. I felt underdressed in my tuxedo as I watched the American Smooth (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz) competitors prepare to dance. The women were breathtaking in their gowns and the men elegant in tails. With a vocal crowd behind them Michael Mead and Toni Redpath waltzed their way to the Professional Open American Smooth Championship sponsored by Josie Lee.

Dancer extraordinaire that she is, Toni Redpath was not yet done with the crowd that she held firmly in the palm of her hand. Toni also choreographed and danced in an exhibition number to the tune of "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" with four men dressed as the dim-witted brothers Daryl from the second of the old Bob Newhart shows. The choreography bristled with wit, charm, and flair, reminding the audience that dance embodies the full range of human emotion.

The highlight of the Emerald Ball (for me) came in the form of the Open Professional International Latin Championship sponsored by Martin and Jane Chiang. I savored every aspect: the costumes, the music, the choreography, the technique, and the competition. With sixteen couples entered, it was no easy decision where to direct your eyeballs. Each couple deserved your undivided attention.

I knew that I would spend some time watching the Iskhakovs, but they were no longer competing against Rising Stars. It was the full-fledged, dazzling Stars that would shine brightly this evening. Louis Van Amstel and Karyna Smirnoff edged out Gary and Diana McDonald to claim the title. However, Diana edged out Katyna for shortest skirt. Neither seriously challenged for most revealing costume.

If you missed out on the excitement of this year's Emerald Ball, do not be dismayed. Other opportunities await around the country to enjoy a great evening of entertainment watching in person some of the world's best dancers. The Emerald Ball is just the sixth of fourteen stops on the 'Grand Tradition Tour," comprising the United States Regional DanceSport Championships. Go on out and test your lungs. Before you know it, you might find yourself screaming, "Go Toni! Go Michael!"
  • The Emerald Ball Is A Certified Gem