Sunday, May 05, 2002

Ballroom dancers inspire competitive culture

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Piotr Witecki and Aneta Pisarek look to the future and wonder:

        “Ballroom dancing soon becomes an Olympic sport, and I don't know how well America will do,” Piotr says. “The style here is so different from what I think the judges will be looking for.” So they're here to help.

        Mr. Witecki, 25, and Ms. Pisarek, 21, have won a zillion international competitions, including Poland's National Open Ballroom Dance Championships in 1999. They left Poland and came to the U.S. 14 months ago, live in Mount Healthy and practice three to six hours a day, six days a week.

        They came here not knowing English and with only one U.S. friend, a fellow Polish dancer who had been in Dayton for four years. He convinced them to move here and share their love affair with ballroom dance.

        “Here it is not like in Poland,” Piotr says, running fingers through spikey brown hair. “There, dance is in every elementary school and there are competitions all the time. We grow up that way.

        “I wanted to be a soccer player, but my mother thought it was weird that someone would want to play soccer and not dance. So she signed me up. I went to please her and I loved it. I was very young.

        “But in this country, we go into studios and we see only adults learning, and that's a late start. We thought maybe we can come here, bring the European experience and make it more popular.”

        When they say “European experience” they mean starting young, but they also mean a style of dance. It's called International, and it's more technical and more precise than its U.S. counterpart, known as American style.

        “We would like to make the International style more popular here,” says Aneta, whose father wanted her to be a kick boxer because of her long legs. “In Europe, they dance only International, and I think that's what it will take to win the Olympics.

        “When we heard International wasn't as popular here, we decided to move and try to bring it along.”

        Which they're trying to do with demonstrations all over the place — Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill on Wednesdays (call first; it's sporadic); Miami University; the Fred Astaire studio in Fairfield; assorted nursing homes.

        Demonstrating, but not teaching. “Teaching is what we want to do. I taught in Poland, and it's what I want to do here, but we're here on tourist visas and can't,” Piotr says. “Our goal is to get a work visa, and then share our European experience with our American students.

        “But we're afraid to make plans for anything like that because we don't want to be disappointed.”

Showing new steps

               Piotr and Aneta are on Dick Clark's dance floor, standing in closed position — facing each other in standard dance position, often referred to as belly button to belly button — showing 25 or so couples a new step: “Places and, 5-6-7-8, two lefts here, four rights here; ladies, make your turn, swing to open, watch the arm.”

        Behind Piotr, the men mimic his movements.

        Behind Aneta, the women mimic hers.

        There are lots of collisions at this point, but after 45 minutes, the couples are gliding along, collision free, to a raging merengue beat.

        “Questions? It's your turn to ask me, no?” Piotr says. Everyone does. He's surrounded as he heads to the bar and yet another bottle of water, though “I should be drinking soda to gain weight.”

        Aneta, her blond hair slicked back in Grace Kelly's ice-princess motif, is swirling around the floor with another dancer, her heels — very high heels at that — pounding the floor in time with the beat.

        “I'm celebrating today, because I passed my driver's test on the second try,” she says, smoothing back a blond strand that got away. “I failed the first because the lady said "go straight' and I did. But it was through a stop sign. Peter coached me.”

        Peter is their friend Pete Miller, assistant vice president for auxiliary services at Miami University. “My wife Leslie and I met them at a demonstration and we knew students at Miami would be interested, so we brought them up and we became friends.

        “What I admired so much about them is the incredible poise and courage it took to drop everything and come here, knowing only one person. And now seeing them as much as we do, I admire them even more. They have a work ethic that would kill most people.”

        Yeah, but they leave time for play. The first thing they did when they got here was buy season passes to Paramount's Kings Island. “We love the WaterWorks,” Aneta says, “but my first roller coaster ride, that I hated. Now I love them. And we love the color and the beauty. There's nothing like this in Poland.”

        Which is not to say they don't miss home. Aneta misses her pet rabbits — cats Loosey and Bombel are their surrogates — and Piotr is finding American food a challenge.

        Nevertheless, their Americanization continues. A month or so ago they started roller blading. “With our training, we ought to be good at it, but we aren't yet,” Piotr says. “Once we get used to the rolling wheel, and if we get good at it, we'll dance in them.”

        And maybe dance in the Olympics? “People ask us that same question all the time,” Piotr says. “And we say, yes, we really want to. But who knows about these things? There are so many questions.”


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