I have always had an interest in dance; however, I never thought I would be any good at it. So, during high school and college I got involved in track and field instead of dance. Due to a college running injury that prevented further track and field competition, I looked around for another group of athletically minded people that I thought would fill the social and physical void I felt once I left running. It was that experience that lead me into the wonderful world of dance.
During my last semester at UC Berkeley, I finally had enough seniority to be accepted in the school's social dance class, where I met Bob Demyanovitch. He invited me to go dancing with him in San Francisco on the weekends. By this time, I was hooked.
After taking West Coast Swing lessons from Tony Genero at a little bar named the Jolly Friar we headed over to the only Jitterbug dance in SF at a place called The Avenue Ballroom. At The Avenue we, along with some other West Coast Swing addicts, would dance to 50's rock & roll music until the early hours of the morning. My friends and I also danced at country bars, discos, the local swing club (Bay Swingers)-anywhere we could. Eventually I began to teach both Jitterbug and West Coast Swing at The Avenue Ballroom under my maiden name of Kelly Buckwalter and continued to run the swing program there for five years as well as teach at other locations throughout the Bay Area. The Avenue was a real hot spot--200 westies on Friday nights and 200 jitterbuggers on Saturday nights--what a blast!
While teaching at The Avenue, I also met a fellow named Bob Rogers who liked to do lifts and aerials. We put together a Jitterbug/New Wave routine for the Dance Fever try-outs and due to the fact that I spent over 60 seconds of the 90 seconds in the air, and we employed every trick in the book (costume changes, props--I blew bubbles at the top of every lift!) we made it on TV in spite of our lack of technique! At that time I also modeled for a now hard to find book (Thank God!) called "How to Jitterbug" (by John Javna) with my good friend Crispin Pierce. I also was featured in "GQ", "Dance Action" and "California Living" magazines. I promoted swing by performing on television locally, nationally, and internationally in a variety of dance productions, news spots, documentaries and videos. (If anyone has any old videos of Dance Fever, I would love to get a copy of my performance to use in my judging seminars of what NOT to do in competition! Please contact me if you have such a copy-thanks!)
During these years I also began to study International Ballroom with Rex Lewis. After five years of intensive lessons, I decided to concentrate on swing, as that was the music that moved me the most. I am eternally grateful for the training Rex gave me and remember him every time I have to judge a cabaret division.
While dancing at a peninsula bay club called "Top of Beardleys", run by Ed Cirio and Phil Trau, I met Dominic Yin. He and I decided to put together a classic swing routine to compete at the US Open in 1988. Against all logic, but with the backing of a large contingent of Bay Area supporters who would soon form the backbone of the now famous "Next Generation Swing Dance Club", we won the US Open Classic Division and soon after opened our own studio, "SwingOut", in Millbrae. A few years later we closed the studio and I went back to teaching classes at a variety of locations throughout the Bay Area and began teaching and competing "on the road". It was during this time that I cemented my close friendships with such wonderful dancers as, Sylvia Sykes (an accomplished West Coast Swing, Lindy, and Balboa dancer), Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee (Carolina Shag Dancers extraordinaire), Angel & Debbie Figueroa (Latin, Country, Swing, Hustle you name it- they can do it!) and Mario Robau, Jr. (a guy who can maybe, sorta, kinda dance a little). Obvious Plug-check out their websites-Sylvia's got great Lindy, Balboa, and St. Louis Shag videos, Charlie & Jackie corner the market on Carolina Shag, Angel & Debbie have just released some new videos, and Mario has some great Hustle as well as a complete line of West Coast Swing DVDs.
In 1994 I won the U.S.Open Jack & Jill Championship with Tom Paderna. Soon after that I retired from competition due to injuries I had sustained in an earlier car accident. Unwilling to leave the competitive scene, I jumped at the invitation of my mentors, Annie Hirsch and Jack Carey, to start judging. At that time, there were not very many young, competitive judges on panels as most of them preferred to compete rather than judge. Unbeknownst to me, Annie was grooming me to take over the position of chief judge she held at several major events because she found that chief judging means you don't get to dance much and she wanted back into the party! As a result, I continued to learn and acquire more jobs at events running competitions. I am grateful to Phoenix's Fourth of July Convention and Jim and Cathy Tigges for having faith in me, as that was my first major event to chief judge.
In addition to winning the 1988 U.S. Open Classic Swing Dance Championship with Dominic Yin, and the 1994 U.S. Open Jack & Jill Championship with Tom Paderna, I have also been awarded several local and national awards for my contribution to swing. In 2004 I was inducted into the prestigious National Swing Dance Hall of Fame and in 2006 I was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. I have been a member of the World Swing Dance Council and have served on the Executive Advisory Committee of the U.S. Open.
In 1999, I put on my own three day national event, "Swing Break", which attracted over 700 attendees. I produced my own event because I thought that some things needed to be changed in the community and I realized that the only way I could do that was to put my own money behind my beliefs. The Learning Channel's production of "The Secret World of Ballroom Dancing" featured my event and includes several interviews with many prominent members of the swing community. "Swing Break" ran for another successful year in 2000, and then I shut it down because I found the event required many hours of time that I preferred to spend with my daughter, Samantha. I am proud to say that "Swing Break" was one of the first major conventions in California that did not discriminate according to age or gender in it's Jack & Jill contests. In the Invitational category I had invited, against the established norms, a talented "junior" named Jordan Frisbee who drew one of the most established Champions, Mary Ann Nunez, and they swept the contest! Nowadays it is not uncommon to see talented and worthy juniors invited into top level competitions-but at the time it created a lot of controversy. Speaking of controversy... Since I allowed men and women to register as either leaders or followers in all my contests I had some truly memorable performances (most notably Champions John Lindo and Ramiro Gonzales). Such gender unbiased contests are now labeled "Luck of the Draw" and have been instrumental in allowing same gender couples to compete in the Strictly Swing competitions.
I came out of competitive retirement at Bill Cameron's New Year's Eve 2002 event back east to compete in the Invitational Jack & Jill. I was thrilled to draw my old friend Robert Royston and amazed when we placed 2nd. It was a really poignant moment, as the last time we had drawn each other, I was just about to retire from competition and he was just starting! That dance gave me the confidence to attempt a competitive comeback, so with the support of my wonderful husband Bob (my friend for 15 years and then husband since 2003) I had foot surgery and am now participating in any competition I can that I don't have to judge!
Although I enjoy competing again and being back "in the party", I find that the joy I receive from teaching social dancers has been a blessing for me all these years and I know that is where my real talents lie. Although it would be nice to be competitively successful, I've come to the realization that the real fun is just being able to dance with all the people I love so much in the community and will leave it up to my oh so talented daughter, Samantha, to bring home MOST of the trophies.
I am very appreciative of all I have learned from my teaching experience, but, my greatest satisfaction comes from watching my students progress. When I hear of the fun that they have in my classes and how learning to dance has helped them improve the quality of their lives, those "invisible trophies" mean the world to me.
Hope to see you on the dance floor,