For fleet-footed Ryan Lewis and partner Natalia Fridmanovich, ballroom dancing is still an underground gay scene in Dallas
JEF TINGLEY | Contributing Writer
For those of us with two left feet, just the words “foxtrot” and “cha-cha” can induce panic attacks and sweaty palms. Dancing is like public speaking to a beat: It’s a deep fear, the kind that can’t be erased — even by images of a Dirty Dancing-era Patrick Swayze as your partner.
But according to professional gay rug cutter Ryan Lewis, ballroom dance doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be a place where you can find your inner Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers … or maybe a combination of both.
“The gay community has many outlets [for people] to participate in and express themselves whether it be sports, clubs, politics or the art scene,” says Lewis. “However, as a gay man, I realize that some of these opportunities are not well known. [My dance partner] Natalia and I feel that ballroom dance is a perfect fit…While the community has plenty for someone to feel comfortable with their sexuality on a Friday night, I wished, when I was coming out, there were more avenues for me to be comfortable in my own skin, as well as [to] participate in activities alongside the heterosexual world.”
Lewis has been training and competing for more than 13 years in international Latin and standard dance, specializing in international Latin for the past eight years. Last June, after trying out with other dancers on the competitive circuit, he made a visceral connection with Natalia Fridmanovich, a Russian native who began dancing in her father’s studio at age 11. Fridmanovich holds titles that include Eastern Russia ballroom champion. After she relocated to North Texas, she and Lewis started dancing together and have been a team ever since.
Last month, Lewis and Fridmanovich traveled to Italy for the Italian Open, an international ballroom dance competition, where they were the only couple representing North Texas; they had an impressive showing, making it to the semi-finals, putting them in the top six couples out of nearly 100 entered.
It’s not just competing that keeps them busy. The duo teaches classes in Latin and standard dance, which embraces favorites such as the waltz, foxtrot and tango. Although the classes aren’t specifically created for same-sex couples, Lewis welcomes them, and says it’s not uncommon for the pairings to occasionally end up that way anyhow.
“Each class is 45 minutes of warm-up followed by 45 minutes of partner work. Since we usually have more girls than guys in the class, you end up with girls dancing with girls — but it could be the same if there were more guys in the class, too,” he says.
Lewis credits the popularity of TV shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance with raising the visibility of ballroom, yet people still feel like they won’t have a chance to use it. Lewis claims that’s only true if they don’t know where to look.
“Most people don’t realize that in just one [dance] lesson, you can learn enough to go to social dances and be able to do one or two dances that evening,” he says.
For beginners, Fridmanovich recommends simple steps like the foxtrot and rumba. Once armed with a repertoire of moves, the couple suggests joining an organization like USA Dance Dallas, whose sole mission is to “promote social dancing throughout the city.” To do this, the group holds weekly dance classes and annual shows and workshops.
While Lewis ranks Dallas’ ballroom dance scene on the national scale as top 20, it’s not in the top 10, and still something seen as slightly underground. “If you don’t know it exists, you would never see it. But once you see it, you know it is everywhere.”
One example of these lesser-known dance hideouts is Gloria’s restaurant at Beltline and the Tollway. “On Saturdays at like 11, they clear all tables and chairs and until one or two in the morning it’s salsa and partner dancing like merengue,” says Lewis.
That’s certainly a different kind of salsa than you usually find at Gloria’s … but one that can be just as addictive.
For more, visit RyanNataliaDance.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 15, 2011.