My Big Fat Ballroom Competition


Dance like no one is watching (except they are).

by Cherri Ellis

Quite recently, I had an epiphany on my sofa. It had been a particularly grueling workday, and I was slabbed on the couch in a way that required zero effort to support my own body weight. My empty dinner plate was on the coffee table in front of me, my pumps kicked off under the table, and I was watching Dancing With the Stars. As I watched the intricate choreography, I felt bizarrely jealous.

Once you have happily been a dancer or a gymnast or most likely an athlete of any type, you have a sense memory of what it feels like to do it really well. Not that anyone always nails a move, but the moments that you do feel so amazing that your body never forgets how it feels to soar through the air, arch and rotate, then land it. For some it’s the perfect crack of the bat. For me it was a crowd of dancers separating to give me room to do a round off back handspring down stage center during the number “76 Trombones” in the classic show “The Music Man.” In a small community theater in Centerville, Ohio, at the age of 13, I was hooked for life. I went to college in the arts and was on the boards until I wasn’t anymore. Life had simply moved past dance, with better jobs and family and grown-up things.

I wanted to dance.

I knew about Fabian and Jackie Sanchez because I hired them 10 years ago to dance in a Johnny Rockets commercial I was producing. They own one of the most successful Fred Astaire Dance Studios in the country, and it’s right here in Hoover. Fabian was already the Mambo World Champion, and he famously went on to be a dancer/choreographer on Dancing with the Stars. I’m pretty sure his international success is a direct result of the $200 I paid him to dance through door of a restaurant at The Summit, so I called him. Within the course of one short phone conversation, I completely lost my mind.

I am now competing in a ballroom competition with only a month of lessons.

I started by buying the Latin ballroom shoes. They are cinnamon-colored strappy satin heeled sandals with suede soles that cannot be worn outside ever. The straps wrap under the shoe and the soles are so soft you can point like you’re barefoot. I loved them bad.

Funny thing — the perfect sense memory that allows my mind to identify as a dancer didn’t instantly transfer to my body. Apparently breast cancer treatments and 25 years of not dancing actually affects your immediate skill level. That ended up not mattering, and it won’t matter with you when you walk through the doors of their studio, either. Their instructors take you into their arms, and they dance you. Just let them do it until you figure out what’s going on and you can dance back. Is it fun? Nope. It’s magic.

Dancing With the Stars did what John Travolta and Kevin Bacon did with Saturday Night Fever and Footloose — it made it cool for men to dance again. Although all of the teachers there are handsome and charming and great at what they do, I got to train with Fabian himself, and — I am just saying — there is all sorts of Columbian goodness going on there. The man’s hips move like they are missing a screw, and he leads with great authority. My first lesson, he taught me the basics of the swing, rhumba, waltz, and salsa, and then decided I was best suited for a swing number.

It turns out that, regardless of what the memes keep telling us, it is easier to dance like no one is watching when no one is watching. I wasn’t as instantly good as I thought I would be, and I actually cried in the parking lot after my third lesson. It wasn’t because it wasn’t magic to be dancing again, it was that I had put so much pressure on myself by shooting my mouth off and deciding to compete after four weeks of lessons. It was looking bad for me. My girlfriend’s dog had eaten my first pair of shoes before I took my first lesson. My competition category went from my age exactly to 12 years younger. I discovered that even if you are the only person competing in a category and you don’t score at least a 92, you still only get second place. You don’t get to know ahead of time what music they will play, and there are simultaneously other couples on the floor.

I berated myself as I drove to Applause Dancewear, certain that I had set myself up for complete and total public humiliation. I imagined a tall, thin, European looking bedazzled professional and me standing next to her. We would look like the number 10.

I found flesh–colored fishnet tights at the store, and as I slapped them up on the counter to pay, next to me was a mom with her little girl buying the exact same pair. I heard her mention “ballroom,” and I asked her if she took lessons. “No,” she said. “They’re for my daughter.” I looked down at the tiny, 7-year-old girl and smiled. We struck up a conversation that I may never forget.

Aubrey chose to take ballroom because she wasn’t allowed to play soccer. Her blood platelet disorder made her bruise so easily that she couldn’t play contact sports. She recently spent five months at Duke University getting a bone marrow transplant, during which she had 42 blood transfusions. Not knowing what else to say, I said, “I am so sorry that happened to you. I bet that was hard.” I laughed out loud when she shrugged it off with “Yeah. I was grumpy. I didn’t use my good manners.” Turns out she takes lessons at the same Fred Astaire studio in Hoover as me and, she is competing at the same Freddy Ball. I knew her teacher and she knew mine. We are both the youngest of three girls in our families. There we were –  just a couple of post-cancer chicks standing around talking. She asked her mom to get her dress out of the car so she could show me, and I bent down and held it up to her.  It was adorable — raspberry satin chiffon all the way to the floor. She touched the flower at the waist and said, “I’m going to take this off and wear it in my hair.” I remembered how recently she had been bald and said the truest words ever spoken. “Oh honey, you will be soooooooo beautiful.”

So now that my cranium has been removed from my posterior, I’m ready to do this. I am lucky to have walked through those studio doors in Hoover, and if you go, you will be too. It is an amazing place. While dancing the swing, it is virtually impossible to be stressed. It is like trying to keep your eyes open while you sneeze. No matter how much you want to, you simply can’t. I will go, and I will do better than dance like no one is watching. I will dance like everyone is watching, and I will have the time of my life. •

To contact Fabian and Jackie Sanchez at The Fred Astaire Studio in Hoover, call (205) 979-4777or visit dancebirmingham.com.

3 Responses to “My Big Fat Ballroom Competition”

  1. Jeanette Steen says:

    Dear Cherri,
    To see this article in print is just simply a piece of art. Your talent of putting words on paper is like your ability on the dance floor, 1st place.

    Its amazing how God works through fish net pantyhose. HE has an amazing way of connecting HIS children together.

  2. jerry ann vitale says:

    Hi there Cherri, I am Aubrey’s Grandma and Jeanette’s Mom, thank you for writing such a beautiful article …I am always amazed by meeting beautiful people when we least expect it and believe me your beauty shines thru in your words…

  3. Ann says:

    Cherri, You SOOOOO rocked that number with Fabian! I was so impressed after watching you rehearse. You truly looked like a STAR out there with him. You go girl! I was so proud of you! It is HARD! Hope to see you again one day soon!!! Ann

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