Tamilane Blaudeau took to the competitive dance floor as another step in a life devoted to fitness.
By Rosalind Fournier
Dance Photography by Beau Gustafson
On the dance floor, she doesn’t look like a scientist, or a professor, or the mother of five and grandmother of seven. Least of all does she look like a woman who only started dancing four years ago. But Tamilane Blaudeau, PhD. is all of these things. Oh, and you can add one more to that list: fierce competitor.
An exercise physiologist and assistant research professor in Human Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Blaudeau learned to dance at the age of 49 as just another way to stay fit. Instead, it quickly became a passion that took on a life of its own. “I picked it up and said, ‘It’s great — but I don’t really want to compete as a dancer,’” she remembers. “That was for the first two weeks.”
It wasn’t the glamor that appealed to her — the chance to play dress up, with elaborate costumes and hairstyles and perfectly manicured nails (what Blaudeau calls “the girly girl stuff”). That part she could do without, although she will play along, if only because she knows that, too, is part of the competition. It was the sport, technique and challenge of it that won her over. “It’s very technical,” she says. “That’s the thing that people don’t really get. Having a background in kinesiology and full understanding of movement really makes it more interesting for me.”
Blaudeau competes with partner/instructor Sterling Burroughs, the “pro” of their pro-am partnership, and together they won two 2011 United States Dancing Championships titles in the U.S. Open/Pro-Am Rising Star American Rhythm division. Clearly she has a gift for it — Burroughs says that in the 25 years he’s been teaching dance to thousands of students, he’s only run into a handful with Blaudeau’s natural talent—but she also works hard. Very hard. Gearing up for competitions, she and Burroughs practice up to two hours a day, six or seven days a week. “Ballroom dance can be one of two things,” Blaudeau says. “It can be social, good exercise, and great fun, or it can be an elite sport. And obviously the way I do it is pretty athletic.”
For anyone who knows her, that comes as no surprise. “I teach and train her, but she also has the genes,” Burroughs says. “She’s rappelled out of helicopters, parachuted, rock climbed…anything you can think of that’s cutting edge, she’ll do it.”
Growing up in Birmingham, she trained for the Olympics in Judo, a sport distinctly void of girly-girliness. In fact, she was the only girl on her training team. “It was a complete contrast to ballroom dancing,” she laughs. “I wore my hair like a boy; I wore my gi and belt like a boy. When I was involved there were no special rules for females. You fought whoever was in your age and weight division. I think I had the element of surprise, because I can’t tell you how many times I went to the mat and some guy said, ‘Really, I’ve gotta fight a girl?’ which was just long enough for me to throw and pin him.”
Not Slowed by Pregnancy
Blaudeau’s path as an elite athlete and her early interest in the science of exercise first collided in, surprisingly enough, pregnancy. Still in fighting condition when she became pregnant, she was baffled when her doctor recommended she let up on the intensity of her workouts. “I was still training and competing, not to mention at the time I was also teaching aerobics — anywhere from three to six classes a day — and I was fine,” she remembers. “Now they wanted me to scale back and maybe walk 30 minutes a day? It just didn’t feel right.”
She began to suspect that the medical community simply didn’t know enough about pregnancy and exercise to give good advice. “The first guidelines for exercise pregnancy came out in the ‘80s, when the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology did some extreme animal experiments, like putting a rat on a treadmill for seven days with limited food and no water in 120 degrees, and said, ‘It’s not good. Don’t do it,’” she says almost jokingly.
She took those cautionary words with a grain of salt and basically used her own judgment through five healthy pregnancies. “Eventually there was enough pressure from people like me saying, ‘I did this, and my kids are fine,’ that doctors said, ‘Okay, let’s rethink this.’ Because the simple truth is, for the most part, when you’re pregnant, if you are incapable of doing it or it would be detrimental to the baby, the likelihood of being able to push yourself to that point, is highly unlikely. There simply are no studies that indicate something terrible will happen if you exercise, even if you exercise at high levels during a healthy, normal, single fetus pregnancy).”
That experience fueled a lifelong interest as a researcher in pregnancy, exercise, and nutrition, and how they impact maternal and fetal body composition and development. She later became the lead author on a landmark study about the effect of pregnancy on intra–abdominal fat, and a strong advocate for the importance of maintaining a healthy fitness level and weight before, during and after pregnancy.
More accurately, she is committed to spreading the message — by word and example — about the benefits of an active lifestyle for people in all stages of life. And through dancing, she has found not only her own favorite outlet but also a form of exercise she can share with just about everybody. Along with volunteering at senior citizen centers to teach exercise and dance — “There are some well-established studies in senior populations indicating that ballroom dancing can offset the development of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” she says. Blaudeau has also introduced it to kids and college students, whose curiosity has been piqued by shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. A few years ago, with a grant from Coca-Cola, she created a summer program to introduce ballroom dancing for inner-city children as an alternative form of exercise, and even she was impressed with the results. “These were growing kids, so they were gaining weight but at the same time they reduced their body fat and increased their fitness level, after just six weeks of doing it three times a week, which I thought was phenomenal,” Blaudeau says.
More than anywhere else, Blaudeau has arguably had the most success promoting the health benefits of dance back on campus at UAB, where she and Burroughs teach an enormously popular ballroom dance class, she lending her expertise in exercise physiology, and he, his in ballroom dance instruction…Some of her students have been inspired to form the Competitive Ballroom Dance Society as “a group of diverse undergraduate students with a passion for social dance, competition, healthy living and community outreach.” Blaudeau hopes that all the interest will eventually lead to an official UAB competitive dance team to compete against other universities.
Meanwhile, her students enjoy the opportunity to see Blaudeau preparing for her own competitions every week. “Sterling and I generally practice before and after we teach because when we’re getting ready for competition, so they get to see the excitement of it,” she says.
In recognition of all the programs she leads, free demonstrations she gives and other community efforts — including working with a local Girl Scout troop to produce an aerobic dance video — in 2011 she was honored with the Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award. When making the presentation, Woolfolk turned to Blaudeau and said, “I want you to teach me how to ballroom dance!”
In spite of the recognition, however, Blaudeau is quick to say that she’s only doing what feels right and hopes will set a positive example for others. “Dance is just another platform for me to promote what I already love and what I already know everybody needs to know,” she says. “You’ve got to do something with your talents and with your knowledge besides just say, ‘It’s all about me.’
“Although,” Blaudeau adds, “it looks that way on the dance floor.”