In the brightly lit Atlantic Ballroom in Towson, Igor and Polina Pilipenchuk practice their dance moves. They glide gracefully across polished hardwood, shoes tapping and hips swiveling. In June, the Towson residents are going to Tokyo to represent the United States in the World Professional Ten Dance Championships.
Last month, the Belarus natives won the National Dancesport Title in Asheville, N.C., establishing themselves as the top ballroom-dancing couple in the United States. In June, they could very well be named the world's best.
The pair, married since 1985, came to America in 1994. They were already dance teachers and amateur champions in the former Soviet Union when some American friends introduced them to Glenis Dee, a Latin dance champion who ran a studio in Towson and who was looking for a dancing couple to work for her. She sponsored the Pilipenchuks to come to America and has coached them since. While they are still citizens of Belarus and are unsure whether they want to trade in their green cards for U.S. passports, Igor, 40, and Polina, 38, are comfortably settled in their house in Towson with their 17-year-old son, Nikolai, also a dancer, and their dog.
"We don't want to live in suitcases," says Polina, "we have so many friends here, so many people who support us."
"We like to do our things, it doesn't matter where we live, really," says Igor. He and his wife are passionate about their work. They live and breathe dancing. They made the decision to move to America because there are more opportunities to compete in a professional setting here.
"There are only two or three professional competitions a year in Russia. That's what the old pros complained about," says Polina. "We can compete every weekend, if we want to, in America."
In 1999, they took over the Atlantic Ballroom, where Dee worked, and turned it into a full-time dance studio. They offer classes almost every night of the week, as well as frequent talent showcases and Saturday night dance socials. Students' ages range from 4 to nearly 80.
Both Igor and Polina started dancing when they were young. According to them, Russian parents often get their children involved in art, music and dance at a very early age. Now, the Pilipenchuks are trying to encourage the same level of participation in America by holding classes for children as young as 4. They are also setting up a nonprofit organization to subsidize the cost of instruction, to help make dance lessons available to children in the community. "It's great discipline for the kids," says Igor. "When they get older, they appreciate it."
Ballroom dancing competitions consist of 10 dance styles: five standard ballroom - waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot and quickstep - and five Latin - cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive. The national championship picks two couples every year, and the Pilipenchuks have been runners-up for the past five years. Last month, they earned their first national title, complete with a trophy proudly displayed in the studio. June's world championship, which is held in a different country every year and features dancers from 30 to 40 countries, could replace that trophy with an even bigger one.
Each dance round in a competition takes about a minute and a half, but it's a challenging 90 seconds. "Each dance is like running an 800-meter race," says Igor, "but when you compete and want to be the best, you have to do it."
In order to train for competitions, Igor and Polina practice twice a day for three to six hours. When no competitions are on the horizon, they practice for two hours a day, says Polina, "just to keep ourselves in good shape."