By Emily Williams
Ann Rich’s relationship with ballroom dancing can’t be called kismet. The Birmingham resident didn’t start ballroom dancing until her early 50s.
The first time she stepped into the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Hoover, she didn’t fall in love with ballroom dancing. In fact, it didn’t spark any kind of resounding emotion.
“Initially, my husband and I went to Fred Astaire in Hoover to take lessons because our daughter was going to get married,” she said. “That was about seven years ago and it didn’t really interest me then.”
Nowadays, Rich is regularly seen in her dancing shoes, performing in ballroom dancing competitions throughout the country.
Having never taken a dance class before the lessons seven years ago, Rich developed her affinity for rhythm and music through exercise.
“I’ve always been athletic,” Rich said. “I started teaching aerobics in the ‘80s, and back then all of the popular exercises were about moving to the music.”
It was her affinity for upbeat and musical exercise that brought Rich back to the Fred Astaire studio after the dance lessons had finished.
Fabian Sanchez, co-owner of the studio, returned home after appearing on the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars and began teaching a Latin Cardio Class.
“It was right up my alley because it was like aerobics, but you used Salsa and Samba and other forms of dance,” Rich said.
Around that time, the studio hosted a regional dance competition and Rich stuck around one day to watch a bit of ballroom dancing. Then she was hooked.
“It looks so easy and fun, but it’s really hard,” she said. “What I really love about it are the people.”
Rich sees ballroom dancing as a sport for anyone. With varying skill levels and intensities, on any given day she’s dancing next to people ages 16 to 80. Beyond age, she enjoys the equalization it brings to the group as class and occupation get tossed to the side when people are on the dance floor.
“The one thing that is very cool about dancing is that every dance has its own emotional component,” she said. “So, you have to feel the dance and you feel all of these different emotions.”
Depending on the dance, the emotions of the dancer will naturally evolve with the music. Rhythm dances have a sassy and flirty vibe through the steps, Rich said, and always evoke a smile.
“Most people who know me would probably say I like the rhythm dances more,” she said. “But my favorite is actually the Viennese Waltz. When you look at it, it seems the epitome of elegance, but it’s also very fast because you are in constant rotation. You move so quickly that you appear to be flying across the floor.”
Rich never intended to start dancing competitively, but the opportunity presented itself and she took her skills to the next level.
“It is total mind, body, emotional,” she said. “You have to think about your own steps and your own moves all while focusing on another person’s steps, because you’re not doing it by yourself.”
Working with Sanchez, exercise turned into training as she strived to perfect her steps, which is a full-body workout in itself. The downside to the intensity is that it leads to injury, which for Rich resulted in a stress fracture in her left foot.
“When you are ballroom dancing, it puts a lot of pressure on the inside edge of the foot. So, it wasn’t any certain thing that I did that caused it, it was just a build up,” she said.
The fracture couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. Six weeks before Rich and Sanchez were set to compete in the 2016 Fred Astaire World Competition in Las Vegas, Dr. Ricardo Colberg at St. Vincent’s had her foot put in a cast.
“I had never had any broken bones or anything like that. When he put that cast on it was the first time I had ever been in a cast,” she said.
The cast came off after three weeks and she spent another three weeks in a boot, with a lot of time spent at home keeping the weight off of her foot.
“Because I was so driven to do well, that was a very challenging summer for me … but I never cheated and I did everything I was supposed to do,” Rich said.
Though she was disappointed to miss out on Las Vegas, Rich set her sights on the next competition once she was back in the studio. When she competed at the Fred Astaire National competition in Orlando, she and her partner, Sanchez, won the Rhythm Open Championship for her age division.
“That was probably the biggest moment I’ve had dancing,” she said. “When you first start competing, you never expect to win anything. Now that I have, I kind of want to keep winning.”
To win the title, she and Sanchez had to dance five dances: the Cha Cha, the Rumba, the Bolero, Swing and Mambo.
“As time goes on, I’ve found that I don’t want dance to always be so stressful,” she said.
It isn’t unusual to pack up to 100 dances into a competition day, which requires Rich to practice a lot of self care on a regular basis with massages, chiropractor sessions and intensive stretching.
“It has definitely kept me in amazing shape,” she said. “It’s really the only thing I do for exercise because it is such an all-encompassing workout.”
IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE
Despite her drive to compete, Rich’s favorite aspect of dancing will always be the community she has found.
The community of dancers in Birmingham is surprisingly large, Rich said, and she equates that to the growing diversity of people who are brought to the city through jobs with the University of Alabama at Birmingham or the city’s larger corporations. If there is a dancing night hosted at a popular venue, Rich is bound to see some familiar faces.
“We have met the greatest people, you meet such a wide variety of international people that dance, that’s been one of the best parts of dancing,” she said. “We have friends from Argentina, from Columbia, from Hungary, from the Ukraine. They are serious dancers, but they want to have a good time.”
Every Friday night, the Fred Astaire studio community hosts practice parties where folks gather to socially dance while enjoying each other’s company, and Rich said she’s hardly missed a social since she started dancing.
“It’s just a totally different world,” she said. “ I used to live in workout clothes and athletic shoes, but now I’m exercising in dresses with sparkles and fringe and three-inch heels.”
Though the clothes are different, Rich sees many similarities between aerobics and ballroom dance.
Whether she is feeling sick or she’s had a rough day, Rich said she can always count on leaving the studio with a smile on her face.
“You don’t run across that in a sport in the same way,” she said. “When I’m dancing, I can’t stop smiling. It gives you such a feeling of joy. It’s just a very joyful sport.”