By STEPHANIE HAYES
Times Performing Arts Critic
Ballroom dancers can spot each other in the world. Perfect posture, feet turned out, dramatic smolder, fearless gaze across a salad bar or cash register. Now put two together on a dance floor, slick the hair, fan the eyeliner and, holy geeze, get a pacemaker.
Ballroom dance is a sensual thing, full of hips and eyes, tension and release. But it couldn't all be so intangible, could it? Perhaps the more soft-bodied and slumped among us could learn from the pros, condense the fire of ballroom into workable tips for Valentine's Day.
Shelia Davis and Sergey Barsukov agreed to demonstrate the mechanics of connection. They'll compete in the Superstars Dancesport Championships this weekend at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club. The competition draws dancers from all over the world, this year including Louis van Amstel from Dancing With the Stars.
We met them at Bayou Dance Club with their coach, Michael Chapman, one of Superstars' three organizers. He's also a judge and was a world champion ballroom dancer in the 1990s.
A fete had already convened that afternoon, mostly senior citizens practicing quick steps among garlands of paper hearts. Davis and Barsukov sauntered in with stick-straight spines and serene smiles.
They're not a couple in real life. He's 29, she's 49; he lives in St. Petersburg, she lives in Naples; he's professional, she's amateur. But together, they had that thing that turns a good partnership into a phenomenal one.
"When you have it, it just clicks, and you know it," she said. "And it's just like, 'Oh, my gosh.'
"It's a dance marriage," he said.
They decided to partner in the pro-am category (the arrangement used on Dancing With the Stars). The first time they practiced, he told her to fall back blindly into his arms. She did. He caught her. There was trust, the first foothold of connection.
At the Bayou, Davis took Barsukov's hand. They locked eyes.
"They want to create the eye connection. You have to have a balance of working out to the audience, but mostly working in, because that actually draws the audience into them."
Their hips touched.
"That's where the woman feels the man's lead. The energy, the energy!"
She spun, the hem of her red gown whipping in circles.
"The woman is the diamond. She's the picture in the frame, and he is the frame. He's never to compete. She's always at the end of his hand to showcase what he develops. Because usually the man develops the woman's dancing. He partners her. That's why we want the woman to be jeweled up with rhinestones, with beautiful colors and hair and makeup. At the end of the day, she's on his hand, so we want her to be absolutely beautiful."
There were some things for us average bums to take away. Make eye contact. Make hip contact. Always let a woman feel amazing. Have trust and respect.
But in dance as in life, there was something hard to define.
Emma Vincent is 90, barely tops 5 feet. She goes by "Dolly." She dances several times a week, and on this day she also wore a fetching red skirt that twirled in circles. Barsukov was once her dance teacher.
After his dance, she scooted to him, blushing, and got a big hug.
There was just something about him.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.