Students lead academic waltz

student ballroom dancers

Photo credit: Kathy Tang

Step aside Donny. Take a seat Mya, because for one glitzy night in November, the ballroom spotlight will shine directly on Penn, as faculty pair up with student members of the Latin and Ballroom Dancesport Team for “Dancing with the Professors.”

Modeled after the popular television show, the event, scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 15 in Houston Hall, will feature eight professors who have agreed to swap their usual classroom moves for difficult dance floor moves in front of a panel of judges and a live audience with voting power.

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” says Nadeem Almoayyed, a Wharton senior studying finance and real estate who is a member of the dance team, explaining that the competition seemed like a natural event to stage, given the rising popularity of ballroom dancing, and dancing contests featuring celebrities.

It will, he says, be a friendly competition. “There will be a winner, but there won’t really be any losers.”

Michelle Chen, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science who also is a member of the competitive dance team, says that over the summer, she sent emails to the faculty in all the undergraduate schools, asking for volunteers.

“I never answered an email faster than I answered that one,” says Professor Terri Lipman of the School of Nursing.

“I love to dance. I may be a professor, but in my other life, my dream life, I am a dancer,” Lipman says, adding that she’s studied ballet, jazz and modern dance in the past. Lipman is partnering with Almoayyed for the event. They will be dancing the cha-cha.

“I’ve done the cha-cha before, and I do the jitterbug and jive but, you know, at weddings,” Lipman says. “I’ve never had to pay attention to posture, and form and arm position like this before. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be.”

The other professors performing in the competition are: Petra Todd, Jiajia Wang, Marcia Ferguson, Bruce Newsome and Tufuku Zuberi from the School of Arts and Sciences and Nicolaj Siggelkow and Alexander Rakhlin from Wharton.

All the professors will dance at least one ballroom or Latin dance routine, and some have agreed to dance both. They will be performing waltzes, swing, jive and the tango and will wear costumes of their own choosing, with the spangles, rhinestones and ruffles of the dance team’s closet at their disposal.

At the event, the couples will showcase their dance in front of the audience and then receive remarks from a panel of judges. The audience will vote to determine the winning couple in both the ballroom and Latin styles.

While some of the faculty members have previous dance experience—having taken lessons at some point, or even competed on their own college dance teams—most have none, says Irene Yiu, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences and president of the dance club.

“It’s a great way to involve the Penn community in what we do,” she says, “and the students get to see a different side of their professors.”

To prepare for the big night, the professors have been practicing with their student partners, dipping and twirling for up to three hours as often as three times a week.

“My professor is getting a workout, that’s for sure. He brings a sweat cap and a towel,” says Yiu, who is dancing the cha-cha and a waltz with sociology professor Zuberi.

Zuberi says he has no dance experience whatsoever, and is finding the rehearsals to be challenging. In an email he referred to the practice sessions as “sweat, pain and a lot of fun.”

All of the professors have had to learn how to glide across the dance floor in 3-inch spiked heels for the women and shoes with 1.5-inch square “Latin” heels for the men.

“Especially for the women, the first challenge is just to stand in those heels,” says Chen. “After that you have to learn how to walk, and then dance without falling on your face.”

The dance club plans to charge a small admission fee at the door, and also will sell tickets to the event on Locust Walk. “We’re thinking of donating some of the proceeds to charity, but we haven’t decided which one quite yet,” says Almoayyed.

If the event is successful, Chen says, the club will consider making it an annual event. “I think it will be lots of fun, and a good way to show that anyone can learn to dance.”

Originally published on October 15, 2009