A Dialogue Without Speaking

Professor Curt Holman talks about BYU’s ballroom dance success

Written by Sarah Ostler Hill

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BYU’s ballroom dance department often receives calls wanting to know how to replicate their formula for success. The BYU Ballroom Dance Division offers an extensive roster of 60 dance classes each semester, from beginning-level social dance to advanced-level international-style classes. Many students, as individual couples, regularly compete and reach the highest levels on the national competitive circuit. A growing number of BYU alumni are ranked among the top ballroom professionals in the country. Curt Holman, associate professor and choreographer, shares his insight into what makes BYU a unique environment.

“Our religion embraced dance early on, even with the pioneers,” he says. “It was a positive way to interact with one another. BYU, as a religious institution, is unique because a high percentage of students share common values and religious beliefs. Generally speaking, students value marriage and family. BYU is a great place to meet your future spouse. And what better way to meet people than through a social dance experience?”

Holman speaks from first-hand experience. He was exposed to ballroom dance as a freshman when he was looking to fill some general education credits.

“I always enjoyed the performing arts,” he says. Then with a laugh, he admits, “I was initially drawn to ballroom dance as a way to meet girls. I thought it would be a way to jump start my social life.”

Holman soon discovered he was actually quite good, both as a competitor and as a coach. After graduating with a degree in communications, he taught ballroom dance part-time while working at a local software company. He and his wife, Sharon, competed professionally around the country and in Europe, and when a position opened up for a full-time faculty member at BYU, he found his fantasy career becoming fact.

“There aren’t many of these kinds of positions in the country,” he says. “I received my graduate degree in dance and got the position. It’s been a dream come true.”

Steps to Success

A successful ballroom department isn’t created overnight. In the 1960s and 1970s, many LDS wards held dance festivals, often called “Gold and Green Balls,” where the ward members showcased learned dances in a celebratory fashion. On a grander scale, the LDS Church also held church-wide dance festivals.

These festivals introduced many people to ballroom dances, such as the waltz, fox-trot, cha-cha and swing, and gave many an opportunity to experience the joy of performing, Holman says, and laid the groundwork that would grow into a large social dance program embraced by BYU students. During the 1980s, Lee and Linda Wakefield further developed the ballroom dance program by developing the technical aspect of international-style ballroom and Latin dance.

Student Courtney Earl discusses her experience with working with Curt Holman

“Many BYU alumni have gone out and developed their own programs,” Holman says. “Approximately nine or ten high schools in Utah County have ballroom dance in their high schools. Now students are coming to BYU at a higher level. Not only is BYU a great place to receive an education, but it also offers an in-depth study of ballroom dance unparalleled in a university setting.”

Holman has a hard time giving advice to those universities looking for a quick fix, saying, “We’re seeing the fruits of something that had roots in the 1960s.”

Holman cites Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray as some of the pioneers in ballroom dance. More recently, with the advent of television reality shows, the marriage of pop culture and traditional steps has made the dances more relevant to youth.

“As with any art form, we try and embrace the good,” Holman says. “We must be vigilant not to follow trends that do not reflect our values. For instance, in the Latin dance category, costuming can become very revealing and the movement can become overly sensual or distasteful. BYU’s Ballroom Dance Company has developed a reputation within the industry for presenting the art in a relevant and tasteful manner with a level of modesty and respect.”

Every spring, BYU hosts hundreds of couples from around the country at the United States National Amateur Dancesport Competition held in the Marriott Center. This is the most prestigious event in the country, and it is a great honor for BYU to be selected as the host. Couples travel from around the country to vie for national titles and happily abide by the BYU Guidelines for Ballroom Dance Costumes.

“Normally, artists don’t like to be censored,” Holman says. “But because of the atmosphere of excitement and energy, these people are 100 percent willing to create a special dress to dance at BYU.”

Coaching and Inspiration

Ballroom dance, according to Holman, is movement, music, costuming and lights coming together to present something out of nothing. He enjoys working through the creative process and seeing the product presented. But most people don’t recognize the amount of work that goes into preparing a 2-minute dance piece.

“I’m always looking to do something new,” Holman says. “I try to always be aware of what is going on around me. I can’t just say, ‘Now I will create.’ The creative process happens in the moment.”

When it comes to choreographing, Holman brings what he calls a “bag of ideas” along with music selection. Then, with the dance partnership, he will try different steps out to see how it all comes together. Sometimes, Holman says, what is a good idea doesn’t necessarily translate as best for the piece. And sometimes he gains inspiration in the movement from the abilities of the dancers. The process is collaborative.

“Sometimes I get music ideas in the funniest places,” he laughs, remembering. “I was at my child’s grade school Halloween party. As the kids paraded in their costumes, I realized it was a version of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ (by Edvard Grieg), and I was struck by what a great piece it would be for a haunting medieval tango.”

Holman attributes his ability to use a song from a child’s party for a great dance piece to being able to look outside traditional areas. He encourages others to look for music with different textures, lifts and pauses.

Holman believes people enjoy ballroom dancing because they can identify with the man/woman partnering. It’s an art form where music and movement interact in real-time. When the music stops, the art is over.

People may be surprised to know that Holman, after creating a piece, often doesn’t watch his choreography play out on the dance floor.

“I like to watch the audience,” he admits. “I want to see where their eyes go. Do they follow the movement? Was the pattern interesting or delightful? The creative process is magnified when you see people enjoy your work.”

The International Stage

Holman has become an accomplished choreographer and coach, particularly in “cabaret,” a category of ballroom dance offering the freedom to incorporate lifts and original works. In May of this year, one of the couples for whom he choreographs was invited to perform at the prestigious British Open Championships in Blackpool, England. Holman considers having his work invited to be part of the competition a great honor, especially since 15 years prior, he and his wife, Sharon, were invited to perform at this very same event.

“It was very gratifying,” he says, speaking like a proud parent. “I felt incredible joy when I was there to compete. But it was even more rewarding when I helped someone else receive that joy. It was rewarding on a new level.”

Holman enjoys teaching and choreographing at BYU as well as choreographing for competitors around the United States. He loves teaching dance to all levels and abilities.

“It is rewarding to see people who think they aren’t dancers actually do the steps, especially with a spouse,” Holman says. Communication is key, as the partners have to work together. To see others gain the confidence that they can improve brings him a great deal of joy.

“It’s a wonderful dialogue without speaking,” Holman says.

Holman never thought he’d be able to make a living by dancing, so he encourages students to believe they can make it their profession. “Someone has to replace me at some point,” he says, a little morbidly. “Go for it. I didn’t think this was a possibility, but it is.”

He encourages students to be vigilant in holding true to their values.

“In this art form, there are people who will say you need to set aside your values to be successful,” he says, sadly. “But that’s not true. Don’t be willing to back away from your testimony of the gospel.”

Holman hopes to continue the tradition of excellence and success as he begins his 20th year of teaching and choreography at BYU this fall.

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