From Cotillion to Ballroom Dance Champion

Professor Lee Wakefield explains how ballroom dance has room for everyone

Written by Sarah Ostler Hill

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Lee Wakefield is the celebrated artistic director who, along with his wife, Linda, has choreographed the BYU ballroom dance company to fame and success. Together, they are legends in the ballroom dance community.

Initially, Wakefield wasn’t drawn to ballroom for its elegance and excitement. His first experience with dance was as a 14 year old when his mother, looking for a way to teach him social graces, signed him up for Cotillion. There he was exposed to formal dance instruction for the first time.

“There’s a real reward when you tackle something that isn’t easy, and then find a measure of success in what that is,” Wakefield says.

He worked hard and practiced often, saying his abilities didn’t come easily. Eventually he acquired the skills to teach dance while in high school.

“When I ultimately did become pretty good at it, the reward was very satisfying,” Wakefield says. And when he came to BYU as a freshman, he began teaching social dance classes.

“I taught my way through my schooling,” Wakefield said. “I was studying and competing at the same time. When I finished my schooling, I got married and lived the dream.”

That “dream” was to compete and teach professionally with Linda for a number of years. Together, they were very involved with different aspects of the industry, making a name for themselves now recognized internationally. After being married for 6 years, the opportunity to come back to BYU presented itself, and they have been here since 1980.

Ballroom dance has been popular at BYU for decades. The first dance classes at BYU started in 1953 under the direction of Alma Heaton. As the Administration noticed the positive social interaction these recreational classes were providing, they added more sections of social dance to the curriculum. In 1980, BYU formed the Department of Dance, which included the social, ballet, folk and modern dance classes.

“We’ve had tremendous support to have a multitude of facilities and people to teach those classes,” Wakefield said, pointing out that the dozen-plus sections of beginning social dance are all taught by student instructors.

From student instructor to artistic director, Wakefield knows quite a bit about teaching and ballroom dance.

“We try to give the audience an experience where they’ll be entertained,” Wakefield says. “Our audience isn’t necessarily dance enthusiasts, but they want to see something fun with some artistic content.”

Teaching and choreographing has become a learned art for Wakefield. “It’s one thing to teach, and it’s another thing to teach so that what you’re trying to teach is understood,” he says, with a little laugh. “Everyone of us processes information in different ways. To be a good teacher, you have to figure out how to get the correct message across.”

With his teams consistently being invited to the British Open Championships at Blackpool, England, Wakefield seems to be getting his message across. Most recently, the BYU Ballroom Dance Company took first in the formation category, to thunderous applause. They also took first in the Latin category as well. Most teams consider it an honor just to be invited to this prestigious competition.

“When my team really excels and becomes highly skilled at what they’re doing, it’s extremely rewarding,” Wakefield says. But he is always looking to the future, saying being invited to competitions and winning isn’t the pinnacle of success but part of the process.

Some people may consider BYU and ballroom dance an odd pairing, considering the spate of dance shows on television, highlighting immodest costumes and suggestive movements. But the Wakefields have taken their teams around the world, maintaining LDS standards and garnering only respect and admiration from colleagues.

“Linda and I have been able to make choices as we’ve taught and directed and prepared teams to compete that we hope would fall in line with what we believe as Latter-day Saints,” Wakefield said. “We’ve never been ridiculed or penalized for our costumes or standards.”

Wakefield encourages future dancers to pursue their dreams, saying they can do it all, as his career attests. He advises students to compete and dance in a way they can still be faithful.

“You don’t have to leave the tenets of the church or core values to find success as a ballroom dancer,” he says.

Wakefield speaks as an industry veteran. He and Linda consistently challenge and push students to work hard, and then work harder. Whether students are interested in competing, or merely looking to learn some social graces, ballroom dance has a place for everyone.

Student Courtney Earl discusses her experience with working with Lee and Linda Wakefield.

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