In 2012, something extraordinary happened at New Mexico State University in the College of Education. A tenure-track faculty position was created to lead a degree-granting ballroom dance program.
I traded my 20-year professional dance career in the private sector for a shot at creating one of only three such academic programs in the United States, and the country’s only masters program. I had never created a university dance program before. The dance programs at Brigham Young and Utah Valley University had started long before I was born.
With my determination, years of effort by founder Betty Burgess, the support of program director Debra Knapp, backing by the Department of Kinesiology and Dance and NMSU’s College of Education, and a highly dedicated group of student dancers, I set out to create what in only three years has become a nationally award-winning program and a creative dance team, both known as NMSU DanceSport.
We added 17 new courses to the dance curriculum and redesigned six others. NMSU DanceSport majors and minors also have the opportunity to audition for the NMSU DanceSport Company, which attends three regional and national DanceSport competitions each year. Company members must practice between 10 and 30 hours a week outside of their regular classes.
In the past three years, we have brought home 17 national and national collegiate DanceSport championship titles. We ranked fourth out of 46 universities at the 2014 USA Dance National Collegiate DanceSport Championship.
Each spring, the company produces “Rhythm Nights,” a complete dance concert featuring ballroom, Latin and swing dance. We reach out to the community by offering free dance lessons every Tuesday night while school is in session, and regular lessons at the Good Samaritan Society. We regularly offer private instruction as a part of our teaching practicum. The company has contributed to 41 off-campus community service projects.
Perhaps our greatest involvement with the community is through “Look Who’s Dancing!” — our version of “Dancing with the Stars.” Members of the community are paired with company members and practice six to 10 hours a week for 12 weeks, then go toe-to-toe on the Pan American Center stage in hopes of winning the trophy.
But the biggest challenge we face is financial. Each year it costs nearly $50,000 to take 20 students to three competitions, $10,000 for costumes and an additional $5,000 for outside training. Show productions total more than $35,000. Although the company is an athletic team, it is not recognized by the athletics department and has no special privileges or funding.
Aside from the 40-plus hours a week that students train, they work one or more jobs in order to pay for their education. The recently established Lee Doris “Tutu” Blais Endowed DanceSport Scholarship marks the first scholarship of what we hope will be many.
Those who choose a career in ballroom dance will follow their passion and continue doing what they love. They will perform, compete, teach and serve, and will have viable job offers upon graduation. They will build strong teams, be creative and strive to contribute. Wherever they go, they will continue to make a profound difference in the world and will represent the NMSU College of Education positively.