The Romance of Dance

Arizona Ballroom Champions open new studio, invite LGBT couples to hit the dance floor

By Laura Latzko, Nov. 20, 2014.

Your hands and hips touch, your eyes lock and your body heat begins to rise as you and your dance partner intimately glide across the ballroom floor in perfect unison.

Forget dinner and a movie, ballroom dancing is one of the most romantic activities a couple can experience together.

John Holzworth (left) and Shawn Nerdahl are instructors at Arizona Ballroom Champions. Photo by Fernando Hernández

John Holzworth (left) and Shawn Nerdahl are instructors at Arizona Ballroom Champions. Photo by Fernando Hernández.

“When you dance, a true intimacy develops,” said John Holzworth, instructor at Arizona Ballroom Champions (ABC). “It is very electric when someone you have feelings for takes you in their arms and moves you around the dance floor.”

While ballroom dancing has typically been a heterocentric activity, ABC has set out to change that by reaching out to and embracing the LGBT community.

“Basically we want to share this amazing activity with everyone,” Holzworth said. “We are ready to break down those barriers and let everyone experience this type if dancing.”

In the not so distant past, Holzworth recalls, same-sex couples would have to learn how to dance during off hours or a separate room.

“That is all changing and we want everyone to be comfortable to come and learn,” he said. “[Our community] typically missed out on dancing with a partner of the same sex. We went to prom and homecoming with someone of the opposite sex. We didn’t get to experience what it’s like to slow dance with our partner. We want to change that. We want everyone to have that experience.”

Easy as ABC

After more than eight months of planning and preparation, ABC formally opened Oct. 10 inside Apollo’s Ballroom in Chandler. The studio is the culmination of the passion, experience and friendship of five instructors — Holzworth, Shawn Nerdahl, James Weathers, Iliana Gonzalez and Chrissy Coble — who all consider themselves “lifers” when it comes to dancing professionally.

“Between the five of us, we have close to 40 years experience of dancing and teaching,” Holzworth said, adding that the unique blend of personalities and learning styles helps perfectly pair up students and instructors.

“The passion of dance, the passion of teaching and the passion of inspiring is something that is deep within us,” Holzworth said. “Not only do we believe that learning how to dance can be a life-changing event, we all have had dance profoundly change our lives. We love to share the ‘secret’ of dancing with everyone, and it shows through our work.”

According to Holzworth, ABC’s five instructors — all of whom worked together at Chandler’s Fred Astaire dance studio — have formed a pseudo family throughout the years, so opening a studio together made sense.

“We’re a very dynamic group of people, which made us the top professionals in the Valley through Fred Astaire,” Holzworth said. “Everyone has such as dynamic trait they bring to the team, so if you talk about who does what, we are all equal in what we do, but everyone brings a different trait to the table.”

The instructors have each danced competitively in various categories of ballroom dance and have won in countless state competitions individually.

Nerdahl, who has been dancing for eight years, has danced in two of the winning pairs for Sway’s annual Dancing with the Bars competition and still he continues to take two lessons a week to continually improve and grow in his profession.

Choreographing a Family

But beyond all the technique perfecting and award winning, this team of instructors is family at the core.

“A few years ago, we started having a ‘family’ dinner night once a week,” Holzworth said. “We knew we had to stick together if we wanted to be truly successful [and] our friendship is what makes us special and unique from other companies. This was our dream, and we are quickly making it a reality.”

The family concept has already carried over to ABC’s students, a dynamic Holzworth simply describes as amazing.

“From our students to the staff, you always feel like you are at home when you come into our studio,” Holzworth said. “Every student that walks through our doors remembers what it was like to be a beginner, and they will help new students feel comfortable while they are going through those first couple weeks of dancing.”

The friendships our students create with each other, as well as with us, contribute to the overall supportive and successful atmosphere, he added.

“Every student that has taken lessons with us has mentioned about the ‘magical’ chemistry that is between the five owners, and they want to be around that ‘magic,’ Holzworth said.

Though the studio has only been open a month, the team has already seen significant signs of success.

“We have had a lot of really big opportunities come our way, most of which are still in the negotiations phase, so I can’t announce them just yet,” Holzworth said. “Our goal is to become a steady figure within the LGBT community.”

A Step in the Right Direction

Dance Fever: Chrissy Coble (left) John Holzworth, Iliana Gonzalez and Shawn Nerdahl. Photo by Fernando Hernandez

Left to right: Chrissy Coble, John Holzworth, Iliana Gonzalez and Shawn Nerdahl. Photo by Fernando Hernández.

Holzworth said the ABC instructors have proven they can help people who’ve never danced in their lives into competitive dancers with hard work.

Because each of the instructors overcame their own shyness or fear at some point in their dance careers, Holzworth said they’re better equipped to help students through any obstacles standing between them and the dance floor.

Nerdahl, a former go-go dancer, said growing up as a shy kid has helped him relate to more introverted students. And, as an instructor, he works with students on self-confidence, self-acceptance and intimacy issues.

“One of the big things I believe in is dancing is a very healing thing to do, and it changes your life on a very grand scale,” Nerdahl said. “I can see what people need to fix in their lives just by talking to them. So, I help them with dancing [to] realize what their true potential is.”

Similarly, Coble, a single mom who started doing ballroom dancing almost three years ago under the tutelage of Holzworth, said dance has helped her to open up, become more expressive and turn her life around.

“I used to be very cold and short with people all the time and just mean. I didn’t really want interaction with people. I was very shy and super nervous and introvert,” Coble said. “Dancing really brought me out of that and fast. After that, I wanted to hug everybody and talk to everybody.”

Coble said that as a teacher, she can empathize with situations others are in and always tries to be a positive force for her students.

“[When] people can relate to where you came from, they are more inclined to listen to you,” she said. “I can really make my students feel very comfortable and safe in my hands,”

Coble said that because her students have witnessed her growth as a dancer and instructor throughout the past three years, she’s better able to show them what they are capable of accomplishing.

“I got to feel so empowered through dance that I want to give other people that same feeling,” Coble said. “We change lives. It changed mine, and I know we can give them the same gift.”

ABC instructors offer beginner group classes for anyone who’s never done ballroom all the way up to advanced classes for competitive dancers. Students, who have ranged in age from 6 to 105, can also take private lessons from the instructors.

Every Friday, the instructors expose students to different styles of dance during their weekly practice parties. But, on Dec. 19, the studio will host its first student showcase with performances from dancers at all different levels, as well as instructors.

Holzworth and Nerdahl share the goal of getting people who don’t traditionally do ballroom dancing, including members of the LGBT community, more interested in this intimate style of dance.

“This is something I’d like for more LGBT couples to experience,” Nerdahl. “It’s a whole another level of intimacy.” e

Dance Like Everyone’s Watching

At every wedding there are a certain number of memorable and traditional elements you can count on — vows, flowers, toasts and cake, for example. And now that same-sex wedding bells are ringing all over our great state, the instructors of Arizona Ballroom Champions have one message: Don’t forget the dance.

“The first dance is one of the most important parts of a wedding,” said John Holzworth, ABC instructor. “The dance represents the first time you are announced as a couple, and now that gay marriage is a thing in Arizona its significance is huge.”

ABC’s five instructors — three of whom identify as gay — want to give LGBT couples the opportunity to have the same romantic experience of dancing together as straight couples.

“There’s just something special and magical about dancing with someone that you have even the slightest feeling for,” said Shawn Nerdahl, ABC instructor. “There’s just something different about holding on to somebody, looking them into the eyes and leading or following them around the dance floor.”

Both instructors agree that dancing can take a relationship to an entirely new level — and what better way to kick off a marriage?

“One thing that has been proven time and again, when the gays move in, they make things bigger and better,” Holzworth said. “So I can’t wait to see all of the amazing same-sex wedding dances. We are on the verge of seeing this trend, and it really makes us happy.”

Additionally, Holzworth said that same-sex couples have so many possibilities on the dance floor, such as switching up who leads and who follows.

In an effort to become more accessible by the LGBT community, and to support Arizona’s future brides and grooms, ABC is offering free 45-minute wedding consultations to any interested Echo readers. The session will introduce couples to a few basics steps and include a conversation about their dream wedding routine.

“I had been ballroom dancing for years before I tried it with someone I had feelings for, and WOW was it different,” Holzworth said. “I finally got it. I knew why all the couples I had taught were addicted to it. It was electric, kind of like your first real kiss. The time and money you spend to learn how to dance will be totally worth it.”

Whether couples simply want to learn to dance or has aspirations of putting together a choreographed number, the studio has different packages to accommodate any wedding day.