America has an interesting relationship with competitive dance, especially with something as specific, fluid, and intricate as ballroom dancing. It’s often misinterpreted as something limited to fancy people, debutante balls and the like, a throwback to a time of refinement. Or at least that’s what I thought before I saw Anne Poloyapoy dance.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Anne. She’s a world-class ballroom dancer who embodies what the form can offer to American culture as well as the world at large.
Right away, I admit that my only real experience with watching ballroom dancing is Dancing With the Stars.
The show is an obvious inroad for experts and the uninitiated alike, an arm’s-length look at the difficulties of training and performing, and the sheer amount of creativity and determination that go into finalizing a routine. And DWTS is still going strong after all this time and was recently renewed for a 27th season. It’s proof that ballroom has been able to hold the attention of the American viewing public for more than 13 years, a feat that’s proving to be more and more difficult in the age of streaming entertainment. And of course it’s spawned any number of spinoffs, including, most recently, World of Dance on NBC.
It’s clear that Anne loves Dancing With the Stars as much as any of us. In fact, she was featured in the Vietnam Edition of the show in 2012. She explains that the show actually teaches some very important lessons about the basics of getting started in dancing, in particular, the importance of securing an excellent teacher.
“There are so many foreign teachers here, all with different styles of how they teach, dance, and bond with their students. The number one thing that everyone is looking for is a good teacher, not only good but also a compassionate teacher who can help their students to learn ballroom dancing in a way that they can understand easily.”
As you might expect, Anne has a long history with dance, going all the way back to early childhood when her dream faced some serious challenges.
“When I was a little girl, I knew in my heart that I loved to dance. It gave me joy, peace, and harmony in my life even though I had asthma. My parents wouldn’t even let me play sports because I would end up going to the emergency room.”
It wasn’t until her teenage years that she finally got the chance to pursue her passion. A doctor recommended that Anne take part in activities that would keep her active.
“A friend introduced me to a ballroom choreographer. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of their group. I didn’t think twice because I love to dance. I grabbed the opportunity.”
It’s been an upward trajectory for Anne ever since. She represented the Philippines at a slew of competitions from 2000 to 2013. In 2002 she received the Dangal ng Pilipinas Award for Young Professionals in Dancesport International Excellence. On top of all that she was a Secretary General of the Professional Dancesport Association of the Philippines from 2010 until 2014.
But even in the lead-up to her proudest moment (that big win in 2002), her commitment to the sport was tested.
“That time was the hardest moment of my life, juggling family life, and my career as a competitor. I would always try to manage my time with my kids and my practice hours. There came a time when I would even bring them to practice. But after all the hardship, it paid off. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family.”
For Anne, family and dance are completely interlinked, so much so that her dance partner is also her husband. The two have been dancing together since 1998. She smiles and summarizes the importance of their connection:
“We have to stick together and grow in both dancing and in life.”
It’s enough to make you say, ‘Awww,’ out loud, regardless of setting. But just wait ‘til you see them dance. Go ahead and look it up. There are plenty of videos of the two on YouTube, from competitions to classes and more casual showcases. I’ll give you a few minutes.
I know, right? It’s immediately emotional, a visual manifestation of a human relationship. The subtlety of the embraces is unbelievable, the careful flow of every movement, from a turn into a gentle hold. It’s narrative, it’s tension and release. And I’ll go ahead and admit it: it’s the kind of skill that we all wish we had. I don’t care how much time you spend denying your inner artist, your inner performer; we all want to work hard at doing beautiful things and be so in tune with another person that you’re practically reading their mind.
And there’s a good reason that watching real, professional ballroom dancing is so satisfying: it’s incredibly difficult to get to that level. Anne explains her own moments of real struggle and questioning on her path to success.
“Dancing is not easy. The precision of movement, timing, and the energy that you put into every dance takes time to master. I would be so frustrated to the point where I would start crying.”
It took a good coach to pull her out of a spiral of self-doubt.
“My coach pulled me aside and he told me that he wouldn’t have come all the way to the Philippines from Perth, Australia if he didn’t believe in my ability to be the best dancer, not only in the Philippines but all over the world. He told me that if I wanted to be a Champion, it takes a lot of effort and time. That woke me up and it helped me to be focused and be motivated to do my best.”
Nowadays she teaches with a prominent U.S. dance studio, one with a history of grooming champions. She was kind enough to share with me the advice she offers to the young up-and-comers, and honestly, it’s wonderful advice for just about any pursuit you can think of.
“My advice for young people is that they should pursue their passion and always keep the flame alive. They need to be dedicated to their craft. I advise them to find a good and compassionate mentor who will help them and guide them through their journey.”
And if you’re lucky enough to be one of Anne’s students, it’s safe to say you’ve already found that mentor.