Life has a curious way of imitating art. Ask Debra Saalfield.
Eleven years ago, she auditioned for a part in the Naples Players’ production of “Ballroom.” To do so, she had to take eight weeks of ballroom dance classes — and when she was cast as the musical’s disco instructor, the theater company paid for her to have three additional months of private lessons.
The hope was that Saalfield would convincingly portray the part of a dance teacher. But the results were much more than academic.
“I got hooked,” she said. “It was no more musicals for me. It was strictly ballroom.”
Eventually, Saalfield also began competing. Her partner is Tomasz Mielnicki, who is also her instructor; they have been dancing together for three years. The style of dance they perform is called American Smooth, and it’s composed of four dances: foxtrot, tango, waltz and Viennese waltz. Mielnicki is also the 2007 and 2009 World Professional American Smooth Champion.
Of the four American Smooth dances, foxtrot is Saalfield’s undeniable favorite.
“It lets more of my personality out,” she said. “I get a little sassy.”
Saalfield and Mielnicki recently returned from the Ohio Star Ball Championships in Columbus, Ohio, where Saalfield — who dances using the name Debra Rolquin — took home the 2010 American Smooth Pro-Am Rising Star award in the B Division age group. There were 32 other couples in her division, and since Ohio Star Ball is an international competition with thousands of entrants overall, taking home a trophy was a special honor.
“No one goes to Ohio unless those students are extraordinarily prepared,” Saalfield said.
Saalfield and Mielnicki also competed in the Pro-Am Scholarship for American Smooth at Ohio; it’s considered an accomplishment to make the finals, which would be the top six competitors, Saalfield said. She and Mielnicki placed seventh.
Still, Saalfield notes it was a dramatic improvement over her September performance at a competition in Orlando. Then, she also entered a Rising Star category — but the contest was a few days after she wed her husband Steven, and Saalfield admits she simply couldn’t muster the attitude she needed to compete.
“I was terrible,” she said. “I just did not have it together.”
The experience helped her gain focus, however, and when Ohio Star rolled around two months later, she was ready to step out onto the dance floor. Preparation is an essential part of the sport: When she and Mielnicki are gearing up to compete, they practice eight to 10 hours a week in the studio together, and Saalfield also rehearses independently, performing her routine without her partner.
Post-competition, she and Mielnicki review video of themselves dancing. That’s not necessarily a pleasant task, Saalfield explained.
“To look at yourself on video is a frightful thing,” she said, “but that’s what you have to do.”
After all, Saalfield loves the sport. She describes dancing as “the best form of movement for your body, mind and spirit you can do,” and would dance 20 hours a week, if she could. She even entertains the idea of becoming an instructor herself one day, she said — a clever quirk of fate for a woman who started dancing because she was asked to play a dance teacher on the stage.
“I can do this sport the rest of my life, and become proficient enough to make it part of my career forever,” she said.