In tuxedos, leotards and sparkling ball gowns, dozens of couples from around the country whirled to the sound of swing and big band music at a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
They were all putting their best foot forward at the Crowne Plaza for an event known as the 2015 Gumbo DanceSport Championships.
The stakes were high for the nearly 300 teams competing in more than 200 events including combinations of foxtrot, tango and waltz because “The Gumbo” is an official qualifier for USA Dance, the governing body of competitive ballroom dancing. High-ranked competitors in certain events qualify for national competition in Baltimore next March.
Dancers, split into groups by age and ability, were ranked by a panel of judges from around the country on skills, aesthetics and showmanship.
The teams each featured one male and one female dancer, with the men mostly monochromatic in a tuxedo or black bodysuit and the women sporting vibrant, elaborate ball gowns.
Paul Duhaime and Kelly Madenjian, of Coventry, Rhode Island, made their first trip to Baton Rouge for the Gumbo two years ago. They said dancers can choose to register for any qualifying event but that they chose Baton Rouge for the food, hospitality and level of competition.
“It’s really one of the better amateur competition spots in the country,” Duhaime said.
“And the women that cook the gumbo in the hospitality room, mmm!” Madenjian chimed in.
Richard Stewart of Prairieville, the Gumbo’s music director, said the ballroom scene in Baton Rouge has transformed since he began dancing in 2002.
A former musician and disc jockey who is now a partner in a construction company, Stewart took up dancing with his wife when the Gumbo lasted only one day and rarely featured dancers from outside the state. These days, the event stretches across three days, from early morning until well after dusk.
The dancers ranged from all over, representing several states and Canada. Of the Louisiana contingent, two dancers considered among the brightest stars were Reginald Larkins, 16, and Caitlyn Wilson, 14, of Lake Charles.
The pair are graduates of the Dancing Classrooms, an international program which teaches life skills to students from underprivileged schools through dance lessons.
Ann Durocher, the competition’s organizer and president of Louisiana DanceSport, said the two are likely the best young competitive dancers in the state.
“I just had one of the judges pull me aside and tell me, ‘These two have got national championship potential,’ ” Durocher said.
Nancy Vallee, director of The Whistle Stop, a children’s advocacy group that organizes Dancing Classrooms in Louisiana, said the focus if the program is on bettering the community.
By teaching dancing, as well as the discipline and respect that ballroom dancing culture demands, students learn skills that can help them apply for college, look for jobs or even get dates, Vallee said.
Students in the program, which is taught to fifth grade students in elementary schools around the state, are instructed to refer to each other as “ladies” and “gentlemen.”
By using formal titles, the students learn to accept others and treat members of the opposite sex with respect, Vallee said.
“At first, they don’t want to have those interactions; they make them uncomfortable,” Vallee said. “But we use it as workshops to help them learn people skills through dance.”
Dawkins and Wilson agreed, both saying they were shy and kept to themselves before they enrolled in Dancing Classrooms.
After competing Saturday, both were full of confidence, and the trove of medals they each took home probably didn’t hurt.
Dawkins said he wants to go on to win a national ballroom competition and one day teach dance; Wilson said she wants to expand her horizons and look into jazz dance.
Both are grateful for the opportunity the Dancing Classrooms program gave them.
“Without it, I would never have found my passion,” Wilson said.