Dan Blau has been a musician almost his entire life, but he did not become a dancer until he was about 40 years old. It began casually enough when his girlfriend told him that she would like to go dancing. He had not danced much before that. He had played music a bit for dancers and occasionally danced a little at clubs. He had seen the picture Swingers around 1998, which inspired him to see if he could dance. The real incentive, however, was that his girlfriend engaged in swing dancing and he wanted to learn how. Dan says that guys in America do not typically get much early dance training; this was especially true when he was growing up. Competitors from Russia, for example, typically learn ballroom dancing in school, just like math or history. So Dan went to an Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
Dan’s immersion in music had begun much earlier. He started playing piano at six and was playing for the school at age 10! The music teacher in his school went on leave for a year, and while she was out he was drafted at that age to do all the playing in assemblies, the holiday shows, etc. Thus, on Facebook there are folks with whom he went to school who know nothing of him as an actuary or applied researcher, but recall him only as the “piano player.” After completing his actuarial exams, he took piano lessons at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He studied with a Van Cliburn competition finalist—primarily classical music such as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Debussy preludes. He also studied jazz and lounge piano there, which he deemed a “blast!” Dan has his own arrangements of most of the “standards,” none of which are written down. Once in 1999 his teacher was unavailable, so Dan filled in for him at a piano gig at the Adams Mark Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That started his lounge piano career. He still plays out occasionally. Recently he found a rehearsal space that has two Kurzweil organs on which he has been doodling a bit. He loves playing keyboards.
Dan’s talent is unsurprising. He comes from a musical family. On his father’s side, he is related to the George Gershwin family. An aunt and uncle (Amelia Armolli and Alfred Fabriani) on his mother’s side were professional opera singers. His aunt graduated from La Scala in Milan and sang all over Europe and at the top opera houses in America. When he was a boy he played for them, so he learned many arias and knew much of the Italian songbook. It came in handy one summer when he performed in a little show on a cruise, where he accompanied someone singing an aria from a Puccini opera. It was second nature to him since he had played much of that growing up.
In 2003, after going to Arthur Murray for several years, Dan competed for the first time in Connecticut. Although he was extremely nervous, as almost everyone is the first time, his teacher pulled him through. While he didn’t win anything, just getting through it and remembering the routines and making his way around the dance floor was enough accomplishment for the first competition. He has since competed throughout the Northeast at various Arthur Murray and independent competitions, as well as in Italy, Las Vegas, California, and Florida.
Dancing the rumba with Wendy Nielsen at the March 2011 World Competition in Orlando, FL.
Dan won a Rhythm Pro-Am scholarship in 2010 and a Smooth scholarship in 2011 at regional competitions. Recently, he and his partner placed second out of 23 couples in the All-Around championship at the Las Vegas nationals in the silver division. There are many divisions, silver being just below the top. “All-Around” means four dances that the promoters pick. You don’t know the dances until you get out onto the floor and the music starts! It felt “fantastic,” of course, to finally get his first win.
Dan is proud to be able to dance in all the major ballroom categories and to have done well in several of the categories. There are two major styles of ballroom dancing: one is International and the other is the American style. The International style has two kinds of dancing: standard, which consists of waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep; and Latin dancing, which are cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive.
The American style breaks down into smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese waltz) and rhythm dancing (cha cha, rumba, swing, bolero, and mambo). The American style is danced more open, that is, the partners are not entirely in frame at all times. There are other differences in steps, speed of the dance, and the dance motion, even among dances that are called the same name in both International and American styles. For example, the rumba is rather different between the two styles. The International style is much older and danced, unsurprisingly, throughout the world, whereas the American style is danced mostly in the U.S. and Canada. Having competed in all these styles is rather unusual for an amateur. There are many other dances, which might be called “semi-ballroom,” that are danced at “ballroom” competitions. Among them are salsa, meringue, and bachata (so-called Latin club dances); the hustle (the one John Travolta did in Saturday Night Fever); West Coast swing; Lindy Hop; and Argentine tango.
Dan Blau and his partner, Kelly Stangel perform a waltz at the Las Vegas Superama in October 2011. Note the sign in the background of this photo says "Heat 877." There were about 1,000 dance heats in this competition spanning four days.
Among his most memorable moments was appearing in the road show of Dancing with the Stars in Connecticut. Ten couples competed during the first half of the show. Dan and his partner (his professional teacher) were among the top two couples. That was followed by a dance off. Dan was on the stage with his partner alone in front of 10,000 people in the second half of the show. The audience decided the winner. They won and got the glass DWTS trophy from Drew Lachey and Joey McIntyre, two of the “stars” from the show.
Dan says that the competitions are quite fun, although dancing is more of a contact sport than folks imagine. He has been tripped, punched, kissed, and everything in between while competing. He feels sure that no ill intentions are involved, but it can get rough out there! The competitions are quite a marathon as well. He has danced close to 100 dance heats in one day! Maybe you do a tango at 8 in the morning (who thinks of doing a tango at 8 in the morning?) and you are still competing at midnight that night. He also says that the community of dancers is one of the friendliest and most considerate groups of people he has ever met. It’s a great leveler of social status. Everywhere you travel, you are never alone since there’s always the community of dancers to bond with.
Daniel Blau is assistant vice president and actuary in Consumer Markets Research at The Hartford in Simsbury, CT.
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