By Troy M. Ortiz
Arriving at UC Santa Cruz from Rutgers University to pursue a Masters degree one year ago, Jen Small decided UCSC needed a ballroom dancing club, and set out to lay its foundation.
The club, now in full form, hosts its members weekly, many of whom have gone on to place well in competition.
In her first quarter at UCSC, Small teamed up with assistant professor of physics David Smith to begin teaching dance classes recreationally.
What was supposed to be a part-time hobby for a long-time ballet dancer and a professor soon turned into a full-fledged campus club.
“I was sad they didn’t have a team when I got here, but I couldn’t start the club without a leader,” Small said. “David Smith had taught dance at Cal and signed on. We had the club for a year before founding the dance team. Members of the club found out I competed, wanted in, and this year we have people placing.”
The team is small in comparison to its rivals. Stanford and Berkeley, whose teams are nearly 10 years old, carry about 100 to 150 dancers.
The UCSC competitive team has about 20 dancers. The club, naturally more informal, is much larger.
Small and Smith teach a variety of dances and styles, ranging across jazz, ballet, tango and ballroom.
“Saturdays are designated for team practices, we cover more of the technical aspects of dance,” Small said. “We teach approximately 17 dances depending on the quarter. At first we just taught and gave lessons; now, we play music for 20 minutes, give two short lessons and play music again so that people can practice what they’ve learned.”
Small competes professionally in the Argentinean tango and has plans to travel to Argentina next summer to compete, but she has always been a teacher.
“I was always in on the organizational aspect of the team,” Small said. “I’m used to teaching in front of people. As a member of the team at Rutgers, part of your role was to teach the less experienced dancers.”
First-year Matthew Grabowski caught on to the dance team quickly.
“I’d been dancing for years before I came here,” Grabowski said. “I did all kinds of ballroom. Now I specialize in the tango.”
Grabowski took home eight ribbons at the Berkeley classic this last quarter in addition to placing second in the tango.
Small and Smith set out to create a small niche. They have often been surprised and proud to watch members of the club grow.
“I get so excited when I watch them compete,” Small said. “I don’t think they realize how good they’ve gotten. They really look like dancers, and they’re not just out there mechanically running through steps — they’re having a great time doing it.”
Smith hopes to see the program expand.
If he had enough space, he’d orchestrate a class for each skill level: beginner, intermediate, advanced and social.
“It’s a nice break from physics and academic research,” Smith said. “It gets you out of your chair and allows you to express yourself.”