Dennis, tell us a little about how you got involved in the world of ballroom dancing.
Dennis: Yes, and she was a very nice girl. And she was a great dancer.
Didio: There are a few more questions I want to ask. One of the biggest things is the huge differences you see between when you started ballroom dancing and what we see today.
Dennis: Well probably the biggest difference is they were much more interested in the technique of movement, the feet and the all-around presentation of the dance, as its root had always been. This is true both in the ballroom dances and the Latin and rhythm dances. If you look at some of the really old videos, you see a lot of leg action and very still bodies, and rhythm in the Latin dances. And now you see the entire body dancing to extremes in the rhythm and Latin dances. In the ballroom, I find now they are trying to do a lot more of swaying and posturing as opposed to concentrating on the fluidity of movement. And that is what I kind of see the change going to.
Didio: And do you think this is a good thing or a balance needs to be reached?
Dennis: Well I would love to see a balance reached. Change is always good because that insures what you are doing is developing, and if you keep developing you will get better and better. But overdeveloping at a very rapid pace I don’t seem to take kindly to.
Didio: When you started, after you obviously had your classes and were teaching these steps, did you ever go into a formalized school like Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire, or did you continue to just teach independently?
Dennis: I started with Arthur Murray in 1959 and I taught in their Paterson studio for…three years or so, and then actually Arthur saw Fran and me dance an exhibition of international style, and invited us to 43rd street and we taught for Arthur Murray directly.
Didio: For his original school?
Dennis: Yes. This original school was one of two here that he actually owned. He owned that one and he owned one in Miami on Lincoln Road. That’s the best to my recollection.
Didio: When did you meet Ms. Rogers.
Dennis: My first Ms. Rogers?
Didio: (Laughter). Yes.
Dennis: I met Fran in 1958. She moved in across the street from where I lived. At that point she was a dancer up in the Catskills. She was in the chorus line. We got to talking, dancing, and she decided she would try out to be an Arthur Murray teacher, so she went to Paterson, started a training class, and told me that in Paterson they needed a male teacher, asked if I was interested…and I went into the training class…That is where I began teaching formally for a chain studio. I also taught for Fred Astaire for a while, after I had gone independent. Vincent Bulger in Verona, NJ needed a teacher to fill in because one of his teachers had gotten pneumonia, and because we were friends I taught for Vincent for about a year…a year and half.
Dennis: Well Arthur was a very unique person. He was very shy, Kathryn was more outgoing and outspoken. And when I went there, they had just stopped doing a TV show, which was called The Arthur Murray Dance Party. Arthur looked very tall on television because Kathryn was very short, she was probably 4’9” or 4’10”. He was only 5’9” but he looked really, really tall next to her. He was a very shy person. He kept taking dance lessons from his teachers, in fact Fran taught him three days a week for two hours each afternoon because he wanted to keep up his dancing. And I thought that was a really good idea.
Didio: Now the dance world is formalized. We have the National Dance Council of America, who decided that we need to be kind of bound together? I don’t know why they did it, most people don’t, and perhaps you can shed some light.
Dennis: In 1948, we had Dance Magazine…which was Donald Dunkin and Helen Wicks Reed.
Didio: And that was the regional magazine for ballroom dancing?
Dennis: Yes that was the general dance magazine and then became Ballroom Dance Magazine. Donald and Helen got the major teaching organizations to get together to form a council so that they could schedule their summer workshops in a way so they wouldn’t overlap each other. That was the prime reason for forming the council. You had organizations like the Dance Teacher Club of Boston, The American Society, you had also the Associated Dance Teachers of New Jersey, you had… The New York Society, Dance Masters of America, Dance Educators of America. They all ran summer workshops, so in order to coordinate so that they wouldn’t run the workshops on the same weeks, they formed The National Council of Dance Teacher Organizations to schedule these workshops. Then in the late 1950’s they started to add ballroom dancing to it, and formed what was called the United States Ballroom Council. USBC. The USBC was set up to start to regulate dance competitions. That’s when I became involved as the first representative of the Imperial Society. The original president of The National Council of Dance Teachers Organizations – NCDTO - was Donald Dunkin, who was editor of the Dance Magazine. Then he was followed by Russel Curry from Boston. The first director of the USBC was Tom Kallard. Tom was a cameraman for CBS television at that time, so he was a newcomer to the block.
Didio: And you competed professionally with Fran?
Dennis: Yes I competed professionally with Fran. For about 2 or 3 years.
Didio: And what was that like? Were you already doing the Latin dances or at that time it was only the classical dances like waltz and fox trot?
Dennis: They only did the ballroom dances because the ISTD wanted to become a member of the NCDTO, and they didn’t want them to bring in Latin dancing because they felt America did Latin dancing, but that ballroom dancing - the international style - was very unique, so the Imperial Society was allowed to join the council at that time but only to teach ballroom dancing. They were not allowed to do Latin exams, they weren’t allowed to teach the Latin. So initially all they had was the ballroom dancing.
Didio: We have that interesting article your wrote about the ISTD, which is one of the oldest societies in ballroom, and in dance in the world. I have seen the building in England. And there was at one point that the U.S. didn’t want any international organizations to be involved?
Dennis: No they didn’t want any organization coming into the country without permission, and there was a rule referred to as the Clakton Resolution. The Clakton Resolution said that any dance teacher organization in any country in the world could not go into a country to start teaching unless they had the permission of the major organization that ran the country. So NCDTO had the right to say who could come in and who couldn’t. So they only allowed in The Imperial Society. There were several of them that were rejected because there was already one here.
Didio: You know a lot of people come and go. And a few really stayed. What kept you so interested though out all these years within the ballroom community?
Dennis: Actually, it’s crazy. I stayed in it because I really really love it. I found something I liked, something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, and I am still doing it and I don’t want to stop. I love the industry, I love teaching ballroom, I have met wonderful people over the years.
Didio: You married Fran also, and I am sure you danced together for a long time. And you have a daughter. So your whole family, your wife now, your wife before, everyone was in the dance world. Do you ever not have a talk of dance at the house?
Dennis: Yes! I like to play golf, for years I hunted and fished. Jackie plays tennis, I tried a little bit of tennis but I am not very good at it… Jackie does play golf. And we have friends outside of the business as well, we travel with them, there is a balance, but it heavily leans to the dance direction.
Didio: And how did you meet Jackie?
Didio: There was that one world’s fair that featured ballroom dancing - not sure if there has been another one that featured ballroom - did you compete at this world fair? In other words, there are some quite famous dancers who we know today who were pioneers within the world of dance that were there.
Dennis: Yes, the world’s fair was held in flushing Meadow, NY. Among the judges were Helen Wicks Reed, John Monte and Vincent Bulger. Competing were Joe Jenkins dancing with Betty Silvers, Larry Silvers with Nancy Jenkins, Jim and Olive Cullip, Martin and Gwen Silva, Norman Martin dancing amateur with Shirley Holt. Other amateurs were Dieter and Ingrid Broehler, Karl Heinze and Ursula Pullman.
Didio: How attended was that event, compared to our competitions now?
Dennis: Well it was a full ballroom. It was danced on a stage, it wasn’t like we are at a competition now, trying to figure out how many people are there, it was just a full ballroom, and everyone danced on stage.
Didio: How has the National Dance Council evolved between when it started with its societies and now.
Dennis: Well initially as I said it was a performing arts organization
Didio: That is in ballet and jazz?
Dennis: Yes ballet, tap, jazz. In fact many of the original books are performing arts syllabi, like Gus Giordano’s Tap Directory, different books you could still find on-line, that were primarily for performing arts.
Didio: And now how do you see the Council now?
Dennis: Well the Council now is almost entirely ballroom. There is very little attention paid to performing arts, and the ballroom part of it is mostly dealing with competitions, so if anything, I would have to say the NDCA is a competition promoting/regulating organization.
Didio: I am sure from the beginning you have been involved with all these rules. And the book has gotten bigger when it comes to all the rules… and a lot of people, going into ballroom dancing don’t realize how many rules there are. Which rules do you think have benefited the ballroom world and which are the quirky ones that are kind of silly and were forgotten to be taken out?
Dennis: That’s a loaded question (laughter). But some of the restrictions that have been put in, for example, to limit bronze syllabus to bronze syllabus, silver syllabus, etc. are very very good. Because it makes you learn the basics and fundamentals of the dances. This has undoubtedly provided stronger substance to the couples when they expand and go into more competitions and open work. The stronger their background is, the better their basics are, the better they can perform. So I think by doing that, we have elevated the level of the highest performers, the pros. I think the pros are better because they had to teach the beginners, they had to teach the basics, they had to learn the basics, dance their way up through it, and right now, without a question, we are the strongest country in the world at the competition level.
Didio: And what are some of the rules that you think “oh, this really has to go”?
Dennis: Hahaha. Ahhh. Well I think that there are some things that are very, very strict and we could use a little more common sense approach. Dress code for instance for pre-teens is excellent. It keeps everyone looking neat, trimmed, tidy, not overdone. Prevents inappropriate dress. But what happens is you relax the rules and somebody is going to take advantage of it to the point that they will put someone in costumes that look absolutely ridiculous on children, and so we have to draw the line. Where you draw the line and how you enforce the line…unfortunately it’s the ones that take advantage of it that make you do things like that. I would rather have a little of a more relaxed rule, but I know the more you relax the rule, or even if you relax it a little bit, somebody is going to find something to exploit on that relaxation and then you have everything breaking loose again.
Didio: Explain to me… I’ve attended one or two Council meetings… I’ve been invited… I don’t think I ever want to go back. I think it’s a very difficult situation, it gets very heated, and very personal because people really believe in what they are doing. So it is almost like a political run. How are you able to continue throughout all these years and still attend and still say your piece. Tell us about that.
Dennis: Well…this can be a difficult situation at times. First of all I go to the meetings because I want to support the competitors, the dancers, the teachers and the students, looking out for them and speaking on their behalf. I want to see everyone get a fair shake. We also have to make sure that what we do is good for the United States, and there are certain things we need to do to keep foreign interests from exploiting our resources here because in many cases there are foreigners who would love to exploit what we have here. So… yes, there has become some political fighting and negotiating, or maneuvering, because we are trying to keep some sanity here in the United States. What I would love to see, is a greater representation of the dance industry in the National Dance Council. I would like to see more inclusion of other styles of dance such as swing, salsa. I would like to see more cooperation within the dance industry … and I still keep hoping for that and looking forward because…the dance industry is a niche market, it’s not big compared to all the other industries in this country or anywhere, and for us to have factions working against each other is not good for the overall promotion of dancing.
Didio: Speaking of that. There has been for the last four, five, maybe six years a terrible fight between what we used to call the Amateur Association and the Professional Association. And now, with the word DanceSport and the Amateur Association becoming Olympic committee members, there has been quite a lot of friction. What do you think of this friction? How do you think the council is doing to bring everyone closer together instead of separating?
Dennis: I think the biggest part of the friction has started at the international level. The biggest fight was between the World Dance Council and the International DanceSport Federation, which is now the WDSF. I think that the whole deal is based on thinking that there is a big money payout with the Olympics, and both of these organizations in my opinion - were strictly out to control it. They didn’t want to work together, WDSF wanted to take control, the WDC wanted to take control, and that has trickled down into our country. For a long time our amateur body and our professional body got along very well. Then international organizations both in the professional and amateur areas were saying it’s time that the U.S. takes a side. ‘They have got to make a choice’. This was ridiculous, I would have been totally happy with a complete rejection of all of it and I would love to see the U.S. stand alone and do what it does best and let the rest of the world follow.
Didio: Good. And how are they moving forward since you are a part of this? How are we moving forward to try to fix this mess? The second question with that would be how did you vote when it came to this ban for judges to be able to not judge these amateur events, and all this stuff? I don’t even really understand it and I love dancing, but I see that it causes friction between people.
Dennis: At one point, I proposed a scenario that was rejected. The scenario was that if an amateur competition was running and wanted to hire NDCA judges and that event was not going to infringe on an event that the NDCA was running…for instance if you are running a competition in Connecticut and had been running the event for a long time, and the amateur organization wants to run an all amateur (no pro/am or professional) event in the same city… if they were to follow our rules – let’s say – calendar and location – meaning you don’t do it within so many weeks or months within an existing competition dates - if they would follow the calendar rules…then it would be ok to let the judges judge those events. If they were going to put an event on top of a standing NDCA event, my suggestion was “no”, you don’t and can’t use the judges. This was somewhat of a compromise I thought we could get through, but it was rejected. Now the “amateur” organization runs pro/am events and is trying to build a pro division!!
Didio: And what are some of the ways that being in this Council for so long and having this amount of experience, how do you feel we can continue to move forward and try to bring this issue to an end?
Dennis: Well, with the bitter fighting on the international level that has forced the U.S. into a corner, I don’t see much hope. Professionals do this for a living, amateurs used to be proud to say they competed for the love of the sport. Where has that love gone? I have known people in the ice/figure skating industry, and their idea that an amateur can teach is shocking. Because they grew up with this notion, that when you want to get paid for something, you turn professional. Do I believe in an amateur being allowed to teach for money? No - I don’t. A professional gets paid for what they do and an amateur does it as a hobby - something they really want to do. Look at golf, Bobby Jones never turned pro. Bobby Jones was a great amateur. I think amateurs play a very important part, and they should be amateurs, and be supported as amateurs, and not have them teaching at the studio down the street, because somebody else will hire them and they don’t need to have professional exams.
Didio: But, on another side, are the monkeys out of the cage? We have DanceSport which holds the Olympic Committee seat…I mean since they have split up - the two branches - now they have DanceSport which is considered a sport, and on the other side some consider it art. Could they really come together? DanceSport’s goal is becoming a part of the Olympics. What is our goal as the professional organization?
Dennis: First of all the goal of getting into the Olympics, I doubt it will ever happen. Because this is a “subjective” sport, you cannot put a stopwatch on it, you cannot measure it, you cannot clock it as a sport like running or jumping, or anything like that. With the problems they have already had with it in the judging of figure skating, I am sure that the IOC is never going to vote for another sport that will be based on opinion, I do not think it will happen in our day. Do I think dancing is a sport? Well if you are performing it as a duration thing, then yes it probably is, there is no question you get a work out from it. But the beauty of dance is the art. It is like the ballet, it is like any form of dance, it is an art form… yes you compete, but you are competing based on the beauty of it and the interpretation of it, not on who gets across the floor first or who can jump the highest.
Didio: And what are some of the things that the Council should or could do, do you think, to improve, to have goals? What I get from some people is this thought - the amateurs have their eyes on the Olympics - and it is this mountain they want to reach and are trying. What are some of our - the Councils’ goals - what is our mountain to look up to?
Dennis: Well I would like to see more interest and work put into developing new dance schools, new teachers, new training programs, we need to get to the grassroots, and get qualified teachers teaching classes, and teaching in the studios. These are things I think we should be educating the public on and having more support for grassroots. For instance in the exercise field, there was a terrific program put out by the I.D.E.A. - International Dance Exercise Association - they did enough publicity to convince the people who are going to exercise classes to check the credentials of the teacher. Right now any one can say they are a dance teacher, so it would be great if we could educate the public to look for qualified dance teachers. I know all the chain studios qualify their teachers, I know a lot of the good independent schools qualify their teachers, but you could also go down the block and find someone with a shingle hanging out that doesn’t have a clue about what they are doing and they are taking money under false pretenses.
Didio: And how are you able to continue to go on like this? You go to make sure there is a voice. But it gets uncomfortable…if you don’t agree with the things the Council wants to do, do you ever want to say “hell with this”…and we all count on you being there… but are you ever feeling like you are over it?
Dennis: You know, I don’t think I have ever even had that thought. My only thought is what would happen if I was not there. I just want equal representation and everyone gets an equal shot at what is happening. I look at the industry, and this is my industry, I can’t walk away from it, I cannot abandon it. If it is having problems I have to do whatever I can to help fix it, if there is anything I think is an inequality, I have to do something about it, so yeah.. I just… I can’t abandon it.
Didio: What do you say to the argument - and a lot of judges and teachers ask this - that a lot of the Council rules apply to us, but how do we know if Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire are maintaining those rules?
Dennis: First of all, they have a lot of closed events, which they have a right to do. They are a private business, AMI or FADS, and in their closed events, sure, they can do whatever they want to do - they are a business. They also have a great number of teachers that compete in the NDCA registered sanctioned competitions. And they have every right to look out for their teachers competing in the NDCA events, because these teachers work for them. So yes, they should be involved in the decisions with the Council, I know a lot of people say “well they don’t have to abide by the rules, so why should they be there”, well they should be there because a lot of their teachers do attend NDCA events, do register with the NDCA, as competitors and as competing teachers, etc. so yes, they should be there looking out for their staff, for the personnel. So I have no problem with that at all.
Didio: As a chairman of judges, which you have been for many, many years, I am not really sure, what was the original job for the chairman of judges?
Didio: Is it out of control now? You are non-stop working as a chairman, I see it. At times I see you almost run the event.
Dennis: Well in many cases the chairman is running the event. In many cases the organizer will come in and greet people and we’ll not see him for the rest of the day or until the evening, or whatever. So the chairman takes over as the competition organizer. In some competitions the organizer will tell the chairman what they want and it is up to the chairman to do what is best for that organizer. That has been our goal as we figure out what an organizer wants to accomplish, and we assist them in getting it done. Jackie does this and I do this.
Didio: I find sometimes the chairman is getting into changing schedules for it to fit into the event… I mean the stuff that is really difficult, change what was done in the program.
Dennis: In many cases an organizer runs one event, and in other cases an organizer may have two or three or four events. Whereas as a chairman you are at twenty events, so the experience of seeing what works, that becomes very valuable in saying “well looking at your tonight schedule, this isn’t going to work, it’s not going to fit” and you do that simply because of experience. The chairman nowadays has to rely on his previous experience, as to what will work and won’t work and suggest those changes to the organizer and with the organizer, reschedule whatever has to be rescheduled.
Didio: You guys are becoming like dinosaurs, there are not that many chairmen… is it because of this tremendous amount of work and responsibility? Is that the reason there are not that many people applying for the job?
Dennis: Well I think there are lot of people that would like to be chairman. What I think, is that as an organizer you would like to, and I don’t blame them, go for the most experienced chairman because they will get the job done. There are several people who would like to be chairman, but need to gain the experience, in order to do it. You just don’t take a test and say this is going to make me a chairman. A chairman is using all of their past experience to be able to do what they are doing.
Didio: And how many competitions a year do you do now?
Dennis: Jackie and I do probably about 25 a year. About half a year.
Didio: So you have about a week off in between competitions?
Dennis: No, sometimes we will do 8 or 9 of our weeks in a row… summer months are very busy for us, because we start in June and go right through September without a weekend off, or two at the most, and the same thing continues right on through the end of the year. January and February March are a little bit quieter, but seems now we are getting calls to do comps in January, February, and March.
Didio: And what are your future plans, what would you like to see, do you have any plans or you take it day to day now?
Dennis: We are monitoring the number of events we do…because we do need to get some downtime. While we may be at an event Wednesday through Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are used to prepare for those, doing judges’ schedules, or looking at the program and suggesting/making changes. In many cases during the busy season it’s non-stop, there isn’t even a day off. I love to play golf but I haven’t played golf since last June I think. It’s difficult, you can’t, it isn’t just the time you are spending at the event, it’s also what has to be done before you get there, and these days with air traffic you are spending a day getting there and a day getting home.
Didio: With the internet and the development of television networks that will basically be all catering to dancing, do you perceive an even harder job?
Dennis: It is going to get busier? There will be more challenges of course. The bigger the challenge - the greater the success when you accomplish it.
Didio: With the NDCA, where do you see it going and what are some of the things you would like to accomplish besides the ones you have already.
Dennis: I would like to see more people attending the meetings, more people contributing their ideas. There are a lot of good ideas out there in our professional world and they should be brought to the table. At one point the NDCA had a meeting the night before their semi-annual meeting, it was open, open to competitors, open to various competition organizers, I would like to see more of that done again, so that the people that we deal with on a day to day basis have an opportunity to see what is going on and with their input, maybe help change the direction, or help direct, where they want to go.
Didio: Usually when I close an interview, I always ask the person to give me their final thought. Something you would like to share. No question. Anything you want to leave us with as a last statement of this interview.
Dennis: I think what I would like to have is anyone that has a question either come to either the ballroom committee, the executive committee, or any of us and bring it up. If you have a complaint come to us, tell us. We want to represent everyone and we want everyone to be heard. Give us input on what we can do for you.
Didio: But, I don’t mean to go on with this, but I have had many people tell me “I am afraid” to go, because some people have a lot of influence in the competitions, some are judges. And if you say something is unfair, it might get a group of people against you. It is hard to come to complain to someone if they will be judging tomorrow…
Dennis: Then do it through your organization. There is a PDF that you can do it through if you don’t belong to a teaching organization. But by all means make your voice heard, and those representing you will do it on your behalf anonymously, or if you or anybody wants to come to me, I would be happy to look at their complaints and questions and keep their information confidential and forward it to the appropriate individuals.
Didio: Thank you Dennis for being a part of this organization and being there for everybody.
Dennis Rogers is the honoree at DBDC "A Legendary Celebration" this year in Boston Sept 14 - 17. Get more information on this event at the website. www.theDBDC.com