On the dance floor, 7-year-old Daryna Lyalko and her partner, Jonathan Proescher, 9, are as elegant and poised as any dance couple of any age.
It's only when the two, who study dance at Atlantic Ballroom, in Towson, win a competition that Daryna's reaction reveals her tender age.
"It makes me so happy, I jump up and down," said Daryna who, along with Jonathan, is practicing for the Yuletide Ball competition in Washington, D.C. in January.
But, said Daryna, even when she doesn't win, she still is buoyant. "It's always fun once I start dancing," the Reisterstown resident said.
Daryna and Jonathan are two of a handful of young dancers who study ballroom dancing at Atlantic Ballroom. Tucked away at 8819 Orchard Tree Lane, the dance school has been offering the popular dance form to students from 4 to 94 since Towson residents Igor and Polina Pilipenchuk took it over in 1999 after four years as instructors.
The surprisingly large studio that is enhanced by dramatic lighting and a huge mirrored wall offers a full spectrum of ballroom dance training in social and competitive styles.
The Pilipenchuks were U.S. champions for six years in a row at the World Championships from 1998 to 2004.
According to Polina Pilipenchuk, the studio offers four children's classes a week, as well as a group lesson for adults. Students also come from around the country for private lessons and coaching, she said.
According to USA Dance Inc., there has been a 35-percent spike in the number of people taking lessons and attending ballroom events over the past 10 years, with people of all ages trying it out.
Pilipenchuk said she and her husband and their son, Nikolai, 28, have been building classes for children through school exhibitions, community shows and competitions.
Atlantic Ballroom instructor Natalia Skorikova has been teaching for 11 years. She loves working with the younger students, especially the estimated seven out of 20 at the studio who really want to master the art.
"I talk to them as adults," said the St. Petersburg, Russia, native who now lives in Mount Washington. "They listen to everything I say to them if they want to be good dancers. They're not there just for fun. If they work with determination, they can build a career, as dance teachers or as champion dancers who get to see the world."
Skorikova and partner Nikolai Pilipenchuk were named 2011 World Professional 10-Dance Champions and have been U.S. National Champions as well.
Even if students don't plan to make a career of it, she said, "I want them to be able to control their bodies, have good posture, beautiful arms and beautiful feet. Dance is good for how you walk and move — it's good for everything."
For Jonathan Proescher, ballroom dance became first a therapy and then a love.
To see him now effortlessly gliding and dipping across the dance floor, it is hard to believe that just four years ago he was in a cast from neck to toe after surgery for a broken hip, and he had to learn to walk again. Sports were out of the question. He fell in love with dancing while he went with his grandparents to their senior center.
"Dance became his physical therapy," his mother, Vera Proescher, said. "It has became his way to compete. It's now his passion."
"I like all of it," Jonathan said. "All the dances, all the steps," even if the fox trot and the tango are harder.
Jonathan's mother shares his commitment. She makes the hour and a quarter drive from their home in New Windsor to the studio three times a week. "There is a value in encouraging them to do well. Mediocrity is unacceptable. These kids understand that in order to do this, there are other things we can't afford to do, so they take it seriously."
Noting the dearth of boys who dance in America, Proescher said, "Dancing in Europe is very popular, like baseball is here."
"There's a kind of stigma associated with it in America," Proescher said. "Nobody thinks of boys dancing. But it's important for character training and for teaching them how to treat a lady. If a man knows how to dance, the door is open."
Proescher said she's not sure if the "Dancing with the Stars" TV show is changing that stigma. But, she said, the style of dance on the show is "overly sexualized."
"A lot of Americans think it's ballroom dancing — it's not," Proescher said.
Grandparents also figured in 16-year-old Jenna Gaskill's decision to sign up for ballroom dance lessons 10 years ago.
"My grandparents took lessons," said the Mercy High School junior from Carney. "They can't dance anymore so I kind of keep it going.
"There is never a time when you know enough, at least I haven't gotten there yet. If I could, I'd made more hours in the day to fit in school and dance."
The national competitions that she and her partner, Andrey Privado, 17, have won have been harder on her mother than herself.
"Jenna is my only child," Dianna Maevers said. "You put so much emotion into your child, you want them to do so well."
Alison Ferraro, 8, a Greenspring Montessori School student from Cockeysville, said she loves the instructors who are "patient and very nice."
She asked to sign up at Atlantic a year ago after she saw ballroom dancing on YouTube. "I like the steps and the beat," she said. "I practice a lot at home. Some steps are easy. Some steps are a little challenging, but I don't give up, I keep trying."
Alison also takes singing lessons and has studied classical ballet. But she's not sure what she is going to do with her growing expertise. "I haven't planned out my life yet," she said.
While McDonogh School sophomore Cameron Bailey, 15, works very hard "to be really good at dancing someday," her mother, Michele Bailey, is tempted to sign up for lessons for herself and her husband Keith.
"We're just amazed by the work ethic and how classy they all look," she said. "A lot of kids are missing out on developing this kind of poise and self confidence.
"I just love it here. We're not dancing now, but we're thinking about it."