Ballroom blitz hits Baltimore as dancers arrive for national competition

Hyunhwa Thomas Yu and Yuko Naululani Yu hail from different countries in Asia, but the world of ballroom dance brought them together in America.

About six years ago, while each was seeking a dance partner, the two discovered one another and quickly formed an artistic connection. Before long, however, the pair would waltz, tango and quick-step their way toward love, then marriage.

"We share something in common that's close to our hearts," says Tom, 54, a South Korean emigre whose family arrived in Champaign, Ill., when he was a teen. Now employed as a civil engineer, he began dancing while in college and then started competing in ballroom 20 years ago.


Yuko, a 52-year-old native of Japan who grew up in Kauai, Hawaii, came to ballroom dance less than a decade ago and was immediately captivated.

"When couples dance together, they bond as humans," says Yuko, who is trained as a graphics designer. "It's a great experience."


Today, the Ellicott City residents are among the nation's top-ranked ballroom competitors in their age division, having won a national title in 2012 and gaining international experience and accolades along the way.

Later this month, they'll join more than 1,000 fellow amateur ballroom and Latin dancers who will converge on Baltimore for the 34th annual USA Dance National DanceSport Championships.

New at this year's event is the World DanceSport Federation's Open World Ranking Tournament for those under 21.

The three-day extravaganza, which will be open to ticketed spectators, is to begin Friday at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

Fans of the popular ABC television show "Dancing with the Stars" will recognize the pomp and pageantry of elaborate gowns, natty tuxedos, music and choreography. And perhaps a spray tan or two.

"These are dynamic athletes who dance at a high level, and the judges are world class," says Angela Prince, a spokeswoman for USA Dance Inc., which is organizing the event. "The word 'amateur' does not mean lesser. There isn't any difference between them and the professionals."

New York-based USA Dance Inc., a nonprofit with 160 chapters across the country, is the national governing body behind recreational ballroom dancing and competitive dance, an official sport recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The organization is also a member of the World DanceSport Federation, which represents some 90 countries across the globe.

The USA Dance 2014 Nationals will feature competitors from nearly all 50 states performing four major ballroom dance styles, including International Standard (waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot and quickstep) and International Latin (samba, cha-cha, rumba, paso doble and jive).


Competitors will range in age from preteen (as young as 7) to junior/youth (11 to 18), adult (19-plus) and seniors (35 to 70-plus). They must have finished in the top 65 percent of their respective divisions at USA Dance-sanctioned national qualifying events held prior to the championships.

"We encourage local audiences to come out and watch dancers from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area," said Prince. Besides Thomas and Yuko Yu, among those scheduled to participate are preteen couple Phillip Shirkin and Sophia Woytowitz from Pikesville.

"This is their first national competition," said Yelina Shirkin, mother of 9-year-old Phillip. "They're very excited."

Particularly before major competitions, dancers work with coaches on posture, footwork, rhythm and timing.

Tom and Yuko, who perform the waltz and other International Standard dances, have been under the tutelage of coaches across the country. They include Giampiero Giannico, a champion who has performed and taught in the U.S. as well as parts of Europe, Japan, and China.

They have also worked with Albert Franz, a Baltimore native who grew up in Highlandtown and danced as a teen on the popular "Buddy Deane Show" on local television. He is a former national champion who has also placed in numerous national and world competitions back in the 1970s and early '80s.


A former instructor at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio's local franchise, Franz retired from competition in 1982. He relocated to Hawaii and at 71 now runs a dance studio in Honolulu.

He is impressed with Tom and Yuko Yu. "He's a marvelous, beautiful dancer, and she's an exquisite lady who sparkles and comes alive on the dance floor," he said.

Asked to predict whether the pair might win in their division, Franz was optimistic. "They're agile, graceful and really a pleasure to watch."

The duo, who compete in a minimum of 10 ballroom contests each year, have added extra hours to their already busy practice schedules in anticipation of the Baltimore event.

"All we do in our free time is practice," says Tom, noting that they are regulars at the Promenade DanceSport Facility in Windsor Mill. "As an engineer, I'm much more mechanical and methodical. Yuko brings poetry and beauty."

The pair also work out several days a week.


"We do aerobics, stretching, weight training," says Yuko, "and for me, ballet exercises and Pilates."

Meanwhile, the ballroom dancers must also consult with everyone from hairdressers and makeup artists to costume designers.

One of Yuko's gowns — a white confection with Swarowski crystals, goose and ostrich feather plumes —was designed in London and cost more than $4,000. She wears matching satin pumps with a heel height just under three inches.

Tom will be attired in his black custom-made tux, complete with satin lapels and tails, and patent leather dance slippers.

During competitions, the pair will receive professional hair and makeup styling. "It takes a team," says Yuko.

"It's very expensive with coaching and travel," adds Tom.


Promoted as one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, DanceSport has commanded crowds at the World Games 2013 in Colombia and the World DanceSport Games in Taiwan.

Now there's a movement to bring DanceSport to the Olympics.

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"At the Sochi Olympics ... 400 DanceSport athletes were invited to participate in the opening ceremonies, and 500 athletes performed at the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Games," said DanceSport vice president, Ken Richards.

He added that DanceSport was an official medal sport at the Asian Games in 2010. "Progress is being made."

Tom and Yuko, look forward to seeing their sport receive recognition all over the world.

"It's a great hobby, and also good for your health," says Tom, adding that they've visited cities around the world and have made friends with other couples on the circuit. "They're like next-door neighbors."


For the couple, dancing is a "deep passion" that they share.

"Dance is like life to us," adds Yuko."I need food, water, and I need to dance."

The USA Dance Nationals is open to the general public. Depending on the session (day or evening), tickets range from $15 to $140 for packages. Discounts are available for children. Go to or call 646-734-9666.