Dozens of ballroom dance teachers flit over to Disney World in Florida every year for the U.S. Dance Championships, but only a handful of female instructors take their place alongside male teachers who finish in the money.
Only one woman – Barnaly Pande of Sacramento’s VIP Dance Ballroom Academy – landed a place among the top three dance instructors in every category of this year’s competition. She ranked as one of the three best ballroom dance instructors in the nation, placing second to Sinisa Vasic of Washington, D.C.’s SivaDance.
“The female students follow the male leaders, and the leaders are professional males who are such strong dancers,” said Dr. Christopher Jones, a radiation oncologist who has taken lessons from Pande for about six years. “It’s much easier for the men to take control of the dance. When you’re a female instructor, you have a smaller mass and you can’t lead, so she has to find a way to keep you doing what you’re supposed to do well.”
Pande said officials told her this was the first time in the history of the competition that a woman had ranked among the overall top three instructors.
“Female teachers don’t have as many opportunities as male teachers because there are many more women who want to dance than men, and so the opportunities are very limited for us to achieve that,” Pande said. “It was hard work, but we did it.”
She compared the competition to a marathon, explaining that she danced a number of heats each day with Jones and another student, popular square-dance caller Charles Bridges. Jones won top student this year and has won it in previous years. Bridges ranked third overall this year. Pande has other students, Sergiy Vasylyev and Michael Sibley, who have claimed the top overall student prize in the past.
Sibley, Pande noted, had to overcome more obstacles than most of her students because he has limited mobility along one side of his body.
“We worked on his stamina because it was physically difficult for him to dance for a long period of time because the muscles were weaker on one side,” Pande said, “and in the time that we worked together, along with the physiotherapy that he did as well, we managed to extend his arm, so he has greater mobility both in his leg and also in his arm. ... That was my goal for him, to help him to do what he loves to do but also to improve his muscle condition for just his general day-to-day life.”
A native of Birmingham, England, Pande originally came to the Sacramento region to work as a crop geneticist at the University of California, Davis. She fell in love with ballroom dancing, and after winning awards as a students and part-time teacher, she decided in 2012 to open a studio at 1111 Howe Ave.
Because she can’t lead at competitions, Pande said, she just teaches her male students to dance really, really well. They would tell you the truth, she said, “that I’m a tough instructor.”
“I’ve been known to say things like, ‘Yes, it’s good. I just need better,’ ” Pande said, her British accent effectively making the point.
In competitions, Jones and Vasylyev said, Pande uses subtle physical cues to let them know they need to correct their posture or make other adjustments. Before a dance begins, she’ll talk about crucial elements, said Vasylyev.
“It’s a difficult balance,” Jones said. “We have to be able to lead and be confident while leading. … If there’s obstacles or some difficulty, the follower can’t lead. If the instructor starts to lead while you’re leading, then basically everything falls apart. You lose your confidence.”
In classes, Pande provides constructive criticism and excels at providing solutions catered to each individual, though she’s in a class with a number of people, the two men said.
“It’s almost like trying to teach someone how to walk,” Jones said. “It’s like trying to teach that to you in words or trying to write the instructions. She’s very analytical about that. … She really goes step-by-step in helping us know how to lead and get all the movements.”
The 19-year-old Vasylyev, a physics student in the College of Creative Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, started lessons with Pande when he was 12. He is now a standout performer on his college ballroom dance team.
He told me that he’s also teaching a beginning dancer, and in the sincerest form of flattery, he said, he’s emulating techniques and instructions that Pande used with him.
“She knows how someone who is learning would think,” said Vasylyev, a graduate of Christian Brothers High School. “She knows that transition. She understands where we have trouble as students. She puts herself in our place, and it’s like, ‘This is how I need to show them how to do this.’ ”
Pande said it was a personal victory to be able to dance at the national championships this year. She is still recovering, she said, from a lengthy struggle with a respiratory illness. Accustomed to twirling from one student to the next in dances, Pande said, she found herself sometimes forced to sit while giving instructions. All the while, she continued group and individual dance lessons at VIP and classes for the students at Brookfield School in the Pocket.
“There were many times when I struggled,” said the slight Pande, whose weight dropped below 100 pounds. “I didn’t have the effort to make that struggle, so having this goal of wanting to achieve something at the national championships with my students, it (made) me want to fight again as much as anything.”
Teachers compete for awards in four different categories at the U.S. championships – U.S. international ballroom, U.S. international Latin, U.S. American smooth and U.S. American smooth rhythm. Pande scored her first award as a teacher back in 2012, in the U.S. international ballroom category.
At the time, she said, “there were all men in the line, and they were all looking at me like, ‘Who are you, and where did you come from?’ ”
Pande said she didn’t really feel as though they were taking her seriously, but this year, those same faces looked at her completely differently. After she claimed her second-place award for overall performance, she said, the male instructors and officials told her that she had shown other women that an overall teaching award was achievable.