For Sasha Nissengolts, Dancing is a Way of Life

By Leana Shugol • Jan 29th, 2014 • Category: People

Over the last eight years, nearly 20 million Americans have tuned in to watch ABC’s primetime series Dancing with the Stars, a reality TV show emphasizing the importance of practice, partnership and, of course, competition. But few really understand how much effort goes into professional ballroom dancing. If one takes out all the cameras, costumes, and celebrities and focuses only on the professional dancers themselves, one would see that their jobs require a lot more than just dancing.

One such professional dancer is 25-year-old Sasha Nissengolts. As a young girl growing up in Ukraine, Nissengolts’ passion and hobby was ballet, but after immigrating to Brooklyn, New York, in 1994, her family could hardly make ends meet. Several years after coming to America, an old family friend opened up a ballroom dance studio in the neighborhood and offered Nissengolts’ family a generously discounted rate for lessons. Nissengolts felt “it was the next best thing after ballet lessons.”

Shortly after starting dance classes, Nissengolts realized that ballroom dancing is nothing like what she expected. When compared to her ballet lessons, she said “the teachers were stricter, the curriculum was more rigorous, and the heels were way too high.” However, by the time she grew into her teenage years, she learned to appreciate the commitment, discipline, and determination required for the sport.

Competitions began early in the young dancer’s career, about five months after she started taking lessons. Each state holds approximately six competitions per year, the finalists of which are invited to the nationals.

Nissengolts competed in two general styles, International Latin and International Standard.

International Latin dances are mostly of Spanish descent and include the cha-cha-cha, rumba, samba, paso doble, and jive. “These five dances are very lively, fast-paced, and some would even say promiscuous,” Nissengolts says.

On the other hand, International Standard dances are very structured and proper dances, most of which originated in Europe. This category includes the waltz, quickstep, tango, foxtrot and Vietnamese waltz. Most ballroom dancers only compete in one of the two categories, but Nissengolts has competed and excelled in both.

According to Nissengolts, the day-to-day life of a ballroom dancer is somewhat different than portrayed by the media. “When watching Dancing with the Stars, it seems although everything just flows, but in reality it takes years of hard work to attain that illusion,” she says.

In ballroom dance, “technique is absolutely essential” and according to Nissengolts, it is not something that continuously advances until a point where it plateaus, but rather, improves exponentially without a limit. “Even Karina Smirnoff –who’s an international dance champion and one of the highest-paid professional dancers on Dancing with the Stars, continues to practice and enhance her technique every day,” Nissengolts says. Smirnoff is one of Nissengolts’ greatest idols and was once her primary instructor before moving to L.A. to work for the ABC show.

Besides technique, one must master the partnership aspect of ballroom dancing. For Nissengolts, it came with romance, which makes the illusion on stage easy to portray, but for most, that is something that must be worked on. “It takes years to feel comfortable with your partner,” she says. “Not only must you be partners on-stage, but you must also be friends off-stage, because otherwise it’s boring. I am very lucky to also be in love with my dance partner.”

Nissengolts has traveled extensively to perform and compete in national and international championships. To reach this level, one must place high in local and national competitions and be invited to participate in the worldwide championships.

Nissengolts competes in the professional open category, the highest level a dancer can achieve. In 2010, she was invited to compete in Blackpool’s Dance Festival, a competition held once a year in England. The event brings together the best ballroom dancers from all over the world. “The invitation to participate was a huge achievement in itself, and although we did not make it to the finals, I am still very proud of myself and my partner,” she says.

Not making it into the finals encouraged Nissengolts to put competitive dancing on hold while she opened her own dance studio. Dance Passion, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, is already a major success with more than 100 enrolled students between the ages of four and an astounding 81 years old. “I don’t believe in an age-cap in any type of dancing: if you can walk, you can dance,” she says. At first, Nissengolts began by offering only ballroom classes, but now has expanded to include ballet, contemporary, aerobics, hip-hop, and even wedding dance classes. “I love teaching dance as much as I love dance itself.”

Next year, Nissengolts plans on returning to professional dancing. “I’ve had some time to work on myself and my studio, but now I feel it’s time to get back to business,” she says. “Maybe you’ll see me on the upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars.”

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