The annual ballroom dance competition offers a glamorous, artistic experience for competitors and guests alike.
If you’ve ever been enticed by the glitz, glamour and spray tans of televised dance competition shows, now’s your chance to get up-close and personal to all the glitter and stars of the Sarasota Challenge, which is hosting its 10th anniversary ballroom dance competition on March 24 and 25.
The event, organized and hosted by Sid Pocius, owner of Empire Dance Studios, starts with a day of seminars led by renowned dance champions, a VIP dinner and a professional world class dance show.
Day two is when the competition heats up with pro/am and amateur events in the morning, and rhythm and Latin divisions through the afternoon, followed by a formal dinner, awards gala and 10th anniversary celebration with a guest performance by Manuel Favilla and Natalia Maidiuk, International Latin Champions.
“Through the years, dance competition has changed drastically — it’s more dynamic, with different categories; it’s more competitive, there’s more character — and that’s what makes it beautiful,” says Lithuania native Pocius, a professional dance competitor with wins around the world, who now judges competitions globally and produces Dancesport Spectacular Tour events.
A dancer since childhood, Pocius moved to Sarasota 16 years ago and opened his dance studio only to realize the region was lacking an annual competition. So, he started one. “We’re very fortunate to run for 10 years now,” he says.
It was serendipitous for Sheila Ragan of Anna Maria Island who has been competing for 17 years after taking her mother to dance lessons years ago. “She continued dancing until she was 92,” Ragan says. “Her instructor would even bring her oxygen tank onto the dance floor. She was an inspiration to me.”
Ragan started dancing after divorcing 20 years ago. She aced the various styles in American Smooth and Rhythm categories and loved them all. “Dance changed my outlook on life,” she says. “I’ve competed in Argentina, Switzerland, Prague, Cuba. It’s really taken me all over the world.”
Newer to the competition is Judith Merkt of Sarasota, who owns an administrative services business between her daily private dance lessons. She’s been at it for three years, and placed or won multiple awards in last year’s Sarasota Challenge, like first place Rising Star in Full Bronze and Intermediate Bronze Viennese Waltz finals.
“I’m not a youngster – I don’t have 20 years to get good,” says Merkt, who, like Ragan, partners with Empire Dance Studio’s instructor Vidas Orlovas. “I had to jump in with both feet, no pun intended.”
Preparations on competition day will begin at 4:30 a.m. with hair and makeup and settling butterflies in the tummy while shimmying into those sequined dresses.
“My goal is always to control my nerves so I can do the best that I know I can do,” says Merkt, who enjoys the event itself as much as the competition. “It’s marvelous --— all the bling and lovely dresses,” she says. “The ballroom is gorgeous and you have the judges looking like a million bucks.”
The popularity of ballroom dance and competitions have been boosted by those flashy TV shows, but also for another reason, according to Pocius: “We’re losing our sense of etiquette. Ballroom dancing teaches manners and etiquette — for the men, it teaches how to approach a woman and invite her to dance. For a woman — it teaches how to be respected and be approached,” he says. “I know so many people’s lives have been changed because of ballroom dancing.”
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