Tip one: Find a suitable partner
The Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Virginia Beach Boulevard glows like a disco ball, shining atop a squat strip of nail salons, a massage therapy office and a fitness studio that specializes in pole dancing lessons.
Inside on this Thursday night, Girl Crush by Little Big Town fills the room as Taras Denysenko watches Anne and Kevin Deary glide through the Viennese waltz. He studies the two before stopping Kevin and taking Anne by the hand to show her a count of intricate footwork.
“That,” she says, “I’m not sure I will remember.”
“Yes, you will,” Denysenko answers with a smile.
A few feet away, Wendy Denysenko, his partner in the studio – his partner in life – is helping a beginner learn a basic sidestep; she counts, “1, 2, 3, tap,” and gives the same encouraging smile as her husband.
The two have been married for 13 years and have been teaching and dancing together even longer. They have seen an increased interest in ballroom dancing with the popularity of shows like Dancing With the Stars, but the craft has always meant more to the couple than entertainment.
They have won titles at levels of competition that are cutthroat, but the Denysenkos are as content working with nervous souls who can’t tell their right foot from their left as they are salsaing across the stage in front of an international audience.
For this couple, dancing – with all of its elegance, breath-holding spirals and inevitable tumbles – is life.
Tip two: Learn the steps
The Denysenkos opened the Virginia Beach franchise in 2009, moving from Rochester, New York, where they’d owned a studio.
They arrived with an impressive resume: World Salsa finalists, Arthur Murray Rising Star Rhythm champions, Southern Ontario Rhythm champions, Open Rhythm champions and world finalists. The two are certified dance masters, which means they spend several days each month traveling around the country to train, consult or judge competitions. Wendy takes the lead in running the business, but they both offer private, advanced lessons.
The traditional group classes are handled by the troupe of instructors who have graduated from the Arthur Murray curriculum, which can take months to complete. Male instructors wear ties during lessons and women are smartly dressed. They want their students to know their studio is fun but professional. “They aren’t watching someone who learned from YouTube,” Wendy says.
The instructors teach etiquette, such as how to escort a woman onto and off the floor. But dance allows something that can’t be taught. “People come in to dance and they become different people,” she says.
Wendy and Taras have seen couples come to save a sinking marriage. They end up holding hands long after the music is over. Men with ramrod-straight postures and telltale crew cuts walk in sheepishly in search of a soothing contrast to the battleship gray and steel that surrounds them all day. “A lot of my Navy guys describe it as the yin to their yang,” Wendy says. “I know what they mean. They mean it’s the human interaction that they are missing.”
Wendy, 45, grew up in Brunswick, Maine, in a family with an affinity for dance. Her parents spun to tunes around the house; her mother, in particular, loved ballroom. Wendy had an uncle who danced in the 1980s TV series Solid Gold. When she was about 6, she jumped into ballet, then jazz and tap, and won Miss Teen Queen and Miss Congeniality of Brunswick. For college, she studied at the University of Maine before landing at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she earned roles in shows such as Man of La Mancha.
After her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wendy transferred to a college in Rochester. She took care of her during that three-year battle. Her mom died in 1995. “She fought it,” Wendy says.
Wendy did some modeling and waitressing, and hung out at clubs with friends who taught her to salsa. Then a friend suggested she apply for a job at an Arthur Murray studio.
“And an instructor grabbed me for a waltz,” she remembers. “I just knew it was something I wanted to do. It was almost dreamlike. I thought, ‘This could really be a job?’ ”
Taras, 43, grew up in the close-knit Rochester Ukrainian community, the youngest of three. He often tagged along when his mother took his sister to folk dancing classes. He was 6, trying to be annoying, and did what 6-year-old brothers do.
“I was making fun of my sister, and my mom saw that,” he says and shrugs. “I got put in the dance class.”
He liked it. He performed with the Ukrainian folk dancing group throughout junior and high school, even as the music of Metallica and Def Leppard began filling his brain. He joined a band called Broken Wings and dreamed of being a rock star.
But his dad was practical. He had survived a Ukraine torn apart during World War II. Taras’ mother lived in a displaced persons camp before they both left Europe and later met in the United States. He told Taras to get a “real” job. The ultimatum came about the time Taras saw Swing Kids, a 1993 film set in Nazi Germany in which German teens love listening to the banned swing music from America. “I thought it was super cool.”
He joined Arthur Murray in 1996 and became a top teacher who attracted loyal students. In 2001, Lata Shenoy saw Taras and some of his students at a showcase. She later called his studio for private lessons, though she continued to take lessons at a studio in Buffalo. “At competitions with Taras, I would get gold,” Shenoy says. “I’d get silver or bronze with the other guy.”
Taras met Wendy, who was teaching at another studio, and they started competing in the rhythm division of competitions. His tall and lean lines, his commanding posture, were perfect for her willowy frame and fiery kicks and turns.
They married in 2003.
Tip three: Take missteps in stride
When they opened the Virginia Beach location in the Byler Building in January 2009, they unknowingly traded snow for rain. That November, a nor’easter whipped through, saturating the roof and leaving inches of standing water on their hardwood floors.
The couple with the right moves were suddenly at a standstill.
The Virginian-Pilot ran a story about them. Strangers – including competing studios – offered help. The Denysenkos took one up on the offer while repairs were made. Those were lean times, though. They lost instructors, and some clients did not move with them. In March 2010, they reopened their studio. They removed the walls of smaller rooms and doubled the size of the ballroom.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Wendy says.
They built their clientele by word of mouth and trained dancers who believed in their vision: Dance is a passion and can be a way of life.
The Dearys started taking dance classes at the studio a few months before the Denysenkos took over. The change the couple brought was dramatic, Anne says. “As soon as they came in, they performed for us,” she recalls. “It’s the kind of thing where your jaw is on the floor and you’re trying to pull it up. It was so inspiring.”
The newcomers brought more structure, a set curriculum, a talent in teaching that took the Dearys from simply swaying back and forth at wedding receptions to wowing friends. The Dearys are now competing in amateur contests. “They just have a way of making you feel so special,” Anne says. “They have a way of making you feel that you are the only people on the planet when they are with you.”
Even Shenoy would fly once a month to Virginia Beach from Buffalo for her lessons with Taras. She stopped last year after knee surgery.
After the years of teaching and dancing, the students have probably been the couple’s great honor.
Dance for the Denysenkos was never merely teaching steps. It was a lifestyle; it was always finding that perfect rhythm and seeing others join in just as much. Taras’ dad still asks him when he’s going to get a real job. He doesn’t need to answer.
“We still can’t believe that our job is doing something that we love so much,” Wendy says, and Taras nods.
“Dance is our life.”