How does a ballerina maintain a twenty-one-year career in competitive exhibition ballroom dance at the top of her class, producing wins in one of the toughest, most specifically formatted, most elegant yet back-stabbing, resentful, and competitive industries of dance, and, in a style she describes as “pas de deux on steroids”? For Sharon Savoy, a passionate desire for artistic, self-expression that became an obsession would drive her successful and long career as she committed herself to performance rather than the competitive trappings of winning to become a world-class artist, setting a new standard of excellence in the competitive industry. “The creative independence and the exploration of self was fabulous, and one of the biggest drawing points. In that [experience], I found great joy.”
Artistic expression, performance, and competition require a solid foundation that builds vision and confidence. For Sharon, it started with ballet at North Carolina School of the Arts and continued at the School of American Ballet in New York under Balanchine. She performed under the direction of Edward Villella, as well as in companies such as the Eglevsky Ballet, the New Jersey Ballet, and New World Ballet.
Her passion for dance and classical training offered an advantage, particularly in adagio, that paved a smooth transition from ballet to the ballroom world of dance. The connection between ballet and the exhibition category of ballroom, was an obvious choice and helped to generate income for those weeks in between ballet company performance contracts. Also, ballet was key in giving her the cutting edge at dance competitions.
It should be noted that the exhibition category in ballroom differs from the traditional competitive ballroom format where the couples dance in rounds. “Exhibition is one event in the framework of the ballroom dance world. Dancers use exhibition to show their other skills…and what [they] do best.”
Upon entering the exhibition arena, Sharon brought strong technique that demonstrated excellence few others possessed. “You come in with an advantage. In the air, you need the balletic line, to extend the line classically, aerially. When a lift is moving, you don’t want to look like you’re stationary. There is movement within your body even if you are stationary, because of energy in the line.”
The only thing in your control is to move someone who is watching.
Sharon’s ballroom dance competition wins eventually garnered world tours and performances. “I was lucky I found my niche.” She most certainly did, but to say niche underlies her accomplishments: winner of the 2013 Huading Award for Best Global Female Dancer, 4-time Blackpool Professional Exhibition Dance Champion, 3-time Professional World Exhibition Dance Champion, 7-time Professional U.S. Open Cabaret Champion, 3-time Star Search champion, first professional ballerina to win at Blackpool Dance Festival, first to win with multiple partners, and, for her retirement competitive routine, she and her partner received a perfect-score.
But not all ballerinas are able to make this transition. “A lot of ballerinas never quite get that slightly soft knee that allows for the in-between stuff; to move fluid[ly] like water, to see more movement and flow rather than position.”
“When you first [study] ballet, you learn positions. When you first [study] ballroom, you learn flow. And really, at the height of it, there should be a blend of both, but still, ballet is position and ballroom is flow as the predominant nature of it.”
The task ahead in her transition was at first daunting. “I took a training course at Fred Astaire’s dance studio in New York City and learned one-hundred steps in two and a half weeks, which is ridiculous. You learn ten steps for [every] ten dance [styles] and the man and woman’s part. This was mind boggling for me… Most dancers have the mentality of ‘tell me what to do,’ and mimic. They’re used to seeing it, copying it, and then re-creating it.”
As the new puzzle pieces moved into place, she realized the approach to performance was vastly different. Ballerinas prove themselves by dancing age-old variations and being compared to the legends before them. In ballroom, Sharon was in charge. “You create yourself. Which made me grow in many ways. You don’t recognize it at first, but then you start to choreograph your own work, and design your own costumes, you cut your own music. I brought what I wanted for lighting. I made the decisions. In a ballet company, those decisions are made for you.”
The biggest difference between ballet and ballroom was sensorial; the experience found within the differing venues of each performance. In ballet, “You go on stage and the audience is there to receive you. You go into a competition and everybody becomes a judge. That’s the nature of it. There’s a feeling in the room that’s palatable that you cannot ignore. It’s a whole other set of nerves.”
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“In the beginning, I was gratefully naïve. I thought my job was to dance. I was clueless about the politics, that there would be favorites or upsets. So, having no experience allowed me to go in with no preconceived mental – good or bad, [thoughts.] Just do the job as a dancer.”
Returning year after year, gave Sharon a more experienced insight. “Then later, [I became] extremely aware of what I was walking into. [Which] is something that is out of your control. But it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it through every pore of your body.”
Most mainstage concert and ballet performances have, “...perimeters, wings, and separation from the audience. Blackpool was a whole new forum. There were no ends to the space, it was huge. How do you fill that space? I remember walking around the Blackpool floor thinking it was the size of a football field. And the immediacy of the people – they’re right there at eye level, which is a whole different transfer of energy between the audience and the performer. More visceral, more intense and less magical without sets and perfect lighting behind you to create a mood, a context, and focus. You have to create all that yourself and pray the [spot]lighting guy can follow you.”
More important than a medal was the connection to the audience
Navigating the ever-shifting politics of competition was managed with an introspection borne of the art of ballet. More important than a medal was the connection to the audience. “I always thought my goal was to get to the audience. You perform well enough to move the audience. Someone putting a mark on a piece of paper has nothing to do with it. The only thing in your control is to move someone who is watching.”
“There were many times when we came in second or third. But we got a ton of performances all over Europe. If you move someone in the audience, like the guy who’s organizing the Paris Open or a Russian thing, they want a show. Having the platform of Blackpool to showcase work was worth the unfun part of competing – to get the reward of performance.”
Sharon overcame the stigma of competition by having the unique perspective that the opportunity was about performance, not a medal. “I competed so I could perform.”
Sharon’s book, Ballroom: Obsession and Passion Inside the World of Competitive Dance, shares her biggest inspiration, Francoise Szony, and gives details of her multiple partnerships in dance. What’s most interesting is her use of the words, “obsession” and “passion” to title and discuss her life’s work. “I don’t know how to do something well without immersing myself in it. For me, that’s obsession. I don’t know how to do something passionately without obsessing over the details. When you have total immersion, absorbed in your work, everything clicking and working together – that’s when you’re most engulfed – that’s the gift part of it. To me, this [career] was about artistic expression.”
Every aspect of Sharon’s art, had to be an obsession, “... a Monet, a Picasso, and the color of the paint was either azure or cobalt blue. Why does it make a difference? Well, because it does.”