Life of Dance

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Jacob Blank and Cambria Stetson. (Stuart Dahne Photography)

From the outside, The Promenade DanceSport Facility is unassuming, set in a low-slung, nondescript brick building, one of many in this sprawling Woodlawn business park. But inside is a different story. In the hushed dimness, before the music starts and the dancers lace up their dancing shoes to begin tripping the light fantastic, the gleaming, honey-colored hardwood dance floor beckons, all 5,500 square feet of it.

This morning, that sea of velvety, shining wood won’t play host to the hundreds that regularly fill the venue for weekly group lessons, ballroom boot camps, talent showcases and tea dances. No, as the lights come up and the silky strains of “Somebody Loves Me” drift through the cavernous room, just two dancers take to the floor, Jacob Blank, 17, and his 16-year-old partner, Cambria Stetson, followed by their ballroom instructor, Katya Sergiev.


For the next hour and a half, Jacob and Cambria, both training since they were toddlers, are put through their paces in the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep, among other dances, moving with amazing grace for such young bodies. But these two are already champions, working hard to continue to be so for years to come, with lots of family support backing them up.

Beginnings

Jacob attended Krieger Schechter Day School, had his bar mitzvah at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and is now a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He was introduced to dancing by his mother, Karen A. Blank, a professional dancer and teacher. But they aren’t the only dancers in the family.

Karen Black (Provided)

“My sister’s a dance teacher. She teaches us in our [ballet] class on Saturdays,” Jacob said. “My brother used to dance. He did ballet for a little while and tap too. My dad does ballroom, and he started doing ballet.”

“It seems like we started a dynasty,” Jacobs’s mother said with a laugh.

A founding member of the Arlington School for Dance, with a stack of impressive ballet and modern training and professional dance company credits, Karen now teaches at the Carroll County Dance Center, as does her equally impressively credentialed daughter, Jessica Huebner. More recently, Karen began teaching at The Promenade.

“When I was pregnant, I was teaching, and when I would turn on the music, Jacob would move in utero. He really did,” she said. “As soon has he could walk or get up on his feet, he would bounce and respond to the music. He has always had an interest and had a good sense of rhythm. And he’s very theatrical, so it’s a good combination.”

“She started getting him in creative movement classes,” said Jacob’s father, Michael. “It takes a lady to get a kid to dance. It’s over a guy’s head. We don’t see it.”

When he was 3, Jacob began dance classes at the arts center near his home in Mount Airy and later moved on to lessons at Carroll County Dance Center, where he met Cambria.

“She was 4 when she started ballet at Carroll County Dance Center,” said Cambria’s mother, Jennifer Stetson. “I took ballet as a child and I just knew how much I loved it, and I thought she would enjoy it. And she did. She was hooked immediately.”

When Jacob was about 10, his family, along with tens of millions of people across the country, became fans of the ballroom dancing show “Dancing with the Stars,” and his father wondered if Jacob might be interested in taking his dance in a different direction.

“My dad would ask me if I wanted to try ballroom, because I was already doing ballet and modern,” Jacob said. “At first, I was kind of reluctant, but he kept asking, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it if it’ll make you happy.’ And I tried it and I loved it.”

The hit show “Dancing with the Stars” helped push Cambria and Jacob together as dance partners. (Stuart Dahne Photography)

Partners

The next challenge was to find Jacob a partner, usually a tall order, as good dance teams need to be well-matched in experience, attitude, dedication and commitment to the rigorous physical and emotional demands training and competing brings. But Jacob’s mom already had someone in mind — someone Jacob had been dancing with for years.

“Cambria started ballroom when Jake’s mom, Karen, asked me if I thought Cambria would be interested in being his partner,” Jennifer said. “We were fans of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ also. She had been Cambria’s teacher and had been watching Cambria for a while and just thought she would be a perfect match for Jake.”

“I was like 8,” Cambria remembered. “[Jacob and I] had been dancing ballet, modern, jazz and tap for a really long time at the same studio. Not knowing what I was getting into, I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ It’s led to all the competitions and lots and lots of lessons, and we still do all the other dances at the studio.”

All those “other dances” mean the two continue to take lessons in ballet, modern, tap, jazz and hip-hop, in addition to ballroom training, which entails a number of dance styles.

“We do international style,” Jacob said. “And in international style, there are two subgroups: Latin, which is cha-cha, samba, rumba [paso doble and jive] and then standard, which is waltz, tango, foxtrot, quickstep.”

Currently, the couple dances at the Youth Level in Gold and Novice proficiency, but as Jacob nears 18, they are beginning to age out of Youth and must be ready for the next step: Pre-Champ.

“And that’s definitely a lot more skilled,” Cambria said. “We’ll have to spend a lot of time practicing.”

“And more dances too,” Jacob added. “Each level has a certain number of dances. You do a minute and a half of each dance. In Gold, you do four dances, and then in Novice you do three. And in Pre-Champ, you go back to four, and then in Championship you go all the way to five. For each age group, there’s all the different proficiency levels. We usually compete in Adult as well.”

With so many dances in their repertoire, Cambria and Jacob admit that the quickstep is their favorite. (Stuart Dahne Photography)

Teachers

“1, 2, 3, 4 and 1, 2, 3, 4 and 1, 2, 3 and 4! Really make it very, very clear.”

In the center of that sea of oak, Katya Sergiev counts and gives instruction as Jacob and Cambria match each beat with a move —a spin, a slide, a dip. The two move in smooth synchronization, as the best dance partners do. Think Astaire and Rogers, Kelly and Caron, Julianne and Derek.

Katya and her husband, Slava, are professional ballroom dancers and instructors from Belarus, with a laundry list of national and international competition wins. She has been teaching at The Promenade for 22 years, teaching ballroom to Jacob since he was 10 and instructing Jacob and Cambria for three years. She said their deep foundation in dance has paid off.

“They are both progressing; they are very talented,” she said. “They did ballet, so that helps them to do ballroom, which are quicker moves. But their bodies are already trained, so that makes my job much easier.”

“Being ballet-trained has helped, but it’s also hard to break away from the structure of ballet and let go and move your body in ways that are so unlike ballet,” Jacob said.

“But it definitely wasn’t a waste of time,” Cambria added. “It’s really helped with the ballroom. It gave us a little jumpstart.”

That is echoed by Jacob’s first ballet teacher, his mom.

[pullquote]”I literally don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t dance.” — Jacob Blank[/pullquote]

“I have told him that if you want to be marketable in the dance world, you need to be very well trained in ballet because it’s a good basis for every other style you want to do,” Karen said. “And, of course, he enjoyed it, so that was a plus.

“Other children may start out in jazz or in tap or modern or contemporary, but if you really want to succeed, you have to train in ballet,” she added.

They alternate lessons at Capital Ballroom in Bethesda for Latin instruction with Nicolai Pilipenchuk and more standard lessons with Oleksiy Buravenko.

Cambria’s mom, Jennifer, who is also Jacob’s piano teacher, said the two have danced together so long they have a special connection.

“They can read each other’s minds, they read each other’s movements,” she said. “They both are musically similar, so they can feel the music together.”

Challenges

But beyond all that synchronicity and togetherness on the dance floor are two teens in the middle of their most demanding years of high school. Cambria, a junior at Liberty High School in Eldersburg, is taking an all-academic schedule, no electives and two AP classes. She also has a part-time job.

“It’s been a struggle at some points, that’s for sure,” she said. “You start to figure out when you can fit things in, like what certain blocks of time you need to leave open for homework.”

Jacob also has a demanding academic load at Beth Tfiloh, takes piano lessons and works during the summers at Camp Shoresh near Frederick. “We just don’t sleep right now,” Jacob said, laughing. “You use whatever time you have. There’s a lot of time spent in the car, so that’s a good place to get things done.”

But they also appreciate the down moments. They grab time with friends when they can; Cambria tries to fit in some karate, and Jacob enjoys his piano lessons.

“And I hang out with friends. It happens every now and then,” Cambria said.

“Yeah. Very rarely,” Jacob agreed, smiling. “But it happens.”

Cambria and Jacob at the 2017 USA Dance National DanceSport Championships in Baltimore, where they placed second in the Youth Gold Division. (Provided)

Competitions

Every couple of months Jacob and Cambria participate in ballroom dance competitions around the region and have been doing well in Youth and Adult-level competitions. In 2016, they took second place in the Youth Silver Standard Division at the USA National DanceSport Championships. Earlier this year, they placed second in the Youth Gold Division at the 2017 USA Dance National DanceSport Championships in Baltimore at the end of March. In June, they competed at the Summer Sizzler 2017 DanceSport Classic National Qualifying Event in New Jersey and danced at the Russian Embassy.

“[The Summer Sizzler] is not a terribly huge competition, but it’s a qualifying one to get into the nationals,” Michael said. “The next one’s going to be up in Manhattan in January — the Manhattan Classic. That’s where all the good kids are from New York. These are the hard ones to beat.”

For competitions and training, the two go through a lot of shoes and outfits. Jacob may need a new tux for moving into the next category, and Cambria may need a new dress. Appearance is important, Katya told Jennifer, and can give dancers an edge.

“That, for the judges, is do you want [to win] or not? First impression is kind of strong,” Katya said. “And in the earlier rounds it also helps a lot.”

From left: Michael and Jacob Blank and Cambria and Jennifer Stetson at The Promenade. (Susan C. Ingram photo)

Family

Family support, like the right shoes and outfits, can make all the difference in the world to young dancers like Jacob and Cambria, as parents juggle attention to their dancers with other siblings, drive long distances to lessons and competitions and spend time with each other as they wait in the wings.

“It’s funny, when you’re around a dance studio, the parents and the kids have the same sort of values,” Michael said. “First of all, it keeps them so busy, it keeps them out of trouble. Second of all, they just have a certain value system.”

“I agree that in our situation, our families are similar in how we are with our kids,” Jennifer said. “And what we value and what we think is important in life. I think it helps them that we’re on the same page.”

“We get along well as parents,” she added. “[Michael and Karen] are very good about working together, with figuring out how to make this work.”

And sometimes family togetherness means dancing together, a family meal or a shared philosophy.

Jacob recalled a performance at their synagogue during Purim one year. “It was sort of a ‘Dancing with the Stars’ competition, where four different couples had to perform a routine involving Purim in some way,” he said. “My mother and I did a dance to ‘I’ve Got the Horse Right Here’ from ‘Guys and Dolls.’”

“I know the Jewish philosophy is you give back the gifts you have been given,” Karen said of her son’s talent. “So, when he steps out on the stage, he has mentioned to me, ‘I enjoy connecting with the audience, I enjoy communicating what is in my heart with the people who are watching. And I take such great joy in dancing that when I go on the stage, I want to share it.’ So, I think that may be a connection to his training at Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh and being part of a larger community.”

Jacob and Cambria at a recent USA Dance competition. (Provided )

Future

For now, the near future for both Jacob and Cambria includes college, preferably close to home.

“I’m hoping to go to college, but I’m not looking anywhere too far away, because I hope that we can still dance together,” Jacob said. “I’ve been thinking of becoming a teacher of some kind. I’ve been thinking math, actually, or a dance teacher. Or both.”

For Cambria, it’s a bit early to be picking out schools, but she is attending college fairs and contemplating majors in the biomedical field. And although it’s hard as teens for them to imagine what they’ll be doing in 10 years, they have similar ideas.

“Hopefully, we’re still dancing together by then,” Cambria said. “It’s what we know. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.”

“I hope that we would at least to get to compete in championship level, and then, who knows?” Jacob said. “They have competitions all over the world. If we got really good, we could probably compete in other countries. The most difficult, the most prestigious competition is the Blackpool [Dance Festival]. Ms. Katya talks about that a lot. Really hard. World champions are competing there.”

“You have to stay in shape. You have to keep your stamina up,” he added. “It depends on how willing you are to do that when you get older. I literally don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t dance.”

[pullquote]“Hopefully, we’re still dancing together [in 10 years]. It’s what we know. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.” — Cambria Stetson[/pullquote]

“It’s not just physical, it’s also mental,” Cambria said. “To be able to stay in the zone.”

Karen, whose daughter and son literally followed in her footsteps, is proud to see her son excelling and her daughter passing on her skills. She is hopeful for what the future may bring.

“I am still waiting to see what will turn out for him, because he’s really very good in most of the styles that he studies. I think he will be exceptional in ballroom because he and his partner together just move like one person,” Karen said. “But I think he would also be very successful in musical theater. So we will see what he decides.”

“It makes me so proud of [my daughter] to see how well she can pass on her gift to younger people and inspire them to go on. That has been very fulfilling for me as her mother and as her teacher,” she added. “And I think that Jake will also enjoy teaching. He has dabbled in it a couple of times, and I think he would be very good at that. It’s amazingly wonderful as a parent to see your child grow in a skill and an art form. That’s been fun.”

“Dancing with the Stars” dancer Derek Hough chats with Jacob after the 2013 “Ballroom with a Twist” at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. (Provided)

Inspiration

Besides supportive parents, Jacob gets lots of inspiration from his favorite dancers, some of whom he got to know watching “Dancing with the Stars” and some of whom he later got to meet.

“My favorite dancer from ‘Dancing with the Stars’ would have to be Derek Hough. He’s truly an inspiration. He’s a brilliant choreographer and an amazing dancer, and I really enjoy watching him on the show. I actually met him one time after a show at Wolf Trap, called ‘Ballroom with a Twist,’” Jacob said. “My favorite dancer overall would have to be Gene Kelly. He’s such a likable performer. Someone who just makes you want to get up and dance, yourself. He is a role model for me, and if I end up dancing professionally, I want to dance just like him.”

Beyond all the classes and training and competition and homework and plans, Jacob and Cambria do actually enjoy themselves. Their favorite dance together?

“Quickstep,” Jacob said, with a smile. “It’s hard to practice because it’s very fast and requires a lot of stamina, but in competition, it’s really fun.”

“It just kind of happens; you don’t even think about what you’re doing,” Cambria added.

“You just go!” Jacob said.

singram@midatlanticmedia.com

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