Bumchin Tegshjargal started dancing with his partner. Michelle Klets, a year and a half ago. In that short time, they’ve become one of the country’s top young couples in Latin dance. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)
They take their places for their first dance: the cha-cha. For a few seconds, they lock eyes and bob their heads to the music. And then, they move.
A new generation has discovered ballroom dancing. And not just social dancing. Thanks in part to shows like "Dancing with the Stars," competitive ballroom dancing is in style.
Bumchin and Michelle are dancing at the International Grand Ball, a competition that’s held each summer in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco. I watch them snap gracefully from one pose to another. They make sweeping gestures and dramatic faces. They’re almost a cartoon version of elegance and passion.
But the lead-up to this moment isn’t so glamorous.
A few hours before the competition, I find Bumchin standing at the bathroom sink, surrounded by hair products.
“I usually put a lot of gel in my hair,” says Bumchin, squirting a gooey glob of gel into his hand.
Bumchin started dancing with Michelle a year and a half ago. In that short time, they’ve become one of the country’s top young couples in Latin dance. Before each competition, they have a routine. One crucial step is making their hair indestructible.
“Just in case that she touches your hair,” says Bumchin. “Or another competitor hits you in the head."
Michelle starts to get ready four hours before they step on the dance floor. “I actually hate getting glammed up for competitions because it's such a fuss!” she says.
She puts on hairspray, dramatic makeup and a cream to make her skin look more tan. And then her dress, which is covered in crystals.
"You walk around as if you're a doll because you don't want to mess anything up," says Michelle. “I hate that because I'm a very move-y person, I just want to move all the time.”
The Bay Area couple recently won first place in a national competition, beating out dancers up to four years older than they are.
"They’re both extremely talented and they both extremely 'want it,'" says their coach, Cecilia Giovacchini.
They have different styles, she says. Bumchin "is a feeler, he feels the music, he likes to express himself." Michelle, she says, is the opposite. “She's more technical, more analytical."
But together, they bring something else: chemistry. Every dance is like acting out a love story, so choosing the right partner is essential.
"It's like we're family," says Bumchin. "Brother and sister."
They say their relationship is not a romantic one. But the love is there.
"When I have my breakdowns, he's there," says Michelle. "When I have no makeup on, he's there. I'm the most vulnerable around him. So being on the floor with him, it's not really acting because even as friends we love each other so much."
The International Grand Ball is a three-day event that attracts dancers of every age and skill level. Proud families are coming up and down the escalator. That’s where I meet Bumchin’s grandmother, Margaret LeWright.
LeWright has been coming to this competition for years, so she knows all the parents. “I cheer for their kids, they cheer for mine,” she says.
The families here come from all over. “If you hang out long enough you might learn a foreign language!” says LeWright.
The teachers could be Italian or Spanish or Lithuanian. A lot of the dancers, including Michelle, come from Russian families.
Bumchin grew up in Mongolia and moved to Oakland when he was 11. Now he spends all his time dancing. It’s a passion that takes both time and money.
"I would say we've all made some sacrifices,” says LeWright. “I needed a new car ... well, it can wait."
Bumchin and Michelle compete about once a month. They consider this a smaller local event. But the judges here will score them in other competitions. So they have to make a good impression.
LeWright and I walk into the grand ballroom. Along one side of the dance floor stand the judges, watching every move and making marks in little notebooks. All the dancers’ work and preparation comes down to this moment.
A Latin dance competition covers five standard dances: cha-cha, samba, rumba, Paso Doble and jive. They get just a minute and a half for each dance.
The jive -- the fastest, most energetic dance -- is saved for last. It’s based on West Coast swing. Bumchin and Michelle must be exhausted by now, but they're grinning. It’s really fun to watch.
“The audience loves it,” says LeWright, fawning over her grandson. “He connects with the audience, he connects with his partner.”
And then it’s over. They’re on the floor for less time than it takes to boil an egg. Bumchin bows; Michelle curtseys. They join hands and walk off.
A few minutes later come the results: Michelle and Bumchin won first place in all five dances.
Honestly, they kind of knew they would.
“Well, it's always nice to win ...,” says Michelle.
But, she says, this one was just practice. The big test comes in December. They’re going to Paris, to compete at the Open World Championships.