I have always had an interest in dance; however, I never thought I would be any good at it. So, during high school and college I got involved in track and field instead of dance. Due to a college running injury that prevented further track and field competition, I looked around for another group of athletically minded people that I thought would fill the social and physical void I felt once I left running. It was that experience that lead me into the wonderful world of dance.
During my last semester at UC Berkeley, I finally had enough seniority to be accepted in the school’s social dance class, where I met Bob Demyanovitch. He invited me to go dancing with him in San Francisco on the weekends. After taking West Coast Swing lessons from Tony Genero at a little bar named the Jolly Friar, Bob and I would head over to the only Jitterbug dance in SF at a place called The Avenue Ballroom. At The Avenue we, along with some other West Coast Swing addicts, would dance to 50’s rock & roll music until the early hours of the morning. My friends and I also danced at country bars, discos, the local swing club (Bay Swingers), basically anywhere we could. Eventually I began to teach both Jitterbug and West Coast Swing at The Avenue Ballroom under my maiden name of Kelly Buckwalter and continued to run the swing program there for five years as well as teach at other locations throughout the Bay Area. The Avenue was a real hot spot–200 Westies on Friday nights and 200 Jitterbuggers on Saturday nights–what a blast!
While teaching at The Avenue, I also met a fellow named Bob Rogers who liked to do lifts and aerials. We put together a Jitterbug/New Wave routine for the Dance Fever try-outs and due to the fact that I spent over 60 seconds of the 90 seconds in the air, and we employed every trick in the book (costume changes, props–I blew bubbles at the top of every aerial!) we made it on TV in spite of our lack of technique! At that time I also modeled for a now hard to find book (Thank God!) called “How to Jitterbug” (by John Javna) with my good friend Crispin Pierce. I also was featured in “GQ”, “Dance Action” and “California Living” magazines. I promoted swing by performing on television locally, nationally, and internationally in a variety of dance productions, news spots, documentaries and videos. (If anyone has any old videos of Dance Fever, I would love to get a copy of my performance to use in my judging seminars of what NOT to do in competition! Please contact me if you have such a copy-thanks!)
During these years I also began to study International Ballroom with Rex Lewis. After five years of intensive lessons, I decided to concentrate on swing, as that was the music that moved me the most. I am eternally grateful for the training Rex gave me and remember him every time I have to judge a cabaret division.
While dancing at the Peninsula Bay Club swing dance called “Top of Beardsleys”, run by Ed Cirio and Phil Trau, I met Dominic Yin. He and I decided to put together a classic swing routine to compete at the US Open in 1988. Against all logic, but with the backing of a large contingent of Bay Area supporters who would soon form the backbone of the now famous “Next Generation Swing Dance Club”, we won the US Open Classic Division and soon after opened our own studio, “SwingOut”, in Millbrae. A few years later we closed the studio and I went back to teaching classes at a variety of locations throughout the Bay Area and began teaching and competing “on the road”. It was during this time that I cemented my close friendships with wonderful dancers from all over the country. I will be eternally grateful to all those people who so graciously shared their experience and knowledge with me.
In 1994 I won the U.S.Open Jack & Jill Championship with Tom Paderna. Soon after that I retired from competition due to injuries I had sustained in an earlier car accident. Unwilling to leave the competitive scene, I jumped at the invitation of my mentors, Annie Hirsch and Jack Carey, to start judging. At that time, there were not very many young, competitive judges on panels as most of them preferred to compete. Unbeknownst to me, Annie was grooming me to take over the position of chief judge she held at several major events because she found that chief judging means you don’t get to dance much and she wanted back into the party! As a result, I continued to learn and acquire more jobs at events running competitions. I am grateful to Phoenix’s Fourth of July Convention and Jim and Cathy Tigges for having faith in me, as that was my first major event to chief judge, and to Lance Shermoen who was a great friend and exceptional score person who taught me so much about the Relative Placement Scoring System used at swing competitions.
In addition to winning the 1988 U.S. Open Classic Swing Dance Championship with Dominic Yin, and the 1994 U.S. Open Jack & Jill Championship with Tom Paderna, I have also been awarded several local and national awards for my contribution to swing. In 2004 I was inducted into the prestigious National Swing Dance Hall of Fame, and in 2006 I was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. I am a former member of the World Swing Dance Council, and a former Board of Director for the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. I am also a founder of The Next Generation Swing Dance Club based in the SF Bay Area and have served as their Boogie By the Bay Chief Judge for several decades.
In 1998 I lobbied an experienced California promoter named John Wheaton to allow anyone to lead or follow in his competitions without limiting roles based on gender identification. At that time he thought such a policy might prove fiscally risky and challenged me to put my own skin in the game by running my own event so I could do whatever I wanted. In 1999, with John as my silent partner, I put on my own three day national event, “Swing Break”, which attracted over 700 attendees. I am proud to say that to my knowledge “Swing Break” was the first major convention in California that did not discriminate according to age or gender in all contests. The Learning Channel’s production of “The Secret World of Ballroom Dancing” featured my event and includes several interviews with many prominent members of the swing community. In the Invitational category I had invited, against the established norms, a talented “junior” named Jordan Frisbee who drew one of the most established Champions, Mary Ann Nunez, and they swept the contest! In addition, since I allowed competitors to register as either leads or follows in all my contests I had some truly memorable performances – most notably the performance of Champions John Lindo and Ramiro Gonzales.
This event supporting gender neutral competitions was instrumental in allowing same gender couples, and female leads with male follows to compete in subsequent Strictly Swing competitions at other events. “Swing Break” ran for another year in 2000 and then I realized the community wasn’t yet ready for all my changes. I was told by many people in the community that they would not support my event unless I returned to a traditional male-lead, female-follow format and I wasn’t willing to do that. Since ultimately John’s prediction about the financial risk was right, I decided to close my doors and invest my time with my daughter.
After Swing Break, I continued to champion role and skill based competitions over competitions that limited competitors’ participation based on gender. With the help of my daughter Samantha Buckwalter and Phoenix Jackson I created an online petition (signed by over 2000 competitors within 24 hours) requesting the governing swing organizations (World Swing Dance Council and National Association of Swing Dance Events) to change their rules to allow people to compete as either a lead or follow. As a result of the discussion created by the petition, the WSDC subsequently changed their rules to allow competitors to compete as either a lead or follow. In 2015 at a Board of Directors meeting at the US Open, I formally requested that the National Association of Swing Dance Events (NASDE) to allow individual event directors to determine if they wanted to eliminate gender restrictions in their routine divisions; at that time they decided to “take no action”. In 2017 Samantha took over the lead on this issue and created a compelling video to present to the NASDE Board to encourage a change. The issue was so important to some of the event directors that one event actually left the association when the board decided to remain gender restrictive. I believe it is only a matter of time before the routine divisions will also be gender neutral.
I came out of competitive retirement at Bill Cameron’s New Year’s Eve 2002 event back east to compete in the Invitational Jack & Jill. I was thrilled to draw my old friend Robert Royston and amazed when we placed 2nd. It was a really poignant moment, as the last time we had drawn each other, I was just about to retire from competition and he was just starting! When there was a small window of opportunity in 2014 I also competed as a lead in the Novice J&J division. After competing at two events and making finals I am just as proud of my one point in Novice as a lead as I am of my US Open wins; unfortunately because the latest WSDC rules don’t currently allow me to compete in Novice, I have again retired from competition.
Although my competition experience has helped me empathize when I’m coaching or judging, I find that the joy I receive from teaching social dancers has been the greatest blessing for me all these years and I know that is where my heart and real talents lie. When I hear of the fun that they have in my classes and how learning to dance has helped them improve the quality of their lives, those “invisible trophies” mean the world to me.
Hope to see you on the dance floor,