My partner is famous :) Sunday NY Times Metro Section


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It Takes Two to Tango

Published: June 26, 2005

ALEX SPENCER did not say hello. Instead, he silently took the hand of Masha Khokhlova, his partner, and stepped into the song that was filtering through Ballroom on Fifth, one of the city's premier dance studios. It was the kind of instrumental ballad from the 1940's to which either dancer's grandparents - his in Germany, hers in the former Soviet Union - might have fallen in love.

Mr. Spencer with Masha Khokhlova, an earlier performing partner.

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Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
Alex Spencer and Katarzyna Herink. When it comes to competitive ballroom dancing, New York is the world's stage.
Mr. Spencer is a compactly built 28-year-old with light hair, blue eyes and a prominent jaw. Ms. Khokhlova, 19, is a tall and slender Ukrainian immigrant with a mass of springy blond curls that fall halfway to her waist. He wore a suit, she a black skirt and a shirt with gauzy sleeves that floated like wings as she moved. As a saxophone soloed plaintively, the two glided across the floor as if pushed by a breeze.

It is here, in a cavernous, windowed space just south of the garment district, that some of the city's biggest names in DanceSport, the competitive world of ballroom dance, spend many of their days and nights. They come to the studio both to hone their skills and to teach others to pursue a sport that has become as intense as anything featured at the Olympics.

But this day Ms. Khokhlova was not in a good mood. Removing her thumb and index finger from the crevice between her partner's triceps and shoulder blade, she balled her hands into fists and placed them on her hips.

"What time is it?" she asked fretfully.


"I have to leave at four."

Moments later, they stopped again because Ms. Khokhlova felt she was being forced to slouch. Even with nubby one-inch heels on her gold shoes, she is 5 feet 11, only slightly shorter than her partner, who is 6 feet and often complains that she is a "big girl" for him. Most women are two to three inches shorter than their partners, even in heels.


Mr. Spencer's passion is ballroom dancing. He dances every day. He eats most of his meals at delis and snack shops near dance studios. He spends what free time he has with dancer friends.

And like a lot of single men in New York, Mr. Spencer is looking for the perfect woman.

Since coming to the city from the South last summer, he has been a man on a quest for the ideal partner, a search that has taken on special urgency with the Manhattan DanceSport Championships next weekend at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. The event is one of the sport's more important regional competitions. But given the tension on the dance floor that chilly February afternoon, it did not look as if his brief partnership with Ms. Khokhlova would endure very long.

A Two-Handled Saw

Although the world of competitive dance has been largely ignored by an American public that prefers its contact sports rough (football) or fast-paced (basketball), its profile has sharpened in recent years with the popularity of movies like the 1996 Japanese film "Shall We Dance?" (and its Americanized remake with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez), along with the Australian film "Strictly Ballroom," the New York-based "Mad Hot Ballroom" and the ABC reality show "Dancing With the Stars."

Many of the dozen dance studios in New York are throbbing nearly every day of the week. At Universal Dance Studios in Flushing, Queens, a clientele of about 500 mostly retired Asians and Asian-Americans pay upward of $50 an hour to dip and twirl around the floor with nattily dressed professionals. At Dance New York on 54th Street near Broadway, dancers prepare for Broadway auditions along with competitions. At Ballroom on Fifth, where Mr. Spencer spends most of his time, high-ranking dancers trade hours of instruction for use of the 3,000-square-foot practice space with its gleaming satin-finished oak floor.

New York is the world's stage when it comes to DanceSport, and immigrants, especially East Europeans, are powerfully attracted to the sport. Thousands of New Yorkers are registered on Web sites devoted to helping dancers find partners, and competitions like the Manhattan Amateur Classic, which drew 350 couples this year, can attract upward of 1,500 spectators.

But the struggle to master intricate footwork is nothing compared with the struggle of finding the perfect person with whom to perform.

Since Mr. Spencer arrived in New York, he has danced with a dozen women from around the world, and found fault with all of them - in their maturity and experience, their body types, their demanding schedules, their command of English.

Some of his peers say he is too picky. Just start dancing with someone, they advise, so you can raise your profile. Others insist that he is right to be fussy. He is, after all, only 28, not a young dance-world phenomenon like his friend Craig Shaw, a 21-year-old from Britain who has taken first-place awards in many American competitions he has entered, but still more grape than raisin. Perhaps he simply hasn't yet met the right woman.

Mr. Spencer has searched for partners in conventional ways: not only traveling to tryouts and networking at studios, dinners and parties, but also posting profiles on Web sites like, where he goes by the name Flexi and describes himself as "Competing on the amateur circuit in NYC hopefully with a fantastic girl, which could be you!"

"Most people agree, it's harder to find a dance partner than a spouse," says Ken Greer, who founded and runs A spouse, he adds, can be any height; a dance partner cannot. Body type is an issue too; matching a slender dancer with a heavyset one creates its own set of problems.

Two months ago, Mr. Spencer took a $12 bus from Chinatown to Philadelphia just to watch the Philadelphia DanceSport Championships. Sitting in the audience, he critiqued the competitors, commenting on their footwork, their facial expressions, their choice of dress, even their body types.

The dance floor was populated by men wearing $2,000 tuxedos tailored to fit their frames and yet allow them to raise their arms effortlessly. Attached to each man's jacket was a small piece of paper bearing the couple's identification number. The women wore dresses of every color, some hand-studded with Swarovski crystals.

Mr. Spencer attended the competition, in part, to network with dancers and further his search for a partner. But he came away melancholic. "I should be dancing," he announced at one point to no one in particular.

Mr. Spencer knows that a perfect partnership is a rare and magical thing. Partners need to move fluidly together, bodies in perfect alignment, anticipating each other's thoughts.

He yearns to find a woman who wants to dance as desperately as he does. Ideally, she will be young, attractive, slender and stylish, because personal presentation counts for so much. She will be easygoing enough to let Mr. Spencer instruct her during practice sessions, but fiery and passionate when it comes time to compete. She will be extremely talented, but not, of course, more talented than her partner.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Mr. Spencer has a progressive view of dance; in his opinion, the partners should share the work 50-50. It is, he says, like cutting down a tree with a saw that has handles on both ends. "If both people are pulling with the same force, it works," he says. "If the timing's not right, the saw won't work. Ballroom dancing is the same thing."

Those Dancing Feet

Mr. Spencer's longest and most successful partnership so far has been with his mother, Rita Spencer, a fair, blue-eyed woman with a swimmer's build who works as a seamstress in Atlanta. Rita Spencer was once a professional ballroom dancer, and she and her son practiced and competed together for six years.

Mr. Spencer's father was also a professional ballroom dancer, but he exited the family's life early on; Mr. Spencer never met him. Mr. Spencer grew up instead with his mother, a stepfather and two younger half-sisters. The family lived in a condominium in Marietta, Ga., at the time a predominantly Baptist community. As Ms. Spencer remembers those days, the stepfather discouraged her son from dancing because he believed that most male dancers were gay.

When Alex Spencer was in fifth grade, his mother divorced and moved the family to a trailer a few towns away. The move interrupted his lessons in tap, ballet, swimming and judo, but he replaced them with lessons in wrestling and kung fu, in part to project a more masculine image.

After he graduated from high school, Mr. Spencer moved in with three women who worked at the Pink Pony, a strip club near Emory University in Atlanta, and began training as a professional ballroom dancer, paying his bills by working at several part-time jobs: a D.J., a dance instructor, a model. It was around this time that he began his six-year partnership with his mother.

Mother-son couples are uncommon in the world of ballroom dance, but Mr. Spencer and his mother got along particularly well and proved to be a successful match. For 10 hours each week, they practiced together and studied with a local coach.

Even as he danced with his mother, Mr. Spencer was looking for a partner, at one point moving to Florida to dance with a woman he had met online. When that match proved lackluster, he decided to try something new. He moved to New York, settling in an apartment on the Upper West Side, paying $550 a month to share space with a Columbia graduate student, and recently he moved again, to Astoria, Queens.

But Mr. Spencer does not spend much time at his apartment; usually he hangs out with friends from Ballroom on Fifth. He has held a variety of temporary jobs - he has modeled nude for art classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and done a little film work. He'd like to find a regular temp job that would give him a steady income and free up his evenings for practicing.

During his year in New York, Mr. Spencer has met a lot of women, but his interactions with them have not strayed far from the hardwood floors of dance studios. He says he is lonely and would like to have a girlfriend, but explains that he finds it difficult to search for a mate and a dance partner at the same time.

From her home near Atlanta, his mother follows her son's progress through weekly phone calls. "He has a quest and a desire not only to be the best, but for truth and knowledge," Ms. Spencer says. "Becoming the best, it shows he has outsmarted all those people who have made it so complicated for him."

The Invisible Woman

That chilly afternoon at Ballroom on Fifth, Mr. Spencer and Ms. Khokhlova struggled to find their rhythm, but after a few minutes of tango, she stepped out of his arms yet again. "This is what happens when you don't practice together for a week," she said matter-of-factly.

Mr. Spencer wanted to stay with the tango, but Ms. Khokhlova won out on behalf of the quickstep. The two began a pattern of joyful hops, skips and sidesteps, and as the dance continued, Mr. Spencer seemed to succumb to the charm of the music and a grin appeared on his face. His partner glared.

A new song filtered through the sound system, a perky tune from the Disney movie "The Jungle Book," performed by Louis Prima:

Ooh, ooh, ooh, I wanna be like you ooh ooh
I wanna walk like you, talk like you too, ooh, ooh
You'll see it's true ooh, ooh, an ape like me, ee, ee
Can learn to be hu-ooh-ooh-man too, ooh, ooh

Once more, the pair started the quickstep, and once again, their feet ceased to communicate.

Then Ms. Khokhlova plopped herself onto a bench and began a debate that would swallow the last half-hour of the practice session.

"I'd rather you pulled me around," she said.

"That doesn't work."

Not looking at Mr. Spencer, she twisted the cap on her water bottle. Her pretty face was flushed. "I think the man is supposed to push you. I'm not the man."

"I know you're not the man. I do 50 percent of the movement. If you don't go, I can't finish."

"I always go forward. It's not a problem."

"If I turn my shape, you respond by turning your shape. I shouldn't have to push you."

"You should push me."

"You'd better respond. You're not responding."

"Give me something to respond to. Anyway, I don't care."

"What do you mean you don't care?"

"Because I know you're not right right now, that's why."

The two had argued about this before. They did not see eye to eye on the basic elements of their dancing partnership: the role each should play, the ratio of the leader to the follower, what it means to be in control.

When a new song began, Ramsey Lewis's 1960's jazz tune "Wade in the Water," Mr. Spencer took the floor by himself. Alone on the vast space, he looked like a performer in a silent film, snapping his fingers and wearing an expression of upbeat concentration. Opening his arms, he wrapped them around an invisible woman.


Two months ago, Mr. Spencer's quest came to an end, at least for now, in the form of a 23-year-old Polish immigrant from Forest Hills, Queens, named Katarzyna Herink. Ms. Herink is a slender beauty with creamy skin, dark hair and full lips. She is five inches shorter than Mr. Spencer and equally progressive in her thinking, having done most of her serious dance study in this country at New York University. They found each other online at after Ms. Herink and her previous partner split.

Impressed with her artistry and her instincts, Mr. Spencer has decided that she is the one, at least for the moment. And so Ms. Herink will be his partner next weekend for the all-important Manhattan DanceSport Championships. Although the two have just begun to get to know each other, Mr. Spencer will work hard to convince his audience that they have been dancing together forever.

"I finally have someone that wants to do it and is able to do it," Mr. Spencer says. "You might have just got me at the end of the epic journey. And really, this is just the start of it."

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I know Alex. He was here in Atlanta for a long time. He was working very hard to find a partner then too. :)
It sounds like he is making great progress. :)


Well-Known Member
Hi Katryzna,

Thanks for posting this article! Great read!

Hope this partnership works out for both of you. Keep us posted.



Well-Known Member
It's been really wonderful so far:) I hope everything continues to move along. I have big hopes for this partnership!!!

If you log into ny times site there are quite few photos of us.. I don't have a paper, but I heard that the photos are almost half a page full color prints... The times sent a photographer to take pictures of us at Yankee :) It was very interesting...


New Member
I know of him too, a someone I used to know from the Los Angeles area was trying out with him in early 2002 but didn't want to turn pro so she decided not to dance with him. She wasn't too sure about committing to move to Atlanta, either, so that was another part of it. So I guess he stopped teaching in Atlanta and has gone back to amateur?


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Laura said:
I know of him too, a someone I used to know from the Los Angeles area was trying out with him in early 2002 but didn't want to turn pro so she decided not to dance with him. So I guess he stopped teaching in Atlanta and has gone back to amateur?
I think I know who are you talking about (from LA).

Yes, Alex decided to go back to am. Seemed like the best thing to do. He's been in NY for the last 6 months.


New Member
Good for him. Atlanta is nice and all but he seemed so serious about his dancing based on what the LA woman said. It makes sense that he's gone up to New York and is really giving this a "go."


Well-Known Member
I really love this line "Ms. Herink is a slender beauty with creamy skin, dark hair and full lips. "

Yes famous by association...

I am glad Alex moved to NY. I really love dancing with him, and I think we can really make things work. I've never been in a partnership where I felt so much improvement in a short time. Don't know how things will look to outside people, but the changes and the partnership are really exciting...
Sagitta said:
Katarzyna said:
I really love this line "Ms. Herink is a slender beauty with creamy skin, dark hair and full lips. "
Now that you meantion it cream and full lips sounds very yummy indeed. :wink: :)
I'm afraid I caught that the first time. :lol:

Congratulations Katarzyna. On the article and the description. :wink:


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chachachacat said:
Wow! Congrats!

Did you really compete a week after your first meeting??
It was something around 8 days since the first time we danced together till the first competition... (not the first meeting. I met him in the studio couple of months earlier. We both danced in the same place ;) )


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tacad said:
Sagitta said:
Katarzyna said:
I really love this line "Ms. Herink is a slender beauty with creamy skin, dark hair and full lips. "
Now that you meantion it cream and full lips sounds very yummy indeed. :wink: :)
I'm afraid I caught that the first time. :lol:

Congratulations Katarzyna. On the article and the description. :wink:
Thank you, frankly though, I didn't have much to do with it. The story was just being wrapped up when Alex and I started dancing together. I am sure it would have been finished without me around as well :)

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