On the other end of the ballroom, Alex coaches a young teenage couple he’s been cultivating for several years. Taller than most ballroom teachers, Alex possesses a gallant charm and royal bearing, with a sharp intelligence and restless energy. Often shifting his weight from side to side while standing, this morning Alex watches motionless, arms across his chest and drill-sergeant tough, as the couple perform their cha-cha routine. They seem almost perfect, but almost is not good enough for Alex. He interrupts frequently to demonstrate what he wants.
On average, Alex estimates he spends seven hours per day teaching and dancing on the hardwood floor. Before this particular Sunday ends, he will have danced with and coached Terri Fowler and four other women who are preparing to compete in the professional/amateur division of the Ohio Star Ball, the largest ballroom competition in North America.
“What’s the plan?” he asks Fowler at the start of her lesson. Fowler has been focusing on her arm movement in the Viennese Waltz. Alex demonstrates the technique for extending her arms gracefully, but when they dance and he turns her away, Fowler throws out her left arm as if sowing seeds or making a turn signal.
For Fowler, lessons are about working on the basics. Arms, hands, rib cage, feet, shoulders, hips – every body part must be positioned to hit a movement crisply, with bold and dramatic styling. Fowler returned to ballroom dancing from a 20-year hiatus as a way to relieve stress from her 12-hour-a-day job as a veterinarian. After one year, she was competing in the Ohio Star Ball with Alex.
To prepare for the six-day event, which happens the week before Thanksgiving in Columbus, Ohio, Fowler has taken three lessons per week and invested more than she cares to admit in ballroom gowns. “The Ohio Star is a very tough crowd, very competitive,” she says. With 13,000 entries and over 900 heats running from 7 a.m. to midnight daily, Fowler considers it a victory if she survives her first heats.
Alex is scheduled to guide his five partners through 96 heats – more if they’re successful. It’s a test of stamina and skill, which he has honed from over 25 years of competing, teaching and performing.
By the time he was in high school and through his years in university – where he earned a degree in radio electronics engineering – Alex was dancing in ballroom competitions three and four times a month. “In Belarus, every school teaches ballroom dancing,” he explains. Military service was mandatory, but thereafter, he added a heavy schedule of teaching to competing.
Alex met Svetlana at a competition and they began dancing together. They married in 1991, the same year Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Svetlana was by then a practicing ophthalmologist, paid $40 monthly by the state.
“We left primarily for economic reasons,” Alex says. “Plus the security and arrests – it was an obvious choice.”
The Ioukhnels made contacts, and in 1995 were hired to dance on a cruise ship. An agent handled bookings, and Alex became the manager and coach of a troupe of showgirls. During the next three years he produced over 2,000 shows. After hours, he became Internet savvy and studied English. Between bookings, the couple lived in Singapore, taking lessons from some of the world’s best ballroom dancers. “We never stopped learning,” says Alex.
The couple then spent a year dancing and performing in South Korea. By the time they returned to Belarus, everything was in place to immigrate, except authorization. The final barrier: a small green card, which they won in the government’s annual drawing.
After passing rigorous teacher-certification tests in both International- and American-style ballroom, they considered job offers from several dance studios in the U.S. They chose one from Louisville, and Alex signed a contract to be the studio manager. But the business soon restructured, and Alex was collateral damage. His students were told he had left town.
“No job, no contacts. It was super hard,” he says. Alex felt he had been wronged, “But in the end, it made us stronger.”
In 2001, with some support, Alex and Svetlana started their own studio in a little storefront next to a beer tavern on Bardstown Road. Alex marketed furiously, a loyal following developed, and within three years the couple had purchased and renovated their own building.
Bound on three sides by roadways, Bravo Dance Studio sits on a peninsula of land first owned by George Hikes, who ran one of the earliest and largest farms in Jefferson County. To the north, the Bashford Manor farm produced three Kentucky Derby winners. In the woods just to the west, African-American descendants of enslaved people who worked both farms inhabited ramshackle antebellum cabins well into the 20th century.
Inside the studio, on a dark, cold Friday evening, the party lights are flashing and the upstairs ballroom is crowded. Downstairs, Fowler and her friends prepare for their final dress rehearsal before leaving for Columbus. They wear gowns and glitter, pacing and primping like anxious teammates.
Alex, dressed in black Las Vegas cool and in high spirits, leads the charge up the stairs. He’s the emcee who teases up the crowd, then guides each of the women around the dance floor. Shoulders swooping, his long legs seem to glide, yet he is merely the frame that showcases his partner.
During the cha-cha, Fowler presents her left arm with a graceful flourish, and when applause ripples through the room she showers her audience with ‘Look at me!’ smiles. It’s game on, Ohio Star Ball.
With the competition now over, Alex says he is very proud of his dancers, whose performances led to a string of finals that produced first-, second- and third-place finishes. Fowler made it through nine heats, “an improvement over last year,” she says.
When asked what motivates her to excel, Fowler asserts: “This is what I love to do. It’s my little luxury. I get to pretend I am queen for the day and float around on a big beautiful ballroom dance floor on the arm of a tall, handsome, athletic Russian dancing dynamo. How cool is that?”