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The Columbus Dispatch -
Passion for DANCE
Three competitive couples take their ballroom steps seriously
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Gary George and his dance partner, Sara Davidson, practice their steps.
Cristiano Callejeori and Svetlana Iskhakov, who will compete as professionals in the 28th annual Ohio Star Ball
Michael Vilenchuk, 11, and Valerija Semeiakaite, 10, who will dance at the junior level

BALLROOM DANCING can be a glamorous hobby, a passion turned profession or even a link to a beloved homeland.

These three Columbus couples will compete this week in the 28th annual Ohio Star Ball at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, 400 N. High St.

Michael Vilenchuk and Valerija Semeiakaite

Two of the youngest competitors have danced for years but barely reached double digits.

Valerija Semeiakaite, 10, and Michael Vilenchuk, 11, take lessons with Bill Sparks at his Youth DanceSport Academy, 1167 Chambers Rd.

Michael was born in Russia; and Valerija, in Lithuania. Both families are active at the Russian Center, 2400 W. Dublin-Granville Rd., a cultural outpost for many eastern European immigrants.

Ballroom dancing may be burgeoning in the United States, but it has a long way to go here to equal the competitive fervor it generates abroad, according to Valerija and her mother, Diana, who moved to the United States last year.

In Lithuania, the 10-year-old had studied ballroom dance for three years and competed once or twice a month.

"The level of dancing is much higher there," Valerija said. "When we compete, itís 30 couples per class. Itís serious there, not just for having fun."

"Valerija," Sparks said, "has the potential to become a top female dancer. There is a specialness to this girl. Michael is very intelligent and analytical, but he needs more lessons."

"Oh, yeah, she dances good," Michael said.

With his family, Michael moved to the United States in 1999. He has taken dance lessons for two years.

Michael and Valerija will compete in international Latin dance for juniors next weekend.

Sparks, 39, said that a quarter of those enrolled at his academy are of eastern European origin. Youngsters from Russia and neighboring countries, he said, have a leg up on Americans.

When religion was suppressed under communism, parents sought social and cultural outlets for children, Sparks and Diana Semeiakaite said. Ballroom dancing joined the alreadypopular ballet and folk dance.

Eastern European children have enjoyed a heritage in dance as well as practical experience.

Valerija might head for a career in professional dance, but she enjoys other interests.

"I also want to be a cheerleader," she said, "and I like soccer, and sometimes I like chess, and I like to draw."

Gary George and Sara Davidson

Debbie George, married for 38 years, often gives up her guy on the dance floor.

George and her husband, Gary, both 58, began taking dance lessons about five years ago at the Arthur Murray Studio in Worthington. Gary George, who owns Autoville USA on Morse Road, became so enamored of ballroom that he gave up golf.

Then, with Debbieís approval, he began to compete with the coupleís instructor, Sara Davidson, in pro-am competitions, in which amateur dancers partner with their teachers.

Dancing, Gary George said, is "a good workout and a good hobby ó for the mind and the body."

He draws comparisons between dance and his old hobby.

"With golf, you have to hit the ball right and it takes a lot of practice. Dancing is the same thing. To do it right, you have to do a lot of practice ó floor time and studying."

Debbie George continues to take dance lessons and performs for fun. She accompanies her husband and Davidson to competitions, serving as coach and cheerleader. She is proud of her husband.

"Anyone who is in sales," she said, "is competitive by nature."

Svetlana Iskhakov and Cristiano Callejeori

Svetlana Iskhakov received a terrible phone call in July from Mount Carmel St. Annís hospital.

Her husband, Igor, a mathematician and world-ranked ballroom dancer, had drowned while swimming in Alum Creek Reservoir. He would have turned 33 later in the summer.

The couple had been together 15 years, immigrating to the United States from Moscow 12 years ago. They settled in central Ohio and founded Gahannaís Columbus Dance Center.

The Iskhakovs had captured international ballroom titles and were ranked third in the international-standard style in 2003. Choreographers Victoria Uris and John Giffin, teachers at Ohio State University, followed the pair to dance competitions for six months and produced the video Igor & Svetlana.

Since her husbandís death, Svetlana, 30, has operated the dance center by herself. And she has found a new dance partner.

She and Cristiano Callejeori, 32, of Padua, Italy, will make their professional competitive debut at the Ohio Star Ball.

Callejeori, who began dancing in Italy at age 9, came to Columbus to meet the Iskhakovs and began studying and teaching at their center.

"Igor wanted me to work at the studio and to dance Latin with Svetlana," he said. "Since Igor danced standard with her only, it was perfect for me. The studio is very much about competition ó which I like."

Earlier this year, Iskhakov and Callejeori placed first and third at two competitions, but they arenít expecting to take the top prize at the Ohio Star Ball. They only recently began to develop and polish their routines.

"Nobody knows Cristiano yet," Callejeori said. "In one year, everybody will know a new couple and start to make decisions better for us in competitions.

"If I canít dance with Svetlana, maybe I donít want to dance anymore."

For Iskhakov, the loss of her husband is still a shock.

"I never had a different dance partner before," she said. "I still canít believe it, but I have to deal with it somehow."

Dancing with Callejeori is "very, very different. He is the very opposite of Igor, so itís difficult for me. I have to think differently and accept what I have now. Itís all in the brain. Together we have good chemistry, which is very rare." has been awarded ď2005 Best Web SiteĒ by the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists