Life’s busy for most university students, but for Zika Trajkovic and Scarlett Liaifer, it’s especially so: when they’re not cramming for exams, the two spend hours and hours each week in the dance studio, nailing styles like cha-cha, samba, and rumba, rehearsing for amateur competitions that take them around the world.
Their specialty is Latin ballroom, and they’re currently the best in B.C. It’s a title they’re hoping to defend at DanceSportBC’s upcoming Snowball Classic, an annual world-ranking ballroom-dance competition.
Trajkovic is in his second year of civil engineering, while Liaifer is finishing off a science degree with a major in chemistry and already filling out applications for med school. The Vancouver natives discovered ballroom when they were in elementary school, after having taken classes in other dance forms, such as ballet and jazz. It took no time for each of them to fall in love with it.
“I started dancing at age six, initially doing ballet,” says Trajkovic, 19, talking to the Straight from campus via speakerphone alongside Liaifer. “I started ballroom a year after and switched over. Latin ballroom is just more exciting, more energetic, more active, and more appealing to me.”
Says Liaifer, who was in ballet slippers by age three and learning ballroom at age eight: “I love the costumes and the music and all the glitz and glamour. And the competitive nature of it is awesome.”
The two have been dance partners for the last four years, training primarily at Broadway Ballroom with coach Maryana Dudchenko, a former Canadian amateur champion who started dancing at age four in her native Kharkov, Ukraine. They frequently travel for training, while coaches from other parts of the world often fly in to give them lessons. This summer, the couple competed in the Empire DanceSport Championships in New York; just this past weekend they travelled to Los Angeles for the Hollywood DanceSport Championships.
Just as at those competitions, when they hit the floor at the Snowball Classic, they’ll be joining several other couples, simultaneously performing the five styles that make up Latin ballroom: cha-cha, rumba, samba, paso doble, and jazz. The dancers must also compete in ballroom’s standard discipline, which consists of waltz, tango, slow foxtrot, Viennese waltz, and quickstep. Pairs that impress the judges the most will return to the floor to dance the styles all over again.
“Competitors who reach the championship finals will dance the equivalent of 60 minutes of the 800-metre dash,” says Pinky Wong, Snowball Classic chairperson. “The championships are a test not just of skill and artistry but also of superb fitness and stamina.”
As anyone who has found themselves glued to So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With the Stars can relate, the event, for viewers, is a thrill. The moves are mesmerizing (especially in a group setting, where couples swirl and bend in dangerously close proximity to each other), and the costumes dazzle. Liaifer hasn’t chosen her Snowball dress yet, but expect bright colours, fringe, rhinestones, and three-inch heels. (The shoes are handmade in Russia, specially designed to help reduce the risk of injury and minimize impact on the spine.)
Despite the fact that Vancouver’s ballroom dance community is small, it’s inclusive and supportive, Liaifer and Trajkovic say. And those American Idol–style dance programs have helped boost the sport’s popularity over the years.
“Those shows also give certain insight to audiences who have never been to a competition before as to what they could expect to see,” Wong says.
DanceSport was granted full recognition by the International Olympic Committee in 1997, Wong notes, and negotiations are underway with the IOC to admit DanceSport as a medal sport in the Summer Olympic Games. The Snowball Classic itself has only grown since it was first held in 1989, going from a small one-day competition to the first world championship of its kind in North America in 2003, spanning three days. This year, the event features international open championships and more than 300 athletes in various age groups, from juvenile to senior.
Liaifer and Trajkovic say their years of dancing have helped them both grow up, in a sense.
“It teaches you how to be disciplined, how to be responsible, how to have good time-management skills,” Liaifer says. “You have to develop this work ethic if you want to succeed. The Snowball Classic is a good opportunity to show off our skills in our local community.”
The Snowball Classic is Saturday and Sunday (November 11 and 12) at the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel.