3:56 am
Wed April 17, 2013

Putting Her Best Foot Forward

Ellenor Eubanks Shepherd is a competitive ballroom dancer, and at 81 she’s twirled into regional, national and international spotlights. “It stretches all parts of your body while you keep moving," says Ellenor. "You have to keep up with the music, so you have to stay mentally flexible as well as physically flexible.” She lives in Greensboro and trains at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio on Mill Street. Last week, she and her coach and partner Shasha Tsyhankov put the final touches on one of their routines for the Cross Country Dancesport Championship. This is a national competition sponsored by the corporate office of Fred Astaire Dance Studios, and it’s underway in Las Vegas for the next four days.

Ellenor joined the ballroom dancing sport about 14 years ago, shortly after she and her husband separated. That's when she says the unexpected happened, “I got a call that I’d won some free ballroom lessons. I took the one and I was hooked.” Ellenor calls it the perfect diversion. “I get to express the creative side of my being, and you forget everything that’s on your mind," says Ellenor. "You’re in a whole different world when you’re on the dance floor.” Now, she practices 3 days a week for about an hour.

This week in Las Vegas, more than 350 people from 61 studios and 15 Fred Astaire franchises will compete at four skill levels: Social Bronze, Advanced Bronze, Silver and Gold. Ellenor ranks Silver. This week, she’ll perform 5 dances in the Smooth category which includes: waltz, tango and Foxtrot. She'll also perform four routines in the Rhythm category: dances like the cha-cha, rumba, swing and the bolero.

Dan Rutherford is a former world rhythm champion and an international dance judge. Last week he was in Greensboro coaching several students who are now competing in Las Vegas, including Ellenor. “When Ellenor does the drops or the sit breaks on the floor", explains Rutherford. "She pulls them off elegantly, especially in that age range and it’s a pleasure to watch.” Rutherford will also be one of the judges scoring Ellenor at the Cross Country Dancesport Championship. Athletes compete according to age and skill level. He says Ellenor is a strong contender. “She’s quick and has a fiery personality which is good for the dance floor. And she has good technique," Rutherford says admiringly. "But she needs a stronger position through her body.”
Ellenor is a fierce competitor. Between 2006 and 2009, she shimmied and swayed against other dancers in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in the Bahamas. Both times she placed third in Rhythm. “It takes its toll but it’s worth it," Ellenor wipes sweat from above her eyes and takes a sip of water.  "It’s a good tired, a good hurt.”

But a few years ago during this Fred Astaire Las Vegas competition, Ellenor says she forgot about trophies and prizes. Instead she was humbled while watching a woman in a wheel chair dancing with her two male partners.  Ellenor documents this and other life experiences in her new book, Growing Your Own Penicillin, Words Prescribed for a Healthy and Happy Spirit. “Lord I came to dance with thoughts of winning and showing off pretty dresses," says Ellenor. "Instead you gave me Chris who has inspired me with her presence. She has taught me patience, courage and hope.” Ellenor says she felt a closeness to Chris because in her own life, she’s overcome a number of traumatic events; a head on collision, the death of her grandson, breathing difficulties and an autoimmune disorder. The last two took Ellenor off the dance floor for about two years. But after therapy and hard work, this 81-year-old is gracefully gliding again.

And while she says it’s still a constant challenge to get enough air during her routines, Ellenor admits her greatest concern this week is remembering her steps. “Hopefully my instructor and partner will be free to go over the steps so it will be fresh in my mind.” Ellenor’s first performance is this evening in the American Rhythm Open Scholarship Dance Division. The competition wraps up Saturday night.