Creating Rhythmical Dancing Through Clarity-An Interview With Ron Montez
The dance partnership of Ron Montez and Elizabeth Curtis was one of the most successful and consistent in the history of the International Latin Division for the United States. They were undefeated United States champions from 1979-1985 and represented America at many world events during their reign as champions. Ron is still very involved in the competitive scene, judging and coaching many of the top couples. Always know for his rhythmic dancing, when coaching today Ron?s main focus is to help the couples be clear on what they are trying to accomplish in their actions and their rhythms .Ron and his wife, Karla also organize their own dance event, San Diego Dance Camp. This year it will be held December 28-31 and will feature over 50 beginning to advanced classes. Ron helped to take ballroom dancing into the general public?s living room with his TV appearances, including ?Star Search? and as co-host with Juliet Prowse of ?Championship Ballroom Dancing? on PBS.
How did you get started dancing?
I was introduced to dance by my sister, Bettina. She was a dance teacher, along with her husband, at the Arthur Murray Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Their last name was Noah. They would do demonstrations at various spots around town, country clubs or socials and at the dance studio. I would ride along and play the music for them. That?s how I got exposed to couples dancing together. So I?d watch them dance and be their little helpmate. Then she started teaching me.
How old were you then?
I was high school age. After high school she encouraged me to go into a training class for teachers at Arthur Murray. So I went through their six week training period where you learn all the bronze steps, man?s and woman?s parts, lead and follow and all the technique. It?s pretty intense? all day long every day for six weeks and you come out a bronze level teacher.
Did you enjoy it from the beginning?
I was fortunate. I had a really, really good teacher. She was probably the reason I stayed with it and kept going. Nancy Elliot was her name. She was also a schoolteacher and in the evenings she would come into the studio to teach ballroom. She was great. She was really good at clearly defining the roles of a man and a woman in ballroom dance. What the man?s supposed to look like, what the lady?s supposed to look like and how they interact. And there were certain things you do and don?t do. It was very clear and I liked that.
How did you get interested in competing?
I was a teacher for many years, and then at one point, the owner of the studio brought in a couple who had just danced in the world professional Latin championships, Barry and Cheryl Wrightson. They placed third or fourth that particular year. They were on their way back to Australia and they made a tour of the U.S. They were going to do a show for the studio, and then stay around to do choreography, teaching and training. They did their demonstration and for the first time in my life, I saw a couple that was well trained, fully costumed, and matching, with choreographed routines to specific music. That was not what I had been used to. Up to that point, a good dancer was an individual who was very good and could dance with just about anybody. We had several people who had come through in the Arthur Murray system who were exceptional dancers. Maybe at the end of their stay, they would, at a party, dance with all the staff members. So it was all lead and follow, all interaction, spontaneous, and these people were fantastic. But I didn?t know there could be all this pre-planned, highly organized, choreographed in advance... so my mouth was open! I was thoroughly impressed, and I said, ?Gee, I?d like to do that.? So that?s how it started.
When did you get a partner and actually start competing?
I did some dance numbers with some people in Arizona, but that was not for competition. I decided I needed to go to college. So I eventually went up to BYU. I was already a professional; I couldn?t dance on their formation team, but Roy Mavor was there. He was a famous trainer and a big name in the United States. I had written him a letter and told him that I would like to come there, continue schooling and train with him. I got a letter back saying, ?Yes, we?d be glad to have you. I?d be glad to help you in any way I can.? So I got all my stuff together, packed my car, drove to Utah, and before school started, went to find his house, and his house was empty. A neighbor was mowing the lawn and I walked up to the neighbor and said, ?Does Roy Mavor live here?? He said, ?He used to. He moved to Houston.? Roy had quit the University to move to Houston and open a studio there. So he was only at BYU part time. He?d come and go, and then that tapered off. So I left after a while, but I did compete in ballroom at the California Star Ball. I think we were fourth.
Then what happened?
Then I got another partner and danced ballroom and Latin for a while. I competed ten-dance for a few years, and was getting a little better known. We were getting more training, competing here and there; we went to England, all that kind of thing. That partnership split up after about six years or so. And then I got another partner, Elizabeth Curtis. Elizabeth is the partner that people remember most.
Did you only dance Latin with her?
Yes. She didn?t do ballroom.
Which style did you like better?
I liked them both. But I liked practicing ballroom better than Latin.
I like the music, especially foxtrot and waltz. I like the ebb and flow of it. The way you could listen to the music and just swing your body. Whereas in the Latin, you had to charge yourself up? key it up in order to perform at the higher level. And it was very physical. Every dance was quite physical, except for maybe rumba. Latin just required more energy.
You were seven times United States International Latin Champions.
Yes, and we made the finals of the British a few times. We decided not to live in London, which at the time, you had to do if you had any aspirations of being in the top three in the world. But we ended up being fourth in the world championships in 1984 at the Royal Albert Hall. That was the highest an American couple had placed in that division at the time. Then we retired in ?85.
Did you compete a long time before you became champion in the U.S., or was it quick?
It was pretty quick. We trained less than a year together, and then went to the U.S. Championships. We were not the favored couple. The couple that should have won was Al Franz and Beverly Donahue. Vernon Brock had just retired. They were in line to win and had been consistently second to them. We had been placing third and fourth. So it came out of nowhere that we won.
What was that like for you?
It was a surprise and a big shock to them. That started it. Maybe it was a little early in our career for that, but it?s the way things go.
What do you think you had that helped you to skip over Beverly and Al?
I think we were just very enthusiastic?a nothing to lose type attitude. Maybe we had a little bit fresher approach.
Did you ever feel challenged by the couples placing under you in all those years?
Yes. There were some good couples around. There was Chris and Denise Morris. Corky and Shirley Ballas were in the country later. There were a lot of good couples.
Being champion that long, you influenced a lot of people. What do you think you added to the Latin?
I know what people told me, but I don?t really know.
What did people tell you?
The people in Europe said that I was very rhythmic in the body. At that point, a lot of dancers were discovering that and incorporating it into the Latin. But I had brought that from the American rhythm dancing. So it was pretty natural. I didn?t realize it was even there.
What were your feelings about what you wanted to do with the dancing? Did you want to do something different?
Actually, I should have been thinking more along those lines. I should have had a little bit more confidence in my previous training in Latin dancing. In retrospect, I think I could have probably appreciated and utilized my background in that regard more, and did less of adopting the European style. The couples in Europe were well trained. That style was very popular. When you went to a competition like Blackpool, the couples were doing very showy choreography. In those days they used a lot of drops, like the dead man?s drop or a horse and cart, or a big line of some sort. That was not part of my dancing background. My dance background was interacting with my partner, lead and follow, synchronizing body rhythms. It was more intimate, and not designed so much for impact. If I would have focused on that and expanded on it more? but I didn?t have that kind of wisdom at that point. I just wanted to be a part of the big picture. I did have people tell me, particularly Europeans that were more or less independent thinkers. They said to me, ?Ron, what are you doing that for? Do your own thing.? And I thought they were crazy. I said, ?I can?t do what I know out here. It would look ridiculous.?
When you were competing, did you both agree on what you were trying to portray in your dancing?
No. We rarely agreed. There were compromises, but we came from totally different backgrounds.
What kind of background did she come from?
She was a tap dancer, jazz dancer, cheerleader; that kind of thing. And I was from ballroom dancing. I wanted things to feel good, to work on the connection, the interaction, the weight and balance and that kind of stuff. She was thinking of performance more? the impact, ?look at me? kind of things. That was a necessary ingredient too.
Where did you meet her?
In California, at USC. There?s a dance team there that I worked with. She was Victor Veyrasset?s partner. Victor Veyrasset also did Latin. People don?t know that, but he was quite good.
Was there someone that you looked up to?
Everybody looked up to Vernon Bock, his partners as well, Linda Dean, Beverly Donahue, etc. He was thought of as a master choreographer and performer, because of the things he brought to dancing? huge lines and fantastic tricks that were unheard of at that point. So Vernon was terrific, to the American dancers as well as the dancers overseas.
Were there any overseas dancers that you looked up to?
There were some very good couples. They all had their own unique qualities. I liked Espen and Kirsten Salberg. I found in England that the teaching wasn?t all that good, even though everyone thinks of it as the center of the ballroom dancing universe. But, in retrospect, there were a few teachers who made an impact on me, and others were more superficial in their approach. The ones who made you think about your dancing would be like Walter Laird, Peter Maxwell, that type person, they wouldn?t just throw steps at you. Or wouldn?t give you the trendy material, but would make you think about what you wanted to accomplish and convey in your dancing. Those lessons, at the time, seemed to me less valuable, strangely enough. And then years later I found out I got the most out of them.
When you were competing all over the world, were you looking at those other couples and saying, ?I?m going to beat them. I can beat that couple.? Or were you just trying to dance?
No, I had a certain amount of competitive spirit. I thought that on occasion. I don?t know if it?s the best way to look at dancing. It?s not like a race where the gun goes off and you cross the finish line. There?s a lot more involved. Sometimes when you try too hard to beat someone, you?re not really dancing. You?re just putting forth physical effort, not creating something.
Do you think dancing is an art or a sport?
I think dancing is more of an art than a sport. I know it?s physically demanding, but I think a sport is something that you can measure. I don?t think dancers, until recently, have tried to become physically perfect in their training methods. It?s more in recent years that they?ve done that. Acquired a trainer, watched their diet, started jogging, going to the gym and all. They never used to do that stuff. We used to just dance and try to create something. We developed cardiovascular endurance and all that just because we were dancing. Some people came from other dance forms and they had their individual way of warming up, like with calisthenics or stretching exercises. But it wasn?t like it is now.
And a lot of people used to go to the bar, right? Wasn?t there a whole group of standard dancers that used to spend all their time at the bar?!
That?s right. That?s well known for some of those old timers. They?d even have some and dance, you know! Where now that just doesn?t happen.
Why did you decide to retire? Had it gone as far as the partnership could go together?
I had been dancing with the same person for a long time and it had run its course. I don?t remember who wanted to retire initially. I think it was more her, but it was fine with me at that point. The competitive urge was still there, but it was just time to try something else.
What are you most proud of in your competitive career?
Maybe that I stuck with it and accomplished something worthwhile? that I continued to practice, make progress and have success at it. There are other things that go along with it; you get a certain amount of satisfaction from performing. And traveling is also nice. I enjoyed meeting people from different cultures and countries on tours and competitions. The international aspect of it is interesting.
Was there a certain moment that you remember more than others that was the most memorable?
Probably the most memorable was retiring; announcing the retirement and doing a farewell dance. I remember that very clearly.
Was it emotional?
I didn?t think it was so emotional. Other people were crying. I saw all that around me, but I never thought it was really ending dancing. It was just not competing any more.
What about when you were fourth in the world. How did that feel?
I was very proud of that because the dancers that were ahead of me were very, very good dancers. It was Donny Burns? first world championship and the ones down from there were excellent.
Who were second and third?
I don?t remember things like that. I have no records, no videos, no photographs.
Other people have them and they say, ?I have an old video of you,? or ?saw an old photograph,? and I say, ?That?s good.?
Why don?t you have any?
Never kept them. I never wanted to. I don?t know. I was very critical of myself, so I didn?t like watching videos anyway. I didn?t want to collect them. I never thought, ?I?ll save these for twenty years from now for my kids.? I never thought of that.
Not one picture?
I doubt it! I might have some in a box somewhere, but not that I know where it is.
Did you ever dance any shows after you retired?
For quite a long time we did shows here and there. We were in Peter Maxwell?s dance company, Ballroom Dance Theatre. We went to Japan and did some shows in Europe and the United States. It was a good experience. I enjoyed doing that.
Where is Liz now?
She lives in New York City. Has a husband and I think, two kids.
Do you keep in contact at all?
No. I?m too busy with my life and our paths don?t cross anyway. She?s not really involved in ballroom dancing.
Do you look back on that as a good time in your life?
Oh yes. Dancing is a great thing. At the time, it?s more important than anything. Practice, performance, gearing up for a competition, all that. It occupies your time, when you?re fully dancing, you?re involved physically, mentally, emotionally, everything is kind of charged up. And other things like, how nice the place is you live in, or how many clothes you have, or even food, things like that, don?t mean too much. You?ve kind of got blinders on.
You talked about Peter Maxwell twice now. What did you learn from your experiences working with him?
Peter Maxwell would not just show you something and you imitate him. He would try to make you think about what you were doing and help you tell a story when you dance. And produce contrasts in your dancing and have a subtlety. In those days, everybody was blasting. It was very physical. Nowadays it?s very physical too. Also I think he was really excellent in characterizing the dances. Rumba from paso doble, etc., and the frame and connection that the male partner needs. I remember one particular lesson where I was thinking, ?I wish he would just show me something,? he would basically sit down or stand against the wall. He wouldn?t get up and be jigging around and following you and showing you things. He just didn?t work that way. And he was also very blunt. If there was something he didn?t like, he would say, ?It?s awful.? or ?Why in the world are you doing that? Can you give me one reason why you?re doing that?? But the one time he did take dance position, with my partner, I could see that he knew what he was doing. I knew he had this thing down pat. That convinced me.
What are you trying to give to the competitors you coach today?
That?s a tough one. There?s a whole long list of things that a teacher tries to get across to a student, but one of the most important is clarity. What they?re doing has to have a definite shape, meaning, intent or timing. A line has to be clear what the line is. The timing has to be clear what the timing is. Etc. So I spend a lot of time trying to get the couples to show me exactly what they?re intending. Sometimes they have no idea. A lot of times they don?t. Sometimes they have different ideas. A lot of my time is spent saying, ?What are you trying to do here? It doesn?t really make sense. Are you trying for speed? Are you trying for stretch? Are you trying for some kind of interaction between you? Are you trying for audience appeal? Are you trying to show off your technique? What?s going on?? And I work on that a lot.
Has that changed over the years? Are people more unaware of what they?re trying to do?
Couples just get wrapped up in dancing and they don?t realize that, in competitive dancing, and even in performance, there?s the onlooker, the observer, the audience, the judge that has to understand what?s going on. You have to send a message, to convey something. For instance, a couple is dancing, and there?s an older lady in the front row who knows nothing about all the entailments of competitive dancing, but says ?Oh that couple looks like they are so in love,? or ?That couple looks like they?re really happy.? That?s basically important, too. Whereas, nowadays, you look at a couple and they look like they?re angry with each other. They look like they?re fighting with each other, the women sometimes look so fierce; it puts you off. Femininity is way down the scale. Men are strutting and posturing, instead of thinking of their partner. They?re not conveying a strong masculine image, along with the other things. So sometimes that?s just overdone.
You think that?s more now than it used to be?
Why do you think it?s gone to that?
I can?t say I know as to why it?s more now. Possibly it?s because there are a lot of younger dancers now and when people are young and dance, they only think of the physical output. And do this and hit that, and faster on this and stop quickly on that. The message is not clear. And it looks like too much work. The world has changed. It?s more frenetic, there?s more speed. The focus on speed now is incredible, in the movies and everything. There?s a new sport now?drifting. It?s controlled skidding, and people are getting into it. They drive around these tracks and they accelerate on corners and see how they skid, how they slide. They do it with their normal cars. But they?re going like 100 miles an hour. It?s getting big in this country because people can legally go fast. Ordinary people, not race car drivers. So everything?s all fast, fast, fast, fast, faster, faster, faster. I work with a lot of couples who do a step that they can?t do. There?s no clarity and balance and it?s physically awkward, because they?re trying to do something that?s too fast and they can?t handle it. Or it?s too fast for too long. There?s no breaks, no presentation. I?m not talking about exceptional couples; I?m talking about those who are trying to copy the exceptional ones. Trying to do what they see.
When you watch the top dancers in the world today, what do you see that?s different from when you were dancing?
That?s pretty easy. There?s a lot more speed, a lot more syncopation, a lot more physical agility, a lot more flexibility. It?s more physically demanding in the sense of stretch. Choreography is much more intense.
What would you like to see more of in the top couples?
If they?re the top six, they?ve mastered a lot of things and have carved their little niche. They?re excellent dancers already. So it?s a matter of style, it?s a matter of which style you like over others.
What about the semi-finalists?
Semi-finalist couples are ones that, if they keep progressing, will definitely make the final. Some of them are not physically gifted, or there?s some kind of an image problem, too short, too tall for one another, not a balanced look, not a pleasing look. They?re stuck where they are, there?s no growth. That?s usually the problem with the semi-finalists.
When you coach a couple and they?re feeling stuck where they?re at in their dancing, what do you suggest they do?
That?s one of the most difficult questions. For instance a couple comes to you on a lesson and they say, ?We did not do well in the last competition, how can you help us to do better?? And they danced as well as they possibly could dance, you watched the video and maybe even saw them in person. They danced up to their maximum potential, and that?s the best they can do. They may never get better. They may get better in such small ways that it may not make a big difference. So if they come to you and they want to improve, you have to do your best to help them develop and not dismiss them as being unable to progress. And you have to have the patience to continue to do it, and a little faith that it?s possible. If you don?t you should just say to them, ?I can?t do anything for you. In fact, I don?t think you can do anything for yourselves. You?re stuck and if you want to keep dancing for the fun of it, keep doing it.? I?m not that type of person. I wouldn?t say that to somebody. I?d say, ?If you?re earnest, and you want to progress, I?ll work with you. You have to have a positive frame of mind.? But I could see some teachers just throwing their hands up and saying, ?You?ve reached the end of the road,? or ?You?ve peaked. That?s as far as you?re going to get.?
When you judge, what are you looking for?
To judge a competition is a comparative thing. Basically, you have a couple that you?re evaluating in two general spheres. One of them is the technical aspect of dancing, which is timing, balance, coordination, flexibility, posture, etc. And then the other side is the performance, the interaction with their partner, the contrast, the musicality, the contact with the audience, the impact, choreography, costuming. So those two things are equally important, and you evaluate them in both those areas right off the bat. Sometimes couples are lacking technique but they are pretty good on the performance side. Sometimes they?re technically pretty good, but they have no spark. They?re just not good performers. So you balance it all out and the couple that most ideally fits the picture in your mind of a performer and a technician will be the winner. If they?re all highly technically good and all good performers, then it?s based on your personal taste for that style and the couple. How they deliver their material to you and to the audience. That?s where you get the differences at the really high level.
Do you like to judge?
The good thing about it is that you?re on the floor and you see the dancing quite close up and you can really evaluate it. That?s what I like about it. What I don?t like about it is two things: That your opinion is very much diluted because there?s a panel of judges. You?re only one little voice; one little drop in the bucket, and the end result may or may not even represent your decision. The other thing is, it?s a thankless job. Someone?s always going to be not happy with what you put down on the paper.
Do dancers ask you about it?
Yes. There?s the right way to approach someone; there?s a respectful way to do it. And a way that person could really learn a lot. But unfortunately, some couples have an abrasive way of doing it. It?s not offensive to me if a couple comes up afterwards and says, ?You marked us so and so, is there anything you can tell us about our dancing?? And I?ll be honest, if I can remember them, first of all. Sometimes I have to say, ?I?m sorry I didn?t remember you. It?s been a long weekend, a lot of couples. Maybe next time.? Or if you do remember them and you are a solid judge with definite opinions based on your years of experience, you don?t mind saying to them, ?Well, you were shaky, a lot of times you were off balance. Other than that you were pretty good, but I was comparing you to the other couples who were better. I couldn?t read your timing in two dances.? Then they can think about it at least. I think couples can ask if they do it in the right way, and it would benefit them. If you?re a judge, and I think there?s a few of these judges around, who maybe doesn?t know why they mark what they did, it would be a challenge to come up with an answer, and they?d be upset.
When you judge, are you usually with the norm, or do you sometimes judge very differently from the norm?
When I judge, sometimes I think no one has marked like I have. I think I?m way out there. And then you find out the result was exactly as you marked it. You think, ?Oh, these other judges are pretty good!? That does happen once in a while, when you?ve gone out on a limb and marked something the way you think it should be and you?re sure it?s not going to end up that way, but it does. You?re like ?Wow!?
If you haven?t marked a couple well and they come to you for lessons what do you do?
I?ve experienced several things. If someone comes to me and wants lessons, then I?ll most likely take them if I can and work with them and give some input. But I know some couples I can?t do anything for. I would not eagerly take them on as students, knowing ahead of time that their style is not one that I would want to do anything with or could do anything with.
What are your goals for the future?
And what are you going to do when you retire?
Read the newspaper! Go to the donut shop with the old guys who are retired carpenters and electricians and whatever and learn about what they do in life! No, I still enjoy teaching. Anybody who?s had a career as long as I have - 35 years - has to enjoy what they do.
Do You Have Any Hobbies?
Probably my biggest hobby is reading at this point, but I do a lot of things with the family. Karla and I like to go out on dates. That?s a very important part of our life. We like our vacations. I spend a lot of time with the boys. We go camping and stuff like that. More family oriented things.
What do you think of all the competitions there are today?
The ballroom dance industry is really good but there are some problems involved with the competitions. When you go to a competition in a particular city, you watch the competition and you see the participants and you?re a part of it. And then you go to another comp somewhere else, and it?s the same people. It?s always pretty much the same competitors, and another one and another one. So it really doesn?t matter where it is. It?s the same people that go. In other words, it?s a closed little society. And each competition, in any particular city, has no representation of the community itself. There are no local spectators, there are no local officials, there is not even a section of low cost tickets for people who want to just come for part of the competition to watch. I do realize that there?s money to be made, and sometimes there?s limitations on space and seating, but I also realize that, unless the community and other people get involved in it, it?s not going to grow. Because it?s quite expensive, it?s not going to get the awareness that it needs. There has been awareness provided by the PBS show and that was on for 25 years. It?s not on anymore. But it gave a healthy image of ballroom dancing. Just about everybody knew about it, dancers and non-dancers alike. It did more for dancing than people realize. It took someone else to do that, PBS and the producers. But our little events go on and on and on and it?s the same people. It?s sad in a way. If I had my own competition I would try to involve the community, and I would provide some low cost seats for a particular evening. The advertising has to also be there. You?ve got to get the public awareness. Otherwise, it will stay our little secret.
Do you see fewer people coming into it than they?re used to be?
I think it?s had a steady support, but there?s not a mass rush to dance studios. I do remember when that happened in the disco era. Tango has its appeal and it gets people to make trips to Argentina. Swing and Salsa are big right now, and bringing in people.
The country comps and the swing comps get a lot more people, don?t they?
I think you get more spectators. More people go there because it?s fun to be there and they social dance. At the swing comps, there?s a lot of social dancing and the floor?s crowded. At Ballroom dance competitions, there?s no general dancing anymore. They?ve got so many competitions to put in that there?s no dancing. And you see the same people over and over again? a million times. They?re allowed to enter several divisions and you see them do the same dances several times. As a judge, you?re ready to fall over. You?re really not judging any more. Just standing there to be part of the decoration. That?s what could be better.
What are your thoughts on the American Rhythm division and the changes that could be made to make it better?
The American rhythm competitions were put into effect some years ago, and unfortunately it wasn?t put into effect to be re-evaluated at a later date to change, or stop it or redirect it. So now it?s gathered momentum over a period of years. It would be really unfair to stop it, but it?s a problem. It?s a problem because the dances in a lot of cases are poor imitations of the international style. Rumba is a speeded up version of international rumba. Cha cha is just the same for all practical purposes. It has no representation of its roots in social dance. Maybe it shouldn?t, and that?s fine, because it?s a competitive thing, and social dance is social dance. But the beauty of the international style is that it has a thread of logic that runs through it from the basic bronze, silver, syllabus and up through the competitive work. In an international standard competition at the highest degree you still see feather step, reverse turn, three step. You still see it. It?s still part of it. It?s a natural progression. But in the American rhythm, how often do you see open Cuban walks or a box step? It?s gotten lost and something needs to be done. If I were king for a day I would stop it, and start it again with certain ground rules to be tried out for a period of a year, then be evaluated again. If it has definite roots in social dance, which it should, then couples should be able to, for instance, have the timing changed on them, have the music changed on them, and be able to adapt to it. They should be able to dance west coast swing, they should be able to dance from a slow blues tempo up to practically a jive tempo, and adapt their dancing to fit that song. There are a lot of things that could be tried.
Both partners need to be aware of the timing that they?re using and be able to state that timing to one another. And the man has to be aware of the woman?s part and be able to dance it, and the woman needs to do the same for the man?s part. Before they try to do the next step and expect any success from it. They have to agree on timing. They need to be thinking the same.
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