DanceSport Champions -Then and Now. Corky and Shirley Ballas Reach For The Stars

March 08, 2000

I've wanted to do this interview for a long time and finally had the opportunity last fall at USDSC in Miami Beach to meet Corky and Shirley Ballas for a scintillating conversation. I had been working on the perimeter of the industry for a few years by then and had heard bits and pieces about this captivating, vibrant DanceSport couple. How the rich young disco dancer from Houston, Texas, had fallen hard for the stunning, world-class, and very married dancer from England who eventually succumbed to his charms, married him and then took him to the pinnacle of the DanceSport world surpassing her former husband in fewer than five years. Yes, all true and someday, Shirley Ballas, whose life reads like a 'rags to riches' novel plans to chronicle her story for all to enjoy. Or will Corky beat her to it and write, choreograph and produce a Broadway-style musical of their exciting, passionate life together in time for their talented 13-year-old son, Corky Jr., to play his dad at a young age. All three of the dynamic, artistic Ballas family have tasted stardom and yearn for more.

Let's take a look at how it all began. Shirley's Humble Beginnings

Shirley's story begins with her devoted mother, Audrey, who, as a single parent, raised Shirley and her brother to be successful, upstanding citizens who learned that hard work and perseverance build character-the formula for a happy and successful life and career. Audrey, to this day, makes sacrifices for her daughter and now her grandson whom she helped raise for the decade that Corky and Shirley were on the road competing around the globe. Shirley says, "I have the best mother in the whole wide world who raised two children all on her own and put me through everything. Without her I couldn't have done it. I will always be eternally grateful to my mother." Shirley was very young, perhaps only two or three, when her mother started her in ballet and tap classes. She vividly recalls the first time she peeked in the church hall at ladies and gentlemen taking a ballroom class and knew then that ballroom dancing would be her ticket up and out of a very tough, poor childhood in Liverpool, England, her birthplace. A few weeks later she enrolled in a children's class. From age eight to 12, she went to class on Saturdays and competed with another little girl as her partner. Thirsty for greater competition, her mother took her to a studio in Liverpool; and, at 14, she moved to South Yorkshire, where she had the privilege of dancing with the British Junior Ballroom Champion Nigel Tiffany for two years. By 16, she had moved to London and the following year turned professional. Corky interrupts his humble partner to note that Shirley remains the youngest female ever, still to this day, to make the British finals. At the tender age of 23, Shirley reached a major milestone and won the British Open Championship for the first time in her career.

Corky's Turn To Tell

Corky's tale begins with family history too-a successful mix of talent, artistry and astute business sense. Corky's mom, a fabulous Flamenco dancer, singer, and castanet-player, studied with Carmen Miranda and performed in several movies. His Greek dad, an ambitious and inventive businessman, first set eyes on Corky's mom at a Flamenco show when he was a serviceman stationed in San Antonio. During the 1960's Corky's dad, a studio owner and consultant, opened the largest dance studio in the world. Corky claims that to this day Dancing USA is still the largest-over 43,000 sq. ft. with a 22,000 sq. ft main ballroom. Guest parties were so big that they had to divide up the alphabet and run them every other month because they couldn't fit everyone at one time. The studio offered everything-ballet, tap, jazz, karate, Flamenco-even a beauty parlor and a nightclub called the Terpsichorean Club. Corky credits his dad with such innovations as bringing Bill and Bobbi Irvine, MBE, to the US to demonstrate International Style and having live 16-piece bands perform. He says, "The things we have today were developed by my dad." Corky attended his mom's Flamenco classes and began competing as an amateur in American style pro/am events but stopped abruptly at 15 because he found it too feminine. He preferred track events earning all-state honors and a college scholarship. But "Saturday Night Fever" and John Travolta hit the scene and Corky's life changed direction forever. Dancing in discos and winning contests took top priority day and night. He remembers going straight from discos to high school in his night clothes. When that era ended, dancing was in his heart so he entered the pro/am ranks again and worked his way up. Corky gushes, "Then I went to Montreal CA and there before my eyes was the most gorgeous thing I ever saw dancing?. I was totally stunned. It was Shirley." Corky invited the winners, Shirley and her husband, Sammie Stopford, to Houston for 10 days to train (and teach him how to dance) and the rest is history. Shirley and Corky fell in love. "That's the bottom line. I am still just as much in love with her right now as I was back then. I look at the little gleam in her eyes and I??", Corky's words disappear as his adoring look speaks volumes about his devotion to Shirley whom he married in 1985.

The Naughty Student

It was one thing to marry him, but to dance with him too? Corky claims that, "everyone was calling my wife a complete goofball for dancing with me because I was a beginner and she was already world champion." Shirley exclaims, "Yes, and the hardest student to ever teach. He was the worst. He had style and charisma but that was it. I had to teach him totally from scratch and he was such a naughty student. He used to say, 'Stick with me. I will take you places.' I had already been to those places but he was about to visit them. "Shirley trained him so well that in his first year he placed second in the US Open Professional. "Couldn't have done it without my wife. Corky muses. ("Absolutely" agrees Shirley. )"Well, maybe I could have. I do feel that had I not delivered my part I would have never gotten there. There have been similar situations where it has not worked out when the other partner did not deliver. Have to say that at our first Blackpool we finished fourth in the jive which was fantastic for the first time ever going to the most prestigious competition in the world, Blackpool, England, The Open to the World British." Teasingly, Corky chides Shirley, "don't know if you remember that or not? Don't ever forget it." How To Marry A Millionaire Shirley admits that she may have been first attracted to Corky by his money. Corky sprung from a multi-millionaire family (his dad invented the Weed-eater) that owned hotels, limousines, the whole nine yards. "Who wouldn't be?" chimed in Shirley as we all shared a hearty laugh. She entered the world of the rich and famous and was stunned. "I didn't want to be poor, but sitting around going to parties for six months was too much," she continued. It was then that she realized how insignificant the money was so she zealously returned to work to earn her own living. The Trip Back To The Top

Corky and Shirley lived in the United States after they first married and won seven US Championships. They needed a challenge and returned to Great Britain without a penny in their pockets and started from scratch back in the 24. Shirley's former husband and his new wife and partner, Barbara, were ranked second in the world at the time. It took five years, but they finally beat him and yet Stopford was the first one to send them flowers. Friendly to this day, they were neighbors and trained at the same gym while competing against each other.

And Baby Makes Three

Mark Ballas, AKA Corky Jr. (his stage name) or CJ, was born in 1986, the Ballas' undisputed pride and joy and the impetus for their energies today and in the future. Proud mom Shirley thinks Mark ended up with the best of both his parents, so it is not hard to imagine what a great dancer he will become. Not only are they devoted parents and teachers to Mark but to 14-year-old Derek and his 11-year-old sister, Julianne, whom they met at Dance Camp in Utah. Recently, Corky and Shirley became surrogate parents to the Mormon siblings. The threesome attend an exclusive school of performing arts in London and perform on stage as 2B1G (which stands for two boys, one girl). These versatile, multi-talented youngsters performed an electrifying show at the USDCS and captured top honors in both ballroom and Latin events. Trained in stage school, they are currently forming a pop band and have high hopes for a hit record and theatrical stardom.

But it wasn't always this way. Corky Jr., according to Shirley, had never expressed a desire to compete until his parents retired. He was 10 when Shirley found him the best little girl who had been in the final (sound familiar?) and within eight months won the British under-12 juvenile championships in both Latin and Ballroom styles. Shirley adds, "We immersed him in it; but he is a talented little boy." Corky describes what they mean by total immersion: "It means morning, noon and night (just like we did). Theoretically, he would go to school, come home and go to school. 4 PM to 10 PM, seven days-a-week, Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 365 days a year. He put five years into one year. It is not about years, it is about hours. That's how we can say this with certainty."

From age four to 11, Corky went to a London prep school and only studied stage work on the weekends. An excellent student, he qualified for two of the top academic schools in Great Britain, but chose another path. One day he just looked at his mother and said," I don't want to be a banker, I am an artist" so they sent him to stage school without a second thought. Shirley reveals, "He has a blast. He'll never look back and say school was horrible. He gets up in the morning and loves it."

Furthermore, they replicated the immersion program with Julianne. Corky remarks, "She is amazing and so is Derek. He is a wonderful dancer. These kids are exceptional and multi-talented." Shirley notes that their school reports from the Italia Conte School of Dramatic Arts in London are outstanding.

Where is this all leading? Corky answers, "Well, since we retired (we are coming up on our third year) our energies are being focused on our children-all of our pupils, children and adults- we are producing future champions."

Author's Note: This is the end of Part I. Watch this space for Part II to learn more about this dynamic DanceSport family. Corky and Shirley Ballas Contact Information: Live With Passion (name of home) Frank Dixon Way Dulwich London England SE21-7ES E-mail: Corky@corky.com Web Page: http://www.corky.com Tel: 281-772-3666 USA Fax: 253-981-1410 USA Tel: +44-181-693-0278 UK Fax: +44-181-693-0279 UK Corky and Shirley Ballas are in the USA six months out of the year coaching and demonstrating

Susan Wyckoff Fell is a free-lance writer and public relations consultant specializing in DanceSport. She interviewed Corky and Shirley Ballas in Miami Beach in September, 1999, at the USDSC. She lives in Palm Beach County, Florida. Her e-mail address is swfell129@aol.com