Why Russian-American Jews Are Ballroom Dance Leaders As ABC's Dancing with the Stars celebrates its 10th anniversary, we explain why Russian Jewish immigrants and their descendants have stepped to the front of this country's ballroom dance scene.
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Why Russian-American Jews Are Ballroom Dance Leaders

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Why Russian-American Jews Are Ballroom Dance Leaders

Why Russian-American Jews Are Ballroom Dance Leaders

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A decade of the TV show "Dancing With The Stars" has helped spark a revival in ballroom dancing. Some of the most successful competitors on the U.S. circuit are Russian-American Jews. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team looked into why.

INNA BRAYER: Cha-cha, one, two, three - good.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: At a studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., on a recent Thursday night, a group of middle schoolers danced the cha-cha. Their hips twitch as they glide across the wooden floor. Their movements are reflected in a wall-length mirror. Inna Brayer, a former national ballroom champion, coaches them.

BRAYER: Concentration, cha-cha, one, two.

STARR: Ballroom dancing is a very common pastime in the Russian Jewish community here in the U.S. Brayer, like all of her students, is Jewish. In 1989, she and her family came to the United States from the former Soviet Union as religious refugees. She says her dance career was a fulfillment of her parents' American dream.

BRAYER: For them it meant that they were succeeding. For them it meant that they were giving me a dream that they may have started, but something that I could definitely finish and do it well.

STARR: She did very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dancing the mambo - Ted McGinley and his partner, Inna Brayer.

STARR: In addition to winning national amateur titles, she appeared on "Dancing With The Stars."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

STARR: Brayer is just one of many Russian-Americans who have excelled on the ballroom circuit. Ken Richards is vice president of USA Dance. That's the governing body for amateur ballroom dancing in the U.S. About 15 years ago, he realized what a force Russian-Americans had become when he emceed a competition and couldn't pronounce any of the finalists' names.

KEN RICHARDS: I pulled a compatriot of mine aside, who was Russian, and I said I need some help. Is it Domitiva (ph) or Demidova (ph)? Tell me.

STARR: Richards believes the rise of Russian-American competitors can be traced to the respect ballroom dance commands in and around the former Soviet Union.

RICHARDS: They approach dancing as a sport like we approach baseball or football. Their box of Wheaties should have a picture of a dancesport athlete on it.

STARR: But for Russian Jews, ballroom dancing seems to be more than a sport. It's like a cultural touchstone. Anna Shternshis is a native of Russia and a professor of Yiddish language and literature at the University of Toronto. She points out in the Soviet era, Jews like herself weren't allowed to be religiously observant.

ANNA SHTERNSHIS: Things like studying Torah or celebrating Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Yom Kippur - all of these things are essentially irrelevant to Russian-speaking Jews.

STARR: Shternshis says they had to find other ways to construct a committee and boost their social mobility.

SHTERNSHIS: Ballroom dancing is so popular because Russian Jews think it's a Jewish activity. It's popular because they think it's an important part of being an educated person, and that belief comes from the Soviet upbringing.

STARR: Jonathan Sarna is a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. He adds that the discrimination Jews faced in the former Soviet Union meant they had to outperform their peers - everywhere from the classroom to the dance floor.

JONATHAN SARNA: They knew that if they didn't work two or three times as hard, there was no way that as Jews they could possibly succeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STARR: When Russian Jews came to the United States in the 1970s, '80s and especially the '90s, they brought that work ethic and cultural traditions like ballroom dance with them. At Inna Brayer's studio, she and her students, like 13-year-old Peter Ulikblin, say they rarely make it to Temple on Saturdays.

PETER ULIKBLIN: We basically spend the whole day at dance class.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAYER: Like the good Jews that we are.

STARR: And with that...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STARR: ...Some of the students take to the dance floor again, preparing for their next competition. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York.

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