Face to Face: One Hot Tamale
A conversation with Mary Murphy
It’s hard to imagine “So You Think You Can Dance” judge Mary Murphy anywhere else but on TV. Her ear-piercing enthusiasm for the performances that send the most talented dancers on her metaphorical “hot tamale train” has become a staple of our weeknights. But Murphy is also a force in the dance community off-air, as an international ballroom champion and a studio owner for 22 years.
In 2006, Murphy founded the nonprofit Mary Murphy’s Chance to Dance, to bring ballroom dance to San Diego public schools. As part of the program, she invites local elementary school teachers to her Champion Ballroom Academy once a week to learn to incorporate the lessons into their own curricula.
A partner and organizer of the Holiday Dance Classic in Las Vegas since 1999, Murphy will add another major ballroom competition to her resumé. She’s teamed up with Michael Chapman and Jonathan Roberts of “Dancing with the Stars” to organize the 2012 Hollywood DanceSport Championships, which begins October 31.
Dance Teacher: Did you always know you wanted to be a ballroom dancer?
Mary Murphy: Not at all! I had three brothers and I was the fourth boy. I was into track and field and played basketball and volleyball. It wasn’t until college that I fell into modern dance—by fluke. I was getting a degree in physical education, and they offered a dance class. I tried it and fell in love with it. But at that point, because I was so old, I never thought I’d dance professionally. I had my mind set on being a PE teacher and a track coach.
After college, I was taking a few dance classes at a studio for fun, when my friend and I decided to try ballroom. The manager of the studio invited me to New York City to see the United States DanceSport Championships. I walked into the Waldorf Astoria, took about 10 steps in the ballroom, saw the couples gliding across the floor, all the rhinestones, bright colors and feathers, and I knew that’s what I wanted. It felt like a lightning bolt had hit me.
DT: What was the inspiration for your nonprofit?
MM: There are so many people out there who, if they were given the chance, could spawn such creativity. It’s so hard to dance professionally when you start late, so you have to start young.
At Chance to Dance, we have an annual showcase at the schools, and hundreds of kids dance in each show. It’s so inspiring to see how many people come out to support their children and love the program, and it makes us want to work even harder and continue to give back.
DT: Are you still a big sports fan?
MM: I’ve dropped a lot of it because my life completely revolves around dance. I do love to watch football. I’m a huge San Diego Chargers fan and watch “SportsCenter” almost every day.
A lot of athletes watch “SYTYCD,” including Drew Brees and his family, along with former Charger “LT” Tomlinson and former basketball player Reggie Miller. It’s so neat when they come up to me and say, “I love the show!” I stand there, look up and go, “Really?”
DT: Has “SYTYCD” changed your business?
MM: To be honest, I haven’t really used the show to promote my studio. I’ve been here for 22 years, and it has had a great reputation. And now that “SYTYCD Canada” is cancelled, I can be here more and work on the business side of things again. The great thing about the show is that we have more children involved with ballroom. I see a new generation that’s being extremely well-trained. They take ballet and work on stretching, too. We’re working to prepare them as cross-trained dancers.
DT: What’s one of your favorite things about “SYTYCD”?
MM: I just adore what these kids are able to do in such a short time. When I first got the show, I started to take a few classes in different genres to see how difficult it really is. It had been years since I did modern, ballet or jazz—I had strictly been doing ballroom. I found it was impossible to juggle the styles. It was so aggravating because I’m a well-trained dancer, and my body didn’t want to move like that. I came to realize that the show’s competitors aren’t just any dancers. They’re extraordinary dancers. DT
Photo by Adam Rose/FOX, ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.