Tony may tango with the stars, but he's got his feet firmly on the ground.
There have been many pinnacle moments in ballroom dancer Tony Dovolani’s career—an Emmy nomination for “Dancing with the Stars,” working on the movie Shall We Dance? and entering a dance business partnership with “DWTS” co-star Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Yet in Dovolani’s mind, one stands out above the rest. It was Labor Day weekend 2005, and he had just snared a first-place finish at the Embassy Ball in Irvine, California. As he watched the American flag being raised in his honor, the charismatic dancer was overcome with emotion. Not only was it his first world championship, but it also marked a major passage for the one-time immigrant.
“I truly felt like I thanked America back for saving my life,” says Dovolani, who emigrated from Kosovo with his family as a teenager. “My dad was there and we shared a smile; we were both teary-eyed because we knew what we’d been through to get to that point. It made me feel like I was worthy of being in this country.”
Six years later, Dovolani is now a staple on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and known worldwide as a celebrity ballroom dancer. But amid all the trappings of fame, he remains down-to-earth, family-oriented and full of gratitude. “If dancing is your passion, it will keep rewarding you throughout your entire life,” he says. “I cannot imagine my life without dancing in it.”
Finding the Rhythm
Growing up in Pristina, Kosovo, a young Dovolani discovered dance as his link to the Western world. “As a child, I was very in love with the MGM movies,” he says. Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire are among his influences. “Our whole family would gather every Sunday afternoon and watch the tapes over and over,” he adds.
Dovolani first started folk dancing at age 3. “My dad saw that I had rhythm, so he made sure to give me the possibility of exploring it further,” he says. That came in the form of joining a large dance troupe and being one of its youngest performers. At age 12, Dovolani took on choreography duties for the group and started laying the foundation for future pursuits. “Folk dancing helped prepare me for ballroom, because many folk dances involve partnering and storytelling; that’s the reason my choreography always has a story behind it,” he says.
In 1989, his family was abruptly uprooted and forced to flee for the United States. “My dad was in politics, and when the regime changed, we were literally chased out of the country,” says Dovolani, who is one of five children. “Very suddenly, we had to move to an entirely different country and learn a whole new language, a whole new way. It felt like we lost everything, but we still had each other.”
Immersed in completely foreign surroundings, the 16-year-old turned to a familiar comfort: dance. “When I came to the U.S., the first thing I did was look for dance studios,” he says. “As soon as I walked into the Fred Astaire studio in Stamford, Connecticut, I knew that ballroom dance would be the rest of my life. Every light in my head went off—ding! I went for it, full-out.”
The moment marked the beginning of two decades with Fred Astaire Dance Studios, where Dovolani has worked in various capacities. Not long after his initial lesson, he began teaching for the ballroom franchise and used the income to hire his first ballroom coach, Marianne Nicole. He now acts as the company’s dance director. “It’s been an incredible journey,” he says. “[Fred Astaire studio] trained me to be a teacher, a competitor. Through that experience, I definitely found my niche.”
Elle Cardona, central manager of Fred Astaire’s Chicago North location, credits Dovolani’s swift success to his work ethic. “He was a hard-worker right from the start,” she says. “Whether or not he had raw talent, he made damn sure it looked like it. He made it look like he was born dancing that way.”
A Star Is Born
Though Dovolani competed for 15 years, it was during the last decade that he truly hit his stride. In 2005 and 2006, he won consecutive World Rhythm championships with partners Inna Ivanenko and Elena Grinenko, alongside a host of other prestigious titles. In retrospect, he credits his four years with Grinenko for helping him reach his current level of success: “I was lucky enough to dance with 10 different girls and every single one taught me something,” he says. “But Elena had such great vision; I don’t feel like I danced to the best of my ability until I partnered with her.”
About this time, he also started earning notice from the entertainment industry. He took on a minor role as Slick Willy in the 2004 film Shall We Dance? and also acted as a consultant behind the scenes, working closely with stars Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon for nine months. “These guys were class acts,” says Dovolani. “It was a great intro to Hollywood because they explained how it all works and how you have to stay true to yourself.”
These insider lessons would come in handy sooner than he expected, as “Dancing with the Stars” came calling after filming wrapped. Though Dovolani initially had to turn the show down because competitions were still monopolizing his time, he accepted their second offer. He hit the “DWTS” floor for the first time with Stacy Keibler during Season 2 and has since been paired with celebrities like Kathy Ireland, Jane Seymour and Audrina Patridge.
Working in a high-pressure environment with dance newbies (who also happen to be household names) can be quite a tall task—and one that’s honed Dovolani’s teaching skills. “I’ve had my share of challenges—from good dancers to those who thought they could never take a step,” he says. “Marissa Winokur was tone-deaf and couldn’t hear music; neither could Leeza [Gibbons]. Sara [Evans] couldn’t stand on one foot because she had both legs broken as a child. Susan Lucci would come in after 12 hours of trying to remember scripts, and Kate [Gosselin] was fighting a custody battle. Melissa [Rycroft] came to me two days after being dumped on national TV.”
At the start of each season, he typically begins by assessing a new partner’s abilities and determining which methods she’ll respond to best. Hectic production schedules leave little time to learn and perfect each week’s routines; after receiving the music every Tuesday, the couples go into the studio on Wednesday and are expected to be camera-ready by the following Sunday. “Because we’re always in such a time crunch, patience can be hard to come by, but it’s important as a teacher. It’s all about knowing 15 different ways to teach the same step,” he says.
Instilling trust is also essential. Behind-the-scenes friction with Gosselin was no secret; judge Bruno Tonioli labeled her a “disaster movie” for her poor dancing. Dovolani also recalls a particularly tough week when, because of Gosselin’s family demands, they had just two days to master a complicated tango. (“Kate had so much going on; it was very difficult for her,” he says.) It wasn’t until he gained her trust that she was able to surrender her need for control. “Once she let me take over and teach the way I teach, we ended up having a great result,” he says. “There are two ways of pushing someone: positively or negatively—and you get so much more out of positive encouragement.”
Though many of the show’s ballroom pros have now become bona fide stars themselves, Dovolani remains grounded. His family still resides in Stamford, and he likes nothing more than staying home with wife Lina and their three children. “I consider myself normal,” he says. “My friends say I haven’t changed a bit; Hollywood can change people, but only those who didn’t know themselves to start.”
Cardona says this easygoing charisma makes Dovolani extremely popular with students at Fred Astaire. Dovolani visits the Chicago North studio two or three times a year for contract engagements, including private coaching and public group lessons. “Every time we have Tony here, our phone never stops ringing—we’ll get lots of new faces and screaming girls who drive in from a couple states over,” she says. “He’s a joy to have in the studio. He’s the kind of guy who will coach you, see you two years later and remember the exact moves he taught and your first and last name. He’s got a great way of forging genuine personal relationships with his students.”
Taking the Lead
Though he has yet to snag a coveted “DWTS” mirror-ball trophy, Dovolani’s in no rush. “For me, the show is about the experience,” he says. “All of my partners have continued dancing, and that’s the greatest win—inspiring others to dance.”
Hollywood types aren’t the only ones Dovolani has inspired. He coaches and teaches off-camera as well—with master classes, appearances and workshops around the country at Fred Astaire studios and elsewhere. In 2010, he took on partial ownership of Chmerkovskiy’s venture, Dance With Me Studios. With three locations, the effort is currently based in the New York tristate area, but plans are in place for national expansion. Dovolani also headlines the annual Superstars of Ballroom camp, alongside “DWTS” pros like Cheryl Burke and Kym Johnson. “My entire off-season is spent teaching; I don’t waste a minute,” he says.
Dovolani enjoys working with everyone from beginners to seasoned competitors, structuring classes accordingly. “For pros, I’ll focus on technique, whereas in a social class, it’s all about lead-and-follow, so people can start to understand how their bodies should move across the floor together,” he says. The one unifying aspect of all his classes? Character. “If you’re dancing a rumba, it should look like a rumba [i.e. romantic, sensuous]; if you’re dancing a fox trot, it should look like a fox trot [i.e. graceful, playful],” he says.
Though competitive ballroom dance is heavily regimented and highly codified by nature, Dovolani isn’t interested in preaching rigid conformity. “The true essence of a teacher is bringing the best out of a person, and every person looks different,” he says. His broad range of partners—from the gregarious, curvy Winokur to the lithe, graceful Patridge—illustrates his point. “If you try to make them all the same, that’s not art—that’s paint-by-numbers,” he adds.
Looking to the future, he sees continued involvement on “DWTS,” but other goals include choreographing for Broadway and working with prestigious dance companies (Orlando Ballet is already on tap). He’s also becoming a known presence in Hollywood circles, having done choreography for various Disney live productions and Toy Story 3 alongside Cheryl Burke. “We’re both very strong Latin dancers,” says Burke, “and we worked together to create a paso doble that will live forever on film. Having to compensate for the animated characters’ limitations was a challenge, but I think we managed to pull it off.”
No doubt Dovolani welcomes any dance-related challenge, and Toy Story 3 likely won’t be his last. Though he retired from competition in 2006, he’s busier than ever, and that’s just how he prefers it. “When you retire, you start exploring—you become more of a master. For me, retirement was just the beginning,” he says. DT
Jen Jones is based in Los Angeles.
Photo by Rachel Papo