Fiona Kirk is a freelance writer based in New York City.
For many ballroom fans, they are simply known as “Tony and Melanie.” From the very start of their award-winning 18-year competitive career, Tony Meredith and Melanie LaPatin caught the eye of the judges with their unique style—his sleek, dark looks contrasting with her fiery red curls—and their powerful combination of technical precision and charisma on the dance floor. The chemistry that made them ballroom’s darlings is still there today, as Meredith and LaPatin celebrate the seventh year of their New York City studio, Dance Times Square.
The two have come a long way since they were first introduced in a California nightclub 27 years ago. Traveling the world while racking up more than 100 championship titles, including DanceSport World Cup Champions, North American Latin Champions and Dirty Dancing Champions, they represented the U.S. at the World Latin Championship for 12 years running and became one of the most well-known couples in the field. Their hard work culminated in an exultant win at the 1995 United States Professional Latin Championships. Retirement from competition was followed by the decision to end their romantic relationship, but these days, Meredith and LaPatin are still very much partners at their vibrant dance studio in the heart of Times Square.
On a recent weekday night at the third-floor studio, a teacher led six beginners in the rock step, while a lithe couple energetically worked on the jive for an upcoming pro-am tournament on the other side of the room. In the smaller of the two rehearsal spaces, choreographer Mercedes Ellington taught several students the opening number of an upcoming showcase. The high energy and buzz inside the studio easily surpassed that of the New York streets below.
For Meredith, New York City is worlds away from the South Pacific islands of American Samoa where he lived as a young child. Born in San Diego to a Hispanic mother and a Samoan dad, he eventually moved back to California as a teenager. An avid fan of TV shows such as “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train,” he was first introduced to the hustle by his cousin, who needed a practice partner. After perfecting their moves in the garage, the two began sneaking across the border to Tijuana to hit the clubs and dance all night long.
LaPatin’s father was a tap dancer on Broadway, and there was always music playing in their home, from The Beatles to Motown. But it wasn’t until she was living in California and working at a pathology lab that she caught the dancing bug. One day, LaPatin was reluctantly dragged to a hustle dance class at a nearby skating rink. “I thought it would be old people doing the waltz,” she says, “but it was great music, a young crowd, a really good-looking teacher, and I fell in love with dance the moment I walked in the door.” Soon, LaPatin was training at a nearby studio, as well as teaching.
Meredith and LaPatin met one evening in 1981 at a West Coast swing club in San Diego. According to LaPatin, Meredith had already made quite a name for himself as the king of the hustle—so even though they were introduced by five different people that night, just speaking to him made her nervous. Good thing the feeling was mutual: Meredith noticed LaPatin the moment she walked in the door. “She had this magnetic, electric aura around her,” he recalls. “I guess you could say my kingdom crumbled.”
Meredith didn’t care if LaPatin could dance or not. He just had to summon up the courage to ask. The last dance of the night, a quickstep, Meredith made his move. And, as LaPatin says, “That last dance was the beginning of the rest of our lives.” The two married in 1989.
Three months after Meredith and LaPatin met, they won the American Rhythm division of the Southwest Regional Competition in San Diego with their high-energy cha cha, samba, swing, bolero and mambo routines. And for the next 12 years, they took second place in the U.S. Professional Latin Championships, earning them the privilege of dancing for the U.S. at the World Latin Championships. LaPatin, an admitted perfectionist, drove the team forward. They even rehearsed on New Year’s Eve through midnight in order to squeeze in more practice time, always with one goal in mind: “I wanted to be a U.S. Champion,” says LaPatin. “I wanted to represent the U.S. in the World Championship.”
Their rehearsal schedule was grueling: They’d be in the studio by 10 am, practice for five hours, teach class, then head to the gym. “It was an Olympic sport for us,” says Meredith. “We wanted to see how far we could go and commit. We studied sports psychology and took courses in ballet and modern so we’d have other sources to draw from.”
Their peers are quick to applaud their contributions to the artform. “Melanie and Tony were the pioneers of authentic Latin American dance from America into the European competitive scene,” says Bryan Watson, nine-time World Professional Latin Champion. “They were very forward-thinking with their choreography—taking Latin American dance forward but keeping it authentic at the same time.” Watson’s partner, Carmen Vincelj, agrees: “They were such individual characters, larger than life. Melanie was a mix of Bette Midler and Jessica Rabbit, and he the ultimate Latino. It was an unusual mix of personalities that gave off a great chemistry.”
Finally, in 1995, all of their efforts paid off. When it was announced that Meredith and LaPatin were the winners of the U.S. Professional Latin Championships, they received a standing ovation. “It was probably one of the most elated feelings of accomplishment I’ve ever experienced,” says Meredith. “Finally, we got the brass ring, what we were aiming for the entire time. We had our fans behind us all those years, they kept us going, and it was as much for them as for us.”
A few years after their big win, they retired from professional competition. “I loved doing shows, but I felt there was a new generation that should come in and carry the torch further,” says Meredith. He and LaPatin decided to put their many years of experience into coaching and teaching. The two had supported themselves with teaching throughout their performing career, so it was an easy transition.
Through a friend, LaPatin and Meredith were put in contact with the Durst Family Foundation, an organization supportive of the arts. With the foundation’s generous help, they found a former cabaret theater on West 44th Street in Manhattan and turned it into Dance Times Square in 2001. The 2,500-square-foot space has soaring ceilings with chandeliers and original moldings and is open up to 12 hours each day for group and private lessons. The class list ranges from beginner salsa to International Standard, and a twice-weekly “Latin Lunch” series draws in corporate workers from the surrounding area for socializing and dancing. Students of Dance Times Square range in age from 11 to 80, with a 50/50 split between social and competitive dancers. Currently, there are eight full-time instructors. The studio also holds two showcases each year in which students and instructors, joined by a handful of professionals, put on a full-length performance. This year’s May showcase was held at Hunter College’s Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse, a 624-seat proscenium theater.
The studio’s website, www.dancetimessquare.com, and word of mouth are the main sources of advertising. Meredith is the artistic director, focusing on choreography and teaching. He also handles the bookkeeping: “I like numbers,” he says. LaPatin is the expert in networking with other organizations and directs her energies toward realizing the studio’s long-term goals, including heading the agency they created to match dance professionals with jobs in commercials, corporate events and print ads.
The first couple of years were a struggle. The studio opened just three weeks after September 11, 2001, and although they had a number of students early on, it wasn’t easy. “It was learning basically from scratch, as neither Tony nor I had any business experience,” recalls LaPatin. “The costs were so high and I didn’t realize how much was involved,” echoes Meredith, “things like workers’ comp, liability, health insurance, taxes and payroll.”
Both had to figure out how to cope with the high cost of doing business in Manhattan as well as coordinate the many duties involved in running a studio. They also had to work through the unraveling of their romantic partnership. Luckily, the two were able to maintain a very close friendship. “Tony is probably the most talented and creative person I know and, after 27 years, he never ceases to amaze me,” says LaPatin.
For Meredith, the need to figure out who he was as an individual was the primary impetus for the split. “We’d been attached at the hip for so long, you couldn’t say one name without saying the other,” he says. “There was a phase of asking, ‘Who is Tony Meredith?’ and ‘Who is Melanie LaPatin?’ But we always felt that we were stronger together than apart. Although we might have our differences and individualities, we know that together we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Their warm, generous natures are reflected in the spirit of the studio. “It’s like a family,” says friend and former student Cheryl Burke, of “Dancing With The Stars” fame. “You go there and everyone knows each other. They have top teachers at the studio and it was a place where I really learned a lot. They’re both so nice—it was open arms right away, and anytime I needed anything they’d be right there.”
LaPatin and Meredith have a holistic approach to teaching. “I like to get the person or couple to feel good about themselves,” says LaPatin. “The steps are just a tool. Give [students] what they came for, and fill them with it, physically, mentally and emotionally.” According to Amanda Reyzin, who competes in the Open Professional Rhythm Division with her husband, Ilya, Meredith works with the couple on technique while LaPatin focuses on the character and emotion of the dance, and how they talk to each other with body language. “It gives us artistic freedom,” says Reyzin. “For example, we might dance the cha cha one way, and then interpret it differently the next time, so it becomes more spontaneous.”
LaPatin enjoys the different challenges involved in working with both social and competitive clientele. “Competitive dancers tend to be fierce competitors as this is their career, their life, so I do expect more from them,” she says. “With the social dancer, it’s not as intense. But it has to be fun at every level, and I want both social and competitive students to learn as much as possible and enjoy the experience.”
In addition to running the studio, LaPatin and Meredith have developed quite a name for themselves as choreographers for film and television. They have choreographed (and often appeared in) such films as The Thomas Crown Affair, Dance with Me, Shall We Dance? and Take the Lead. Unsurprisingly, working with celebrities like Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo and Susan Sarandon is quite different from dealing with students in the studio. “Actors often have to talk and dance at the same time,” explains LaPatin. “You only have a certain amount of time, and you need to convey as much information as you can without intimidating them, and you have to keep it positive.” Meredith agrees: “You have to really get them in gear and give them no more and no less. You hand them a script of choreography, and that’s what you practice and what you learn.”
This month they head to L.A. to begin working on the fourth season of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” reprising their roles as choreographers and teachers the previous season. “They’re very creative, very positive, and they really have dance in their hearts,” says Pasha Kovalev, who worked with the pair last year as a finalist on the show and is now a guest instructor at the studio. “They try to take the best things from every dance studio model and make it their own and make it special.”
Both are thrilled to see the popularity of ballroom dance surge in the wake of TV shows such as “SYTYCD” and “Dancing With The Stars.” “I think it’s put ballroom dance on the map and given it a sense of credibility,” says Meredith. “You can see that it’s just as intense as ballet or modern, and at the same time can be a lot of fun. I think people are realizing that it’s something they’re going to be able to use, and isn’t just for the studio or stage.”
Meredith and LaPatin have more on their plates as well: They are in negotiations to produce and choreograph a movie project, as well as a Broadway show. They’re also hunting for an additional space where they can open a second studio and are desperate to hire more dance teachers. (“It’s okay if they don’t have teaching experience; we’ll train them!” says LaPatin.)
For her and Meredith, success on the competition floor has segued into a successful business that allows them to continue doing what they love most. Throughout the years, they have remained true to the art of dance. “What better thing to do with yourself than to dance with a partner?” says LaPatin. “It’s the best form of non-verbal communication there is. When you peel all the layers away all we have left is ourselves and our inner rhythm.” DT