Living and Dancing in San Diego with the Champions
A visit to the home of Ron Montez
By Kim Knode
America is most familiar with Ron Montez as the co-host of the popular PBS series, Championship Ballroom Dancing. In the international DanceSport (ballroom dancing) community, the seven-time U.S. Latin champion is not just a handsome face on television. Montez is the back by popular demand expert at competitions and in dance schools due to decades of experience as a dancer, coach and adjudicator.
The retired competitor is frequently invited to fly away from his twenty-year San Diego sanctuary to judge DanceSport competitions and conduct classes in the rhythm dances (distinguished by a controlled wiggle called Cuban hip motion) such as salsa and cha-cha. For instance, this summer, Montez will pack his bags to join fellow ballroom celebrities at dance camps for adults. (The sell-out camps are a far cry from scout outings into the woods.) Spacious ballrooms sparkling with chandeliers in places seductive like Las Vegas to sedate like Provo, Utah see top talent gather to teach dance fans at premium prices.
In addition to the airfare and admission into the dance camps, DanceSport enthusiasts will often pay eighty-five dollars and up for a private one hour session with Montez. In addition to waltz workshops and such, students often get a chance to compete and perform, which adds up to adjudication dollars for experienced judges like Montez. However, as lucrative as the events outside of Southern California may be, San Diegos dancing man prefers to stay close to home.
So DanceSport competitors from all over follow their road maps and dreams of golden trophies to visit the wizard of Latin dancing in San Diego. (Traffic may increase with the approach of the possible entrance of DanceSport ballroom dancing – into the 2008 Olympics.) If the dancers are lucky enough to garner an appointment, the Champion Ballroom Academy on Fifth Avenue is where they generally meet Montez. (In 1995, the school was voted as the best dance studio in America. The owner, Mary Murphy is also a U.S. ballroom dance champion.)
After weeks of telephone tag, I am the fortunate one who is granted an early April sixty-minute interview at the champions home. Montez promises to squeeze me into his schedule on a lunch break away from his duties as judge at the Southwestern Regional Dance Championships held at the Holiday Inn San Diego-On The Bay.
Gazing out of the taxicab window en route from the San Diego Amtrak Station to the Montez residence, I see a myriad of streets all starting with El Camino (meaning the way in Spanish). Blooming hydrangeas, foxgloves and other botanical delights spring forth from meticulously manicured gardens. Houses stand proud and pretty with coats of freshly painted pastel pinks, yellows and blues. The sky is filled with puffy white clouds. Is this paradise? (I am knocked back to reality as the East African taxi driver tells me of his escape to San Diego for a better life.)
Arriving at the address on my post-it, I cut an amicable deal with the cabbie. (He agrees to wait an hour and take me back to the train station.) I knock on the door of the picture postcard house and am greeted by Karla Montez, a former Jazz dancer. Her form-fitting black top and pants accentuates her trim figure. She is a mother of three and still looks fit as a fiddle. (Perhaps it is the running after her four year old that burns the calories. Or maybe it is all cha-cha and mambo she does with her husband in their video series, Anyone Can Dance.)
She graciously accepts my arriving early for the interview. With a smile, Karla directs me to wait on one of her Easter egg blue couches. Heading into the kitchen, she says, Ron should be home pretty soon.
Framed family photos smile back at me from every corner. My eye wanders from a baby boy wearing only his daddys necktie to a tanned Montez family with leis around their necks looking like they are enjoying a Caribbean cruise.
I follow the trail of pictures of the Montez children at different ages to a placard studded with red hearts that reads, One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove Or how much money I had in my bank account The last line reads, But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.
I do not see any trophies or award certificates or even dancing photos of the champion. I only see that Ron and Karla Montez are champions of the family. My impression of stepping on to the set of The Donna Reed Show is enforced as Karla comes out of the kitchen with a tray of freshly brewed coffee and freshly baked blueberry muffins!
She sets her goodie laden tray on the (polished) coffee table and pries open the lid of a rose red tin. Karla says, These homemade chocolates were a gift to us. I cant eat them all! She starts to offer me one of the scrumptious morsels but spies a dark chocolate that has been sampled. Removing the confection from the mix, Karla laughs. Looks like a Ron!
I decline the chocolates but not Karlas blueberry feather light muffins. In between bites, I comment on the tranquility in her home. She grins and explains that her four-year old son is with a trusted sitter. Also, as a gift to her husband, she turns off the music before he comes home. Ron likes to listen to talk radio because he hears music all day. And Im hearing the kids talking all the time so Im always turning off the talk radio and turning on music.
What kind of music? I ask.
Karla chuckles and answers, With two kids in the house, I like anything that is calm! I usually listen to easy listening stations like 96.5.
The quiet is broken with a barking dog. Montez makes a grand entrance into his home. His stride is strong and sure. Montez carries an aura of a man who is comfortable in the spotlight.
Montez looks exactly like the man I see on PBS with raven black hair and eyes sitting with perfect posture opposite actresses like Sandy Duncan and Barbara Eden who effervesce with oos and ahs while competitors razzle-dazzle with flashy moves and rhinestone studded costumes. (Montez, in contrast to his female co-hosts, provides commentary in an even tone on the footwork and choreography of the dancers dueling for the title of champion.)
As Montez settles himself on the sofa, I ask him about his history. The dancer who was an undefeated Latin dance champion for seven years explains, When I finished high school, I was kind of up in the air. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My sister had the bright idea of getting me involved in some kind of ballroom dance teacher training course. My sister and brother-in-law were Arthur Murray instructors in Arizona.
Cracking a small smile, he continues, So I said OK. I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment.
But when Montez started the training with his first teacher, Nancy Elliott, he felt a surge of enthusiasm. Nancy presented ballroom dancing to me in such a way that it was very appealing. She presented the masculine and feminine roles in a way that were right and well balanced to me.
I ask him to translate his statement. Well the man’s role – what he was supposed to do, what he was supposed to look like, the way he was supposed to conduct himself, the way he was supposed to move versus the female. You had a secure position of what you were supposed to do either sex.
Montez confesses that, Of course, in the beginning I didn’t know anything about teaching – a little bit about dancing maybe. But I loved dancing. And I got hooked!
And Arthur Murray students got hooked on Montezs magic touch in the classroom. He acknowledges that, I was teaching all the time The lessons just sold themselves!
After years of playing dance professor, however, he found himself burnt out. Montez says that, I hadn’t been receiving a lot information. I was hungry for any kind of information – even dance information. So he seized an opportunity to attend Brigham Young University. For a while it gave me a chance to soak up something, he says.
Book learning was not the only thing Montez absorbed at BYU. I did my first competition in 1972 in ballroom while I attended Brigham Young. Like a scientist reciting the results of an experiment, he recalls, It was my first competition. And I got a taste of competition and the thrilling aspect of it. I thought that it was motivating and a lot fun.
How did he place? I won the Rising Star Division and was like fourth or fifth in the Professional Division. I liked being successful, being able to express myself and have people appreciate it.
His joy carried him into seven continuous United States Latin Champion titles from 1979 through 1985. He retired in 1986 from competition dancing. Nearly a decade later he began a new challenge when he exchanged marriage vows with Karla.
Montez declares that, Family is the biggest challenge of all. I mean dancing is attainable if you just do it! With conviction he continues, But you are not confronted with the challenge and the problems. You also dont get the fulfillment of home and family life.
As a father of three, he still marvels at, My family interacting with one another and learning and growing and becoming more responsible – that development is such an amazing thing.
As parents and as dance professionals, I ask how the couple feels about DanceSport training and ballroom dancing in the Olympics.
Karla replies with conviction. There are not enough ballroom dance workshops especially in San Diego. She adds, Ashley (her teenage daughter from a former marriage) used to compete. Ron choreographed her (award-winning) Latin routines. But her partner moved away to Boston. Its hard to find young boys who dance. (Ashley is now a member of a cheerleading competition team.)
Besides the lack of an infrastructure of ballroom schools for children in America, Montez says, there is the perception problem. Most Olympic officials think ballroom dancing is a social thing for nightclubs – nothing to do with athletics.
He adds that, I would welcome ballroom dancing as an Olympic sport. Young people would flock to dancing. Montez maintains, Ballroom dancing is healthy you learn cooperation and you get exercise. You concentrate on the music and you work with another person on certain technical aspects together.
Montez looks at his wife and she nods her head in agreement. He continues, You participate with a person of the opposite sex with music as your medium. Montez adds that ballroom dancing allows for a natural development of a relationship over time. Interaction is not forced and can fully develop as dance instruction takes the foreground.
The promulgation and entry of DanceSport into the Olympics, however, does not keep the former champion awake at nights. Uppermost in the mind of Montez is his family. Dancing is an instrument I use to provide for my family. Family is my focus now.
Besides spending time with his family, what are the former Latin champions favorite pastimes? Montez smiles. Well, I enjoy reading biographical books. Right now, I am reading everything I can about the life of Jesus Christ on this earth and his death.
Anything else you like to do? I ask.
Karla mimes a man sprawled out on the sofa. Montez admits that, Yes. I like to watch football.
It is reassuring to know that the former champion who moves like a Greek god on the dance floor partakes in the mortal pleasures of a San Diego Chargers game! And the Chargers may not come close to championship trophies this season!
However, as I walk away from my interview with Ron and Karla Montez and I hear the taxi honk his horn; a muse whispers in my ear. After climbing to the top of Mount Olympus, you get a view of the bigger picture.
Kim Knode’s interview articles focusing on artists, celebrities and dance champions have been published in various print and on-line publications.