Tango in the Twilight

By Kim Knode

At a recent Southern California United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers (USABDA) competition (held at the Glendale Civic Auditorium), I caught up with Dr. James Kleinrath.  The good doctor, a retired dentist, is the reigning three-time National Senior Smooth Champion along with his dance partner and love of four years, Melody Singleton. (They will defend their title in Salt Lake City in August at the USABDA National DanceSport Championship 2001.)

I arrived in time to see the couple whirling around the dance floor with a vigorous Viennese waltz, a snappy Astaire-Rogers foxtrot and a tango with sharp hairpin turns. I watched almost in a state of disbelief.  “This is the Championship Senior American Smooth division?” I had to double check. “This division is reserved for seniors, right?”

In the USABDA arena, a senior is someone who is fifty-plus. The athletic ability of the older dancers is remarkable. The lifts, spins and all the other steps the younger kids are doing are demonstrated with pleasure filled eyes and smiles.

After stepping off the floor, Singleton keeps her adrenalin going by running! The statuesque brunette (looking like an advertisement for Jane Fonda workout videos) sprints off to change costumes for the next event.  (The confident senior champions have entered another event featuring competition between ballroom dancers aged thirty-five and up.)

Kleinrath needs no change of apparel. He is dressed in a tuxedo that serves as a standard outfit for men competing in the “smooth dances” like the waltz, tango and foxtrot. I tap him on the shoulder and ask for an interview. Despite the tails, he still gives the appearance of an eagle scout. Kleinrath stretches every inch of his 5’10” skyward.  His chestnut colored hair is combed flat. And his brown eyes dance with delight. Kleinrath’s boyish grin also reveals an eagerness to do his duty – to share the joy of ballroom dancing after fifty.

His energetic voice matches the youthful appearance. “What do I love about ballroom dancing? Well, It’s wonderful to move to music!” declares Kleinrath.  Like a delighted schoolboy he continues, “I particularly enjoy the lead and follow aspect of ballroom dancing.”

Indeed, ballroom dancing (also called DanceSport) takes two to tango and maneuver one response to the stimulus on the dance floor.  The wildcard elements of the traffic created by the patterns other couples weave on the dance floor in addition to the music all ensconce ballroom dancing in a bit of mystery.  And Kleinrath loves it because, “A new dance is created every time!”

Did the former dentist always dance?  He chuckles and shakes his head. “No. Twelve years ago, after a divorce, I went to my first ballroom dance class to meet women.” He may not have encountered the female fantasy of his dreams; but Kleinrath fell head over heels in love with ballroom dancing!

For Kleinrath the pastime quickly transformed into a preoccupation.  Presently, “Melody and I spend about fifteen to twenty hours training in the studio,” says the dentist turned dancer.  “Plus, we train with two professional dancers in San Francisco.” The senior champion acknowledges that, “Dancing at the competitive level requires a great time commitment.”

“I am grateful that I found the profession of dentistry when I was younger because it gave me something useful and important to do.  Today, it gives me the financial means to pursue competitive dancing.” Flashing his pearly whites, the former dentist says, “There are many times I stand in the dance studio thinking there is nowhere else I would rather be.”

I ask if his food and fitness routines changed after he took up dancing. “Not much,”  he says. “I decided many years ago that regular exercise and weight control are important no matter what else is going on in my life. And both Melody and I are runners, we both have been running over twenty years.”

Surely with all the time in the dance studio they do not run now?  “Oh yes.  We do about fifteen miles a week. I also do a one-hour workout in the gym with weight (lifting) machines three times a week. And Melody does stretches.”

Do they ever relax? “Both of us like theatre, music and dance performances,” replies Kleinrath.  (My mind flips to the articles I have read on professional basketball players closing their eyes and visualizing perfect free throws. Sounds to me like more preparatory material and memorization of winning moves for the dance floor!)

The champion dancer continues, “We do like movies. And Melody likes to cook up low-fat meals with interesting sauces for us.” (He adds, “Actually she likes cooking more than eating.”)

Singleton may whip up an irresistible béarnaise in the kitchen. But on the floor the duo really cook! By evening’s end, the couple cleans up with a first place trophy in the Championship Senior American Smooth (waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot) category.  When competing with the thirty-somethings in Division B of the International Standards (which includes quickstep and the American Smooth dances with different rules about footwork and “frame”), the duo pick up a second place trophy.

The marks of the DanceSport judges are easy to understand. Trying to watch other couples when Kleinrath and Singleton are on the dance floor is a challenge.  There is something about people in love.  One cannot help but watch the exchange of smiles between the partners as they playfully interact with the audience.  (Kleinrath will send Singleton reeling very close to the lap of a seated audience member only to retrieve her to his side ever so smoothly.)

Also, the team’s choreography is unforgettable. In the middle of a waltz, Kleinrath will lift his lady into the air like an older Baryshnikov.  During a tango, Singleton flicks the skirt of her burgundy velvet gown (with a river of silver running through it – reminiscent of a Z) to create a Zorro-esque sweeping action.

Kleinrath confesses that the electricity audiences see on the dance floor sometimes turns into static off the competition stage. He admits that, “Competing together is very hard on a relationship. It’s so easy to fall into the ‘it’s your fault’ trap.”

He quietly states, “I have to give Melody a lot of credit here. She is very good at forgiving. With Melody I feel great acceptance.”

“And I think the main difference for me regarding relationships after fifty is also acceptance.  I don’t feel the need to make everything perfect.” Kleinrath explains, “So many times in past relationships I have felt great pressure to change my partner and/or myself.”

The dancer also confesses that in the area of diet he is not flawless either. “My favorite food is Mexican. When Melody and I are in a hurry, it’s usually Taco Bell!”

Neither Kleinrath nor Singleton are big on alcohol (a clear head is a must for maneuvering effectively around the dance floor).  However, “When I drink – which is seldom,” says Kleinrath, “I like mixed drinks. Melody enjoys sampling lesser known California and Australian wines.”

I ask Kleinrath about the champion-winning couple’s first dance together.  The first dance was apparently a smooth-as-silk Strauss waltz at a “large local dance.”  However, Kleinrath laughs as he recalls, “Our second dance together, we managed to entangle feet in a quickstep and fall down in front of four hundred people!”

From divorce to doing the tango with a devastatingly dazzling brunette and from novice to national dance champion, James Kleinrath proves there is wisdom in the adage, “Practice makes perfect” in the twilight years.

Kim Knode’s interview articles focusing on artists, celebrities and dance champions have been published in various print and on-line publications.

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