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Never Too Old To Dance

She hadn't danced in decades — but a tragedy brought her back to the ballroom

En español | Umpha Sikarinthra sweeps confidently onto the dance floor, gorgeous in a siren-red Latin dress with black beads and trim. She's competing in a national ballroom championship in Las Vegas, against dozens of dancers. And now, after four days, she's reached the finals in the rhythm category, which includes cha-cha, mambo, and rumba. Despite the pressure, the petite Thailand native is too focused to have butterflies. "I have to pay attention to my partner's signals," she says.

See also: Dancing with a star. 

Dancing has been a passion of Sikarinthra's since she was a young girl in Bangkok and her younger brother taught her to tango. But at 25 and newly married, she was forced to put away her dancing shoes. "My husband was from a royal family, and dancing was frowned upon," she explains. She eventually filed for divorce and moved to Chicago, where she found work as a nurse. Raising two children as a single mother, she had scant time for salsa.

Then a personal tragedy got Sikarinthra back on her feet, literally. In 2008 her 19-year-old granddaughter died suddenly of an aneurysm. Nothing eased Sikarinthra's feeling of profound loss — not even months of grief counseling — until a niece insisted she attend an open house at the local dance school. "When I'm on the dance floor, any unhappiness disappears," she says. After just six months of lessons, she entered a regional contest in Chicago. "My teacher said I was ready to compete. He always thought I had potential."

As the Vegas judges prepare to announce the winners, Sikarinthra's heart begins pounding. She squeezes her partner's hand — hard! — when their names are announced as rhythm champions. "When I was out there dancing and I heard the crowd cheering, I knew I'd nailed it. It was a dream come true."

You may also like: Dancing the years away.

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