As a kid in Long Island, New York, Nora Fox took tap, jazz and ballet and dreamed of being a Broadway choreographer, but life led her in a different direction.
She went to college in Pennsylvania and studied business, despite her mother’s exhortations to “be a teacher and have summers off.” After graduation, she married her high school sweetheart and became a fabric buyer in New York City. When her husband finished dental school, the couple moved to Philadelphia, where Fox worked as a college admissions coordinator and in financial aid.
Fox, now 73, was always an athlete. Over the years, she had participated or competed in swimming, diving, fencing, golf, skiing, archery, horseback riding, basketball and volleyball. Once she and her husband had children, Nora spent her time traveling around watching them compete in gymnastics. Both her son and daughter, now in their 40s, took their sport to elite levels.
So 17 years ago, Fox said, “Now it’s my turn.” She found her footing in the world of dance and has soared to the top in pro-am ballroom competitions, in which a professional dancer partners with an amateur. She recently competed in the New York Dance Festival and won all five of her dances.
How did you begin dancing as an adult?
Ballroom Dance Defined
There are four styles of ballroom dance.
Two in American Style:
- American Rhythm (energetic and upbeat): cha-cha, rumba swing, bolero and mambo
- American Smooth (fluid and graceful): waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz
Two in International Style:
- International Latin (intimate and passionate): cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, jive
- International Standard (smooth and slow): waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, quickstep
While both main categories include the same dances, they have different performance styles and techniques. There are also minor dances, often called “nightclub dances” in competitions, such as salsa, hustle, bachata and merengue.
My daughter was getting married in 2004. My husband wanted to do a father-daughter tango at the wedding. He prepaid for lessons at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Hampden, Connecticut, near our home in Cheshire. He had a picture in his mind of being the suave guy dipping his daughter, who’d be dancing with a rose in her mouth. It was really funny.
The only thing I knew about ballroom dancing was as a teenager watching Lawrence Welk with my grandparents. I’d look at those ridiculous hairstyles and dresses and go, “Ugh, barf.” I never had an interest in what ballroom dancing really was. But I went to watch my husband and daughter taking lessons. One day a waltz came on, and Sergh Aliev, their instructor, grabbed me onto the dance floor to waltz, which I didn’t know how to do. Afterward, he said, “Oh you’re going to be coming back.” I said, “I don’t think so.”
At the wedding, my husband and daughter did a great tango — rose, dip and all. But after the wedding there were leftover prepaid lessons. They said, “We know you love to dance. Go take the lessons.” I said, “You’re going to create a monster.”
How did you go from learning to competing?
I retired two years ago (and moved to Pittsford, New York) but was still working when I started dancing, and I’d go three times a week for almost three hours each lesson. After six weeks, Sergh said, “There’s a regional competition coming up, and I’d like to enter you.” I said, “Are you out of your mind?”
I had wanted to be a Broadway choreographer, and I’d been in dance recitals as a kid and drama in high school; I knew it was something I enjoyed. Not only did it not bother me to be in front of people, but I loved it. Even though it was scary after only six weeks of learning ballroom dancing, I said OK.
What was that first competition like?
I competed at the beginning level with the beginning moves. The very first time you go to compete, no matter how many times you’ve practiced, you get brain freeze. All of a sudden, a step that you know is step number two becomes “Oh my God.” I competed in American Rhythm, which is cha-cha, rumba, East Coast swing, bolero and mambo. Sergh brought 12 of us amateur partners. He danced more than 120 times continuously; his feet were on fire. I won all five of my dances.
Do you keep in shape in order to dance or vice versa?
Dancing was what I did to keep in shape. That first six months of dancing I lost 40 pounds. That was a huge incentive. During competitions I might dance 45 times in a row. Between each dance they give you maybe 15 to 25 seconds, and each dance is between a minute five and a minute 20 seconds.
Which dance is most difficult to learn for you?
I dance cha-cha, which is in the International Latin category. It’s my favorite and the one I’m strongest at. But jive is toughest. It’s one of the faster ones, and it’s not easy to learn some of the real nuances. It has to do with a step called a flick kick, almost like a hop back. Most of the time people eliminate the parts of the dance techniques they can’t do so they still look really good dancing.
What happened after that first competition?
I’ve won all the national titles throughout eight years in the Fred Astaire Dance system. I also won the world title in both American Rhythm and International Latin in Fred Astaire. After eight years, Sergh bought his own Fred Astaire studio and moved to Florida. He helped me find another high-caliber professional partner, Plamen Danailov.
Several high-level master coaches work with us to choreograph routines and work on technique. These master coaches are also judges and have been world champions for their styles of dance. I know many of the pros on Dancing With the Stars and other TV shows personally, and Shirley Ballas, the head judge of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, is one of my master coaches.
In 2017 and 2018, dancing with Plamen at the U.S. Dance Championships in Walt Disney World, I took first in the Open Gold U.S. National Pro/Am International Latin Scholarship Championship in the senior 1 category (ages 61-70) and second in the Open to the World Pro/Am Latin Scholarship. The competition was sanctioned by the National Dance Council of America (NDCA). Also in 2018, Plamen and I went to the Blackpool Dance Festival in England. We took first in all our single dances and took third overall.
How did COVID-19 affect your dancing?
The industry was almost devastated in 2020; almost every competition was canceled. To stay in shape, I did weight training at the YMCA and JCC, but I’ve got to move. I do Zumba and I watch my daughter’s English bulldog every day at lunch, and we run around the block. But I hate jogging.
Before COVID I thought I’d dance for just one more year. But I miss my dance friends from all over the world — the pros, the amateurs, the coaches, the atmosphere. I just miss it all. I’m too — knock on wood — healthy and active to sit around eating bonbons. And COVID had me eating bonbons.
I just competed in the New York Dance Festival, February 21-24, at the Hilton in Midtown. Plamen and I worked with coach Karina Smirnoff to prepare. It’s a major competition with a lot of dancers in my age category. I won all my single dances, the championship, the scholarship, all five of the dances.
This was the first competition back after two years. And I have the entire year that’s just starting where I’m going to be in seven more competitions.
What are your challenges coming back?
You’re dancing pretty much seven and a half minutes straight. You need the stamina and high-level cardio to do it, and that’s not that easy. And the older you get the harder it is, even if you’re in shape. Then, making sure that I’m dancing the way I know I’m capable of dancing. I’m at the highest level, Open Gold Advanced. I’m really hard on myself. I know when I dance really well. If we get rewarded, that’s great. If we don’t get rewarded, we’re disappointed. But if someone is good or better than I am that day, I have no problem losing to them as long as I know I’ve done what I’m capable of. But I get disappointed in myself.
What makes someone good at dancing?
Well, I think about myself. The one thing I always look at for myself is I’m too short at only five feet. I’m too busty. I’m too square. The ladies I dance against have legs longer than my whole body. I say, “How will I ever beat anybody who’s skinny and long-legged, beautiful and statuesque?” The judges say to me, “They don’t have what you have. Personality. Pizzazz. The “it” factor. When you get on the floor, we watch you. We enjoy looking at you. You’re the package.” To be good, you don’t have to be the tallest with the longest legs.
There are certain things about certain people. They emit a certain a vibrancy. That’s what I try to emit when I go to competitions. Other amateur dancers will say, “You were fantastic; I couldn’t stop looking at you.” Other people’s pro partners say to my pro, “She’s terrific.” That keeps me motivated.
Nora Fox Has Her Dancing Shoes On
Stacey Freed is a contributing writer who covers remodeling, construction, lifestyle issues, education and pets. Her work has appeared in USA Today; Real Simple and This Old House. Her book Hiking in the Catskills will be available in July.