Donald Westphal: Dance Teacher Extraordinaire


You can’t help but fall in love with Donald as a dance instructor.

His infectious smile, his larger-than-life personality and style, his evident passion for ballroom dance make Donald that teacher.

Make no mistake, though. He may be fun and funny and warm and encouraging but Donald means business when it comes to ballroom. You will learn and you will like it and you will be better for it.

The man who grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and featured a pair of Burberry shoes on his FB profile not long ago used to be a competitive figure skater. He moved to Michigan to train at the Detroit Skating Club, relying on dance to supplement the skating and inform it.

It’s quite common that when skaters get to a certain level, they quit so they can transition to professional ballroom, which is what Donald did. It’s been five years since he came to Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills.

Part of the draw to ballroom was the music, says Donald.

Donald Westphal and Nedda Shatoya dance the foxtrot to Paul Anka's song "Its My Life". December 02, 2011. (Photo by Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News)
Donald Westphal and Nedda Shatoya dance the foxtrot to Paul Anka’s song “Its My Life”. December 02, 2011. (Photo by Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News)
Donald dances with a student

“Being able to move to music is so amazing,” he says. “When I skated, I loved the beauty of skating, and the artistry. The act of creating art with your body while you’re moving with music is what drew me to skating and to the dance world.”

Donald feels “lucky” to be both a dancer and a teacher, “to have that opportunity not only to teach the craft and bring it to other people, but also to participate, competing with students and professionally with a partner.”

Competing, he says, isn’t really about the competition; “it’s about performing for people and when I’m out there and on the floor with other dancers, I feel so privileged to be there with the talent, in an environment where I’m competing for the attention. I’m on the floor with all these amazing, beautiful dancers and it’s my job to steal the attention and raise the quality of the show.”

Once the nerves subside, and Donald says “there’s always a little bit of nerves,” (the more you do it the less they become), helps add to the adrenaline rush of performing on the parquet.

As a teacher a lot of Donald’s “a-ha moments,” when everything clicks and the students truly fall in love with dance happen early on – when dance becomes more than one step after another and the student starts to “feel the dance.”

“When a man can do a box step and forget about his feet and hold up his frame and move the woman around, transitioning from being beginners to the point where they feel like they’re dancing” is a brilliant breakthrough for a teacher, he says.

“Any time anybody can move to music, they should,” says Donald.