by Brad Durrell
When Ashley Mokris decided to stop figure skating competitively, friends took her to a swing dance and she was hooked immediately.
Mokris soon was excelling at ballroom dancing events. “I especially liked the partner dancing aspect — how you interact with the other person,” she said.
Morten Jensen thrived at soccer as a youngster and his best friend, a fellow soccer player, liked to dance. “I would tease him that dancing was for girls,” he said.
Then the friend took Jensen to a dance and he fell in love with it. By age 10, Jensen was dancing competitively in his native Denmark. He eventually became the country’s ballroom dance champion.
Mokris and Jensen now are ballroom dance partners, regularly traveling around the United States and overseas to compete at events. They have risen to become one of the top teams in American-style smooth dance.
Earlier this year, they were grand finalists at Blackpool, England, the first time in two decades an American couple was allowed to compete in the professional open smooth division at what many consider to be world’s most prestigious ballroom dance event.
They’ve won the American Star Ball, New England Dancesport Championships, Galaxy Dance Festival in Phoenix, Can-Am Dancesport Gala in Toronto, and Southwest Invitational in Dallas. In recent weeks they competed in California, Florida, Ohio and Massachusetts.
On Nov. 25, the couple will perform and give a dance lesson at Holy Trinity Greek Church, 4070 Park Avenue, Bridgeport. The event will include public dancing, DJ music and refreshments.
Mokris, a Stratford resident, is dance director of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Trumbull. Jensen and his wife own the Fred Astaire Studio in Ridgefield, where they live. Mokris and Jensen both give dance lessons at their studios.
They used to have different partners and compete against each other, but began dancing together in August 2016.
Competitive ballroom dancing has seen a major resurgence since Dancing With the Stars became a television hit in 2005. On the show, a celebrity is paired with a professional dancer.
“The United States rediscovered dancing with the show,” said Bridgeport event promoter Robert Beslove.
Dancing With the Stars is now in its 25th season, with two competitions broadcast each year, and has led to spinoffs such as tours, videos and merchandise.
Competitive ballroom dancing is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and could possibly became part of the Olympic Games someday. “It’s a wonderful sport,” Beslove said. “You get to know people and form relationships.”
Mokris, said she’s attracted to ballroom dancing because of the “movement, music, playfulness, and how you relate to your partner.”
“My impression had been that it was something that older people did,” she said. “Then TV made it more popular among all ages.”
Mokris, who grew up in Ohio and Colorado and once dreamed of being an Olympic figure skater, noted ballroom dancing is called a “dance sport” because of all the physical activity involved.
Having the right chemistry with a dance partner is critical. “You’re sharing a similar goal and figuring out how to achieve where you want to go,” she said.
Mokris and Jensen usually practice six days a week, taking off one day to let their bodies relax “and put our minds on something else,” she said.
Jensen, said his initial attraction to dancing was the music. “I was happy to be able to do something with music, my first love,” he said.
Jensen tried to quit the sport — or “stop this nonsense,” as he put it — after finishing college so he could pursue a more mainstream career. “I soon realized I had to make my life about dancing,” he said. “Despite trying, I couldn’t sit in an office.”
He eventually moved to New York City from Europe to become a dance instructor. “The scene in New York for dancing was so alive,” he said.
Jensen, stressing a successful dance partnership involves compromise, said the sport is as much mental as it is physical. “We’re born with two legs, two arms and a brain so we start out the same,” he said. “It’s a matter of how you focus and work toward a goal.”
Competitive ballroom dancing has two distinct styles, international and American. The American style, done only in the U.S. and Canada, consists of two categories. The smooth classification includes the waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese waltz, and the rhythm category has the cha-cha, rumba, East Coast swing, bolero and mambo.
Beslove is best known for his long career as a sports reporter and then public relations director at Yonkers Raceway and the former Bridgeport Jai Alai Fronton. His work brought him in close contact with a lot of what he called “characters,” including celebrities.
Television icon Ed Sullivan, a Yonkers Raceway regular with his wife, would keep his binoculars in Beslove’s desk drawer at the track.
Beslove began dancing when young, attending classes as a youth in blue-collar Bridgeport. He became a more serious dancer after serving in the U.S. Air Force. “If you could dance, you got the girls,” he said.
His Premier Ballroom Dance Company of Connecticut now organizes dance shows in Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y. “No one else is doing this in the area,” Beslove said.
Tickets to the Nov. 25 show are $20. Its open to couples and singles; dress is black tie or suit for men. Open dancing is from 7 p.m.- 12 a.m., plus there’s a performance and dance lesson. The venue is near the Merritt Parkway. For reservations, call 203-374-7308.