In synch

These two Newton teenagers are up for the challenge of competitive ballroom dancing

NEWTON – Victoriya Tuzman sat at her kitchen table holding tweezers and a tiny Swarovski crystal the size of a pinhead. She spent two hours painstakingly gluing 200 of the sparkling stones onto a bracelet for her daughter Michelle to wear this month during the International DanceSport Federation’s Ballroom World Championship in Latvia.

Michelle Tuzman, 15, and her dance partner, Allen Rudman, 14, have been dancing together since they were 9 and 8. Their commitment has paid off: In August the couple was crowned USA National Junior II Vice Champions in Latin Ballroom.

“I’ve known Allen my entire life,” says Tuzman, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs just under 100 pounds. “Our moms have been best friends for as long as I can remember.”

Tuzman is a self-proclaimed overachiever who often stays up doing homework until 4 a.m. She plans to go to college and eventually work in business. She is also the first to admit that she has a tendency to be a little bossy. “I don’t always get things quickly, and I have to work really hard,” says Tuzman. “Dancing comes naturally for Allen.”

Rudman’s grandmother signed him up for formal dance lessons when he was 3 years old after she witnessed him studying and replicating the moves in old Michael Jackson videos. Rudman says he doesn’t always like to practice and during lessons will spend time talking to people instead of coming onto the dance floor. “But I’ve been improving [my attitude],” he says. Rudman wants to dance for a living, performing ballroom or perhaps dancing on Broadway.

“Everyone thinks that guys who dance are gay, but that’s simply not true,” he says . “I’ve had kids make fun of me, but that was mostly in middle school.” He says he no longer cares what anyone thinks.

A partnership, a friendship

Tuzman and Rudman say it’s rare for dance partners to stay together for six years, especially at their age. “He’s a very difficult character, but over the past 14 years I’ve learned how to deal with him,” says Tuzman. “We’re like brother and sister.”They’ve witnessed nasty splits between dance partners and have mastered their own methods of avoiding such pitfalls. Naturally, they say, there have been times when they truly couldn’t stand to be around one another, but their history has helped keep them grounded.

“We have a real friendship, so it would be hard to just leave everything and say, ‘I don’t want to dance with you anymore,’ ” Tuzman said. “I know his problems and he knows mine, so we either take a chill for 10 minutes or leave practice.”

Both families moved to the United States from Russia in the late 1980s. Rudman’s father, Alex, owns a gas station in Dorchester and works for a medical transportation company. His mother, Veronika Goldin, is an office manager for a physical therapy practice; Tuzman’s father, Greg, is a professional photographer, her mother, a computer programmer.

Tuzman and Rudman spoke only Russian until they began kindergarten in the Newton school system. They slip back into their native tongue at home and intermittently during dance classes, as many of the students and teachers are Russian.

Four days a week Tuzman and Rudman train at Dance Republic in Allston. Each session lasts around three hours. Owners Olga Kinnard and Andre Strinadko have taken first place in a number of prestigious competitions, and Kinnard is the head coach for Harvard College’s Ballroom Dancing team.

In November Tuzman and Rudman took part in the Ohio Star Ball, a competition that was filmed for the PBS show “America’s Ballroom Challenge,” which will air in January. And on New Year’s Eve, Tuzman and Rudman will perform in Las Vegas at the Wynn Hotels.

The invitation to dance in Vegas came from Maksim Chmerkovskiy of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” This season Chmerkovskiy partnered with Mel B, better known as Scary Spice from the British pop group the Spice Girls. Tuzman and Rudman spend weekends taking lessons at Chmerkovskiy’s studio in New Jersey.

“Originally I didn’t want to bring young couples to Vegas for a New Year’s Eve show,” Chmerkovskiy said, “but Allen and Michelle bring something to the shows that I really like and I decided to give them a try.”

‘Dedicated kids’

Tuzman said she finds people are impressed with their dancing because ballroom is something different. “Ballet, tap, and jazz are common among Americans, but this is so unusual to the eye,” she says. Ratings for the hit reality show “Dancing With the Stars,” which averaged 21.6 million viewers last season, suggest that Americans are getting hooked on ballroom dancing.”When Michelle and Allen first came to my studio, they were mediocre, to say the least,” Chmerkovskiy said. “But they were really dedicated kids.” Chmerkovskiy said he and his brother Valentin don’t normally take on students outside of their studio, but since they were willing to drive to New Jersey every weekend from Massachusetts, and during the summer came for nearly two months, he took them on.

Tuzman and Rudman first danced in public at Tuzman’s sister’s Bat Mitzvah, performing for the guests. Soon after, their parents enrolled them in ballroom lessons. They’ve experimented in all four genres – standard, rhythm, Latin, and smooth – but feel a connection to Latin.

They entered their first competition when they were 9 and 10 years old. At that time, the family would purchase used dresses. Now that Tuzman has risen in rank, kids want to wear her dresses, which the family sells when she’s through. Each dress runs between $1,000 to $2,000. Since buying a dress with Swarovski crystal stones can add an additional $500 to the bill, Tuzman’s mother now applies the stones herself. Each dress, she says, takes about 20 hours to complete.

It’s not just the practicing and competing that Tuzman says she enjoys, but the preparation as well, like tanning (spray-on), doing her hair, and applying makeup. “It’s the whole process put together that makes dancing so much fun,” says Tuzman. On average, it will take her around four hours to get ready for an event.

Before each competition Rudman downs two cans of Red Bull and Tuzman drinks a can of Tab. “It might be a placebo,” Tuzman says, “But it works.”

Keeping up the pace

Despite months of preparation, nothing can anticipate the occasional mishap. Last February, Tuzman danced with a fever of 104 in La Classique du Québec Montréal. During the Philadelphia DanceSport Championship this past April, a stone fell from someone’s dress and Tuzman cut her finger when her hand swept the floor. The judges suggested she stop when she began bleeding, but Tuzman asked for two minutes to tape her finger and returned. She and Rudman won the competition, and afterward removed the stone from her hand. Even this month, Tuzman left for the world championship in Latvia with bronchitis and a sinus infection.Still, Tuzman and Rudman placed 31st out of 68 couples in Latvia, where 34 countries were represented. The top three couples hailed from Spain, Germany, and Russia. The other American couple, Leonid Juashkovsky and Daniella Karagach from Brooklyn, N.Y., placed 15th. Tuzman and Rudman said they weren’t expecting to place in the World Championship, so they’re not too disappointed.

They don’t have time to be. They have to prepare for the New Year’s Eve show in Las Vegas.

16 hours: Average time Michelle Tuzman and Allen Rudman practice each week
$60-$120: Cost of dance lessons per 45 minutes, depending upon teacher
$100: Entry fee per competition
$1,200-$2,000: price range for each costume

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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