Strictly ballroom: The remarkable journey of Ariel Mayer 14-year-old ballroom champion

Strictly ballroom: The remarkable journey of Ariel Mayer 14-year-old ballroom champion

GUILFORD — “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” wrote William Shakespeare. The bard’s observation surely applies to Ariel Mayer, a captivating teenager with a dancer’s form and an impish grin. Two years ago, she was hospitalized in the Pediatric Research department for seriously ill children at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md. She suffered acute pain from an illness called neurovascular-muscular dystrophy.

Well, look at her now. This year Ariel won both the United States National Pro/Am Youth Smooth Ballroom Championship and the National Pro/Am Youth Rhythm Ballroom Championship, earning the title of United States Youth 9 Dance Champion at 14 in a category for 16-18 year olds.

Ariel’s stay at the National Institute of Health proved to be a pivotal moment. Although dispirited and concerned about what would happen next, she drew on her perseverance and courage. She refused to let this adversity hold her back from committing to her big dream — to become a triple threat in the entertainment field — mastering dancing, singing and acting.

Looking back, Ariel regards her experience at NIH as invaluable. “There’s a ‘don’t ask. Don’t tell’ feeling in the air at the hospital,” said Ariel. “Every child has something terribly wrong with them. But they’re still kids who want more than anything to get better. I learned from listening to and observing them how to stay strong and keep your dreams alive when your body is weak.”

Ariel’s parents, Melanie Barocas Mayer and Rick Mayer, agree. They stayed at the Children’s Village, a free “place like home” located on the campus of NIH. “You meet parents from all over the world who’ve made the long trip,” said Melanie Barocas Mayer, “and this wonderful place makes being near your child so much easier.”

Returning from NIH, Ariel’s spirits lifted and she resumed ballet lessons, “Dancing makes me so happy,” said Mayer, who has also studied contemporary, tap and jazz. “I find joy and peace and tranquility when I’m using my body to express myself.” However, dancing en pointe with ballet shoes strained her joints and muscles, so she signed up for a ballroom dancing course in her hometown of Guilford.

Ballroom dancing was exploding in popularity. Dancing With the Stars, the proliferation of dance clubs, as well as the upsurge in high school and college dance courses all contributed to make ballroom dancing hot again.

In the beginner class, it quickly became apparent that she was talented. “Get her to a pro,” people told her mother Melanie Barocas Mayer.

A family friend introduced Ariel to former Pro/Am Ladies A World Smooth Champion turned Open Professional competitor Amanda Lynn Pytlik. In ballroom dancing you need to partner with someone of the opposite sex, so Pytlik brought along her own partner Daniel R. Burke, a handsome and dedicated professional who was 24 at the time. He put Ariel through a series of dance movements. At this session, it was apparent to both Pytlik and Burke that Ariel possessed the physical, mental and emotional qualities to make it as a top competitive dancer. They agreed to train/coach Ariel as a competitive Pro/Am dancer with Burke as her primary teacher and partner and Pytlik as her instructor and coach.

Each week, they traveled from New York to Connecticut to work with Ariel in a large space above the Mayer’s garage. Despite struggling, Ariel didn’t shrink from the challenge, working hard and dancing her lessons. Ariel remembers, “I’d say to myself, ‘I have to get through this because this is what I want to do.’”

Burke found his teenage partner exhilarating and fun. “I’m not used to working with kids, but I agreed to dance with Ariel because she’s focused and driven like an adult. She’s a theatrical, whimsical, unicorns and butterflies kind of girl, yet at the same time she’s a real trooper.”

A professional couple, Pytlik and Burke are always on the same page, but they have different jobs. “I teach all Ariel needs to do in ballroom,” said Burke. “But I do this through the lens of partnering with her, as I am the other half of the physical mechanism. My job is to show, tell, and then do a movement actively with her. I am the professional. She is the amateur. The goal of her lessons is to become a better competitor and partner.”

Pytlik acts as an instructor and coach, serving as the third eye, watching as Ariel and Burke dance together. She provides perspective about details they can’t tactilely recognize. An experienced professional, Pytlik knows how to learn and implement technique and movement first in her own body in solo practice and then apply them in a professional, competitive setting. Pytlik uses her expertise to teach Ariel the intricacies and responsibilities that make a well rounded and self-governing female dancer. She is instrumental in teaching Ariel the qualities that allow her to dance successfully as a competitor, not merely a student.

Dancing with Burke, Ariel fell in love with the beauty of ballroom dancing. When the music starts up, she can feel the rhythm giving her bursts of energy. The moves feel light, natural and innate to her. “I know I’ll never tire of ballroom dancing,” she said.

Melanie Mayer was overjoyed with her daughter’s transformation. “To have a child so sick she couldn’t go to school, suffering from pain and fever, to see her brought out of her crippling illness with ballroom, it was miraculous.”

As Ariel progressed through her first year of training, her physical stamina increased her focus and the strength in her body vastly improved. Pytlik and Burke decided she was ready for a higher level coaching experience.

Burke said, “The way the industry works, there are students and there are teachers who themselves are professional competitors. These pros have their own professional coaches. You have two pros dancing and a third pro coaching them.”

Burke and Pytlik’s coaches are (Smooth coach) Eddie Simon and (Rhythm coaches) Joanna Zacharewicz and José DeCamps, U.S. and World Champions who have been at the top of the profession for years. They won their titles and now serve as coaches and judges for the rest of the competitive field.

It was a big moment when Pytlik and Burke introduced Ariel to Simon. He holds more than 30 professional titles and has won many top-teacher awards. He’s also made appearances in various films and TV shows, most notably, performances on the PBS series Championship Ballroom Dancing.

Simon watched Ariel dance and responded with an approving smile and nod, pleased with her skill and willing to work with her regularly. Professionals who are serious about their students’ competitive future will often seek to bring their students to work in concert with their own coaches in the way that Burke and Pytlik brought Ariel to Simon and Zacharewicz. What are not so common is Ariel’s parents, Melanie and Rick Mayer’s willingness and support which paved the way for weekly coaching sessions with Both Simon and Zacharewicz in New York City.

When in the city, Ariel trains at Manhattan Ballroom, Burke and Pytlik’s home studio, which is also home to Simon and Zacharewicz and where many rising and current ballroom stars practice with their partners. “In a lot of careers you have to wait to be exposed to people at the top,” said Ariel. “With ballroom, you train side by side with the biggest names in the ballroom world. It gives you the opportunity to observe their process — to learn what to do and what not to do. And during breaks when you’re standing at the water cooler or just walking down the hall, you say to yourself, ‘Oh my goodness! He’s the current world champion.’ Or ‘She’s been world champion eight times.’ ”

Under the superb guidance of Eddie Simon, and her teachers Burke and Pytlik, Ariel advances her skills in the American Smooth style (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz). Simon is widely considered to be one of the leading minds behind American Smooth dancing. In this style, dancers take artistic liberty to draw from other theatrical disciplines to embellish the technical base of the dance, which finds its roots in the International Standard style.

Joanna Zacharewicz gives Ariel authentic grounding in American Rhythm (Cha-Cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero and Mambo). Known in her winning partnership with husband and partner José Decamps to be the most sophisticated and authentic Rhythm dancers ever to dance the style, they dominated and defined Professional Rhythm for years. Zacharewicz gives Ariel an unparalleled American Rhythm coaching experience, the authenticity of which has helped Ariel to define her own style on the competition floor.

Ariel has been competing Pro/Am with Burke for two years. She excels and finds the events thrilling. All she imagined is coming true.

In Ariel’s family, ideas for helping to support worthy projects is part of their Guilford dinner table discussions. In fact, philanthropy is in her blood. Ariel’s father, Rick Mayer is president of MFUNd Foundation, a family philanthropic trust that he runs with his wife, photographer Melanie Barocas Mayer. Ariel contributes her winnings from competitions to the Make Lemon Aide for Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

Now that Ariel’s a champion in ballroom dancing, she feels immense gratitude to the people who’ve helped her with their dedication and professional exposure. “I’m so lucky! My health is good. My parents and coaches are tremendously supportive and I’ve made so many new friends through ballroom dancing.

“I want to spread ballroom further than it has been. You don’t have to be competitive. You can do it just because you enjoy it.”