Author: Rachel Stober
Anthony Cuesta may be a little short, but the small Asian woman in her seventies who he is leading through the Waltz is shorter. His face is serious as they glide across the floor, but as the music swells to the song’s final note he grandly dips her, catching her off guard and provoking a girlish squeal.
“Anthony!” she shrieks, without an ounce of anger in her voice, playfully slapping her teacher’s shoulder.
He swoops her little body back upright, laughing and complimenting her on the progress she made in the day’s lesson. As the sign across the
front window reads, ballroom dancing is “the last bastion
of human contact,” Anthony argues. This compliments the studio’s other catchphrase, “Only quadrapeds
have two left feet.” From these core
philosophies, Anthony and his wife, former professional ballroom dancer
Susannah Cuesta, have built Eagle Rock’s only ballroom
dance studio. At Ballroom Blitz they offer private and group lessons specializing in
ballroom and Latin dance, ranging from the Salsa to the Vietnamese Waltz.
Teaching ballroom dancing, let alone co-founding and owning Ballroom Blitz, is something Anthony never thought he would do. But then again, with a career path involving riding race horses, private investigation, acting, writing and substitute teaching, there isn’t much that surprises him. At a point along this winding professional career when he says really questioned what tomorrow would bring, he stumbled upon the red-haired, porcelain-skinned answer: Susannah.
She insists he tells the story better, and he doesn’t argue, launching into a colorful and impressively detailed rendition of how he first heard her “wacky laugh” at an airport in Phoenix and looked up to see her feeding a Cinnabon to some guy, who turned out to be her dance partner. He sat next to her on the flight, and the rest was history.
Susannah, 47, has impeccable posture and moves with the grace of, no surprise, a dancer. She speaks in the same manner, delicately and deliberately, yet with confidence, and when she laughs it is almost impossible not to join her. When asked if she has always known she wanted to be a dancer, she says “always,” answering before the question is even finished.
“My mom says that even in the womb I was dancing,” Susannah said. “I’ve always felt that that was my affinity in just how I see the world. When I hear a piece of music, I see movement in my head… It’s phenomenal, I love it.”
Susannah started ballet at the age of four, but had to dismiss her dreams of becoming a ballerina after two serious knee surgeries in high school. It was not until she came to California to attend Scripps College that she discovered the world of ballroom dancing, which she knew nothing about other than what she had seen in the movies of Fred Astair and Ginger Rodgers.
“Ballroom allowed me to still have a dance career,” she said.
Susannah began competing at 19 and has since traveled the world performing and teaching. Along the way she has collected an array of titles, awards and fond memories, from the dozen victories in Professional American Smooth that ranked her nationally in the style’s top 18 to her claim of introducing ballroom dancing to Tokyo. She retired after 20 years of competing when her partner left the business, time passed and she realized she was a little too old to get back on the competitive floor. But she is far from finished with dancing; averaging six to eight hours of teaching a day, six days a week, Susannah says she spends her days dancing, either working on choreography or with clients. She began teaching ballroom almost 30 years ago and says she loves teaching just as much as dancing. Although she teaches all levels, she says the beginning class is her favorite.
“It’s wonderful to see people do something that they did not think that they could do, I love that,” she beams.
With a lifetime of experience, her resume stretches from Theater Arts and Show Dance to the Tango.
“Susannah knows literally everything about dancing,” Anthony said. “She really honed that craft and that’s very important to her. It’s an insecurity; she doesn’t want to get caught not knowing, so she positioned herself to actually know everything. Most people want to go through Cliff Notes in life, and Susannah’s not a Cliff Notes type of person.”
There is a light in his eyes as he describes his wife, a mixture of love and pride. Anthony stands slightly shorter than his high-heeled counterpart, but what he lacks in height he makes up in personality. A conversation with him is filled with old stories and life advice, peppered with colorful impersonations, a crude joke here and there and a “you know?” after more sentences than not. With Anthony, what you see is what you get, and one gets the sense that whatever comes into his mind comes out of his mouth.
“It’s hot out there,” his wife groans as she enters the studio on a hot day.
“YOU’RE hot out there!” he giggles.
She laughs, genuinely, as she does at all his jokes, even when they aren’t funny. Throughout his various careers and projects, Anthony says she is “cool” with pretty much everything, from his brief stint with straight-to-DVD acting to his dream of owning property at a specific magical spot he saw through the fog during a sixth-grade family vacation.
“I don’t know who’s crazier, her for agreeing with half of my ideas or me for coming up with these wild notions,” Anthony said.
It was from one of these crazy ideas that Ballroom Blitz was born. Susannah was still competing and working as an independent contractor at studios throughout the area, and Anthony was tired of her not getting home until 10 or 11 at night. He had a feeling that Eagle Rock was “secretly pining for a ballroom dance studio,” as he writes on the website, and decided to take matters into his own hands. The space at 4878 Eagle Rock Blvd. was perfect: located on a main road with big windows, and best of all, in their very own Eagle Rock.
“It all came together [and] it all seemed like it was supposed to happen,” Susannah said. “And this particular place has just been such a fabulous studio.”
They bought the space in 2004 and had it up and running in less than six months. She started off teaching all of the classes while he focused more on managing the business. Anthony had no formal training, “just drinking,” he chuckles.
“I was from the school of ‘I need a couple of drinks before I dance,'” he said.
That’s where being married to a professional ballroom dancer has its perks.
“Ballroom and everything was my fault,” she laughs. “He’s been dancing now for ten years, and not to toot my own horn, but he was way better trained than I ever was, because I trained him.”
A few years later, she suggested he put his skills to use and teach some of his own lessons. She still teaches the majority of the classes, but Anthony teaches a few as well, focusing mostly on wedding dances for couples.
“They keep the classes really fun and they’re both really qualified teachers,” Chris McNeany, who has been taking classes at Ballroom Blitz for about two years, said. “I think they have the right combination of fun [while] still being serious when they need to be to teach the technique, but I just think they really keep a great atmosphere.”
Jenny Durling and her husband have tried classes all over the place, but say they stuck with Ballroom Blitz, where they have been taking classes for almost five years, because of the fun environment and sense of community.
“Besides the fact that she’s a really good teacher, she’s entertaining, you know, we joke around and it’s not all serious, but she still gets into the technique and stuff,” Durling said. “It feels like a family in here, everybody knows everybody. We took a long time off… and we came back and it was the same group of people and it was like we never left.”
Creating such an establishment wasn’t easy, however; Anthony and Susannah say they almost literally never get to stop working. The hours are long and their feet are always tired, but at the end of the day, they both agree they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The studio has become our second home,” Anthony writes on their website’s “about us.” “We get home late, watch everything on TiVo, and struggle to find alone time. Despite this, ballroom dancing has proven to be one of the most positive adventures I’ve undertaken. We’ve met a lot of really cool people from the neighborhood, and it feels good that they keep coming back to dance. So if it means happiness for this little spit of an island in the middle of nowhere, sign me up.”
From his days at the racetrack to the time he spent as a private investigator, Anthony says this has been the most rewarding out of all his occupations. Although his future has felt uncertain at times, he now looks back and clearly sees his path, and as with most topics, has a piece of advice.
“Know what you want, be very definite with what you want, and you will find when you look back that you got everything, everything. I promise you, you will get everything, because it’s happened to me.”
He looks down for a moment, and for the first time all day he seems almost timid. His voice softens as his gaze settles on Susannah, humming lightly as she mops the studio floor.
“Looking back, I got everything.”
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