DanceSport Champions -Then and Now - There's No Leaving Las Vegas for Brian and Susan Puttock
February 07, 2001
The first time I attended the United States DanceSport Championships in Miami Beach I was awestruck by the sheer spectacle-from the slim, graceful athletes frolicking in the huge Fountainebleau pool to the electrifying, colorful, climatic competitions. As a newcomer, I only knew a few people in the dance community-what Brian Puttock calls "the bubble." However, I remember precisely when Susan Puttock welcomed me one evening and washed away my nervousness with a warm smile and inviting hello. So I looked forward to meeting Susan again and interviewing her and Brian, her husband and dance partner, at the DanceSport Championships in Miami Beach last fall. I had heard wonderful things about their charm and graciousness, their professionalism and passion for dance. This all rang true, loud and clear, I learned during our interview at the landmark resort.
Amid the sounds of clanging dishes and fellow officials chatting, Brian and Susan enthusiastically described their immersion in DanceSport. Using the lessons learned from their successful competitive career, the level-headed, well-organized Puttocks co-produce a prestigious annual competition, judge and chair events, coach and teach many of the top US couples, and travel nearly 25 weeks per year in pursuit of excellence. Their lofty goals match those of most of their contemporaries-to help pave the way for DanceSport to become more and more acceptable both as sport and entertainment for the entire family, to help introduce and promote it to legions of would-be fans, and to prepare today's youth for the future of DanceSport which will eventually include Olympic competition.
Susan, born in Watford, England, was 'hooked' on ballroom dance at age 11 after seeing her younger cousin, a three-year British champion, compete. One look and Susan's life changed forever-she wanted to be just like him. A self-described string bean who was crazy about school sports including the high jump, she eagerly switched with her two sisters to ballroom dance and kept excelling at it dispatching young partners until, at age 14, she met Brian who was to become her partner for life.
Born in Slough, England, Brian started his dance career at age nine. His parents persuaded him and his older brother to try dance class. If they didn't like it they could quit. Remarkably, they both enjoyed it and began competing soon after. Brian also jettisoned partners until he met Susan and even though she was too short for him at the time (and not sure she even liked him), they've been together ever since. As they tell it, once they matured, they began to like each other for who they were and their relationship got better and better. Brian and Susan believe that a dance partnership is like a marriage in that one learns how to coexist with another person-putting up with both the good and the bad. They proudly look forward to celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary next September.
I wondered if they always knew they wanted a career in dance? Brian replied that, yes, they did but since one is, "not always able to get what you wish for, we tried very hard to make it work and, thankfully, it did. Plus, it is something we can do together which is great. When we coach and judge invariably it is together. We enjoy working together."
And what is the greatest lesson so far? Brian speaks first, "Although it is great and wonderful to win, you have to learn how to lose. We came through a system where you were up one week and down the next. There were times when we were very disappointed almost to the point of quitting. In a few days, we were back up and ready to go again. Those are character builders. Our general, across the board feeling is that one must go through the disappointments to get stronger. As a judge, these experiences help us to say. 'I know what it feels like. I've been there.' " He continues, "We've been US Champions (United States Standard Champions 1984, 1985, 1986) so the competitors know that we have been there, done that. We are very fortunate to have achieved so much. But it is not so much what you have achieved but what you learned on the journey to get there." Susan adds, "It is harder when you do win. Because once you get to be US Champion, there are more people behind you trying to knock you down. We have a good understanding of what is going on. We can see when things are weak, not right, uncertain, when nervousness overcomes."
Brian and Susan are highly sought-after judges. Do they think it is important for competitors to see the judge's marks? Brian suggests that the best thing that could happen (but which will never happen) would be to have a big meeting after each competition at which each judge would have the opportunity to say this is what I saw, this is why I marked what I marked-a big exposÚ. Furthermore, he believes judges' written comments in the newspapers can be helpful. As young competitors, the Puttocks eagerly awaited the Dance News to read the judge's remarks.
In addition to the actual dancing, there is the question of appearance. Is it important to a judge? Brian and Susan wholeheartedly agree that appearance is very important. Judges are human too and one can not disregard the first impression as the couple enters the floor and starts dancing. "If the costume is ugly, you are put off and it is hard to get through that. If all the couples are nearly equal in dancing, then the costume can make the difference in the final score. Grooming is very, very, important," Brian emphasizes.
Our conversation jumps to the future and the possibility of Olympic competition. What do they think the future will bring?
Brian is convinced that no matter what happens with Olympic competition it will still be a 'wonderful thing for our business' because it will attract media attention which, in turn, brings so many more people to DanceSport. Brian says, "We live in a little bubble. The Olympics will open it up and generate so much more activity so it is a great thing from that point of view." On the other hand, he hopes the format will remain unchanged and every four years all competitors will make it to the Olympics through open events like in other sports without disturbing the professional and amateur divisions as we know them today. Brian explains, "I really believe we shouldn't lose the two divisions. Right now we have several world championships. If we dilute and just go to one division that means that a lot of couples will never have that opportunity to try and attain a world championship level as an amateur. It is a very clear and very good division right now. Even if you re-label it and forego the pro and amateur levels, for example, and call it the A or B or C or D divisions, how does that sound: "I'm the World D Champion" versus " I am the World Amateur Champion."
Again, more and better exposure on television is an answer to the oft-asked question, how do you introduce DanceSport to more people the world over? Brian and Susan are pleased with the advances made in television coverage but would like to see more. For instance, they wish DanceSport was treated on a parallel with other sports with more serious coverage of the sport's top athletes-accurate, behind-the-scenes stories of courage and rigorous training routines-not frivolous stories like the one where a dancer sewed sequins on her costume for 27 hours. No doubt, television coverage has come a long way. Susan recalls an early, but hardly unique, example of the disdainful attitude displayed when ballroom dancing was first recognized by the Olympics as a sport-a local Las Vegas newscaster apparently lost his job over the remark, 'It's amazing what gets into the Olympics these days, the next thing we'll see is who can spit the farthest.'
Brian further suggests that organizers always encourage and accommodate the public, but the first hurdle is to get the word out to the public. Since advertising can be very expensive and risky, Brian would like to use alternative ways to build an awareness in the general public. As the DanceSport stars become household names like the figure skating stars and DanceSport becomes an accepted form of entertainment, then there will be an audience for ten or twenty thousand fans in an arena. This is already happening in some parts of the country such as the annual World Dance charity event in Minnesota. "No reason that can't happen in 100 cities around the nation," Brian notes. "It will be a combination of many things all coming together at the same time, such as media acceptance, television, major sponsorship, and acceptance by people at home watching TV."
What will the future bring for the Puttocks? Brian and Susan are excited about a new venture they are developing with Wayne Eng, president of Dance Vision International. Aptly named DVI Dancers Association, this new endeavor, akin to a dance teacher's society, provides, for the first time, a complete and comprehensive system of teaching dance including video tapes, step lists and manuals. In other words, the association will teach existing and new studio owners how to operate and manage a dance studio from A to Z utilizing both time-tested methods of old as well as the latest technology available in the new millennium. Headquartered in Las Vegas, the Puttock's home since 1983, and the home to Wayne Eng and Dance Vision International, DVI Dance Association is designed for all levels of dance from hobbyists, to the schools and professional and amateur competitors. When DanceSport truly becomes a televised Olympic event and achieves greater social acceptability, the masses will flock to dance studios, Brian predicts. In the meantime, DVI Dance Association will be there to help prepare the dance community to welcome new dance enthusiasts.
This endeavor will help Brian and Susan reach more goals-to stay at home in Las Vegas more and devote time to the Association, and to The Nevada Star Ball which they produce in Las Vegas every August along with their partner Hilda Lanza. They hope to move one night of the competition to an arena to attract thousands to DanceSport. We all chuckled as Brian, without skipping a beat, mentioned the last goal-to get his handicap down. And why not? Golf provides a much-needed outlet for scores of dancers. It offers a few hours away from the crowds and noise and hectic pace of the dance world yet fuels their competitive spirit and athletic nature. Brian's official handicap is 12; however, his lack of playing time this year has him playing more to a 16. Surprisingly, he didn't start playing golf until he came to the US in 1980. Previously, he thought it was the "dumbest, stupidest game he had ever seen in his life." Susan 'dabbles' in the game. She was surprised with a birthday gift of golf clubs a few years back and often joins Brian for nine holes when the weather is not too, too hot in the desert. They also enjoy taking their boat out on Lake Mead and reading books at every opportunity. They love their life in Las Vegas, as do their relatives from England who visit regularly. They stopped here back in 1983 'for a while' en route to Los Angeles for an opportunity with a Fred Astaire studio, and fortunately, for the dance community, have no intentions of ever leaving either Las Vegas or the dance world they love and admire so much.
Brian and Susan Puttock, Las Vegas, Nevada
*United States Professional Standard Champions-1984, 1985, 1986
*Representatives to the World Championships-1984, 1985, 1986
*Runners -up-Professional Rising Star Division, British Open Championships
*Finalists-Closed British Amateur Standard Championship
*Winners-British Open Amateur Youth Standard Championship-1971
Brian serves as the Second Vice President and Chairman of the DanceSport Committee of The NDCA.
Favorite Competition - USBC and British in Blackpool
Favorite Place to compete - USBC, it has been a number of years but we remember with affection the wonderful audience and the terrific atmosphere.
Favorite Dance - It has to be the Classic Foxtrot, the dancers dance, the dance where all the swing, control and feeling comes together with a style of music that for us is unbeatable.
Favorite Outfit - Shorts and Tee shirts
Favorite Activity - Brian, golf, Susan, reading, and both boating.
Favorite food - Good old fashioned English fish and chips, from the corner "chippie" in newspaper, dripping with malt vinegar.
Favorite Restaurant - The seafood buffet at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas
Favorite saying - (with reference to dance hold and frame) If it doesn't change it will stay the same.
Favorite City - Where we live of course! Other than that San Diego.
Favorite Book - We both read a lot of mysteries old and modern, Sue loved Absolute Power. Brian still feels that The Lord of The Rings is one of the best books he has read.
Favorite movie - Susan, Somewhere in Time, Brian, The Magnificent Seven.
Favorite sports team - Brian, Chelsea Football Club, English football played a large part in his early life and he attended many home and away games of Chelsea.
Favorite Music - Susan, Oldies but Goodies, Brian, all kinds but as he gets older tends to lean more towards light classical.
Favorite Vacation - Maui
Favorite Pet - Susan loves Cats, Brian Loves Dogs, they don't have either but do have Koi in the pond in the back yard, about 90. Anyone want to buy some fish?
Favorite Way To Spend New Year - with friends and/or family having what in England is called "a good old knees up"
Susan Wyckoff Fell is a free-lance writer and public relations consultant in Palm Beach County, Florida, who specializes in DanceSport. She interviewed Susan and Brian Puttock in Miami Beach last September at the USDSC. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.