Jon Chen ’11 first learned to dance at Macalester. Now he’s showing his ballroom skills on the national stage.


In the soft light of the vast Cinema Ballroom, Jon Chen ’11 and partner Nadine Messenger are putting the finishing touches on their performance for an upcoming ballroom showcase.

Chen, in a ragged black tank top, wide-legged dance pants, and Cuban heels, sharpens his back-spot turns, crossovers, and rondés as his partner, a fellow dance instructor, does the same. A competitor in the American rhythm category, Chen focuses on the cha-cha, rumba, East Coast swing, bolero, and mambo. His performance is smooth and powerful, and for Chen, it’s serious business. With strong performances in ballroom competitions across the country, he and Messenger are beginning to attract attention. “I eat, breathe, and sleep dance,” Chen says. “If you want to be successful, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Although he’s now a rising star in the world of ballroom, Chen had no real dance experience when he arrived at Macalester from Danville, California—unless you count watching the TV show So You Think You Can Dance?0 His first year in college he joined Bodacious, Macalester’s hip-hop team, but by sophomore year he longed for more. Cinema Ballroom, just steps from the Macalester campus, seemed like a perfect opportunity. “I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s too far,’ because it was right across the street,” he says. “There was no excuse.”

Jon Chen '11 and his dance partner Nadine MessengerHe was a quick study, though admittedly undisciplined at first. But by his senior year Chen realized that with a bit more effort, he could turn a hobby into a full-time pursuit. Once he’d landed a teaching position at the studio he began funneling his earnings into competition costs—Latin shirts and pants, entry fees, travel expenses.

Soon he and Messenger were competing monthly from California to Florida. In competitions, they perform on stage with several other couples and are evaluated by judges on everything from posture and timing to “line”—the stretch of the body from head to toe.

Competing has involved a steep learning curve, says Chen, both for the performances themselves and for the rigid expectations for each aspect of a dancer’s appearance. “Your hair needs to be shellacked, essentially. You’re expected to tan. Guys need to wear a specific type of clothing appropriate for the material—for Latin dances, for example, the clothes must be tight and revealing; we’re expected to be dressed to the nines,” he says.

Appearance is important in part because judges must make snap decisions, scoring dancers whom they may have seen for only minutes. Given the choice between two pairs who perform equally, they’ll happily choose the duo that has put real effort into their appearance.

The pair’s best performance came in August, when they won top prize in the “Professional Rising Star American Rhythm” category (and third in the more rigorous “Open Professional” division) at the Heart of American Dancesport Championship in Kansas City. They’ve also made the finals in the “Open” category at both the San Francisco and California Opens. Chen’s next big challenge comes in November, when he and his partner head to Columbus for the Ohio Star Ball. He expects they’ll continue their upward trajectory there.

Although serious about improving his skills, Chen is just as excited about teaching. Working one-on-one with students (including some Macalester faculty) and watching their progress is rewarding for both parties. “Students have so many excuses about why they can’t dance—too old, too fat, two left feet,” he says. “But when I help them check something off their bucket list or do something they never thought they could do, it makes me incredibly happy.”

Chen credits his Macalester education—where he earned a political science degree—for helping him hone his teaching. “I gave so many presentations and participated in so many discussions that I really learned how to repackage information for diverse audiences,” he says. So today, whether his clients are 14 or 84, preparing a wedding dance or just learning a new skill, he wants them to come away feeling they’ve truly accomplished something.

Many might scoff at his work, Chen acknowledges, given that competitions rarely lead to riches. Even a victory barely nets the dancers $1,000. But for him, the long hours and demanding work is worth it—not just for those moments in the limelight but for the many opportunities dance has given him to make a difference in people’s lives. “There are people who make lots of money,” he says. “I don’t, that’s true. But I’m so happy doing this. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

ERIN PETERSON is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.

October 18 2013

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