Sunday, March 16, 2008

Brenda Dunagan: Master of the Ballroom!

Albuquerque Dance Instructor Brenda Dunagan Gets Her International Dance Diploma

All of Humankind Cheers

An Awed World Wonders: What's Next For Brenda Dunagan?

Sick of hearing about lying, thieving, sneaky politicians and idiot celebrities? Care to hear about some of the remarkable, talented, smart, hard-working and inspiring people who actually deserve honor and acclaim? Of course you do. I said so.

So here’s Brenda Dunagan. Brenda is a dance instructor, performer, magician, choreographer, scholar, jokester, inspiration and just one incredible human being. She chases dreams and catches them. Read her professional bio here (page 6).

Last week, Brenda got what amounts to her Master’s Degree in ballroom dance instruction: her Licentiate Diploma from the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. She and Albuquerque dance instructors Bill Zimmerman and Anita McBride went to Los Angeles and took grueling, two-day exams from the snooty Brits who run the Imperial Society. The three, who teach dance at Albuquerque’s Enchantment Ballroom, all passed. They studied and practiced with each other for the exams for more than a year, cheerfully dragging themselves into the studio at 10 o’clock on Saturday mornings--no easy thing for dancers because they're always working into the early morning--to rehearse and meticulously go through each and every step. They also spent untold hours each week studying and memorizing instruction manuals and dance steps. In the week before the exams, Brenda spent more than 30 hours rehearsing.

Brenda is also a tenacious scholar. In December she got her B.S. in biology from the University of New Mexico, with minors in philosophy and chemistry. That came after 11 straight years of going to school part time--never missing a semester--and while working full time as a dancer, instructor and performer. She's performed in all 50 states and 11 countries.

My wife and I have been taking lessons from Brenda for the past year. In that time I’ve gotten to see just how much hard, hard work, dedication and practice—yeah, practice, practice and more practice—it takes to make gliding around a ballroom floor look effortless. And I've gotten to know Brenda. Brenda is a friend, and one of those rare people in life who, because who and what they are, spark you. She has sparked me, and I'm grateful and thrilled for it.

So here's to Brenda, Bill and Anita. Congratulations!

Here's a story I wrote last year about Brenda. It initially appeared in Accent Albuquerque Magazine

By Dennis Domrzalski

“Rock step forward, cha, cha, cha. Rock step backward, cha, cha, cha,” Albuquerque dance instructor Brenda Dunagan encouragingly repeats over and over as she gently coaxes her stiff-jointed, middle-aged student into simple steps and movements that are far beyond his limited ability to comprehend and execute.

The balding student tries, but for someone with the grace and agility of a plodding brontosaurus, it’s a tough and clumsy go. The student manages, with a studied and anguished deliberation, to mechanically place one foot where it’s supposed to go.

It’s not the effortless, fluid and exuberant step that Dunagan would like to see, but it’ll get there. And in a few weeks the student will be gliding across the wooden dance floor of the Enchantment Ballroom dance studio trying desperately to erase the humiliation of a time when he was so painfully shy that the mere thought of dancing made him nervous enough to vomit.

Photo: Steve Bromberg

The student will succeed because Dunagan won’t quit. The 34-year-old dream chaser never has. That’s why, after 11 straight years of taking at least two courses a semester—all while working full-and part-time—Dunagan will graduate in December from the University of New Mexico with a B.S in biology and minors in chemistry and philosophy. That’s why this entrepreneur, stage magician, professional dancer, choreographer, linguist, kick boxer, yoga practitioner, self-starter, movie extra, tutor, model, lover of knowledge, performance artist and passionate individualist will find a new level to climb to after she graduates. She wants to teach, write and continue in academia. Whatever she does, Dunagan will succeed, and in doing so, she’ll inspire others to do the same.

That’s because Brenda Dunagan is contagious. Spend just a little time with this five-foot-three, 115-pound, laugh-loving, category-five human tornado, and you’ll be thinking about goals set and never fully pursued, time wasted in orgies of self-pity and procrastination, and obstacles never sidestepped or smashed to pieces. And in just a little while you’ll be energized and thinking once again about the possible and dusting off those old goals and dreams and saying to yourself, “Dammit, I can do it—No. Dammit. I will do it!”

“People should never give up on what their dream and goal is—if they want to dance or go to college or do anything else that everybody in their life has told them what they couldn’t or shouldn’t do, or aren’t going to able to do. They should disregard that and pursue their dreams,” Dunagan says while using a double-handed clasp to raise a mug of coffee during an interview on a recent day off.

“I’ve had students with one leg learn how to dance. I’ve had people in wheelchairs come up and say, ‘I love music. I love to move. I want to have fun with my wife. Help us choreograph a dance in a wheelchair.’ A lot of people keep from doing things they really have passion for because they say, ‘You know, I’m really not intelligent enough. I’m not young enough. I’m not thin enough, or I’m not physically capable.’

“It is magical and so wonderful to see people overcoming their obstacles and their boundaries and realize that they can catch a dream and celebrate being alive.”

That might seem easy to say for someone who has won countless dance awards, performed in all 50 states and 11 foreign countries, owned her own dance studio and met President George W. Bush, but it comes from experience. Dunagan wasn’t always the beautiful, graceful, high-spirited, funny and charming dancer, artist and determined scholar and philosophy club junkie that she is now. At Manzano High School in the late 1980s she was a skinny nerd whose glasses were almost as big as her head.

“When I was a teenager I didn’t get a lot of dates. I was really awkward and nerdy and I had big, hooter-owl glasses, and I was skinny, skinny,” Dunagan laughs with a confidence that respects a past that tempered the pain of awkwardness with the comfort of isolation.

“On weekends I would stay at home and watch old black and white Hollywood movies—Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. It was kind of pathetic, but that was my social life. Those were my dates. So I fell in love with old Hollywood—big-band music, women in beautiful, feathery dresses and suave, debonair men in their tuxedos.”

Determined to bust out—and maybe get a date or two—Dunagan nurtured a dream: She would be a singer. She wanted to join Manzano’s Swing Choir. To do so she took some dance lessons at age 17 to make the choir’s dance auditions. It was then that Dunagan realized something about herself: She loved movement and music. It was exciting, and it seemed as if she was born to do it.

“Dancing came very naturally to me,” she says. “When I was 18 I started taking professional ballroom lessons, and started teaching when I was 20. After two years they asked me to teach. It’s funny, because I had never planned on being a dancer.”

During those first few years of teaching dance, Dunagan held onto another goal: She wanted to go to college. No one in her family had ever done so. Her mother and father, Jeanette and Phill Dunagan, ran an appliance business (they still do), and they knew that their daughter would do quite well dancing, performing and jaunting around the world using her talents to transport audiences into fairytale worlds in which they too were gliding effortlessly across ballroom floors with handsome or beautiful partners.

Fate intervened, though. At age 23 Dunagan was in a bad car accident. Ligaments and tendons in her neck were torn. She got a settlement and took three months off to decide what to do with the rest of her life. It was then that her self-starting and self-motivating side really took hold.

“That’s when I taught myself trigonometry,” Dunagan laughs. “I went back and reviewed all the high school crap I had never learned. I was dyslexic and I had always scored horribly in math. I realized that in learning how to dance and learning how to memorize directional movement that I was thinking differently than other people. I bet that I could teach myself math. So I went and got some tutoring books and taught myself algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus. Then I scored a 98 percent on the college entrance exam. I can write in opposite directions with both hands and I can write with one hand in English and one hand in Spanish (she also knows French) simultaneously.”

Dunagan quit dancing, took a waitressing job and enrolled in college.

“Dancing has always been a means to an end for me. I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll take this job here and that job there to make enough money to pay my tuition this semester,” she says.

In 1995, after she had quit dancing to fully concentrate on going to college, fate stepped into Dunagan’s life again when she was waitressing at the Great American Land and Cattle Company.

“I was at the restaurant and an old dancing partner of mine was roller skating on rollerblades outside. He broke a wheel on his skate and came in and said, ‘Didn’t you used to dance?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t dance anymore.’ He said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got a job at the Kimo Auditorium in two weeks and one of my dancers broke her leg. Can you replace her?’ I said, ‘I quit dancing two years ago and I don’t do that.’”

The former partner persisted and Dunagan began rehearsing with the group. She performed with them at the Kimo.

“There were talent agents in the audience, and the next thing I know I’m getting calls for this show and that show and I’m performing every weekend for the rest of my life,” she says with a “Sometimes, I still can’t believe this” laugh.

In 1999 Dunagan was hired by The Pink Flamingos as a Ginger Rogers impersonator. She toured the country and world with them for two years. Even though she was on the road, Dunagan always made time for school.

“I would always do a correspondence course or fly back and go to school on Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursday’s and then go back on the road on Friday,” she says.

In 1998 Dunagan became an assistant to Albuquerque magician and escape artist Rick Maisel, the man who, in handcuffs and leg irons, stuffs himself into a front-loading wash machine, turns on the wash cycle and escapes before the deadly spin cycle begins and whirls him into a heap of broken bones. Since then she has bought and sold her own dance studio, helped care for her 92-year-old grandmother, become an on-stage magician, been involved in countless dance and performance productions, including dance and music videos, and donated dozens of dancing lesson packages to various charities. She is studying again with the prestigious Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance of Blackpool, England to get her Licentiate, or Masters teaching certificate (she already has an Associate certificate), in Ballroom Dance. When she gets it, Dunagan will be the only female dance instructor in New Mexico to have one.

Although Dunagan is a fireball and an inspiration, she isn’t flawless.

“I drink copious amounts of coffee,” she says. “That’s my only vice.”

“Only one vice?” the disbelieving interviewer demands.

“I’ll sound like Bill Clinton, here, but define vice,” Dunagan says while laughing.

Dunagan has a favorite saying: “Whatever you do every day is what you will be able to do most of your life. The activities you put off doing are what you lose the ability to do.”

It looks like Brenda Dunagan won’t ever lose the ability to do anything.

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