Professors strap on their dancing shoes

Wessel the 'star' in Friday's competition

Correction appended.

Julia Beamesderfer ’09 couldn’t quite see Professor of Biology Gary Wessel as the dancing type. But on Friday night, after Wessel performed a fast-paced, feet-stomping jive with Hilary Johnson ’09 in a packed Alumnae Hall, she took that back.

“His moves were smokin’,” said Beamesderfer, a teaching assistant in one of Wessel’s classes. “Who knew he had it in him?”

Wessel and Johnson won Brown’s first ever “Dancing with the Profs,” a competition and dance show based on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” The event featured 90-second routines by seven professors paired with students from the Brown Ballroom Dance Club and showed a short video of the training process for each dance. Though three professional judges critiqued the dances, which included rumba, cha-cha, swing and Viennese waltz, the audience voted to choose the winner of the competition.

Wessel was not exactly light on his toes, but the judges gave his performance rave reviews, calling it not just good but “fantastic.” Though the judges seemed impressed with all the performers, other professors received slightly less glowing comments.

“I’d like to have seen a little more connection (between you and your partner),” Russell Monk, the coach of the ballroom club and one of the judges, told Professor of Mathematics Thomas Banchoff, who performed a rumba with Deeksha Gupta ’10. “Your wife must be out there or something.”

He was similarly cheeky with Lecturer in Neuroscience John Stein, who performed a swing routine with Dina Tsukrov ’08.

“You swung her really well,” Monk said, “but I would have liked to see you swing something.”

In addition to guest performances by the ImPulse and Fusion Dance Companies, the event featured a foxtrot by Professor of History Evelyn Hu-Dehart and Jensen Law ’09, a cha cha by Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam and Patra Jongjitirat ’08, a Viennese waltz by Professor of History Joan Richards and Derek Bangle ’10 and a salsa by Associate Dean of Student Life Kisa Takesue ’88 and Ken Estrellas ’10.

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron initially agreed to participate in the contest but ended up dropping out, said Chihiro Ikegami ’10, a member of the ballroom club who helped organize the event.

The idea for “Dancing with the Profs” came up last year when several members of the ballroom club were discussing how to make their team seem less exclusive. A seven-person committee began organizing the event last May, inviting professors of large lecture classes to participate.

“The whole point is seeing your professor do something outside of an academic environment,” said Eva Kolker ’10, who helped organize and emcee the event. “We wanted name recognition because we thought the biggest draw would be people coming to see their own professors.”

Kolker said the easiest part of organizing the event was working with the professors, most of whom began training in the fall. There were “no divas,” she said, and all the professors were “very accommodating” with their schedules.

“The best part of this has been realizing that professors are humans, too,” Kolker said. “So often we see them in the academic environment and they’re supersized and unreachable. But when you’re teaching a professor, you see they’re just another person who gets nervous and dances off-beat, just like everybody else.”

And some professors said they did indeed get nervous. But despite the sweaty practices and occasional soreness and dizziness, they said the experience has been memorable and enjoyable.

“When I first saw people do the dance, there was one move I didn’t think I could ever do in my life,” Banchoff said. “It’s great to know that something you were scared of can become something you can do with such confidence. I like it when that happens in my courses.”

Banchoff added that he now appreciates dance in a way he “never did before.”

The professors may have enjoyed the challenge of dancing, but the audience that filled Alumnae Hall to the brim simply enjoyed seeing the instructors in action.

Ned Richards, Joan Richards’ son, was sitting with a group of his mother’s friends and family. Richards’ fans, who filled up nearly half a bleacher, held signs with the words “Go Joan!” as they watched her waltz about the floor in a blue silk and velvet gown.

“She was awesome – she was really graceful,” Ned Richards said, adding that his mother’s decision to participate was “totally bizarre. But that’s what she does.”

In an article in Monday’s Herald (“Professors strap on their dancing shoe,” Feb. 11), Professor of Biology Gary Wessel’s partner was referred to, in some places, as Hilary Anderson. In fact, her name is Hilary Johnson ’09.