Monday, September 14, 2009

Tony Dovolani Is Living The Dream


Tony Dovolani helps provide the fancy footwork on Dancing With the Stars'

By LUAINE LEE, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

STUDIO CITY, Calif. - When dancer Tony Dovolani glides through a torrid tango or hops to a lively Lindy on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" he's just emulating what he saw as a kid.

He and his father used to watch a movie every week in his native Kosovo. "My dad found these Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies and Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor. Every Sunday we had movie night. And we watched musicals. It was so amazing because I was addicted to it as a kid. I couldn't wait to come to America to see some of this live."

He'd fallen in love with dancing at 4. "When I was 3 years old my dad tells me I showed interest in music and dance, so he took me to classes where I learned how to learn instruments and a dance class. In Kosovo, it's very big to do folkloric dancing, ballet but also folkloric dancing," he says in his slight accent over lunch here.

"I quickly realized I didn't want to be behind an instrument while everybody else was dancing. So I quit taking music lessons and just wanted to do dance lessons. I was 4 years old. I remember telling my dad about it," he says over the din of the lunch crowd.

"My dad is one of the most wonderful, smartest people I've ever met in my life. He encouraged this and he was always there whenever I needed him, but at the same time he always gave me tough love. If I had tough times he didn't want me to quit. He said, 'This is what makes somebody good. If you can get past the tough times then you can appreciate this later on in life.' And he was right."

When "Dancing With the Stars" returns next Monday, Dovolani will partner with model-designer Kathy Ireland. This marks his eighth season on the nine-year-old show. He missed Season 1 because he was preparing for his first world title in ballroom dancing when they invited him to join.

When Dovolani arrived in the U.S. in 1989, he was heartily disappointed that there were no musicals like he'd seen in the movies.

"I was 15. I started working as a dishwasher because they didn't accept our diplomas here, and I was already in my second year in college back home. I was one of the brainiacs. My dad majored in math. And I wanted to be like my dad."

His father, who was a CEO of a computer company and his mother, a chemist, had divorced when Tony was 14. "When I came here it was sad to see on TV there was no dancing," says Dovolani, who's wearing a rose-colored T-shirt, jeans and a red baseball cap.

"The closest thing to it was 'Star Search.' I used to look for different channels. And one time I was working at the diner till 3 in the morning and the only time I could find anything that resembled dancing in the movies was at 3:30 in the morning at Nickelodeon. One of the cooks at the restaurant where I was working got an invitation to the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. I asked him where is this? I couldn't even speak English that well. He took me to it, and as soon as I walked in, that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was 16."

He'd seen ballroom dancing contests on PBS before. The day he walked into the Fred Astaire Studio he vowed, "I'm going to win that one day. The owner of the studio said, 'Sure, sure let's get you dancing first.' In 1998 I represented the United States in the world championships and in 2001 I won my first PBS championship which was the United States title."

He kept on winning, and trained Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez for the film "Shall We Dance?" in which he had a small part.

Dovolani insists anyone who can walk can dance. "No dancer was born a dancer. Every dancer has been taught ... Even walking takes rhythm. As long as you simplify it and understand each person's personality you can actually teach them how to dance. One of the things about the Fred Astaire system is they teach you the art of teaching so each person possesses four different personalities - two being strongest and two being weakest. If you can recognize that on a person then all of a sudden you know how to teach them."

The four types, explains Dovolani, are analytical, driven, amiable and expressive. "For an expressive person there's no point is teaching left-foot-right-foot because they won't understand. You just have to show it to them and tell them about an emotion they're going to feel it. An analytical person, like an IBM person, I would teach them in a very much broken down system like 1, 2, 3, 4.

"The amiable person is a very good listener, so those people you can talk all day long and they'll never answer back, so until you stop they won't try it. Then a 'driver' you simply point them in the right direction."

Married for 10 years to Lina (he proposed four hours after they met), Dovolani has three children - fraternal twins, 1, and a daughter, 4.

"I'm living my dream," he sighs. "I'm a strong believer if you don't enjoy what you're doing now you can't think about tomorrow because you can't change the past and you can't do anything about tomorrow unless you work really hard about what happens today. My only hope in life is that my kids look at me the way I look at my dad."

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