Alyona Zarnitsyna and Ivailo Tonchev’s passion for ballroom dancing is allowing them to expand DB’s fitness landscape. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
It’s a bright, pleasant morning in DB Plaza, and fairly subdued for a Saturday. Alyona Zarnitsyna comes barrelling towards the ferry pier decked out in short leggings and tank top, gear most of us would scamper home in lest someone sees us. But Alyona carries it off like the retired pro ballroom dancer she is. A lilting, Russian-accented greeting accompanies crystalline blue eyes that would shame Paul Newman, and this writer feels like Chewbacca standing next to her. It’s hard on the ego.
Things get worse at The Beat Dance and Fitness Studio, co-founded with husband and fellow dancer Ivailo Tonchev last September. A zumba class is in full swing – as diverse a group of people as you’ll ever see are pounding on the professional-grade floor – and Ivailo hovers nearby. He looks like a retired Armani Uomo model; no man should look so polished in sweat pants. It’s going to be a long morning.
Later on, it’s easy to see why Alyona rushed to the pier. She and Ivailo aren’t the types to vanish after a class, and neither are their clients. There’s much lingering and chatting after workouts, and both Ivailo and Alyona encourage it. It’s one of the reasons the office-kitchen is there. “I don’t like that feeling of going in, doing your exercise and then leaving. If you come here, I want you to stay a little longer,” says Alyona.
Love at first sight
The story of how Ivailo, 37, and Alyona, 36, met is a complicated one. Ivailo, a native of Sofia but raised in Burgas, Bulgaria, visited his dad in Moscow in 1999, aged 19, following a split from his dance partner at home. Liking the city’s size and opportunities, he opted to hang around and see if he could find a new partner. Then in 2001, Alyona relocated to Moscow from her Novokuznetsk home in southwestern Siberia (closer to Ulaanbaatar than to Moscow) after splitting with her partner of 11 years. She was pondering hanging up her shoes when a mutual friend – in Hong Kong – made the professional connection.
When they finally met, it was Nureyev and Fonteyn, Astaire and Rogers… Swayze and Grey right off the bat.
Oddly, the duo’s professional career, which included a top-24 finish at the Blackpool Dance Festival, the Mecca of competitive ballroom dancing, was actually not that long, almost three years. “We had success right away but we felt like we met not to be professional dancers, but for something more,” Ivailo says. “Fate wanted us to be a couple not only professionally but in real life.”
Though Ivailo had been in and out of the SAR for a decade, the pair settled down in Discovery Bay around 2010 and that was it. “Six years ago we decided to start a family. This is where we decided to retire from professional dancing. It was time. We wanted kids, and we could have pushed for another few years, but we didn’t want to miss that last train,” Ivailo says with a laugh. “We were already quite well ranked in the world; we were happy with our careers. DB was love at first sight.”
Alyona was the one who had to make the big move when the pair first partnered, but she had no trouble with that; water suits her. The family – which includes five- year-old Polina and year-old Yana – frequently holiday on the Black Sea, and of Moscow, she sniffs: “Moscow was great in many ways, but I always wanted to live by the water, by the sea.”
Dancing to the beat
The Beat came into being after the pair had bought an apartment in DB and spent two years running classes in floating locations.
“We felt, straightaway, we wanted to have a dance studio here. The lifestyle is very healthy and fitness orientated, and we thought maybe we should offer all forms of dance with fitness – like zumba and yoga. We just knew this was what DB needed,” recalls Ivailo.
One day, Alyona hopes the studio will be the go-to spot in DB for, well, everything. “You want to dance? Come to The Beat. You want to exercise? Come to The Beat. You want to relax, talk, get nutritional advice? We want to provide the whole package about health and lifestyle. That’s the goal. Who knows what will happen in the future. Maybe we’ll have another location in Central. But for now we’re quite happy.”
At the moment, The Beat offers everything from belly dance to the high-intensity Fatburn Extreme, and welcomes kids and adults (guilt-free mum and baby classes) of all ages. Both have a fondness for the flamboyant Latin dances: Ivailo’s soft spot is for the Paso Doble, Alyona loves them all, dependent on her mood.
“Today I like cha-cha. I feel playful and active,” she explains. “Tomorrow I might like rumba.”
They also have some words for the retrograde idea of dance (or figure skating) as too ‘feminine’ for men. “If my daughter came from kindergarten and said ‘Papa, pink is for girls.’ I’d say no. Those are labels that restrict you. I see so many men come to dance – dragged by their girlfriends – and eventually they fall in love with it,” Ivailo argues.
Alyona is more direct. “If more men started dancing, the world would be a more beautiful place.”
Finally, for those toying with the idea of taking up salsa, Ivailo and Alyona insist you’re never too old or too uncoordinated. Some of us are blessed with an innate sense of rhythm, but that’s beside the point “Sometimes you have talented people who don’t feel it’s a big deal. Other people are not ‘born’ to be dancers, but they love it, and they want to give it a try no matter what,” says Ivailo. “They’ll improve because they enjoy the process, and the struggle, and the challenge.” So. Shall we dance?
The Beat Dance and Fitness Studio, www.thebeat.com.hk