Dance teacher’s passion not strictly ballroom

A profile piece on a former Laotian-Cambodian refugee turned ballroom dance, published in The Florida Times-Union in November 2007.

It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and five couples are learning to fox-trot to the sound of Call Me Irresponsible by Frank Sinatra. A woman with long black hair held back by a white scrunchy walks between them, adjusting someone’s shoulders, explaining steps.

Twenty-eight years ago, Vida Vongsay had no idea she would end up being a ballroom dancing teacher. She was living in a refugee camp in Thailand, waiting in line for rice soup.

At the age of 6, she and her family fled Communist Laos for Thailand, hiding under a pile of fruit and vegetables in a boat crossing the Mekong River separating the two countries.

Vongsay is, among other things, a former gymnast, a professional ballroom dancer and teacher, on the board of directors for the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau and the president of the Jacksonville Asian American Alliance.

This 34-year-old does not remember much of the year she spent in the Nong Khai refugee camp, but she considers herself lucky to have been able to leave for the United States.

“We were very, very fortunate to have people to help us and protect us,” said the half-Laotian, half-Thai woman.

In 1980, thanks to the Catholic Conference agency and a couple working for the International Volunteer Service, Vongsay, her parents, sister and two brothers were able to leave for the small town of Bethel, Maine.

“It was definitely a culture shock, because we came in March. … And that was the first time we ever saw snow. We thought it was ice cream land.”

Vongsay moved to Westbrook, Maine, where she participated in high school gymnastics, although she already had some practice.

“We would always watch those Asian kung-fu movies, so even when I was 8 or 9, I thought I was one of those kung fu girls,” Vongsay laughed. “That’s how I started. I trained myself in doing tumbling, flips and being flexible.”

Vongsay discovered ballroom dancing when she moved to Jacksonville in 1992. A year later, she was hired as a dancer, but not without some struggles.

“I had lots of challenges learning partner dancing, because in our culture, you don’t hold people’s hand unless you were husband and wife. And you don’t dance with anybody unless you’re husband and wife,” Vongsay explained.

Vongsay said she eventually overcame this challenge because she saw ballroom dancing as a way to start working in theater arts and cabaret.

In 2000, Vongsay and her partner were the U.S. Ballroom Championship grand finalists. After that, she took a break from dancing, but it was in her veins.

“You just miss the dance industry as a whole: the people that you come across, the people that you teach and the relationship that you build with them,” Vongsay said. “You miss that, and then you miss dancing yourself.”

The Fred Astaire Dance Studio came to life a year and a half ago and has been the stage for ballroom, Latin and country dance lessons ever since.

“She makes everything so good, so fun. She’s a fantastic teacher,” said Tri Vu, a member of the Jacksonville Asian American Alliance and one of Vongsay’s dance students.

As its president, the Jacksonville Asian American Alliance is also a priority of Vongsay’s. The organization is committed to promoting Asian history and culture, as well as bringing the Asian-American community of Jacksonville together.

When asked how much time she invests in the alliance, Vongsay answered “A lot of time.”

“All the time,” corrected Sasha Ivanov, Fred Astaire Dance Studio’s dance director.

“She likes to help people, sometimes too much,” he said. “We want her to be here more.”

Vongsay’s energy still surprises those who know her best.

“I don’t know how she does it, but she’s able to do five different things and get it all done,” says Viengkham Vongsay, Vida Vongsay’s sister and co-owner of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

The reason? “I love what I do so much,” Vongsay said. “If I didn’t, I don’t think I would be able to do it.”

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