Dancing Toward Her Dream

Would a 61-year-old dare to compete in the country-western dance world championship?

- Posted on Feb 19, 2013

Merry Keller and her dance partner, Bob Clanton, keep in sync.

Here I was, standing on the dance floor in my white cowboy boots, ready to compete at the 2012 United Country Western Dance Council World Championships. Me! I still couldn’t believe it! And not because I was 61 years old (well, that too, I guess).

No, I once dreamed of being a dancer. My mom even said I danced before I could walk. What happened? Life happened, that’s what. And I don’t regret any of my choices. My blessings have been rich. But when I decided to try dancing again a few years earlier, my dream had nearly been crushed for good.

It was December 2008 and I was watching a Christmas Showcase—a variety of dance performances—put on by Sandy’s Dance Center in Shreveport, where I was taking ballroom dance classes to learn some new steps.

The school’s dancers were partnered with professionals, and their moves were so impressive that it was all I could do not to get out there with them.

“This is fantastic!” I said to a friend sitting next to me. “I’m going to ask my teacher how I can get in on the next showcase.”

“Merry,” she said, turning toward me, “the professionals are picky about who they work with...and, well, you’re just not good enough.”

Her tone was gentle but her words stung like a slap in the face. I had never doubted my talent before.

Back in my hometown of Victoria, Texas, I was pirouetting in my tutu by the time I was eight. Soon I was taking jazz and tap and performing in recitals. When the audience erupted in applause, I just knew I belonged out there. Dancing brought me more joy than I’d ever known. It was truly a gift.

At Kilgore College I majored in math and made the famed Kilgore Rangerettes precision dance team. Being a Rangerette boosted my confidence and fueled my passion for dance, but making a career out of it just didn’t seem practical.

After graduation I was offered a good job as a high school math teacher. Well, I decided, dancing is God’s gift, for sure. But that doesn’t mean I have to make my living at it. I would still find some way to dance.

Over the years, though, dancing took a backseat to marriage, working and raising three kids. I longed to perform again, to feel that indescribable joy it brought me. But I hardly had time to even think about it, let alone take a class.

It wasn’t until 2008, two years after I’d retired from teaching, that it hit me: My dream had been left behind for 40 years! I was 59 years old, divorced, and my kids were grown. I was free to dance again.

Later that year I moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, to be near Alan, the man I’d fallen in love with. I fell in love with Shreveport’s colorful dance scene too, and signed up for ballroom classes at Sandy’s.

From my first practice it was as if I’d never stopped. And sitting there in the studio, watching the Christmas Showcase, I’d felt so sure I could join it the following year. Then I’d heard those words: “You’re just not good enough.”

At dinner that night, I talked to Alan. “Honey, is she right?” I asked. “Be honest with me.”

“Merry, you’ve got real talent,” he said, “and a dream big enough to go with it. Don’t let go of it.”

I desperately wanted to believe him, but my confidence was shot. During every practice those words went through my mind: Not. Good. Enough. How could I be so foolish as to think I could perform as a dancer again, especially at my age?

The next Christmas Showcase came and went. Every time I thought about signing up, that little voice of failure butted in.

Lord, I finally prayed, I believe you gave me the talent to dance. Please give me the confidence to go with it.

From then on, when those negative words came to me, I replaced them with Alan’s words: You’ve got talent. Don’t let go of your dream. They started sinking in. Why should I give up just because of what one person said?

I saw the bulletin for the 2010 Christmas Showcase right around the time of my sixtieth birthday. A peace fell over me. If I didn’t go for it now I’d never know what I was capable of, never know what the Good Lord had in store for me. I signed up.

I was matched with a professional dancer named Bob Clanton, and over the next few months we practiced a few hours a week. We chose a routine that was a combination of the cha-cha, the hustle and West Coast swing. I couldn’t wait to show it off!

By the day of the showcase, my nerves were a wreck! Could I really dance in front of an audience after more than 40 years? I locked eyes with Alan across the room, his smile calming me. Let’s do this, I thought, grabbing Bob’s hand.

We moved along in perfect rhythm, hitting all of our steps and playing to the crowd. It was as if I were back at a childhood recital or performing as a Rangerette. It felt so right. I ended with a dramatic split. The audience went wild!

I’d done it! I was good enough.

And you know something? I would have truly been happy if that had been all there was to it. I’d accomplished what I’d set my heart on doing. But the Lord wasn’t through with me yet.

A few weeks later Alan and I watched Bob and his partner Jennifer perform at the 2011 United Country Western Dance Council World Championships in Nashville. I didn’t know a thing about country-western dancing. Heck, I didn’t even like country-western music!

Still, I was blown away. Bob spun Jennifer effortlessly while she tapped her cowboy boots.

Something stirred inside me. “I want to compete,” I said to Alan. “I know it’s crazy...I don’t know the first thing about country-western dancing! But I think I can do it.”

“Merry, if anyone can do it, it’s you!” he said.

Bob and Jennifer took first place and, bolstered by Alan’s words, I mustered up the courage to talk to Bob. “Your job is to get me on top of that podium next year,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Well, to be honest, Merry,” he said, “I’ve never taken an amateur to Worlds before.”

“Oh,” I mumbled. “I understand...” What was I thinking? I was a retired math teacher, for crying out loud!

“But...why not?” he continued. “Let’s give it a try!”

I had so much to learn, and unlearn. Ever hear folks call country-western dancing “boot scooting”? It’s because your heels lead and your feet barely leave the floor. With my ballet training I came up naturally on my toes. “Heels down,” Bob kept having to remind me.

If I came up at the wrong time during competition, I’d lose points. And since my training was as a solo dancer, I wasn’t used to sharing space. In country-western competitions you share the dance floor with your partner and other couples. I had to watch for potential collisions!

We had practiced long and hard for a year, winning all of the prequalifying competitions, and now I was finally here, on the dance floor at the world championships. Bob and I competed against six other pairs. We executed our moves perfectly!

After our last dance I sat next to Alan, squeezing his hand tightly while we waited for the judges’ results. Sure, I wanted to win, but I’d already had my victory—I’d gotten it back at the Sandy’s Christmas Showcase. I learned that even when I tried to let go of my dream my dream wouldn’t let go of me.

That’s because some dreams are God-given. How else can you explain the judges’ words: “The 2012 United Country Western Dance Council World Champion ProAm Women’s Gold Newcomer award goes to...Merry Keller!”

View a slideshow of costumes Merry has designed!

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