Flight on the Floor
Story by Lauren Sable Freiman | Sep 23, 2015
Photography by Anthony Jinson
From her first experience in the arms of a partner, National Ballroom champion Larinda McRaven knew she found her calling.
Dance classes were a prerequisite to earning her degree in theater and stage performance at Missouri State University. The only problem is that Larinda McRaven was terrible at modern dance and jazz. Really terrible, she says.
But when a man in a dance club took McRaven onto the floor and led her through a cha-cha, she was hooked. She was only 19 years old at the time, but she knew the experience was transformative.
“It was easy for me,” McRaven says. “There was something different about ballroom that I hadn’t yet experienced in any of the other styles. I was completely drawn to it.”
The next day, McRaven accepted her dance partner’s invitation to stop by the Springfield, Missouri, studio where he was teaching. By the end of the day, his boss offered her a job teaching in his studio, and for the first time McRaven set her sights on a career in the world of ballroom dancing.
“I’m sure when my college dance professor sees me on Facebook, she is completely aghast,” McRaven says. “I probably was not her favorite student back then.”
After graduation from MSU, McRaven packed her bags and headed to Manchester, Connecticut, where she spent her days teaching in a dance studio. But her real goal was to be as close to New York City as possible so she could fine tune her own dance technique and focus on dancing professionally.
“I had a steady day job, but a professional career was what I was aiming for,” McRaven says. “This is not an industry that runs like anything people are familiar with. There are a lot of nuances. Pretty much everyone teaches at a studio during the week, and on the weekends they compete and fly all over the country to get their own training.”
After dancing with a student at a professional-amateur competition, she received a phone call from Stephen Hevenor, a dancer who was looking for a partner. McRaven says she was so busy teaching and working to earn professional certifications that at first, she refused his invitation. He persisted, they practiced dancing together, and McRaven knew it was a good fit.
During a 10-year professional and romantic partnership, McRaven and Hevenor were U.S. and world finalists for six years each, won North America Champions in 2002, were finalists on America’s Ballroom Challenge on PBS for many years and collected a host of other honors in the world of ballroom dance.
It was a hardcore lifestyle and not for the faint of heart. Their days began at 9 a.m., ended at 11 p.m. and included three hours of personal dance practice, Taekwondo classes for cross-training and a full day of teaching in the studio. If they weren’t spending weekends flying to competitions, they flew to Los Angeles to dance with their main coach, David Hamilton.
“Most competitors are dirt poor, but you accept it during the time you choose to do it,” McRaven says. “It’s like a poor college student or graduate student building their resume. We spent 10 years competing and building qualifications and titles. You eat a lot of egg salad sandwiches.”
Although McRaven’s partnership with Hevenor ended in 2005, McRaven continued to dance in pro-am competitions, where she amassed more titles with her students. With guidance from Hamilton, her old coach and mentor, she also began the process of extricating herself from the competition circuit so she could pursue a new phase of her career as a judge and dance coach.
“When you get judging jobs, competitors see you judging, so they hire you and fly you in to teach them and their students,” McRaven says.
When McRaven, a 1989 graduate of Jefferson City High School, returned home for a visit, she reacquainted with a high school classmate, Gary Campbell. Although she was living and teaching in Boston at the time, they began dating and were married in 2012.
One year later, McRaven moved back to Jefferson City to begin yet another phase of her life and career. “Moving back here, there is not a lot of demand for ballroom dancing,” McRaven says. “I have a flash mob troupe; I am teaching, coaching and judging; and I’m the vice president of the Professional Dancers Federation.”
Although McRaven says there is a large demand for well-trained professional female dancers in the Midwest, and she has fielded inquiries from many who would like to dance with her, she says a return to professional dancing is unlikely.
“I really want to build up the activity of ballroom in Jefferson City,” McRaven says. But as she learned during her years on the professional dance circuit, it will take 100 percent commitment to succeed.
“I know that to make it work here, it has to be all encompassing,” she says.