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The romance of ballroom dance

Dance floor partners rekindle their marriage, win national ballroom titles

When Winston and Lilly Chow of Atherton met in college, they had a common interest in ballroom dancing, each having taken one class for their physical-education requirement. But they couldn't predict that more than 40 years later they would be ballroom-dance champions.

Jobs, home and raising a family took all of their time in the intervening years. But then the Chows became empty nesters, and ballroom dancing brought the spark back into their lives again.

It wasn't the kind of dancing they remembered from their college days; the Chows had learned to make all of their steps within a square. At Cubberley Community Center, where they went with friends for social dancing, they were floored by what they saw.

"Folks were dancing all around the ballroom," Winston said, marveling at the dancers' fluidity and grace.

More than 14 years later, the Chows have more than learned to step outside that box. They won the U.S. National Amateur Senior Ballroom Champions in a USA Dance National Championship competition on June 27 -- the same title they won in 2014 -- and have competed internationally. They also claimed consecutive titles from 2007 to 2009.

"We've fallen in love with the music, the dance and with each other all over again," said Winston, 69, a retired researcher at Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto.

Lilly, 65, is a Realtor with Keller-Williams in Menlo Park. When she and Winston took dance lessons at a school in Redwood City, they just wanted to learn how to move around the ballroom the way the other dancers did. But their teacher kept asking them if they wanted to compete. Each time, they declined.

Then one day after he had retired, Winston simply blurted out, "Why not?"

Lilly was surprised by the sudden, unilateral decision, but she went along with it.

"He's addicted," she said. But now she's hooked, too.

"Our children think we're obsessive with this," she said.

Winston glowed as he described the feeling he gets when Lilly is in his arms.

"We're together again; it feels like courting," he said.

And dancing has taken them around the world: to Mallorca, Spain; Antwerp and Liege, Belgium; and Tilburg, Netherlands, where they placed 27th out of 127 top couples in the World Senior IV Ballroom Championships in 2014.

Dancing has brought many blessings, they said. Winston lost about 15 to 20 pounds after he began competing. And concentrating on the complicated steps, listening to the music, coordinating with a partner and negotiating the space among other dancers has been mentally stimulating, they said.

The ability to move in sync, to apply equal energy as a couple, to appear effortless, and to move through space as if being one don't come easily, however. Moving at such a fast pace, sometimes feet become entangled and the competitors fall. There have been bruises and concussions.

"It's a contact sport with the floor," Winston said.

But the joy of being on the dance floor, of feeling the music and hearing the audience's cheers and clapping keeps the Chows inspired.

"We really try to dance for the audience," Lilly said.

The couple is also inspiring younger generations. Two of their grandchildren, twin girls, are now participating in group ballroom dance lessons.

"Our kids are very supportive. They know it brings us joy," Lilly said.

"We spent half of our lifetime supporting them," Winston added. "It's our time for some fun -- and before they need to take care of us."

But even when that happens, the Chows won't stop dancing. There are competition categories for wheelchair dancers, they said.

"While your lower body might not be active, the upper body is," Winston said.

Lilly said she saw wheelchair dancers perform once. The partner who stood was swinging the wheelchair in effortless moves.

"The handicapped person exudes so much joy. I was amazed when I first saw it happen. It's just beautiful; it brought tears to my eyes to see it," she said.

Winston agreed, and said, "When we get to that stage, when we're in wheelchairs, we're going to promote that."

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