Mariya Ilchenko and Ilya Velednitsky are all about fancy footwork.
People pay them to follow in their footsteps, so to speak.
The couple own the Fred Astaire Dance Studio at 3820 E. Ray Road, Ahwatukee, which they opened in October and will celebrate with a big grand opening celebration 7 p.m. tomorrow, Jan. 30.
And the guest of honor will be pro dancer Tony Dovolani, the professional dancer who was a regular on the popular reality TV show “Dancing with the Stars” from season 2 through 22 until he left because of professional disagreements with the producers.
The public is invited to the grand opening, where there will be food, dance demonstrations and even a silent auction to benefit the Ahwatukee-based Armer Foundation for Kids, a nonprofit that helps families with critically ill children.
Dovolani is “on a very personal mission to help locals turn their New Year’s resolutions into life-changing revolutions on the dance floor,” the couple’s publicist said.
He’ll be at the studio all day to teach lessons and at night he will lead all attendees in a festive line dance, sign autographs and take selfies while encouraging locals to consider the “wellness benefits of the ballroom” rather than a gym as the way to make good on their resolutions to live a healthier lifestyle.
Velednitsky and Ilchenko moved to Arizona from Wisconsin, where they had been working at a Fred Astaire studio, in search of a place to own their own studio.
They zeroed in on Ahwatukee, Ilchenko said, because “we really liked the community.”
“The area is not too big but it’s very family- oriented and we felt that a Fred Astaire studio would be popular here and would bring a lot to the community,” she said.
And they think Ahwatukee is ripe for what they offer.
“I think we have an amazing hobby to get into,” Velednitski said, adding that their research indicated that the population mix of seniors, middle aged married couples, and young professionals comprise the kind of market where a dance studio can thrive.
“Whether it’s a teenager who wants to just challenge themselves with dancing, whether it’s a couple who is looking to learn for a wedding dance or somebody who’s even looking to meet someone among our family of students,” Ilchenko said, “I think they will like what we offer.”
“Dancing fits everybody, she added. “but everybody has different goals so it helps them in different ways.”
Their clientele ranges in age from 7 to 98 and they’ve posted on social media a video showing one student in a wheelchair learning to dance.
“We do have couples in their 50s and 60s that are looking for a new hobby – and not even just couples. We also have singles that come too,” Velednitski said. “We’ve got older people that come that maybe just have a lot of time on their hands and they want to learn something new.”
They teach a wide array of dance styles, but don’t ask them to characterize as “dance” the hopping around in bar scenes you might see in a movie.
“There’s a curriculum” at Fred Astaire, Velednitsky said. “It’s not just randomly moving your body to music.”
On the other hand, the couple and their other teachers tailor their lessons to their clients.
“First of all, we ask them if there’s any specific goals that they have because most of our lessons are private lesson instruction,” Ilchenko explained. “So it’s going to differ from customer to customer. We also have group classes. However, in the very beginning when somebody brand new comes in, we want to make sure that we tailor every lesson to their specific needs and goals.
“In the beginning we introduce them to three to four of the most popular social dances,” she continued. “They can then pick and choose what they like and what they don’t like. If they have a certain dance they come with an idea of learning [about] already, we, of course, are going to teach them that dance, as well as recommend other dances -- because it’s always good to have a variety and be overall a good dancer rather than being this ‘one-trick pony’ and just do one dance.”
Sometimes the biggest hurdle facing a newcomer is getting up the nerve to just walk in the door of the studio, which was once a children’s dance school that Ilchenko and Velednitsky gutted and refurbished.
To say the couple are veterans of the dance floor is an understatement.
Ilchenko started dancing at 7 after her parents became concerned that she wanted to get involved in gymnastics, a sport with a high level of injuries, oftentimes serious.
“My parents didn’t want me to get too serious and get injured, so they asked me to try ballroom dancing and I tried and I fell in love with it,” she said. “And I never stopped. I lived in different countries and then seven, eight years ago I moved to the United States to pursue my career here.”
But dancing didn’t prevent her from getting injured.
At 14, Ilchenko suffered a serious knee injury on the dance floor.
And though she recovered, her businessman father insisted that she go to college and master a subject that would give her a fallback in case her dancing career was ended by another injury.
So, she studied economics and international relations in college and ultimately earned her degree in business and hospitality – which she says have helped her run a business.
Velednitsky’s background is radically different. He didn’t start dancing until he was 24.
With an older brother who was a dance teacher, Velednitsky said he would sometimes watch his brother’s performances and liked what he saw.
“I think maybe like the second or the third time I came to watch, I really, for whatever reason, kind of latched onto it. I was like, ‘I think this is what I want to do.’”
Up until then, he said, “I didn’t really have a passion or something that I really wanted to do.”
Now it’s hard keeping the couple off the dance floor.
They spend most of their weekends traveling to competitions and, at a ballroom dance tournament last November, earned the title of the third best ballroom dance couple in the country.
Judging in those competitions is not unlike the way ice-skaters are evaluated. Judges rank couples on the basis of qualities for both artistic and technical merit.
They bring that well-practiced style to their lessons.
“I think we do a good job of building confidence within people because, just like anything else, it’s 90 percent mental,” Velednitsky said. “I think we have a great understanding of how to take a person who has no knowledge – physical, mental or any kind – of dance and bring them along to a certain level where we build confidence.”
They also pride themselves on customer service – which might seem an unusual term in a dance studio until they explain it.
“For some people, ballroom dancing or just dancing, in general, is very, very intimidating. I think that people feel very insecure when it comes to that,” Velednitsky said.
“But right from the moment that anybody walks in the door, it’s very important to me and Mariya that they feel welcome and they feel relaxed. I know it’s difficult to even walk through the door. I know it’s difficult to pick up the phone and call. I know all of those things are hard because I was there. I started when I was 24. So, for me, it’s very easy to relate to that.
“I want to make sure that they’re feeling really comfortable. I want to make sure that they feel welcome. I want to make sure that the private instruction they get is just the best. I want to make sure that we always exceed our expectations. I want to make sure that they make friends here.
“I want this to be just an amazing experience for anybody who comes through the door.”
Added his wife: “Our goal is to always enrich their day, enrich their life whenever they come in here. I want to make sure that our clients leave happy… They will always feel a part of something, part of the community.”
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