The class of four-year-old preschoolers had been told the author of a new book was coming to visit after recess at the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center. What they didn’t know was the author had danced with his partner on TV’s hottest ballroom dancing show, was a guest performer at the White House and a World Professional Classic Show Dance champion.
Garry Gekhman visited the children’s center to share his book “Little Yura Loves to Dance,” which touches on how he overcame the bullying in his youth and used those lessons to create a lifetime of accomplishments, all while learning the joy of dance.
Tormented for his weight as a child growing up in Russia, Gekhman dedicated himself to dance to prevail over his challenges and pursue a budding passion. Now, the Falls Church resident is a national champion ballroom dancer, has appeared on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and runs the Tysons Ballroom and Dancesport Center in Vienna.
The children at FCMLCC heard the heart-warming story of how Little Yura (Garry’s original Russian name was “Yuri”) recovered from the teasing of the mean kids at school who didn’t think he was “skinny, tall or cool.” After Yura’s friend brought him to a dance class, however, Yura “fit in with ease” instead of “being teased.” By excelling in dance, Yura gained his bullies’ respect and developed confidence with his new athleticism.
After the reading of what he called his “ugly duckling story,” Gekhman used an iPad to play the kids the YouTube version of the tale, and then with his assistant Suusar Ganbold from the Tysons Ballroom, they had the children pair up to learn some dance steps to accompanying ballroom music. At the end of the session high-fives and smiles beamed from teachers and pupils delighting in the fun, dynamic movements and positive messaging.
Gekhman’s life journey had been quite the odyssey. Born in 1971 in Yakutia, the “cold part of Russia,” he ventured to Tomsk where he studied engineering at the Polytechnic University. Eventually he made his way to Moscow to concentrate on dance, and then to Israel where he became seven-time National Champion before coming to the U.S. in 1999.
“In America, recreational dancing is huge,” he said, “probably the biggest in the world.” By 2008, he had moved to Falls Church, where he had met his new bride, Veronica, with whom he has three kids.
In May 2010, Gekhman got a chance to introduce his talents to his adopted homeland. Over 10 million Americans watched Gekhman and his partner Rita on “Dancing with the Stars,” perform “Future Dance” — a provocative mix of robotic and classic ballroom maneuvers, accompanied by a medley of techno hits including Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn.” In announcing the dance, host Tom Bergeron told the audience that the routine was so “edgy” it got them disqualified from the 2006 World Championships of Classic Show Dance.
Getting to this level did not come easily for Gekhman. “You push yourself to the limits because it’s a competition and it doesn’t let you rest, or rather, you don’t let yourself rest,” he recalled. “When I was competing, practices would last 2-5 hours a day,” with repetitive cycles of “lessons-practice-lessons and practice.” It could be “super-stressful,” he recalled, “but I loved it.”
It also paid off as a boost to his confidence and health. “Everyone can see, recognize, and appreciate” the “qualities of a trained dance athlete,” he observed. Promoting dance as a mental and physical health option today is a huge motivator. “Dancing is good for the body,” he said, “the endorphins make you happy, you’re getting to know other people, and you enjoy your new ‘you’ with a new skill.”
For Crystal Jean, the executive director of the children’s center, Gekhman’s visit fit perfectly with the preschool’s curriculum where they put a premium on teaching the children about healthy social relationships. She had met Gekhman at a recent Tysons Rotary Club dinner and then he surprised her by paying a visit to her school with his new book in hand. Upon reading it, she thought it was “perfect for our kiddos.” The school’s curriculum is “all about creating a warm, welcoming, family environment in the Center,” she said. Serving many international students and children with special needs, she added, “We’re welcoming to everyone, so, especially on bullying, we respect those differences.”
Gekhman’s visit would also help inspire the students to write about their lives, Jean added. “Because we always talk about authors and illustrators — and we actually got to see someone who wrote the book here.” Now Jean believes the children will say “I can go write my own book!”
For Renee Boyle, the Center’s development director, Gekhman’s visit also fit with the school’s emphasis on children’s mental and physical health. Since the book is “all about introducing young children to dance as a way to get exercise and be physically fit,” she said, it’s “something that’s very important to us.”
“Little Yura Loves to Dance,” is published by Mascot Books and is available at Amazon.com. Proceeds are donated to Second Story Youth Services.