The Ballroom of Sarasota

John Moldthan - A Man in Demand!

John Moldthan Top Ballroom Dance Teacher of the Year Interview by Didio Barrera (2002)

Last year at the USDSC, John Moldthan was named the Top Teacher of the year - deservedly so! He worked hard throughout the year and he doesn't seem to be slowing down this year either. I've just returned from the Central Florida Heat event and he was once again Top Teacher and danced almost every heat.

Why does he have such a following? He not only teaches and dances at a high level, but he ensures his students have a blast while they dance. I have known John personally for many years and have yet to see a change in his attitude. He continues to have a great sense of humor, something that is quite apparent in this interview. It is this sense of fun that makes John a special person in our industry. So here is John Moldthan, Top Teacher, USDSC, 2001.

Moldthan Interview:

DB: Before we get to the USDSC Top Teacher, I want to ask you a little about yourself. When did you start dancing?

John: 1979

DB: Why, where and how?

John: I had an automobile accident in 1978 and was laid up with a bad back. I was working in an envelope factory as a lithographer. But after the accident, I couldn't lift the paper. My sister's mother-in-law was taking lessons at a Fred Astaire and she said, "You should do this dance teacher thing!" I said, "It's not really my cup of tea," but I was dating a girl who danced. So I answered the ad that said "No experience necessary, great salary" - all that kind of stuff. I think the salary was $87.50 a week for 72 hours! The training class had about eighteen people in it.

DB: You've always done pro-am. In fact the first time I remember seeing you, you had this great pro-am lady that did theatre arts.

John: Yes, Renee Russel.

DB: Do you know what happened to her?

John: I went on vacation for two weeks and another teacher took her over for that time. She took lessons every day with me, but I would give her breaks. She was the type who would just keep on working. I told the other teacher to make sure she took breaks, but he didn't, he worked her for two bours straight and she had a stroke right there. You have to pay attention to your students. I remember she would always get standing ovations.

DB:You did also compete professionally?

John: Yes, my first partner was Pam Sutherland.

DB: How many partners have you had?

John: I've only had three. But the third was a charm.

DB: Getting back to the USDSC Circuit, what motivated you to go for the win?

John: Besides the money?

DB: We'll, I'm sure you did quite well.

John: It wasn't just the money, although it helped! In my opinion, there's not enough money in (the top teacher circuits) to pay you back for the work that goes into it. It would be nice if there were sponsors so the prize money cou1d be higher like the prize money in golf, tennis, ice skaking, hint, hint, but that was a different story. I think the motivation was really just to make my students try to better themselves. I didn't have the goal of winning the United States Top Teacher at first, but then I realized that I was high up in the league. I thought I might as well go for it, and my students jumped right in and supported me.

DB: How much money do you think you won between all the regionals and the main prize?

John: That's personal, isn't it! That's for the IRS to know! You know I'm really not sure I hope. It was enough to pay for my kids braces.

DB: Twenty-five or thirty-thousand?

John: The top prize was ten thousand, the others varied. It wasn't a set amount. It would be nice to say that the top teacher circuit was worth a hundred thousand, but I suppose it was about thirty.

DB: What are you going to do with the money?

John: It's already spent! Debbie, my wife, and I buy real estate and invest. We have two kids and we're looking out for them.

DB: Why did you two quit dancing professionally?

John and Debbie Moldthan John: We danced for about ten years together. In about 1984, I came to Florida. I came down with my former partner. We had just won the Mid United States Tournament (MUST). It was the mixed American smooth and rhythm in those days. About six months later I realized it wasn't working out, with her or where I was working, so I decided I didn't want to dance anymore, and so I took a job as a roofer. I did that for about six months. I think that was the dumbest thing I've ever done! Roofing is bad enough, but in Florida it's real bad! However, it was what I needed at the time but I decided the money wasn't worth heat stroke so I went back to teaching and took a job at Dance Palace in Nokomis (Florida). The guy who owned the studio used to take lessons at the Arthur Murray in St. Petersberg (FL). He told me he knew a teacher that worked there named Debbie Sparks. He said I should go up and meet her. So I called her to see if she was interested in dancing. She said "I guess so." Apparently, Charlie had already tried to set her up with other partners and none of them had worked out. So I went up on a Friday night. There was a party at the studio. Rob Taylor was the manager. He told me it was a closed party and I had to leave. I told him I'd come to meet someone, I wanted to do that, then I'd leave. So I walked past him and I saw this girl dancing and I hoped that was Debbie. She introduced herself and told me I couldn't stay but that she'd meet me at the Clock Restauraunt at 10:30 to talk. At about ll:15 she still hadn't shown up, so I figured she wasn't interested. I finished my coffee and went out to the car. As I was getting into the car she pulled up. I went up to her and kissed her. It was a pretty passionate kiss I might add.

DB: But this was the first time you'd met her?

John: Yes! The feelings were mutual and instant. I Said, "Do you want to move to Sarasota?" About two weeks later she moved down. We got married .......

DB: But what made you quit dancing?

John: I think there were a lot of different things.

We'd had Ashley our daughter, our first child, and we'd continued to dance. Then we had Ryan, our son, and it just got to be too much with the kids and owning a business. I think I let the business get in the way of my personal relationship with my wife and family, I worked at it 24/7. Work, work, work! But I've got it more in control now. Now I just work, work!

DB: So are you going to make a comeback?

John: You never know! We had played with the idea before but Debbie hurt her knee on a lesson - with Dustin. She's a practical person, she thinks about our financial situation and retirement. We don't want to be doing this for the rest of our lives, she works hard taking care of the kids, she stll teaches, takes care of the house and animals, and me! So really it's more a matter of time. The kids are the most important thing to us and they're our lives.

DB: How old are your kids?

John: Fourteen and eleven.

DB: You've been to a lot of comps and you have a lot of students. I remember once saying to someone, "If I was a student, I'd want John to be my teacher". You seem to have a lot of fun with them. How do you develop this?

John: First, I tie them up for a week in a dark room with a tape recording of my voice telling them that I'm the best thing that has ever happened to them, and that they need to spend all their time and money with only me! Not really! I make my students make their dancing important to them. I want them to strive to be the best that they can be, whether I can get them to that position, or not, they really enjoy dancing. We have fun all the time; at the studio, at comps, wherever we go or are, I just work hard for them, and I think they know it. But the room idea has some possibility.

DB: How many students do you have right now?

John: I have about twelve or thirteen consistent students.

DB: So how many hours do you teach a week?

John: Fifty to seventy. Twelve or thirteen hours a day sometimes.

DB: That's a lot of hours! That's a lot of dancing, because you don't teach a lot of couples. How do you do it?

John: This would be a great chance for me to get sponsors for the teachers. I start out every morning with a V8, then I shower with Zest soap put on my Tommy Bahamas, step in to my Adidas tennis shoes, that I also teach in, and off to work I go in my Cadillac. I start teaching most mornings about eight, and I don't stop until nine or ten at night. I take a five minute break between lessons. Sometimes my students bring me something to eat, because they want me to have enough strength to make it through their lesson so they take care of me.

DB: What made you decide to go to the competitions that are on the USDSC Circuit?

John: I think ultimately it's the goal of achieving something. Before Debbie and I stopped dancing, we were making the top six in the American Smooth, and we'd won quite a few Rising Star titles. I think we could have done really well if we'd continued dancing. The kids are proud of what we had achieved, but it was really before their time. I guess I wanted them to be able to say, "My Dad's the top teacher in the United States!" It's a pride thing. I think most people want their kids to be proud of what they do. I don't think that being a dance teacher is one of the first things you announce when someone asks you what you do for a living. I think there are people in our profession who make it a bad thing. I wanted to be proud of myself and my profession, and I am.

DB: I'm sure a lot of organizers would like to know what they should do to make you go to their events?

John: Hmmm! For me, competitions are not only about professional events. Even when I competed professionally, I still did pro-am. It's all about the students and I don't think at some events this is the truth. Pro-am is what makes the money in this country. They need more recognition for their achievements, but it shouldn't be about stamina, it should be about quality. I would rather come last in a competition of good dancers than first in a competition because I showed up.

DB: I've seen you dance a lot, and I think you try to give good quality. But do you ever think that some of the judges have given you good scores because they want you to go to their competition?

John: It's crossed my mind. I think for the most part they try to be fair, although being impartial is difficult in any form of judging. Most of what I've seen in the recent past seems to be fair.

DB: Do you let your students know when they don't dance well?

John: Yes, all the time!

DB: Does that become a problem if they still place well?

John: My ladies are very good about taking criticism. I am too. When coaches come to my school, the very first thing I tell them is "don't hold back on me, you won't hurt my feelings!" I want to get better to help my students. Going back to the judging, I think sometimes the judges are more fair than others. Like when they mark someone else over me I don't think that's fair! Just kidding! I feel it would be a great thing if we had a standardized American syllabus that everyone had to adhere to like International. But this raises another problem, who's going to create it? Like dancing in the Olympics, who is going to judge it? There's always the behind the scenes political thing going on. Maybe it would be better if there were only certain figures you could do at competitions, then the dancing would have to be judged.

DB: Do you think there is a problem with invigilation?

John: I think it's really important to have an invigilator. You should have to qualify in certain figures you know, like they do in ice skating. Everybody likes the international style because it is a standard that has been upheld for years and years. But its still isn't invigilated, at least not enough.

DB: Do you belong to a professional teachers association?

John: Yes, I belong to the PDP, the NDCA and the N. A. D. T. A.

DB: So you do believe that teachers should be tested?

John: Absolutely! I've taken tests. I'd like to study for my fellowships, but I'm not sure which organization I want to follow.

DB: Let me put you on the spot now...

John: You mean you haven't already?

DB: Which are some of the competitions that you've really enjoyed?

John: We'll Ohio is one I've always attended. I've always gone to Heritage, that's well organized and timely. I think most have their good sides. Emerald is a killer comp, but I've always told my students it's better to be a small fish in a big pond. The Yankee Classic. I've heard good things about HotLanta Open. It matters that my students have done their best and they enjoy the comps.

DB: And they get a lot of challenge.

John: Right!

DB: So you like a lot of couples in the heats, even if your students come in last?

John: That's what competition is about! Not everybody can win, but when you do, it's respected. Of course that goes back to the judging again and the behind the scenes politics. This weekend (at Ohio Star Ball) in the scholarship, one judge marked us fifth, the others marked us first - but that's the way that judge saw it at the time. Is that fair, is it open minded - I don't know maybe we messed up in front of that judge. I had another student who I thought would make the final and didn't. But that's just my opinion. Opinions are influenced by many different things. You know what they say about opinions! I do think the judges should spread out more (on the floor) otherwise everyone dances right in front of them. I think they should be raised off the floor so they can get a better view. If you ask four different judges, you'll often get four different views. Some tell me they are looking at the feet, one didn't watch the feet until the final round! It shouldn't be based on dress colors, whether the girl is pretty.

DB: What else does John do, besides teach twelve hours a day?

John: We have seven horses. A six and a half acre ranch. We have a motor home, we like to travel. We have three dogs, eight cats, an African Gray Parrot and fish.

DB: So you're a home body and you like to do things with the family?

John: Yes, we like to go to the mountains camping when we can.

DB: Do you take your horses?

John: No, we've traveled with them to shows, but we've never taken them trail riding but it sounds like a good idea for the future.

DB: When do you think the time will come for you to quit?

John: Right after this interview! I don't know. I was in an accident four months ago, and if that affects my back, it may be earlier than I anticipated. Right now my goal is to quit at fifty, that's if I stay as fit and good looking as I am now!

DB: You do look a little skinnier now! What would you like the people who've supported you to read in this interview?

John: My students bave been very understanding of my criticism of them. Their passion to stand firm beside me is very strong. I can't thank them enough for where they've allowed us to go this year - they've worked hard and I hope they keep doing it- at leat till I'm ftfty. I'm proud of them. My wife and kids bave sacrificed a lot because I've not been around and I thank them for understanding and their support, not just of me, but also of the students. I couldn't have done it without my students' and my family's support.

DB: Thanks a lot, John that was great.

Interview by Didio Barrera

The Ballroom of Sarasota, 5660 Swift Road, Sarasota, FL 34231, 941-925-2411, email: