We have another two new faces to the AIDA Dance Champion roster! Gene and Elena Bersten both started dancing at a young age. After falling in love, they competed in latin, but recently switched over to the American Rhythm. Besides being amazing dancers, they also are balancing being parents to their three children. We spoke to Gene recently about what life has been like dancing and having a family, how COVID-19 has affected them, and about owning their own studio. Read on to find out all of this and more!
Gene and Elena both started out not liking dancing, “I started dancing around the age of 11 and my brother and sister danced as well. I was born in Belarus and my parents really loved ballroom dancing, but they never did it themselves. There was an ad in the local russian paper about dance lessons, so my parents decided to throw us into it. I hated it at first! So I hid it from all my friends that I was dancing. About a year after I started dancing, I started to really love it and that’s when it became a passion of mine. After about three years of dancing, my mom and the mom of my partner at the time opened a studio together for us. They did it because we would also be bringing coaches in, and there weren’t many options in Minnesota, so at the 14 years old, we had our own studio. Elena’s mom is a former Russian champion. They own a studio and two competitions in Russia. She didn’t really like it at first, but because her mom did it, she became interested. We had similar starts, not because we liked it, but because we were kind of forced into it. Now we both love it of course.”
From the moment that they met, Gene and Elena knew that they had to be together. Their journey together has been interesting and fulfilling,“Elena and I met doing Burn the Floor. I was there with my old partner, and she was there with her old partner. Right when we met each other, we fell in love. We actually didn’t even dance a lot with each other. After we got married, we started dancing together, which I actually think is better. We got married, then had a baby, and THEN started dancing together. We danced for about a year together, doing latin. Then we decided to have another baby, and we thought we would be done dancing forever. After that we had our third baby, and then a lot of our coaches told us we should come back in the American Rhythm. And here we are today! In the last 20 years, I have competed over 300 competitions, so it’s been a long journey.”
Besides being competitors, they also own one of the largest dance studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota,“We have a pretty big dance studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called Dance With Us America. Our studio has created 13 National dance champions. We have trained dancers who have appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, and World of Dance. My brother, who was one of my students for many years, is now a professional on Dancing With The Stars. We all tried out for So You Think You Can Dance, season 10 together. When they were choosing who would be in the top 10, it was between me and Alan. They ended up choosing him, but it’s ok,” Gene said with a laugh.
Even though owning a studio and competing is a lot of hard work, Gene and Elena feel that they are impacting their community in a positive way, “We love making a difference for others. We love watching our students get good results. Dance is a passion, but it also changed our lives. Growing up I was very shy, because my parents moved here to America when I was 2 years old. I was always embarrassed because I couldn’t speak the language very well, so I always felt like I never fit in. When I started dancing, I didn’t really fit in either because I didn’t really want to be there. My mom made me wear dress pants with a shirt and a tie, so I felt like a little dork, but dance really changed my life. Because of it, we are able to touch so many other people’s lives. We have a very large kid’s program. We’re not just teaching people how to dance, we’re teaching them how to be more confident, and self-aware. I think we’re making a positive change in a lot of people’s lives.”
It is obvious that they are super busy, but they do have a trick for balancing everything,“We are the most efficient dancers you’ll ever meet. I am not saying this to be full of ourselves, but we do not have the luxury of time that some do. We have to balance three kids with work, school, and all of our kids go to different schools right now because of COVID-19. Our kindergartener goes to school full-time in one city, our older one goes to school in another city, so we are all over the place. We wake up at 7AM and we are not back till 9 or 10PM. So we’re very efficient when we practice, because we don’t have the luxury of ‘if we don’t get it now, we will get it later.’ We have to get it now. We’re surrounded by many amazing coaches and people who are helping to guide our career. We’ve only done 3 or 4 competitions so far in the rhythm. We have a goal and we just have to put the work in. If it’s one thing that we know how to do, it’s hard work.”
However, juggling everything is not always easy, but it is rewarding,“Our kids are 8 years old, 5 years old and in January our youngest one will be 2. Since our youngest child is only two, they are with us quite a bit. So if we’re practicing and sometimes she’s with us when we practice, we get one dance done, then she’ll grab someone’s leg and the practice is over. So it’s very tough because time is the hard thing. Like I said we know how to work hard and practice, but sometimes we don’t have the time to do it. So when we do practice, we’re very efficient with it. We have goals when we practice, so we’re never just going to dance. We always have something to do with our time. I actually recommend that to everyone. Just dancing isn’t going to make you better. Make goals in your practice, you have to make not just goals, but things you want to achieve with your time.”
After dancing latin competitively for many years, Gene and Elena decided to come out of retirement and try something new,“I danced latin for 20 something years. When I was growing up, I always thought that rhythm was for old people. I grew up watching both, and always thought that latin was for me. Then I tried rhythm and I freaking loved it. I tell all of my coaches earlier, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?’ It’s so amazing, I feel so much more free in it. In latin, I felt very restrictive, like there were so many rules. When I was dancing, I never felt like I was actually dancing, I always felt like I was doing rules. Even though I did enjoy latin, in rhythm I feel more free. I feel like I’m having a great time while I’m dancing, and I don’t care what I look like. It really changed my mind once I started doing it. From the outside, it was like ‘What is this swing? Why don’t they lift their knees?’ Let me tell you, that mambo is damn hard. Starting out, I thought that bolero was going to be my least favorite, but recently, it has become my favorite. It’s funny because Every single competition where we have done recently, so about 4 competitions, we’ve had new routines. So every time we go out, it’s like the first time.”
For Gene and Elena, the COVID lockdown was a difficult time, however it also had its benefits,“We were just about to start to compete in rhythm right before COVID. We had our routines done, and we were about to go to our first competition, and then COVID hits. Our studio is in the mall, so they wouldn’t let us in there to even practice. So during the lockdown, Elena and I didn’t really dance at all. We taught a lot of lessons online. We did a lot of TikTok stuff on the street. So we kind of took a pause on our dancing, because we didn’t really know what was going to happen. Right after the lockdown lifted, we got back to the studio and tried to dance through all of it, and it went okay. That was the end of June, and then the second weekend in July, we had our first competition. After not dancing after so long, we put in a lot of work for two weeks, and made the final. The lockdown sucked for dancing, but it was great for family! We love being with our family. We went on bike rides every
single day. We loved that part of the lockdown, but for the dancing it sucked.
Even though they are newly sponsored, they have been AIDA lovers for many years, “I have been wearing AIDA for many years. When we retired, I got all of my students in AIDA, because they’re so comfortable. All of my students wear AIDA. I even have students who are social dancers who wear them. Even for new dancers, I suggest AIDA. This is what I tell people about AIDA, are they the most padded shoes? No, but for me I love that I can feel the floor. I am a very grounded dancer, so I want to feel the floor at all times. Sometimes there are these shoes that are super padded, but I love AIDA because I can always feel the floor and feel very solid. I truly believe that the shoes always make me feel powerful."