What happens when you take a Pro-am World Latin Champion and turn her professional with her former teacher? You get a UK Open Professional Rising Star Latin Champion. An unusual situation, but this is the reality for Sasha Althukhov and Cheyenne Murillo.
Sasha, born in Ukraine, has been dancing since the age of 10, winning two national titles as a junior and youth competitor. Soon after arriving in the United States at the age of 19, Sasha became the National Amateur Latin Vice Champion as well as being a representative of the United States at many World Championships. Cheyenne, born and raised in Utah, has been dancing all of her life, but decided to solely focus on International Latin dancing when she was 17. An accomplished youth competitor, Cheyenne was a finalist in all major US events.
Sasha and Cheyenne started their journey together as student and teacher. Sasha remembers, "I used to live in Boston and when my partner at the time got on dancing with the Stars, I was flying out to California to see her and practice and teach. Sometimes on the way, I would stop by in Utah to teach because they invited me before. I couldn't do it, but then with it on the way to dancing with the stars, it was convenient to do so. Cheynne and Jenna Johnson were two of my first students in Utah, and that's how we started. Cheyenne was actually just starting latin. We started doing a little bit of pro-am because we couldn't find her a partner, but we finally found her a youth partner for about a year until he had visa problems and at that point I had also split with my professional partner."
The idea of being professional partners was not a thought that had crossed either of their minds, until two of their teachers suggested it. The timing seemed perfect since Cheyenne had just split with her youth partner and Sasha also had no professional partner. Sasha explained "Two of our teachers, Shirley Ballas and Barbara McColl said 'hey, why don't you two start dancing together'. It took me a few months to process that idea." Cheyenne further said "At first we said 'no, we won't dance with each other' but finally when my partner was having visa problems, we just decided to do it."
Even though they were unsure about how their partnership would turn out, they had immediate success. Sasha said "Our first competition was vegas, where we won the Professional Rising Star. From there we went to the UK Open where we placed 7th our first time out." They have not stopped since gaining numerous Rising Star titles as well as making many finals.
However, their proudest moment was becoming the UK Open Professional Rising Star Latin Champions. Cheyenne states "I'm most proud of winning the UK because it was a hard journey. It was more exciting that we tried so hard and then we finally had our hard work pay off." Sasha elaborated "In the beginning we were lucky to get 7th, but then we got a little stuck. We kept missing the final but one mark at every major championship, the International, Blackpool, the UK, all 7,7,7.
Finally we made our first final, where we got straight 5th and then the next where we got 3rd. The following year, 2018, we finally won. I feel like it was a big turning point in our career."
Besides being successful dancers on the competition floor, Sasha and Cheyenne have many students that they teach as well. When asked what their favorite part of teaching is, Sasha stated "I am very competitive. With every kid who competes, I feel like I am more nervous then the parents or the kids, because how they do is a result of your work. They are the face of what you represent as a teacher, so it's always a big responsibility for me to make sure that they deliver their best product when they're out on the floor. The other thing that I find fun is dealing with different personalities. Since we see them everyday, they become a part of our family, especially with the young ones because they you watch them grow year by year. I have lived in New York and Boston and there are a lot of talented kids here, but I feel like a lot of them get distracted. I find in Utah it's very much like Russian mentality. They are very focused, like 'this is it, I have to make it.' There are no distractions, so I can relate a little bit better to the kids there." Cheyenne added "I love how hard they work. We have 7 year olds who dance ALL styles. They're in the studio from 1pm to 9:30 at night. Most of them do ballet and jazz and they're really committed to that. So if they want to be doing ballroom, it means that they really want to be doing it, so they make time for it because they have to if they want to do it." Sasha added further "Sometimes we teach full days starting at 7 am. One day, we had a girl who asked me to have a lesson the next day. I told her there was nothing available unless she wanted to come in at 5 in the morning. So she said 'I'll take 5.' Not only did she take the lesson at 5 but she was full-on at 5, not half asleep like really full-out dancing. Sometimes we get kids at 11:30 at night still going all out. As a teacher, you know you have to give 200% for them because they're giving 200% right back to you."
Besides being partners on the dance floor, Sasha and Cheyenne recently got married in July. So how did they balance wedding planning and dancing? Cheyenne explains "Oh it was hard. It was hard practicing. We had a wedding planner who planned most things. We also had more than a year to plan so that was also great."
However, after the wedding was not all smooth sailing. The honeymoon got off to a rough start. Sasha said "I was the one responsible for the honeymoon and that went down the hill. We had been saving for a couple of years to go to Bora Bora to stay in those huts on the water. I am not yet an American Citizen, I have a green card here, but I am Ukranian. There was a new rule implemented three years ago that says that any European country, except England, Ukranians can enter without a Visa. So I called Tahiti because it's a French Polynesian island, so the territory belongs to France. The hotel and the airline both told me that I didn't need a visa, so I booked the tickets. The day after the wedding, we're flying, they check my passport twice, once when we get on and once at our lay-over in San Francisco, no problem. We get to Tahiti, the guy is going through my passport and says 'where is your Visa?' And I said 'what do you mean my Visa? I called back in April and they said I didn't need one. They let me through both of my stops.' They sent us straight back to the US on the same plane." Cheyenne interjects "We were awake for 36 hours straight. We were so shocked that we just kind of sat on the plane, not saying anything to each other." Sasha concluded saying "It took us 6 months to get the Visa but we FINALLY went there over Christmas, so that was good. Cheyenne got two honeymoons instead!" (They went to Hawaii once they were sent back on the plane.)
It’s obvious that Sasha and Cheyenne have an excellent working partnership. So what is the key to their success on and off the dance floor? Sasha says “In the beginning of our partnership, it was hard. When we used to do pro-am it was not as hard because you kind of just get together and practice the routines a little bit. On her solo lessons, we would work on her mechanics, technique and styling, so we didn’t really have to interact with each other that much. When we turned professional, it was hard for me personally to switch from being a teacher to being a partner.” Cheyenne interjected laughing “It was easy at first because I was still kind of like a student.” Sasha continued “We would go on a lesson, and instead of having one teacher, she would have two, me and the teacher. It was hard on her, for the first 8 months especially. The expectations were high because before dancing with her, I was already in all those finals, so I didn’t really know what to expect. We could have easily gotten cut in the first or second round, which I see a lot in dancing, where things don’t go your way. We made the decision to dance together really fast. We danced Nationals and Worlds as a pro-am couple in September, danced the Ohio pro-am show and then a week later we danced our first pro competition together. So it was difficult and we saw our coach every week leading up to that to get ready. So it was difficult in the beginning, but then we found our way. She changed a little bit the way she practices, and she learns things a lot quicker and has gotten a lot better. So now for the past year and a half, the lessons have been on me. In the beginning, all the attention was on her in order to get her on the level. Now the teachers we work with are like ‘let’s work on you and get you better’, so it’s been good because now they’re kicking my butt.”
Sasha also credits Cheyenne’s winning mentality with how their partnership has been able to last, “Cheyenne is very persistent. She said to me ‘How do I win?’ because when I first started teaching her she was trying to win the pre-champ latin event at nationals. So I told her there was a lot of stuff to be done in order to win. So she would schedule 4 lessons a day, in order to get better. I would tell her ‘you need a new dress.’ The next day, she would come to me with a new dress design. She knows what she wants and she gets it done. I think this is the part of her that I really like as a competitor. Outside of dancing, she is everything that I am not. For example, I am not an organized person with schedules. Everytime I would do my schedule, I would have 3 couples show up at the same time. Schedules, lessons, visas, flights, none of that would get done in a timely matter. She is VERY organized with that stuff. I also love to be around her, to get to know her is fun. We like to do the same things, like traveling and eating. In our sport, it’s very hard to find someone from the outside who would understand us. Most people would think we are weird for doing the rumba walks all the time or traveling with your dance partner, because the other half would be jealous. In our sport, you find a lot of people who are married to people in the industry because they have the same kind of goals and life. We share the same life. I like working a lot and she’s the same way. She’ll teach 15 or 16 lessons a day and then practice with no complaints, I’m the same way. We share the same goals and interests. It’s just easy going.”
To see Sasha and Cheyenne in action, check out this awesome video!