In a revealing orange feather-and-sequin dress and matching high heels, with glamorous makeup and dark hair slicked back in a bun, Rachel Benin of Morris Plains and her partner danced their way to the national championship in Latin Dance in her age group. That was in 2009.
Two partners and two years later, the Parsippany Hills High School senior is still dancing seriously, with her eye on national and international competitions. She dances six days a week, two to three hours at a time, but still has time to study, get the grades she needs for college, go to USY events, volunteer at her synagogue — Adath Shalom in Parsippany — and teach at the Russian Arts Academy in Fair Lawn.
Rachel has embraced a kind of dancing that has become popularized and glamorized through the television show Dancing with the Stars. She has even studied and appeared at dance benefits with some of its featured performers.
But she has been mesmerized by the pursuit that sits right on the line between performance and sport since she was six and a student at the Russian Arts Academy in Fair Lawn. (Rachel’s mother, Inna, immigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg 22 years ago.)
The same building that houses the academy housed Rising Stars, a dance studio run by Maksim Chmerkovskiy, now a regular on Dancing with the Stars.
“After Russian school, the girls all ran up. So one day, I followed them, and I decided I liked the dance too,” Rachel said.
Maksim and his brother, Val, also a Latin ballroom champion and Dancing with the Stars celebrity, both coached Rachel. She got serious about dancing around the age of 12, she said, when she asked her coach to help her find a partner. Today she is coached by Vibeke Toft, a former Latin dance world champion.
At their home, Inna Benin served a visitor Turkish coffee and dried cantaloupe from Brighton Beach as she kept a watchful eye on her only child and edited some of her comments. (“Don’t name your first-choice school,” she said to Rachel when the subject of college came up. “I’m superstitious,” she told a visitor. “Just say you want to go to school in New York City so you can keep dancing.” Rachel took her mother’s advice.)
Unlike many of her peers who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, Inna said her family never lost its deep connection to the Jewish religion.
“My grandfather was a rabbi. My grandmother’s father was rabbi. My grandmother was glatt kosher. You can’t imagine what my father and I went through for her to get something kosher,” she said.
When she first saw the kosher counter in the ShopRite in Livingston, Inna said, “I started to cry, because of the way we were always trying to buy this food for her.”
Inna was quick to point out that the Russian school is owned by Russian Jews and closed on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur.
“If someone will ask me: I am Russian Jew. But being Jewish is more important than being Russian,” she said. “If I have to choose between giving Rachel Russian or Jewish education, I will always choose Jewish. But here, I don’t have to choose.”
Rachel pointed out that most, though not all, of the Latin ballroom dancers are Eastern European or Russian, although her current dance partner is Filipino.
‘I just dance’
Rachel said Judaism never enters the dance world for her except when she misses practice for a Jewish holiday. The benefits she performs in include some for Jewish organizations, including Adath Shalom.
“When I came here,” said her mother, “so many people helped me. I consider myself very successful here in this country and consider it my motherland. I feel like I have to give back. That’s why I am teaching Rachel the mentality of tzedaka.”
When she isn’t dancing competitively, Rachel loves hanging out with her friends. And when the school has dances, she does what everyone else does. “I don’t show my dances. It’s two different things, really. This is social and having fun, and I don’t mix the two,” she said. But she added, “If I’m dancing with a guy and he can’t dance, um, that bothers me.”
Two weeks after the interview at her home, Rachel met her current partner, John Gaylan, for a practice session at Basic Ballroom in New York City on a Saturday night. She wore a fluid, short, red dress with a wide black belt and copper high heels, her long black tresses partially tied back. The dancing was all business, like other sports played at a high level.
They glided through complicated turns and slides, quick steps and hip shakes, everything choreographed to the last move.
The practice time paid off — the two snatched second place in the Constitution State Challenge Junior Amateur International Latin Open 5-Dance Championship on Oct. 2. But that doesn’t give the pair time to rest. On Oct. 16, they will compete in Hackensack.
Through the fall and spring, there are competitions nearly every weekend.
Rachel acknowledged feeling nervous “five seconds before I go onto the floor. I’ve done it so many times, but still, when they call my name, I do feel a little nervous. But once I get out there, I don’t feel it anymore. I just dance.”