MINNETONKA — Ballroom dancers are often warned not to date their dance partner. Though performances are intimate, rehearsals demand precision, critique and an ability to formulate choreography without the burden of offending a partner.
Maybe this makes Gene and Elena Bersten of the Dance with Us America studio stand out all the more: Their drive for dance success equals their business intellect and appreciation for family. They find balance in each, and in each other.
They met almost on stage, Elena said, while touring for Burn the Floor in 2008. She was from Orel, Russia, and he from Minnetonka. As the tour progressed, they paired off accidentally again and again, in poolside evenings and grocery runs. They connected over their want to travel and their shared energy, Elena said, but didn’t date during the tour.
“When I went to Russia, he was calling nonstop, and we just realized that we can’t be without each other,” Elena said. “We needed to do something.”
They called every day before she moved to the United States in 2011, even though there was an eight-hour time difference.
Gene, 30, and Elena, 34, knew opening a studio would give them the chance to teach and to create a life together. They constructed the studio, Dance with Us America, on the lower-level of Southdale Mall in Edina.
“Everything we learned from our coaches, our trainers, our mentors, we give right back because we want the kids at our studio or anyone we work with to have the same experience we had so they can be just as successful, if not more than us,” Gene said.
Elena has performed for the Prince of Monaco, has trained some of the junior and youth Russian champions at her dance studio in Orel and has toured worldwide.
Gene has a résumé of being the U.S. amateur Latin champion, a Midwestern region champion and a competitor on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Most recently, they danced together on stage for the Jennifer Lopez concert preceding the Super Bowl.
But their focus is on the students.
“For competitions, I think we’re more nervous than the students are,” Gene said. “You know, we’re like: Enjoy it, relax. And then inside, I’m like, ‘Oh, I hope she does well; she deserves it,’ or, ‘I hope these kids do well because they work so hard.’”
Learning dance in Minnetonka
Gene’s family moved to New York City from Belarus when he was 2. In Europe, his mother had a career in engineering, and his father was in the armed forces. As is the story of many immigrants, their careers stalled for a time.
The Berstens’ focus became how they could elevate their kids’ potential. His mother squeezed studying for English courses in between shifts cleaning houses and his father fixed cars.
“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money or all these luxuries,” Gene said. “My parents put every dollar they had into us.”
An uncle, who had also recently located in the United States, encouraged the Berstens to try the Minneapolis area. Minnesota has ample opportunity and is an easier living situation, he said.
They moved first to St. Louis Park and then to Minnetonka.
Gene and his siblings undertook dance classes when he was 12 years old. There wasn’t much representation of men dancing in media, he said, which made him self-conscious. After two years of being dragged to classes, though, the art form caught him.
“Why didn’t you let me start earlier?” he asked his parents.
Spectators commented on his talent, which increased his drive to be a better dancer. His parents brought in out-of-state coaches to teach Gene. Following the lessons, he stayed at the studio to train his brother and sister in what he had just been learning.
“Teaching family is one of the hardest things you can do because you expect more and everything’s personal,” he said. “We got good because we got to push each other.”
Gene’s brother, Alan, is now a troupe member of the TV show “Dancing with the Stars.” Gene said he feels pride for his brother’s experience having coached him years ago.
Learning dance in Orel
Orel is roughly the same distance from the Ukraine as it is from Moscow. Some 300,000 people call the city home, where classic Russian architecture, including onion domes, dot its skyline.
Elena was trained in gymnastics as a girl and became the Russian gymnastics champion of 1995. When she studied dance at 12, she was very timid, she said. It took coaxing from her mother and entering competitions to grow in the art.
Watching older students practice at camps, too, inspired hours of exertion after school and over the summer.
“I wanted to be on the same pace and dance the same, so I worked so hard,” she said.
At the time, she didn’t know Minnesota existed. Traveling for dance allowed her to see the breadth of the world in a way she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“If you know the history of Russia, you know it was so closed, the border,” she said. “Dance opened a lot of gates for me.”
At 18, she won the Russian formation team competition. When she returned from her first Burn the Floor tour in love with Gene, her parents were supportive of the relationship, she said.
It was tricky to begin teaching in the states. At first she only knew the words for body parts and dance moves, but incrementally she picked up English.
“Dance is one of the few things in this world that’s universal,” Gene said. “No matter what country you go to, if you’re learning international styles of dance, you can go to a country and say a movement and they know that move.”
A new home
They chose to live in Eden Prairie for the community, they said, which has been proven at moments like when neighbors recently helped Gene get his car unstuck from the snow.
Gene and Elena’s children are looked after by his parents when the dance schedule becomes unpredictable. Isabella, 5, and Gabriella, 2, watch their parents dance at events with wide eyes, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Isabella often turns on music to groove by herself at home.
Together, they unwind by walking along Staring Lake in summer, or pulling the sled around the block in winter, always moving.
On the evening of Friday, Feb. 9, at St. Petersburg Restaurant in Robbinsdale, 75 people gather for one of Dance with Us America’s events, “The Royal Party.” Gene and Elena perform several pieces together, switching costume and character in each.
The show finishes and Elena morphs from performer to host, taking photos of the attendees in black tie apparel. As Gene talks with family, Elena sees girls dancing on stage, including her daughter. She moves closer to the stage, out of the light, and starts guiding them with choreography. The girls catch on, smiling and imitating her.
“We love to just commit with our students,” Elena said in the earlier interview. “It’s like our family, you know, so respectful, and we love them.”
The studio represents what they draw from dance: Friendships, seen in the students who become one anothers’ closest friends from a young age, perseverance shown in the 12 U.S. champions they’ve groomed and a passion for teaching.
“It’s personal for us,” Gene said, “because we put everything into it.”