Jaimee and Travis Tuft, A Pair in Dance and in Life
By Katherine Moore of Dance Informa.
"Neither of us saw each other as something special,” says Jaimee Tuft of her current husband and dancing partner, Travis Tuft.
When they first met as teenagers at ballroom summer camp, Jaimee and Travis Tuft were barely aware of each other and had almost no communication with each other throughout the three years that they attended the camp at Brigham Young University-Idaho, then known as Ricks College. While they had become familiar faces to each other by the time they both ended up at Brigham Young University-Provo as undergraduates, neither expected that they would become husband and wife.
Eventually, both Jaimee and Travis ended up on the Touring Team of the ballroom program at BYU-Provo, and the two became friends. Jaimee, who majored in mathematics, tutored Travis in calculus and helped him settle on a Spanish major. Their friendship evolved as they spent more time together traveling around the world with the ballroom team, and soon, they were dating.
After a six-month courtship, the two dancers got engaged, but it wasn’t until after they got married that they decided to start dancing together competitively. Neither of them felt that getting a “normal” job after graduation was the appropriate move, and they were attracted to the rigor of practicing and devoting time to dance. After marrying they came to the mutual, possibly risky, decision to give dancing competitively a shot as a career path. According to Jaimee and Travis, this sequence of events sets them apart from many ballroom couples who meet professionally and then later embark on a romantic relationship.
“We were completely opposite from the norm,” Jaimee says. “We both had former partners and different dance experiences before we started dancing as partners. It was a really big adjustment and it was really hard in both our personal and professional lives, but eventually we started to find a balance on and off the floor and had success dancing together.”
While Jaimee had many years of classical dance training growing up, Travis first encountered dance at age 14 through a weekly social dance for youth in his native Idaho, and he quickly noticed how much he enjoyed dancing and seeing improvement in his performance. Meanwhile, Jaimee was studying ballet from former principal dancers of New York City Ballet, John and Janice James Nelson. Jaimee attributes much of her eventual success in ballroom to her classical training.
“If it hadn't been for the fact that I was graceful, I would not have made the ballroom team in college,” she says. “I definitely didn't make it on the team because of my cha cha skills."
However, something alluring about ballroom eventually pulled her away from a classical dance career path. Travis was similarly hooked.
"We didn't know what it was when we first started,” Travis says about ballroom dancing, “ but it's one of those things that really takes hold of you."
According to Travis and Jaimee, there are four main categories of competitive ballroom dance: Standard (International Ballroom), International Latin, American Rhythm, and American Smooth. While they both have training in all four styles, their specialty is American Smooth, a category that includes the Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, and Foxtrot. Jaimee’s classical training may be partly responsible for some of their success in this elegant style of dancing.
"I think it sets me apart and is visible in my lines and how I use my arms,” says Jaimee.
While Jaimee and Travis are now renowned professionals with titles such as U.S. Professional Rising Star American Smooth Champions, U.S. Theatrical Arts Champions, U.S. Cabaret Vice-Champions, and World Professional American Smooth Finalists, success was not instantaneous for the young couple.
After their marriage in 2008, Travis and Jaimee became the undefeated two-time U.S. Amateur American Smooth Champions, an unexpected but promising win that helped them decide to enter the professional competition ring. They decided to give it a fully committed, one-year shot at dancing and competing before moving on to Plan B. After spending hours and hours researching studios and who they wanted to train with, the couple decided to move to New Jersey to train with Gary and Diana McDonald, former U.S. and World Champions.
Even though they could sense the improvement in their dancing under their new tutelage, Jaimee and Travis experienced a shocking blow at their first professional competition in Canada.
“We were so nervous for the competition in Canada. We were in a new realm,” Jaimee says, "And we took last in everything. It was disappointing. We had been champions, and now we were last.”
This optimistic couple decided they could only go up from there and trained harder than ever. Six months later, they had undergone an incredible transformation and placed 2nd in the Professional Rising Star Competition and made semi-finals for the open professional event.
From that point on, their career has been anything but stagnant, and they are often invited to perform and compete at prestigious events such as the Blackpool Dance Festival in England. A couple that truly loves the process and challenge of dancing competitively, Jaimee explains that while they haven’t risen to the very top, they can enjoy knowing they are definitely within the top six couples in their style.
Even though the life of Jaimee and Travis Tuft sounds glamorous, their day-to-day routine is rigorous. They arrive at the studio every morning, Monday through Thursday, to teach lessons. After lunch they spend four to five hours rehearsing their own material, whether it’s technique, creating a new dance, or practicing a routine. To end the day, they close with another dose of teaching until nine or ten at night. Friday through Sunday, they usually travel to a competition or to train with a master teacher. In one year they might go to over 30 competitions.
It is a challenging lifestyle for any professional pair, but especially for a couple who works all day together and then goes home together, too. With huge events like the Emerald Ball in Los Angeles coming up at the end of April, the Tufts cannot afford to be affected by an unbalanced work/life ratio. Jaimee explains that when they go home at night as “normal people,” they leave what happened at the studio at the door and head home with a fresh start.
Travis says, "Everything goes in phases, but we try to separate dance and home. In the beginning we would bicker on the dance floor, but when we go home we wouldn't let it affect us. Now, we are now a little more in harmony in our work and our process, which is good. It takes time, it's not immediate."
When discussing their process, Travis also mentions the importance of teaching in their transition from becoming amateurs to professionals.
"When you start teaching it changes how you dance,” he says. “It helps reinforce principles that you've been taught."
They both enjoy the challenge of meeting students where they are, and Jaimee especially loves that teaching ballroom often means teaching people at later stages of life, unlike other forms of dance that often focus on teaching children.
Jaimee says, "Some of our students are coming back and finding joy of dance in their lives. They really appreciate the art of dance and know that you are never too old to continue learning and improving yourself."
As Jaimee and Travis continue to compete and grow in their industry as performers and teachers, they know that their success would not have been possible without hard work and the help of others. Jaimee’s advice to anyone considering a similar path: “Don’t underestimate the value of a good mentor.”
Travis agrees, and encourages anyone considering professional ballroom to give it a shot, despite the fear.
“Our industry is not well broadcast, and it's easy to be tentative and feel like it's not something you can make long term,” he says. “ But had we known that it would be this good, we would not have been afraid. There are people who want to help you and take you in.”