NORTHFIELD, N.J. — It all started with a sandwich.
Robert Steiger doesn’t remember what kind it was, but he remembers he was enjoying a sandwich as he stood outside the Academy of Ballroom Dancing in Northfield.
He was looking through the window and saw owner Mary Serpente dancing with a student. He called later that day and left a voicemail with a request.
“I knew I was too old to get started but I told her that I’d like to compete,” said Steiger, 64, of Egg Harbor Township.
That was two years ago and Steiger, along with Serpente as a partner, has competed in 96 individual competitions. Out of those 96, Steiger estimates he’s placed first in 90 of them.
So he’s good. In fact, he’s a natural.
“What he does in one week, most students don’t do that amount in a month,” Serpente told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/2skQs6v).
And he doesn’t plan on stopping. Next week the pair will compete in multiple competitions in Charleston, South Carolina.
For Steiger, who works as a forensic contractor and evaluates buildings, being perfect is necessary.
“In my field you have to be. If I tell somebody that a piece of steel is good and it’s not then that’s on me. I’m done. literally,” Steiger said.
That sense of perfection translates after his 9 to 5 and into the dance studio.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Steiger and Serpente are working on their Argentine tango. Serpente’s shoes slip across the hardwood floors. Her and Steiger embrace and move simultaneously back and forth towards the mirror in front of them.
“Can you count me off,” Steiger asks before Serpente plays another song.
It’s clear that Steiger knows what he’s doing. The two have a chemistry that seems effortless. But that took time, week after week.
When Steiger first told Serpente that he wanted to compete, she told him how much hard work he’d have to put in. There were times when Steiger stopped, and questioned if Serpente was the right teacher for him or if he was the right student for her.
But he would keep coming back to the dance floor and it paid off. Just last November, the two visited the Ohio Star Ball for competition. After placing 7th and couple 2nd places, the rest were all 1st place awards.
Now when the two arrive at competitions, Serpente said people start whispering when Steiger walks in the room. He’s become the Lebron James of ballroom students.
Steiger works as a forensic contractor inspecting buildings with skills that include being meticulous about accuracy. Now he’s using those skills not only to dance, but to dance competitively with an upcoming competition in Charleston, S.C.
After a few songs, Steiger takes a break to grab some water. He rolls up his pants and adjusts an athletic band around his knee cap.
He remembers when he told his coworkers that he was considering dancing.
“They thought I was a nut to start off with and kept reminding me of my age and the physicality of it,” Steiger said.
Now his coworkers call him to ask how many first place awards he’s won. His daughters will scream to him over the phone when he tells them how he placed. Even his wife has to put up with Steiger dancing to YouTube tutorials in his underwear in the morning.
“I make a fool of myself but it’s what I choose to do,” he laughs.
But he has a fire in him to keep learning. And that fire has reignited Serpente as well.
“After all of these years, it’s few and far to find someone with that interest. I have to honestly say it’s a great experience for me as well. I take my hat off to him as well,” Serpente said. “He can do everything.”
Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com