Horace Luong was knee-deep in "solid-phase synthesized ion channels" in 2003 when he started stepping out in suede-bottomed shoes.
His days then were spent bent over a microscope in a University of Victoria chemistry lab, but in the evenings and on weekends, the doctoral student became a dancing fool.
Not content to cut a rug socially, however, the overachieving Luong -- who is also an expert in tai chi and a Chinese watercolour artist who plays Chinese harp -- soon cha-cha-cha'd his way into the world of competitive dancing and became one of Winnipeg's few certified instructors of international standard and Latin ballroom dance.
When he's not teaching organic chemistry at the University of Manitoba, the Halifax native teaches folks of all ages and abilities about the finer points of the fox trot, tango, waltz, Viennese waltz, quickstep, cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive. Luong, 32, offers ballroom dance classes, as well as semi-private and private lessons, at three different Winnipeg locations.
The nattily clad chemist views ballroom dance as an expressive art and a sport that employs some of the same skills as tai chi, which he's been practising for 26 years. So, as a dance teacher, he seeks to give students the skills to survive the first dance at a wedding (particularly their own) or a tropical vacation to destinations with Latin dance music, a competitive edge.
"I hope to inspire others to dance technically well," says Luong, who wrote the Canadian Dancesport Federation exams in 2012. "Most of my teaching, even for the social-dance classes, incorporates technical elements of the dancesport aspect of ballroom dancing. (The term "dancesport" was invented to help competitive ballroom dancing gain Olympic recognition.)
"It's physically demanding on the students, however, once they incorporate the elements into their bodies, they not only dance technically better, they're on the road to dancing as an art form."
But Luong's primary goal, he says, is simply to promote the life- and health-enhancing benefits of ballroom dance to as many people as possible.
To that end, he recently started a business called Horace Luong Strictly Ballroom, which caters specifically to "under-represented" groups in Winnipeg, including the LGBT and Chinese communities.
Luong dreams of one day coaching at least one same-sex dance duo to represent Manitoba in the World Outgames, a sporting and cultural event hosted by the gay community. The 2013 World Outgames just wound up Aug. 11 in Antwerp, Belgium.
"I call it bringing equity to the dance floor," he says. "You always see the traditional male lead and female follow. The advantage with the LGBT community is they are open to trying out different roles."
John Dobson, 51, credits reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars, as well as Dancing Under the Canopy events at The Forks, with inspiring him to give dancing a whirl.
He took a year of salsa lessons with a female partner before signing up for Luong's same-sex dance classes.
While Dobson says he hadn't been particularly bothered by the strict gender roles in conventional dance classes, he says he was intrigued by the idea of switching roles.
"Being male, I had only ever led, but dancing the other role gave me a much better appreciation of what is involved, and I would recommend it to anyone." (The next class is Aug. 27. Register at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Baby boomers are hardly an under-represented segment of the ballroom dance world, but more of them, perhaps inspired by the above-mentioned TV shows, seem to be catching the competitive dance bug.
Liz Sellors and her husband took up ballroom dancing about 10 years ago so they could feel more confident on the dance floor at weddings. They wound up doing dance showcases for a local dance club and a couple of studios.
But it was when she met Luong that Sellors, who is in her 60s, became "obsessed."
"It's a huge part of my life," says Sellors, an interior designer with Number Ten Architectural Group, who just returned from her lunch-hour practice session at a local dance studio. She dances at least one hour a day, sometimes up to five, if lessons, classes and workshops are included. She also studies a technique manual.
While her husband remains a social/recreational dancer, Sellors is training with Luong for a pro-am international standard ballroom competition in Vancouver next year.
"I would call it training when I do something over and over again 20 times until I get it right. He's very tough," the stylish, petite woman says affectionately of Luong. "He makes me practise by myself."