Sam Sodano

"There are no strangers at the Ohio Star Ball, only friends we have not met..."

Sam Sodano, a legendary figure in the world of ballroom dancing, is the mastermind behind the creation of the renowned Ohio Star Ball. His significant contributions to the dance community, coupled with his role as the founder of one of the world’s most prestigious dance events, mark him as a true pioneer and luminary in DanceSport.

Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Sodano’s journey in dance began at a young age. He excelled as a competitive dancer, quickly gaining recognition for his talent and technical proficiency. However, it was his transition to professional coaching that truly marked the beginning of his influential career in ballroom dance. With a deep understanding of the artistry and athleticism intrinsic to dance, Sam became an esteemed coach and a mentor, shaping the careers of numerous successful dancers.

Yet, Sam’s vision extended beyond personal achievements. Recognizing a lack of high-profile competitive platforms, he aspired to establish an event that would both spotlight the diverse talent in the dance world and foster a sense of community among participants. This vision laid the foundation for the Ohio Star Ball.

Starting over four decades ago as a modest one-day showcase, Sodano’s brainchild, the Ohio Star Ball, has since transformed into the largest Pro/Am competition worldwide. His dedication, courage, and relentless creativity enabled him to surmount early challenges and gradually develop the event into a six-day extravaganza that brings together dancers from across the globe.

Sam meticulously crafted the competition structure, ensuring it catered to a broad range of ages and skill levels. His commitment to inclusivity and celebration of dance in its many forms has remained a steadfast principle of the Ohio Star Ball.
Sam Sodano’s legacy extends beyond the Ohio Star Ball. As an active adjudicator, and continuing advocate for the dance community, his influence is widespread. His dedication to promoting ballroom dance and nurturing talent continues to inspire and shape the world of Ballroom Dancing. Sam Sodano’s life and career stand as a testament to his love for dance and his commitment to sharing that passion with others.

Sam Sodano -

Passionate Journey

is a biography by Sharon Savoy of the one and only Sam Sodano. The title of the book was befittingly chosen by Sam, himself. With three years of research and interviews with over 90 people, the book takes the reader on a seven-decade journey that was propelled and defined by his passion for ballroom dance. The well-known story of Sam’s dance epiphany occurring at age eight while watching the ‘Arthur Murray Dance Party’ sets the stage for his life’s path.

Here’s a brief look into the book, revealing an intriguing journey and remarkable details about Sam.

Chapter 13

The American Invasion

The United Kingdom International Championships at Hammersmith Paley, held one week before the Blackpool Championships, was Sam and Pat’s international debut. First impressions are often considered capable of creating long-lasting opinions; however, results don’t always match first impressions, especially in the competitive ballroom world. A new dance team is typically given a measured response by the judges. Even when the audience responds with wild enthusiasm, the judges take a more reserved and conservative approach. No newcomer ever topples the reigning champion the first time up to bat.
Sam and Pat wanted to garner the same fevered response from the audience that they typically received when dancing stateside. Sam particularly thrived on being able to get the crowd going, but this was not their home turf and it was anyone’s guess how they and their American friends would be received. The English audience was known for rooting for the underdog. Would they root for a foreigner as well? Sam and Pat and their friends knew from the sideline whispers during their rehearsal that the Americans were “the talk.”

“Even my costume went against the grain,” recalls Pat. “Everyone was wearing proper gowns. I couldn’t afford a gown, so I bought a tangerine swimsuit from Cole’s department store and added tangerine and purple fringe. It was wild in comparison.”

People in England didn’t know what to make of these Americans with their bold, brash style. And the judges—what would they do with this American invasion? Would they be open-minded and consider their talent and mark it accordingly, or would they simply ignore it as too wild and not English enough to warrant recognition?

Sam and Pat came in ninth in their first international competition, a fantastic debut that bode well for the upcoming Blackpool and World Championship events. “More than anything, I remember the unforgettable feeling of being on that dance floor,” recalls Sam. It is one of those moments that all dancers hope to experience at least once in their career—the moment when all the elements—the music, the movement, the man, and the woman become one.

“I did a rumba that night with Pat, and when I walked off the floor and I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t know if I ever will capture this feeling again.’ It was so in the moment—the electricity, the connection—it gave me chills. I don’t think you can get that from dancing on your own. It’s not the same experience.”

A first place trophy symbolizes outward recognition of your abilities as a dancer; nonetheless, every dancer knows what it means to find that inner satisfaction at a moment in time when everything flows so perfectly that the experience is almost surreal. It is the essence of why dancers dance and why dancers keep dancing: continually seeking to experience one of those rare, golden moments again.
The personal feeling of getting it all right and reaching another plateau on the never-ending road to perfection was branded as a memory that stands the test of time for Sam. He was not the only one that noticed. “Walter Laird told me, ‘You are one of the best male partners because you allow the girl to dance and you never hinder her,’” recalls Sam. “I was always aware of where the girl’s weight and balance was.” 
n England’s Dance News the equivalent of the New York Times for ballroom dancers, a review by Alex Moore, who was considered the Latin Messiah, singled out Sam: “Sodano brought the mambo into the cha cha.” A simple sentence that recognized the authentic Latin influences that defined how Sam moved. Sam’s dancing was driven by feeling the Latin rhythms. A perfectly placed foot was secondary to getting the right “tick” and groove with the music.

“When Pat and I took a cha cha lesson with “Lorraine,” one of the most renowned Latin female dancers of her era, she said, ‘I’m not touching your cha cha. I like it just the way you dance it. Show me something else,’” recalls Sam. “Cha cha was my favorite dance. When I went to England that was the dance they marked best. They thought it was International Latin; actually, England didn’t know what it was. I just did what I felt to the music.”

Sam and Pat’s reception at the United Kingdom competition delivered their first taste of the excitement and prestige associated with placing well at an international event. It served to whet Sam’s appetite all the more.

Chapter 25

Right Place + Right Time = Prime Time

“I was fortunate to be at the beginning of so many things, the first USBC, the first wave of Latin dancers to go to Blackpool and influence Latin dancing, and now PBS had chosen Ohio Star Ball to be the venue and event for “Championship Ballroom Dancing.”

Cable TV’s zenith years began in 1985, and Sam’s good fortune catapulted his competition into the spotlight at exactly the same time.

For many competitors, national exposure on the PBS broadcast meant more than going to the United States Championships. Only one couple wins a national title, but everyone, especially the finalists, had a chance to be seen on TV! If competing at the Ohio Star Ball wasn’t a priority before, it now leap-frogged to the top of the list.

Even the audience wanted their five minutes of fame. They dressed to the nines and waited in long lines to get into the ballroom for the taping of the PBS special. Everyone secretly hoped to be interviewed and asked about their favorite couple or be seen applauding in the background.

Undoubtedly, one of the most noteworthy personal moments for Sam was the year of the neon sign. In 1988, to announce the beginning of that year’s competition, a neon sign was lit for the first time emblazing the ballroom with the words, “Ohio Star Ball.” “I don’t know what it was about that sign, but it felt like I had achieved my dream,” recalls Sam. “I took my jacket off and ran a victory lap around the entire ballroom swinging the jacket over my head.”
The glittering red sign is an icon of the competition, instantaneously recognizable to the dancers as well as the spectators in the ballroom. However, on Saturday night the sign needed to be incognito. Sam’s pride and joy, his neon symbol of success, turned out to be a target for technicians.

“One of my many jobs was to carefully hide the neon sign,” states Aida. “The televised show was Championship Ballroom Dancing, not Ohio Star Ball. We took great pains to hide the sign from our camera’s view. Dozens of crewmembers set up lights, stands, microphones, cameras, and so on. Can you believe we broke that neon sign, not once, or twice, but three different years? I was the one who had to break the news to Sam each time, and boy, was that painful. Of course, Sam repaired it every time, bless his heart.”

The combination of Aida’s vision to showcase real competitive ballroom dancing, and Sam’s desire to create an outstanding event, forged a successful show that has yet to be surpassed. In some aspects, the PBS ballroom broadcasts set the stage for shows such as Dancing with the Stars. However, for true aficionados, DWTS is a glorified celebrity pro-am that cannot compare to the quality of professional competition that PBS broadcast for decades

Sam’s association with Aida and PBS placed the Ohio Star Ball in the limelight and produced a legacy that still exists today. “We made a perfect partnership,” states Aida. For almost 30 years, Championship Ballroom Dancing, and subsequently America’s Ballroom Challenge, offered viewers an inside look at the glamour, athleticism, and art of ballroom dancing.

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