The perfect waltz for Joe and Mary Bates happens on autopilot, as they surrender to every rise and fall and sway while gliding across the floor in each other's arms. Ballroom dancing is the couple's discipline, their exercise, their marriage therapy, and their scheduled date rolled into one.
Joe Bates, a civil engineer, and Mary Bates, an anesthetist, say they can get snippy on the car ride to the studio. But, in the intimacy of that moment on the dance floor, life's stressors evaporate. "After thirty-five minutes in each other's arms, swinging around the room, all that [goes] away," says Mary.
In 2004, the couple won the national championship for amateur ballroom dancers in the American Smooth division of their age category. American Smooth includes the waltz, Viennese waltz, tango, and foxtrot. This year, the Bateses are taking a working sabbatical in Hobart, Tasmania. They are training in International Standard, a highly formalized style of competitive dance used in the World Games, which is held for Olympic-recognized sports that do not yet qualify for medals. The couple recently placed fifth in the "age fifty and up" group in the Tasmanian South Coast Classic.
When they're not dancing, Joe and Mary chronicle their travels Down Under on their website, www.josephandmary.net. Joe is writing a book--he jokingly refers to as an "idiot's guide to the homebuilding industry"--that calls on his ten years of experience as a forensic engineer who investigates structural damage to homes. Mary works at a local hospital, and the couple enjoy ornamental wood turning in their spare time.
The Bateses started dating in high school in Richmond, Indiana. Joe played the French horn in the marching band, and Mary played the flute and piccolo.
"She always sat right behind me," Joe says. Back then, their best dance moves involved shifting their weight from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable.
At Duke, Mary majored in zoology but studied modern dance and played in the North Carolina Symphony on the side. Joe joined her in the Duke Wind Symphony after transferring from Stanford University. The two were married in 1972, after their junior year. They have two children, Eleanor Bates Keeler '02 and Joseph Bates '05.
By 1991, Joe says, he grew tired of refusing Mary's overtures at dinner dances. On a whim, he bought the couple a ten-lesson package from Arthur Murray near Noblesville, Indiana, where they live. Both Bateses are fiercely competitive and have an ear for the downbeat. It didn't take them long to upstage the other students.
They began competing in the amateur ballroom-dancing circuit, where judges would bend over and scrutinize their feet for proper roll of the big toe. In their first few competitions, they either placed last or were disqualified. Work demands limited their practice time, so the couple learned to practice smarter. They switched instructors, and created computer logs of notes after rehearsing on their gym's aerobics floor. Joe, 6'1", imported his suit tails from London and helped design Mary's gowns.
Today, after having participated in nearly twenty competitions, the Bateses still acknowledge that dancing doesn't come naturally, even with their musical bents. Instead, they approach the sport like a science--a precise skill to be perfected.
Occasionally, they must dodge a bullet. A flying elbow once hit Mary in the head and nearly knocked her out. Grandstanding dancers have cut Joe off, causing him to stop cold. Now, he will add a measure or two or jump over a leg to keep tempo. "I don't stop for anyone anymore," he says.
Joe Bates '73 and Mary Louise Bates '73
June 1, 2006