Mary Murphy – Hop on the Hot Tamale Train!
The ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ judge and owner of Champion Ballroom in Hillcrest reveals the strength and tenacity that got her out of Ohio, through an abusive marriage and winning the U.S. Ballroom Dance Championship
Published Thursday, 22-Oct-2009 in issue 1139
Mary Murphy may be the most recognizable judge on the dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Her trademark scream and “Hot Tamale Train” expression are known across the world as the show’s stamps of approval. The U.S. Ballroom Champion moved to San Diego more than 20 years ago to open up her own dance studio, The Champion Ballroom. Murphy sat down with the Gay and Lesbian Times to open up about leaving her abusive first husband, if fellow judge Nigel is really homophobic, and why she is so enthusiastic about dance.
Gay and Lesbian Times: Your studio Champion Ballroom is right on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Hillcrest, yet so many people aren’t aware of your San Diego roots. Tell us more about why you call San Diego home.
Mary Murphy: I know. It’s so difficult for people to even find the number as they’re driving down the street. You can get in an accident trying to find 3580 Fifth Ave. Most people usually only see the small ballroom from the street, and now my neighbor’s landscaping has completely blocked the view. But yes, San Diego is my home now, and I love it here in Hillcrest. I’ve been here close to 22 years and started this dance studio. It was kind of a dream of mine to have a combination of everything from the different dance studios I’ve been to across the country.
GLT: We can’t help but notice your accent on the show. Where are you originally from?
MM: Canal Fulton, Ohio. Even for most people in Ohio, I have to say Canal Fulton, Ohio. I grew up where footloose is. There’s no dancing going on in those parts. It was a very ‘Huckleberry Mary’-type atmosphere with a river and a canal that went through my small town. We didn’t have the luxury of McDonald’s or any thing like that, and people were not dancing. I ran track with my three brothers at a time when women were not allowed to do any other sports at my school. As they became available, I did do those whether or not I was good at it. I played basketball and volleyball my senior year. My brothers and I were all drummers. I was one of the first female drummers. I was nearly just beaten up all the time at school.
GLT: Would you say you had to break doors down?
MM: A lot of people go through whatever it is in their life. I complained and would keep going. I would even ask for help from the school and they wouldn’t help. The school let me down, and I felt my brothers did not want women in the drum section either. Everybody was beating me with their drum sticks. When I went to the band director over that issue, his response was ‘It might be better to find another instrument.’ I went on to play the bassoon in high school, probably the weirdest instrument. I could have gone to Ohio State on a partial scholarship if I choose to. But I choose not to. I couldn’t imagine sitting still. I have to move. My foot is moving right now. I need to move.
GLT: You’re undoubtedly one of the most driven people in the industry. Where does you drive and tenacity come from?
MM: My father ran a very regimented household. We had our boundaries. It was more military style. Me and my brothers are serious workers. I was lucky enough to fall into this world of ballroom dancing because even though I enjoyed sports, I could have been a P. E. teacher or a track coach.
GLT: How did you get into dancing?
MM: My first husband moved me to Washington, D.C. and went to Beirut for about six months. He didn’t allow me to work at all, and I went into the studio for a summer job and thought I’d work while he was gone. The dance studio I worked at was probably not the best and that taught me so much. That was my first job outside of college and outside of Ohio.
I was 19 when I got married and graduated a year early too. I was really young and started doing modern dance in college and liked that, and I did some jazz, ballet and a little ballroom. The college ballroom class didn’t excite me. I didn’t feel like I was talented enough to go to New York. When I was 19, I got married and any aspirations of being anything were all taken away. I married a Middle Eastern man that didn’t agree with me working or doing anything like that. It was a very abusive relationship. I saw the person I am being taken away from me year by year and with very little choice and not a lot of support from any one. I’d been isolated from everyone.
GLT: It sounds like you come from a strong family. What was their reaction to such an abusive relationship?
MM: My parents were Catholics and no matter what he did or what happened, my job was to keep the marriage together. I did stay with him for a really long time. I think we stayed together for eight years before I ended up getting in a car and just running away, starting a new life here in San Diego. I got a car by myself that cost $2000. I pinched and saved to get away and started dancing full tilt.
GLT: Why was the studio in Washington D.C. so bad?
MM: I remember the owners of that studio yelling and screaming and humiliating everybody. I was traumatized because this man he was humiliating them and just about everybody there. I went downstairs and was balling my eyes out. I was thinking, ‘Buck up. This is the big city. I’m not in Canal Fulton anymore. You’re in Washington, D.C., one of the biggest cities in the world. This is what life is, getting over it.’
GLT: As a girl from Canal Fulton, Ohio, had you ever met a gay person before?
MM: Three quarters of the staff at the dancing studio were gay. I’d never met a gay person up until that time of my life. I went into the training class and everybody was explaining to me that most of them were gay because I didn’t know they were.
GLT: What was your reaction?
MM: That was a whole revelation, and then I had my own personal questions and revelations, and they got a huge kick out of it. They hadn’t met anyone in a long time that hadn’t met a gay person ever. It was an interesting time in my life.
GLT: How did going to the U.S. Championship for the first time inspire you?
MM: The manager and his boyfriend asked me to go to New York City, and they took me to the Waldorf Astoria. When I walked into the big double doors of that ballroom it was a scene in the movies. I was immediately hit like a lightning bolt had run through my body and knew that instant without even watching a great deal that I wanted to be a United States Champion. When my husband came back into town all of this was going to go away.
GLT: Why do you think it affected you so much?
MM: I have no idea why it affected me. When I saw the two people dancing together with the rhinestones and the feathers and the hair and make up, up until that point in my life sweat pants and a t-shirt and tennis shoes or no shoes was really how I lived. Ballroom made me a woman almost overnight, I felt. All of a sudden. I cared what color was. I cared what my hair looked like. I cared that I had fingernails. My parents were looking at me like, ‘who is this person?’ I had bitten my nails for years. I think it was just lucky for me dance was my destiny. Everything fell in alignment, except that I had a husband that didn’t want me to dance or do anything for that matter.
GLT: How did your life change after returning from the U.S. Championship?
I started to search out really good instructors. I started dancing with anybody, whether they were supposed to be the right partner or not, I’m sure there were plenty of people making fun of me. I had my little costume on. I had my dance partner; he was too short and everything else was wrong with him. I was having a good old time, and I kept on that route, and I kept searching for better partners, and as I went along and learned more my husband kept moving me around to keep me away from the dancing. Luckily I eventually had enough of the entire situation, and I drove across country and started this dance studio.
GLT: What’s your relationship like with your second husband?
MM: My second husband was very supportive of ballroom dancing and my talent and believed in me and that strengthened me enough to get me out of that darkness that I came from. One person can make a difference that sheds light and gets you out of darkness. I feel like I’m very fortunate now with “SYTYCD” and the position I’m in to help the kids. I think one of the great things about “SYTYCD” is that it’s a show that hits so many topics and effects millions of different people. It makes millions of people feel something. The show can open up something inside the most hardened person. This show is a real treasure.
GLT: You have a special passion for dance, which is almost unheard of. Where does that stem from?
MM: I have been a professional dancer my whole life, and I know how difficult it is. There are a few people that say ‘how can you be so enthusiastic?’ And I say ‘Why not? How can I not be so enthusiastic? Have you done what they’ve done?’ I’ve tried other styles before. In the last few years, I’ve tried to give myself new experiences. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of dance. I said, ‘Oh well let me do a little belly dancing. It doesn’t look that hard.’ My body doesn’t want to do that. They get five and a half hours to practice. It takes so long to get the timing right. It just blows my mind. I will never not be enthusiastic when somebody does something that I think they shouldn’t be able to do. I know there are people out there that hate me as well as love me. I’m not going to stop for the ones that hate me because I don’t care. As long as “SYTYCD” wants to have me and as long as somebody does something fabulous that excites me and makes me want to scream, I don’t think there’s enough enthusiasm out there. I don’t think we get enough people screaming for us in our lives. I’m not going to say, ‘I screamed two times last week; maybe I should probably wait.’
GLT: How would you describe your judging style?
MM: When I want to get serious and somebody hasn’t done a good job, I know what to do to make it better instead of telling them they’re horrible and not to dance again. I don’t think we have the right. I know I wasn’t the most talented person. I didn’t have the flexibility, and I started way late. I had to dance twice as well and be grounded and do other areas better than somebody else, as opposed to being able to take my leg and stick it up next to one side of my head. There’s always somebody that comes a long that proves otherwise if they have the motivation.
GLT: You specialize in ballroom dancing. Why do you love it so much?
MM: In ballroom dancing there’s so many aspects, so many different dances that go from hip-hop to ballet, the Quick Step to the Cha-Cha and Pasodoble to a Jive. These dances are completely different animals.
GLT: What are some challenges ballroom dancers face?
MM: I think ballroom has another degree of difficulty because you deal with another person. As fun as it looks, you have this whole other relationship that feels like a marriage. The first year it’s like the honeymoon of a relationship, everything is great. The second year, you might not be getting good results. That’s when perseverance starts knocking at your door and you decide if you have what it takes to bust through that and keep going when everybody is telling you not to. I’ve been in situations where I’m supposed to win a certain event and get knocked out or come in sixth place. One time I was in the top six with another partner and got knocked out of the top 12.
GLT: What was your response?
MM: I stopped dancing for a few weeks and reevaluated. I was depressed and was upset. People don’t think I get upset and that’s crazy. I’m human, and I chose to laugh at my life. After two or three days of crying I will be laughing hysterically about something. When it is your business and dance is your life, the dancer will mull over that one percent of their performance that wasn’t right. It will be like a television screen or a movie screen in front of you, and when you lay down at night you’re going to relive it. You’re going to be like, ‘I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I lost my balance there.’ It just is infuriating.
That’s one of the beauties of it, the drive towards something better.
I sat down with my dance partner and we decided to rethink everything. We changed our coaches, costumes and approach of our rehearsals. About seven months later we won the US title. I retired the next day. I got all I wanted.
GLT: Why retire after winning such a prestigious title?
MM: You have to understand the life of the ballroom dancer. We put every bit of money into our dancing. We are broke nonstop because we’re doing everything it takes to get that new costume to have that training. We’re getting paid less then the training we’re taking. If you’re making $50 an hour, we’re spending $150 for a coach. We don’t get our travel paid; we pay our own way to the dance competitions. It’s such an expensive sport. When I got the US title, I thought, ‘There’s no need to keep beating this thing over the head. I got what I wanted. I set my goals out. It took a long time, now its time to work on the business end of it.’ I must say I was more business oriented then most because I started a studio very early.
GLT: Your nickname is the Queen of Scream. How did you get that title?
MM: It was some kids at Champion Ballroom that gave me that title. I think Nigel saw that somebody had one of the shirts here that said, ‘the Queen of Scream.’ He said it on air and it caught on with reporters all over the world. It was so funny when “Entertainment Weekly” brought a company in to measure my scream. I’m officially louder than a vacuum cleaner, rock band and a jack hammer. The one I’m most proud of is I’m louder than a jet engine.
GLT: Many people believe your screaming is planned. What is your response?
MM: When I did scream over a dancer one of the first times, the next week every single reporter was in my face asking, ‘Are you going to scream this week?’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I see something I really like.’ For me it’s an emotion. It took on such a meaning to the kids on the show. When the hot tamale train pulled up I gave that title to Anya. I thought they could go all the way to the finale. Now dancers can’t wait for me to scream. If I don’t scream when I’m on a show in a foreign country they are upset. I think I was guest judge in Canada, and I remember screaming twice and there was a report that came in that said I didn’t like it as much.
GLT: How long have you been apart of “SYTYCD”?
MM: This is our sixth season, so I’ve been on the show five years. I wasn’t a permanent judge the first two seasons. I was a choreographer the first two seasons. None of us (choreographers) knew if we had a job from one day to the next. I was very fortunate the third season that they made me a permanent judge. I didn’t ask for it I was just like,‘Oh wow, this is fantastic having job security and knowing I get to judge every week.’
GLT: You must still root for certain contestants periodically.
MM: Of course you get attached to people as you go along as you would with anybody that is an underdog. Let’s say a B-boy, we know they’ve only danced on their head and their elbows, but if they pull of a quick step or are contemporary enough to make you cry, you’re just like, ‘That’s just unbelievable! That’s crazy and not supposed to happen.’ It happens time and time again on this show where we are sitting up there shaking our heads like, ‘That is just crazy!’
GLT: Let’s talk a little about Nigel. Shed some light on the controversy surrounding his homophobic remarks last year.
MM: He’s editor whether people like it or not. He had a lot of choices. He could have never showed the same-sex couple. He could have cut out every single comment that he made. I think he really wanted to open the door. He took a lot of flack lord have mercy. I know how Nigel really is. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ when Perez Hilton wrote ‘homophobic’ on his picture and drew him with the horns. He’s been in the dance industry forever. You think he’s homophobic? Are you kidding me? It’s just craziness.
GLT: Would you agree that some of his comments were inappropriate?
MM: There are a couple comments I don’t think I would have said. On his Twitter the next day, I said, ‘Now you’re asking for it.’ But it opened the door to have the conversation. I was shocked that I took flack because I said, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on.’ I didn’t know the rules of same-sex competition. I didn’t understand what they were doing because I couldn’t clearly tell who was leading and who was following.
GLT: As a judge how were you prepared for the second round of same-sex dancing contestants?
MM: I went to my friends, the world champions at the time and asked them the rules for same-sex dancing. They said they weren’t very good. They weren’t clearly leading and following. I said ‘Oh thank god. I thought it was just me.’ I told them it was odd that there is not one leader and one follower. They told me that, ‘Those are the rules. We go back and forth. I said, ‘God that’s so confusing for a judge.’ It really is.
GLT: What made Willem and Jacob’s performance better than the previous dancer’s performance?
MM: When Willem and Jacob danced, it was a lot clearer, and it was very well done. The technique of the lead and follow were very good. They didn’t do so many alternating back bends. For me, that made it a lot easier to judge.
GLT: Same-sex dancing is an up and coming sport. How do you feel about it?
MM: You’re right. It’s now a recognized sport at the Gay Games. We’re devastated that it’s not part of the regular games as well. It’s very huge in different European countries as well as the United States. I hadn’t been exposed to it until “SYTYCD”. I know my friend Willem went and competed, but I had never been to a competition and never seen it before. When they competed on the show, I was watching with everybody else.
GLT: Willem and Jacob this last week were eliminated. How did you feel?
MM: I know what kind of courage it takes for them to dance together on national television. They didn’t opt to do a Cha Cha or a Pasodoble. They picked the most feminine and sexual dance there is. I felt that and they did it really well and pulled it off. I was moved and touched and almost had a hard time speaking.
GLT: The Rumba is a sexual and provocative dance. How did you feel as you were watching them?
MM: What impressed me was they went full tilt. I was wondering if the “SYTYCD” would show it, but they did show it in its complete entirety. The kids felt the same way watching. I think Jacob was right when he said, ‘Gay kids need to see that type of courage. There are too many kids that are too afraid over who they are and committing suicide.’
GLT: Do you sometimes have difficulty articulating yourself when you’re moved or excited?
MM: I get upset because I don’t really get to say sometimes what I really mean, because I’m really emotional and that’s the way I’m built.
GLT: Do you think we will be seeing more same sex couples in the future?
MM: This season certainly has opened the door. I think having seasons five and six so close together is so vibrant and fresh. I think the concept is in everybody’s minds right now.
GLT: You know Willem and Jacob on a personal level? How have they responded to their elimination?
MM: I did hear from Willem just yesterday. He thanked me so much and said the response is huge and he’s so grateful. He also said their same-sex dance studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, called Bailamos is doing very well.
GLT: Is Bailamos for everyone or just same-sex couples?
MM: It’s open to everybody. It’s just like Champion Ballroom is open to everyone. They are on the first floor and people can watch from the windows. The studio is decorated amazingly with crystal chandeliers, plaques and drapes.
GLT: Tell our readers about the same sex dance classes starting here at champion ballroom.
MM: We’ve just started them in October and they will take place Thursday nights at 8 p.m. We’re starting with Salsa, one of my personal favorites. Tyler Allen is going to be teaching the class most of the time. I love Salsa and I know there are Salsa nights around the town. It’s a dance that is easily learned. After that we can get down to the Waltz and the Tango and we’ll see how the turn out is. We’d certainly like to do all the ballroom dances. Do you dance?
GLT: Well I’ve been told I dance like a toddler, and God knows I sure could have used your help at my wedding last year.
MM: Well you should come down and join us. Everybody is welcome.
GLT: Will Champion Ballroom teach us how to dance at our weddings?
MM: Hopefully same-sex marriage will be back on the ballot. We hope to be at the forefront teaching everyone their first dance. There really isn’t any downside to dancing. It’s something that people want to do. It’s not like going to the dentist.

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