Ballroom star

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

In the lab, Jennifer Franks dons protective goggles, latex gloves and a starchy, scratchy lab coat.

Outside of the lab, she can often be found in strappy high heels and a long, elegant purple gown. Or sometimes it’s a spicy black number with satin and lace.

Franks, an applied statistics and biological sciences senior, has been a key member of the Purdue Latin and Ballroom Dance Team since her freshman year. Seeing the competitive group perform is like watching an episode of Dancing with the Stars complete with the glitz, glamour and fast-paced, athletic dance moves.

The organization promotes standard and smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot, quickstep), international Latin (cha-cha, samba, rumba), and American rhythm (mambo, bolero, swing) styles of ballroom dance, and members perform in several competitions a year.

“I ended up at the callout and it looked like so much fun and just something different to do,” recalls Franks, a Noblesville, Ind., native and member of the Purdue Science Student Council. “I joined and I’ve made some of the best friends I ever had on the team. I just love it –– it’s become a lifelong activity that I could stay involved in, potentially.”

Competitive ballroom dance has become a passion for Franks. The club has its share of social events and activities, but she also puts a lot of work into her routines. Those judges at competitions are scrutinizing and difficult to please.

“We are a very competitive team so once you join it’s pretty serious,” Franks says. “We compete in about three competitions per semester. Each year, we go over to [Columbus] Ohio for what we consider our nationals. Our team has ranked second over the past three years so we’re trying to change that to No. 1.”

Dancing with two majors

Though coming into Purdue as a statistics student, Franks quickly added the biology major to her workload.

“Biology just came easy to me so that’s why I picked it,” she says. “The more I’ve gotten into that field, the more opportunities I’ve come across. I’ve really found a home in that area so now I’m looking to go into a biostatistics PhD program.”

Working for the last three years in the microbiology lab of Laszlo Csonka, professor of biological sciences, Franks currently has undertaken a research project that looks at a particular transport system in salmonella bacteria.

“Nobody knows how it works and that is the goal of my project,” she says. “I have presented several times now at the undergrad research symposium and actually won a couple of awards.

“I’m growing out different cultures of salmonella. In general, I mutate them to see if I can get a desired output from them and then I’m putting them through different tests to figure out if whatever mutation I caused is affecting the area I’m actually concerned about.”
Csonka expresses admiration for Franks’ lab work
and her ability to balance her majors, statistics and biological sciences.

“This is a valuable combination,” Csonka says, “because I find all too often that there is a cultural gap between ‘wet lab’ and computational biologists, and we have difficulties in communicating to each other. Jennifer and people like her will be in a good position to bridge the gap.”

True partnership

Once her lab shift is complete, Franks can be found multiple times a week on the hardwood of Stewart Center practice rooms or the Purdue Memorial Union ballrooms among dozens of twirling, dipping bodies for team practices or more intimate rehearsal with her partner, Michael Busche, an agriculture sophomore.

Dance partners on the ballroom team forge close, interesting relationships.

“Competitive dance partners push each other a lot, emotionally and physically,” Franks says. “In a lot of ways, it’s harder than any team or individual sport because everything revolves you and your partner so it’s easy to pass off blame on the other person. You have to remember that both of you have the same goal in mind. Dancing with someone who makes things fun and lighthearted but also has the drive to put in as much work as I do is the best.”

Busche and Franks started dancing together in the summer. They met often to get routines down in time for the fall. Franks is more experienced and that meant Busche had to make sure his skills were up to par.

“Jennifer is definitely a lot of fun to dance with,” Busche says. “In dance, you can get really serious and our team’s really competitive, so couples can have a lot of stress between them, but Jennifer always keeps it very interesting and very fun. We have a lot of jokes between us now. Just after the first few months, we already had tons of great memories.”

While Franks settles into her senior year, she prepares for major research and a high level of dance competition. Though dance is a way to forget the stress of classes and research, she can still discern a science, or at least a formula, to becoming a successful competitive dancer.

“You need quite a bit of practice and you have to look good on the floor,” Franks says. “You need some chemistry with your partner. It’s a whole mess of things that have to combine in the right order to get good results.”

Jennifer Franks’ favorite dances

  • Quickstep -- Light-hearted, fast and flowing with syncopations; the upbeat dance was created in the 1920s in New York with Caribbean and African roots. Early steps combined the slow foxtrot with the Charleston.
  • Foxtrot -- Known for smooth, flowing movements across the dance floor, its soundtrack is to big band music and it was popular in the 1930s. The look is similar to a waltz but with more elegance and sophistication.

Ballroom

Bio and stats senior Jennifer Franks with her ballroom dance partner Michael Busche.