Nicole Oppenheim came to the bay area from Detroit, Michigan to work at BUILD an organization based in Palo Alto that provides real-world entrepreneurial experience to youngsters in under-resourced communities. She recruits teens for the program and loves her job. However, it involves long hours and can be very intensive. When she finishes her often 10 hour working day, she needs some kind of release; something to take her mind off all the challenges she faced during the day. There were many things she could have done to relieve the tension and frustration of her working day. She could have taken up painting or pottery. She could have joined a writing group or one that raises political awareness. She could have gone out drinking with the gang. Instead, she decided to follow a long neglected passion, an activity she loved doing so much she didn’t care what it cost. That passion has always been dancing. “I wanted to find something that rested my brain,” she explained “When you dance, your mind cannot wander; you have to focus. I feel like it rests me from thinking.”

Her work has always been very time consuming and her time limited. Still, she kept her eyes open for some kind of dance option in the bay area. She found many of course but they were always at the wrong time or the wrong day of the week. Then in January 2009 she made up her mind to dance no matter what it took. She was determined to find some kind of dance class and fate came to her aid. She stumbled on Community Street Jam in Redwood City with their immense schedule of dance classes and parties. “The only class that fit into my schedule was the 7:30 Salsa class,” she said. “I had never done that dance and it was really difficult for me. When I began, I just couldn’t get it. I wanted to curl up in a corner and cry. But after about 6 lessons, something clicked and I caught on and I loved it.”

That was the moment she was hooked. Her teacher was Frederico Moreno and his method of teaching was to show the class the steps and let them go though the motions until they figured out the rhythm, made sense of the patterns and felt the mood of the dance. Once the routines began to make sense to her, Oppenheim progressed at an amazing rate. She became so accomplished in such a short time that Moreno asked her if she would like to switch to private lessons and compete.

Ballroom competitions have been a part of the national and international dance scene for many years. Back in 1995, Sherrie Paregian, a local dance teacher and performer herself brought The City Lights Ball to San Francisco to showcase the wide variety of talented dancers vying for national and international recognition for their dance mastery. Her small, modest event expanded into what is now a huge international happening. By 2009, it had become an immense two day event, NDCA approved and part of the world Dancesport series. International champions from all over the world compete in endless categories open to everyone from young children just learning the steps to seasoned dancers.

The idea of competing had never occurred to Oppenheim when she enrolled in that salsa class. Dancing was recreation and social to her but now that she enjoyed it so much and was showing such good progress, she began to rethink the art as something she might be able to master on a higher level. She loved the weekend parties, the lessons and the ambience of ballroom, and she loved the terrific sense of accomplishment she fest at every class. She decided to train to become professional and competed in the 2010 City Lights Ball Competition in San Jose.

She and Moreno met once a week for an hour and he trained her in the protocol, the different types of dance and the art of professional ballroom dance. The competition took place at the Doubletree Hotel January 29 and 30th all day and into the night. Oppenheim had to buy a special dress and learn to apply proper make up to appear with all the other contestants. “My friend Shari had competed last year,” she said. “She encouraged me and helped me get ready for the event. She helped me find a proper costume and taught me how to use make up because I never wear it. I felt ridiculous at first, like a drag queen.”

But once Oppenheim got on the dance floor, her reservations melted away. She loved the dancing, she loved the music and she flourished in the moment. “I hope my dancing is as rewarding as this forever,” she said. “I cannot imagine NOT doing it, now.”

Obviously, she has the talent and the drive she needs to compete in this very difficult art. She took first place in 15 categories as an adult newcomer and she became part of a performance dance troupe that presents shows on Peninsula stages. “I enjoy all of it: the music..the movement..the whole experience,” she said. “I still am not sure about the competitions, however. It’s expensive. There are the private lessons, the entry fees ($35 per event) the clothes…but when I focus on all the good that comes from it, I know I want to continue. It’s become my release.”

To discover your passion is an art in itself. To have the courage to pursue it takes an entrepreneur of the soul. I suspect we will see Nicole Oppenheim in many more dance events, winning prizes and more importantly loving the art she has mastered even as she moves up the scale to a professional ballroom artiste who helps kids during the day and dances the night away.