Faith Wailes and Jack Armstrong make an unlikely dance team. With a 21-year age difference between them (Armstrong is 61 and Wailes is 40), as well as different dance backgrounds, they didn't know how well a partnership would work when they started dancing together in October 2021. But just recently, they learned that they're one of the best duos in the world.
Armstrong and Wailes competed at the United Country Western Dance Council World Championships in Dallas, Texas, in early January, taking home first prize in the age thirty-and-up and age forty-and-up slots, and earning fifth in the eighteen-and-up category.
Armstrong wanted to dance with Wailes after watching her at their mutual studio, Colorado Dancesport, while she practiced and taught classes. He approached a studio dance coach, Harmony Munroe, to ask if she thought it was a good idea. Wailes remembers she wasn't looking to get back into partner dancing at the time, but when Munroe and Armstrong approached her about it, she was eager to get the ball rolling.
"I had kind of given up on that chapter of my career," Wailes reflects. "Trying to manage having kids, trying to manage teaching my students — I had just put all of that into the forefront. But I very much was missing working on my own dancing, and I think Harmony knew that, and she was encouraging me to just give it another go."
Wailes has been dancing since age ten, constantly trying out new styles and dancing with different partners. But her primary area of expertise has been American smooth, a style of ballroom dancing that includes dances such as the waltz and tango.
Armstrong's background is strikingly different. He didn't start dancing until he was 23, when he saw an ad for a studio that needed dance instructors, with the addendum: "No experience necessary."
"I thought, 'That’s crazy. What does that mean? How can they hire someone to teach people to dance with no experience?'" Armstrong says. "So I walked in and I said, 'What does this even mean?' and they said, 'Do you have any dance experience?'"
He didn't. He did have a strong interest, though, after watching John Travolta dance in Saturday Night Fever sixteen times at the theater when he was a teenager.
The studio hired Armstrong, and taught him everything he needed to know to dance as well as to teach students basic routines and combinations. His dance background is primarily country-Western.
Munroe says one of the most difficult aspects of partner dancing is how your success is contingent on the other person. "You don’t feel that you have total control of your own success. You feel that someone else is literally attached to your success, and it’s impossible to believe otherwise because you’re just right on top of each other all the time," she says. "So you have to become a team and you have to be very forgiving, and you have to communicate well. It’s like a marriage."
Although different in age and experience, Armstrong and Wailes both channel their military backgrounds into their dancing. Wailes was a military policeman in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, and Armstrong served in the Navy from 1980 to 1985 and was a military air traffic control contractor in Afghanistan in 2011.
"You come out of the military with a thick skin; nothing bothers you," Armstrong says, adding that partnership dancing can require much more patience, work and time than doing it solo.
Munroe is proud of the way they both persevere through those challenges, as they only danced in the competition circuit together for seven months before winning first place prizes in two categories. The two say that the hardest dance they do together is the cha-cha, because it's a fast-paced dance that makes it hard to come back from a mistake, which happened to Armstrong at the competition.
"I went somewhere I shouldn’t have been, and Faith could feel that I was off," Armstrong says. "I just looked at her, and I was like, 'Oh, crap.' And I felt her give me just a nudge, and she got me right back in phrase with the music."
Armstrong says their ability to help each other out is what gives them an edge, and could be why they won the competition over other couples who didn't make a mistake.
Noting that their passion for a new challenge always keeps their feet moving, their goal is to go to UCWDC again, moving up into more difficult divisions.
"People need to have a very, very thick skin to survive partnership dancing in general," Munroe says. "The people who are not mentally tough pretty much just go away at some point."
Watch Armstrong and Wailes at UCWDC here.