The ballroom dance community -- both in the Twin Cities and nationally -- has lost a rising star, a passionate performer, a dedicated teacher and tireless volunteer. Nicholas Westlake (above), an instructor at the Dancers Studio in St. Paul, was a high-ranking national competitor on the ballroom dance scene. He died July 17 after his car was hit by a Green Line light-rail train near University Avenue in St. Paul. Westlake was 29.
“He was passionate, but he was also compassionate,” said Cody Arndtson, Westlake’s coworker at the Dancers Studio. “He gave so much to something he was passionate about. It was truly inspiring.”
One of three brothers who are all ballroom dance enthusiasts, Westlake got into dancing at the University of Minnesota. His brother, Peter Westlake, was president of the university's ballroom dance club when he invited Nicholas to an open dance party at the Dancers Studio in 2010, according to owner Marcy McHenry. “Nic fell in love with it,” she said. “Since that time, he’s been integral to what we do.”
A software developer by day, Westlake would often rehearse until 3 a.m. with his partner in life and on the dance floor, Neli Petkova. The pair recently traveled to Milan, Italy, to study dance, with plans to return for further instruction.
Westlake also volunteered with U Partner Dance, a nonprofit that supports the University’s ballroom club. He spent hundreds of unpaid hours working for the organization, according to Nels Petersen, head coach for UMBDC. “He was excited to get people introduced to ballroom dance.”
Westlake and Petkova were ranked seventh in the country through the U.S.A. Dance competitions. “They were just at the tipping point,” Petersen said. "Their hard work and training meant they were just starting to dance at the highest level."
Westlake had “tremendous energy and constant hunger for improvement and inspiration,” said another one of his trainers, Mariusz Olszewski.
Daisy Howlind, a former dancer who runs a traveling dance apparel business, remembers how Westlake would always kiss his partner’s hand before they started dancing. “He was a classic gentleman,” she said, "very gracious.”
“He was right on the cusp of skyrocketing internationally,” said Vincent Zhang, Howlind’s husband and business partner.
Besides teaching, volunteering and competing, Westlake also served on the steering committee for Sheer Dance Magazine, a national publication produced in Minnesota. He also worked as an announcer and DJ for American dance competitions.
One of Westlake’s students, Bonnie Burton, said Westlake taught her and her husband, both 55-plus, how to move like 20-year-olds. “He had a unique capability of making each student feel they were his only student,” Burton said. “He had uber-confidence in his ability and he shared that with students.”
According to Arndtson, the original Facebook post about Westlake’s accident reached an audience of 45,000 people, from all over the United States and also Europe. “The outpouring has just been great,” he said. “The comments and the support of the dance community have meant a lot to us at the studio as well as to his family.”
Hundreds of people attended a memorial for Westlake at the Dancers Studio last weekend, including many people who traveled from other states. “It was three hours, and two hours of it involved stories people told about him,” said Ember Reichgott Junge, founder of Heart of Dance studio.
“He really had a heart of gold,” she said. “You didn’t have to know him long to know he was something special.”