Hotspots Exclusive Interview with Mary Murphy
Mary Murphy has been a professional ballroom dancer for over thirty years, having won the United States Ballroom Dance Championships in 1995. She earned another set of fans on the reality competition So You Think You Can Dance on FOX, where she served as a choreographer, guest judge, and finally a permanent judge.
She will be participating in the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida’s 26th annual Headdress Ball, which will be held at Hilton Orlando (6001 Destination Pkwy.) on Saturday, October 17. For more information about the event and how you can purchase tickets, visit headdressball.org.
I had the chance to speak with Mary for this exclusive Hotspots interview right before she comes to the Sunshine State.
Welcome back to Florida! What are some of the things you absolutely have to see and do when you come down here?
When I go there, I try my hardest to visit Miami, but this trip I don’t think that will be happening. I’m fine with that though, because I’m really excited about my role at the Headdress Ball! I can’t reveal too much but I hear they have a lot of fun plans for me, and I’m excited to be on-stage! I have friends coming in from Jacksonville and Boca Raton and maybe they can take me to a late dinner after the show!
Why did you feel it was important to participate in the Headdress Ball?
One of the producers of the show is such a dear friend to me. He’s my brother from another mother. He called me and asked me to participate and I couldn’t say no. I care so much about these types of events and I’ve been very supportive of a number of HIV/AIDS service organizations over the years.
I feel like this is a topic where it should just be said plainly and straight-out: Florida’s HIV infection rates are so high and so many parts of the state are in deep trouble. Then you see younger people who don’t give any thought to HIV or AIDS at all, like they have no worries about it, and it’s so troubling! All of us need to empower one another and send a message to younger people that HIV and AIDS are still out there. This health issue is not over.
Can you share with us a story or event in your life that made you realize you wanted to become an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness?
I lost one of my dancing partners to AIDS years ago. I’m no stranger to loss and tragedy in my own life, and especially this past year, I’ve lost quite a few family and friends and it’s been very tough for me. Coming into this event, I am choosing to celebrate life and I hope I can shine more of a light than Hope and Help already has on the state of HIV/AIDS in Florida.
How did you first become an “ally” to the LGBT community, and how has supporting equality for all people shaped the person you are today?
That’s an interesting question, because I came a long way from where I started. I grew up in a rather bigoted household in Ohio. My mother was from Ireland, but my father was from West Virginia, and pretty much anyone from outside his worldview would be looked down on. Even my mother suffered discrimination at the hands of my grandparents, because she was an outsider. Looking back, it’s so hard for me to even fathom such an atmosphere existing, but it did; I grew up in it. My father loved me of course, but he’d use racial slurs…slurs toward anyone…and that would upset me from a young age.
Toward the end of my father’s life, he had an awakening, and I’m happy to have helped him on his journey. Most of my dance partners were gay, and I invited one of them to dinner with my father. My father had the time of his life; he enjoyed himself and he had no idea. After my partner went home, my father kept raving, “Oh, how nice Artie was!” and I just said to him, “Oh, is that right, dad? Did you know he’s gay?” He was startled and said, “No!”
I think it was at that point where I realized I would put my foot down and not entertain any negative comments about anyone from my father. Then I found that we had some great conversations. I felt like, when he passed away, he understood the concept of equality more, and it helped me be at peace.
When did you first decide you wanted to pursue dancing as a career path?
I certainly didn’t dream of it being a little girl. I had three brothers, and many times I felt like I was the “fourth boy.” I wanted to do everything they did, and even if my parents made dance available to me, I don’t think I would have participated in it. All i really wanted to be was “Huckleberry Mary,” fishing and floating on rafts down the river in my hometown.
I didn’t dance until college, when I was first introduced to modern dance, jazz and ballet. Even then, track was something that interested me more. I was on the track team, and I had planned on being a track coach and P.E. teacher. That was really the only dream I had…until i moved to Washington, D.C. for a summer job at a tap studio.
Up until that time, I hadn’t really been around anyone LGBT either, and of course I found out that one by one, everyone in my studio was one of those letters. It was an education for me and you better believe that, being from Ohio, I had questions for them! [laughs] So the group told me, “We want to take you to New York City and have you watch the United States Ballroom Championship.” Okay, at that point Washington D.C. was the biggest city I’d been to, and now I’m going to THE biggest city in the country. Here I am, a girl from Ohio, standing in the Waldorf Astoria, and it felt like I was hit by a lightning bolt. Within ten seconds of being in the ballroom there, I said, “I’m gonna be a professional ballroom dancer, and I want to be the United States champion.”
All of my readers want to know if there is any possibility of you returning to So You Think You Can Dance in the future.
I don’t know if it’s even been picked up for another season, to be honest with you. Last year, FOX was supposedly not going to bring it back. I was told that five high-level executives there decided that they were only going to bring it back if they could change some of the format and change up the panel to give the show a new direction. I’m saddened by it all. But I can say I had the time of my life when I was there!
Reader questions: When did you start using the phrase “hot tamale train”? Where does it come from? How can I get on this train?
i’ve always called Latin dancers “hot tamales.” But in the context of the show, I believe it was the first season when I said it the first time; a couple was doing the jive. From that point, that saying went around the world and back and it spread like wildfire! It would get to the point where I would specifically be asked if I was “gonna scream” that week.
I always believed that I only gave people spots on the “hot tamale train” who earned them. I remember they did a flashback to Randy Jackson when he left American Idol and they spliced together a montage where he told EVERY contestant that they were “in it to win it.” Nobody can ever say I just threw the hot tamale train all over the place! You gotta earn the right to get on!
I think the thing that tickled me the most was one year when the Los Angeles Times wrote a story and the headline was something like, “Not too many people on the ‘hot tamale train’ this year on So You Think You Can Dance.” Little did they know that I was going to give that distinction to four people that year! So, I say if someone wants to earn it…dance in person for me and then I’ll decide! [laughs]
The Headdress Ball is the Hope and Help Center’s largest fundraiser of the year. What would you tell people to ensure that they come out and support this great local organization?
Yes. Hope and Help is such a great organization and the work they do is so evident in the community in Orlando and beyond. How fun is it to be able to support such an organzation while enjoying a visually fantastic show? I know that many people work year-round on this one event, and they up their game every single year. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me! Afterwards, come see me; I’ll be out on the floor saying hello and giving hugs to everyone.